Dan is an amateur naturalist, father of two curious children and a leader in the community Cub Scout Pack.
The Backyard Nature Education Facility
While working from home, my second-grader runs in shouting, "Dad, I saw a red-winged blackbird, grackle and robin all in the same tree!" Before I could respond, I heard the back door slam as he headed out into our nature learning facility: the backyard. Though I like hiking along shale-lined ravines in more remote areas, our small and simple backyard is the source of many nature mini-lessons for my two children.
Utilizing the tiny green space sandwiched between houses avoids the stress of getting everyone packed up and in their car seats. It's a quick escape from screen time and offers a low-risk and high-yield outdoor education. Best of all, most of these activities are free, easy to clean up and require very little preparation time. At a time when quarantines have been established and parents have become teachers, these ideas may help your family's sanity and general well-being.
Keep a Nature Journal
From doodles and notes to study logs, keeping a nature journal focuses nature activities and adds an ELA component to your lessons. Encourage reading and writing outside by establishing a system for recording what they've been learning. The journal is the basis for all other learning that occurs in the backyard.
I set up a three-ring binder for my second-grader and we've been using the system for a few years to track summer learning. The binder is separated into sections for journaling, pictures, hikes and observations. Observation logs from weather, plants and the types of birds seen are easily found or made.
Nature Scavenger Hunt
Scavenger hunts are good exploratory games that require minimum direction and produce lots of outdoor engagement. These can be as formal as a preprinted sheet for exactly what to find or informal spur of moment hunts. Be creative and allow kids to interpret the instructions as they gather nature loot around the yard. This is also an opportunity to teach kids about the principles of "Leave No Trace." We don't want them destroying plant life or disturbing wildlife for the sake of the scavenger hunt. Let them know that things like flower petals should be pointed out and not gathered.
Examples of scavenger hunts:
- Find as many different leaves as you can.
- Find the colors of the rainbow.
- Find things that don't belong in the backyard.
- Sound hunt: How many nature sounds can you hear?
- Seed hunt: Find seeds, cones and nuts.
Backyard Compass Course with Geometry
Break out the compasses and let kids discover orienteering. An inexpensive compass is all you'll need for this beginning lessons. Set up a miniature land navigation course by having them travel a direction to a point in the yard. From that point, they'll receive the distance and direction to the next point and so on.
Another great backyard compass activity is a three-leg triangle compass course. The length of each leg will differ due to the size of your backyard but the angles remain the same. If a navigator follows these directions and walks a consistent pace, they should end up back at their starting point. Here are a few direction sets for an equilateral triangle course:
- 360 degrees, 120 degrees, 240 degrees
- 87 degrees, 207 degrees, 327 degrees
- 56 degrees, 176 degrees, 296 degrees
- 107 degrees, 227 degrees, 347 degrees
- 74 degrees, 194 degrees, 314 degrees
The triangle course is also a good exercise in geometry. Have kids sketch out the triangle they just walked and plot the angles using a protractor. If anything, it is a good reminder that interior angles add up to 180 degrees and that the exterior angles add up to 360 degrees. Have more advanced students practice plotting and walking different types of triangles.
Upcycle Trash into Backyard Learning Tools
Let kids dig through the recycling bin and have them reuse trash by upcycling them into a useful tool for the backyard. Let them use their imaginations to design the tools they want to create and let them experiment. Sure, the margarine container didn't work as a sprinkling can but something else may.
Just using milk jugs, my family created a few useful things: a bird feeder, a scoop for bird seed and a sprinkling can. The plan is to make a milk jug birdhouse next.
This also serves as discussion point for trash, reducing what we consume and how to recycle beyond just throwing something in a bin. Challenge them to reduce their own footprint and to limit the amount of trash they generate through excessive packaging.
Bird Feeding and Watching for Kids
Birds are amazing creatures that grace most backyards and watching and recording their appearance is a lifelong hobby. The secret to attracting birds is to construct a habitat worth visiting. Try do the following to increase your avian presence and frequency.
- Provide natural cover.
- Don't use pesticides.
- Keep a water source filled.
- Cultivate native food sources like berries and insects.
- Fill supplemental bird feeders.
My seven year old enjoys filling the bird feeders in our backyard and tracking which birds use which one and which empties first. He'll tell you that the downy woodpeckers love the suet feeder and how the grackles will quickly empty the window feeder.
Be extra environmentally friendly by building your own bird feeder and see how it compares with commercially manufactured feeders. No matter the feeder type, teach kids how to clean and maintain them as moldy seed residue is unhealthy for birds.
Backyard Weather Monitoring for Kids
Turn kids into junior meteorologists by having them monitor, measure and record the weather. The first step is to have them create a weather log inside their nature journal. Our log tracks daily temperature, clouds and precipitation. Children can then use their logs to plot data on a chart or graph. Younger children could use pictures to tell whether it is sunny or rainy whereas older kids should be able to track humidity and dew point.
Though kids are quite adept at asking Google what the temperature is, have them go outside and read an actual thermometer. We mounted ours on a shed out of the sun at a level where it can easily be read by kids. It is an inexpensive thermometer with Fahrenheit and Celsius scales that works well in all weather.
Measuring rain can be done with a simple post-mounted rain gauge though we made our own out of a pop bottle. We took a two-liter soda bottle and cut it in half where it begins to taper at the neck. We filled the bottom with rocks so it wouldn't blow over and taped a paper ruler to the side. The inverted upper half of the bottle funnels rain inside. It isn't precise but works well for kids and was fun to make.
Backyard Animal Tracks
If your backyard is a nature habitat, kids will find animal tracks. Here in the Great Lakes, snow captures most animal treads but come spring our gardens and tracking pits do the job. Our tracking pit is one three square foot area with no grass and few plants that animals tend to walk through.
Use an animal track guide to decode which animal is leaving their footprints and have kids sketch them in their nature journal. While hiking, we carry a bandanna from Wazoo to help us out identify the animal. If you have good imprints, preserve the tracks with a plaster of Paris mixture and paint them after they dry. They make great room decor.
Gardening with Kids
Like the hobbits they are, kids have a love of all things that grow. We plant a mixture of native flowers that serve as nature habitat and vegetables to eat ourselves.
Our wildlife mixture of perennials grows a bit each year from common dandelions, daffodils, dock and purple dead nettle. The pollinator garden has also taken off with milkweed and Joe Pye weed and it attracts butterflies and bees.
With uncertain times upon us, growing your own food is a good activity for kids as a type of "victory garden." In pots we've had the best luck with green beans, onions, peas and tomatoes. Teach kids how to plant, water and pick their garden and they'll have food security the rest of their lives.
Build a Backyard Wildlife Habitat
Building a backyard habitat is the start of learning on how ecosystems strive for balance. This is also an opportunity for kids to learn how their small projects can build big habitat for wildlife.
The simplest of habitat improvements is to build a brush pile of sticks, leaves and pruned branches and stems. Brush piles serve as cover for birds, insects and other creatures. Plus letting organic matter naturally decompose is better than filling trash bags and loading up a landfll.
Another habitat home that kids can improve upon is to build bat and bird houses. We found great plans for building a birdhouse in my son's Cub Scout handbook and have built a few out of simple materials. When designing and building a bird house or a bat roost, kids learn about nesting behaviors as well as how to use tools and paint.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.