A world of hands-on activities await in your own backyard. Venture outside for discovery and excitement!
by Darren Trout & Ellen Welch
Nature provides the perfect elements for family fun and the best excuse for parents and kids to get down and dirty together! Instead of buying a video or computer game, tap into your child’s innate curiosity about the natural world with some inexpensive activities that guarantee giggles and memories. Your children will learn without even suspecting it.
Don some old clothes that can get dirty or protect clothes with a garbage bag poncho, and don’t forget that adult supervision is essential to maintaining a safe, creative environment for your child.
1: Mudpie Magic
Give children the freedom to explore a small supply of dirt and water and they will become master chefs before your very eyes! You will need either a small yard space or a container that holds several handfuls of dirt with an opening large enough for little hands. Add water to transform the dirt into mud. Your chef may need more or less water for “soups” and other creative recipes. A collection of rocks, leaves and twigs allow kids to add their own professional cooking decorations. Dry the creations in the sun and discover the texture differences.
2: Food Prints
Fruits and vegetables make interesting stamps for note cards or wrapping paper. You and your child can make a set of note cards to give as a gift or use as place cards and place mats for a special occasion. Paper bags work well.
Apples are easy to work with and make nice prints. Cut the fruit or vegetable in half and blot it onto a paper towel to aborb any juices before painting it with a thin coat of tempera paint. Press the coated half onto your paper surface. It will take a few trial-and-errors to determine if you need more or less paint for your printing. Pear, eggplant, carrot and squash halves all form interesting designs.
3: Painted Rock Markers
Transforming ordinary rocks into garden markers, paperweights or gifts is fun and artistic. Collect medium size rocks and wash them in a sink, bucket or big bowl. Once they dry, use tempera paint or markers to bring designs to life. Your child can make markers for your new garden by painting the name of the plant or vegetable on a rock and adding a creative nature design. The decorated rocks can be given as gifts to family members, teachers or friends.
4: Sunflower Sanctuary
Big, bright cheery sunflowers will bring a smile to any child’s face. Instead of building a playhouse out of wood, create a sunny sanctuary with fast-growing sunflowers. Sunflowers have large, kid-sized seeds that are fun and easy to plant.
Find a patch of sunny ground and use string or sticks to mark off a square area approximately 6-by 6-foot square. Prepare the soil in a narrow area along the outline by removing the grass and mixing peat moss into the soil. Plant sunflower seeds about six inches apart. An assortment of sunflowers with different mature heights adds variety.
5: Compost Capers
Kids can compost, too. Help your child gather grass clippings, old leaves and kitchen scraps such as coffee grounds, eggshells and fruit and vegetable peels (no meat, bones or fat). With adult supervision, your child can chop the compost material into smaller pieces that will produce finished compost more quickly. Mix all of the ingredients together and pile in a sunny, out-of-the-way location. Push down the center to make a dent or depression and thoroughly moisten with water. Wait a few days and mix everything up again with the shovel and water. Watch the pile, which may steam as it warms up and the pieces break down into compost. Once the entire pile is a rich, dark color, the compost is ready to use. This may take from one to several months, depending on temperature, size of ingredients and amount of mixing.
6: Wiggle Worm “Terrarium”
Use that old five- or 10-gallon aquarium in the basement to create a composting ecosystem. Even if the aquarium leaks, it will be fine for this use. Tear black-and-white newspaper into thin strips and moisten with water. Line the bottom of the aquarium with 4 inches of strips. Cut vegetable and fruit scraps and rinsed eggshells into small pieces and add about a 1-inch layer of this kitchen mixture, stirring in with the paper. Purchase red wiggler worms and gently add them to the top of the mixture — they will wiggle their way down. Keep a lid on the container tight enough to keep them from escaping but roomy enough for some air movement. Watch the wigglers turn the mixture into compost for the garden or houseplants. Keep moist — not wet — and add more of the newspaper strips and kitchen mixture (maintaining the 4:1 ratio) as needed.
7: Go-Go Gourds
Gourds are funny to look at and fun to grow. Some are round with warts, other have grooves or necks. They can be small like baseballs or as big as basketballs.
Buy gourds in the fall or start growing your own now. To grow your own, plant five or six seeds in a prepared hill of soil near a trellis or sturdy fence for them to grow on. After growth begins, snip off all but two of the strongest growing seedlings. Use commercial fertilizer and keep them well watered. Allow gourds to mature, then partially dry on the vines. In about 6 months, when fully dry, the seeds will rattle inside the gourd. Soak dried gourds in boiling water. Scrape or brush the gourds to remove waxy skin. Cut holes to make birdhouses or to clean out the insides while the gourd is still soft from soaking. When it dries, paint with acrylics and finish with shellac or polyurethane for permanence.
8: Hummer Haven
Hummingbirds are no strangers to Middle Tennessee. Watching them hovering, wings reaching speeds of 60 miles per second, is magical. Work with your child to create hummer attractions. Although the little birds will visit plants of other colors, they prefer red tubular flowers. Purchase annual flowering plants such as red salvia and fuchsias. Hummingbirds are also drawn to perennial plants that come up every year such as azaleas, flowering quince and honeysuckle. Colorful hanging baskets, containers and windowboxes of salvias, impatiens and petunias will brighten your deck and invite hummingbirds to hover and perform at close range.
9: Water Works
Children gravitate to water. Why not enjoy the water with them? The next time it rains, go splash around in puddles or take a walk in the rain. As long as it is not storming, have fun. After the rain ends and the sun comes out, look for rainbows and smell the difference in the air.
Measure the rainfall in your area with an inexpensive plastic rain-measuring gauge. Place it in your yard or on your deck and let your child record the rainfall each week or month. Or, purchase an animal fountain or water sprinkler at a local garden center. Standing copper fountains in fun shapes such as snails, bugs, flamingos and butterflies are attractive and reasonably priced, providing a safe water play experience for your child. On a warm day, give kids a bucket of water and a paintbrush and encourage them to paint the sidewalk or the house with water. Explain evaporation as they observe how quickly the water disappears.
Don’t forget that birds and butterflies enjoy water too. A birdbath or a large saucer in your yard filled with water will invite them. Line the bottom and sides with rocks for hummingbirds to perch on while they drink or with sand for butterflies.
10: Growing Names
“Write” your child’s name in plants. In mid-spring or later, prepare a planting bed about two-foot by four-foot. Sketch out names on paper to judge the desired size and proportion. Draw the names in the prepared bed with agricultural lime or outline it with a stick. Purchase easy-to-grow curly or upland cress seed (tightly ruffled-leaf herb). Plant the fast-growing seed thickly within the design for each letter. Cover lightly with soil and keep moist until germination. Continue to water the plants when the soil seems slightly dry. The leaves add a tasty tang to salads or sandwiches.
Nature teaches all of us about the cycle of life. It provides a natural learning laboratory for children to understand how they and the world grow and change. When children neglect the natural lab, they loose their innate curiosity for nature and the environment, losing the connection and concern for their natural world. Parents can make sure this does not occur by investigating and having fun exploring the wonders of nature. Enjoy getting down to earth together!
Ellen Welch is an amateur gardener, author and parent educator.
Darrell Trout has written two gardening books and numerous articles
and also lectures nationwide on horticultural topics.