Opportunities to investigate physical, life and earth science are everywhere. You don’t have to live on a farm or visit a zoo to see living things. Looking carefully can reveal a variety of insects, mammals, birds and plants in almost every yard or park. How many different kinds of flowering plants or leaves can we see? What evidence do we find that tells us animals have been here? Seasonal changes in plants and vegetation can be documented through drawings in a notebook or through a cell phone’s camera. Check out some of these great ideas for exploring backyard science or science in the park with your first or second grader.
What’s in a circle? Use a hula hoop or a tied piece of string to create a similar-size circle, and place it on any field, yard or park. Challenge your child to look carefully at the ground inside that circle to see what evidence of living things she can find. Encourage her to look carefully at the various plants, and imagine what the world looks like from the perspective of a very small animal such as an ant. A hand lens will help this process along. Just the presence of the boundary can help keep children’s focus inside the circle. This activity can help your child recognize the diversity of living things in even a small space.
Field guides: Whatever you do outdoors, try to remember to have a field guide along. The field guide can help you name many of the living things you run across, but the name itself is not very important in science. More important, the field guide can provide other information about this living thing, such as habitat, average size, etc. Once your child has some familiarity with what a field guide can offer, encourage him to create his own about a nearby space. What kinds of living things are there? What information might you provide to help someone using the field guide? Your child can draw pictures of some of the living things or take photos; this can be a very rewarding science writing exercise.
Follow a plant or animal’s growth and development: As children grow more capable of careful observation over time, they can observe and record the growth of a plant or animal. This is possible any time of year, but more rapid change in plants is observable a week or two after a seed has been planted or during the springtime in most of the U.S., when bulbs begin to emerge and bushes and trees get new growth. Give your child a magnifying glass and a small notebook to record the plant’s changes in words, drawings and photos. Although plants are generally easier to follow, your child might want to follow an insect such as a caterpillar which often stays in a very close proximity to its food source. As it grows, munching on leaves, your child can note its change in size and stage from caterpillar (larva) to pupa, to adult. Here’s a related activity, Growing Plants, from Sid the Science Kid.