Stay Curious

Backyard Science

Three Ways to Do Backyard-Based Science Learning (without access to high speed internet)

At Decorah Public Library, we’ve been grateful for all the storytellers, educators, authors, museums, zoos, and illustrators who have shared resources online for families who have kids at home while school is closed. However, we also recognize that not everyone in our community has access to high-speed reliable internet.

Children’s and Young Adult Librarian (and former elementary Olympic National Park Nature Bridge Science Educator) Rachael Button wanted to share the following ideas for families looking to do outdoor science investigations as part of their home-based learning. If you don’t have a backyard, consider finding a place on public land to explore that’s remote enough that you’re unlikely to run into other folks. (Note: Please avoid anywhere with playground equipment as viruses can live on playground surfaces. Consider closures and community guidelines before venturing into public places. Right now it seems as though learning outdoors is considered safe but please continue to monitor the situation and follow CDC and IDPH recommendations.)

Once your family has found the outdoor spot you want to learn, focus exploration by:

Doing a discovery swap. “Playing” show-and-tell is an easy way to begin to engage your family in the scientific practice of observation. Set boundaries. Invite your child to find something interesting to share within the space and time allotted. Set rules as needed. (For example: “If you find a living thing don’t move it, we can come visit it where it lives.”) Sometimes, it helps to have a noise (like a bird call, chime, or whistle) that your child can use when they want you to come see what they’ve found. When you’re viewing your child’s discoveries, try to model curiosity (asking questions, making observations) instead of jumping to conclusions or sharing facts.

Looking under rocks. For very small children, just exploring the world of insects and worm holes beneath a large rock might be enough to focus their attention for a long time. If your child is interested and has access to a field guide or the internet you can try to identify species of insects. If not, simply observe behavior. (For example: How do the creatures you find respond to light? Are they moving fast or slow? Hiding or running away?) If older children require more structure, invite them to consider: What about that environment makes it a good home for the animals we’re finding? Pro-tip: Basic tools such as a meat thermometer (for taking the temperature of the soil), a sketchbook (for drawing and recording), and a hand lens (/magnifying glass) can deepen this exploration—but try to let your child’s curiosity lead. When I taught in Olympic National Park, I kept tools on hand but tried to follow my students’ curiosity, not my own agenda.

If you have access to a river/creek/stream—look for macroinvertebrates! Macroinvertebrates are creatures without a backbone that we can see without a microscope. Field biologists will inventory macroinvertebrates to learn about water quality. Looking under rocks in rivers, creeks, and streams to find these creatures can be a really engaging activity for students of almost any age. I broke down the steps of a macroinvertebrate investigation to make it straightforward, but please note that there are no rules to this kind of learning.

Materials: When I gather macro invertebrates (aka macros) with kids, I bring empty ice cube trays and paint brushes. Then:

  1. We fill the ice cube tray with cold water from the stream or river we’re exploring.
  2. We gently lift up rocks and look for critters underneath. (Tip: Look closely as many of these creatures are tiny and really good at hiding!)
  3. When we find something, we use the paintbrush to gently brush the creature into the ice cube tray.
  4. When the tray gets full and/or our hands are cold and/or we are tired of looking for creatures under rocks, we work to sketch, identify, and/or observe what we found. If your kid is getting cold and/or losing interest, take photos of what they found then have them gently empty the ice-cube tray into the water. You can always return to the photos or try again later if they’re interested.
  5. Depending on your child’s age, interest, and your access to web-based resources you can try to learn more about the quality of water in your stream/creek/river based on your macros but even if you never do anything beyond searching for critters the practice of looking for macroinvertebrates is a wonderful way for students of all ages to engage with field science.

At Decorah Public Library, we miss our patrons and look forward to a time when we can once again gather in public spaces to share what we’ve learned, read, and discovered but until that time, please know that we’re still remotely available to support this community. Stay safe. Happy learning!

Other Resources for Field-Based Science Learning: