Nature Activities, Ages 6 & Up

Animal Track Stamps

One of the best ways to know what kinds of animals are in your area is to learn to identify their tracks. Raccoon tracks may cover a muddy stream bank. Squirrel tracks may crisscross the snow. Deer, possums, skunks, snakes, wild turkeys, songbirds, and many other local creatures leave recognizable tracks where they travel. By making animal track stamps with your kids, you can introduce them to some of these local signatures. Then the next time you spot some tracks in the dirt or snow, your kids may be able to identify who left them!

Materials:

  • wildlife guide with animal tracks (optional)
  • potatoes or erasers
  • felt tip pens
  • hobby knives or other carving tools
  • ink pads or paints and shallow containers
  • paper
  • balloons, T-shirts, and so on (optional)

Collect pictures of the tracks left by animals in your area. You can find these in field guides and online.

For potato stamps, slice each potato in half. Have your kids draw a single animal track onto the stamp with a felt tip pen. With your assistance, have them cut away the parts of the potato that surround the track. If appropriate, make additional stamps for the animal’s other foot or feet.

For eraser stamps, have your kids draw a single animal track onto the eraser with a felt tip pen. With your assistance, have them cut away the parts of the eraser that surround the track. If appropriate, make additional tracks for the animal’s other foot or feet.

Have your kids press each stamp into an inkpad. You can even make your own ink pads by dripping food coloring onto folded up paper towels. Or pour a small amount of paint onto a plastic lid or other shallow container and have the kids press their stamps onto that. Then have them press the stamp onto the paper to make repeating tracks. Have them label each animal that they make.

You can reuse both kinds of stamps for quite a while. Consider making stationery or wrapping paper. For a wildlife party, carefully stamp tracks onto inflated balloons. Or use fabric paints to decorate T-shirts.

And the next time you’re outside, have your kids be on the lookout for the animal tracks they learned!

Nature Scavenger Hunts

One fun way to help your kids explore the natural world is by creating nature scavenger hunts. Come up with a list of things each child or team of children should try to find. Once they do, they can collect it (where appropriate), show it to you, or even draw a picture. We’ve provided some possible items in the list below.

  • a feather
  • a leaf with five lobes
  • a black stone
  • an insect hole
  • a nest
  • a small animal hole
  • a bud
  • a fruit
  • animal tracks
  • a spider web
  • ants
  • a seed
  • a red flower
  • something that is decaying
  • something that smells good
  • a shade tree
  • moss
  • a fungus
  • something that sings
  • something that buzzes
  • a puddle
  • a hill
  • mud
  • a plant with thorns
  • a plant with fuzz
  • a tall skinny plant
  • a dense bush
  • a flying insect
  • a worm
  • a root
  • a quiet place

What’s Your Local Nature IQ?*

Every day, you and your children spend time in a thriving ecoregion. An ecoregion is a geographic area defined by its climate, topography, and plant and animal communities. All of us live in an ecoregion, even if our immediate community is heavily urbanized. But how much do your children know about this ecoregion? How much do they know about the plants, animals, and natural cycles that share and shape their region? Try the following quiz to help them get started.

Before you distribute copies of the quiz to your children, reassure them that they don’t have to know the correct answers. The quiz is simply a way to find out how much or how little they know about the natural world where they live.

After your children have filled out the quiz as best they can, discuss their experiences. Were they able to answer any of the questions? Which ones? Then have them pair up to redo their answers for homework, this time making use of library, Internet, and community resources to find their answers.

  1. What major habitat type do you live in? (Examples are temperate forest, temperate rain forest, grassland, desert, and so on.)
  2. Name three native trees that live in your area. Collect a leaf from each one.
  3. Name five edible plants that grow in your region, and list in which season(s) each is available.
  4. Name one poisonous plant that grows in your area.
  5. Name ten native animals that live in your region.
  6. Name three native animals that you can see in your area at any time of year.
  7. Name three migratory animals that live in your area, and list in which season(s) you’re able to see them.
  8. Do deer live in your area? If so, at what time of year do they give birth?
  9. How much average rainfall does your community get each year?
  10. When (during what season or month) does your community normally get the most precipitation?
  11. How long is the growing season in your community?
  12. What is the average temperature in July? In December?
  13. What are some natural signs in your community that show that the seasons are changing?
  14. What body of water—lake pond, stream, or river—is closest to your school?
  15. How has your area changed in the past 25 years?
  16. What types of plants and animals lived in the area 10,000 years ago? What was the climate like then?
  17. What species in your area—if any—are threatened or endangered?
  18. What natural events or processes have shaped the land around your community? For example, have there ever been glaciers? Volcanoes? Do frequent fires, high winds, or flooding shape where and how things grow?
  19. Are there any threatened ecological areas in your community? (Are any wetlands, rivers, or forests, for example, in trouble?)
  20. Name a non-native species that has created problems in your community.

*Adapted, with permission, from “Ecoregional Survey” in Windows on the Wild: Biodiversity Basics (World Wildlife Fund, 1999).

Wingbeats*

The birds that flap, hover, and swoop through our skies move their wings at very different speeds, depending on the species. What better way for your children to start engaging with the topic of birds than by comparing their wingbeats with those of different birds. Here’s how:

  1. Copy the chart below onto a large piece of paper. Set aside.
  2. Talk to your children about how birds fly. Have everyone hold their arms out straight. Explain that a bird’s wing is built a bit like our arms. A hand area connects to a wrist, the wrist connects to a forearm, the forearm connects to an elbow, the elbow connects to an upper arm, and the upper arm connects to a shoulder. The biggest difference is in the hand area: a bird only has a bony thumb on one side with two fingerlike bones on the end. And, of course, a bird’s “arm” has feathers!
  3. Let your children rest their arms for a moment. Then tell them they are going to try flapping their arms as fast as some birds flap their wings. Place the chart where children can see it. Explain how to read it—e.g., a crow flaps its wings 20 times every 10 seconds, or 2 times every second, while a hummingbird flaps 700 times every 20 seconds, or 70 times a second. Using a clock or watch with a second hand or a stopwatch, challenge children can flap their arms 20 times in 10 seconds, like a crow. Next, try a robin and then a pigeon. Can anyone flap as fast as a starling? Your children will undoubtedly be amazed at the wingbeats of a chickadee and hummingbird!
  4. Ask your children if their arms were getting tired from all that flapping. Tell them that the lesser golden plover and some other birds can fly for 48 hours straight! Turkey vultures, on the other hand, can soar for hours without even flapping their wings.
  5. If you want, you can follow up this activity by having children research the flying habits and/or migration patterns of a bird of their choice.

WINGBEAT CHART

Bird No. of Wingbeats Every 10 Seconds
Crow 20
Robin 23
Eagle or Vulture 25
Pigeon 30
Starling 45
Chickadee 270
Hummingbird 700

*Adapted from “Flappers” in Ranger Rick’s NatureScope: Birds, Birds, Birds (Washington, DC: National Wildlife Federation, 1989).

Nest Bags

Go outside with the children and have them gather bits of dried grasses, soft seeds (cattail, milkweed, and so on), bits of yarn, and shredded paper. Have them place all of these in a mesh bag. Hang up the bag outside in the spring so that birds can take out materials to use in their nests. Look for bird nests that may have used some of these items.

Parts of a Seed

Soak lima beans overnight in water. Have the children take the seeds apart to find the outer skin (coat); inner part, which is food for the plant (cotyledon); and the tiny plant hiding inside (embryo).