In November, I read an interesting interview on Outside Mom
about trying to get your kids outside everyday, even it is just for 15 minutes. I wouldn't classify it as a new year's resolution exactly, because that would doom it to failure, but it has remained in my mind ever since. As the weather has remained positively balmy, for February anyway, and we've been a bit home-bound with some winter bugs going around, we decided to take a winter nature hike. Winter is actually a great time to do a nature hike because the lack of foliage allows for better observation for some things that are normally hidden. Plus, animal tracks are often more apparent in both the mud and the snow that are typical of winter.
Process and What's Happening?
- weather appropriate clothing
- method of recording findings - science journal or digital camera
- guidebooks (optional)
This is a very free-form activity. Encourage your child to use their five senses as you take your hike. Obviously, I'm not encouraging using taste during this particular activity (yellow snow...eew!) but they can definitely use the other senses. The sense of sight is so dominant for some people, it is often helpful to have your child close their eyes when you are working on another sense, like smelling or hearing. Think about what people do when they are trying to find something buried in the bottom of their bag or purse - almost always, without realizing, they close their eyes as they rely on their sense of touch to find the missing object. We were able to hear many more different types of birds with our eyes closed than we could actually see; even a black-capped chickadee, which is indicative of what a warm winter it has been because they don't normally migrate back up to Michigan until March. I highly recommend the Audubon Birds app
, available in the iTunes store, although it is a bit expensive at $20 although if you watch the site they periodically have an offer when you can get all of the Audubon apps for only $20 total, which is a really good deal. The National Audubon society also has a free online guide to birds
- with most of the same information as the app - but less mobile.
Do find a way to document the experience. Older children could draw pictures and write descriptions in a nature journal. As this might be hard for younger kids, use a digital camera to document your walk. If possible, let your child take control of the camera to take pictures of what you find on your hike. Once you are done, you could print a collage photo, like the one at the top of this post - I used Picasa for it, but a lot of the photo labs (Target, Walmart, grocery stores) etc. will let you do it fairly inexpensively. You could also print all of their photos out and put them into a small album for them to review later.
Some things that you might be able to observe on your winter nature hike are discussed below.
With the decreased foliage, birds nests are much easier to see so be sure to direct your eyes upward. We were able to find three nests at the tops of three trees that were very close to each other (only two were captured in the picture below). As they are fairly large nests, I believe at least one of them belongs to our local red-tailed hawk pair. (We are super lucky to have a pair that lives so close to us - their courtship flights in the spring, with the male swooping and diving - are truly something to be seen!)
You also might be able to find brush piles that normally would be hidden in the summer. You can talk to your child about how the small entry points into the brush pile make it easy for small animals to get in and out but prevent the larger animals that often prey on them from entering. If you look carefully, you might be able to find other signs of small animals (squirrels, chipmunks, etc.) like tracks or acorns.
Winter is a great time to look for animal tracks, both in the snow and the mud. This is a great opportunity to practice making inferences, or educated guesses, about what might have made the tracks. To help, Bear Tracker
is a great resource for identifying tracks, including a free two-page track of common tracks in North America. We found deer, dog and rabbit tracks. If we'd had some Plaster of Paris, it might have been fun to try to cast them
as well. If you don't have Plaster of Paris, you can always mix your own
using white glue or flour - although I'm not sure how it would set up in the cold temperatures. Something to try another time...
Look for seed heads and berries that may be a food source for the local birds and other animals. We found some winter berry plants and the girls picked some flowers for me - seed heads of Queen Anne's Lace, which I think we'll tie together and put on our nature table as it tends to be a little sparse in the winter time.
A nature hike in winter is also a great time to talk about adaptations that help plants and animals survive the colder temperatures. You can ask your child to compare the animals they might see in the summer with the ones they see in the winter. Where do the animals go? You can use this as an opportunity to talk about both migration and hibernation.
In terms of plants, you can talk about the differences between deciduous and coniferous trees and shrubs. In general, deciduous trees and shrubs become dormant and drop their leaves in order to protect themselves against the lack of water that they face in the winter (snow pack doesn't count). Coniferous trees and shrubs, sometimes called evergreens, are able to keep their leaves (waxy needles) because the specialized needles are able to control for loss of water. (Note: there are some coniferous trees that do drop their needles, like larches.) During your hike, you can practice classification by pointing out the different trees you come across and have your child identify whether it is a deciduous or coniferous tree or shrub.
There are lots of books about winter for young children. A few that we like, include When Winter Comes
, by Nancy Van Laan, Animals in Winter
by Henrietta Bancroft and Big Tracks, Little Tracks
by Millicent Selsam. If you have used a digital camera to document your hike, it might be really fun to write your own book and then print it on one of the photo lab sites like Shutterfly
or Kodak Gallery
If you want to explore animal tracks further, think about using small plastic animals to make tracks in play-doh. Two Chicks and a Hen has some great pictures of their footprints activity
using the playdough recipe
from Ten Kids and a Dog. (I just love both of those blog names!!) I also really like this Animal Track Booklet
activity from My Montessori Journey that uses free animal track cards from Montessori for Everyone
Finally, this might be a great opportunity to start a nature table or bowl if you don't already have one with pinecones or seed heads or pictures that you took from your winter nature hike. A nature table is a small space, usually at kid height although depending on the ages of your little ones you may have to rethink that, on which to display some of their findings from their explorations in nature. If you have limited space, a bowl may be used instead. Sometimes people create miniature scenes using fairies or gnomes and other times its more of a collection. I'll try to write more about our nature table and post some pictures in an upcoming post.
Science Process Skills Used In This Activity:
|Observing ||Communicating ||Classifying ||Measuring ||Inferring ||Predicting |
I hope you enjoy this activity! If you try it, please let me a comment to let me know how it goes!