Tag Archive: children and nature


Sound and smell

We are a sight dependent species. Although there are other species, and eagle for example, who could make our quality of vision seem paltry, we rely heavily on site. Further, in this technologically miraculous age, we often have gadgets in front of our faces and or covering our ears. We forget to connect with the world around us.

One of the fundamental skills of an astute person is the ability to observe and the ability to connect seemingly random observations. Here is a simple lesson that will help kids look past seeing and practice observing the world using two other senses. The activities help students make connections between themselves and the observation and between the observations themselves.

Objective: Make and use observations using the senses hearing and smell. Practice verbal or written communication about these observations.

Materials:

  • Cloth or a bandana for a blindfold
  • A journal.
  • Plain paper and crayons or colored pencils for drawing if you want.

Activity

  1. Find a comfortable place to sit. Place the blindfold over the child’s eyes. Have the child sit, quietly and without talking, and listen. Time them for two minutes. At the end of the two minutes have the child journal for two minutes about what they heard. Encourage the child to be specific, instead of writing “I heard birds” encourage the child to write I heard a bird that sounded like a squeaky door and a bird that sounded like a trilling flute.
  2. NOTE: The time and level of complexity should be adapted to meet the age of the child. Very small children may need  a shorter time. They can say or draw what they heard rather than write about it. For them, you could ask what the bird song sounded like. Did it remind them of a sound? Did it remind them of a color? Maybe a certain bird song sounded blue and another sounded yellow. Encourage whimsy and fun.
  3. Have the children share what they have heard with each other and with you.
  4. Have the child repeat the exercise and this time try to have them identify where, on a circle, that the sound may be coming from. Have them listen for two minutes and write or draw for two minutes.
  5. Have the students sit and attend to the things that they are smelling. Perhaps they smell the dampness on the air. Perhaps they smell the grass that someone is mowing somewhere down the block. Perhaps they smell the earth they are sitting on or the warmth of the sun or the faint fragrance of a flower. Perhaps they smell your perfume mixed with the bug repellent and the blanket they are sitting on. Perhaps they smell nothing. Again, give them two minutes to search the smells out and then two minutes to write or draw them.
  6. If you wish, repeat this exercise by having the child try to locate the direction the smell is coming from.

Extensions;

  • Have the children write or tell a story about what they heard and smelled and what it might be like to live in a world where your were more dependent on these two senses than on site.
  • Have them  find out if there are things that have to live that way.

This lesson is adapted from an activity in: Sharing Nature With Children by Joseph Cornell. More information is found here.

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So you live in the City

Nothing wild lives in the city. Or at least nothing bigger or more exciting than the occasional rat. This is the common perception among most people I talk to. On the surface it appears to be true. Many neighborhoods appear, at first glance, to be asphalt and brick. What green there is are small patches of ill tended yard. Cities are blighted places.

The truth of the matter is more complex. There are many areas so blighted but most parts of most cities have a diverse and hidden wildlife populations. There is more green than you would think. Wild things can make a fine living in the canyons and green patches of large cities. It is just not seen.

Wildlife makes its living by not being seen. It is of evolutionary advantage if you are able to travel on the down low. This is why so little wildlife is seen. Common urban critters include foxes, squirrels, a greater assortment of birds than most people would credit. There are of course the ever-present pigeons, house sparrows and starlings but if you look beyond those you will find a variety of tiny birds who specialize in a diet of insects. Along water courses there will be waterfowl from mallards to gadwalls and geese. There will be tiny waders like killdeer and large waders like herons. Living here will also be muskrats and, in some cases beaver.

The key to urban wildlife is knowing when and where to look. The best time for seeking these critters is at the transition times between dusk and full light on either end of the day. This is the changing of the shifts from night to-day and day to-night and the busiest time of the day.

Rise early and take a walk. Leave the iPod at home. Watch for movement out of the corner of your eyes. Walk quietly but not sneakily. A smooth, silent walk looks like an animal going about its business. A sneaky walk looks like a predator on the hunt. Keep your ears open. Listen for the sounds of the chitter of the birds. Listen for animals talking back and forth to each other. Yes, you will hear the caterwauling of the alley cats challenging each other and the dogs barking. But, if you listen closely you may also hear the yip of the foxes talking to each other or the coyotes calling out position for the hunt or the end of the night and time for home.

Cities are more alive with wild things than they appear at first glance. Take the time to walk around where you live and if you keep your eyes open you will see your hidden neighbors.

Saving Butterflies

Two articles from Science Daily inspired me to focus on butterflies this week. Article on focused on the difficult winter that Monarch butterflies faced in their wintering grounds in Mexico, this year. The weather was cold and wet. This, along with habitat destruction threatened the overwintering butterflies. The second article focuses on creating butterfly oases to help their north/south migrations.

One of the greatest threats to all wildlife is habitat destruction. The same forces that affect large wildlife affect the insects as well. Suburban sprawl, increased pesticide use to maintain that perfect monoculture lawn, along with loss of small farms and an increase in insect resistant crops is taking their tolls on insect populations.

The good news is that the suburban landscape is a the perfect place to build butterfly oases. Butterflies don’t need a lot. They need nectar bearing flowers. They need nursery plants on which to lay eggs. They need to be able to have a pesticide free life. That’s it. The reward we get for planting these oases is beautiful flowers, some with stems, some with wings. The other good news is that it is a great “connecting with children and nature activity”.

I’ll begin an intermittent series on butterfly gardens with a focus on Monarchs. Monarchs butterflies feed on the nectar from a variety of plants like zinnia, lantana and milkweed. The nursery plant for the monarch is the milkweed. Butterflies lay a single egg on the underside of a leaf. When the egg hatches it will begin its life by eating the host plant. The sap of the milkweed plant gives the monarch butterfly protection in the form of a bitter toxin that birds and other animals learn quickly to avoid. In a few weeks the caterpillar will find a place to create its chrysalis so that it can complete the final stage of life before becoming an adult.

The babies that were hatched in my yard have grown and flown. I like to think that they will pass through again, this September, on their way back to their wintering grounds in Mexico. I look forward to the next crew. The milkweed and lantana in my yard are ready and waiting.

To find out more information about how to plant a butterfly oasis go to Monarch Watch (www.monarchwatch.org). You can receive a way station kit that will help you build the best habitat for your monarchs. The kits include seeds for milkweed and other nectar plants.

I recently read an article that was published in The Independent (linked at the end of this post). The author talks about the trend to reconnect children to nature. He also talks about the limits we place on kids connecting with nature. He calls it “the don’t touch culture”. As I read it, the author postulates that looking is all well and good but to really connect you need to touch as well. I have to admit, he has a point. I have been to dozens of “don’t touch” museums and after a time your eyes glaze over. You feel separated, a distant onlooker, from the thing you are viewing. It applies to historical sites, a friend talked about being able to touch some of the objects during a recent visit to the Anne Hathaway house in Stratford-on-Avon, it was evident from her words that touching things was a high point of the museum.

If the delight in touching inanimate objects at an historical site exists, it exists in at least equal measure for living things in nature. I spent most of my youth outside and I picked, poked and prodded everything I came across. I totally agree that kids need to engage with nature using every sense imaginable. In the closing paragraph the author extols us to: “pick the common wayside flowers, gather wild nuts, berries and mushrooms for the pot, and take home interesting bits of dead wood or fossils. We could capture caterpillars and tadpoles, build wigwams out of fallen wood, and play games with elder stems or plantain guns. The wildlife can take it. And we would become freer, happier, and in the long run, more aware of the plight of nature and ourselves in a perilous and rapidly changing world.” I agree, we would be freer and happier in the long run.

The thing is, I don’t think the wildlife can take it.

Many of them need those mushrooms, berries and nuts for food, the bits of wood for shelter and the peace to be left alone to get on with their lives. With a world population of 6.7 billion people (up from the 3.6 billion in 1970, the year I started high school), we can’t all explore hands on, taking things with us, and have anything left to love. We will have loved nature to death doing that.

Further more, in the last 40 some years the way we do things has changed greatly. Small family farms have given way to large, commercial operations that maximize productivity at the expense of diversity and the health of the local environment. The focus of modern farming is the large, single crop plot. Often these crops, hybridized for the most yield, are vulnerable to pests and disease which is is countered by heavy uses of chemicals. Habitats are ever more fractured by intensive farming, increased building and roads. Some wild life will do well in the presence of people, foxes are an example. Others will not and, when their habitats become too fractured will cease to breed because they do not have enough territory to support themselves and their off spring.

So. What is the answer to this dilemma? I believe strongly that children need unstructured, unsupervised play that encourages curiosity and hands on exploration. I believe that we live in an over crowded, over developed world that is putting ever more stress on the other creatures that share our ecosystem. I have to believe, even though I don’t yet have the whole answer, that these two things are not irreconcilable. What about you?

The Independant: Getting close to nature: It’s time to grasp the nettle