Do your kids come to you, holding little surprises in their clenched fists? Or shriek that they caught something and want to show you? Though I am not too squeamish, I catch my breath for a second as they uncurl their muddy little fingers, in case their surprise decides to jump or fly away as I lean in. My kids really like to play outside but inevitably, their play will somehow be interrupted by the discovery of “the coolest bug ever,” a frog, a gecko, a baby snake, ants eating a worm, or any other critter. We generally employ a “catch and release” policy, observing the creatures for a bit and then letting them go back into our garden (my daughter says “so they can lay more eggs and we can have even more!”). Here are 4 ways we encourage our budding naturalists to “nature watch,” and learn about the animals and insects in our environment.
1) Start in your Own Backyard and Neighborhood
When you’re out in the garden, get low to the ground and close to the plants. Pick up rocks, planters, and logs and check out the pill bugs and centipedes. When you really stop and look, you might be surprised at how many living organisms there. Even once you have caught a little critter, observe them close-up: how many legs do they have? How many body parts? Do they move quickly or slowly? What sounds do they make? (the cicada above was really loud!) What is their movement and behavior?
One time we rescued a turtle from the street when it couldn’t get up the curb. I was waiting for my husband to get home to help us take it to the bayou, so I put it in our backyard. We were sitting quietly on a bench watching it, and all of a sudden it started to lay eggs in our mulch!? (seriously) It was the coolest thing for my kids, who will now never forget that turtles come from eggs!
Another time we found a cocoon (chrysalis?) and carefully put it in our aquarium. Imagine our surprise 2 days later when a huge moth emerged! We watched it fly away and everyone hoped we would find its offspring.
2) Set Up a Habitat for a Backyard Nature Watch
Your best tool to set up a nature watch for your kids is a 5 or 10 gallon aquarium. We keep ours in the backyard and change its contents depending on the season.
Try this simple project: Collect pillbugs (aka “roly-poly bugs”) and create a habitat in a small aquarium using dirt, rotting wood, dead leaves, and keeping it very moist and dark. Roly-polies love to eat potato skins- bury them so they can begin to compost. Make sure not to add in any centipedes- we did, until we read in a book that they are predators of our pillbugs (and unfortunately ate most of ours!). Here’s a short clip that shows the set-up:
Another fun springtime activity is to collect tadpoles and watch them grow into little frogs. We have done this for several years, and the kids love it. Look in shallow water (we always find them in rain puddles), and collect the water too. We would change the water every couple of days with fresh rain or pond water, and feed them chopped, boiled lettuce (let it cool down first). Make sure they have a rock to climb on once they develop legs and lungs! We always let them go in our local bayou and cross our fingers that they survive.
3) Nature Watch on a Field Trip to a Nearby Nature Center or Reserve
Walk along the edges of ponds and bayous, dig in the dirt, or scoop up a bucket of water to see what critters you can find. Next time you’re at the beach, bring a net or dig in the sand to find different creatures than those in your backyard. Be careful of pincers and mouths- some animals are better to observe from a distance! Whenever we release a creature, we remember to put them back in their home. If you transport them, you might be taking them away from their food or water source, or introducing them to new predators.
Don’t forget nature centers! They frequently have live critters that they will allow kids to observe or pet, with exhibits for learning about local animal life. When else would our kids be able to pet a baby alligator:)??
4) Mail Order Butterflies to Nature Watch from your Kitchen!
Another great experience for kids is to see the life cycle up close, by ordering live caterpillars from Insect Lore. They will send you 5 caterpillars, which will eat the food they are sent with and soon hang upside down. Sitting and watching caterpillars make chrysalides (that would be the plural of “chrysalis,” which is the pupa form of a butterfly), and then emerge as butterflies was an awesome experience.
My son had learned about a butterfly’s proboscis– the straw-like mouthpiece used for sucking up nectar- and everyone was so excited to be able to see it uncurl as the butterflies sucked up their sugar water! These close-up encounters help the kids expand lessons from school, cementing what they’ve learned and encouraging their curiosity. In addition to caterpillars, Insect Lore also sells ladybug larvae, ants, and more (including a hissing cockroach!?).
We had a “release party” and watched out butterflies flutter away in our garden, teaching the kids that they belong in nature where they can fly freely and begin the life cycle again.
Have I forgotten something? Do you collect bugs with your kids? What are your favorite hands-on nature projects? How do you promote the idea of nature watch?