Some days, I do more sauntering than hiking as I meander along looking for mushrooms, or birds, or animal holes. Yesterday, I just needed to move, so I set out intent on a quick, heart-pumping hike. My only problem... even when I'm moving along, intent on physical activity, I can't help noticing interesting things along the way. And then I stop to examine them more closely.
As I started down the trail, I noticed an area on the ground that had a strange, amorphous black hue. I considered stopping to look but reminded myself of my goal for this hike and kept moving. Then I saw another patch. And another. I HAD to stop. What is that? I'd never seen it before.
I crouched down, looked closely, and found thousands upon thousands of tiny insects bunched together, hopping around. Normally, I would have spent more time investigating, but I did have an agenda after all, so I took a few photos and hiked on. (Yes.. I did bring my camera...you never know when you'll see some thing interesting!)
As I hiked, I remembered I have seen these insects before. The difference... I've only seen them in the snow. Each winter for the past couple of years I've seen those same black patches on the surface of the snow. Have they always been on the leaf litter and I missed them? Do they normally appear only in the winter? (We did have snow last weekend- perhaps they appeared early because of it). What kind of insects are they? I have a vague memory of identifying them as something called snow fleas one year.
These questions present opportunities for me to do more investigating. Will I do a bunch of research? I'm not sure. It depends upon whether I see them again. I've written about this here before- I tend to learn all I can by observation rather than book/internet research. Then I see what the experts say. If my kids had been with me, I would have followed their lead. I still may do that if we see them together on our next hike.
Do you know your environment well enough to notice such a small detail? I don't spend a load of time hiking those trails- not nearly enough, actually. For all my talk of "get out in nature," I struggle to do that often enough, just like anyone in our over-connected, harried world. But I'm out there at least a couple of times a month, maybe four. And over time, I've learned to notice natural features.
You can teach yourself and your kids to notice natural details. Start with those that are part of your everyday life. You've heard the old cliche, "Stop and smell the roses." Consciously look around as you walk. Bend down to look at a patch of lichen up close. Examine the plants growing through the cracks in the sidewalk. Really watch how the pigeons walk and fly. Share your observations with your kids. Soon they'll be telling you more and more natural things they see.
Then, when you can, find a piece of nature you can explore with your kids. Visit it regularly and notice how it changes over time. Initially, you may notice seasonal changes, but if you do it long enough, you'll begin to notice the changes that happen more slowly, like a meadow slowly turning into a pine forest or a beach eroding over time, or a pine forest becoming a hardwood forest.
I tend to notice little things on the ground- be it tiny insects on the forest floor or minute seashells on the beach that look like grains of sand. That's my own personal interests showing up. But maybe you're kids will be into birds, or wildflowers, or marine mammals. Find what interests them (and you) and go looking for it.
When you do, please come back and share your discoveries with us.
Nature Observations with Young Children
Seasons and Cycles