Learning opportunities are everywhere. One of the best places to start is in your own backyard. Here are ten lesson ideas that don’t need lots of materials, specific curriculum, or special ability. These lessons focus on learning together, encourage a project-based approach, and are fun for kids of all ages. We’d love to hear some of your ideas, too.
1. Weather – The great thing about studying weather is that weather happens everywhere — no matter where you live. Start by simply recording daily temperatures, rainfall, and wind speed for a month or two, graph your data, compare with historical data for your area (National Weather Service), or learn cloud names of clouds in your skies. Use weather-related studies as a lead-in to studying more about physical geography and ecosystems.
2. Insects – Did you know that some researchers estimate that there are over ten quintillion (10,000,000,000,000,000,000) insects alive? No matter where you live, you can see insects at least part of the year. Observe, draw, identify, and investigate the Orders of insects. Learn about insects as food. Although many people consider all insects pests, entomologist, E.O. Wilson notes that if insects disappeared from earth, humans would die out within a few months. Other mammals, amphibians, reptiles, and birds would also become extinct because of the disruption in the food chain.
Human engineers often study nature and create nature-inspired designs. Before or after your observation session, watch Janine Benyus’s TEDTalk on nature’s designs.
3. Native weeds Did you know that native weeds are really important to insects like wild honey bees and even lady bugs? Grab the iPod touch and snap some photos through the SciSpy app. When you get home, wirelessly upload your photos to SciSpy’s database and tag your photos to help research scientists find anomalies, document seasonal climate changes, and more.
4. Art – When the weather is clear and mild, we take our charcoal pencils and sketch pads outside to draw flowers, leaves, insects, and seed pods. In the spring and summer, we collect and press wildflowers. Hammering flowers is a fun and easy art project, too.
5. Play – Collect insects, play tag, throw a ball, take the toys outside and pretend the toy dinosaurs are in an ancient forest or that the Lego dune hopper is plowing through sandy hills. Just have fun.
6. Explore with a hand lens or portable microscope – Check out our inexpensive mini-microscope iPod hack. Take it into the backyard to explore leaves, insects, soil, rocks, and flowers. The iPod touch’s built-in camera makes it easy to capture and share mini microscope photos.
7. Photography - Even four and five year-olds can use a simple point-and-shoot digital camera, and it is fun to capture the world as they see it. For older kids, help them learn about composition while slipping in a bit of math (Golden section, Fibonacci series).
8. Sounds – Listen and/or record sounds (birds, crickets, frogs) and try to identify them! We use our iPod touch to capture crickets, birds and frogs sounds in our backyard. Sometimes we spot the creatures and name them, and other times we become detectives.
9. Observe the night sky – There is nothing more amazing than seeing the sky on a clear night, especially if you live in a rural area, near the beach, or in the desert. Even if you live in a light-polluted area, though, you can still enjoy the night sky. The moon’s craters, Jupiter’s eye, and Saturn’s rings are awesome viewed through a telescope. Binoculars are fun, too. Use them to spot constellations on a clear night.
Mark your calendars for upcoming meteor showers, lunar eclipses, and other astronomical events. Before or afterwards, download Google Earth and check out Google Sky. Google Sky is a fun way to learn more about constellations, stars, planets, and more through a beautiful interactive interface. IPad owners should definitely check out the StarWalk app when they head outside to view the night sky. We love StarWalk’s night vision mode and the real-time, geolocation features. Finish off your night sky lesson and prepare for our lesson idea #10 by visiting Nikon’s Universescale website. Universescale is an interactive site that helps kids appreciate the scale of the universe from smallest to largest.
10. Observation, Listening, and reflecting. There is so much to see in your back yard if you sit still, stop talking, and watch and listen to sights and sounds around you. We turn this exercise into a game to see who can spot the tiniest and coolest living thing in the span of a few minutes. The rules are simple: We choose a spot, then sit or stand still in it — no walking around allowed. We scour the weeds, trees, grass, and soil immediately around us and actively seek tiny life. We alway spot something cool. Once, we spotted a very tiny and intricately beautiful spider we probably never would have seen if we weren’t looking for tiny creatures. I once saw a very small baby preying mantis blending into a tree like a tiny branch while ants on another tree branch milked aphids. Although we are quiet, nature’s chorus is quite loud – cricket, cicada, and blue jay songs mingle with distant thunder on a warm summer day.
Observation and listening exercises help kids focus their minds while learning to appreciate scale, their place within the universes’ scale, and simply to reflect on the amazing world. For younger children, the Dr. Seuss classic, Horton Hears a Who. is a great story to read before or after this lesson.
There are many, many more learning opportunities in the backyard. Make and launch seltzer rockets, grow vegetables, blow soap bubbles and learn about surface tension, make and investigate grass whistles, and maybe even write an acrostic poem while sipping iced tea under a shade tree in your backyard. We’d love to hear about lessons from your backyards, too!