Many people don’t realize that most homes come equipped with a unique science laboratory, one that is as close as your front door. All it takes to work in this laboratory is to leave the house and go outside. There are endless opportunities in the outdoors that lend themselves to science investigation and discovery.
With a few simple materials, you and your child can conduct a variety of science investigations outside. As you work together, have your child keep a Science Journal. Have your child record the findings of all your outdoor science investigations in the Science Journal. This is excellent practice for your child to experience what “real” scientists do as they conduct experiments and make observations.
- On a clear night, go outside to an open area and look up at the sky. You will view thousands of stars dotting the dark sky. For centuries men and women have been studying the stars. Long ago, people used the stars to guide their ships, use changes in their positions to determine when to plant crops, observed constellations, and told mythical stories about heroes and ancient objects found in these “star pictures.” There are 88 recognizable constellations that have inspired storytellers. In the sky north of the equator you can see the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper, Orion the Hunter, Sagittarius, and a host of other constellations. You can also locate several planets, such as Venus and Mars. A handy resource to have by your side is The Book of Constellations: Discover the Secrets in the Stars by Robin Kerrod (Barron’s Educational Series, 2002).
- Many backyards, neighborhoods, and local parks flourish with trees. City parks often contain trees that date back to the Civil War, or were planted to commemorate a person or event. One of the most common trees to observe is the oak tree.The oak tree is America’s national tree. Oak trees are classified into three main groups: white oak, red oak, and black oak. The oak is a deciduous tree, meaning that it loses its leaves in the fall. The oak has majestic branches and can grow up to 100 feet tall. The leaves have a long, elliptical shape; they are a shiny, dark green on the upper portion and dull gray at the bottom. The leaves of oaks turn shades of red, yellow, and orange in the fall.The bark of the oak changes as the tree grows. Younger trees have dark brown bark, older trees have a red tinge to the bark, and more mature trees have bark that turns black and develops scaly ridges. Fungus commonly grows on the trunk and branches of oak tress, such as species of lichen. You will see this fungus as a small circular organism consisting of lichen and algae.The fruit of the oak is the acorn. Oak trees generally do not produce acorns for the first 20 growing seasons. Oak trees provide homes for squirrels, which use the acorns as a source of food. In the summer, squirrels build platforms of sticks and leaves in the branches. In the winter, squirrels prefer a hollowed-out den in the tree trunk. Butterflies use the oak tree to host their caterpillars, while some species of moths lay eggs on the trunk and branches of oaks.See how many of these observations you and your child can make about the oaks found in your backyard or neighborhood.
- Many backyards and parks contain low-lying spreading plants such as vinca, English ivy, creeping phlox, or pachysandra. These ground-cover plants are often found in less established areas of the backyard or of a local park. Identify the plants that provide ground cover in the areas you and your child investigate.
- Explore wooded areas, making observations about the variety of plant and insect life. You may find a rotting log or the fallen branch of a tree. Study the specimen. Is the wood breaking down? Do you see any insects such as ants or pill bugs nearby? Are there toads hiding under small plants or rocks? What plants thrive in the area? What other forms of life are supported within the wooded environment?
- Study a specific area at different times of the day. Does this area attract different insects or larger animals during the morning, afternoon, and night? What about sunny days compared to rainy days? You can also observe this area during each season of the year. Note and compare the changes you observe during winter, spring, summer, and autumn.
Six Outdoor Science Investigations
As you work with your child on these investigations, discuss your observations together and have your child record them in his or her Science Journal.
1. In your backyard or local park, find two or more varieties of trees, such as an oak, pine, and birch. Make a bark rubbing of each tree. Tape a large sheet of white paper to the bark of each tree. Then use a dark crayon to rub back and forth diagonally over the entire area until the bark design appears. Compare the bark rubbings. Have your child record your observations in your Science Journal.
2. Select a grassy area where one portion of the grass is shady and the other portion is sunny. Using a magnifying glass, look for insects. First look in the sunny area, then in the shady area. Note any differences you observe. Have your child record these observations in your Science Journal.
3. Use a clear plastic container to catch an insect and study it closer. Place the container near the ground and let the insect crawl inside. Study the insect up close using a magnifying glass. What kind of insect did you find? What does it look like and how does it behave? Have your child record these and other observations in your Science Journal.
4. On a damp morning, dig for earthworms. Fill a large clear container with soil and the worms. Study what happens as the earthworms tunnel through the soil. Have your child record your observations in your Science Journal.
5. Plant bean seeds in small containers filled with potting soil. You can use egg cartons or empty paper towel rolls cut into five equal sections. Keep the seeds and soil wet with a spray bottle of water. Observe the plants’ growth each day and have your child record the daily findings in your Science Journal. After about two weeks you can transplant the bean plants in the soil outside.
6. Explore and collect rocks, looking for a variety of patterns, markings, colors, textures, and sizes. Once you collected several rocks, compare these characteristics and discuss possible reasons for them. Have your child record these observations in your Science Journal. For example, there are three different types of rocks based on the way they form, igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic.
- Igneous rock forms when magma cools and solidifies. Types of igneous rocks include granite, basalt, gabbro, obsidian and pumice.
- Sedimentary rock forms from sediment deposited over time, often as layers at the bottom of lakes and oceans. Types of sedimentary rocks include sandstone, mudstone, flint, and chalk.
- Metamorphic rock forms under extreme pressure and heat over time. Types of metamorphic rocks include marble, quartzite, schist, granulite and slate.
These are but a few of the investigations that you can conduct in your outdoor science laboratory. Brainstorm with your child ideas for other investigations that would be interesting to conduct and keep the list in your Science Journal.
If you want to work on additional science concepts, experiments, and investigations with your child, check out our QUICK SMART™ Science Series. QUICK SMART Science is an excellent resource for developing your child’s scientific investigation and inquiry.