Monday, April 27, 2015

Incorporating Nature into Outdoor Play

Incorporate nature in your students’ outdoor play times this spring. Try these simple ideas from Project Learning Tree’s Environmental Experiences for Early Childhood.
  • Plant a vegetable or flower garden. Mark “keepers’ with popsicle sticks or flags so your students know what not to weed. Plant fast-growing plants or transplants. Provide child-size hoes and watering cans.
  • Supply magnifying lenses and clear containers to encourage your students to look for small animals in mulch, grass and soil.
  • Encourage your students to play in the dirt – supply trowels, disposable pie plates, watering cans, pie servers and miniature farm equipment such as tractors, plows, farm animals and fence-building materials.
  • Supply branches for your students to build forts and shelters.
  • Stockpile various sizes and colors of rocks.
  • Construct an outdoor sandbox.
  • Fill a shallow wading pool (“pond”) and equip it with fishing poles.
  • Lay a flat board (approximately 2 feet by 2 feet) on the ground. After a week of two, your students will begin finding insects, spiders, mice and other animals under the board. You may need to water the area around the board occasionally.
  • Hang bird feeders near classroom windows.
  • Plant native wildflowers to attract butterflies.
  • Plant native shrubs. Nuts, berries, and other fruit will attract wildlife all year long.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Greening Your Classroom

 “Green” your classroom with these simple ideas from Project Learning Tree’s Environmental Experiences for Early Childhood.
  • Set up recycling bins for paper, metal and plastic. Label the bins with words and pictures of the items that can be recycled in your community. Show your students where to find the numbers on plastic containers and teach them what can and cannot be put in the bins.
  • Set aside a separate box for paper that can be reused before being recycled. Regularly use paper from this box yourself so that your students see that it is something that adults do too.
  • Involve your students’ families in saving and collecting recyclables or throwaway items for projects (e.g., toilet paper tubes and empty egg cartons)/ Send home notes with lists of items your class can use.
  • Use cloth bags for your classroom shopping. Use the bags to transport items in and out of your classroom. Explain that you can use the bags repeatedly. Use reusable cloth bags in your dramatic play area when it is set up as a store.
  • Build a simple compost bin outside the school. Place fruit and vegetable scraps from snacks and other compostable materials in it. Invite children to help you add materials and turn the compost. Find more information at
  • Be a positive role model by conserving water, closing doors and turning off lights. Explain to your students what you are doing and why.
  • Use reusable plates, cups and utensils for snacks.
  • Plant a tree.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Field Study Fun

A field study plot is an area set aside for making observations over time. By carefully observing and recording a field study plot over a week, month or year, scientists and others can learn about wild animals, their habits and food preferences.

Setting Up a Field Study Plot
Research which plants attract the most wildlife in your area. Whenever possible, use native species which are adapted to local weather conditions and are often attractive to wildlife. You might also select a plant that grows and/or changes quickly to maintain student interest while conducting the field study.

Once you have selected a suitable plant species, find a group of plants of that species in your landscape or plan a space in which to plant them. Rope off a square yard or suitable sized area around the plants (children may be involved in the process) to serve as your study plot. You may have one study plot and work with one small group at a time or similar study plots that small groups can observe at the same time. With older children, you may have plots with different types of plants for a comparison study. If space is an issue, consider using container plants. Spring is a good time to start your field study.

Container Gardens
If it is desired or necessary to plant your own seeds, seedling or plants for your students to conduct a successful field study, there are a variety of container garden options that may suit your needs. Containers that have rims close to the ground will allow more ground dwelling animals to visit your field study plot. Larger containers with more soil generally require less frequent watering and are less susceptible to temperature extremes – but they may be much heavier to carry if you need to bring them indoors.

Follow these basic steps to create a container garden:
  • Select a container such as a clay pot or planter box that is large enough for your plants at their expected size at maturity.
  • Cover the bottom of the container with small rocks. Cover the rocks with a thick layer of potting soil.
  • Plant seeds, seedlings or plants in the soil according to the package or label directions. Check your garden every day and water as needed.
  • You many opt to carry your container garden indoors each evening (to protect it from vandals or large herbivores). Doing this may disrupt some natural cycles of the plant and or animals that use it.
Conduct a Simple Field Investigation
Take your students to your designated field study plot. Encourage students to look for animals at the ground level, on stems, under leaves and inside flowers. Help your students record their observations on a Field Study Data Sheet (from Project Learning Tree’s Environmental Experiences for Early Childhood). Students can color the printed pictures that match their observations. They may also draw, paste in photos or dictate descriptions of the animals they see.

Visit your field study plot on a regular basis so your students can observe how the plant and animals stay the same or change over the course of a week, a month, a season or even a year. Use a new Field Study Data Sheet to record observations each time so you can compare findings.

Tips for Successful Student Field Investigations
  • Don’t be afraid to share the wonder of discovery along with our students. Watch how an insect moves or notice how a plant’s color appears to change with varying light conditions.
  • Plan opportunities to practice investigative skills with your students – practice sitting quietly, using magnifiers, listening for sounds or recording what they see and hear.
  • Model investigation and discovery as an ongoing practice - provide opportunities for your students to think and allow time for them to process what they have learned and post more questions to explore.
  • Use open-ended question to further investigation – “What do you think lives in this tree?” or “What might have made these holes in the ground?”
  • Encourage your students to ask questions and build on their responses.
  • Don’t expect to have all the answers. It is not important to name every plant and animal seen outdoors. Use your students’ questions as a guide to your investigation. Look for answers together.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Backyard Bonanza

Explore the wonderful world of Iowa vertebrates with your students. A vertebrate is an animal that has a backbone and a skeleton on the inside of its body. People are vertebrates. So are many familiar animals like cats, dogs, snakes, goldfish and frogs.
Scientists group vertebrates into five different classes (fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals) based on features of their bodies. Visit the DNR Education Classroom Resources website for fact sheets featuring Iowa vertebrates.

Vertebrate Safari
Go on an outdoor safari to look for as many different animals with backbones as you and your students can find. Ask your students what vertebrates they think you will see – record their answers (a Vertebrate Scavenger Hunt worksheet is available on the Growing Up WILD web site). Look with your eyes and listen with your ears. Keep track of the vertebrates you see and compare it with your students’ predictions.

My Favorite Vertebrate Art Project
Stock your art center with a variety of art and craft materials for your students to create their favorite vertebrate. Students could sculpt the vertebrate, draw or paint it or even build it out of pomp oms and chenille stems. Encourage your students to add animal covering materials to the animal (e.g., glitter or sequin scales for fish; shiny paint or painted mixed with glue for amphibians; buttons or similar non-metallic “scales” for reptiles; construction paper “feathers” for birds and bits of yarn or fake fur for mammals. Let the students share their creations with the class along with reasons for it being their favorite.

Vertebrate “Simon Says”
Demonstrate motions to students for the following commands:
  • Fly like a bird.
  • Hop like a frog.
  • Slither like a snake.
  • Walk like a bear.
  • Swim like a fish.
Start by calling out commands in random order and have your students act out the motions. After a few rounds, change a command so that it is silly, such as “Hop like a fish.” Instruct students to NOT do the motions if the command is silly.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Reconnecting Children with Nature: Growing Up WILD trainings

This workshop leads you out the door and provides hands on activities and resource materials to help you lead your own nature explorations. Growing Up WILD activities use age appropriate practices and concepts to build on children’s sense of wonder and invites them to explore nature and the world around them. Specially written for children 3-7, activities include sections to address many learning areas: math, science, language, literacy, health living, play, and creativity.

Saturday, April 11, 2015
8:30 a.m. - 12:30 p.m.
Luther College, Valders Hall Room 379 East Wing (700 College Drive, Decorah)

Registration: Iowa Child Care Providers Training Registry— Click on Search Trainings, then search Reconnecting in the Title.
Registration Deadline: April 7, 2015
Registration Fee: $10 - your enrollment will be complete when payment is received: mail to Child Care Resource and Referral, 1111 Paine Street, Suite H, Hawkeye Plaza, Decorah, IA 52101

Saturday, April 11, 20159:00 a.m. - 1:00 p.m.Adair County Extension Office, Green Room (154 Public Square, Greenfield)
Registration: Iowa Child Care Providers Training Registry— Click on Search Trainings, then search Reconnecting in the Title.
Registration Deadline: April 5, 2015
Registration Fee: $10 - your enrollment will be complete when payment is received: mail to ISU Extension, Dallas County, 28059 Fairground Road, Greenfield, IA 50849

Saturday, May 9, 20158:30 a.m. - 12:30 p.m.
Webster County Conservation Nature Center (1415 Nelson Ave, Fort Dodge)
Iowa Child Care Providers Training Registry— Click on Search Trainings, then search Reconnecting in the Title.
Registration Deadline: April 25, 2015

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Spring Themed Nature Games

Keep your students active this spring with these fun spring themed games.

Robin’s Egg
Select 1 student to be the robin. Have the robin sit with his/her back to the other students, at least ten feet away. Place a plastic egg behind the robin. The robin needs to protect the egg. The remaining students take turns sneaking up behind the robin and try to steal the egg. If the robin hears the person sneaking up, he/she will “call” and then turn around. If the robin catches a student, that student becomes the new robin. If there is no student when the robin “calls,” the robin remains the robin and the game starts again.

Flower Power
Students pretend to be pollinators traveling from flower to flower. Scatter hula hoops across the play area (fewer hula hoops than students). Place a card with a shape inside each hula hoop (flower). Give each student a card with a shape. Students must travel around the play area, matching their card to one inside a flower. When they find a match, they stand inside the flower. Only one student can be inside each flower. If a student doesn’t “pollinate” a flower, they are out. Remove a flower (hula hoop) after each round.

Build a Nest
Students are robins building their nests. Divide the students into two relay teams. Each team stands single file behind the starting line. Place 2 buckets of wet mud (1 for each team) and the end of the course. Place 2 small containers (1 for each team) at the starting line. Give each student a plastic spoon. The first student “flies” to the bucket of mud, scoops up a spoonful of mud, flies back to the starting line, and empties their spoon of mud into the container (nest). Continue until all students have helped build the nest.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Tips for Owl Calling

February’s full moon is nicknamed the owl moon, as the crisp night air is filled with the calls and hoots of mating owls. Crunch the snow and trek into the woods with a child—or the young at heart—to practice calling owls.

Use the moonlight reflecting off the snow-covered ground to illuminate the surroundings as you follow the sound of an owl’s call. Move slowly and patiently to glimpse owls silhouetted on leafless trees by shimmering moonbeams. When an owl calls, try to mimic the sound and see if you get a response.

All eight species of Iowa owls are found here in the winter. The great horned, screech and barred owls are most common. The short-eared is on the state endangered species list and the barn and long-eared are on the threatened list. If you glimpse one of these, you are lucky indeed.

Very common, most often heard in summer, spring and fall. Search along forested areas in river bottoms across the state, except northwest Iowa.


Common. Small, but slightly larger than a saw-whet owl. Found year-round in Iowa. Nocturnal, but will respond to calls day or night. Nests early spring and summer.

The only owl that nests underground, often using old badger or fox dens. Most recorded sightings are in northwest Iowa.

Endangered. A prairie species, find them hunting over open grasslands. A summer nester and one of the last to nest. “We have a small breeding number during the summer, but more short-ears are in Iowa during the winter, when they move south from prairie areas in Canada,” says Doug Harr, who heads the DNR’s nongame program.

Great Horned
The largest and easiest owl to find, they hoot in a series of five or six in late December and January to attract mates. By following the sound, you can see them sitting in an old red-tailed hawk nest, incubating eggs, even during a snowstorm. Often lay eggs by early February. Their owlets take a long time to mature, so they are the earliest nesters, doing so to take advantage of an early food supply for their young. Owlets can hunt on their own by summer, perfect timing to catch early populations of rabbits and rodents.

Threatened. Find in conifer groves in winter and sometimes in groups. The only owls that form flocks. Usually found in the same location year after year.

Not here during summer, when the all-white snowy resides in the Arctic. “They come down when the food base of lemmings and mice has a population crash,” says Harr. That happens about every four years. “Not responsive to calls, you will just happen upon them sitting on a fencepost or on a frozen clod of dirt in an open field. A ground nester, they like to get on a perch to scan for prey.” Most are found north of Interstate 80.

Northern Saw-Whet
Our smallest owl, “Probably a lot more common than we realize, this owl is very secretive,” says Harr. Often found in winter in red cedar trees. They perch close to tree trunks and sometimes close to the ground. Unafraid of people, they can be approached within a few feet. “This is a species that we are just starting to understand more about,” says Harr.

Barn Owl
Rare, with less than ten known nests in the state. “There are probably more than that, but they are hard to find,” says Harr. An oak savannah species, they thrived when fire and natural free-roaming grazers such as elk kept the forest floor open, with knee-high grasses. A rare and quickly disappearing habitat, the oak forests are now often choked with above-head tangles of brush and woody plants. Barn owls have a distinctive heart-shaped facial shape. Often found in abandoned barns, they are a year-round resident and a spring and summer nester.

Children and adults will enjoy listening to various owl calls online. Visit the famed Cornell Lab of Ornithology at and search for owls.

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2010 issue of
Iowa Outdoors magazine.