Spring Nature Study: Life and Death in the Forest

Published on March 13th, 2014 Updated on January 10th, 2023 By Linda McGurk

Spring is finally here and what better way to experience the changes that are taking place outside right now than by taking the kids for a nature study in the woods?

Spring Nature Study: Life and Death in the Forest. Rain or Shine Mamma

I follow the philosophy and tradition of the Scandinavian forest schools when exploring nature with my kids. That means that our ventures usually are child-led, play-based and open-ended. We rarely go outside with a specific lesson plan in mind – instead we discover the natural world together and use inquiry as a bridge to knowledge. Whatever answers I don’t have off the top of my head we look up together when we get home. Teachable moments abound in nature and I enjoy seeing what will capture the girls’ imagination each time we go to the woods.

The other day, we decided to revisit a place where we had seen a dead deer a couple of months ago. At the time, the carcass had been fresh, and now I thought the girls might be interested in seeing what had happened to it. This may sound morbid, but nature is very much about life and death, and I don’t think we should shy away from that reality when taking our kids outdoors. In my experience, they handle it much better than we give them credit for.

The deer was still there, or at least some remnants of it. We paused and observed the carcass.

“Who do you think ate it?” I asked the Big Naturalist, who is 6.

“Hmm. A fox? Turkey vultures?”

“Yes, that’s possible. And probably the coyotes too.”

The Big Naturalist was also full of questions. “What is that thing?,” she said, pointing at a bone sticking up. “Why didn’t they eat the fur?” “Why did the deer die?” “Can I poke it with a stick?”

We spent about 15 minutes observing and talking about the deer, and as we headed back toward the house I thought about all the things that the girls had just learned:

Anatomy: My daughter observed that the deer had ribs and a spine, just like she does, which led to a conversation about the difference between vertebrates and non-vertebrates, common features of mammals and the function of the skeleton. She learned that our bones are our support structure.

Ecology: The death of the deer was a good introduction to the concept of food webs and the difference between prey and predators. Food scarcity, injuries and disease are other causes of death in wild animals that we discussed.

Biology: The odor from the deer gave us an opportunity to talk about decomposition and all the tiny organisms that help clean up a dead animal. Bacteria and fungi are two common types of decomposers.

Philosophy: This particular deer had probably died from disease but we still talked about why animals kill each other and how humans sometimes kill animals for other reasons. The Big Naturalist is aware that there are hunters in our area and I encourage her to think critically about when it is or isn’t morally defensible to take the life of another living being.

“I feel sorry for the deer,” the Big Naturalist said on a tad sad note as we headed back to the house. It was a touching show of compassion, and once again gave us a chance to talk about the circle of life.

All this learning just from observing a dead deer in the woods for 15 minutes. Could you learn it from a text book? Some of it, sure. But as the old Chinese proverb says:

“Tell me, I’ll forget
Show me, I’ll remember
Involve me, I’ll understand”

Do you ever use nature for teachable moments? If so, how? I’d love to have your input!

24 thoughts on “Spring Nature Study: Life and Death in the Forest

  1. Leila - Mud Mud Marvellous Mud says:

    What a fantastic opportunity to talk about a potentially tricky subject. I hope to have the same conversations with Little Man as he grows and we discover nature from all its different angles. Thanks again for sharing at the Outdoor Play Party. I always love reading your posts 🙂

    • Linda McGurk says:

      Thanks for reading, Leila! I find that nature is the perfect place to bring up many of life’s difficult questions. I’ve found that kids often are completely unfazed by things that make adults squeamish or uncomfortable:o)

  2. Char says:

    Linda – Thanks for the great read! I LOVE the way that you approached a very “taboo” subject (Death) with a scientific and educational approach. I believe that by sheltering children from these things we are doing them a terrible dis-service. Rather, being open to discuss the significance of the circle of life allows them to have a broader respect for the role all living things play in this world. Kudos Momma!

    • Linda McGurk says:

      Char, I’m so glad you enjoyed the read! Like you I do believe that openness is the way to go when it comes to kids. Of course parents need to use good judgment when it comes to what their kids can handle, but I knew this was not something that would upset my daughters, quite the opposite.

  3. Jacquie says:

    We happened upon a partial carcass on a trip in the woods too. I was a little worried that my youngest would be creeped out as she’s very sensitive to animals but both the kids were really intrigued by it. What a great nature study!

    • Linda McGurk says:

      Thanks for reading, Jacquie! My kids are big animal lovers too and yet they have been really intrigued every time we’ve found bones and other remnants of animals in the woods.

  4. Ann @ My Nearest and Dearest says:

    Really great post, Linda! I think many people might have been tempted to avoid the carcass. I love that you took the opposite approach and turned it into a meaningful educational experience.
    We happened upon a dead muskrat this winter and I was surprised by how unfazed my son was by it. I treated it in a very matter-of-fact way, and like you, used it as a chance to talk about predators and prey, decomposition, etc. There is no better way for kids to learn than to experience things for themselves!

    • Linda McGurk says:

      Thank you, Ann! Appreciate you reading and glad to hear you got a chance to have a similar experience. Children are just innately curious of the world around them and I do think it’s important to be straight-forward with them. Like I said in the post, they can handle more than we think:o)

  5. ghostwritermummy says:

    Absolutely fantastic! I too prefer child led play and investigations and I agree that we should not shy away from real life with our children. I love how a walk in the woods can be such a massive learning experience!
    x x

  6. Suzanne says:

    A fabulous post and such an important message that death is just a part of life, and not something scary and to be hiddden away from children.

  7. Nicolette says:

    We had a really intimate encounter with this idea last month when our smallest cow died. My daughter had a difficult time with it (so did we), but we approached it with as much curiosity and reverence as possible. I haven’t written about it yet, but this post inspires me! Thanks so much for sharing…

    • Linda McGurk says:

      So sad to hear that your cow died:o( Death is always difficult but it’s an inevitable part of life that children too need to explore when they’re ready. I hope you end up writing about it – I would love to see what your take on it is!

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