There are three things in life I get really excited about – my son, education, and nature. I inherited the love and appreciation of the outdoors from my father, and now I get to watch my son continue the tradition. He thrives outside. It is the place where he can get totally submerged in play and spend hours with little more than a stick or a patch of dirt.
We love nature for the quiet moments. We don’t need a breathtaking view or cascading waterfall to make a hike worthwhile; we just need fresh air and green space. However, nature is more than simply a fun place to spend an afternoon – it is also the best teacher out there and an entity we need to respect and work in harmony with.
This page will be a blend of all these elements: nature fun, places and ways to explore, learning opportunities, environmental awareness, and tips for living in a more sustainable fashion. I love to hear about similar resources and suggestions, so please comment or reach out with any tips, tricks, or suggestions you have uncovered.
Explore outdoors with these sections:
- Ideas to get you started
- Spring Into Action
- Ways we’ve gone greener
- Let’s talk compost
- Take school outside today
- A few books to consider
- Ideas from the Extraschooling Facebook page
- The buzz on bees
- Then there’s those birds
- When you have to bring the outdoors in
Ideas to get you started:
Head outside and start exploring with one of these
downloadable nature packets:
Take It Outside! A Nature Expedition Packet – A prompted nature journal for a day of exploration and consideration.
Let’s Get Environmental: A Rainbow of Ways to Help Our Planet – Activities and resources to encourage and support kids in protecting the earth.
Find more free PDF downloads and other activities on the Learning Ideas page
Look into Roots & Shoots, an initiative of The Jane Goodall Institute. Check out and sign up for challenges, projects, one-click actions, and groups – or create your own! The site has offerings for youth and educators, including courses to help you become a community leader for change.
Take a mini-hike or do a mini-dig. In his book Sharing Nature with Children (20th Anniversary Edition), Joseph Cornell suggests taking a mini-hike: Cut a length of string (5 feet or so) and lay it on the ground. Let a child explore the “route” down nose-to-nose with the landscape. I will add a similar idea – the mini-dig. Mark off a small area (maybe 2’x2′) and let the excavation begin!
Go Geocaching, This was on our to-do list for way too long, but we finally tried it out this year. If you’re new to it too, learn more at Geocaching.com. Or go low-tech, and if you have some hiker friends or are involved with a nature school, do some within your group.
Find a Junior Ranger program near you. These can vary widely, have a big age range, and be at your own pace or within a more directed path. Ours is for any age, at our leisure, and has a workbook full of really fun nature projects.
Keep a terrarium at the ready. I grab these when I find them at thrift stores, and it’s possible we have what some may consider an affliction at this point. However for about 3/4 of the year these see regular use as we bring in friends for a day or two for closer examination. They have held many a toad (this is Flower, a regular – she lives in our wellhouse when not visiting) plus turtles, efts, salamanders, tadpoles, woolly bears, katydids, and many more. Winter is a sad time for my son, as he often remarks on the empty containers.
Find citizen scientist programs in your area. These may be national, like the annual Great Backyard Bird Count, or regional; they may be ongoing or a one-time event. Try searching sites like CitizenScience.gov or SciStarter.org to find a project to join.
Take the challenge to spend the standard annual screen time out in the fresh air. Visit 1000HoursOutside.com to learn more.
Spring into Action:
If I have learned anything in motherhood, it is that you better be ready to put your money where your mouth is. I can hardly expect my child to believe something is important unless I do.
Or can I?
Lesson #2: I am learning at least as much from my child as he is from me. The third lesson would likely be my child is a better person than I am. Thankfully, with him to guide me, there is hope though.
No joke, my son was born with an intolerance for trash. We would go walking before he was even verbal and he would point out every single piece of litter, frowning and saying, “Tuh! Tuh!” (Trash in Baby.) I was torn when he got mobile and would walk around cleaning up the playground. Half of me was so proud; the other half was alarmed (“Ew! Germs! Yuck! Safety alert!”). I had to dance through these occasions, as I wanted to preserve his distaste for human failings while not wanting him to grab the discarded tissues on the ground. Read more and join in the challenge —>
Ways we’ve gone greener:
My favorite Amazon purchase ever. I mean it. I have no idea what I did before these bags! I don’t know about other reusable shopping bags, but these are top-notch. (I have the blue – they have a few styles, including larger ones.) Not counting water bottles, these were my first “green” purchase, a year or more ago. They are so sturdy – they are supposed to be capable of holding 40 lbs and I believe it. They fold flat for storage, stand on their own as they have a solid bottom, and haven’t aged a day despite living in the car or on the floor. I also have two zippered bags for cold items, and the 5 bags can more than handle a shopping cart heaped to the top – and even better, your groceries aren’t rolling all over the trunk, even when you live up twisty mountain roads like we do. Some other switches we’ve made:
- reusable straws
- cloth napkins and paper towels (I actually chose dark, oversized cotton napkins)
- washable sandwich baggies (after getting recommendations, I have ordered my son a set of printed bags and a batch of leak-proof ones for my kitchen needs)
- a clothesline (though I sadly can’t recommend the one I got; I bought a kit and have had to replace virtually every single component, which has been frustrating and expensive. I would recommend buying the parts separately, and to choose rope over cable. I have so far found Sgt Knots rope to be sturdy, and these spacers held up well enough for a year that I ordered more, for a total of 5 for about a 60-70′ run.)
- Our new favorite – a reel mower! I was no stranger to these, as I grew up with them; yet somehow I had never managed to own one (except, many years ago, one much too heavy for me). I searched high and low for the right make and model, and finally settled on the Great States 415-16. For those who haven’t used one, they will hang up on every little everything – no twig will succumb! We have a rough, hilly, battered yard with plenty of debris – thus I looked for one with a high clearance. For those with flat, preened yards, most any model will suffice. Additional considerations are width (I saw ones as narrow as 8″), weight (ours is about 20 lbs), and handle style (ours is a T-style). My main gripe with ours is the cheap foam handle grips – they slide & will break down quickly. However, I am no stranger to duct tape and overall am very impressed with our new eco-mower! (Though, while I love it, my son has claimed it for his own – which has been a great experience in terms of tenacity, helping out, equipment care, and more.)
inherit the earth
from our ancestors, we
from our children
Native American Proverb
Let’s talk compost:
Beyond just “going green,” we also want to help turn our yard green – with our first compost bin! My dad always had a compost pile, and I have wanted one ever since I bought my own home. However, I’ve been concerned about bears and other wildlife so have never made one. Last year I started researching bins but just couldn’t make up my mind. This year as garden fever started rolling around again I was back on the hunt… and found one! Our first load of scraps went in it today and we are beyond excited. I will update across the season as to how it does (and how we do), but so far I would recommend it, especially when you have little helpers in the garden as it is really kid-friendly.
It holds 19 gallons and stands about waist-high on my 5-year-old. It is certainly sturdy, as it withstood an afternoon of him pretending it was a horse and riding it… It comes in 3 parts: the base, the bin that rests on it, and the door that slides on and off. No tools! It looks like a tractor tire, and the grooves serve as handholds to spin it with, which my guy is really enjoying doing. the door is a nice size and easy to manipulate one-handed. When you want to dump it, just roll it where it needs to go and slide off the door. So simple! We ordered blue, but it comes in green as well.
So now what? Time to do a little research! I know the basics: mix your greens and browns, keep it in full sun, tumble regularly, keep it moist but not overly wet, no animal products, toss in some dirt or starter to get the microorganisms working. There is a ton of information out there. MorningChores.com brings a lot of it together, including a spreadsheet to calculate if you’re near that “sweet spot” ratio of 24:1 carbon to nitrogen – and they have an extensive list of references they used if you want to check any of those out too.
Take school outside today:
- Make it life-size. Learning about something large, like blue whales or redwoods? Grab a tape measure and a pack of marking flags, find some open space, and discover what big really looks like.
- Studying geography? Use an idea from the Go Global lesson suggestions and create a landscape with nature art.
- Learn about camouflage by using materials to create your own. Who blends in best?
- Try a scavenger hunt. It can be themed, such as by color or starting letter, or try gofindit (or gofindit too), an awesome, subjective version where you are looking for something that fits a descriptive word.
- Go hunting as many shapes as possible on a nature walk. Use what you find as an outdoor version of Get Blown Away‘s loose parts art.
- Bring the world to you. Map out the globe – or whatever else you want – and explore with The World in Your Backyard.
There are no
seven wonder of the world
in the eyes of a child.
A few books to consider:
If you’re planning a garden this year, this is my go-to. It covers everything from propagation, pest control, to an alphabetical plant-by-plant guide.
We fell in love with trees in a whole new way after reading this book. It has gentle verse mixed with information and beautiful illustrations, plus extra content in the back.
A colorful and fresh first look at a collection of scientists past and present.
Louis Armstrong’s song – a favorite of ours – set alongside boldly colorful illustrations. I just wish it came with a cd! The book sent us on a mission to YouTube for clips. There are of course many options, like this sweet performances by others and even a shadow puppet routine.
A story about sharing nature with a friend – and then passing the gift along.
Old Rock’s forest friends can’t imagine a life of just sitting around… until he tells them the story of how he happened to wind up there, and everything he has seen in his many, many years on the planet.
Jim Arnosky is any amazing talent – both as an artist and a naturalist. His love of the natural world leaps off of every page, and his knowledge and collection is vast. Whether you want to explore trees, birds, the ocean, tracks, how to treat the earth – he has you covered in superb style. Crinkleroot, and especially this book, is the very best way to introduce his world – our world – to the youngest of explorers, but his books will grow with them through the years. He is a must in any nature library!
A powerful picture book, despite its few words, about climate change and a remarkable girl named Greta Thunberg who decided to make the adults pay attention. Learn more about the now seventeen-year-old activist with this BBC article.
A noisy trip through the wilderness, as a breeze wakes a mouse, who in turn wakes the whole forest.
A solid introduction to the wonders of the outdoors for hesitant kids.
Sally Ride partners with Tam O’Shaughnessy to first explain climate change and global warming, and then provide checklists to measure your own usage and ways to reduce it.
This is actually a two-for-one: the story is about accepting yourself as you are, and realizing your place and importance within your community; but it also has a section in the back about sequoias (and other really big things!).
Cute rhyming story of a rather obsessively clean badger who is so intent on cleaning up the “mess” he sees in nature (fallen leaves, mud, etc) that he doesn’t realize the implications of his work until it’s too late and he has paved over everything. With the help of his fellow creatures, he manages to right his wrong and appreciate the beauty around him… mostly.
This book will not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I found it to have a really strong message. Fausto is determined to be master of everything – from flowers to animals to trees to mountains – but he eventually discovers he cannot tame it all when he attempts to conquer the sea. And it turns out that nature can move on without him, no matter how important he thinks he is. Note: it is not graphic, but he does wind up drowning. My son was actually unclear what had happened to him, but was unruffled because I explained how the book was showing a metaphor for humankind, rather than focusing on the character.
This book is a good overview of climate change for even young kids. It offers a paragraph or two on a topic, then switches to an equal piece on its direct relevance to one or two species of animals.
This book was yet another example of my child being wiser and more perceptive than me. When he was 3 he started to really enjoy seek-and-find type books. I grabbed this one thinking it was just that – then halfway through the book my son asked, “Why is the elephant so sad?” and I suddenly realized the book was about habitat loss and did a quick backpedal to bring at least myself up to speed before we finished reading.
This is unfortunately fiction, but you will come away wishing it could really happen. It is a tale of how the ocean creatures come together to deal with humans dumping trash in their habitat.
Extraschooling’s own nature-based series following a homeschooled child learning about his environment. Learn more about Little Green Hill here.
Ideas from Extraschooling’s Facebook page:
The buzz on bees:
Bees are some pretty amazing creatures, and unfortunately they have been facing major troubles for years now. They are threatened from so many directions at once: disease, pesticides, habitat loss, and so much more. (For more on this, read this comprehensive article from Pollinator.org.) If you are interested in delving into environmental issues with your kids, why not start with the animal we can help in our own backyard? Here’s an assortment of tools and ideas you can use in your exploration.
Books & Videos
- For the reluctant bee admirer, try Give Bees a Chance by Bethany Barton. The main character is terrified of being stung until he learns more about them.
- For a picture book that is just so enjoyable to read, check out The Honeybee by Kirsten Hall.
- Begin With a Bee is another good book, and it has a list of resources within it; What If Bees Disappeared helps shed light on their importance in the ecosystem.
- Storyline Online has Please Please the Bees by Gerald Kelley in their catalogue of videos – they are all books read aloud by members of the Screen Actors Guild and are excellent. Being actors, the readings are top-notch, but another thing I love is how they discuss why they chose the book to read.
- PBS offerings include: NOVA’s Tales From the Hive and Nature’s Silence of the Bees and My Garden of a Thousand Bees.
- Learn how to identify one yellow, buzzy insect from the next with these guides: this one is for adults due to a little language. There is a kid-friendly version, it just lacks the article that accompanies the first.
- Visit BeeGirl.org for another list of good resources for kids at the bottom of the page.
- For a comprehensive site on bees, visit The Bee Conservancy.
- For one on pollinators in general, see The Xerces Society.
- A site I enjoy (and I have the book) is The Bees In Your Backyard.
- My Garden of a Thousand Bees has an accompanying website and partner links within it.
There are plenty of ways to help the bees:
- Leave them alone
- Build a bee hotel
- Set up a bee bath
- Get into beekeeping
- Support local beekeepers
- Plant a flower
- Avoid using pesticides
- Leave some undisturbed space
- Adopt a bee or hive
Projects & Field Trips
- Visit a local beekeeper. There may even be a beekeeping group in your area – your local Master Gardener’s extension office may be able to point you towards people or programs.
- Build a bee hotel. These can be small and simple or large and extravagant, and you can find many plans and how-to videos online.
- Create a garden that is bee-friendly. Did you know not all flowers are created equal? For instance, some are created by people – genetically altered plants, such as hybrids, often don’t produce nectar or pollen. You can order seeds (or a whole garden kit with lessons included) from sites like Pollinator.org and support their mission with your purchase.
- Take a bee tour. Whether a casual walk, a trip to the park, or as you run errands, have bees on the brain. Do you see any? Do you see potential food sources or habitable areas? Could they be added if they are lacking? Is there anyone you could talk to about that?
Then there’s those birds:
Another great reason to get outside – birds! There was a time I paid them little heed, but those days are gone. Working outside today we paused frequently – to call back to one, watch another wing over our heads, and soak in the richness their songs and antics bring to our yard. For ideas and resources to explore our feathered friends, check out this link from the Learning Ideas page.
When you have to bring the outdoors in:
It happens. I am a proponent for reveling in rain, cavorting in cold, and in general working with the weather, whatever it is. But when thunderstorms boom or illness leaves you stuck in bed, it can help to bring a little nature in to nurture.
- Roger Day has a great musical dvd called “Marsh Mud Madness” all about the coastal ecosystem. It is also available as a cd (the dvd is mostly concert, mixed with time in the marsh.)
- Use the time to identify nature finds or use them to create art.
- Work on garden plans. Read seed packets for when and how to grow; learn about beneficial planting arrangments; plot it out on graph paper.
- Learn about important environmental issues. One often forgotten about since we don’t see it daily is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. An intensive, long-term clean-up effort has recently gotten underway. Learn more at TheOceanCleanup.com and their YouTube channel.