shake a bush

  • Best Age Range: all ages
  • Location: backyard, especially edge of field or woods
  • Best Time: day
  • Season: spring, summer, fall and winter (in mild climates)
  • Special Materials: white or light-colored sheet or cloth

What To Do: Lay the sheet on ground under over-hanging vegetation. Shake the vegetation or gently “beat it” with a stick. Many small invertebrates will fall into the sheet where they can be easily observed. Make observations of how things move. Do they hop, crawl or fly? How many different kinds of animal to do you see? How many different colors, legs, antennae, wings can be seen on the sheet? Compare the different animals. When you are done, gently shake the sheet so the animals can return to their homes.

Photo of child holding butterfly

did you know?

Outdoor play decreases risk of nearsightedness compared to indoor play.

Source: American Academy of Ophthalmology See More Facts
mantis-body mantis-body

bug juice

  • Best Age Range: all ages
  • Location: anywhere, but a natural area such as backyard or park is the best
  • Best Time: any
  • Season: summer, fall
  • Special Materials: overripe banana, brown sugar, plate or bowl, old paintbrush, a tree, magnifying glass

What To Do: Make some bug juice by mixing and smashing an overripe banana with brown sugar, molasses or honey. Let your bug juice sit outside for several hours and then use the paintbrush to spread it onto the bark of a tree. How long does it take until something comes to investigate the bug juice? Check back throughout the day to observe the animals that visit the bug juice on the tree. Look through a magnifying glass and get a close look at the visitors. Come out at night with a flashlight and see if there are any newcomers. Draw what you see. Experiment with your bug juice recipes.

making roly-poly homes

  • Best Age Range: all ages
  • Location: backyard, in gardens or mulched areas
  • Best Time: any
  • Season: spring, summer, fall and winter (in mild climates)
  • Special Materials: ½ of a small raw potato, melon baller or metal spoon, toothpick and colorful tape

What To Do: Hollow out the inside of the potato with the melon baller. Make a small door at the edge of the potato, so your potato looks like an igloo. You can add a toothpick topped with a tape flag to make the home easier to find in your garden. Place the home at the edge of the garden and cover slightly with damp leaves or mulch. Gently sprinkle the area with water. Leave overnight. Check in the morning for roly-polies.

mist bottle magic

  • Best Age Range: all ages
  • Location: backyard or any area with spider webs
  • Best Time: any, early morning the best
  • Season: any, summer and fall the best
  • Special Materials: spray bottle that can be set to a light mist

What To Do: Fill a spray bottle with water. Find a spider web. Is it dome-shaped, flat, bowl-shaped, funnel-shaped, messy? Now gently mist the web. Can you find where the spider is hiding? Look at the pattern in the web. Lightly touch the strands. Are they all sticky? Look for leftovers from the spider’s lunch or dinner.

Spider web with water drops close-up

beach in a box

  • Best Age Range: 2 and up
  • Location: outside
  • Best Time: any
  • Season: any
  • Special Materials: shells, measuring scoops, box or small plastic container of sand

What To Do: Place shells and scoops in the box. Let your child move the sand around and/or sort the shells in your beach box. This is a great activity to prepare young people for their first trip to the beach.
Activity field testing made possible in part by a PNC Grow up Great grant, an early childhood initiative designed to help prepare children for success in school and life.

bird calling

  • Best Age Range: 3 and up
  • Location: outside
  • Best Time: day; early mornings and late afternoons are best
  • Season: any
  • Special Materials: none required; binoculars can be fun

What To Do: In an area where you’re likely to see or hear birds, try this bird call to see how many and what types of birds you can attract. Wait quietly until you hear birds nearby. Kneel or stand still near some shrubs or trees. They will partially hide you and give the birds somewhere to land. The call is a series of repeated “psssh” sounds. Try different rhythms to see what works with different birds. Here are a few to start:
pssh…… pssh…… pssh
pssh…… pssh…… pssh-pssh……
pssh…… pssh

Each series should be about three seconds. Pause after three or four rounds to listen for incoming birds. Small birds will respond right away or not at all.
Activity field testing made possible in part by a PNC Grow up Great grant, an early childhood initiative designed to help prepare children for success in school and life.

a nature walk for imaginary ants

  • Best Age Range: 3 and up
  • Location: anywhere, but a natural area such as backyard or park is the best
  • Best Time: day
  • Season: any
  • Special Materials: six short sticks or toothpicks

What To Do: Select a small area on the ground, about a yard square. With your child, pretend to shrink down to the size of ants. Give your child six short sticks or toothpicks and ask him or her to lead an ant-sized nature walk, using the toothpicks to mark six interesting things along the way. Encourage your child to use his or her imagination. Invite a friend on the next tour!

leaf litter look

  • Best Age Range: 3 and up
  • Location: backyard, a place covered with fallen leaves or mulch over soil
  • Best Time: day
  • Season: spring, summer, fall and winter (in mild climates)
  • Special Materials: two plastic shoe boxes, hot glue gun and glue or duct tape, piece of hardware cloth or gutter-guard material, sharp scissors or clippers

What To Do: Before you go outside, an adult or older child needs to make a screened Leaf Litter Box. Carefully cut the bottom out of one of the shoe boxes, leaving a lip of about one inch. (This is where you will tape or glue the hardware cloth.) Cut the hardware cloth or gutter-guard to fit in the bottom of the cut shoe box. Place the hardware cloth in the bottom of the Leaf Litter Box and use hot glue or duct tape to hold the cloth in place. Put the screened Leaf Litter Box inside the uncut shoe box. There should be a small space between the two boxes. Go outside with the boxes and a lid. Scoop up a couple of handfuls of leaf litter, put it into the screened Leaf Litter Box and put the lid on the top box. Keep the boxes stacked together and gently shake. Remove the top Leaf Litter Box and look at what was shaken into the bottom box. What do you see? How many different kinds of animals are there? How do they move? Release all the animals back where you found them. Try this activity in areas with different types of soil, mulches or leaves.

capturing tracks

  • Best Age Range: 3 and up
  • Location: backyard, natural area with muddy areas such as dirt roads or stream banks
  • Best Time: any
  • Season: any
  • Special Materials: Plaster of Paris, water, cup, stirring stick

What To Do: Find an animal track. Mix plaster according to directions (so that it is about the consistency of pancake batter). Fill track with plaster. Let dry for about 30 minutes or until the plaster is hard. Gently lift the cast out of the track. Gently wash or brush off to clean. How many toes does the track have? Can you see claws? How big is the track? Can you guess what made it? Can you tell what the animal was doing when it made the track?