After a long, cold, dark winter, those first warm days of Spring are such a welcome relief. As the days lengthen and the buds start to form on the trees, your kids will be spending more and more time outside. Early spring is a great time to teach them about the change of the seasons in a way that is fun and interesting. Use some or all of these ideas to encourage them to get outside and explore your backyard!
Grow some bugs or butterflies
Learn about the metamorphosis cycle of caterpillars by raising and releasing butterflies. Insectlore.com has a great little kit that we have used for the past 4 years. Included in the kit is a butterfly ‘cage’ – a reusable soft nylon net that collapses for storage. Caterpillars are ordered through their website and arrive within a couple days. Six caterpillars are housed in the cup with their own food source.
After arrival, you simply place the cup somewhere that your family can observe the caterpillars (make sure the cup isn’t in direct sunlight or drafts). Your caterpillars will eat the included food source and, very quickly, get really BIG. About 7-10 days after they arrive at your house, the caterpillars climb up to the top of the cup, attach themselves to the lid, and form a chrysalis! About 10 days later, butterflies emerge. You can feed the butterflies for about 2-3 days but then you need to release them so that they continue their life cycle (and produce more butterflies!).
Releasing the butterflies is always a little bittersweet in our household, but it gives up a chance to discuss the importance of pollinators, and also ways to help pollinators in our own backyard.
Kits to grow Butterflies: www.insectlore.com
Plant a garden
Planting a garden, or even just a pot of herbs, is fun and rewarding for kids. Watching a seed sprout and turn into something beautiful or edible over the course of days and weeks teaches patience and the importance of nurturing living things through watering and weeding. There are so many valuable lessons to be gained from gardening!
Over the years, we’ve had great success with easy to grow, fast growing vegetables like radishes and early spring lettuces (which sprout within days, and can produce edible plants within about 21 days). Cherry tomatoes, not grown from seed but from plants, were also fun to grow and harvest. Growing a small garden may even inspire your kids to try some new veggies. Nothing compares with the taste of a vegetable you grew yourself straight from a warm, sunny garden.
Another fun project that produces fast results is growing wildflowers. While the instructions on the back of a wildflower mix bag may sound complicated, we’ve had good results over the years by simply raking bare soil with a metal rake (cleared of big roots, etc.) and sowing and watering a wildflower mix. Kids are able to help with every step of the process and the first sprouts begin to show within days.
Wildflower gardens are fun for kids because the gardens themselves are full and colorful, and change over the course of spring, summer, and fall. These gardens can be attractive to pollinators (butterflies, bees, birds) and help to further the conversation on the importance of supporting pollinators.
Our favorite source for Wildflower mixes: Eden Brothers
Our favorite source for Kid Sized Gardening tools: Curious Gardener
Backyard Bird Watching
I’m a lifelong lover of backyard birds, and that love has rubbed off on my kids. Feeding and observing backyard birds is one of those simple pleasures in life that I have enjoyed sharing with them.
Feeding backyard birds in the winter and early spring is a bit of a commitment. That commitment really only takes a couple minutes a day to make sure the food source is adequately filled. Once birds recognize your backyard as a food source, they become dependent on it.
Get your kids a pair of binoculars, a notebook and a pen, and a bird book and have them observe birds from inside or outside your home. Keep a list of the birds they find and where you observe the birds (i.e. at the feeder, on the ground, in the sky). Bird watching requires patience and silent observation. Observing bird behavior is fascinating and entertaining, as are the different songs that the birds use. We use an app on my phone called Merlin ID to identify birds and also hear their different songs. Fun fact: When I was in high school, I was the bird song expert for our school’s Envirothon team. Just call me a bird nerd!
Apps we use: Merlin ID by Cornell University. Identify birds for your specific region and help Merlin map their migration patterns. You can see the different variation of a bird species i.e. Male characteristics, Female characteristics. You can listen to the different bird songs. A cool tool we love to use is the photo ID feature – snap a picture and the tool helps you identify the bird.
Books we love: Identifying Birds by Audubon
Dig a hole
Maybe this is just because we have boys, but in both our old house as well as our current house, we gave them a good size square of the yard (at the corner of the yard and behind our shed) to do with whatever they like.
They love to dig, and giving them a good size square to do with whatever they want has been not only fun but educational. When they were younger, the dirt was a construction site for their trucks. Now that they have abandoned their toy trucks, their dirt pile or hole in the ground has become an ‘archaeological dig’.
As they’ve grown older and more responsible, we allow them to pretty much dig anywhere they like in the yard, as long as they don’t ruin anything that’s obviously landscaped.
While the kids haven’t found anything on their digs too noteworthy, the act of digging and discovering something has sparked their imaginations in a way that is so much fun to see. An old soda can pull tab becomes a ring. An old piece of pipe belonged to a long lost Native American tribe. A quarter from the 1990’s is pirate’s gold.
Tools we love: Little Tikes yard tools
Observe wildlife big and small
Whether you have a half acre in the suburbs of the Northeast, or several hundred rural acres in the midwest, there is wildlife to observe. A fat grey squirrel, a beautiful red fox, or even ants on the sidewalk can be educational.
Spring is the perfect time to get your kids back outside and to make them aware of the big life stories happening in your own backyard.