Backyard Science: Promoting Curiosity and Enthusiasm for the Natural World

Today, Sci-Ed is happy to welcome Amanda Tracey to the blog to discuss how to promote the natural world to children. For more about Amanda, see the end of this post.

I know for a fact I was a self-proclaimed evolutionist before I turned 5. It seems like it gets harder and harder to find kids, teenagers, or even post-secondary students who are genuinely interested in and intrigued by science. It’s especially hard for me to process this because as a kid, I always loved science. My Dad studied geology in University and I’ll admit, that probably influenced my love of science. I was fortunate to grow up with a scientist parent, but many kids lack science mentors and therefore need to be shown how cool science is. The best way to do that (and the way that I was shown as a youngster) was in my very own backyard.

Most kids and young people probably love science – they just don’t know it yet. It’s not a secret that kids today, on average, get little exposure to nature and as a result, have little appreciation for nature as well. For many, science is just a subject that is taught in school and for the most part it is not made accessible to them. The connections between science and both the real world and their own lives are missing. If we could find a way to bridge this gap early on, by simply getting kids thinking about science, what they see and how it fits into their lives, it could really have an impact (albeit they won’t all be baby Darwins)!

So how does one fulfill this goal? I have a few of my own childhood experiences to share or activities I have tried with groups of kids while both teaching and volunteering over the years that might help us do just that.

1) Field guide books are a kid’s best friend. I remember learning what “pineapple weed” was as a child, a common weed that actually smells like pineapple. I think I showed that plant to every friend I ever had and I still show my friends today.These books not only help you appreciate the natural diversity of the earth, but also function like a game. You have a specimen in your hand, let’s say a plant perhaps. You have the book in front of you, and you know the specimen’s identity is in that book, you just have to deduce what it is. Using sight, touch and even sometimes smell, kids are able to assess the plants appearance critically, with strict attention to detail and classify it under certain categories. The keys in most basic field guides are easy to use, and forgiving if you take a wrong turn. These guides aren’t just for plants either. There are great field guides for fungi, birds, mammals, insects, rocks and lots of other things!

2) The way to a kid’s heart is through their stomach! Take them foraging- it’s a no-cost activity and it’s one of the neatest experiences for children and adults alike. Most libraries have copies of various books about foraging wild plants, take one out and go to town. I would personally recommend The Weeder’s Digest and Edible & Medicinal Plants of Canada.  Dig up some wild carrots and onions to cook a hearty stew. Rip off some dandelion and chicory leaves for a nice salad. Venture to the forest edge and pick some luscious wild blackberries and raspberries. Foraging teaches kids about plants, helps them understand why they are useful and appreciate their diversity.

3) Go lie on your lawn. This is something I did a lot as a kid. The neighbours might look at you funny, but it is well worth it. Just lie on your stomach, look closely and be patient. Within a few minutes you’ll see movement. Ants and other insects will start moving and working around you. Fungi and moss litter the soil below the grass. It’s a whole different world down there, one most kids don’t know about. Doing this gets kids thinking about life from the perspective of other organisms. The world doesn’t look the same to everyone!

4) Get a pair of binoculars. This is something I didn’t do until recently and can only imagine how it would have changed my life if I did it earlier. Birds are amazing. The diversity of birds in this world is unlike anything else. Watch and listen to them. Identify them, observe their behaviours, and watch them interact with other birds. Once a kid gets an appreciation for how incredible a bird really is it will get them thinking about how they fly, where they go in the winter, etc. I recently took a field trip and showed a 6-year old girl a duck flying through my binoculars. It landed pretty close to us and we looked at it for a while. Then she started asking about why there were “balls of water” on its feathers and whether or not it gets cold at night. Just simply showing her the bird got her thinking critically about the duck, being curious and asking questions she wouldn’t normally ask.

5) Plant a wildflower garden. At most nurseries you can get wildflower mixes. It’s always rewarding for kids to watch something grow from seed and to nourish it themselves along the way. This also gets kids familiar with the lifecycle of plants, how they grow and what the requirements for growth are. Once the plants are mature, use a trusty field guide to ID the species! I have done this project with a few groups of young kids and they all really loved and appreciated it. In fact, we ended up harvesting the seeds and creating our own wildflower packets for their friends!

The activities above promote curiosity and enthusiasm for scientific inquiry. It gets kids outside and moving in the fresh air. It shows them the importance of appreciating and respecting the earth. After all, there’s a lot more to it than they may have thought!

About Amanda

Follow @am_tracey on Twitter for more information!

Follow @am_tracey on Twitter for more information!

Amanda Tracey is a second year PhD student in the Department of Biology at Queen’s University. She is broadly interested in ecology, with specific interests in plant community ecology and evolutionary biology. Her current research addresses the implications of plant species body size for abundance, reproduction and recruitment. Amanda can be contacted at and on Twitter @am_tracey

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4 Responses to Backyard Science: Promoting Curiosity and Enthusiasm for the Natural World

  1. Pingback: Best of the Bookshelf: Can You Guess What I Am? and A Closer Look « WiserKids

  2. Pingback: Reporte Ciencia UANL » Backyard Science: Promoting Curiosity and Enthusiasm for the Natural World

  3. Amanda Tracey says:

    Excellent advice, Bea! Photographing all of the experiences I listed would be a wonderful idea!

  4. Bea Cantor says:

    Don’t forget a magnifying glass or an inexpensive macro lens for a portable device. Taking pictures to share and examine again later is lots of fun.

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