Learning about nature and understanding the outdoors is an important and often underestimated component of a well rounded education. My children love to be outside, but on the rare occasion that they need a little bit of motivation to get moving, this is what we use!
A nature scavenger hunt is an ideal way to get kids outdoors, moving, and engaged in the world around them. It encourages development of motor skills, spatial awareness, and identification skills. I am always astonished at their ability to identify and remember information about plants and animals that we do this with.
My girls are 1 1/2 and 2 1/2, so short and simple works best for us right now. If your children are older a longer list will work better.
Step 1: Materials
You will need:
Paper (I use standard 8 1/2 x 11)
Colored pencils, clip art, or printed pictures
Google for some quick facts
Pen or dry erase marker
(Optional) Laminator or water protective sheet cover and tape
Step 2: Making the List
Choose the objects, plants, or animals to be found. I enjoy doing plant hunts, so a plant themed list for us might look like this:
A mixed list might look something like this:
Have fun and be creative. The more fun you have the more they will enjoy it, too.
Hand draw, insert clip art, or print pictures and place them on a sheet of paper as a visual guideline. I like to hand draw, even though I'm not the best at it, because it helps demonstrate that what you're looking for will not always look the same and encourage critical thinking. Print the name of the object next to the image.
On the back it's great to include some information about the things that you're looking for. Hit up google or Wikipedia for two or three interesting tidbits. I find that engaging in conversation about the hunt really excites my 2 1/2 year old and stimulates her curiosity much more than just telling her what to look for. So, for example, I might put:
Acorn: Nuts of oak trees. Can be processed to make flour.
Catbriar: climbing vine with tendrils and thorns. Soft tips can be eaten.
Elm: Grow very tall. mistletoe likes to grow on elm trees.
Oak: Oak trees grow acorns. Wood is used for building.
Dewberry: small, thorny shrub. Relative of blackberries. White flowers turn into edible berries.
Wood sorrel: commonly mistaken for clover. Has heart shaped leaves. Leaves and flowers taste like lemon.
Step 3: Laminate
Laminate the scavenger hunt page if you have access to a laminator so that you can check the list off with a dry erase marker as you go. You can forego laminating if you want to use a plastic sheet protector and tape the top. I like to reuse these, and they can be customized appropriately for your location. In California, for example, we found pine cones and sweet gum seed pods, but in central Texas those things are notably absent, so they've been replaced with local flora.
I skipped this step because I do not have a laminator and can't find my sheet protectors.
Step 4: The Hunt
Take your (hopefully) eager participant out into the great outdoors and turn them loose.
If you are on private property it's really fun to collect the items that are collectible as you go. Afterwards we set the page down, lay the objects on top over the pictures, and talk about everything we found. This is a great way to engage in active learning with the kids--lots of times I'm learning along with them!
If you're in a state park or other similar location, however, you may have to simply check your list off as you go and take pictures if you can. My daughters really love talking about everything we saw on our walks, so I highly encourage you to review afterwards.
Step 5: Safety Tips
I do think that a list of things to be cautious of is very important to cover at some point. Snakes, scorpions, ticks, wasps, and centipedes are obvious dangers, but some inconspicuous aggressors may lurk in the underbrush. Plants that might be listed include poison ivy, oak, or sumac, cactuses, agave, giant hogweed, and hemlock. Things like lilies, oleander, datura, and azaleas are commonly used in landscaping and are lovely, but toxic. Children as well as adults should be aware of this.
Use caution with any kind of foraging/edible information with kids. I've had problems with my older girl wanting to eat stuff outside when I'm not looking, so I've been withholding that kind of stuff for now or only under supervised situations.
It's always a good idea to have a safe word for when you're out and about. We use "hot" as an all-encompassing signal for danger.