Everyday science for kids – science in the outdoors

Explore suggestions to discover the science in everyday activities – including the simple, but great, outdoors in right outside of your home.

Science is all around us – it’s in our homes, the vehicles we drive, outside in nature and in the foods we eat. Whether we realize it or not, science is important to us all. Having an understanding of science is beneficial to all youth; they gain important life skills such as critical thinking, problem solving and decision making that will help them throughout life even if don’t plan to work within a science field. 

This Michigan State University Extension series is designed to help parents and other adults who work with youth explore everyday science opportunities with youth – see part one, “Everyday Science for Kids – Science at Home” and part two, “Everyday Science for Kids – Science in Sports and Hobbies.”

This article focuses on exploring science in the great outdoors. The outdoors provides many opportunities for youth to explore and ask questions about the natural world. Plan to get your child outside to play every day. Help direct them to experience different seasons, make observations and use all of their senses. “The Walk: Taking your Youth Outdoors for Environmental Stewardship and Learning” is a great resource for this topic.

Many youth like to collect things they find in nature, such as seeds, rocks and feathers. Help them to make observations about the things they find by asking leading questions such as “How to you suppose that got there?” Help them find field guides or reliable websites where they can search for the host plant of the seed, the type of rock or the bird from which the feather came. Before they just go collecting, you should discuss with them the ‘leave no trace’ principles of wilderness use, i.e. leave as little trace as possible that they were there. Often times, laws restrict what we can remove from the wild and we, as good stewards of the land, should leave a wild place like we found it. This practice is important to all of us who appreciate our natural places and can help youth gain a better understanding of being a good steward.

While in the outdoors, have youth use a variety of their senses. They can feel different types of bark; make bark rubs using paper and a crayon; look for leaves and seeds from the tree; and listen to hear if the tree or leaves make any noise. Again, explaining wise use of natural resources, you can find a recently fallen branch, break it, and have them smell it. After each activity, see what questions they have. Then, lead them in explorations to find the answers. Here is another example where having their own notepad and pencil will be helpful, so they can write down their observations and their questions.

You may also consider using a digital camera or cell phone to have them photograph observations. There are also phone apps for nature guides that can be downloaded onto a cell phone such as Virginia Tech Tree Identification application which uses pictures to help you identify trees, shrubs, brambles and vines based on where they are found and a variety of physical characteristics.   

Help youth to see signs of wildlife, such as tracks, scat (feces), or homes like nests, tree cavities or burrows which can lead to further questions about the animal(s) that made them. Then challenge them to find more on their own. Direct the children by asking other leading questions. For example, how can they find these answers? What else can we find out about this animal? How does this animal affect humans?

Give youth a chance to get outside or plan outings as a family. Check out No Child Left Inside for examples of how your child can become involved in outdoor activities through 4-H.

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