Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Schoolyard Nature Investigation: Fall September 2010

Use your senses to make observations about nature in your schoolyard. Collection of seeds and acorns for the Growing Native project may be included.

Grade: Kindergarten

Time: 45 minutes

• Use your senses in the schoolyard to explore and discover nature during fall.
• Investigate seeds and nuts.

The materials depend on the activities you choose for your nature walk.
• Feathers (2 feathers per student)
• Soil creature ID sheet
• Spoons or small trowels (for digging for soil creatures – optional)
• Camera
• Paper and crayons for leaf rubbings (optional)
• Variety of seeds, acorns, milkweed pods, bird nests, etc. that you may want to share with the students.
• Pictures of animals
• Paper bags if you are collecting seeds and acorns for Growing Native
• Scavenger Hunt worksheet, optional

• A few days before the walks, explore the schoolyard to find interesting natural features for the students to discover. Also, look for places to avoid, such as places with broken glass or poison ivy.

• Find good spots for students to use their senses and plan your walk accordingly. If you plan to lead winter and spring walks, you may want to take photos of exploration sites to remind students in subsequent walks what the area looked like in a different season.
• In the classroom or at an outdoor meeting spot, greet the students and welcome them on a schoolyard nature investigation.

• Explain your expectations for student behavior: naturalist is the line leader; stay behind the naturalist; stay together, no squishing, poking or stepping on invertebrates; no pulling leaves or flowers from plants.

• You may want to devise a signal for when you want the students to listen. “Stand like a tree” can be effective. Show students how to stand like a tree – legs together and stuck to the ground (like roots), backs straight (like trunks); arms at sides or out (like branches); no talking because trees do not talk. Practice a couple of times before heading out.

• Explain: We are going to use our senses (touch, smell, vision, and hearing) to make observations about plants and animals in our schoolyard.

• If you are doing a nature scavenger hunt, introduce the activity to the students.

• Pre and Post-Assessments. Ask students to name different natural things (living and non-living) that they expect to find in their schoolyard. Write down their answers. At the end of the walk, ask students to name the living and non-living natural things that they found in their schoolyard. Discuss why the list is different from what they thought at the beginning.
• Choose the activities that work for your particular schoolyard.

• Fall is a great time to look for seeds, nuts, leaves and small invertebrates. Look for maple, tulip and oak trees.

• Encourage students to name or learn the names of native wild animals that might be found in area yards or woods as you discuss what might eat or use the different natural resources.

Note the difference between living and non-living objects; ideas are:

• Compare a rock to a plant

• As you collect seeds ask if they are living – the baby plant inside is alive, but it sleeps until it gets the opportunity to grow into a plant.

• Talk about how fallen leaves were part of the living tree, but now they are not alive.
Tulip Tree Seeds: Pick up a tulip seed and ask students to focus on it. Things to tell them about the tulip tree:

• The tulip tree is the tallest type of tree in Maryland.

• American Indians used the bark to make roofs for their wigwams and canoes.

• Its flowers make nectar that lots of bees and hummingbirds like to eat.

• The seed is very tiny in the swollen part; the rest is a wing. Why would a seed have a wing? The wing helps it to float away in the wind so that it can find a place to grow a new tulip tree.

• What do you think would eat a tulip tree seed? Squirrels, mice, cardinals, finches

Have the students search the ground for tulip tree seeds. (To gently encourage students to find them on their own, you might want to say, “everyone is to find a seed all by themselves” in the beginning.) Make sure everyone finds at least one – some students may need encouragement or direction, but be sure to let them use their sense of sight to pick out a tulip seed. Once they all have one, show them how to throw it up in the air to watch it ‘helicopter’ down.

Maple Seeds: Maple seeds ripen in the spring, but are often still found on the ground underneath a maple tree. Search for seeds & throw the seeds like you did with the tulip tree seeds. Interesting facts & observations:

• American Indians would eat the seeds, leaves and bark of red maple when food was scarce.

• American Indians were the first to tap maple trees for their sweet sap.

• Look for signs of sapsucker activity on the trunk (lots of holes in a horizontal line.)

• Squirrels like to eat the seeds (these seeds are called ‘samaras’.)

• Look at the fall color of the leaves (color depends on the maple species.
Oak Trees
• Acorns: Challenge students to find acorns without any animal damage and to find acorns that are partly eaten. Talk about what might have taken a bite or made a small hole. If the school is participating in the Growing Native program, collect whole, unbroken acorns. Be sure to explain why you are collecting acorns.

• Oak Leaves: In the fall it is easy to find oak leaves on the ground with insect eggs and galls. Show examples to the students and challenge them to find similar leaves.

** Always have students leave anything they have picked up before moving on. It’s helpful to say let’s leave the leaves for the worms or seeds for the birds to encourage them to leave the item.

Pine (Evergreen) Trees
• Pine trees are great for a smelling station. Pull some pine needles off the tree or pick needles up from the ground and show students how to rub them in their hands. Then tell them to smell the needles. What do they smell like?

• Search for pine cones under a tree. Look for partly eaten ones – squirrels and chipmunks gnaw at the cones to get to the seeds.

• Try it: Beat a pine cone against a piece of white paper on the ground. Small insects might fall out.
• Pines, spruces and some hardwoods are often used by sapsuckers in the winter. Look for their easy-to-identify rows of horizontal holes on tree trunks.
Redbud Trees

• Redbud seed pods are fun to explore. Ask children to collect one from the ground. Demonstrate how to peel open the pod and find the seeds inside. Challenge children to find the seeds in their pod. Encourage independence. Dried pods on the ground often have tiny holes in them made by insects. Challenge students to find a pod with a hole – make observations and ask about how the hole got there.

• Redbud seeds are bean-like pods. They were a good source of fiber and protein for Native Americans and colonists. The pods were boiled and eaten just like green beans.

• Deer, squirrels and cardinals like to eat the seeds. The seeds have to pass through the gut of an animal before they can germinate.
Other Nuts and Seeds

• Stake out all nut and seed-bearing trees beforehand. Your schoolyard might have black walnut, Chinese chestnut, hickory and other trees that would be interesting to observe and discuss with students.

• Two sources for finding additional information about trees: and
Milkweed (or Dogbane)

• Your school may have milkweed plants. Milkweed pods are very interesting. If the pods are dry, open one up and show how each seed has a parachute. They easily fly away in the wind.

• Have students hold out a hand. Give each student a few seeds with parachutes. Then let them throw the seeds up into the air and watch them fly away.

• Spreading milkweed seeds is a stewardship activity because this plant is very important to many butterflies, especially monarchs.


• If your schoolyard has an area with leaves from a variety of trees on the ground, have students do several sorting activities. Examples:

• Find at least 5 different leaves – differing in either color or shape.

• In an area with many mixed leaves on the ground, pick a type of leaf such as a tulip tree leaf and ask each student to find one. They have to use their sense of sight to find the right shape. Make sure everyone finds one on their own. If they get it wrong, give them the opportunity to try again.

• Find three leaves of the same kind that are all different sizes.

• Find three leaves that are different shapes and different colors at the same time.

• Look for insect galls on oak leaves.

• Look for caterpillar damage on leaves.


• Ask students to look for 3 different colored flowers and to point them out to the naturalist or teacher.
• Smell the flowers if possible.
• Observe any pollinators. This would be a good opportunity to point out that bees are interested in the flowers not people. If there are a lot of butterflies or bees, talk about what they are looking for and why.

• If your school has a good garden area with loose soil or an area with a lot of leaf litter you can look for invertebrates. Students can use small trowels or spoons.

• Show how to gently move away leaves and soil to look for small animals. Remind students that they shouldn’t poke or hurt animals. You can choose to have a “no picking up” rule.

• Direct students to find invertebrates independently – encourage this by directing students to not yell out what they find (keep it a secret, but you can show the teachers); and/or they have to find three things before they tell anyone. Encourage them to not bunch up together for searching, but to spread apart.

• Spend a few minutes looking for millipedes, ants, slugs, centipedes, spiders, etc. You may want to bring a couple of creature boxes with you. Remind students to put the leaf litter and soil back the way they found it.

• Have students feel interesting leaves, for example, thick and waxy leaves (evergreen leaves, conifer needles), soft and furry leaves, or soft petals. (Watch for poison ivy!)

• American Holly or other trees & shrubs with thorns or spiked leaves are always interesting. One way to introduce students to thorns or sharp leaf edges is to ask, did you know that some plants have weapons? Ask students why a plant might have a weapon. What animal is it protecting itself from? Often deer. Kindergarteners often will name zoo animals; help them understand which animals would be in their schoolyard - deer, rabbits, squirrels, etc.

• The leaves of some plants are rough on top and velvet-like below (e.g., red mulberry). Look for trees with these types of leaves for students to feel.


• When possible point out the sounds of birds. Ask students to listen for birds calling and singing.

• Listen to the World Around You. Have students sit/stand and listen to the sounds of nature by closing their eyes, and counting on their fingers the different sounds they hear. Compare natural and unnatural sounds.

1. Tell everyone to stand in a comfortable position.

2. Once they are comfortable, their feet must remain still.

3. Ask everyone to make two fists and hold up their hands so they are visible to the leader.

4. No talking at all, please.

5. Explain that every time a noise is heard, they are to count silently, using their fingers.

6. Once they have counted to ten, they must silently wait for the rest of the group to finish.

7. Final rule: The game is played with eyes closed.

8. Go over the steps one more time, leaving the final rule about closed eyes for last. (Make sure everyone is comfortable with this).

9. Start the game with “Ready, set, listen.”

• An alternative listening exercise is to show students how to listen with deer ears. Tell them to hold up their palms facing you with their fingers together. Then, put your hands behind your ears and push your ears forward a bit. This makes your ears bigger like those of a deer or rabbit. Students should close their eyes and listen quietly until you tell them to stop (wait at least 45 seconds.)

1. FEATHER PLAY. Have students quickly get in a circle (tell them to see how fast they can get in a circle – it always inspires them to be fast – especially if you tell them that the class before was really fast.) Tell students that everybody is going to get a feather; they need to be gentle with them. After everyone has one:

a. Tell students that birds spend a lot of their day cleaning their feathers so that they can fly. We’re going to pretend to be birds cleaning our feathers. First, we need to mess them up to look like we’ve been busy all day looking for food and getting away from predators. Mess up the feather by pushing down on the barbs from the top.

b. Clean the feather: birds use their beaks to straighten up and clean their feathers. Make a beak with your thumb and pointer fingers – make sure everyone shows you their beaks. Then demonstrate how to put the barbs back together by sliding your “beak” up the feather starting at the bottom.

2. FLY LIKE BIRDS. In advance, scope out a good area for playing “fly like birds.” Give students two feathers each. Remind them to hold on tight and to be gentle with the feathers. How to play:

Tell students we are going to transform into 3 different birds. Here are some options:
Crow. Show that crows like to flap a lot and make the ‘caw-caw’ sound.

Hummingbird. Hummingbirds beat their wings faster than any other bird so flap as fast as you can. Their wings make a humming noise because they move so fast, so hum as you fly.

Peregrine falcon. (Leave this one for last if it is one of your examples.) Peregrines are predators. Sometimes they live in cities on the top of tall buildings. They like to hunt pigeons. They are the fastest flying bird. When they spot a pigeon, they leap from the building and bring their wings in to their sides (demo a dive or a “stoop.”) This allows them to fly really fast (up to 200 mph!) as they are diving towards an unsuspecting pigeon. Tell students: you all are going to be peregrines, and who do you think will be the pigeons? Me and the teacher (if willing.) Fly away and let the students chase and catch you.

Vulture. Vultures are really big birds that they might see flying high up in the sky. They barely flap their wings; instead they soar like an airplane. Do you know what they eat? Dead animals. Lets all soar like a vulture.

Eagle. Eagles are really big birds that they might see flying high in the sky. They barely flap their wings when they are up high; instead they soar like an airplane.

At the end, collect all of the feathers.

Birds fluff up their feathers to hold in heat – it works just like a fluffy winter coat. Birds that live in cold areas in the winter, such as cardinals, have to eat enough food every day to keep alive.

• To keep themselves warm they constantly shiver – have the kids shiver – talk about how this makes their muscles work. What happens when you are using your muscles such as when you run around? You warm up. So when birds constantly shiver they warm up. BUT, they have to eat enough each day to have the energy to shiver all night.

• Some birds huddle in bird boxes or tree holes at night, such as chickadees. You can ask the kids to huddle together and see how that is warmer (always start with a reminder that there is no pushing in this activity – they don’t even have to touch – just ask them to stand close together.)

On the walk look for places where animals might seek shelter to hide or be out of the wind and rain such as:
• Holes in trees
• Behind bark (lots of insects hide in the grooves of bark)
• Holes at the base of a tree might lead to a chipmunk home
• Underneath leaves (insects before it gets too cold)


• Talk about what squirrels do with acorns. They hide the acorns to find and eat later in the winter. Tell them that squirrels don’t necessarily remember where they hid them. Have everyone take one or two acorns and “hide them” somewhere nearby (give boundaries.) Have students look for their acorn hiding places after doing another activity.

• Make a squirrel’s nest. If you have a schoolyard with a lot of fallen leaves, talk about how squirrels collect leaves to make a warm nest for the winter. Let’s quickly make a huge nest that we all can be in. Quickly have students pick up leaves and make a large enough nest for the whole group. Then have everyone sit in the nest. Afterward, look for your hidden acorns.
NATURE SCAVENGER HUNT (The worksheet is at the end.)

• You can either look for items on the nature scavenger hunt worksheet throughout the walk or just in one particular area (such as an area of leaf litter or a grove of trees.)
• Be sure that all students are looking for the items. If possible, make sure each child finds the object (all collect an acorn or pine cone, for example.)

• Whether and which birds you observe is a matter of luck and chance. Be alert for opportunities to see birds in a tree or flying overhead. Unless a bird is very visible or audible, ignore it. Generally, kindergarteners will have trouble finding a little brown bird in a bush or one that is quickly flying away. If there are feeders, remind students to “walk like a fox” (move slowly, without making a sound) when approaching the feeders.

• As you are crossing a field or returning to the building, you can play this game to keep kids’ attention. Explain that the naturalist is a fox and she/he is looking for noisy mice to catch. Students walk behind the fox. When the fox stops and turns around the mice must freeze and not make any noise or the fox may catch them for lunch.

• Moving from one area to the next or returning to the building after the walk are perfect times to introduce this activity. Explain to students how a deer or fox must walk very quietly to either avoid predators or find prey (fox has to sneak up on mice, etc.). If they are noisy, they can lose lunch or be in danger. Show how animals walk with their knees bent and on their toes. Be careful not to step on twigs or crunchy leaves because that will make noise. Challenge them to walk so quietly that the person in front of them cannot hear the person behind. They can use their hands to form deer/fox ears.
Nature Walk Scavenger Hunt 

Things to see:
__ A tree that has lost all its leaves
__ A tree with only a few leaves on it
__ An evergreen tree
__ Buds on trees (deciduous trees form a winter bud to protect the developing leaf)
__ Seeds with wings
__ A bird
__ Acorns without tops
__ A pinecone
__ Fungi or moss on a tree
__ A plant with berries
__ Something with thorns
__ An insect
__ A bird or squirrel nest
__ Holes in a tree made by an animal
__ Things to hear: (stop and have students close eyes and listen for different sounds)
__ The wind (Can you tell which direction the wind is blowing?)
__ A bird chirping or calling
__ Things to feel: Things to Smell:
__ Something smooth Evergreen tree needles
__ Something rough Aromatic stems or leaves

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