Many years ago, my son and I were walking home along our tree-lined street in Brooklyn when he suddenly stopped and began staring intently into a tree well. I walked over to hurry him along when I saw what had grabbed his attention. Hundreds of tiny black ants were struggling to move the carcass of a bumblebee toward an opening in the sidewalk.
A storm of questions from my curious six-year-old soon followed. “How can they lift that big bee?” “Won’t they get stung?” “Is he really dead?” “Are they going to eat him?”
In that instant I gave up any hope of an early dinner. What started out as a quick walk down the block turned into a lengthy drama that held our attention for nearly an hour as we tried to make sense of what we were witnessing.
This hour with my son has remained with me ever since and has informed my approach to teaching young children. I’m very fortunate to work at a public school where Earth Day lasts all year. We help children foster deep relationships with the natural world around them and give them many opportunities to engage with nature in self-directed and meaningful ways. This includes giving them lots of time to be themselves: kids using their own curiosity to explore.
It’s important to remember that kids encounter mysteries on a nearly continual basis. The world is new to them and their curiosity is at its peak. Research shows that our early experiences in nature form the foundation for our understanding of the way things work. When we give our kids time to be curious — like pausing to watch the bee-carrying ants — we help them build a meaningful relationship with nature.
Here are six ways you, too, can make Earth Day a year-long celebration.
Become Urban Nature Explorers
You don’t need to live near the woods to encounter nature. The urban environment is also a great place to study nature. Finding a spot where nature is pushing back against the built environment offers a lasting lesson on the tenacity of life. Look for roots pushing the sidewalk up, or seedlings sprouting between the cracks. Springtime in an overgrown vacant lot can yield a surprising array of wildflowers and busy insects. Fall offers opportunities to witness how plants and animals prepare for regeneration.
Hunt for Patterns
The PBS KIDS series Cyberchase helps encourage kids to explore mathematical concepts in the environment. The natural world is abundant with patterns — in leaves and flowers, in the ripple in a pond made by a tossed pebble, and in the v-shape pattern of flying birds. Go on a nature walk together and use this Cyberchase activity to find and record patterns. Be adventurous and explore the outdoors in all kinds of weather! Watching the rain cascade down the bark of a giant beech tree is an exhilarating feeling that you will miss if you stay indoors.
Answer Questions with More Questions
As you explore together, your child will have many questions, but providing an instant answer can often end the investigation. Instead, say something like, “I’m not sure. Let’s find out together.” Bring a small notebook or use your phone to jot down your questions. When you arrive back home, you can both delve into the many resources available for research.
Make Conservation a Fun Family Project
The environment outside is impacted by what you do inside your home. You and your child can help to make sure there is enough water for everyone, including animals and plants, by using less. Start when you wake up in the morning, and go through your family’s normal routine. Every time you use water, write it in this chart. Pick at least three ways that you can try to save water at home.
You can also go on an “energy vampire” scavenger hunt in your home. Energy vampires are appliances and other electronics that are plugged into outlets and using up electricity (and costing you money), even when they are turned off. Count all of the electronics and cords that are plugged in that don’t need to be, and unplug as many as you can.
Become Citizen Scientists Together
You and your child can help scientists from Tufts University track fireflies and collect data to understand why the fireflies are disappearing. Or, you can contribute to research on the extent of plastics pollution around the globe by collecting and submitting water samples. These are just two of hundreds of ongoing citizen science projects you can join with your child.
Take Time to “Just Be”
Find the beauty in what is right in front of you and take time to appreciate it with your child. Remember those ants with their bumblebee? Wonder is all around.
Want to learn more? Explore the outdoors with Cyberchase math and environmental science videos, games, and activities.