Observation skills and heightening a level of awareness in a child’s senses is important to show them that they have more than eyes with which to “see” the environment. It is through the initial experiences in a backyard or a park that your children will come to realize that nature is all around them — under the blades of grass, behind the pile of bricks in the corner of the yard, in the branches overhead, or even in the garage eaves.
The following are a few of my favorite backyard activities to help teach children to be observant and to hone their senses:
- Limited Vision — The object of this exercise is to show children what it is like to look at an otherwise familiar world through eyes of other animals. Many don’t have peripheral vision so let them experience that: Cut toilet paper tubes in half and taping one to each lens of an old pair of sunglasses/glasses. Obscure any peripheral vision with extra tape so when the glasses are in place, the only source of light is through each tube. Have your children walk around discovering a new perspective of the backyard. Note: This should only done under adult supervision and in a relatively clear area free from obstacles.
- Observation Plot — With your child, mark off a 2-foot-by-2-foot square in a section of the yard you don’t mind ignoring or letting overgrow. Put stakes in each corner. Then with a single length of string fastened to each stake, create a permanent, definable boundary. This little square is your child’s to watch and observe from day-to-day and season-to -season. Have him or her keep a little notebook of what is observed. What happens to the plants? What kinds of insects or animals live there? What animals or insects just pass through? What is the earth like? How much sun does the area get? How much rain? How does the sun and rain affect the area? How does it change? The list of questions is endless and the involvement of your child in the area is only limited by his or her curiosity and your encouragement.
- Night World Vigil — Going on a night walk with your children in the outdoors is a wonderful experience not to be missed. It can however, be a somewhat nervous and frightening time for little ones and is best enjoyed with a little advance preparation. Pick a moonless night that is going to be clear. Turn out all the lights in the house so there is a minimum of artificial light illuminating the backyard. With a flashlight, walk into the backyard and sit down under a tree or somewhere that is comfortable. Bring a blanket along if you wish. With the flashlight on, show your child that although it seems lighter with the flashlight, your vision is really limited to the beam of the light. Now, turn off the light and sit quietly. Explain and talk about each sound as you hear it — a dog barking, a bat flitting through the air, a siren, leaves rustling in a breeze, a mouse rustling in the compost pile. Begin to help your child distinguish between those sounds that are heard in the day and those heard at night. Ask him or her why some animals only come out at night and what makes them different from daytime animals? How does the backyard seem different in the dark? Why? When the time seems right, walk back to the house without the flashlights. Point out to your child how much better your vision is overall without the light.