Eco-tainment: 17 Ways to Get Kids Engaged with Nature and Science This Summer
By Jon Gorey
Free Things to Do With Kids Outside This Summer
1. Conduct a polar excavation.
Kids love playing with ice on a hot day. Freeze some “artifacts” in layers of ice inside a vase, bowl, or bucket (here’s a good tutorial); they could be natural items like pine cones and rocks, or little treasures like beaded necklaces and toy cars. Then remove the block of ice and let the kids excavate the items like archaeologists with a few different tools, such as a toothbrush, a “chisel” (screwdriver), an eye dropper, and salt.
2. Build a birdhouse.
Songbirds make delightful neighbors, but they’re facing their own housing crisis as humans continue to crowd out their habitat. Welcome them to your property by building and hanging a comfy birdhouse for them to nest in.
You can buy a ready-to-assemble kit online, but it’s easy enough just to make your own from a single six-foot 1” x 6” pine board if you have a few standard tools. Size the hole appropriately for whatever local birds you hope to attract, and paint it a cheerful color for maximum charm.
3. Make a pine cone bird feeder.
This is a fun and easy project that can attract more birds to your yard. Find a large pine cone that has opened up, and clear out any debris. Tie a string near the bottom (it’s going to hang upside down), and then spread some peanut butter into the crevices. If it’s a smaller cone or a tight fit, pull out a few scales to make more room. If you have birdseed or sunflower seed, you can roll the peanut butter-coated pine cone in seed to make it extra appealing. Hang it from a tree branch in the shade, and see who flies in for a snack.
4. Go on a scavenger hunt.
Our kid gets a little bored just walking, but when there’s a mission, she’s way more interested. Take a hike or a walk around your neighborhood, with a list of items to spot. The list will depend on the season and where you live. In our area, we might task our daughter with finding things like a pine cone, an acorn, three different colors of leaves, a cardinal or chickadee (identifying its call counts, even if you can’t actually see the bird!), and a birch tree, for example.
5. ...or create a treasure hunt.
Want to kick things up a notch? First, find some treasure—whether it’s a toy or candy, or some pretend gold coins and jewels. (You could even paint some rocks to look like emeralds, rubies, and gold nuggets.) Then find a good but accessible hiding place somewhere in your home or on your property. That could be in a seldom-used basement cabinet, under the deck, up in a tree, or even buried in a garden bed, like a real treasure.
Next, make a treasure map that’s sufficiently challenging for your child—include some riddles or less obvious landmarks. (e.g., instructions like “Walk 10 paces east from the sweet sap tree” will force them to figure out which way is east and which tree is a maple). If you want it to look really authentic, soak the map in black tea for a few minutes, then hang it to dry. You can even singe the edges over the stove for a real pirate-like effect.
6. Make a stone checker set.
Have your kids collect 24 rounded, flat pebbles, ideally as close to the same size as possible. This might take a while —or a few different scavenger hunts—on its own. Once you’ve got a complete set, paint half the pebbles red and the other half black. (To play Reversi, collect 64 small stones, and paint them all black on one side and all white on the other.)
For a board, you can chalk the driveway or walkway with an 8x8 grid, or have the kids practice their measuring skills by making a checkerboard out of a piece of cardboard with a ruler and some paint, tape, or markers.
7. Plant things.
It’s a long-term project, but raising plants from seeds or seedlings is one of the best ways for kids to take part in nature. (As a bonus, if you’re going to be home a lot this summer, you’ll be able to take better care of your plants, making sure they don’t wither up while you’re away on vacation.)
Whether you start with tomato or squash seedlings from the local nursery or nurture an oak sapling that a squirrel absent-mindedly planted over the winter, make a routine of monitoring the plant’s progress with your child. Notice how a rainshower followed by a sunny day leads to a surge of new growth, and explain how the plant breathes and feeds. Lend your kid a phone or camera to chronicle the plant’s daily growth so that, after a month, you’ll have a time-lapse video that captures nature in action.
If you normally buy organic or heirloom vegetables, this can be as simple as placing some trimmed scallion ends (with roots) in water and leaving them on a sunny window sill, or burying a potato that grew eyes before you got to use it. But depending on your child’s age and interest, you can scale this project to be more scientific.
For example, many gardeners recommend testing your soil before committing to certain plants, to determine the pH, potassium, potash, and nitrogen levels in your yard. State universities will often test your soil for a small fee if you mail them a sample (though some labs are temporarily closed due to the pandemic), or you can buy your own tests online. Once you have the results, ask your child to choose some plants that will thrive in those conditions. You can also augment your soil with natural and organic materials, like lime or compost, and measure how it changes the soil chemistry. (You can even make a worm composting tower to feed your garden.)
8. Look for four-leaf clovers.
Clover is an under-appreciated plant. Like other legumes, it pulls nitrogen out of the air and “fixes” it into the soil, providing food for its neighbors. Its flowers attract pollinators and bunnies. And a good-sized clover patch makes for a pretty engrossing, natural seek-and-find activity, if you can convince your little one that finding a four-leaf clover is good luck.
You can also use the activity to start a conversation about genetic mutations and the theory of evolution—why would only one in 10,000 white clovers have four leaves? Why are they often found in clusters? (And why do I personally find so many four-leaf clovers?)
Here’s some practice, before you get outside: There’s at least one four-leaf clover in the photo below. Can you find it? (Answer is at the bottom of this post.)
9. Look for shooting stars.
If four-leaf clovers are good luck, shooting stars are nature’s genies. Take a blanket, some snacks, and insect repellent if needed to a flat, open area with a view of the night sky—a park or soccer field, a beach, or your own backyard. Lay down on your backs, and ask your kids to find familiar constellations like the Big Dipper, or to make up their own crazy star pictures.
Download a free app like SkyView Lite to see what planets, constellations, and satellites are overhead at any given moment. And if you own binoculars, bring them along—if they’re fairly powerful, you can sometimes see the craters on the moon.
Keep an eye out for “shooting stars,” and explain that they’re actually chunks of space debris burning up in Earth’s atmosphere—and that without an atmosphere, Earth would probably be just as pockmarked as the moon. The vastness of the night sky might prompt any number of Big Questions, so be prepared with some cool astronomical facts!
August is a great time for stargazing, since it starts to get dark a little earlier—and the Perseids meteor shower, which peaks around August 13th this year, puts on a reliable show.
10. Make a lightning bug lantern.
Another favorite pastime for a summer evening is catching fireflies in a mason jar—collect a few and you’ll have a lightning bug lantern that beats any plastic glow stick. Make sure to poke holes in the lid for air flow and to keep some apple slices and a wet coffee filter inside the jar.
You can try to attract fireflies by communicating with them, using a flashlight or LED keychain light. Try to mimic the patterns of their intermittent flashes, which is like an insect Morse code. Just remember that firefly populations aren’t what they used to be, so release your glowing guests before going to bed at night.
11. Make wind chimes.
There’s something soothing about hearing the wind, and all you need to make your own wind chimes is some string or fishing line, a drill, and some found objects. If you leave near the beach (or collected some souvenir shells on a past visit), you can string together columns of seashells and driftwood for a gentle rattling chime. Use brightly painted tin cans for a more hollow clang.
During the shutdown, UK-based artist and educator Darrell Wakelam started posting easy art projects that could be created from materials in your recycling bin, like paper plates and toilet paper rolls, with the hashtag #ArtJumpStart. From a paper plate dove to a milk-carton T-Rex, he’s made some 50 of these projects available for free on Twitter and at DarrellWakelam.com.
13. Make a (scientific) mess.
Remember all those messy, drippy, splatty at-home science experiments that looked so cool in March but seemed like too much of a headache to try in the kitchen? Well, now you can finally do them outside.
Build a sand volcano and make it erupt with baking soda and vinegar (plus a bit of beet juice for a real lava-like effect). Watch water “walk” from one glass to another as it climbs a paper towel—mimicking the capillary action, adhesion, and cohesion at work inside plants. Or fill a glass jar with moist soil and other organic matter, add some worms, keep it in a dark spot, and watch as these little soil boosters dig tunnels and compost food scraps.
14. Create neighborhood plant atlas.
As you walk around your neighborhood, encourage your child to identify different plants and trees they pass, based on the leaves, seeds, bark, or other characteristics. Then help them create a real-world field guide by chalking the name of the plant on the nearby sidewalk.
A traditional field guide to North American trees or flowers will be a helpful reference, of course. The USDA also offers a free but rather clunky plant photo database, while apps like PictureThis (which has a free version) allow you to upload a photo of a mystery plant and find out what species it likely is.
15. Make a movie.
If you have a smartphone, you probably have access to more high-tech camera equipment and editing software than my film major friends did in college 20-some-odd years ago.
- Script: You’ll want to keep it simple. Have your child start by figuring out the characters and the setting. Who’s in the movie, where are they, and what happens to them?
- Set design: Next, you need to build a set. You can use existing toys as props, like a dollhouse or Lego landscape, or create a “room” by decorating an old cardboard box with paint or paper and markers. (See how award-winning children’s author Mo Willems used cardboard boxes and cutouts to create the backdrop for his book Nanette’s Baguette.) Or you can find a good spot outdoors—poke sticks in the ground to create a miniature forest.
- Casting: Lego minifigures make willing stop-motion stars, but you can also use stuffed animals, create your own cardboard cutouts, or even print and cut out photos of your family or friends.
- Action! Download a free stop-motion app for your smartphone, and start filming. It’s a bit tedious—move the figures a tiny bit, take a photo, move them a tiny bit more, take another photo, and so on—but the concept is simple enough for kids to understand, and can keep them busy for a while. Even just a few dozen photos is enough to create a recognizable animated sequence that they’ll get a kick out of.
16. Hit the beach—and pick it clean.
IReady to hit the beach? Pack sunblock and water, but don’t forget to bring some gloves and a trash bag, too. The Ocean Conservancy is gathering data about plastics and other trash that has washed up on shorelines and other waterways all over the world. Download the CleanSwell app for Android or iPhone, and log each item of trash you pick up to help them document the extent of our plastic crisis.
17. Make rocks talk.
During the shutdown, our neighbors’ kids started painting rocks with inspirational messages of encouragement, and I have to say, it brightened my day so much that we made a few ourselves. You’ll want smooth, clean rocks for a nice canvas, acrylic paint, and artist’s brushes or even paint pens.
No paint? No problem. You can still say it with stone. Have your kids gather dozens of small rocks and arrange them in your front yard to spell out a message of encouragement or action, like “Protect the Earth.”
Ready for the answer to the four-leaf clover challenge?
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