Our normal science lessons in school may have stopped but the natural world has not. Spring has well and truly arrived bringing with it a wealth of wildlife to wonder over while developing scientific understanding. The natural world is a treasure trove of beauty, wonder and ingenious design and we don’t have to travel to warmer climates to discover this. It is here on our doorsteps.
With the frustration of being stuck at home hitting many people, I think it has never been more important to engage with nature. We can experience the wonderful calming effect of listening to birdsong, the thrill of hunting for insects and enjoy the arrays of colour from flowers and blossom. Wildlife watching teaches us to be patient and to slow down and take notice of what is around us.
We can harness children’s natural curiosity and encourage our children to take notice of and ask questions about the natural world around us. As Sir David Attenborough said ‘You only have to show a child a snail or a spider to see that he or she is captivated by it.’ I love this quote as it shows that nature can be just as captivating as the things that go whizz and bang in science.
If we can develop this curiosity in nature this could help encourage more respect for it. This is crucial, as with scientists suggesting that 40% of insect populations are in decline, we need our children to help in the fight to protect the environment.
This blog contains a few activities, plants and animals to look out for and resources to help children engage with nature from home. Children could record their observations in a nature diary, just like many scientists do now. The National Trust have included this as one of their 50 things to do before children reach 11 ¾.
Five ways to explore nature:
1) Flowers and blossom
Why not ask the children to take a close look at some of the flowers that are in bloom at the moment (including tree blossom). Encourage them to take their time and draw pictures to show the details of the flowers in their nature diaries.
Questions to ask children:
What shape are the petals?
How many petals are there?
What colours can you see?
What is inside the flower?
Can you see pollen?
Is it symmetrical?
Taking this further: To help name some of the blossoms you may see, use this blossoms and flower spotter sheet from The Woodland Trust or try the Plant Life website which shows which wildflowers to look at each month.
Children could also try flower pressing by following these simple steps:
- collect fallen blossom or flowers from the ground
- place between kitchen roll
- pile heavy books on top until the petals have completely dried out
Linking with maths, children could try and find an answer to the following questions:
Do flowers always have an even or odd number of petals?
Do flowers of the same plant always have an even or odd number of petals?
Here is an example from a Year 1 child investigating this question with daisies:
2) Bird spotting
Many people find watching and listening to birds a peaceful and relaxing pastime. There are a number of initiatives to encourage us to explore the birdlife around our homes right now.
The RSPB has set up the #BreakfastBirdwatch. Between 8-9 am every weekday they are encouraging people to look out for birds from their homes and share photos or videos with them. Children could take part in this and also draw pictures of the birds they see in their nature diaries. They could record their behaviour e.g. are they singing in a tree, flying, or on the ground looking for food?
Birds are often easier to hear than they are to see. Children could use the Woodland Trust’s bird song identification resource to try and identify some of the songs and calls of birds they hear.
As a nation, we spend more on bird feed than any other European country. Scientists think that this has caused the length of blue tit beaks to become longer over time (an example of evolution). The RSPB has some simple instructions for making bird feeders from items in our recycling bin and a few twigs. Children could make a bird feeder and then record the birds that come to visit it.
3) Insect hunting
While searching for invertebrates, children could think about entering the ASE Great bug hunt. All primary aged children can take part in this great competition from home. They have until the 12th of June to find a ‘bug’ and learn about it. They can share their learning in a variety of ways including posters, poems, stories or even a video.
Here are a few of my favourite ‘bugs’ to look out for:
After doing a few exercise classes in my garden, I was reminded that vibrations (caused by my jumping) can bring worms out to the surface. I was immediately reminded of a Year 2 class who had developed a love for and extensive knowledge of worms after finding some and then studying them in their science lessons. Finding, observing and learning about worms is something that could easily be done at home.
Finding worms: There are lots of different methods for bringing worms to the surface without digging up your garden, although you can do this. They like moist soil so if you have anything lying on the ground such as plant pots or stones, carefully turn them over to see if you can find any. You could also try the method that worked for me: making vibrations. This is sometimes referred to as worm grunting or worm charming and it is thought that some vibrations mimic the sound of moles, a predator, and bring them to the ground.
Observing worms: Children can be encouraged to look closely at their worm, its features and how it is moving. They often enjoy giving it a name and drawing it.
Questions to ask children:
How long is your worm?
Can you tell where its mouth is?
What colour is it?
How does it move?
What is its body like?
Can you see any hairs?
Taking it further: Encourage children to ask questions and see if you can find the answers together. For more information, watch a clip from Spring Watch on the Amazing World Of Earthworms and check out the National Geographic website. If your school is a CLEAPSS member, there are instructions on the primary website for making a wormery which would be a great extension to this activity.
Ladybirds are a favourite of many a child. If you have plants with aphids (a ladybird’s main food source), it is likely that you will also find ladybirds. Children can record how many spots each ladybird they find has and what colour its head and body is. This differs according to which species they are. The Guardian has produced a helpful guide to British species with some wonderful photos that could help with identifying what children find.
Once children have spotted adult ladybirds, they can then look out for ladybird eggs. These will be clusters of small golden eggs on the underside of a leaf. Eventually, the eggs will hatch, and children will be able to spot ladybird larvae. The larvae are much easier to spot than eggs as they are quite active feeding and growing. The larvae then eventually become pupa while they metamorphose into the adult form (the ladybird as we know it).
This photo shows two pupae from my garden last year. They stay like this for up to two weeks. If you find some encourage children to take a picture every day to see how they are changing.
For more information about the ladybird lifecycle, check out the BBC website.
Woodlice can also be easily found, generally in damp and dark places. Children could think about where they might find these conditions in their gardens and then go on a woodlice hunt. They can carefully collect some to take a closer look at how they are similar or different to each other. There are 30 species of woodlice that can be found in the UK so they may find some of different species. One species, sometimes called roly poly or pill bugs, are able to roll themselves into a ball as a defence against predators.
The children could investigate which material woodlice prefer to live under by placing small squares of material (plastic, paper, card, carpet) on earth and leaving for a couple of weeks. They can then go back and count how many woodlice they find underneath each material. They may also find some other invertebrates.
An interesting fact to share with children is that woodlice are actually crustaceans that live on land and are, therefore, more closely related to shrimps and crabs than insects. Children could look at pictures of crabs and shrimps and think about how a woodlouse is similar or different to these.
Butterflies are starting to appear in gardens like the spotted peacock butterfly pictured below.
Why not ask children to spend some time looking for butterflies and draw pictures of those they see before using the Butterfly Conservation website to identify what they find.
4) Steve Backshall Live Lessons
Steve Backshall is delivering live lessons every Wednesday at 9.30 am from his home through Facebook and via his YouTube channel. I have found them to be incredibly informative and inspirational. It is a great way of introducing children to someone who oozes passion for science and the animal world. He encourages children to be curious and keep asking questions and shares footage from hidden wildlife cameras in his garden. Children could tune into these live lessons and maybe even think of their own questions to send through.
I am by no means a gardening expert but apparently, it is the perfect time to sow sunflower seeds and having grown some last year I can confirm they are quite easy to grow. Sunflowers would be a great plant for children to make observations to support their understanding of plants such as:
- Growth over time (height, number of leaves, bud formation and the flower opening)
- How the flowers follow the sun throughout the day
- Bees visiting to feast on nectar and pollinate
- Seed development
For more information about planting try the Royal Horticultural Society.
It is well proven that nature is good for both our mental and physical wellbeing so let’s encourage everyone to enjoy what nature has to offer whilst developing our children’s scientific understanding.
For more ideas check out the Woodland Trust blog: nature activities to do at home.
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