I grew up in the rural northwest of New Jersey. Our house sat on 45 acres of land, and our driveway could only be reached from a dirt road. Nature played a big part in my childhood because I was surrounded by it and because my mom and dad both loved being outside.
My mother stayed at home with me for the first five or six years of my life so she was my permanent playmate (or maybe I was hers). One of our favorite things to do to kill an afternoon was to go for “nature walks” which usually consisted of us walking along the driveway to see what we could find. Given the thoroughness of our search for critters and interesting bits and pieces, these walks often took two hours or more — just to make it to the end of the drive and back. We found salamanders, earthworms, bugs of all shapes and sizes, various fungi, flowers, interesting dead leaves and more to occupy our time.
Luckily, you don’t have to live in the middle of nowhere to appreciate a good nature walk — you just have to pay attention to the nature around you. Taking your kid on a nature walk is a great way for both of you to learn more about the place where you live, and it also encourages a sense of curiosity that’s going to serve your tyke well later in life. And if you’re a stay-at-home-mom like mine was, nature walks beat the pants off of sitting around the house.
Here’s what you’ll need for a good neighborhood safari:
- Comfy walking shoes
- Clothing that allows you to bend over easily to look at things on the ground, and that you don’t mind getting dirty
- A stick for poking things that you’re not sure you want to touch
- Curiosity and good observation skills!
Optional items that might come in handy, if you don’t mind carrying them:
- A magnifying glass
- A box or baggie to collect things you might want to bring home for further study
- A pad and pencil to make sketches
- A nature guide for identifying animals and plants (there’s definitely an app for that)
Start at your front door and walk along the sidewalk. Remember to look up as well as down — you’ll see ants, spiders and other bugs on the ground, but you can also catch birds and squirrels in the trees. What kind of squirrels are they? Different regions have different types, from red to grey to even black. Pay attention to the sky as well — are there any interesting cloud formations? What kinds of clouds are there, and what can they tell you about the weather?
Most cities have some trees planted along the sidewalks in residential areas — take a look at the bark and leaves and see if you can identify the type of tree. If there are plots planted with flowers or shrubs, take a moment to bend down and peer underneath. Notice how it’s often cooler and moist under the shade of the leaves. Take note of the difference in the critters that live there as opposed to the ones you might find on tree bark or in a sunny patch of grass. If you pass a spot where there are stones for turning, flip those suckers! Underneath you can see grubs, worms and salamanders. Remember to replace rocks the way you found them, so the bugs that make their homes underneath can return once you’ve gone. If there’s moss, use your magnifying glass to take a closer look — moss is really interesting up close (different types look like different trees and plants, almost like another world in miniature).
Find a nice place to sit, like a bench in the park or even a bus stop, and close your eyes. Underneath the city sounds of people around you, listen for nature sounds — leaves rustling, birds chirping, small animals skittering under bushes and in the trees. Use your pad and pencil to sketch some things or write down questions that pop up so you can research them at home later.
Strolling past a community garden, park, or creek? Check them out and see what habitats can be found in each. Even in an urban creek bed you might see tadpoles, minnows, and water-skaters. The plant life closer to water is also different — no matter whether that water is in a rushing mountain stream or a small urban park. The stick comes especially in handy when you’re near water and mud — poke around and see what’s in there without getting your hands dirty.
Start a list of the things you’ve found and add to it on subsequent nature walks. The more walks you go on, the more you’ll learn. You can even begin to study the seasonal changes in your neighborhood and how they affect plant and animal life. Notice how the souvenirs you find to bring home change as the weather does. Whether you live on a dirt road in the sticks or on a busy street in a city, there are always great things to find if you just keep your eyes peeled. Happy hunting!