Science is the study of the natural and physical world. Formal science uses systematic observation and experiment; however, teachers know that an important step in successful science education is developing enthusiasm for science in children. To do this science education can expand beyond the four walls of the indoor study space and the information presented in textbooks and online resources. In the warmer months, it is easy to give children authentic environmental science learning experiences. Parents have a unique opportunity to give their children chances to explore and observe nature in ways that would be difficult to manage with a class full of students.
Outdoor activities can cover topics such as life cycles, needs of living things, weather patterns, sensory awareness, and animal adaptation. Many of these activities have the potential to not only enhance children’s interest in science but develop the skills of observation and classification, and making inferences and interpreting data. Even simple outdoor activities can inspire and awaken a deeper interest in the natural world.
Richard Louv is a National Bestselling author who received the Audubon Medal for his writings about the importance of connecting children to nature. You can learn more about his work and the organization he founded, Children & Nature Network at his website http://richardlouv.com/.
Sample Outdoor Nature Activities for younger children:
Learn about trees: Take walks in areas with trees and collect leaves – Make leaf rubbings, put them in a notebook and look up information on the name and type of tree. This website gives step-by-step directions http://www.wikihow.com/Make-a-Leaf-Rubbing. Another great activity with trees is to have your child adopt a tree, visit it once a week, and notice how it changes from week to week. Some children will enjoy drawing the tree each week to document the changes. This can be done with any type of plant.
Exploring life in ponds: Begin by going to ponds in your area and looking for life such as bugs, crayfish, tadpoles, snails and more. You can use a simple net or make one with netting and an embroidery hoop. For more ideas of what to look for or to learn more about what you find, bring a field guide such as Pond, by Donald Silver, and Pond Life: Look Closer, by Frank Greenaway. This website describes other pond life activities: http://www.hometrainingtools.com/pond-life/a/1516/.
Finding and identifying animal tracks: Many families have an abundance of wildlife in their backyards or neighborhoods. Even though snow and mud are the best way to capture animal tracks, another way is to set a trap. You can sprinkle flour on a hard surface or sheet and lure animals in with some fruit, nuts, or apples with peanut butter. If you put this out in the evening and come back to check it in the morning, you should find some tracks. You can then use this activity sheet to help you identify and note your findings http://files.dnr.state.mn.us/education_safety/education/project_wild/animal-tracks.pdf.
Studying Insects: Many children are fascinated with insects. If you want help in identifying the insects you find on your nature walks go to www.insectidentification.org. This site helps identify bugs by their number of legs, color, and location.
Discover how plants “breathe”: Put out two clean, dry jars in the sunlight. One jar should be placed on grass and the other over concrete or asphalt. In an hour come back and notice that the jar over the grass has water droplets inside, while the other jar should be mostly dry. What is happening? People breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide, while the plant world does the opposite. Plants such as grass take in carbon dioxide and then let out oxygen. This process produces water vapor that you see on the inside of the glass jar.
Observing the night sky: Each night after dark, go out and observe the night sky to see how the position of moon and stars change over time. If you are lucky enough to live in an area where the stars are clearly visible, the children can draw star maps with white pencils on dark blue or black construction paper. In other areas, it can be fun to document the phases of the moon. The book The Kids Book of the Night Sky by Jane Drake offers more activities and games to use when exploring the night sky.
These websites contain many more engaging outdoor science activities:
Go out and enjoy exploring nature with your children. Not only will you find their interest in the natural world expanding, but research shows that spending time in nature can increase creativity and overall physical and emotional health.