Do you like the idea of incorporating nature walks into your homeschooling repertoire? Are you a little unsure of how to actually go about it, or do you feel like your walks are getting a little stale and repetitious? Do you think nature walks sound boring? Then please, read on!
While I’ve always loved hiking and the great outdoors, I’ve felt at points that I was missing something in trying to introduce my children to nature. Everything I did felt forced and unnatural, and after a couple of attempts I had a hard time thinking of anything new to talk about with them. After the initial, “Look, there’s nature!” I was drawing a blank.
Then, last year, we participated in a series of homeschool science classes at a local nature preserve. During almost every class, the children would have a nature walk. Usually, these walks were along the same 1/4 to 1/2 mile stretch of trail that led from the back of the nature center. At the beginning of the series, I remember thinking, “The kids are going to get bored with this in no time.” And I waited to see when the complaints would begin. Week after week came and went, and to my surprise, there were no complaints; just lots of enthusiasm! I was amazed at how much there really was to see on this little path. Every time we went, we had a different focus, and before long each week seemed like an opportunity to see an old friend again, through new eyes.
When I think of nature appreciation, one more anecdote comes to mind: An acquaintance of mine once described the role that his grandfather had played in developing his appreciation for nature. He related how he followed his grandfather to their trout pond often, and he watched as his grandfather fished. His grandfather would whisper to him excitedly, “Look! There! Do you see it!” pointing at the huge trout hovering just below the surface of the water. At first, to his chagrin, he didn’t see anything, just an ordinary, empty lake. Not wanting to disappoint his elder, he would feign understanding, despite his lack of ability to actually see the fish. Time went by, and he continued to listen to his grandfather enthusiastically describing what he saw on their fishing trips together. Then one day, he finally understood what he was looking at well enough to see the big fish for himself! This experience was a highlight of his childhood, and it points to a larger lesson as well. Unless our eyes and ears are trained to see, many of the greatest wonders of life go by unnoticed. The more we practice noticing, observing, and getting to know our natural neighbors, the greater our abilities and understanding will grow.
While most children haven’t had the opportunity to develop the ability to see all the wonders of nature, at least they haven’t yet had decades of practice in ignoring the world around us, to focus on other “more important” things, the way many of us adults have! They can learn so quickly, with just a little encouragement, to see details that most of us would normally miss.
Below are some suggestions for ways to add depth and variety to your nature experiences. Some are approaches that we took in the nature center classes, others are additional ideas for even more fun. When we do nature walks now, we don’t have a formal objective in mind every single time we go out – sometimes we like to just soak it all in. I have found, though, that these activities have trained our eyes (and other senses) to focus, and to see all the treasures that we otherwise tend to overlook. I also like to reinforce our nature walks with books and other resources to help us learn more. If I’ve found any particularly useful resources, I included them in the list, but please remember that these are totally optional. You can have great nature studies with very little preparation, supplies, or equipment. To begin, just select one or two ideas, and then get out there and have fun!
- Try to observe or collect as many different types of leaves as possible.
- Look What I Did with a Leaf! (Naturecraft) is a great book that explains how to make your leaves into works of art, from instructions on preparing and pressing the leaves, to ideas for great collages, some simple and some absolutely magnificent.
- Leaf Man (Ala Notable Children’s Books. Younger Readers (Awards))is a fabulous picture book illustrated entirely in leaf collages. Great for little ones, but I enjoyed it, too! You should be able to find this at a local library.
- Place leaf collection between pieces of waxed paper, and iron gently to preserve for your nature notebook
- Look for fallen logs. Turn the logs over and see what kinds of fungi and invertebrates (worms, centipedes, roly poly’s) you can find. (The little insect magnification boxes are great for getting a close-up view!) You can explain that these creatures are helping to turn the tree back into soil. They are nature’s clean-up crew!
- If your children are interested in learning more about decomposition, I highly recommend The Magic School Bus Meets The Rot Squad: A Book About Decomposition (Magic School Bus).
- Look for any places where bugs or animals could make their homes: spider webs, dead trees, hollow spots in trees, shrubs, holes in the ground, under logs or rocks, etc.
- Look for sources of water: puddles, streams, ditches, or even hollows in rocks and curled up leaves that can collect rain.
- Periodically stop, and see how many different sounds you can hear: wind in the treetops, birds, insects, traffic, people, animals, etc.
- Look for birds, or for signs of birds, like nests, scat, etc. If you like, you can try to identify a few of the species you see.
- Birds (A Golden Guide from St. Martin’s Press) is one good, inexpensive, choice for beginners.
- Or if you are looking for a more complete (but still inexpensive) guide, you could try Birds of North America, Revised and Updated: A Guide To Field Identification (Golden Field Guide from St. Martin’s Press)
- Take a little magnifier along. Often you can find them at a dollar store, or at a toy or education store. Amazon has several like this. Practice using the magnifier to get a closer look at what you see: veins on a leaf, tree bark, rocks, grass, flowers, seeds, etc.
- Look for as many different kinds of rock as you can find. You can collect some of them, if collecting is allowed in your location.
- Identify them with a guide from your library, or try the Peterson First Guide to Rocks and Minerals
- Look for as many examples as you can find of items that could be food for people or animals: leaves, grass, berries, fruit, roots, nuts, other animals, etc.
- Look for examples of animal camouflage. How do the insects and animals you see blend in to their surroundings?
- Make a list of the many different types of insects you find. Make a simple sketch of the ones you can’t identify.
- If you want to try looking them up, you can consult the Peterson First Guide to Insects of North America (Peterson First Guides(R))
- Observe all the different types of bark that you can find.
- Take along some paper and crayons, and make bark rubbings. (Peel the paper off the crayons and hold sideways to get the best rubbings.) Use more than one crayon for a colorful effect.
- Close your eyes and feel the texture of the bark on different trees. How do they feel different?
- Look for signs that animals have been nearby: tracks, droppings, nuts that are gnawed or half eaten, bark nibbled off trees, holes or nests in trees.
- Take a wind walk: Try to feel which way the wind is blowing, and identify what things move when the wind blows: leaves, grass, flowers, limbs, etc. Notice if there are any signs of wind’s effects, like fallen leaves or branches.
- See how many different types of seeds you can spot. This is a great idea for late summer/early autumn. Be sure to check your socks – they collect lots of little grass seeds. There are also nuts, berries, pine cones, twirly little maple seeds, and much more.
- Take a night walk, and notice how it differs from walks in the daytime. Do you hear different sounds? See different animals? Where do you think the daytime animals are right now?
- Take a series of short “moon walks“. Observe (and even draw) the changing phases of the moon over the course of a month. Look at all the stars, too, and refer to the following easy reader/picture book for some very simple constellations to identify:
- The Sky Is Full of Stars (Let’s-Read-and-Find-Out Science 2)
- If you or your child is interested in becoming more familiar with the nighttime sky, you need to check out Find the Constellations, a great classic for all ages from the author of Curious George.
- Look for moss. See how many examples of nature’s carpet you can find!
- Look for as many different types of flowers as you can find. Are they attracting any visitors? If so, what kinds?
- If collecting is allowed where you are, take a few sample blossoms. Sandwich them between paper towels, and press them in a heavy book. When dry, you can add them to your nature notebook.
This list is just a starting point for your nature explorations. I’ve found that I notice new things now, almost every time we go out. I try to refrain from turning the walk into a lecture, but rather I try to point things out as I notice them, and the children automatically seem to do the same. As time goes by, we naturally revisit topics we’ve covered in the past, but with new perspective and understanding from our continued nature experiences. I don’t foresee getting tired of it any time soon.
EDIT: If you find yourself a little creeped out or intimidated by some of these suggestions, do be sure to check out my follow up post on this topic!If this page was helpful, Stumble it!