Turn Any Walk into a Nature Walk
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Every walk is an opportunity for children to learn about the natural world. Walking around the block with my child when he was 2 years old could take an hour because there was always something new to explore.
As you explore your neighborhood, yard, patio or the nature you find outside your window:
- Be open to the wonder of noticing small details and new growth.
- Keep the safer distance of 6 feet from others who are not in your household.
- Leave electronic toys behind so children can focus on the world around them.
- Bring paper and crayons so children can draw what they see if you bring your cell phone and need to take a call.
- Bring a digital camera with you so children can take photos of things that interest them to share with [far off, distant] family members. And you can take other photos to print to create a scavenger hunt for children the next time you take the same walk.
- Walk at different times of the day or night to increase your chances of seeing something new.
- Ask, “What’s different about what you see today?” each time you and your child walk outside.
- Play “I spy with my little eye” from your window and help children learn to give clues about what they spied.
- Model using all five senses. You might say, “I’m seeing the big clouds,” “I’m touching the wet grass,” “I’m hearing the jets of an airplane,” or “I’m smelling the fallen pine tree needles.” It’s not safe to taste many things outdoors, but you can “taste” the air.
- Carry along an inexpensive magnifying glass so children can get up close and personal with nature. Many smartphones have a magnifier app.
- Make dressing for the weather part of the learning experience by singing songs about the weather as you and your child put on sunscreen, hats, or several layers of clothing. Try “You Are My Sunshine,” “It Ain’t Gonna Rain,” or “The Mitten Song”. Let your child work to figure out how to zip a zipper or put on boots just long enough so she can learn these tasks and not so long that she becomes frustrated.
Observe the weather
On the walk, or even as you look or step outside, use your magnifying glass to look closely at drops of rain hanging from a leaf or to examine the structure of snow. If it has recently rained, take a medicine dropper so your child can suck up rain from puddles and squirt it back out again. Watch where the water flows and ask, “I wonder where it will go from here?” If it is sunny, make shadows with your body or jump over the shadow of a family member. Use sidewalk chalk to draw the shapes of the clouds you see. Track the path of the sun as it appears to move across the sky—where is it in the morning and where is it at bedtime?
Use your magnifying glass to look closely at small wildlife such as non-poisonous spiders, roly-polies, worms, and any non-stinging insect that will hold still long enough. Ask your child to show you how the worm or ant moves, and join in as he wiggles or crawls. Ask your child to think about how well animals move even though their bodies are so different from our own.
Count the number of larger animals you see on your walk. Is the neighbor’s cat in the window again? Look for birds in bushes and on electric lines. Are there cows in the field, squirrels in the trees, or dogs going for a walk around the block? View birds on live “cams,” a virtual window into the natural world of birds Talk with your child about what these animals are doing.
Look closely at the different shapes, sizes, and structures of leaves and flowers (but watch out for thorns and poison ivy). Collect leaf shapes and then make rubbings of different types of leaves. To do this, put a piece of paper over a leaf resting on a hard surface, then rub or wipe the paper with a crayon held sideways to reveal the leaf’s veins and edges. Collect fallen leaves and seeds by pressing them into the sticky side of a loop of tape. Ask your child to measure how tall a plant is in relation to her body (“This bush is as tall as my knee”).
Observe changes in the life cycle of a plant. If a plant has a bud on it, ask your child to guess how many days it will take to open. Then count the days as you revisit the plant on your walks. If your children are old enough, have them record their findings in a notebook or with a digital camera.
Use your magnifying glass to see the tiny shapes of crystals or pieces of sediment that make up the rocks in your neighborhood, including those that are used in buildings. If rocks are not part of the landscape where you usually walk, take a field trip to a local creek where you might see some naturally deposited rock. Compare sizes and colors. Try using them as chalk on other rocks or on your sidewalk.
Check the website of your local library for access to electronic books that will help children learn more about animals, plants, and whatever else they observe. Children love to see the variety of caterpillars, birds, local mammals, and flowers in these identification books. Internet sites and apps are also great resources for identifying animals and more.
- Nature’s Playground: Activities, Crafts, and Games to Encourage Children to Get Outdoors by Fiona Danks and Jo Schofield.
- Take a Walk book series by Jane Kirkland includes books for elementary-age children that discuss different environments (beach, city, wetlands) and different things to observe (birds, butterflies clouds).
- Bugs Are Insects by Anne Rockwell. For children kindergarten to second grade.
- Seashells, Crabs, and Sea Stars by Christiane Kump Tibbitts. For children kindergarten to fourth grade.
- Winter Trees by Carole Gerber. For children kindergarten to second grade.
- Leaf Man by Lois Ehlert. For children ages 4 and up.
- Nature Close-Up: Seeds and Seedlings by Elaine Pascoe. For children from kindergarten to eighth grade.
- California Academy of Sciences and National Geographic Society, seek by iNaturalist. https://www.inaturalist.org/pages/seek_app and teachers’ guide, https://www.inaturalist.org/pages/teacher's+guide
- Cornell Lab of Ornithology, All About Birds, Bird Guide, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/, and bird cams, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/cams/
- Little Pine Learners, Easy nature “weaving” craft. (Wrap with string or yarn if you don’t have rubber bands.) https://littlepinelearners.com/a-simple-and-beautiful-nature-craft-to-tr...
- A pre-K teacher offers ideas to integrate nature learning into the curriculum on her website, Thinking BIG, Learning Big.
Peggy Ashbrook is the author of Science Is Simple: Over 250 Activities for Preschoolers (2003), Science Learning in the Early Years: Activities for PreK–2 (2016). She teaches preschool science in Alexandria, Virginia, and leads workshops for early childhood teachers.