Sometimes you don’t see the forest for the trees, but what if you don’t see the forest floor for the leaves? With this forest-school inspired outdoor science activity we’re heading out with a few simple tools and the goal to explore the forest floor and the critters that call it home.
Often when we spend time in nature, our focus automatically gravitates toward the obvious features of the woods – creeks, flowers, trees, squirrels, birds or maybe even a deer. It’s easy to forget that the ground is also teeming with tiny life forms that are worth exploring, so for this outdoor science activity, we’re going to turn our gaze downwards for a different perspective.
As usual, this activity should be viewed as an invitation to learn and explore, rather than a strict lesson plan. At Scandinavian forest schools, there is no separation between learning and playing in nature, and the adults view themselves as co-explorers rather than teachers disseminating information. The teachers may introduce activities, but they’re usually open-ended and directed by the children, so even if you set this outdoor learning session up exactly the same way I did, you may get a different outcome, depending on your child’s interests. That’s just fine.
I recommend preparing and building excitement for this activity by reading one or several of these excellent children’s books about bugs and life underground:
Outdoor Science Activity: Small World Exploration
Age: Preschool-1st grade
Time: 1-2 hours
- 12 foot (approx. 4 m) piece of string
- Tape measure
- A white piece of cardboard (or regular office paper)
- Magnifying glass
- Bug container
- Sketch pad
- Colored pencils
Don’t worry if you don’t have all the items on the equipment list, it only takes a few basics to make this activity a blast for a young child. If I had to choose just one tool for this activity, the magnifying glass would be it, since that’s what really makes these small worlds come to life.
Place: Forest floor, other natural area, or even your backyard. Make sure this type of hands-on exploration is allowed in the place that you choose.
How to do it:
After my daughter helped pick out a good spot on the forest floor I used the string to make a 3’x3′ (approx. 1m x 1m) square, securing the corners with sticks. This step is not mandatory, but I did it to encourage her to focus on a specific area, and to introduce scientific method in a very basic way. Then she picked up the trowel and magnifying glass and went to work.
She quickly found a tiny earthworm, then a bigger one. Tiny, white bugs also emerged from the small hole that she dug in the ground. I suggested that she place the worms on the white piece of cardboard to get a better view of them and she did, observing them, mesmerized, through the magnifying glass.
Soon, her attention turned toward a small log on the ground. She found a crack in the bark and started prying it with the blade of the trowel. She worked long and hard, and was proud when the piece of bark finally came off. “Look, Mommy! I’m working!” She examined the surface with the magnifying glass and then started working on another crack.
Next, I showed her the tweezers and how to use them. Tweezers are a fantastic tool for practicing fine motor skills and there are many ways they can be applied in nature. My daughter used them to pick up small twigs and lined them up on the cardboard. But she soon found a bigger challenge when a roly poly emerged from the soil. After some initial fiddling, she managed to grasp the bug very gently and place it in the plastic bug container, where she examined it further with the magnifying glass.
We wrapped up the session by bringing out the sketch pad and colored pencils. Soon, an imaginary world where giant roly polies and whales effortlessly intermingled had sprung from the white pad.
All in all, we spent a couple of hours on this outdoor science activity, and we easily could’ve stayed out longer. I think part of the reason why my daughter was so absorbed by it, was that I was there to encourage and guide her. This is also a key tenet of forest school pedagogy: Adults share in the exploration and discovery in nature, since this gets the children excited and signals to them that their interests are relevant.