Monday, July 21, 2014

Things to do in your backyard this week!

Build a Fort
Build your own outdoor hideout!

Large sticks
Old sheets or blankets
String or rope

The sky is the limit! Create a fort by leaning your sticks against an existing structure, such as a tree or play set, or create a fort by leaning the sticks together like a teepee. Use ropes or string to help hold sheets in place. Use an old blanket as the base.  Make it your own! A backyard fort is a great place to hide while you observe birds, write in your nature journal, read a book, or just sit and think!

Make Rain Music
We have been getting our fair share of rain across Iowa this year! Celebrate and put the rain to use by making your own rain music!

Rain (supplied by Mother Nature)
Metal pots and pans

The next time it rains (should be soon!) set up metal pots and pans on a deck or your yard where they will get rained on. Listen to the rain music!

Make a Bug “Movie”
Set up a white sheet and a light after dark and watch backyard bugs gather to star in your after-hours “movie”!

White sheet, pillow case, or large white paper or cardboard
Clothes pins or other way to hang sheet/paper
Flashlight or lantern
Insect repellant
Paper, sketchbook, camera or way to record your observations

Hang your sheet outside in your backyard at a height that everyone can easily see it (so about head/shoulders height of the smallest participant). Hanging it on a clothesline, on a deck etc are good ideas.

Set your light source (flashlight, lantern, or even old lamp with the shade removed) near your sheet. Turn off other light sources (such as a yard or deck light).

Wait for insects to show up! Observe, count, record, and enjoy the “night life”!

Dig a Pitfall Trap
Build a simple pitfall trap to learn about small creatures that live in your yard!

Small container with steep sides (such as an old yogurt container)
Trowel or small shovel
Several small rocks
One larger rock
Flat piece of wood
Vegetable or fruit scraps

Choose a spot in your yard to dig your trap. The soil needs to be soft enough so that you can dig down several inches.

Dig a hole the size and depth of your container. Place container in hole and fill in around it. You want the top of the container to be level with the ground.

Add the vegetable and/or fruit scraps.

Place four small rocks around the trap and cover with the flat piece of wood.  Place the larger rock on top to hold it in place. There should be about a one inch gap between the ground and the wood.

Leave the trap overnight. In the morning check your trap to see what critters you have found! Look carefully, they may be hiding. After you have identified and observed your critters let them go somewhere safe (such as under a bush).

Make a Nature Bracelet
Explore your yard and make a nature bracelet with the things you find!

Masking tape (or similar tape)

Tear a piece of tape to wrap around your wrist, make it big enough so it can slip on and off.  Wrap the tape into a bracelet keeping the sticky side out. While wearing your bracelet explore your yard and decorate your bracelet with tiny treasures you find such as flower petals, small leaves, seeds, etc. Create your own beautiful masterpiece!

Make a Nature Mobile
Make a mobile from nature objects you find in your yard!

Two sticks
Yarn or string
Nature objects such as flowers, feathers, pine cones, acorns etc.

Gather items from your yard that you would like on your mobile.

Tie the two sticks into an X. Tie the objects onto your X and viola! Hang your mobile where you can enjoy your nature objects!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Trees For Kids Grant available for Fall

Trees For Kids grant program is designed to provide hands-on educational opportunities for Iowa youth by planting trees on school grounds and other public places. 
The grant pays up to $5,000 in tree and mulch cost, and provides educational tree planting demonstrations to participating adults and youth. Applications are now available for this fall. 
This past spring, 21 schools and/or communities received more than $68,000 to plant over 1,000 trees around the state from the Trees For Kids grant. 
Over their 60 year lifespan, these trees will save more than 480,000 kilowatt hours of electricity by shading buildings and more than 98,000 therms by slowing down winds and reducing building heat loss. 
Those trees will help reduce flooding throughout by intercepting over 45,500,000 gallons of storm water and will reduce over 4,910,000 pounds of atmospheric carbon dioxide through CO2 sequestration and decreased energy production needs and emissions. 
Trees planted around schools and in neighborhoods have also shown to give youth increased levels of concentration, lower levels of aggression, lower levels of obesity, and fewer symptoms of ADHD. 
Communities are made more livable by having a healthy, diverse tree canopy.  To download the grant application, go to:

For more information, contact Laura Wagner, Trees for Kids Coordinator, Iowa Department of Natural Resources, at 515-281-6749.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Nature Photography for Kids

Create Your Own Backyard Field Guide
Kids love cameras and kids love nature. Combine the two and you have with a wonderful project to fill your summer days.  Last week we explored our backyards with Backyard Exploration, this week we are going to expand on that and make our own backyard field guides using photography.

Allow children to be the lead on the project and follow their interests. Do they want to create a backyard butterfly field guide? A tree field guide?  The sky is the limit (literally - maybe they want to create a cloud guide!). Inventory the plants and animals (or what they have chosen) in your backyard. Photograph each plant and animal and take notes about where you found it, how it feels, smells, and other observations.

Once you have photographed the subjects you want to include download the pictures to your computer. Go through the photographs with your children and decide which photos to include in your field guide (you will most likely have several photos of one subject; pick the best quality photo of each).

With your children identify each subject that you are going to include in your backyard field guide. If you do not have field guides they can be checked out from your local library. There are also many on-line field guide resources.  Allow children time to look through field guides to get an idea of what they look like, and what information is included in each. Decide what information you are going to include in your backyard field guide.

Create your field guides by printing pictures and descriptions and creating a journal. An old notebook or photo album will work. You could also create a photobook through a website such as Snapfish and have an actual book created and mailed to you. You now have a field guide for your own backyard!

Want to expand your field guide? Create a field guide for your neighborhood or community, your favorite camping site, local park, or a vacation trip!

Camera Basics
Teach children the basics of operating a digital camera. For young children teaching them to point and shoot may be enough. Older children may want to learn about the different settings.

There are several kinds of children’s cameras available; however, they generally do not take quality photos. You can get a cheap “adult” camera that will take better photos for the same price. Base your decision on the age of the children and how much “rough and tumble” action the camera will see - kid’s cameras are built to withstand drops, and rougher handling. You can also allow children to use your camera with supervision or purchase disposable cameras for each child.

More Fun Nature Photography Ideas for Kids
Photography scavenger hunts: colors, shapes, alphabet (i.e. tree branches shaped like an A etc), insects, leaves, etc…
Themed photography walks: butterflies, beetles, birds, trees, wildflowers
Personal photo book: allow each child to review their pictures and print off or create a personal photobook of their favorites.
Nature Journal: Add your nature photos to your nature journal.

Castella, K., and B. Boyl. 2006. Discovering Nature's Alphabet. Heyday Books.
Criswell, S. G., et al. 1996. Nature Through Science and Art. McGraw-Hill Companies.
Hass, R. and P. Michael. 2008. River of Words: Young Poets and Artists on the Nature of Things. Milkweed Editions.
Lepp, G., and K. V. Lepp. 2010. Wildlife Photography: Stories from the Field. Lark Books NC.
Sweet, T. 2010. Fine Art Nature Photography: Advanced Techniques and the Creative Process. Stackpole Books.

11 Simple Tips for Kids: Nature Photography

National Geographic Kids: Photography Tips for Kids

Nature Mom: Kids ‘n Cameras: Five Tips for Introducing Children to Photography

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Great American Backyard Campout 2014
The annual Great American Backyard Campout is Saturday June 28 this year! Get your camping gear ready and join the nation as we sleep under the stars!

Your backyard is the perfect place to try camping with kids. It provides a great opportunity to learn how to pitch a tent, build a campfire, and introduce kids to the fun of sleeping in a tent while the comforts of home are only steps away. Have you already introduced your kids to camping? Backyard camping is still fun for the whole family – even kids who have been camping at campground love the excitement of sleeping in a tent in their own backyard!

25 Delicious Camping Recipes

Campfire Cooking

Kids Camping: Camp Songs

Kids Camping: Camp Games

Kids Camping: Campfire Safety

Monday, June 9, 2014

Cicada Mania!
There is a wonderful and exciting insect event taking place across Iowa this year - 17 year periodical cicadas are emerging!  This event won’t take place again until 2031! Get out in your backyard, or local park and explore the world of these fascinating insects!

17-year periodical cicadas are among the longest lived insects in the world and are the longest lived insects in North America. Nearly their entire life is spent underground as a nymph, their immature form, before emerging and molting into their adult form.  They live in their adult form for about 4-6 weeks during which time they will mate and the female will lay eggs, before they die.

There are also species of annual cicadas which have broods that hatch every year or every other year. What sets the periodical cicadas apart and makes them so special are the synchronized hatches every 13 or 17 years as various broods come into maturity at once.

Periodical cicadas, genus Magicicada, are frequently and incorrectly referred to as “locusts”. Periodical cicadas are actually more closely related to leafhoppers and are in the insect order Hemiptera while true locusts are in the order Orthoptera and are related to grasshoppers.

Periodical cicada nymphs live underground for 17 years feeding on the juices of plant roots.  The nymphs of periodical cicadas undergo 5 instar stages or molts as they grow and develop.  During a hatch year periodical cicada nymphs emerge on warm spring evenings once the soil temperature has reached 63° F. They climb onto nearby vegetation to molt on last time and complete their transformation into adult cicadas, called imago. After they molt they are whitish and their exoskeleton is soft.  After about an hour their exoskeleton will harden and darken. Adults have red eyes and a black dorsal thorax. Their wings are translucent and have orange veins. The undersides of their abdomens are black, orange, or striped with orange and black depending on the species. They average 1 to 1.5 inches in length. Females are slightly larger than males.

Cicadas are well known for their song or “buzz” male cicadas sing to attract a mate. Their loud buzzing or drumming sound is produced by two shell-like “drums” or tymbals located along the sides of their abdomens. Strong muscles vibrate these drum membranes several times per second producing the incessant loud buzzing sound they are well known for.  A group of males in a “chorus” tree can reach 100 decibels!

After mating the female cicada will cut V-shape slits in the bark of young twigs, laying approximately 20 eggs in each. She will lay approximately 600 eggs during the mating season. The cicada eggs will hatch after about 6 to 10 weeks and the newborn nymphs will drop to the ground where they will burrow down and find tree roots to feed off of. They will spend the next 17 years of their lives underground feeding, growing and developing before they emerge to start the cycle again! In many countries cicadas are seen as a symbol of rebirth.

Cicadas do not bite or sting. Their mouth parts are made for piercing plants and sucking sap. Theoretically they could “pierce” your skin if they were to mistake you for a tree, but the chances of that happening are highly unlikely. Even if this were to happen they do not possess venom nor do they carry diseases that can harm humans.

Cicadas also do not pose a serious threat to mature vegetation. There may be isolated areas of sapling die-off, or of mature trees that have twig die-off, but overall cicadas do not have a detrimental effect to forest and woodland health.

In many regions of the world cicadas are considered a delicacy and are eaten in both savory meals and in sweets. Care to delve into the world of edible insects? Below is a recipe to try!

Candied Cicadas
1 pound cicadas
1 cup white sugar
2 tsp ground cinnamon
¼ tsp salt
3 tbsp milk
1 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350°F (177°C). Spread cicadas in a single layer over a baking sheet. Roast for approximately 15-20 minutes, or until the cicadas start to turn brown and are thoroughly dried out.
Stir together sugar, cinnamon, salt, and milk in a medium saucepan. Cook over medium-high heat for eight minutes, or until the mixture reaches the soft ball stage at 236°F (113°C). Remove from heat, and stir in vanilla immediately.

Add cicadas to sugar syrup, and stir to coat well. Spoon onto waxed paper, and immediately separate cicadas with a fork. Cool and store in airtight containers.

Singing Cicada Craft

Friday, May 16, 2014

Take the Kids to the Park

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources is participating in the national effort this weekend to get children into parks.
National Kids to Parks Day is held the third Saturday in May as part of an ongoing effort to connect youth with nature and encourage them to explore outdoors, especially at parks in their communities.  A list of events registered in each state is available at
The DNR has been promoting reconnecting Iowans with their natural resources through Take it Outside and Healthy, Happy Outdoors campaign.
“We want every Iowan to know that spending time outdoors increases physical activity and reduces stress,” said Todd Coffelt, chief of the Iowa DNR’s State Parks Bureau.
For information on Iowa State Parks, go to
“No matter where they live, Iowans can find places to spend outside that are close to home,” Coffelt said.

Friday, April 25, 2014

April is National Frog Month! 

Celebrate this frog-tastic month with these fun froggy activities:
1. Observe frogs in a pond or wetland..
2. Read books about frogs.
3. Make a frog craft.
4. Write a poem about frogs.
5. Pick up garbage at your local pond to help keep frog habitat clean.

Books about frogs:
Arnosky, J. 2002. All About Frogs. Scholastic, Inc.
Beltz, E. 2009. Frogs: Inside Their Remarkable World. Firefly Books, Limited.
Heller, R. 1995. How to Hide a Meadow Frog and Other Amphibians. Groslett & Dunlap.
Marent, T., and T. Jackson. 2010. Frog: A Photographic Portrait. DK Publishing, Inc.
Naden, C.J. 1972. Let's Find Out About Frogs. Scholastic Library Publishing.
Stewart, M., and H. Bond. 2010. A Place for Frogs. Peachtree Publishers, Ltd.

Froggy crafts:

Want to do more? 
April 26th is Save the Frogs Day! Learn more at: