Homeschooling offers a freedom to explore unmatched by other learning methods. And what better place to explore than in the world of nature just outside our door?
Natural learning involves all the senses and can make use of all learning styles. Students can see the wonder of a spider weaving a web, hear the geese calling overhead as they migrate, feel the texture of a fern leaf, compare the smells of different flowers in the garden, and taste a cherry tomato or blueberry or even the tartness of wild oxalis. Children can learn by drawing or writing about what they observe, or by taking photographs or making sun prints. They can take apart flowers, experiment with maple or dandelion seeds to see how far they can travel, and learn to recognize birds by their songs. The ever-changing kaleidoscope of the seasons provides something new every day.
As I homeschooled my boys, now grown, I tried to make learning an adventure, and I found that moving our studies outside always added excitement. One year, in fact, we spent the whole year learning science through the things we found in our own backyard–as well as in the skies above it. We studied weather, soil and rocks, plants, animals of all sorts–including microscopic, and ecology. While based on science, this study also brought in language arts, math, map skills, arts and crafts, social studies, and even Bible. We also took long camping trips every September, where the boys experienced new places and had lots of hands-on nature study.
I would like to share some of those activities, as well as others I come across, with other homeschoolers who may be looking for a little something to spice up their curriculum.
Thanks for dropping by. May you enjoy homeschooling in the natural world!
New Year’s Search
As the new year begins and we get back to schooling after Christmas break, it’s time to go outside and see what’s new. In many places, winter weather is not the best, and we may tend to hole up inside with books and our computer, venturing out only when necessary. However, nature’s cycle continues through the winter. (Sorry for the northern hemisphere bias. This activity would work in the southern hemisphere, as well, although what you find might be quite different.) So grab a clipboard or notebook, a pencil, and perhaps a camera, and go on a New Year’s Search.
The object of this search is to find things that are “new.” This might mean new growth, which can be found even this early in some climate zones. Looking out the window, I can see catkins on the hazelnut tree and buds beginning to form on the winter jasmine. Perhaps there are mushrooms in the woods or fungi on an old tree stump. Make a list, draw what you see, and perhaps take photographs that could be pasted into a notebook or added to a computer-written report.
New might also mean something you haven’t seen before. Different birds show up in the winter. I saw my first varied thrush of the season yesterday, along with a pair of hairy woodpeckers that I had never noticed before. So look for different species of birds at the feeder or in the bushes and trees. Again, write down what you see—either the name of the bird or a description, if you don’t know the name. (Be sure to look it up in a bird book or online when you go inside. Useful sites include http://www.whatbird.com/ and http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/search/ac. ) You might also see different insects, if you look closely and perhaps dig under a rock or two. Or perhaps you will notice a tiny plant that never caught your attention when the yard was full of blooming flowers and leafy bushes. Students should take notes and share their discoveries with the rest of the family.
When you finish and retreat indoors, students should compare their lists and notes. Who saw the most new things? What did one person notice that someone else did not? And what can you learn about life in the wintertime from your observations? Keep your observations in a special nature notebook or file. Continue to observe from time to time, as the seasons continue their cycle.
Rain, Snow, Sleet
This time of year in the Northern Hemisphere, precipitation gets a lot of press. Whether it is flooding in Texas, snowstorms in the East, or the dreaded black ice, meteorologists will be talking about various forms of water. So perhaps this is a good time to make a rain gauge and do some water studies.
Materials needed: clear glass beaker or other straight-sided clear container, (or jelly jar and funnel: See below.), permanent marker, ruler
A rain gauge is simple to make; all you need is a container and a way to measure the rain it gathers. If you have a straight-sided clear container, simply use a ruler and permanent marker to calibrate the outside of the jar. Make it as accurate as possible, by marking measurements down to at least ¼ of an inch. If you don’t have a beaker or other straight-sided container, you may use a jelly jar or other jar, if you can add a funnel whose top width is equal to that of the bottom of the jar.
If you are measuring snow, you will need a beaker or straight-sided container, as snow will just block up the funnel.
Using Your Rain Gauge
To use the rain gauge, place the container in an open area, but one where it will not be disturbed by people or animals. Take measurements at about the same time each day. Be sure to empty the gauge after writing down the data.
Watch the local news, or read the weather section in the paper. How closely do your rainfall figures match the official statistics? If they differ, could there be a reason besides reader error? Are parts of your city or county wetter than other parts? What might cause that?
Keep records for a month—or even the entire year. How does rainfall vary over time? Which month is the wettest? Which is the driest? Look up long-term records, perhaps through the National Weather Service. Does one month always have the most precipitation, or does it vary?
Connect with another homeschooling family in a different part of the country, and convince them to make a rain gauge. Compare data. How do the two areas differ? What might be the reasons for the differences?
http://www.nws.noaa.gov/ (National Weather Service)
http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/education/for_fun/BuildyourownWeatherStation.pdf (Make 6 weather instruments)
And, if you’d like to investigate water more: http://www.homeschooling-ideas.com/water-experiments.html (short and easy water activities for homeschoolers)
http://www.mcwa.com/MyWater/KidsWaterFun.aspx (activities, questions, and information about water)
Great Backyard Bird Count
Coming soon to a backyard near you: the Great Backyard Bird Count! While there are several different bird counts during the year, this is my personal favorite, because you can invest as much, or as little, time as you like, and you can do it from the comfort of your home—providing you can see your bird feeders from the window. The Great Backyard Bird Count takes place for four days every February. This year the dates are February 17-20. See http://www.birdsource.org/gbbc/ for information. The site itself is a treasure, with links to tons of bird photos from previous years, online bird guides, and even a special page with activities for kids. Be sure to visit ahead of time to learn about birds in your area or just have fun looking around.
You may want to do some preparation with your children before participating. Perhaps you can look at pictures of common birds in your area and check out some bird books, including identification guides, from the library. You may want to stock up on birdseed and suet and hang up a couple of feeders. You could even make your own feeders! Hang them up a few days ahead of time for best results. It may take birds a little time to discover them.
You need to register at the site, but there is no charge for taking part in the Great Backyard Bird Count. In fact, those who submit lists are even entered into a drawing for prizes. You can download bird checklists for your state or region. Then you count the number of each bird species that you see each day for four days—or for just one or two days, if that’s all you have time for. You can bird watch in your yard or neighborhood, or you can simply count the birds you see at and around your feeders. It’s a very flexible program. All they ask is that you watch for at least 15 minutes. Later you return to the website and record what you have seen.
In 2011 over 92,000 checklists were turned in, and 596 species identified. After the count ends, you can compare your checklists with others gathered in the area, or learn about changes observed over the years. In addition, you can enjoy this year’s new batch of photos, or upload some of your own, as prizes are given for those judged to be the best. (See website for information on photo contest rules.) The Great Backyard Bird Count is a great way to learn more about birds and perhaps spark an interest in your children that could last for a lifetime. I was in third grade when a teacher introduced me to the amazing world of birds, and I’ve loved them ever since, so you never know!
A few resources:
http://www.allaboutbirds.org/Page.aspx?pid=1189 (information and pictures of North American birds from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology)
http://dnr.wi.gov/org/caer/ce/eek/earth/recycle/rbirds.htm (some bird feeders you can make)
http://www3.northern.edu/natsource/DAKOTA1/Birdfe1.htm (more homemade feeders along with information on which seeds different birds like)
http://www.rubythroat.org/FeedingHintsMain.html (all about feeding hummingbirds)
http://www.audubon.org/ (National Audubon Society)
http://www.homeadvisor.com/r/birdwatching-guide/ (Home Advisor Birdwatching Guide: Thank you, Sara, for this link.)
Spring is a great time to study flowers, since they are blooming all around us. Collect several different types for a hands-on investigation. Do not collect rare flowers or those, like trilliums, that take several years to recover when picked. Carefully take flowers apart, and use a magnifying glass to examine the different parts of the flower. Students could draw diagrams of these flowers. labeling the parts, including petals, sepals, pistil, stamen, and ovary. Compare several types of flowers to see how they differ, while still having the same basic parts.
A flower which has sepals, petals, stamens, and pistil(s) is called a complete flower. An incomplete flower is missing at least one of those parts. Some trees—and other plants—have separate male and female flowers. These flowers are incomplete because they are missing either an ovary or a pistil. For example, some fruit varieties bear female and male flowers on separate trees. Both types must be present in order to produce fruit. Other flowers may be missing petals. Decide whether the flowers you collected are complete or incomplete. Examples of complete flowers are magnolia, plum, snapdragon, and dandelion. Examples of incomplete flowers include maple, oak, and willow.
Making Bookmarks or Cards with Flowers
- preserved flowers
- cards or card stock or thin cardboard
- markers or pens
- glitter or sequins if desired
- clear contact paper
- thin cording for bookmark tassel, if desired
Preserved flowers may be used to make pretty bookmarks or to decorate the front of cards. Preserve the flowers with a flower press or by pressing them between the pages of a thick book, which you then place under a rock or heavy object for several days. Be sure to place plain white paper on each side of the flower to prevent stains on the pages.
Use a blank card—or heavy paper made into a card—and simply place flowers in a pleasing design. Add any words or additional design elements desired. (perhaps drawings, glitter, or sequins) Then cut a piece of clear contact paper to fit and press it down over the flowers. For a bookmark, use card stock or poster board cut to the desired size, and complete in the same way. If you wish, a hole could be punched at the top of the bookmark, and a tassel or cord added.
These projects can make nice gifts for grandparents or other family and friends.