By helping children experience the natural world, parents can encourage them to become future stewards of the Earth. It's a serious responsibility but one that can be equally enjoyable. These springtime projects that you can do at own home make learning about the natural world — and how to care for it — fun.
Kids' enthusiasm for just about anything increases when they make it themselves. Growing your own food teaches budding gardeners and chefs about food plants and their natural growing seasons, which is often hard to understand when all kinds of produce are available year-round at the supermarket. For example, plant pumpkin seeds in late May to early July (depending upon your locale), and by Halloween your kids can make jack-o'-lanterns from homegrown pumpkins. (Note: Pumpkins require space to spread out, so don't try this in a small garden.) Or grow everything you need to create a simple, yummy pasta sauce: tomatoes, basil, green bell peppers, and garlic. With the exception of garlic (an autumn bulb), all the ingredients can be planted after spring's last frost, and they'll be ready for harvest by mid- to late summer. Any garden space will do — a patch of dirt or even a couple of large pots — as long as it gets six hours of sun per day. If you don't have a good growing area at home, look for a plot at a community garden. Check out these ideas and more in the kid-friendly Grow Your Own Pizza by Constance Hardesty (Fulcrum, 2000).
Composting is just natural recycling, but this simple version of bottle composting lets kids see it in action, which is pretty cool. After they've completed this project, children will be enthusiastic about transferring their knowledge — and soil — to the garden. First, cut the top off a clear plastic soda bottle. Poke a few holes in the top for ventilation and set aside. Place a layer of dirt in the bottle bottom, about ½-inch deep. Then put in a layer of plastic, such as bread and newspaper bags, about 2 inches deep. Add more dirt, as well as coffee grounds, sawdust, old leaves, grass, shredded newspaper, and fruit and vegetable scraps. Moisten the mixture slightly, then tape the top back onto the bottle. Mark the layers on the bottle with a Sharpie. Keep your compost in a warm spot such as a windowsill. Once the compost begins to break down, in three to four weeks, encourage your kids to note the changes they see — including the fact that the plastic doesn't change at all! To learn how to compost with your kids outdoors, go to http://sustainable.tamu.edu; click on Slidesets, and then choose Composting for Kids.
With their aerial acrobatics, lively voices, and annual migration habits, it's no wonder birds capture kids' imaginations. And what better way to begin studying the wildlife that shares your neighborhood than by attracting a variety of birds to your yard? Consider planting some natural food sources such as shrubs, evergreens with seed cones, and flowering plants. Plants native to your area can provide a healthy source of food without inviting large concentrations of birds. You might want to pick up a kid-friendly field guide, such as Backyard Birds (Houghton Mifflin, 1999) from the Peterson Field Guides for Young Naturalists series. Encourage kids to keep a log, in their own words or pictures, of the different types of birds they see, their seasonal behaviors, and the foods they prefer.
A great way to teach kids the value of reusing and recycling is to help them create cool things out of stuff that would otherwise end up in the trash. Got a stack of old magazines? Make magazine mosaics: Start by cutting colorful pages into small pieces and putting like colors into separate piles. Draw a picture on a sheet of heavy paper, then glue the magazine bits onto the drawing to create your mosaic. If your child is more into dirt or dinosaurs, try coffee-ground fossils — a fun teaching tool for explaining natural history and how objects get preserved over time. Make a dough by mixing 1 cup used coffee grounds, ½ cup cold coffee, 1 cup flour, and ½ cup salt; flatten it onto waxed paper and cut it into slabs. Next have your kids collect small objects to “fossilize,” such as flowers, leaves, or feathers. Press the objects into the dough, then gently pull them out. Set aside the dough, and let your fossil imprints dry. For other recycling craft ideas, including Tin Can Herb Pots and Cookie Cutter Crayons, check out kaboose.com.