Transform Your Backyard into a Natural Learning Space for Kids

By Mike Cahill, Redfin Content Writer

Providing our children with the opportunity to learn and explore within natural spaces at an early age can be one of the greatest gifts we can give in terms of child development. Sensory learning in the outdoors not only teaches kids to respect their environment but it also equips them with problem-solving techniques and motor skills that they otherwise might not have the chance to exercise in a traditional classroom. That’s why we reached out to the experts in youth outdoor education from Toronto to Sacramento to provide you with a few creative ideas for transforming your backyard into a learning space for your kids where your kids can continue to learn and grow with nature.

Work with your surroundings

Work with your surroundings! So often we can find materials to build obstacle courses, and other play spaces right in our own backyard. Dead trees and logs can be transformed into an epic balance beam obstacle course like the one pictured here! – Niños & Nature 

The next time a neighbor cuts down a tree, ask for a round or two—they can become child-size furniture, or turn them on their side to serve as the fulcrum for a seesaw. – Chickadee Hollow Preschool

Natural features lend themselves to learning activities for children. Stumps and tree parts can be used for building. Balancing stones is a wonderful science and art activity. Uneven ground surfaces challenge children to use their core strength and coordination. Before you manicure your lawn, think about all of the natural learning opportunities your yard provides! – Mountain Sprouts

I’m very intentional about the materials that I include in my outdoor space. Instead of getting the typical big playground/swing set. I decided to include all the elements I valued most. If all you can fit or want is a swing set that’s great too!

One reason I decided against the swing set is that I don’t want to spend 10 years doing under-doggies. I’m sorry #notthatmom. Second, there are “rules” typically that comes with the swingsets…(don’t climb up the slide, one at a time on the ladder, one at a time on the swing, don’t walk in front of the swing, there’s no room for you right here, etc.) I wanted play materials that allowed them to expand their imagination. I converted one of our garden beds into a sandbox and built a little mud kitchen on it. The kids love to run the water and make mud pies, soups, habitats for insects they catch or dig really deep holes. The sand area with digging tools and kitchen dishes is so open-ended that the play is different every time and it can last for hours and hours. – XO Lauren Pace

Make learning interactive

Garden paths are a treasure trove of learning opportunities, and not just because they allow kids to get close to a growing space and make scientific observations about plants and bugs. Lay your garden stones in sets of fives, creating a strong visual for number sense. The groups of five are easy to see without counting one by one, allowing students to play games where they move from stone “4” to stone “6” easily – the sixth stone is easily recognized as the first in the second group of five. Include an inviting chalkboard sign at the beginning of the path so you and your kids can leave each other pattern challenges; for instance, writing 1, 3, 5, … means you can only step on every other stone. A pattern of 1, 3, 6, 10, … will call for strong jumps and good body control, as well as mental concentration and reasoning skills. The combination of a cognitive challenge with a physical one helps kids connect their minds and bodies for better impulse control and mindfulness. It makes for a great homework warm-up or alternative to traditional worksheets. And it’s FUN! – Tacoma Outdoor Ability Development (TOAD) School

Leave a small area of lawn unmowed for a year (a yard squared). Once a month Get the children to record what species of plant, animals and bugs they find in that square in a nature journal. Talk to them about ways they can present this information. Diagrams, tables, paintings that will help them understand the change over the year. This will help them present and organize information and gain an insight into scientific recording. – Cambridge Forest Schools

Add natural features where their imagination can roam

Natural logs, rounds, and half-rounds; boulders of various sizes; and trees to climb not only add natural beauty to your landscape, but they also offer your kids important opportunities for improving their physical health, creative thinking, and science knowledge. When presented with a landscape that they can climb on and manipulate, kids naturally start moving, climbing and balancing, picking up blocks of wood and rocks, testing and increasing their strength. Because they are uneven and changeable, natural pieces build agility in ways that conventionally built structures, with their evenly spaced bars and steps, can’t offer. Natural play spaces also offer more impromptu moments of creative thinking, as well as natural science lessons in physics, biology, and ecology. A tree that was a moment ago a rocket ship on its way to a distant planet, crewed by brave scientists, suddenly becomes a biology and art lesson when one of the crewmates notices a beetle with intricate patterns crawling along the branch in front of them. – Outdoor Education Adventures

Stump circles are a great landscape design feature to a backyard. Gives the yard a fun focal point. Children can practice balance with their bodies, while also counting steps by jumping to the next stump. – Woodhaven School

Mother Nature has already provided all the natural elements young children need for play and healthy development, so why not organize your outdoor space in such a way that provokes childrens’ curiosity and leads them to more sustained nature play. This could look as simple as incorporating child-sized log tables and chairs for art-making surfaces, gathering loose parts (hunks of logs for rolling or stacking, leaves, seedpods, feathers, shells, etc.) to supportive creative play and critical thinking, or creating a space that is safe for climbing and exploring on natural elements. The best way to transform your space is to look at it with a child’s eyes – and remember, we can never improve on nature! – Eastern Region Association of Forest & Nature Schools

Build a nature nook

One of the best ways to engage kids in outdoor learning is to help them create their very own nature nook. It’s a special place in the front or backyard that’s completely their own. They get to decide what goes in the space (chair, table, outdoor pillow, decorations, etc) and how they use it (to read, complete homework, create art, or just sit and enjoy listening to the sounds of nature). Kids may enjoy a space that you create, but if you give them the autonomy and support to create their own, they’re guaranteed to love it! – Nature Matters Academy

Don’t be afraid to get a bit wild – kids learn best when they choose their own adventure

Recreate a wild adventure in your own backyard with a nature haven corner that brings the forest school to you, no matter what size space you have. It can be as simple as keeping a small, quiet corner that’s not so well-kept and allowing the grass to grow longer – counterintuitive I know!  But a few old broken pots on the ground next to some stick bundles and you have an instant bug haven. Make your own butterfly drive-thru by choosing to incorporate plants that attract local bees, and other pollinating insects that in turn will bring in birds and other intriguing animals to visit. Future scientists and eco heroes will enjoy running their own research project with a chart that notes how many of each animal they find. For the more adventurous, add a pile of branches ready for den building and a couple of log rounds for jumping, sitting or just about anything else they think of and your kids might never come back indoors again! – Wildkids Australia

Not only aesthetically pleasing but a dry creek bed made of various-sized river rocks can also create an imaginative play environment for young children with endless possibilities. Encourage children to explore with their toys- construction trucks, animals, shovels and buckets, for example, add items to build with the rocks such as sticks or blocks, or paint a few of the rocks together as a family to assist in providing ample learning and play opportunities. To make it even more special, incorporate a small wooden bridge across the creek bed that can lead to a magical world! – Greenwood Nature Preschool

Get cookin’ with a mud kitchen

My top tip for backyard transformation can be summed up in one word: mud. Creating an area where kids can engage in water and mud play will not only provide a space for fun and entertainment, but also rich learning through imaginative play, as well as meaningful engagement in nature. Creating a “mud kitchen” is as easy as offering a space for them to dig and dip. Clear a dirt area, add an old sink (kid height), buckets and baking tools, shovels and spoons – Seattle winters will provide all the water – and kids will learn about everything from baking to watersheds. – Roots & Sky Nature-Based Learning

A mud kitchen, using old pots, pans and utensils.  Let your kids use dirt, water, weeds, seeds, berries, anything they need to concoct and bake! – Upstream Forest School

A backyard mud kitchen can provide hours of play, learning, and creativity. It only takes a few simple ingredients, a workspace, old pots and pans, measuring cups, a water dispenser, and mud or sand. Children will get an unforgettable sensory experience, practice life skills like measuring, mixing, and cooking all while being deep in imaginative play and connecting with the natural world. As the seasons change, add in natural items, rainbow flowers in Spring, lots of greens in Summer, colorful leaves and nuts in Fall, and pine branches in Winter. – Nature Schooling

Engage problem-solving and motor skills with an obstacle course

Here at The Muddy Puddle Teacher, we love encouraging families to make homemade trim trails. Start by asking your local tree surgeon if they have any free stumps of wood.  Then head to your back garden and dig holes for the stumps to lie.  Dig deep enough so the logs do not move when stood on and are secure.  Spread the logs out so that the children can balance and jump from one stump to the other. – The Muddy Puddle Teacher

Creating a sensory path is a great addition to any backyard, allowing children to burn energy and build gross motor skills as they walk, skip, or jump across various materials. A large, covered sandbox can be used as intended when opened, as the cover provides seating and play, and while covered, it creates a stage for impromptu performances. Building a sound wall along a fence with a variety of pots, pans, cookie sheets, etc. mounted on a grid, along with wooden spoons and other kitchen utensils as tools, provides instant access to music. Adding a large metal sheet to a fence creates a magnet board where children can create designs and patterns with homemade magnets, using inch-sized ceramic tiles or colored glass “jewels” glued to magnets. – Good Shepherd Episcopal School

Teach them to upcycle

Upcycle, upcycle! Let’s help reduce our waste and give some classic household items a second life! Our favorite way to do this is by gathering a “mud kitchen.” This can be as simple as you want, it looks like a big tub filled with cupcake pans, whisks, pots, wooden spoons, old baking dishes, measuring cups, spatulas, etc! This is the perfect way to get your children out in the yard, concocting potions (creativity), play cooking (practicing math and measuring), playing house/family (communications and conflict resolutions), and getting their hands dirty! – Wildlings Forest School

More loose parts!

You’re a young family with children…you’ve just bought a house with a nice, open backyard. Before you head to your local home improvement store to order a pre-fab swing set, may we share with you a decade’s worth of nature school experience about what children really want…LOOSE PARTS! And lots of them! 

What are loose parts, you ask? Loose parts are natural and synthetic materials that can be moved, carried, redesigned, lined up, stacked up, built upon, combined, and taken apart – tires, pipes, sticks, bricks, tree cookies, sand mounds, boards, tarpaulins, hay bales, pots and pans. Opposite of that store-bought swing set, which can only be interacted with in one ‘right’ way, loose parts can be used in a multitude of ways. They serve to stimulate a child’s natural urge to build and create, to move things around, to use materials differently than an adult may predetermine. And in terms of learning benefits, loose parts play encourages a child to see possibilities, to take initiative, to problem solve, to develop independence and interaction with the landscape around them. Be prepared for your children to play uninterrupted for hours in their magical self-created world! – Painted Oak Nature School

Keep it simple

Transforming outdoor space into a learning environment for kids doesn’t have to take much! Head to a thrift store or ask the neighbors for some old muffin tins and stainless steel spoons or ladles. Add a bucket or a bowl, and you’ve got all the makings of a portable mud kitchen. When it comes time for gift buying, consider something that adds to that play: like our stone composite play food, or a rain barrel or water jug that allows kids access to water without running the hose. Keep it simple – no instructions are needed! – Biddle and Bop

Build a play structure using sustainably sourced materials

Build a play structure using recycled materials (found and/or purchased). This project incorporates sustainability thinking, strengthens planning and math abilities, supports executive function and collaboration, and develops gross and fine motor skills. It’s sure to pay off when it’s rainy, snowy, or very hot outdoors and kids can enjoy finding shelter in a place of their own design! – Sacramento Waldorf School

 

Originally published on Redfin

June 2, 2020 – Insect Explorations

We are very excited that summer day camps in Oregon will be allowed with safety measures in place. Since the announcement we have been busy figuring out what that will look like for OEA camps. In addition, we have been working on filing an application with the IRS for tax-exempt status. These are both proving to be time consuming tasks which is forcing us to pull back a bit from our weekly posts. We have not forgotten you and are working to figure out the best way to balance the work we have been doing over the last few weeks with the return to modified in-person programs. Please be patient with us as we find our balance.

Do you enjoy these activities and the value of nature connection? Please support our work with a donation.


Gratitude

I am grateful for the diversity of ALL life on our planet including human.
I am grateful for ALL the people who work every day to better the lives of all living beings.
I am grateful for ALL the non-human beings who work every day to better the lives of all human beings.


Insect Activities:

In this week’s post we are going to share some ideas to help you and your kids look deeper into the world of insects.

What is an insect? Short Answer: An animal with three body parts (a head, a thorax, and an abdomen), two antennae, and six legs. Many of them have wings. One easy way to tell if you’re looking at an insect or a different animal is to count the legs. If there are six, it’s an insect.

Here’s a catchy little song to help you remember. Add in some movements to increase the fun.

Insect Song
(sung to Head, Shoulder, Knees and Toes)

Head, Thorax, Abdomen, 6 Legs!
(touch head, chest, and belly, hold up 6 fingers)
Head, Thorax, Abdomen, 6 Legs!
(touch head, chest, and belly, hold up 6 fingers)
Big eyes, small eyes, antennae too
(make fingers into a big circle in front of eyes, then a small circle, hold pointer fingers above head to make antennae)
Head, Thorax, Abdomen, 6 Legs!
(touch head, chest, and belly, hold up 6 fingers)

Printable Coloring Page: Insect drawing with labeled body parts

Insect drawing with labeled body parts

Interested in learning more?
Check out The Bug Chicks. These fun, inspirational gals have a lot of information about insects and other small creatures, including free videos and more in-depth workshops (for a small fee) that are great for kids, and adults, who want to learn more.

Did you know? Insects perform lots of important jobs that keep the world clean and healthy.

  • They are the planet’s garbage collectors: breaking down and disposing of waste like dead animals, scat (poop), and dead plant material.
  • They are farmers: pollinating a third of all the food crops that we grow. Without insects many of our favorite fruits and vegetables would not grow.
  • They are food: many animals, including some humans, rely on insects for food. Without them multitudes of birds, bats, reptiles, amphibians, small mammals, fish, and even other insects would not have enough to eat.

Nature Walk

  • Create an insect observation kit: put together some items that will help you observe the insects you find.
    • A container with holes: this can be as simple as a plastic container with plastic wrap covering the top. A clear container will allow you to see what’s inside easier. Make sure there are holes so the insect can breathe.
    • A notebook & pencil for sketching and writing observations
    • A magnifying glass if you have one. You can also download a magnification app on your phone.
    • Field Guides: after you have taken some time to observe and get to know the insect you might want to try and figure out what type of insect it is. Field guides are a great tool to help identify something and learn more about it. There are also lots of resources on the internet. Here are a couple:

Remember to be kind to the insects you collect! Release them back to their homes when you are done with your observations and don’t forget to tell them thank you.

  • Print out this minibeast spotter sheet from the Wildlife Trusts and see how many of them you can find. Which ones are insects? Hint: count the legs.
  • Tips for finding insects: sometimes these small animals can be hard to find. Here are some great spots where insects often like to hangout:
    • Under rotting logs or leaves
    • Under stones and boards
    • In piles of dry leaves
    • The underside of a leaf
    • Among flowers
    • On trees
    • In the ground
    • In water: streams, rivers or ponds
    • In the grass

Crafts

  • Fingerprint Insects: Children press fingers into stamp pad or paint and make a fingerprint on paper; this will be the insect’s body. Then draw antennae, wings, and legs. You can also add the insects habitat (where they live).

Exploration Activities

Go make some discoveries!

Swallowtail butterfly

Blue orchard mason bee

Stone fly

May 18, 2020 – Pollination Discoveries

Imagine a world without blueberries, strawberries, peaches, chocolate…these tasty treats and other fruits, vegetables, seeds and nuts rely on the process of pollination to grow. Insects and other animals are a very important part of pollination for a lot of plants. This week we will be sharing activities and lessons that will help children understand, observe, and learn about pollination and the role animals play in the process.

Do you enjoy these activities and the value of nature connection? Please support our work with a donation.



Gratitude

I am grateful for:
The insects and hummingbirds who pollinated my blueberry bushes.
The plants that produce the fruits, vegetables, seeds and nuts that keep me nourished and happy.
The bright colors and beautiful patterns seen among many pollinators.
And
For all of you who are taking the time to notice and wonder about the world around you.


Pollination Activities:

Videos: Check out this 2 minute video from the National Inventors Hall of Fame to learn about the process of pollination and find the Pollinator Challenge mentioned in the video in the Science Activities section below.

Crafts: There are several creative and fun bee & pollinator activities in this booklet created by the Edmonton Area Land Trust in Alberta, Canada. You will learn how to build a bee hotel, make a bee puppet, move pollen like a bee, and more.

Nature Journal Ideas and Printable Pages

Discovery Walk: Take a nature walk to find pollinators. Look for flowers around your yard or neighborhood and look closely for insects. You may see bees, butterflies, beetles or hummingbirds visiting the flowers. Be sure to look closely, some of the insects can be really small. What are they doing? Caution: do not grab flowers that have bees or wasps visiting as they may sting you. It isafe to watch them, just give them a little space. Can’t get outside? Watch this video of bees visiting a blueberry bush.

Science Activities  

  • Pollinating device challenge: design and build a device to pollinate flowers. This STEM activity was designed by the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
    • Sketch a design of your device.
    • Use recyclables and craft items you have at home to build a prototype of your device. Your prototype does not have to function.
  • Become a Pollinator: make a pollinator puppet to collect and share pollen among flowers.
    • Make a pollinator puppet by either drawing your own or printing, coloring, and cutting out an image. Here are some images you can use.
    • Attach your pollinator to a popsicle stick or other handle with tape.
    • Cut out paper flowers or use cupcake papers or other cups to mimic flowers.
    • Add pollen to the middle of your flowers. To mimic pollen you can use small granular material, such as cornmeal, gelatin or sugar, or craft pom poms or rolled up pieces of paper.
      • If you choose a granular material be sure you place your flowers on a surface that can be easily cleaned as some of the “pollen” will fall off the pollinator during transport.
      • If possible use different colored “pollen” material  for each flower. If using sugar or gelatin use food coloring to make different colors. This will make it easier to see how the pollen moves from flower to flower.
    • Get your pollinator ready to collect and transfer pollen from flower to flower.
      • If you are using cornmeal or sugar place pieces of folded over tape on the back of your pollinator so the sticky side is out. Note: Your child may want to make an extra pollinator without tape that they can continue to play with after the experiment as the pollinator with tape will become coated in your pollen material.
      • If you are using pom poms or pieces of paper your child can help their pollinator collect pollen using their fingers or tweezers.
    • Have your pollinator visit a flower to collect nectar and pollen then travel to another flower where it will leave some pollen from the first flower and collect more.
    • Take your pollinator puppets outside to visit real flowers.

I’m ready to pollinate!

Do you know there is more than one kind of bee? Most of us hear the word bee and think about the honeybee but there are many different types of bees. The Oregon Bee Project is working to study, protect and educate Oregonians about wild and managed bees. They have several resources on their website including a printable poster featuring 18 of our common crop pollinators. Check them out!

May 11, 2020 – Bird Explorations

This is the perfect time of year to turn our attention to the birds as they are very busy, seeking mates, building nests, and raising young. If you take a little time to pay attention your eyes will be opened to the amazing world of birds. This week we will be sharing lots of activities to help you explore their world and learn about the birds that are living around you. You will notice that we share a lot of resources from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Their website has a large amount of information on birds and bird identification and is a great site to bookmark and reference if you have any questions about birds.

Paying attention to the world of birds is a great way to connect to nature and can have a profound impact on the development of our children and our mental health. Kathleen Lockyer, an occupational therapist and founder of RxOutside, wrote an inspiring article on the impact of birds on one of her patients. You can access the article here> 

Birds are some of the most popular animals for people to watch for various reasons: most of them are active during the day when we’re awake, they’re often pretty, and their movements and songs naturally grab our attention. “Birding” isn’t just for “bird nerds;” it’s an easy and rewarding pastime to get started on … just sit down in a comfortable place and watch and listen. Don’t worry about identifying the birds; simply enjoy them.

Do you enjoy these activities and the value of nature connection? Please support our work with a donation.


For this week’s Gratitude section I am going to share the things I have been noticing birds doing around my home. Much of this activity I have noticed from my windows and yard. What are you grateful for?

Gratitude
I am grateful for:
The birds who ate the aphids and other insects that were eating my rose bushes and the vegetables in my garden.
The birds that help provide me food by helping to pollinate the fruits and vegetables I like to eat.
The Junco parents who are caring for their babies in my hanging basket.
And
For all of you who are taking the time to notice and wonder about the world around you.


Bird Exploration Activities:

Videos:

Nature Collections: gather things from your walks around your home and keep them in a special spot in your house where you can see, smell, and touch them regularly.

  • This week try to find things a bird might use to make a nest: small sticks/twigs, moss, lichens, grass, feathers, spider webs, long hair …). Follow the collecting rules: Be respectful, if it’s a living being (plant or animal) leave it be, watch it for a while, take a picture or draw it, but do not remove it from its home, only collect things that have already fallen on the ground, only pick leaves or flowers if there are 10 or more in the area.

Crafts

Clay bird nest, bird, and eggs

  • Clay Bird Nest: My son and I made one of these nests in a parent/child craft class when he was a wee boy, now 18 and graduating from high school, eek! To create your own you will need: 1. air dry clay (here is a recipe for a baking soda clay that’s easy to make at home) you can also use playdough if you don’t care about the longevity of the creation (find a recipe for the best playdough here) and 2. Nesting materials: gather things from your yard or neighborhood that a bird might use in a nest (grass, feathers, moss, sticks etc) or from your home (bits of yarn, dryer lint, etc).
    • Directions:
      • Take a ball of your clay and shape it into a nest shape and stick your nesting materials into your nest. Think about which materials would be best on the outside of your nest and which ones best on the inside of your nest.
      • Let the clay dry overnight or until hardened.
      • You also might have fun making little clay birds and eggs to sit in your nest.
        • Eggs: simply roll little eggs. Leave as is or color with markers or paint.
        • Birds: Roll a bit of clay into a ball, shape another piece of clay into a beak shape or find a stick or other item and stick on the bird face. Add clay wings if you like. Use markers or paint to add eyes and colors to the bird.
      • You can also add food coloring to your clay when you are making it.
    • Edible Nest: Here’s a fun nest to build that you get to eat at the end: chocolate coconut nests! Often done around Easter, they’re just fun springtime treats.
    • Extension: learn about how different birds build nests. Check our “Outdoor Education Adventures” YouTube channel later this week for an episode about nests. The Cornell Lab Bird Cams are a great place to see some live action nesting behavior of a variety of birds. You can also find lots of information on birds and learn more about the birds you might find living around you.
  • Toilet paper tube binoculars: There are a lot of variations to this project, but in its simplest form you attach two toilet paper tubes together either with a hot glue gun or a stapler. Punch holes on one end of each tube and attach string or yarn long enough to hang around your child’s neck. Your child can decorate the tubes before attaching them together if they want to. While these do not work exactly the way real binoculars do, kids have fun with them. Importantly, especially for young children, they help to focus our vision and can make it easier to see specific things by blocking out other visuals that might be distracting.
  • Bird feeders: Here are 3 DIY bird feeders from the Cornell Lab.

Nature Journal Ideas and Printable Pages

  • Bird Sleuth’s Explorers Guidebook: this is another great resource from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. There are a lot of scavenger hunts and information perfect for elementary kids. You can print out individual pages or the entire guidebook or recreate the pages in your journal.
  • Bird Scavenger Hunt with Pictures is a simple scavenger hunt perfect for younger kids.

Bird Walk: take a walk to listen and learn about the birds around you. How many different bird sounds can you hear? Can you imitate them? Do the bird sounds change as you approach? If so, why do you think that is; what do you think they’re saying? If you come back during a different time of day, have the sounds changed? What are the birds doing? Can you find any birds carrying something in their mouth? Try and watch where they fly to; it’s likely they are feeding babies. Do not disturb their nests or try to touch or hold the babies.

Birding Sit Spot: A sit spot is a place that you visit regularly to get to know a place, expand your senses, and study plants and animals. While sitting, use “owl eyes and deer ears” to look and listen for birds around you. Once you have spotted a bird that interests you, without moving, watch the birds to learn what they eat, if they have a nest, where it is located, what the nest is made from. Look for birds carrying something in their beak; is it food or nesting material? Do you see differences in what each type of bird is carrying? Make a bird blind: put up a small tent in your yard or find a place where you can hide and sit quietly and wait for the birds and other wildlife to move about you (under a bush or small tree is a great place to try). If you have one, wear a dark or green-colored hooded shirt, or just wrap up in a blanket; pull your hood up and try to keep your face mostly covered. Try holding a long stick above you; if you hold very still and quiet, a bird might land on it! Put a small bird feeder in the branches nearby (make sure it’s empty in the evenings to avoid unwanted animals from using it). Take your journal and drawing or coloring tools; draw the birds you see. If you can, return to your sit spot frequently and sit very quietly while you’re there. The birds and other animals will get used to you and you’ll be able to observe them better as they learn to trust that you’re not going to hurt them. Be patient and they will reward you.

Science Activities:

  • Bird adaptations:
    • Watch this great video from a Cornell university naturalist to learn about how bird adaptations, like the shape of their beaks, feet, and behaviors, are related to the types of food a bird eats.
    • When you are outside or even from a window in your house look for birds and notice the shape of their beaks and their feet. Can you guess what they eat?
    • In your nature journal make a list or draw pictures of the types of bird beaks and feet you see. Make a list of some of the things birds eat.
    • As you may have learned by now bird beaks come in many shapes and sizes, each designed for eating a specific type of food. Insect eating birds tend to have pointed beaks with a wide mouth. Seed eating birds usually have thick, parrot-like beaks. Grub/worm eaters have pointed beaks for digging. Woodpeckers have long, slender beaks for drilling into the sides of trees. Hummingbirds have very long beaks for feeding on nectar and insects.
  • Eat like a bird by making your own bird beaks and mimic birds with this activity:
    • Gather as many of the following items or something similar to represent foods birds eat: cooked macaroni noodles (small animals), goldfish crackers (fish), gummy worms (earth worms or snakes), chocolate sprinkles (ants), peanuts, sunflower seeds, Nerds candy (small seeds), mini marshmallows (grubs/caterpillars), dry cereals (insects), fruit juice (nectar).
    • Gather the following utensils or something similar to represent bird beaks: clothespin, toothpick, straw, spoon, small plastic scoop, tweezers/small scissors.
    • Hold one type of “beak” in one hand and keep the other hand behind your back. Select one type of food to eat. Try to gather as much food as possible in 15 seconds; you don’t have to eat it; just see if you can pick it up. Repeat for each type of beak.
    • Which beak was most successful in gathering each type of food? Can any of the “beaks” gather more than one type of food? Can you match the shape/function of any of the tools with any real beaks?
Photo: Larry Johnston/Audubon Photography Awards

Larry Johnston/Audubon Photography

Camouflaged Egg Hide and Seek: Just as bird beaks are unique to each bird species, so are their eggs. Eggs are camouflaged to keep them hidden from predators. Can you design paper eggs that would be camouflaged on various surfaces inside or outside your house?

Cut out egg shaped pieces of paper and color them to be camouflaged in a different spot inside or outside your home. You might try creating an egg the same color as your sofa, or kitchen cabinets, or the bark on a tree. Remember camouflage is when something blends into its surroundings so it cannot be seen.

After you have made your eggs place them next to the surface they match and challenge someone else to find them.

    • Extension: Use the paper you colored to make some paper mache eggs. Here’s a link with how to make several types of paper mache, including gluten-free options.
  • Bird Identification & Observation:
    • Field guides are great tools to help you identify and learn about birds. Contact your local bookstore or library to see what they carry for the best books about your area.
    • If you do not have any bird field guides you can gather the same information from the internet. The website All About Birds is a great resource for all things bird related. There are a lot of birding apps you can download as well; this link has 13 apps listed in order of usefulness: https://birdwatchinghq.com/birdingapps/.

May 4, 2020 – Expanding our Senses

This week we are sharing activities that help improve our powers of observation and our awareness of the world around us. We do A LOT of sensory activities in our programs. We have found them to be a great way to focus energy, tune in to our surroundings, and have lots of fun. Engaging in activities that feed our senses has many benefits for both children and adults, including improving our attention, emotional regulation, and organizational abilities, and much more. Kathleen Lockyer shares her insights into the role nature plays in a child’s developing senses in this article: NATURE SENSE: Tuning into Nature’s Operating Manual.

The activities we offer this week will activate all your child’s senses in different ways. Check out our website, social media, and Youtube channels for more activities and ideas.

Do you enjoy these activities and the value of nature connection? Support our work with a donation.


Taking a moment to express appreciation for the natural world deepens our connection to it.  We encourage you to share thoughts of gratitude and thanks for the gifts nature provides.

Gratitude
We are grateful for:
The sound of spring rain
The warmth of spring sunshine
The smell of spring flowers
The taste of tender spring greens
The sound of singing birds
And
For all of you who allow us to share our love of nature with you and your children.


Expanding our Senses Activities: 

Video: visit our Youtube channel for education videos and stories.

Nature Collections: gather things from your walks around your home and neighborhood. Keep them in a special spot in your house where you can see, smell, touch, and play with them regularly. Loose parts such as these can spark creativity in your child’s play and can be used throughout the week for crafts. ***Be respectful when collecting and follow the collection rule: If it’s a living being (plant or animal) leave it be, watch it for a while, take a picture or draw it, but do not remove it from its home.

  • This week try to find items that represent each sense: sight, smell, taste, touch, sound. Here are some ideas: colorful flower petals, smelly plant leaves, something with a rough texture, a smooth texture, things that make sound when moved or touched.

Crafts

  • Make some noise: Fill containers small stones, beads, beans, popcorn kernels, rice or other things, cover with a lid. What sounds can you make? Try different materials and different containers. Do they make different sounds?
    • Use a paper towel tube or toilet paper tube as your container. Cut out two circles from construction paper or a paper bag. Wrap one circle around one end of your tube and secure it with string or a rubber band. Fill the tube with your material of choice or try a combination. Secure the other end of the tube with the other circle of paper. How does it sound?

Nature Journal Ideas and Printable Pages

  • Scavenger Hunt for the Senses: take this fun scavenger hunt as a guide for finding things to see, hear, touch, and smell. Can you find other things that aren’t on this list? When you’re finished, put this page in your Nature Journal.
  • Sound map imageSound Map: (Materials: a piece of paper or index card, writing utensil, spot to sit quietly).
    • Mark a spot in the middle of your paper, this represents you. Listen for sounds around you and make a note on your paper of where the sounds are in relation to where you are sitting. For example if you hear a bird behind you draw a little bird or write the letter b or some other symbol on the paper.

Game and Challenges

  • Guessing box/bag: Put various items into a box or bag or something else the other person can’t see into. Have the other person feel around in the box (no peeking) and guess what the items are. Some items you might consider include a fir cone, some moss, a rock with interesting textures, a snail shell (without the snail). You can also play with things from around the house, including grapes or orange wedges (though they might get sticky), a cooked noodle, a piece of cloth, a toothbrush, a small picture frame, a familiar piece of costume jewelry. Consider including something with a strong but pleasant scent, like a stick of cinnamon bark or a sprig of an herb from your yard. Very important: Don’t put anything in the box that you wouldn’t want to touch yourself, and don’t include living animals (including worms and insects) because the animal might get hurt.
  • Camera, Camera: (Played with a minimum of two people) One person is the camera the other the photographer. The camera sits or stands in front of the photographer with eyes closed. The photographer gently moves the camera’s head to point in the direction of something they want to take a picture of and gently pulls on the camera’s ear to activate the shutter. The camera’s eyes open to reveal the scene the photographer wanted to capture. Extension ideas: 1. Draw a picture of the scene in your nature journal. 2. The camera tries to guess what the photographer is trying to capture, i.e. a tree, a flower, an insect, etc.
  • Animal charades: Use your sense of imagination to become an animal. Can others guess who you are? When imitating your animal think about how they use their senses. Do they listen carefully? Do they use their sense of touch to walk quietly or get into tight spaces? Can they smell their way home? Can they see or are they blind?
  • Blindfold Challenges: when we dampen our sense of site our other senses are heightened. Here are some fun challenges we do during camp:
    • Blindfolded children follow the sounds made by another child Meet a…(tree, chair, fence post): carefully guide a blindfolded player to an item or spot in your yard or house. Allow them a few moments to explore the area or item using there sense of touch, smell, and hearing. Carefully guide them away from the spot while trying to disorient them with a gentle spin. Remove the blindfold. Can they find the spot or item?
    • Caterpillar Walk: lead a blindfold walk through your yard or neighborhood. A sighted person will lead a blindfolded person around having them SAFELY touch and smell things. Note: this is a trust activity, it can be unsettling to be blindfolded and led around. If you are the leader be respectful and careful to lead your partner is a safe manner.
    • Rope Blindfold Walk: this is an extension of the Caterpillar Walk. Rather than leading a blindfolded person you lay a rope out around your yard or your house. Lead a blindfolded person to the start of the rope and allow them to follow the rope either by crawling or walking barefoot along the rope. Be sure the rope does not guide the blindfolded person into an area where they may get hurt or run into something. 
    • Sound Trail: a leader makes sounds while a blindfolded players follows the sound.
  • The Power of Suggestion: (Played with atleast two people: the Chef and the Guest; You will need: some strongly flavored condiments (ketchup, mustard, jam – make sure it’s nothing the Guest hates or is too spicy), a strongly scented flavoring extract (like peppermint or anise), a cotton ball, a small dish, a plate, toothpicks or small spoons, and a blindfold.) The Guest waits patiently in another room while the Chef sets up the tasting table. Chef puts pea-sized dabs of the condiments on the plate so they’re not touching; keep the plate on the Chef’s side of the table. Put some extract on the cotton ball and place it in the small dish in front of the Guest’s chair. Now, go to your Guest and blindfold them. Carefully guide them to the table and have them sit down in front of the scented cotton ball. Ask them to breathe in deeply through their nose. The Chef will then feed the Guest small tastes of any random condiment. Can the Guest tell what they are tasting? What if the Chef tells them the condiment is a different one than what they’re actually tasting (the Chef puts ketchup on the Guest’s tongue, but tells the Guest it’s jam); what does the Guest think of it?

April 27, 2020 – The Amazing World of Plants

Spring is a great time to observe plants. In our region most trees and shrubs have leafed out and are flowering or beginning to flower and small herbaceous plants are in various stages of their life cycle from sending their first shoots above the ground to finishing up their flowering stage. It is the perfect time to take notice. What is happening in the world of plants around your home?

This week we are sharing some plant themed activities to support learning from home, give you and your kids some ways to learn away from screens while connecting to your nature neighbors.

The following list includes science activities, crafts, games, and sensory activities for kids ages 2-12. There are links to printable pages, activity directions, and some pre-recorded video lessons and stories.

These are organized by days but do not have to be done in any particular order.

Day 1:

  • Video: What is a plant? Neyssa put together two great educational videos about plants that provide a great introduction to the topic. Check them out on our Youtube Channel.
  • Printables:
  • Plant Walk: take a window walk around your house or venture out into your neighborhood. Focus on the different plants you can see. Can you find any big trees or small trees? Do you see any flowers? What colors do you see? Are there any animals (birds, insects, squirrels, etc.) in or around the plants? What are they doing? Extension: Write or draw about what you notice.
  • Pre-recorded story: The Tiny Seed by Eric Carle
  • Plant a bean: Do you have some dried beans in your pantry? Watch this slow motion video of a bean sprouting. Try growing your own:
    • Put a damp paper towel in a jar or a plastic bag.
    • Add the bean.
    • Keep the towel damp.
    • Watch your bean grow.

Day 2:

  • Printable: Plant Parts Coloring page with labels to fill in.
  • Scavenger Hunts: Use these to help guide your walks
  • Duplication Game: for 2+ players
    • Collect 5-12 plant parts (leaves, seeds, fruits, bark pieces, sticks, flowers, etc.) but keep them hidden. To adapt this for younger kids choose only 2 or 3 items. Remember to only collect things that have already fallen on the ground or are in such a large quantity that a missing leaf or flower will not kill the plant.
    • Lay the items on the ground or preferrably on a bandana or towel in a pattern.
    • Cover your items with another bandana or towel so they cannot be seen by other players.
    • Invite others over and lift the top covering to reveal the items you collected. Allow them 30 seconds to observe and memorize the items and the pattern (longer for younger children).
    • After 30 seconds cover the items. Players then go out and find the same type of items, collect them, and arrange them in the same way.
    • Check their collections and see how well they were able to duplicate your collection and pattern. ***This game can easily be played with items around your house rather than natural materials.
  • Fairy Soup – shared by Ventura Wild: Collect natural materials (flower petals, sticks, rocks etc.). Place them in a bowl. Add water and a drop or two of food coloring (optional). Which items float and which ones sink?

Day 3:

  • Videos:
  • Printable: Tree Life cycle Diagram
  • To Be a Tree – Project Learning Tree Activity: make a tree costume from a paper bag to help learn the structure and function of a tree.
  • Meet a Tree: This is a blindfold game that is done with a partner. (Adaptation: Don’t have a tree? Lead your partner to a place in your house or yard, can they figure out where they are?)
    • Find a blindfold (scarves work great).
    • One person is blindfolded, the other partner carefully leads him or her to a tree. Be sure to watch for obstacles and keep the blindfolded partner safe.
    • Once at the tree, the blindfolded partner explores the tree without taking the blindfold off. Feel for distinguishable characteristics like holes, moss, dirt, grass. Smell the tree. Wrap your arms around it to see how big the tree is. What does the bark feel like? Can you reach a branch? Does it feel like you’re in the shade/sun?
    • After a few minutes the seeing partner leads them away, and tries to confuse them a little with some gentle spins.
    • Remove the blindfold and find the tree!
    • Switch.
    • Share how it felt to lead and to be led. Which did you like better? Why? What did you notice about your tree?

Day 4:

  • Printable: Oregon State flower coloring page
  • Fashion a Plant: If you could design your own plant what would it look like? Create your own plant keeping in mind that your plant needs to have a way to collect water and nutrients from the soil (roots), a way to photosynthesize, make its own food (leaves), and a way to make more plants (fruit & seeds). To create your plant try one of the following techniques:
    • Use natural materials collected from your yard or neighborhood and lay them out on the ground to make your plant. If you do this outside with entirely natural materials you can leave your creation where others can enjoy it.
    • Draw, paint, or use other items from your home to create your plant. Be creative!
  • Make a wind catcher:
    • Choose two sticks and an assortment of objects from nature such as small sticks, leaves, seed pods, acorns, cones, etc. (Collect things that have fallen on the ground, not living plants.)
    • Cut various lengths of twine, string, or yarn.
    • Tie the two sticks together to form an X.
    • Tie the nature objects to the sticks.
    • Hang on a tree.
    • Observe the objects as the wind catches them. Do they all behave the same way?

Day 5:

  • Sensory Nature Walks:
    • Touching: feel as many different things as you can while walking, how many different textures do you feel? Caution: always look carefully before touching, make sure there are no sharp, prickly edges or things that might hurt you. If you see prickly edges on plants, touch gently at first, sometimes the prickles can surprise you.
    • Looking: take a color walk, how many different colors do you see? Create some color cards to take with you and try and find things that match. You could even do this around your house. To make color cards simply cut out squares of white paper, color each square a different color, and take them with you on your walk. How many different shades of green can you find?
  • Make a mini forest:
    • Find an area of ground to act as your canvas or create a space in your home.
    • Find leaves, sticks, cones and other things to be your trees. You can even use legos or other toys you have at home. Be creative!
    • Plant the ‘trees’ and other items to make your forest.
    • Add other features to your forest like paths, ponds or creeks, animals, and other plants.
    • Hide something tiny among the trees, then draw a map and mark the treasure on it. Challenge your friends and family to find it!
  • Story Challenge: Do your kids love writing or drawing? Provide story prompts and challenge them to finish the story with either words or pictures or both.
    • You could also write story ideas on scraps of paper. Have kids choose some at random and incorporate them into their story.
    • Here are some story prompt ideas:
      • A tree has fallen in the woods
      • A seed fell in the garden
      • An insect is looking for the perfect flower to gather nectar
      • An animal collected grass and twigs to build a nest
      • The dandelion growing in the lawn was very lonely
    • Share the stories together.
  • Nature crowns
    • Paper crown:
      • Gather up some colorful leaves, flowers, tree pods, seeds or nuts, and any other natural items from your yard or neighborhood.
      • Take a paper bag or construction paper and cut a strip long enough to fit around your child’s head. Tape pieces of paper together if needed to make them longer.
      • Have your child tape the items they collected to their paper crown.
    • Daisy Chains: Learn how to weave flowers together.
  • Pre-recorded story shared by Ventura Wild: The Curious Garden by Peter Brown.

April 20, 2020 – Nature Connections

Earth Day 2020

Wednesday, April 22, 2020 is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. This movement began on April 22, 1970 when 20 million Americans took a stand for an environment in crisis and demanded change. The result of this collective action was the passage of landmark environmental laws in the United States including The Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts, as well as the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Today Earth Day is honored around the world and this year will be no different. While our Earth Day celebrations and actions may look different due to the need for social distance we will still pay homage to our beloved planet Earth, the only home we have. We hope you will join us!

This Earth Day we encourage you to think about why you value nature and take notice of the natural world around you. Make a commitment to connect to the natural world outside your doors and windows. Pay attention to what you notice; look and listen for birds, notice the direction of the wind, the rising and setting of the sun and moon, the plants (trees, grasses, flowers, even humble mosses) growing nearby, the movements of insects and other animals. Many of us have lost touch with just how much nature moves around us everyday no matter where we live. We fail to notice the first, subtle signs of seasons’ change in our valley: the return of the Turkey Vultures in early March, the croak of the tree frogs in late February, which plants are the first to flower in the spring and to lose their leaves in the fall. We challenge you to take notice. Pay attention and appreciate these gifts. What do you notice when you stop and pay attention?

Earth Day Message written in chalk

In honor of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day we ask you to take note of the nature around you and share it in one or more of the following ways:

  • Take walks around your neighborhood:
    • A listening walk: walk silently and listen to the sounds. Softly close your eyes and cup your hands behind your ears.
    • A color walk: color scraps of paper with crayons or markers, take them with you on a walk and find things that match. How closely can you make the match? How wild of a color can you find?
    • Find and print a scavenger hunt or make your own. Here are two from the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership:
  • Take pictures of what you notice and share it with friends, family, and us.
  • Make an entry in your nature journal.
  • Create some land art in a place where others will see it and share images of what you made.
  • Write a message of love for Earth or a pledge to how you care for our planet. Post it in your window for others to see and send us a picture.
  • Send us a short video message (~1 minute) of what you love about nature. If we get enough and with your permission we will string them together to make a longer video to share with others.
  • Use some sidewalk chalk and write your message in your driveway or sidewalk. Share a picture of it.
  • Create some Nature Crafts, the following website have some great ideas:

Check out what others are doing in honor of Earth Day:

  • The Earth Day Network is sharing ways you can take action, speak up and stay engaged.
  • Earth Day Oregon has launched a campaign encouraging people to post signs with their pledge to take action to support a healthy environment.

What other actions can you take to support a healthy planet?

If you use social media to share your photos and videos, please use #EarthDay2020 to participate in the world community discussion. To easily share it as a local community with us, please use #outdooredadventures. It’ll be fun to see how our community works together to build.


We end each of our Nature Connections entries with some words of gratitude. This activity can also be a great entry in your journals.

Gratitude
We are grateful for:
The insects pollinating our fruit and vegetable plants.
The water that sustains all living things.
The Earth for sustaining life.
And
For all of you who allow us to share our love of nature with you and your children.

April 13, 2020 – Nature Connections

Journaling:


Keeping a journal is a great way to strengthen our observational skills and tune into what is going on around us and within us. We will be focusing on nature journaling here but this routine can just as easily be used for personal introspection.

In this post we will share some of the benefits of journaling, how to keep a nature journal, instructions for making a nature journal as well as suggestions for what to put in your journal.

Nature journaling connects the language parts of the brain to sensory experiences and helps train the mind to pay attention thus sharpening our observational skills. It also allows space to exercise our imaginations and critical thinking skills needed to explain what we are observing. Incorporating personal expression in our journaling brings us closer to our environment and builds deeper connections to what we observe. Daily journaling can really enhance our ability to notice what is going on around us and makes us stronger learners. This will benefit us as students, parents, and naturalists.

How to:

Step one is to get equipped: find or make a journal, get a pencil, and coloring utensils, if you want to color. There are a lot of creative ways to make a journal. You can find a directions to our favorite journal here and a video of the process here or look around online for other ideas. You can also use a notebook, sketchpad, or stack of paper stapled together, it does not have to be fancy.

Next choose a time and a place to sit and make your journal entry. All good nature journal entries start off with a heading which includes the date, the season, the time of day, and a note about the weather. This simple action begins to prepare us for settling down and looking around. After you have added your heading take note of what is happening around you and add it to your journal. Writing or drawing or both are perfectly acceptable. Make this journal your own and add to the pages whatever comes to you. A journal is a personal expression, and you may choose to share it or keep it private.

Younger children and those just coming to this type of activity might find it helpful to have a prompt or something to focus on. If your child is not yet writing, have them dictate their observations to you or encourage them to draw. It is OKAY if a journal entry is messy. The more creative freedom the journal owner has the greater the likelihood this will become a sought after activity. Who knows, but maybe these musings from your backyard will make their way onto bookstore shelves someday.

Many of the activities we will be sharing will make great prompts of journal entries. Here are some fun ideas you can try now:

  • Answer these three prompts about what you are observing: I notice… I wonder… It reminds me of… Answer these out loud to yourself or others as well as writing it down and it will help you remember the details and make connections to what you are observing.
    • Note: We have noticed in doing this activity in camp that there seems to be an age-related block to the “it reminds me of” prompt. For some young children, that sort of question is too abstract. For children under age 7, we recommend modeling the answer instead of expecting them to be able to give an answer.
  • Create names for things (pretend you are seeing something for the first time and do not know what it was called, what would you name it)?
  • Think of creative words to describe something, don’t be afraid to be silly.
  • Write the letters of the alphabet in a list and find something that starts with each letter.
  • Interview a plant, tree, animal, or insect. What would they say to you?
  • Draw or describe something and challenge someone to find it.
  • Find a scavenger hunt online or make your own.

Follow us on Facebook for daily nature activities that you can easily turn into a journal entry. Happy journaling.


We will end each of our blogs with some words of gratitude. This activity can also be a great entry in your journals.

Gratitude
We are grateful for:
The shining sun which warms the earth.
The sound of trickling water in a creek.
The whoooing of the owl outside my bedroom window.
The brightness of a full moon at night.
And
For all of you who allow us to share our love of nature with you and your children.