Like many families, we spend time each summer near the water. In our case, that means Cape Cod in Massachusetts. From the time our daughter Rose was a baby, we took her to ocean beaches, bay beaches, and countless ponds. Our albums are filled with pictures of her, always barefoot, running along the sand, splashing in the bay at low tide, scurrying away from the waves.
We still would have our lazy days at the beach, but we also began to do some major exploring.
Sometimes we’d take buckets to our favorite bay beach to fill with hermit crabs, or Rose would befriend a group of kids catching frogs at a nearby pond. We’d always bring home lots of seashells. But by and large, our summers were more lazy than exciting, and our memories more generic than truly memorable. Then one year, Rose’s younger sister, Grace, came home from preschool saying she was “studying science.” That was when I decided to make our vacation somewhat different. We still would have our lazy days at the beach, but we also began to do some major exploring.
To help us make the transition from observers to explorers, I spoke with education specialists who work with kids at science centers and aquariums around the country. Almost without exception, they recommended these three basic steps:
- Pack a bag with the equipment you’ll need to explore, and leave it by the front door. (See “Explorer’s Kit,” on the next page.) That way, you won’t find yourselves face-to-face with a freshwater jellyfish and no net to catch it in.
- Buy several kid-friendly guides to the creatures and plants you’re likely to encounter. You’ll find some suggestions in “Resources,” on page 62.
- Encourage your children to keep a log or journal. A five-by-seven-inch spiral notebook with unlined pages is ideal. Making notes and quick sketches (or for younger children, attaching stickers of the bugs and frogs they see) is great fun in itself. It’s also a good way for them to remember the details of their time by the water. And by recording what they see, they can explore further in nature guidebooks back home.
You may want to try out some of the following activities with your own children this summer.
Go on a Scavenger Hunt for Signs of Animals
Ask your children how many signs of animal life they can find. Some of the signs, such as tracks and nests, are pretty obvious. But there’s much more to look for.
Ask your children how many signs of animal life they can find.
A hole in the ground may be an animal’s home. A tiny mark in the sand may be the peck mark of a bird looking for food. A stripped pinecone or a pile of chewed-up nuts may indicate that a squirrel has been eating. Look for evidence of animals in the crevices of tree bark or underneath leaf litter.
Dip and Scoop in a Pond
Just about the best way for kids to learn about the creatures and plants in their favorite pond is to look closely at a sample of water or mud. There are various techniques, but they all get more or less the same results. You might want to start close to the water’s surface and work your way down. Try to find a net with a mesh of about two millimeters. If the mesh is much bigger, it won’t trap small creatures; if it’s too fine, it will clog up.
Sweep the net across the surface of a pond; you’ll probably find water striders, whirligig beetles, mites, and other insects. If you dip your net a little deeper, the variety of life you’ll catch increases. In addition to insects like giant water bugs, you’ll find various small organisms, including tadpoles and snails.
Gently sweep the net under pond weeds: This is where you may net eggs, along with mosquito and other larvae. Caddis-fly larvae, which live in ponds throughout the country, are an especially exciting find. The larva builds a protective case around itself using whatever is available, including sticks and stones; it will look almost like a pile of twigs walking across your net. Leeches also live below the surface of many ponds. Some insects like to hide near plants, so make sure always to look underneath the leaves. The slime beneath lily pads often contains tiny plants and animals that snails and insects eat.
You might want to try to classify the insects and creatures in your container by size, color, and so on.
Transfer the contents of your net to a white-bottomed container filled with pond water, and examine what you’ve found. (The white bottom makes it easier to see your finds.) Record your observations in your log; if you visit another pond or stream, you’ll have details for comparison. You might want to try to classify the insects and creatures in your container by size, color, and so on. Are there lots of any particular kind of animal?
How do the creatures move? Is there any unusual method of locomotion? (A common pond insect called a Hydra swims backward.) Can you figure out how the larvae in your sample breathe? (Some have a breathing tube.)
Investigate Animal and Bird Tracks
Animals need water every day and tend to visit ponds, streams, and other bodies of water at night. The soft mud near a pond or riverbank keeps excellent records of these visits. These markings—prints (the mark left by a single paw), tracks (a set of prints), sometimes even tail drags—are most visible in the early morning or after a rainfall. A surprising number of animals may pay nightly visits to your swimming hole: Raccoons are the most common, but you may see evidence of a skunk, fox, coyote, possum, otter, beaver, or deer, as well.
Look at the shape of the track and draw it in your journal, recording the location and time of day you found it. Measure it, and check the distance between prints. This may tell you if the animal was walking, running, or leaping, and whether it was going fast or moving slowly; usually, the farther apart the tracks, the faster the animal was moving. Notice the toe marks: They are a clue to the direction the animal was traveling. Can you tell if the prints were made by a single animal or more than one? By recording this information, you’ll be able to compare the tracks you see one day with those you find the next.
Sandy beaches, mud flats at low tide, and salt marshes are wonderful places to find bird tracks. There is no particular time of day that’s best to look for prints left by birds. Gull and heron tracks are quite common, but some of the tracks you see will probably have been left by dogs running on the beach.
Sandy beaches, mud flats at low tide, and salt marshes are wonderful places to find bird tracks.
If you measure any tracks you see, or sketch them and record the location where you found them, when you get home, you can check your field guides and see if you can figure out what bird made the tracks. Which type of track is most common? How far apart are the tracks? Was the bird walking? Running? Where on the beach did you find the tracks? Chances are that’s where the bird tends to find its food. You can learn a lot about a bird’s feeding habits by looking at its tracks. The webbed toes of gulls help them swim, making it easier to find food. Herons, which hunt by wading into the water, have four separate and elongated toes (one of which points backward!). By spreading out their toes, they keep themselves from sinking into the soft mud where they find their food.
Walk Along the Wrack Line
Wrack is a type of seaweed, and the wrack (or strand) line refers to the line of debris running parallel to the water’s edge and marking the line of high tide. It is full of treasures. To investigate, simply lift it up every 10 feet or so to see what’s underneath.You may find sand hoppers, worms, snails, horseshoe crabs, beach fleas, and beetles, as well as shells and egg cases, seaweed and cordgrass; rocks, glass and driftwood; plastic cups and fishing line.
A beach can have several wrack lines; the highest is generally the storm tide line at the edge of the dunes. After a storm you may notice more seaweed, more trash, and a greater variety of animals, such as sea stars, sea urchins, mussels, and other creatures thrown up onto the shore.
Start a Sand Collection
Most kids will say that all sand is white or brown, but if you examine samples from two different beaches, even in the same town, you’ll see how the colors differ. Some sand is made up largely of weathered rocks; some is full of small pieces of broken shells. In general, the color is determined by the predominant rocks in a particular area.
Most kids will say that all sand is white or brown, but if you examine samples from two different beaches, even in the same town, you’ll see how the colors differ.
The best way to learn more about sand is to collect samples at different beaches or from different areas of the same beach and then look at them with a magnifying glass. Ocean and bay beaches are obvious locales for this activity, but you can also collect sand along the sides of streams, rivers, and other moving bodies of water. Put the sand in resealable plastic sandwich bags or baby-food jars, labeling each sample with the date, the name of the beach, where on the beach the sand came from, and any other information that seems important, such as whether the surf was rough or calm.
To examine the sand, pour some on a dark piece of paper and look at it under a magnifier. Here are some questions to talk about with your kids:
How large are the particles? (Sand grains range from about 0.7 mm to 2 mm.) Are there differences in size between the sand particles at different beaches or various parts of the same beach? Do you think there’s a connection between size and distance to the water? (Sand closer to the water is usually coarser than sand farther up on the beach.)
What shape are the grains? Are they flat? Rounded? (The answers to these questions have to do with the process of erosion and what is being eroded. Wind-blown sand abrades faster, so the particles are more rounded. Sand that contains a lot of shells is often finer than sand composed entirely of rock. Finer-grain sand may also indicate that it comes from softer rock; a rock like granite erodes away to coarser sand.)
What shape are the grains? Are they flat? Rounded?
What color is the sand? Do you see different colors? (Yellow grains may indicate quartz; pink may be feldspar.) Do you notice any black specks? (This is often a mineral called magnetite. Try running a magnet over your sample to sort it out.)
Listen for Bug and Bird Noises
You have just returned home weary after a long day at the beach, and you wish your children could find something quiet to do. Here’s an activity most kids will find intriguing, and most parents will find relaxing.
When the bugs start to come out in the late afternoon or early evening, listen carefully to their sounds. How would you describe them? Are the sounds repeated rapidly or at longer intervals?
How do you think bugs make noise? (Crickets rub their legs together; grasshoppers rub their wings together or rub their legs against their wings.) Why do insects make noise? (To attract or deter prey and during mating rituals.)
It’s also fun to try to identify bird songs. You’ll probably be more successful if you start by listening to a tape or CD first. A good one is Birding by Ear: Eastern/Central or Western, part of the Peterson Field Guide series, which provides a method for learning each bird’s particular song or call.
You’ll all learn a lot.
Try making a sound map in your neighborhood. The kids can sketch the area around your house and mark the location of insect and bird noises. Are the sounds close or far away? Are they coming from a bush? From close to the ground? Over the summer you can add other details to your map: the time of day, the frequency of sounds, and so on. You’ll all learn a lot.