Science ideas for young children – Part 7: Signs of spring

Teach young children about nature and science in their backyard by looking for signs of spring. You can learn about the changing of the seasons, how life makes it through the winter and the natural world.

This is the seventh article in a series of articles on science activities about the natural world, which anyone can conduct with children. These activities can be done within a family, in a day-care setting, as part of school activities, a 4-H Club or with any group working with young children.

After a long, dark winter, kids and adults anticipate the changing of the seasons. Here are some things to look for when the snow melts while learning about science at the same time. If you keep track of these observations year after year, you might notice changes in climate for your area. You can report your observations to compare the signs of spring (in your location) over the years, along with what other locations experience. Many people think of a robin as a sign of spring, but the Robin is often a year-round resident in Michigan.

Michigan State University Extension says that the top signs of spring are:

  1. Running sap – When temperatures drop below freezing at night and rise above freezing during the day, sap starts moving through trees. Sap contains sugars which provide energy to grow leaves, flowers and new wood. The sap from some maple trees can be boiled down to make maple syrup. Learn about making maple syrup in your backyard.
  2. Flowers – Crocuses, daffodils, hyacinths and tulips are great to see poking through the ground in the spring. Why do these flowers rise in the spring? Why do they come up earlier than other plants? Ask the children (and adults) to try to come up with answers to these questions. One advantage of being early is that they can absorb sunlight before tree leaves put them in shade. Another reason is that that they do not need to compete with as many flowers for pollination from bees. The reason all plants don’t come up early is because there is a risk – Frost. If plants come up too early, their tops can be destroyed by cold weather. You can ask students to guess when the last frost-free day will be for this year. Michigan State University Extension has a document to determine your expectant frost dates. Depending on where you live and the year, frost can be done as early as April 7 or as late as July 31.
  3. Rain, mud and flooding – When the snow melts and the rain comes at the same time, everything gets covered in mud. Normally dry creek beds overflow with water and become a great opportunity for learning. Students can drop a small leaf or stick into a creek and see how fast it is moving. Does a leaf or a stick move faster? Is the water moving faster in different parts of the stream? Why? Read about Science ideas for preschoolers: Stream table science for more information.
  4. Mushrooms – The wet weather and decaying plant material makes spring a great time to find mushrooms. Why do they grow in certain areas? Mushrooms need rotting plant matter to grow. If you find them growing out the side of a tree, it is a sign that the tree is dead or dying. If you find them grow on the ground, it could be the sign of old, buried tree roots. Do not eat any mushrooms without the positive identification of an expert.
  5. Frogs and birds – You can listen to, identify and report frogs and birds. Watch for signs of the appearance and the young of these critters.
  6. Road kill – Yes, road kill is disgusting, but increasing amounts of road kill on the side of the highway are a definite sign of spring. As the weather warms and creatures emerge from their winter slumber, they often get hit by vehicles. As gross as road kill is, it can still be a learning opportunity and a chance to investigate. Why did this animal die? Are there particular areas of the road that are more prone to road kill? Why? Is there a stream crossing? Where are the animals coming from? Road kill can also be used to tell bad jokes. Why did this chicken cross the road? To prove to the possum it was possible.

Enjoy the signs of spring and use this opportunity to feed the intellectual curiosity of the children in your life.

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