Linda Crampton has an honors degree in biology. She has taught high school biology, chemistry, and physics as well as middle school science.
The Joy and Value of Nature Study
Exploring nature can be a fascinating and educational activity. Children often love to observe living things and learn about their lives. They also enjoy doing more than simply observing the natural world. Hands-on activities (when safe) can enhance learning and be great fun. Many nature activities can be performed at home and at school, including:
- creating a nature journal
- observing the natural world
- performing experiments
- creating a terrarium
- producing art and craft items
- photographing living things and making videos
- writing articles, stories, and poems
I discuss all of the above activities in this article. They can be absorbing for both children and adults when performed at a suitable level. The elementary students and the high school students that I've taught have enjoyed observing nature and performing the activities in the list.
Although the greatest variety of plants and animals can often be seen in spring, summer, and early fall, nature activities and crafts are enjoyable at any time of year. It can be interesting to see how life in a particular habitat changes as the year progresses. Young children will probably need supervision and guidance when they observe nature, since it sometimes presents dangers.
Creating a Nature Journal
Studying nature in real life is often very interesting for children. It enables them to discover facts about animals and plants from first-hand observations instead of by reading about them in a reference source. Children may even discover things that were previously unknown by scientists.
Recording facts about nature can improve documentation skills. There are many aspects of a plant or animal's life that children could document. Some possibilities include answers to the following questions.
- What were the most noticeable features of the plant, animal, or other organism that was observed?
- How big was the organism? (A ruler and other lightweight measuring tools could be useful during a nature walk. Measurement may have to be done indirectly, however. Some animals and plants shouldn't be touched or in certain cases even approached.)
- Where was the organism found?
- What was its environment like? (Consider features such as habitat type, the presence of partial shade or sunlight in the habitat, the identity of surrounding animals and plants, and soil pH if suitable equipment is available.)
- If the organism was an animal, what was it doing?
- If the organism was a plant seen on a previous walk, how has its appearance changed since the last observation?
- What was the date and time of day?
- What was the weather like?
- What was the temperature?
Regularly recording observations of organisms, their constructions, or their habitats in a journal could be an enjoyable project for children. Lifting logs and rocks, getting a close-up view of a plant part or a harmless animal, looking at organisms from an unusual angle, or touching organisms that are safe to touch may reveal surprises. Children should be encouraged to replace any items that they’ve moved.
Making a Beautiful Cover for a Journal
Possible Additions to a Nature Journal
A nature journal may contain more than just a written record of discoveries. Ideally, it's an expression of a child's creativity as well as their interests. Children may decide to add some of the following elements to their journal in addition to notes about what they've observed during a nature walk.
- questions related to the observations
- nature news that they've read or heard
- quotations related to nature
- decorations created with nature-themed items such as rubber stamps, postage stamps, and stickers
Magnifying Plants and Animals
Observing nature is nearly always interesting. If a child has a magnifying instrument, new and sometimes unexpected aspects of nature may be revealed. A magnifying glass can provide a closer view of plant and insect parts and of small animals that are safe to touch, such as earthworms. Binoculars will give a closer view of birds and animals. A microscope can be used to examine microscopic organisms in pond water. It can also be used to greatly magnify small plant parts and other items that children might discover on their nature walks, such as feathers and parts of dead insects.
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When buying any type of optical equipment, it's a good idea to look for a device that has reasonable quality as well as being affordable. Cheap optics often produce unsatisfactory images and don't maintain the interest of children. If the device is going to be carried on a walk, its weight is also a consideration.
Gardening is fun for most children. It can be magical to see a carefully nurtured plant grow from a seed or to see scraps from onions, potatoes, carrot tops, and other plants regrow. A carrot top produces greens, which can be eaten. It doesn't produce a new carrot, which is the tap root of the plant. It would be good to explain this to a child so that they aren't disappointed. Some vegetable scraps do regenerate the part that's normally eaten, however. One of the resources at the end of this article gives ideas and instructions for using kitchen scraps to create new vegetables.
It's fun and healthy for children to eat produce that they've grown themselves. Some plants grow well indoors or in containers, so a garden is not essential in order to study plant growth.
Plant experiments can be informative. Groups of plants can be grown under different environmental conditions, and careful records can be kept so that comparisons can be made. Children could compare the effects of different temperatures, soil types, or amounts of light on the growth of a specific type of plant. They could also find out whether using plain water or water with various types and quantities of additives makes the plant grow better. Some plants, such as celery, will absorb food colours added to water. The rate at the which the colour travels through the plant could be measured.
pH test strips are available in pharmacies and the pharmacy departments of some chain stores. They can also be bought online. They are usually inexpensive and are a useful tool for nature explorers. They can be used to discover how acidic or basic a particular liquid is.
Cress Egg Head Tutorial (No Sound)
Cress seeds sprout easily on damp cotton wool or paper towel. Many children enjoy watching the seeds grow and then eating the sprouts. Creating cress hair for an egg is a fun variation of this activity. Observing beans as they sprout and grow is also an interesting activity.
Examining Pond Water
Though algae technically aren't plants, they can be used in some interesting experiments. For example, children could gather pond water in separate but similar containers, such as glass jars of the same size. The amount of water placed in each jar should be the same. The children could then examine the effect of different environmental conditions on algae growth and perhaps on other organisms in the pond water.
The additional life forms in the water may include tiny and microscopic animals. These creatures can be very interesting to observe either with the unaided eye or with the aid of a microscope. I think that returning the creatures and the water to the pond after the experiment has finished sets a good example for children.
Keeping animals in captivity specifically to make observations or to perform certain experiments is a controversial topic that requires careful consideration. Concerns include the welfare of the animals and safety for children. It's probably best to stick to plant experiments in a home situation. An exception could be an investigation involving the tiny animals observed in collected pond water.
Attracting wild animals that are free to come and go as they please (when this is safe to do so) may also be possible. Birds could be attracted by feeders and butterflies could be attracted by specific flowers, for example. Some birds are interested in what humans can offer even when there isn’t a deliberate effort to attract them, such as the crows in my neighbourhood. Squirrels can be observed in some parks, as can some aquatic birds.
How to Make a Natural Bird Feeder
The project above is both a craft and a way to attract birds for observations. Try to use the most natural peanut butter possible in a pine cone bird feeder and avoid additives.
Creating a Terrarium
Creating a terrarium containing plants that grow well in a glass container can be an interesting project. If the terrarium is well designed, it can act as a mini garden. It can even depict a mini world if appropriate small and non-living objects are placed among the plants. Succulents, mosses, and small ferns often work well in terrariums. The succulents should be kept in their own terrarium with no lid, but the mosses and ferns can be grown in a container with a lid.
A plan for an interesting terrarium should be found and followed in order to be reasonably sure of success. Children can make variations in the design of their mini garden or mini world, but basic ideas such as choosing suitable plants for growing in the terrarium, finding out whether the plants are available locally, choosing a substrate that supports their growth, and deciding whether the terrarium should have a lid should be followed in order to avoid disappointment. The video below and the NASA reference at the end of the article give some more tips.
Even an inexpensive pencil and piece of paper is enough for a child to draw plants and animals from nature. Libraries usually have books showing children how to draw living things. Instructional articles can also be found online. Observation and art skills get better—that is, more accurate—with practice. Art doesn’t have to be an accurate representation of reality to be great, however. Coloured pencils, crayons, felts, oil pastels, coloured inks, watercolour pencils, and paints can add colour to drawings.
Computer art programs can also be useful for drawing natural objects. Some programs are free to download or to use in an Internet browser. Computers can be used for free at many libraries. Inexpensive art programs and apps are available for mobile electronic devices. If a child is lucky enough to have access to one of these devices, they can create digital art outdoors. Despite the relatively small screen of some devices, people create wonderful works of art with them.
Performing an Internet search for "nature coloring pages" will bring up a long list of free images can be printed and then colored.
Many children find nature collages fun to create. Cutting pictures out of magazines, newspapers, greeting cards, and food and gift packaging and then arranging them in an interesting design is a creative process. Personal photos and other items such as fibres and fabrics can also be used to make a collage, creating a unique piece of art. Investigating and discussing the idea of other people's copyright may or may not be appropriate, depending on the use of the collage.
Pressed flowers and leaves are great additions to collages, greeting cards, and bookmarks. Leaf and flower prints or stamps made from natural objects can be useful as well. Natural stamps can be made by forming a shape on the cut surface of a potato and then dipping the shape in paint or ink.
Creating art and crafts with pressed flowers is fun. The traditional method of pressing flowers with heavy books or a flower press takes so long that children may lose interest in the process, however. Pressing or drying flowers in a microwave solves this problem.
Pressing Flowers in a Microwave
Leaf prints are fun to make and can be attractive decorations. They can be used in many ways, such as on book marks, greeting cards, gift tags, wrapping paper, bags, wearable items (if the correct paint is used), and in other art projects.
- Collect pliable leaves of different shapes.
- Protect the surface of a table with layers of newspaper or kitchen towels.
- Place a leaf on the table and paint the back of it. (The leaf shouldn't be wet.)
- Place the painted surface on a piece of paper, card, or fabric.
- Press the entire leaf firmly but not roughly in order to transfer the paint to the paper. Take the time to create a good press.
- Gently peel the leaf away to see the design.
- Leaves with raised veins often create the most interesting prints. This is why the paint is generally applied to the back of the leaf.
- Some children might like to use a different colour of paint on each section of a leaf.
- Poster paint is a good choice for young children to use because it’s usually non-toxic and washable. (Check the label of a product before you buy it, however.) If leaf prints are being placed on fabric, fabric or acrylic paint will be needed.
- Toxicity and permanence are two features to investigate when choosing a paint. The age of the child and the purpose of the leaf print should be considered.
Like the other projects described in this article, creating leaf prints can be fun for adults as well as children.
Bark and Leaf Rubbing
Another way to create an impression of leaves is to do a rubbing. To create a tree or leaf rubbing, place a piece of paper on a tree's bark or over the back of a leaf (or leaves). Rub a crayon over the paper. This process picks up the design of the bark or leaf. The rubbing process needs to be hard enough to pick up the pattern underneath but not so hard that it breaks the paper. Using more than one colour of crayon can create an interesting effect. When you do your first rubbing, make a quick trial with paper of different thicknesses to see which type works best.
Collecting items for a nature display can be an enjoyable activity. Durable items such as shells, cones, dried flowers, seeds, feathers, rocks, and pebbles can be gathered for the display. In some cases, items may need to be cleaned. Children should wash their hands after handling the items.
Nature sculptures, 3D pictures, or room decorations can be created with natural materials like cones, twigs, branches, nuts, seeds, feathers, sea shells, and pressed flowers and leaves. Fibrous plant materials can be woven into shapes. Jewelry can also be made from collections of natural objects. Pre-made containers like flower containers and pots or natural objects such as stones or wood can be decorated with flat or 3D nature illustrations. Natural dyes can be created from some plants, which can be used to colour fabrics and other items.
Nature-themed crafts are also fun, even when synthetic materials are used instead of natural ones. Paper sculptures of plants and animals can be enjoyable to make. For more expensive sculptures, artificial clay that is either air dried or oven baked can be bought in arts and crafts stores and sometimes in toy stores. Dough sculptures can also be made.
How to Make a Paper Rose
Taking Nature Photos and Videos
Even inexpensive digital cameras can take good photographs today. The cameras usually have the ability to record video as well. Children can print the photos and add them to their nature journal or other creative work. Photos and videos can also be shared with friends and relations. They are a good way to document observations and to jog memory at a later date.
Free or inexpensive digital imaging and video editing programs are available and are fun to use on a computer. They enable a child to do basic editing such as improving the sharpness and exposure of a photo. Filters enable a child to create art from a photo and allow the child's imagination and creativity to roam free.
Children might enjoy writing stories or poems Inspired by their nature observations. Some children might like to create other items, such as a nature-themed board game or a card game for friends to play or a nature newspaper for people to read.