Tools for exploring nature

Each Spring for the last eight years, Professor Marion Cowee, from Solano Community College has brought students enrolled in her Science and Math for Early Childhood Education class to Rush Ranch for a field trip. I look forward to the trip each year because Professor Cowee inspires me, and the students (who are all teachers or training to be teachers) notice a lot and ask great questions. We also consistently have awesome experiences in nature – like the year when a student was presenting about white pelicans on the Marsh Trail and one of the huge birds unexpectedly soared down low and flew directly over our quiet circle. Partly this “luck” stems from Rush Ranch being such great habitat and partly it is because the students are primed to be great observers through their studies with Professor Cowee and their experience teaching young children. To further focus attention (and have a little fun), we also always play a few nature observation games during the field trip. In celebration of Professor Cowee’s retirement, and the end of our wonderful tradition of field trips, I am sharing a few favorite nature observation games. Try them out with your formal or informal classes, or with your own family. Let us know if you try them, or share your own favorites, on the Facebook page. Please remember to follow the rules of your natural area, though, like staying on trail and not picking the flowers.

Sound maps: Have you ever stood on the edge of the marsh at sunset? It is a noisy place! Is the nearby grassland as noisy? Sound maps illustrate where sounds are coming from, helping us to learn what lives in a particular habitat and, over time, how the sounds change with the season. To make a sound map, find a place to sit or stand quietly, draw a star in the center of a piece of paper to represent you in your spot, and then start listening. Every time you hear a sound, make a mark on your paper where the sound came from. Soon you’ll have a picture of where the animals are. At this time of year at Rush Ranch, the soundscape is dominated by frogs calling from the marsh. Professor Cowee’s students asked: What kind of frogs? How big are they to make such big sounds? How many are there? Such good questions, and I’ve read enough of Scott Sampson’s “How to Raise a Wild Child”, to feel comfortable not answering them.

Rainbow Hike: For my daughters, at least, rainbows make anything more fun. Even a hike. During classes, I like to introduce this activity by asking everyone to choose a marker out of a bag. I set up the bag ahead of time so it holds a rainbow of colors, with enough for everyone to have their own. The color of marker they choose determines what color they will be searching for in nature. Then, as we hike down the trail, they search for anything that matches their color. At Rush Ranch this week, people with purple markers, for example, might find the little patch of lupines that are flowering near the Tule Hut. There are endless variations on this idea –asking everyone to find the entire rainbow as a team or individually, choosing only shades of green instead of a rainbow, or using unusual colors and requiring perfect matches to make it a real challenge.

Nature BINGO: You can buy nature bingo boards or simply make your own (like this is simple one for Rush Ranch). Nature BINGO is simple, if you see the animal or plant, mark that square. If you make your own board, you can tailor it for your own favorite natural areas, making it just hard enough to be fun.



A great horned owl in the right place at the right time.

One year, after most of the students had left, Marion Cowee and I were discussing the field trip when two ghostly white barn owls cried, flew out of the barn, swirled around in the air as if they were dancing, and then disappeared into the darkness. It was haunting and beautiful. Winning even the hardest game of nature bingo can’t surpass that kind of experience, but perhaps it can keep people excited enough to stay outside long enough, so that they are in the right place at the right time like Marion Cowee and I were.  I am thankful I was in the right place (my desk) when Professor Cowee emailed so many years ago so I was able to explore nature with her and her students.

For deeper nature activities for outdoor science studies, check out the Lawrence Hall of Science’s BEETLES program: It rocks!

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