In the time of coronavirus, many of us are staying at home, working from home, homeschooling… It’s a lot of time inside one set of walls. What are our options for connecting to the outdoors in this time?
I firmly believe in the physical and mental health benefits of time outdoors and the benefits of connecting with nature even if you’re not able to be outside. (Studies of hospital patients have shown decreased need for pain medications and shorter post-operative stays for those who can see nature.) So, this post gathers ideas for nature science activities you can do by just looking out your window, by bringing a little of nature into your home, by spending time in your own yard, or by going for no-contact walks in your neighborhood or on nearby trails.
Looking out the window:
Here are some things you can do without even going out:
- Notice changes: It’s springtime! (Autumn in the southern hemisphere.) The view outside your window is changing. The cherries are blossoming, the daffodils are blooming, the birds are fluttering. With your child, take a picture from the same view every day, and then compare them side by side to notice what has changed.
- Keep a tally: Decide what you’ll count: birds? people passing by? dogs? Whatever it is, looking outdoors and counting means lots of time looking outdoors!
- Tell stories: when a car passes by, imagine who is in it, and what they might be doing. This is a chance for you to tell positive stories that shape your child’s view of this situation. Instead of saying “why are they going out and endangering people” (as some folks on social media seem to be assuming), you can make up positive stories – “I bet that’s a young person who is going to the store so their elderly neighbor can stay home. It’s so nice when people look out for other people.”
- Gaze at clouds – what shapes do you see?
- Weather Checks: Notice what the weather is, even if you’re not going out. Teach about weather. In our lesson plan about Weather Science, you’ll find ideas about teaching weather vocabulary, drawing the weather, creating weather charts, observing and identifying clouds.
Another thing you can do: paint or draw a rainbow and put the picture up in your window so people passing by can see. Or, put a teddy bear in your window so that kids going by can spot it.
Bringing Nature In
Try any of these easy activities:
- Sprout seeds in a sponge garden: Wet a sponge (or a few folded paper towels). Sprinkle on some seeds. (Whether that’s from a packet of seeds you bought for gardening or it’s apple and orange seeds from lunchtime.) Put them in a dark cupboard for a few days, then check on them. (Note, if you want to sprout old tired seeds or dried beans, it might help to soak them in water overnight before starting this project.)
- If your child really wants to see the sprouting process, you can also do this in a ziplock baggie: fold a paper towel, wet it, put it in a baggie. Add a seed. Seal the baggie and tape it to a window with the seed facing in where you can see it. Wait a few days.
- Once you’ve sprouted your seeds, if you have access to dirt or potting soil, you can plant them. You can use any container you have. For example, if you have a margarine or yogurt tub, poke a couple holes in the bottom for drainage, set it on its lid before putting it in the window. Or you could make a terrarium from a 2 liter bottle.
- Start an indoor garden. Having something to care for and to watch grow is a very healthy thing at this time!
- Propagate a succulent plant. If you have a succulent (in our class, we planted them in our week where we studied the earth), you can gently twist off a leaf or two, let it dry for a day or two, set the leaf on top of some soil. Every day or two, spritz some water on the soil to keep it moist. After a few weeks (this is a slow process!) they will have roots. Then plant those roots in the soil. Water these new plants once a week, and they will grow. It can take months for that leaf to become a little plant – this is a slow process, but I love my little baby succulents!
- Plant potatoes in a container. (Just do a search for that, and you’ll find all the details! Grow sweet potato vines. Grow celery from the base of a bunch of celery.
- If you have celery, cabbage, or white flowers, you can teach about the science of wicking by putting them in colored water, and over 24 hours or so, they’ll pull the color up into them.
- Vegetable prints. You can cut the base off a stalk of celery, or the base off of a bell pepper, or slice mushrooms in half, then use those to print paint in fun designs. Lots of plastic water bottles and plastic soda bottles have a sort of flower shape on the bottom that if you dip it in paint you can print flower gardens. (see pictures)
- Dissect vegetables and fruits
- Consider a pet. I don’t mean to just buy a pet willy nilly to get you through the next few weeks… I firmly believe that if I bring an animal into my home, I’m making a commitment to that pet for its natural lifetime. So, first, you have to research – what is it’s natural lifetime and how much work and cost are you committing to? But, if you’ve considered adding a pet to your life, now might be a good time. We have a betta fish, and his buddies the snail and the five ghost shrimp, in a small aquarium on the kitchen counter, and feeding the fish every day just feels good and gives me a little energy boost. And once we did the initial financial investment in the tank and pump, they’re really cheap and really low maintenance pets!
In Your Own Backyard
Getting outside helps connect you to nature, but it can also let your kid MOVE more and get out some energy. It’s also a great opportunity to let them use their “outside voice”! Don’t let the weather stop you from going out. Being outside in the rain won’t make kids sick! Just have them put on a raincoat, and change into dry clothes after they’re done playing.
- Don’t feel like you have to entertain them or educate them continuously outside. It’s also fine to let them discover ways to self entertain. Put out toys or equipment that are fine for outdoors: jumpropes, balls, toy shovels if there’s somewhere they can dig, a container of water and scoops and funnels, etc.
- You can also put out sidewalk chalk so they can write encouraging messages to people who pass by. Don’t have chalk? Make your own chalk using cornstarch, water, and food coloring!
- Build a weather station. In our DIY Weather Station post, we have directions for how to build: a rain gauge, a wind sock, a wind vane, thermometer, an anemometer, and a weather chart for tracking it all. You could build one item together each day, and they could track it all.
- Work on a garden together. Or even on an outdoor project like building raised beds, building a brick retaining wall or a cobblestone path. “Heavy work” is great for children, and helps them burn up a lot of energy as well as gain pride from building something real.
- Make a bird feeder, hang it up, and then keep a record of what kinds of birds you see. Learn about those birds online. Here is a guide to bird calls for birds commonly found in the Pacific NW.
- Nature crafts: gather grass, flowers and more to spell out your name, or to make bookmarks (take a piece of contact paper or clear packing tape, lay your flowers on it, then put another piece of packing tape on top to seal it. Trim the edges to a nice shape). Make a wind chime, from old keys or a plastic cup and beads.
- Even if all you do is sit outside to do your work while they do their “schoolwork” at least you’re still getting outdoors!!
Walking in your Neighborhood
In Washington State, the current stay at home order (as of 3/26) allows for “Engaging in outdoor exercise activities, such as walking, hiking, running or biking, but only if appropriate social distancing practices are used.” When my son and I walked yesterday, the others we encountered were all doing this well – we’d slow down or speed up our walks to leave space between us (I noticed people were leaving about 30 feet between parties, or choosing to cross a street to help others keep space… it was all in a very compassionate, mutual caring way though, not a “stay away from me!” way.) When people stopped for conversations with friends, they stood about 10 feet away.
Also, be sure to wash hands before going out, try not to touch things, and wash hands when arriving home.
Benefits of Walking
Going for a walk outdoors will help your child do better at homeschooling:
- Exercise: Kids who exercise pay better attention in school, are less moody, and have better impulse control. (Source, another source, another source, and a final one for good measure)
- Time in nature: Spending time outside and connecting to the natural world improves academic performance, ability to concentrate in the “classroom”, and improves self control. (Source, source, and more info on the benefits of nature.)
What to do on your walk
If you’re walking the same loop every day, it might start to feel repetitive… here’s some ways you can keep it interesting by having a new focus each day.
- Look in people’s windows for rainbow pictures or teddy bears. Some people are starting to place these in their windows as a way to connect with others during our coronavirus isolation.
- Notice nature’s changes: Nature provides an always-changing experience…. and we have time to stop and observe, ask questions, and learn. Have new trees blossomed? Have trees dropped leaves or seeds? Are there birds? squirrels? bugs? What did yesterday’s wind blow around?
- Practice traffic rules: practice at looking both ways before you cross the street – and talk about what you’re looking for and making judgments about whether it’s safe to cross. Teach about turn signals, stop signs, watching for driveways and more.
- Learn navigation: teach addresses and street names. Bring a paper map and teach how to use it. Use a mapping app on your phone and teach how to use it. For little ones, practice turning left and right on command. Draw a map of the neighborhood.
- Play red light, green light.
- I’ve often recommended “nature shopping“, where the child gathers a collection of natural items, like rocks or pinecones or leaves. If you’re trying to minimize touching things outside the house, you might shift this idea to “on every walk, you can bring home one treasure.”
- Collecting photos: on every walk, you can take photos of things you want to remember and make a little photo album of your favorite finds.
- Scavenger Hunts: prepare a list of things you would expect to be able to see or hear or do on your outing. Bring stickers along and as you’re out on an adventure, any time you find one of the items on the list, your child can put a sticker on it. Then when the scavenger hunt is complete, you can have a snack when you get home as a reward. Ideas for scavenger hunts:
- Things to listen for: crows, bird calls, running water, wind in the leaves, people’s voices in the distance, dogs barking
- Things to look for: pinecones, mushrooms, ferns, moss, spider web, bugs
- Things to do: go up or down stairs, cross a crosswalk, wait for a light… if you know your neighborhood, it will be easy for you to make a list they can successfully complete
- Go on a bug scavenger hunt
- Go on a numbers scavenger hunt – how long does it take you to find all the numbers 1 – 10?
- Go on a letters scavenger hunt: can you find all the letters A – Z on your walk? Check street signs, license plates, etc.
- For more ideas, just search “backyard scavenger hunt.”
- For older kids: Pokemon Go, geocaching or letterboxing.
Walking on a Trail
In order to practice social distancing, avoid crowded parks and busy times of day. And the Washington Trails Association says “if you have to drive to the trailhead, it’s probably too far.”
However, in the Seattle area, we have LOTS of greenspaces and lots of hiking trails, so there are likely places near your home where you can get out on a trail. I’ve written a post with lists lesser used parks on the Eastside that also includes suggestions for ways to minimize the chances of transmitting or catching germs while out and about. [Note: before going to a park, check the website of the appropriate authority – if it’s a city park check your city park’s website, county – check county, to be sure you have the most current info on whether they are open and what services are / are not available.]
Learning about Native Plants
While you’re out on a trail, you can learn about nature. I’ve written a guide for Teaching Kids about Northwest Native Plants, and it includes materials like cards that you can hand to a small child to have them search for the matching plant, and a scavenger hunt for older kids.
Resources for Hands-On Activities
While working on this post, I discovered that Ranger Rick magazine, from the National Wildlife Federation, is offering three months free access to their online resources, which include videos of wildlife, games and jokes, crafts and activities. And lots of zoos and aquariums are doing special online programming during closures – check their Facebook pages and other social media to find them.
If you are looking for more hands-on science, this blog has hundreds of ideas for activities that work well for 3 – 8 year olds and can be done with materials you’re likely to have on hand at home. In the past week, I’ve written posts on the Science of Sound and Engineering Tall Towers that are good starting points.
Lots of zoos have webcams that let you observe animals in action. Check out: https://zoocamerasaroundtheworld.com/. You’ll find the Panda Cam from Atlanta, the penguins from Woodland Park in Seattle, otters from Chattanooga, and many more. The San Diego zoo has many live cams, plus lots of videos. The National Zoo has four. The trick with live webcams is that sometimes you see nothing… At the exact moment I type this, if I try to look at the naked mole rats in DC, all I see is an enclosure with a spinach leaf and a piece of corn on the cob. So, plan on flipping between several webcams till you find one with some good action going on. Here’s a Virtual Field Trip Lesson Plan you could use to enhance your viewing.