How to nurture your child’s love of nature and science.
When we received our eldest daughter’s first report card, it was no surprise that her highest marks were in Science. With Science geek parents, it can’t be helped! When the kids ask us questions about the world around them, we encourage them to make a guess (form a hypothesis), and then help them look for clues or do some research to see if they were right. By fuelling our children’s curiosity, we aim to foster a love of lifelong learning.
Learning about nature is most fun when you let your children take the lead. Be a scientist, observe what your kids are interested in, then provide some tools to help them discover more facts about their favorite things. Fun things to try include the following:
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With apps like Merlin Bird ID, birding is fun for the younger crowd too! Identify birds by size, colour, and location, then have fun “talking” to them by playing bird calls. Learn to use this free app from Cornell University in our story: Birding with Merlin Bird ID.
If you are really keen, contact local birding clubs/associations to find out when birds will be tagged in a nearby park, and ask if you can watch. My girls had the rare opportunity to release some tagged birds last summer! To get up close to raptors, visit the Alberta Birds of Prey Centre near Lethbridge (see The Top 10 Things to do in Lethbridge this summer for more info).
Purchase a bug house and magnifying glass from the dollar store or make your own bug house (just be sure to poke some air holes!). Teach gentle handling of the insects and release them after looking at them. Seeing bugs up close helped my youngest be less afraid of them. “They don’t have big teeth to bite me!”
Caution: Avoid stinging bugs like wasps and bees, and hairy spiders as some spiders are poisonous.
Plan ahead and take some books out from the library on creepy crawly critters and insect life cycles. The National Geographic Kids Ultimate Bug-opedia is a great resource.
Learning about edible plants and berries – For my girls, the highlight of hiking is finding a berry patch. We like blackberries, saskatoons, huckleberries, raspberries and wild strawberries. (Note that it is prohibited to pick berries in provincial and national parks.)
Caution: Teach your kids to always ask an adult before eating wild plants. Since some mushrooms are deadly, our rule is no picking or eating mushrooms. I own and recommend the Edible and Medicinal Plants of Canada book for tips on identifying edible plants.
Geocaching is a fun treasure hunt you can do with your phone. While you don’t score any real jewels, there are often cool trinkets for trading (but simply finding the cache is pretty satisfying). As an added bonus, you develop navigation skills as you play! My kids have developed a better sense of direction and distance and want to learn how to use a map and compass now (summer project).
Did you know you can geocache with your smartphone and a free app? The only other items you need are a pen to record your find in the log book and treasures for trading. Learn more in our story: How to Geocache with your smart phone.
There are books at the library suitable for preschoolers (and up) that show what kinds of clouds are associated with what kind of weather. Identify cloud types, make your weather prediction, and see if it comes true. Clouds by Anne Rockwell is an excellent book for 4-8 year olds. The Snow Show, by local author and artist Carolyn Fisher explains how snow forms in an entertaining way.
Challenge the kids to find rocks of different sizes, shapes, and colors; or look for a wishing stone (see below). As the kids get older, try to identify what kinds of rocks you found and how they formed. Are they sedimentary, igneous, or metamorphic? My Book of Rocks and Minerals can help!
Late fall through early spring is the best time of year to do some stargazing because you don’t have to stay up late. If you’re like me and don’t know many constellations, have no fear; there’s an app for that! We like The Night Sky Lite. For the best bedtime ever, read some Greek and Roman myths with a red light (to save your night vision), and locate the corresponding constellations or planets. Venus is easy to spot right after sunset and some constellations little astronomers can find easily include Cassiopeia, Big Dipper, and Little Dipper.
Giving children a mission to complete is a great way to distract them from how long the trail is. Encourage them to ask lots of questions to discover where certain items would be located. Make up your own or try one of these fantastic scavenger hunts:
- Spring Scavenger Hunt | Play Outside Guide
- Winter Scavenger Hunt | Play Outside Guide
- Halloween Scavenger Hunt | Play Outside Guide
- Hiking Trail Scavenger Hunt | Mommy Hiker
- Springtime Nature Walk Scavenger Hunt | Happy Trails Wild Tales
- Seven Things to Look for On a Winter Hike | Happy Trails Wild Tales
- How to Make Your Own Nature Scavenger Hunt (plus links to several scavenger hunts!) | Go Explore Nature
What are some of your children’s favorite ways to learn in nature?