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Field Notes from a Science Guy

Ok, so the science guy of which I speak is my hubby, Jon Howe. He is indeed a science teacher for kids ages seven to 14 years old at Dutchess Day School in Millbrook, where kids devour science. As importantly for our family, Jon has instilled a fascination with and love for the outdoors for my kiddos and their buds for over 13 years. From the time my tots were tiny, straight through to the present day, Jon has taught our children the beauty of observing a carpenter bee, made art with them from blades of grass, read poet Mary Oliver’s words about birds to them, instilled the “leave no trace” philosophy after adventures outdoors, and practiced how to identify different plants on family hikes. As a trained environmental scientist and biologist, Jon believes the joy of science naturally imbues in children a sense of obligation to protect our earth. 

With  more time at home, families are exploring and enjoying their surroundings with new enthusiasm, time, and appreciation. Jon is joining my blog today with his tips for tots and young children to enjoy nature and science, both outdoors or even online. And let me tell you, as a completely unbiased source, he is truly the best teacher and nature enthusiast I know! Welcome Jon!

P.S. For more great ideas about summer activities with your families, register for “Camp Mom: Fun & Games While at Home for the Summer,” next Tuesday 6/2 from 1:30-2:30pm, with Baby Botanica’s Developmental Therapist & Early Childhood Teacher, Liberty Mahon.

Jon back in ‘07 with our firstborn, Michaela. Both babies…

Hi everyone, Jon here. As Jeni’s intro suggests, I do happen to believe that Nature is the best entertainer and educator around. The amazing human brain evolved in the wilderness — confronted with and challenged by infinite stimuli— and research confirms that even in our modern times, the brain is most active and engaged when we are outside, whether that’s a national park, a backyard, a local park, or just a walk around the block. And this goes for parents too, of course, not just kids!

Here are some ideas that I’ve used before with my own kids or my students, and there are thousands of other ideas out there if these don’t float your boat. These are just some of my favorites that are my go-to with students or kids. Many of them require little to no prep, most will keep kids occupied for hours or days, and all of them are fun for adults too.

10 Fun Outside Ideas

  1. Nature walks: This is first on my list because it is the cheapest, awesomest, bestest, nature-y-ist thing anyone can do, and it’s always fun. It doesn’t even matter (to me) if the weather doesn’t cooperate; a little rain can add a little adventure. Just walking around, without an agenda, keenly observing the nature around you can be exhilarating. So stop and smell the soil, mulch, bushes, trees, and, if you’re lucky, flowers. I recommend bringing a trowel and a magnifying glass if you have them, as you can uncover some creepy critters in the strangest of places. This differs from a family “hike” in that there is not necessarily a destination or loop, this is walking to observe nature at as many levels of scale as possible, from the micro to the macro. 
  1. Birdfeeder & binoculars: A close second on my list because a) I’m a huge bird nerd, and b) I have been enjoying this so much myself lately. I grew up with bird feeders in the yard, I have paid more attention to birds than most people on average, and yet I am still completely fascinated by our new bird feeder, as are our kids. Get a bird ID book, learn to ID the usual suspects, and start to write down all the species you see in an hour/day/week. Or start a “Life List.” If you can, have your child help you take some pictures of the birds to make your own bird book. I guarantee this will be fun, or I’ll personally come over and ogle your birds (fine print: this is NOT an actual guarantee). And if you do make a bird book, the pictures don’t have to be good. In fact, years from now you’ll probably think it’s more charming and funny if the pictures kind of stink.
  2. Trail cam: If you have a spot where you think some wildlife frequents, put up a trail cam (you can order them for not too much money online). If it’s just birds and squirrels, no problem – you’ll get some hilarious candids. And if you have access to some bigger landscapes, getting a peak at a coyote, bobcat, or bear on the cam is truly exciting. I got one for a present, and it has been amazing to see what shares the woods with us.
  3. Andy Goldsworthy art projects: My favorite visual artist is Andy Goldsworthy. If you haven’t heard of him, open up a new browser tab right now and explore his art. He is the absolute coolest. His art is thoroughly rooted in nature, dazzles people of any age, and is fun to try to replicate. You don’t need any art supplies and since it’s outside there isn’t even any clean up! Your kids will think his art is pretty amazing too.
  1. Plant some veggies: Of course, I take zero credit for this idea; humans have been doing this for thousands of years. During the pandemic, it’s nice to grow your own veggies, and you don’t even need a backyard garden. A few buckets of soil can grow an amazing array of food. (Here’s a secret that some of you already know: kids will eat just about any veggie that they help grow.)
  1. Make a boat out of natural materials: Have your child make a few boats out of leaves, bark, sticks, and whatever else she can find. Have her test to see how much weight (acorns, sticks, rocks, etc.) the boats can hold in a nearby pond or lake.
  2. Observe a chrysalis: Order some chrysalises online. Monarchs and painted ladies are cool, but did you know you can buy praying mantis egg sacs? I’ve done this several times in my classroom, and the day they hatch is pretty mind blowing. You get a hundred or so tiny baby praying mantises crawling around, and they are both adorable and creepy at the same time. If you do this inside, make sure the egg sac is in a butterfly cage, and if it’s outside, check it daily so you can look around to find some of the babies before they go off into the big world.
  3. Magnifying insects: Not much explanation needed here. This gets a lot cooler if you have a good magnifying glass, but you can also take an extreme close-up picture and zoom in. For inspiration, look up the photographer Levon Biss and his incredible insect photography. His website is spectacular. 
  1. Collecting Data: Creating a data table, making regular observations, and collecting even simple data is surprisingly fun for most kids. Not only is it good practice for science, but you really start to notice details and secrets about plants the more closely and frequently you observe them. The data table can be simple, and you can send your young scientist off to collect data every single day (several times a day, perhaps…).
  2. Animal habitats:  Challenge your kiddos to create some animal habitats using only natural materials. These can be as simple or complex as they want – the structure is not the point. Just having them imagining life as an animal is fun.

4 Great Inside Ideas (for rainy days or otherwise):

  1. Bird webcams: There are a lot out there focused on some pretty cool birds. Watch the famous predators, the tropical jewels, the tiny hummingbirds, or whatever you want. So many to choose from, but Cornell Lab of Ornithology is generally a great place for all things bird, and their webcams are fantastic. 
  2. Zoo webcams: Along the same lines as the bird cams, the San Diego Zoo can bring a lot of cool animals into your home. 
  3. Zooniverse: “Citizen science” is the idea that ordinary, untrained people can help real scientists conduct real science projects by crowd-sourcing some of the more time-consuming tasks. While this may not sound super compelling for young ones, there are citizen science projects where anyone can identify the wildlife captured in trail cams, and it is really exciting to catch the rare lion or tiger. Zooniverse  is a well-designed hub for these types of projects (though these might be more interesting to older children).
  4. NASA Eyes on the Earth: This NASA application is amazing. It’s like NASA has channeled most of its missions into one computer model and you get the keys to the solar system. My students love zooming around the planets, checking out the 3D models of satellites, checking out moons, etc. It’s easy to navigate in “Simple” mode, and it’s really fun to explore for many ages. I’ve had students from 2nd grade to 12th grade become totally obsessed with this tool. Learn and download here.

These are just a handful of things I’ve done to keep my own kids investigating and exploring the universe. After activities like these, children come back with vivid reports of what they’ve discovered or created, and they almost always want to dive a bit deeper into whatever topic they’ve explored. And, as a special bonus, they usually come back dirty, which helps them develop stronger immune systems! Who wouldn’t want that these days? Enjoy, everyone!


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