Eight Ways to Discover Nature
Together, an adult and child can learn from the seasons small changes.
By Marie Keefe
Children have a natural curiosity about the natural world. This gives parents, as well as other caring adults, a great opportunity to teach children to be observant and to try to understand the relationships between the environment and the creatures that live in it.
When my children were smaller we lived on a lake. The changing of the season signaled that it was a good time to get outside and look around. We spent countless hours exploring the beach and began to see a pattern in the life cycles of the creatures living there. We knew that we would find sleepy frogs in the spring, waiting at the bottom of the lake for the temperature to rise. We came to expect the turtles to come up on the beach and across our yard in early summer, looking for a place to deposit their eggs. Then we watched for the little hatchling turtles making their way back to the lake in the late summer or early fall.
So maybe youre thinking, "Yes! That sounds like a great idea! But where do I start? Im not a teacher!"
You dont need to be a teacher. You dont even have to know a lot about what you want to teach your child. Children love to share the learning process. It gives them a feeling that were in this together. Here are some suggestions to get you started.
Keep a nature calendar
Scientists call this activity phenology. Websters New Collegiate Dictionary defines it as: "a branch of science dealing with the relations between climate and periodic biological phenomena (as bird migration or plant flowering)." Just find a calendar with enough space on each day to make a few notes and then start filling it in. I recommend the Minnesota Weatherguide Environment Calendar, put out by the Freshwater Society (888-471-9773 or www.freshwater.org). It is packed with temperature, precipitation, and snowfall data; sunrise and sunset times; descriptions of what you can expect to see in the night sky; and phenology notes from previous years. For example, in the February 2000 phenology notes, naturalist Jim Gilbert writes for the third week in February: "Signs of spring appear everywhere. The first eastern chipmunks are out and about. First country roads turn muddy. Red-osier dogwood shrubs have bright red twigs, the veins of spring. Red foxes travel in pairs, and white-tailed deer shed their winter fur. Local mallards and Canada geese add to the sounds of spring."
Note the first frost, the first snowfall, and the first and last sighting of migrating birds. Now that my sons are old enough to hunt deer with their father, I hear them discussing the relationship between the timing of the rut and the onset of colder weather. They are seeing how creatures are affected by changes in their environment.
Go play outside
Jean Van Tatenhove is environmental education coordinator for the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway. Her advice is to get children out to a shallow, slow-moving stretch of a river, hand them a little dip net, and let them get their feet wet. "I can guarantee you, they will have an experience," she says.
This philosophy also applies to dry land. Take your child out for a walk in the woods. You dont need a specific goal. Just go for a walk and see what happens. If you keep your eyes and ears open, no doubt you and your child will see or hear something that piques your curiosity. Katrina Kenison, in her book Mitten Strings for God: Reflections for Mothers in a Hurry, says: "The encounters with nature that mean the most . . . are those that happen without any agenda at all, beyond going forth to see whats out there."
My husband took our two younger sons for a walk in the woods in the late winter one year, and they scared up a doe and her two yearlings. By following the deer tracks, they could see when the tracks spread out, indicating the point the deer were running away. A little farther along, he showed the boys where the tracks were closer together, probably when the deer felt safe enough to walk again.
The great thing about Minnesota is that even if you dont live in the woods, you can always find a park or wildlife reserve nearby. Many state park activities and events are listed in Minnesota State Parks Traveler, a newsletter put out by the Department of Natural Resources. Many events are geared toward families. You can also visit www.dnr.state.mn.us/parks to find out whats happening.
Jim and Mary Kay Sloan, teachers at Pine City High School, remember the many excursions they made to state parks around Minnesota when their children were growing up. Their favorite is Mille Lacs Kathio State Park, which offers great skiing and a fire tower to climb. Perhaps best of all, they say, is the sledding hill.
The Sloans daughter Molly is now pursuing a degree in chemistry and plans to become a high-school teacher. When I asked her if the time outdoors with her parents had influenced her career choice, she said, "Spending time on excursions with my parents not only taught me about the outdoors, but it taught me about discovery. I am entering into the field of education because I want to be the one to pass on information that makes students excited to learn."
Take a class
Two years ago I took a college astronomy course during the summer, and this sparked a new interest for all of my family: discovering how the night sky changes with the seasons. I was so enthusiastic about what I learned that when I got home each night I couldnt wait to drag everyone outside to show them. My instructor recommended an excellent book called The Stars by H.A. Rey (author of Curious George books). It is informative and simple enough for any amateur to use.
Throughout the yearsometimes shivering in the winter cold, sometimes fighting off mosquitoes in the humid summer heatone or more of my children will join me on the driveway with telescope pointed at the sky. We know what is supposed to be up thereall we have to do is look it up in a bookbut somehow seeing it for ourselves brings a degree of comfort. It means that the planets are right where they should be. Of course, it is never difficult to convince children that they should stay up a little late to see the rings of Saturn or the moons of Jupiter.
Have a contest
Everyone likes to be the first to spot something. One day, my 10-year-old breezed through the room, casually mentioning over his shoulder, "I saw a goldfinch today!" He beat me to it!
At the web site www.hummingbirds. net, you can track the annual migration of hummingbirds. Last spring my mother was the first to spot a hummingbird in her area. She posted it on the web site and was delighted to see it pop up on the map moments later.
Try spotting the first woolly bear caterpillar in autumn, the first robin in the spring, or the first mosquito. Once you get skilled, take it up a notch and notice the difference between the chickadees familiar chick-a-dee-dee-dee call and the two lonely notes he sings around mating season.
Encourage your child to create something using nature as a medium. For example, I have always loved doing leaf rubbings, and my children and I do it every fall as if it were something new.
This is a simple project that anyone can do. Go outside and collect leaves in a variety of shapes and sizes. Arrange them randomly on a flat surface, or create a pattern if you like. Lay a piece of white paper over the leaves, being careful not to disturb your arrangement. Peel the paper off of some crayonsbroken ones work bestlay the crayon on its side and rub it over the place where the leaves are. The imprint of the leaves will show up on your paper. This makes a very pretty collage when you slightly overlap the leaves and use two or three colors that go together well. One year we sandwiched our creations between two layers of clear contact paper to make place mats.
Doing the rubbings always sparks a discussion about why the leaves change color. I didnt really know the answer the first time the children asked, so I had to look it up. We all learned it together, and thats the fun of it.
Older children love photography. Heres one idea: Try making a collage of photographs of the same tree in your back yard, each taken at a different time of year.
Teach your child stewardship. You dont have to be affiliated with any group to do a roadside cleanup, and you would be surprised at what an adventure this can be. We started doing our own roadside cleanup several years ago on the road where we lived. The first time we did this, the children (and I) were shocked to see just how much junk there is that you dont see from your car at 55 mph. Sometimes you find things you would rather not be aware of, such as a carcass of an animal that was hit by a car. But talking about how this may have happened and what happened to the animal afterward sparks an awareness that we make an impact on the environment that we live in, intentionally or not.
Now, my children notice trash and often suggest on their own that we pick it up. This tells me that they are becoming more aware of their surroundings and have a concern for keeping them clean. Just be sure that children are always accompanied by an adult while walking along the roadsides. And wear work gloves, boots, and long pants when picking up trash to protect hands and feet.
You can also clean up riversides. To join the DNR Adopt-a-River Program, contact the DNR Information Center, listed on page 61.
Start a collection
We love agates! It is just so easy to stretch out on the beach and instruct your child to go find a "pretty rock." But it is an activity that can stretch into hours of entertainment, and the children are bound to discover some other things along the way. If asked questions you dont know the answer to, just say, "I dont know what that is, lets find out!" One of my favorite resources is www.askjeeves.com. All you have to do is type in a question and you will usually find the answer you are looking for. This is also a safe site for children to visit.
Many books are available to help you find and identify objects in nature. The Finders field guide series is a handy set of reference books. They are pocket-size and cost around $3.50 apiece. The books take you through a series of questions that narrow your options until you come to a conclusion. There is a Finders book for almost anything you want to identify, including trees, flowers, rocks, and animal tracks. Look for them at nature centers, park visitor centers, and museum shops, or order from www.naturestudy.com or by calling 800-954-2984.
Being aware of the changes that occur during the seasons gives children and adults alike a sense of belonging to Earth. We remember each year that the same things happened the year before and familiarity always brings a certain amount of confidence.
Teaching your child about what is happening in nature throughout the year is an adventure in learning for both of you. Your child will love sharing the discovery process with you and you will be building memories. This "growing season" of your childs life is fleeting. Take the time to notice the changes.
Marie Keefe writes about family life. She lives in Lindstrom with her husband and children.