On Earth Day & Every Day
Thursday, April 22 marks the 51st Earth Day, an initiative created to diversify, educate, and advocate for the environment worldwide. This means that kids who were around for the first Earth Day way back in 1970 are now in their fifties. Thanks to this popular program, at least one day each year is dedicated to reflecting on our planet’s health and what we can do to improve it.
Most children already enjoy engaging with the natural environment: Digging in dirt or sand, examining bugs, exploring woods, shorelines or streams. This coming Earth Day is a great opportunity to begin expanding environmental awareness for the young ones in your life. Your gentle guidance, combined with fun activities, will help them learn more about wildlife, ecology, and the importance of preserving and protecting the natural world. Piquing their interest in ecology may help them grow into adults who will value nature’s creatures and the environment and tread lightly on our planet. To help you celebrate Earth Day, we’ll cover seven ecological learning activities you and your kids can enjoy in the great outdoors.
Earth Day is a Place to Start
Earth Day makes a terrific jumping-off point for educating children on the environment and developing their curiosity about the natural world. But there is no such thing as a bad time to start teaching kids about their role in understanding and protecting Earth’s ecology. With some spare time and a little imagination, you can set kids on a lifelong path to appreciating nature and becoming responsible stewards of the environment. It doesn’t take a degree in child development or earth science. It can be as simple as gathering pinecones in a forest or seashells at the beach. At most, you’ll want some paper and crayons for helping the kids to interpret their findings, a basket or bucket for collecting nature’s gifts, and a calendar for tracking seasonal changes. If they ask you a question you don’t have the answer to, you can sit down and research it together.
Here are a few kid-friendly activities for kids that the Earth Day organization suggests for helping small children to better understand nature:
Take in the Colors
Take kids who are learning their colors outdoors and ask them to identify the colors of plants, insects, birds, and other wild creatures. Talk about the colors of the sky and clouds, which can be so much more than simply “blue” or “white.” Watch sunrises and sunsets together and describe the shifting color palette. Help children who already know their basic colors to find examples of the subtle differences in shades and hues. Here is a handy color vocabulary list for getting started.
Explore Nature’s Music
Visit a nature preserve, meadow, shoreline, or park. Have the children listen to the ambient sounds and identify them: the wind in the treetops, the crashing of waves, the screech of seagulls, or the buzzing of cicadas on a hot summer day. How many different sounds can they count? How many can be heard all at once? Which sounds do they recognize that are not natural? Help them learn to recognize bird calls or the way different kinds of trees rustle in the breeze. Catalog and compare the many sounds they hear in different natural settings such as in the woods, near a lake or ocean, in a meadow, or alongside a brook.
Starting with Earth Day, Study the Seasons
Earth Day is in the springtime, a great starting point for year-round observations of the changing of the seasons. Make a project of tracking the seasonal changes in your local landscape and weather over the course of the year. Compare these observations season to season. How do the colors differ, the scents, the air temperatures? When is the ground soft v. hard? What time are the sunrises and sunsets? Record the date of the first spring flowers they notice this year, the first ladybug of summer, the first autumn leaf, or the first snowfall of winter. Season to season, note the differences in wildlife they see, hear, and smell. Encourage kids to describe the scents of autumn or the many textures of snow. Note how the behavior of wild creatures differs as the seasons pass. Which direction are the geese flying? Are the squirrels chasing each other or burying nuts?
Get Down on the Ground
Using twigs and string, mark off a square foot of earth and have the children inspect it closely and help them identify the different varieties of grass or weeds, insects, spiders, or worms. Have them draw pictures or write about what they see, feel, smell, and hear while studying their tiny patch of earth. Repeat this exercise in different locations: the backyard, a meadow, a park, the beach, the woods, or near a creek. Encourage older children to catalog and compare their findings. It’s truly amazing what diversity of life can exist in even a tiny patch of nature. Earth Day is the perfect day to try this fun and fascinating activity.
Go Thing Finding
Give children baskets or other lightweight containers and take them on a “thing finding” expedition, collecting and examining seashells, driftwood, fallen leaves, acorns, pinecones, or twigs. Show them how to do so carefully, to avoid disturbing the creatures or plants that discarded them or live among them. With smaller kids, be sure to supervise them closely to prevent choking hazards or nibbling on toadstools or wild berries. A treasure hunt for nature’s gifts fits well with skills such as identifying and categorizing. It may also help kids learn about different textures. With smaller children, help them count their prizes. How many acorns? How many pinecones?
Learn About Lifecycles
Many living things change dramatically through the different stages of their lives and can be readily observed and discussed. In the springtime, choose a natural environment you have access to visit regularly, such as a nature preserve or pond. Help your child look for plants and wildlife at the beginning stages, such as wildflowers, fruiting bushes or trees, ducklings, caterpillars, or tadpoles. Keep track of the development of these creatures and plants as they grow and change over the course of the seasons.
Always Tread Lightly
As you embark on these activities with children, one of the most important things you can teach them about environmental stewardship is to tread lightly on the earth. Recycle. Never litter. Avoid single-use containers such as disposable water bottles whenever practical. Set a good example by treading lightly yourself. Teach children to leave nature as undisturbed as they can. Smell the wildflowers, take a photo or draw a picture, but don’t pluck them. Observe the anthill but don’t destroy it. Look at the birdnest but never touch it. Enjoy a snack but pack out any trash. Be sure to explain why.
Additional photo credits
Top background image of children exploring a meadow by Patty Brito on Unsplash
Bottom background image of mother and child walking along the shoreline by Brian Gordillo on Unsplash
Featured search image of child in a field of yellow flowers by Vitolda Klein on Unsplash