Jun 232016

With summer upon us, finding things for kids to do can be a challenge. This week, I’d like to propose a few activities from the new “Big Book of Nature Activities”, which I co-wrote with Jacob Rodenburg of Camp Kawartha. We’re confident that many of the activities will be fun for adults, as well! For more information on the book, go to www.drewmonkman.com

The Big Book of Nature Activities

The Big Book of Nature Activities

Scent Trail

You’ll learn:  How animals follow scent trails

You’ll need:  Lemon, almond, mint, maple or orange extract, blindfolds

Background: Unfortunately, our human nose isn’t sensitive enough to follow natural scent trails. However, many other mammals can. Canids (or members of the dog family) have an incredible sense of smell – many thousands of times better than humans. We might say, “hmmm mac and cheese.” Canids, on the other hand, might say, “Hmmm noodles and cheese and butter and salt and milk and bread crumbs and metal pot and Aunt Marge must have just made this!”

Procedure: In this game, you’ll be given a “helping nose” so that you can follow a scent trail to a reward at the end. Work in partners. One person is blindfolded while the other lays down a scent trail with extract. You only need a drop or two every foot or so for about 30 feet (10 m). Try to lay down a curving trail to make it more challenging. At the end of the scent trail, place a wrapped candy. Guide the blindfolded partner to the beginning of your trail and let them use their nose to find the reward at the end.

Nature Table

A simple, on-going activity is to set up a nature table in your home or cottage. You may wish to label some of the items you display. See if you can find some of the following: leaves of different sizes, shapes, edges, textures, and shades of green (preserved between 2 sheets of clear Mactac plastic); a bracket fungus from a tree trunk; egg fragments from turtle nests that have been dug up by a predator; different types of cones, seeds, berries; a vase of roadside wildflowers;  dragonfly exuviae (cast skin); dead insects like dragonflies or butterflies that you come across;  “scent bouquet” of wild bergamot, milkweed flowers, etc. You can also set up a glass bottle terrarium for temporary “guests” like a toad or salamander.

Pirate Eye

While sitting quietly outdoors, shut one eye and cover it with your hand for about three minutes. Observe the scene through your one open eye. Notice anything? You’ve lost depth perception! After three minutes, switch between your eyes, opening one, then the other. Do this repeatedly. The shades of colours will have completely changed between your eyes. That is because one pupil (the black spot in the middle of your eyes) dilated —  got  bigger —  when you closed it. When you open your eyes again, the world looks brighter through this eye. The other eye, with a smaller pupil, creates darker shades. So which color is real? Do you think all humans see exactly in the same shades? As visual creatures, we humans can distinguish over two million shades of colour.

Pirate eye!

Pirate eye!

Fish Prints

You’ll learn: The patterns and scale structures of different kinds of fish.

Gyotaku fish print - Jacob Rodenburg

Gyotaku fish print – Jacob Rodenburg

You’ll need: A whole fish, a newspaper, acrylic paint, paintbrushes or rollers, paper towels, paper (e.g., tissue paper, construction paper, rice paper, paper plates), fabric (e.g., T-shirt). • Background: Gyotaku, or fish printing using rice paper and ink, originated more than 100 years ago in Japan as a way for anglers to record the size of their catch.

Procedure: Cover the work area with newspaper. Wash off any mucus on the fish and pat dry with paper towels. Place the fish on the newspaper. Slather paint all over the exposed side of the fish using rollers or brushes. Make sure you cover one entire side of the fish. Place a sheet of paper or fabric (e.g., T-shirt) over the fish and press it down firmly, being careful not to move it. Smooth down. Carefully remove the paper or fabric and allow to dry. You can use the fish again for another print. Just carefully wash off all of the paint under a tap.

Natural Perfume

Collect leaves, flowers and buds that are strongly scented (e.g., milkweed flowers, lavender flowers, mint leaves, wintergreen leaves, balsam poplar buds) Chop into small pieces until you have enough to fill a measuring cup. Empty the pieces into a bowl and add a cup of water. Let the mixture sit overnight. Strain the water through a coffee filter and into a clean spray bottle. Spritz over yourself and your friends and enjoy the sweet scent!

Firefly Fun

You’ll learn: How to attract fireflies and make a natural night “light”

You’ll need: Flashlight, glass jar, ice cream tub with lid.

Background: The firefly is a beetle with a special organ in its abdomen capable of mixing oxygen, a pigment called luciferin and the enzyme luciferase. When the insect flies upward, these chemicals mingle and create a flash. As the insect descends, the flash turns off. When a female of the same species sees the flash, she responds with her own light signal. Eventually the male and female fireflies find each other and mate.

What to do: On a summer evening, just as dusk fades into night, visit a meadow where there are fireflies. If you have a flashlight or a wristwatch that glows in the dark, try reproducing the pattern of flashes. Different species of fireflies flash at different rates. Like Morse code, each pulse of light communicates a special message to the opposite sex. Can you attract a firefly by imitating the sequence? You might also wish to make a “night light” for your bedroom. Catch several fireflies in a plastic ice cream tub and transfer them to a glass jar with a lid. Add a few leaves and a drop or two of water. Lie in bed and fall asleep to their lovely star-like flashes. Let them go in the morning.

Plant Weaving

You’ll learn: To create inspiring art by using the vibrant colours of summer.

You’ll need: A forked branch, string or wool, flowers, leaves, grasses, small evergreen boughs.

What to do: Find a sturdy forked stick about as wide as your thumb width and 20–28 in. (50–70 cm) long. Wrap string or wool between the forks approximately  every inch (2 cm). Weave the plant material through the crisscrossing string. You’ll be amazed at the color, texture and form of your creation.

Try this: Collect natural objects (e.g., leaves of various shapes, sizes and  colors; twigs; seeds; acorn caps; evergreen needles; berries; shells) and use them as building blocks to make caterpillars, leaf bugs, flowers, spiders and more. Use your imagination!plant-weaving-jacob-rodenburg

Pond Study

You’ll learn: Some of the intriguing invertebrates that live in ponds.

You’ll need: Pail (preferably with a lid), small aquarium or large glass bottle, small plastic viewing jars, fine-meshed net, shoes you can get wet, hand lens, guide to aquatic invertebrates (go to: http://www.lakesuperiorstreams.org/understanding/benthos_ID.html)

Background: Some of the common invertebrates found in ponds, swamps or streams include mayfly larvae, caddisfly larvae (usually in cases of plant material), damselfly nymphs, dragonfly nymphs, giant water bugs, water striders, water boatmen, backswimmers, leeches and crayfish. Tadpoles, frogs and aquatic salamanders may live here, too. All are easy to catch. What to do: Take your pail, plastic containers and net to a nearby pond, swamp or shallow stream. Either from the edge or by wading out into the water (no more than knee-deep), dip your net down into the dense aquatic vegetation where many creatures hang out. When you catch something like a “wiggling bug,” put it in your pail. Add a little aquatic vegetation to the pail, too. Continue until you have a variety of different creatures. Try different parts of the pond, including the muddy bottom. Don’t pour mud into the pail, however. If you are catching creatures in a stream, many will be attached to the underside of rocks. Gently push them off the rock and into the pail. Don’t be afraid to hold the creatures briefly in your hand. When you have caught a nice variety of different invertebrates, transfer a few to viewing jars for close-up looks and identification. You can then either let them go or take some home to keep for a while in an aquarium or a large glass bottle. Pour the water and creatures into the aquarium and set it on a white sheet away from direct sunlight. If you haven’t done so already, take some time to view and identify each of the different creatures with a hand lens by placing them briefly in a small plastic bottle. Change about one-third of the water every couple of days with fresh swamp or stream water. Have a look every day at what’s going on in the bottle. Have new creatures hatched out of eggs? Have some creatures fallen prey to predators? Be sure to sketch the various species in your nature journal or even photograph them. Include the name. Return the invertebrates to where you caught them after a week or so.


Nov 052015

“November comes
And November goes,
With the last red berries
And the first white snows.

With night coming early,
And dawn coming late,
And ice in the bucket
And frost by the gate.

The fires burn
And the kettles sing,
And earth sinks to rest
Until next spring.”
–  Elizabeth Coatsworth


This week, I would like to propose some things to do to more fully enjoy the often-maligned month of November. A number of these suggestions  are part of “The Big Book of Nature Activities:  A Year-Round Guide to Outdoor Learning” that I am writing with Jacob Rodenburg, Executive Director of Camp Kawartha. The book should be available in late spring, 2016

A  Nature Table

When you are out for a walk this month, collect some items for a home or classroom nature table. These could include a milkweed pod; different fruits and seeds such as acorns, bittersweet and winterberry holly; any remaining colourful leaves, which can be pressed, dried and placed between sheets of plastic wrap; the seed heads of different grasses, sedges and rushes; a bracket fungus from a tree or stump; tree bark covered with lichen; the ball-like gall found on goldenrod stems; abandoned bird nests; and the cones of different species of conifers.

Sketching and photography

If you enjoy sketching or doing photography, November offers all kinds of interesting subjects. Among these are fruit- and seed-clad vines like wild grape, Virgin’s bower, wild cucumber, American bittersweet and Virginia creeper; close-ups of different fungi, lichens, mosses and club-mosses; fallen leaves on the ground or floating in water; the interesting shapes of leafless trees and branches; a tree canopy as seen when lying on your back; and the ice forming around the edge of a pond.

 Winterberry Holly - Drew-Monkman.

Winterberry Holly – Drew-Monkman

A nature walk

We all enjoy going for a walk with our children or grandchildren, but often wonder what we can do along the way to make the walk more fun. Here’s a few suggestions.

●        Stop every once in a while and do a micro-hike using a hand lens or magnifying glass. Some interesting subjects include a rotting tree trunk or areas where there are different kinds of moss.  Closely investigate everything from leaf veins, seeds and the underside of mushrooms to lichens, bark, feathers and invertebrates under logs.

●        Have everyone lay down on their backs in the leaves of the forest floor – they smell great! -and look up at the leafless canopy and clouds as they pass over. Can you find arrangements of branches that match the lines on the palm of your hand?

●        Play Basement Windows. Gently roll over a log, or a rock and peer underneath. Can you find a salamander, a centipede, a pill bug, or maybe an earthworm?

●        Stop to feel and smell a leaf, bud or even a piece of mushroom.  Rub it gently between your fingers. How does it smell?  Share with others. Wintergreen smells wonderful all year-round. You can also stop at different kinds of conifer trees  and snip off some foliage. Using a small twig, gather some resin  from a pine and maybe a balsam fir, too. Place each item in a separate small plastic bag. Crushing the foliage with the sides of the bag, which will keep the oils off your fingers. Tell the children the name of each species as you pass around the bags and smell what’s inside. Have everyone describe the odour as best they can. Perhaps write the name of the tree on a piece of paper and place it in the bag. Practice smelling for a few minutes, while looking at the name. Then, working in pairs, try to identify each odour, maybe while wearing a blindfold. Who has the most accurate nose?

Wintergreen stays green all winter - Drew Monkman

Wintergreen stays green all winter – Drew Monkman

●        Play Exploration Dice. Get two wooden blocks or cubes of any kind. On one cube, place a direction on each face – N, S, E, W, NW, SE.  On the other place 6 numbers 4, 8, 12, 16, 20, 24. Roll the dice and walk in the direction and the number of paces indicated (e.g., NW for 12 paces) Then yell “hunker down.”  Ask kids to find something interesting close to where they crouched.  The dice will bounce you around the landscape to places you might never have explored. There is always something interesting to discover.

●        Do a barefoot walk. If the weather is mild, take off your shoes and socks. Put on a blindfold and have another person guide you as you walk across a lawn with patches of sun and shade or across a forest carpeted with leaves or areas of moss – anywhere that is safe and free of sharp objects. Did the ground temperature change?  What textures did you feel? Change roles.

●        Find an oak tree with acorns lying on the ground. Take the off the cap and place your thumbs over the hollow (on the underside) in a V shape. Blow across your knuckles and over the hollow. You should hear a sharp, whistling sound. If you don’t, try repositioning your thumbs. Watch out for incoming dogs!

Acorn Whistle - Jacob Rodenburg

Acorn Whistle – Jacob Rodenburg

●        Make a forest tea. As you walk, harvest a handful of  white cedar foliage (scale-like and flattened) and white pine needles (long, soft needles in bunches of 5).  When you get home – or stopping along the way to make a fire –  toss the greenery in boiling water and let it steep for 10 minutes.  The resulting tea will be bitter but refreshing, and your tongue will dance with a pungent but evocative taste of the forest.

●        A rainbow hike. This activity will help you to see and appreciate the multitude of colours in the forest, even in late fall. You will need paint chip samples (e.g., yellows, reds, oranges, greens, browns, rusts, etc.) or small pieces of paper of different colours from magazine adds. Provide each member of the group with an assortment of different colours. As you are walking, try to find a leaf or other natural item that matches each chip.

●        Meet a tree. In this game, children work in pairs. One child is blindfolded and led through a forested area by the other to a given tree, perhaps 10 meters (30 feet) away. The blindfolded player explores the tree with their arms and hands and tries to get an idea of the diameter, the texture of the bark, whether any branches, lichens, holes or large roots are present, etc. The child is then guided back to the starting point, taking a circuitous route. The blindfold is then removed and the child has to find his or her tree. Switch roles.

Meet a Tree - Drew Monkman

Meet a Tree – Drew Monkman

●        Give each child an index card with an X in the center. Tell them the card is a map and the X is where they’ll be sitting. Each time they hear a sound, they should mark its location (direction and distance) and represent it with a simple symbol (e.g., a few parallel lines for wind, a musical note for bird song, a number after the note for each different bird). Show them how to cup their hands in front of and behind their ears to hear sounds from all directions (see focused hearing page X). Make sure that each child finds a listening place well-separated from other children. Listen for 5-10 minutes, depending on the variety of sounds and the age of participants.  Encourage kids to share their maps with a partner, identifying natural and human-related sounds. Bring the group together and discuss the following: How many different sounds were heard? Which sounds did you particularly like? What sounds were new to you? Who/what may have made them? Which were natural and which were caused by humans?  Do some of these sounds have a purpose?  If so, what might they be?