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Can your child swim?

If your toddler falls into a pool or pond, does he or she know what to do? Babies even less than a year can learn to turn and grab the side of a pool. Babies very rarely have any fear of the water, making it easier to teach them skills and avoid panic behaviour that can lead to drowning in an emergency situation.
If you are uncomfortable teaching your child these skills, try infant or preschool swim classes at your local recreation centre. A good class for the very young will emphasize safety skills including submersion, pool entry and exit, exercises in and out of an infant pfd, and first aid instruction for the parents as well.
Many centres also offer beginner classes for older children, and even teens and adults.
While even the strongest swimmer can drown in a difficult situation, learning what to do can decrease the risk.
For safety's sake, teach your child to swim.

Daisy & Dandelion Chains

Start by picking several flowers being sure to keep as much stem attached as possible. Make a tiny slit about 5cm (2") down from the first flower. Thread the stem of another flower through the slit. Make a slit the same way in the flower you just threaded, and thread a new flower through it. Repeat until the chain is as long as you wish. You can tie off the end to the space between the first two flowers to make a loop for a crown, bracelet, necklace or wreath.

Similar old-fashioned summer day activities:

  • tree or bush (or spaghetti)--find a piece of grass that has gone to seed and looks like a miniature tree with branches. This is the tree. Starting at the bottom of the stem, pinch your fingers together around the stem and move them upwards, pushing the seeds together upwards. This is the bush. Now continue the motion upwards untio the seeds pop off and scatter. This is the spaghetti. Why spaghetti? I have no idea.
  • Do you like butter? One person asks the other this question, then, quickly brushes a dandelion flower against the other person's chin or cheek. Some of the yellow may transfer and look like butter.
  • He loves me...this sad game requires a daisy. Pull off petals one at a time alternating between "he/she loves me" and "...loves me not". Where you end answers your question (or you could just ask...!)

Bugs

Bugs, including insects, arachnids and other "creepy crawlies" are an endless source of fascination for many children (and adults too!). You can make a simple insect jar by washing out a food jar (baby food or jam jars work well), then use a tiny nail to poke a few air holes into the lid. Canning jars are also a good option as you can use the ring part of the 2-piece lid to hold an old piece of pantyhose in place to allow for air but not untimely escapes.
If the creature you find is small, try looking at it using a magnifying glass. Sketching it may help you observe it better and help you compare it with different insects. Can you tell by looking what sorts of things it might eat? What sort of home it might live in? How do you think it defends itself from predators? To measure its size, place the jar on top of a tape measure. Can you name the creature? Try looking it up in a field guide to find out more about it. If possible, take a photo of it before releasing it where you found it.
If you live near an area that has pitcher plants, visit the area and bring along some eyedroppers. Find a pitcher plant and use an eyedropper to remove some liquid from the reservoir. Carefully examine the contents to see what and when the pitcher plant last ate. After you have looked at it, be sure to return the fluid back to the same plant you found it in. Remember that the material in the reservoir is the pitcher plant's lunch.
Interesting fact: while most creatures that find their way into a pitcher plant will be digested, the larvae of a small, non-biting type of mosquito is unaffected and can sometimes be found thriving inside the pitchers. For more information about pitcher plants, follow this link.

Pond and Stream Study

What you need:
bucket or watertight bin (white dishwashing bins work well), one for every 2-4 participants
nets
field guide (a very basic list can be found here)
optional: mangifying glass, camera, journal, underwater viewer

Before going to the pond, review any rules you consider necessary for your group (is wading ok or not, where can they go and what areas are restricted, etc.).
At the pond, fill the bins or buckets about 1/2 to 2/3 full of the water from the pond or stream. Keep these buckets in nearby shady spots and explain to the children that the creatures need to stay at the same temperature as the water in the pond/stream so they don't get stressed and sick. Demonstrate how to use the nets by sweeping the net in the water near or through the water plants and grasses to gently dislodge the critters. stress to them that the creatures need to go directly into the bins/buckets because they need the water to breathe and stay cool. Once you have demonstrated this, give the children a turn finding and identifying creatures.
Some children may not be keen about the activity; it can help to explain how various creatures need each other to survive. You can discuss natural balance, effects of pollution, seasonal changes, life cycles, etc. Try and make a list of all of the creatures you find as a group and see if you find more or less in a subsequent visit.
To make an underwater viewer, use a length of light coloured PVC piping 5-8" (~20-25 cm) wide and 10-18" (26-48 cm) long. Cut a circle of lexan or plexiglass of the same diameter, and use waterproof silicone sealer to fasten it into place on one end of the tube. At the open end, about 1-2" (2.5-5 cm) down, punch a hole on either side of the tube. Thread waterproof cord through the holes and tie the ends together for a carrying handle. To use, press the closed end down into the water and look through the tube into the water.
A long list of excellent wetland resources can be found on the Toronto Zoo website here (scroll down for those intended for younger children).

Grass Whistle

Materials:
a wide blade of grass
two thumbs
lots of breath

First, place your hands flat, palms together. While keeping your thumbs together, open your hands from the "pinky" side until they are open about 90 degrees. Look at your thumbs. Do you see a small gap between them just under your first knuckle? This is where your blade of grass will go to make your whistle.
Stretch out the grass so it is taught between your thumbs. Now blow through your thumbs. If it is lined up properly, your breath will vibrate the grass and make a whistling sound (this can be surprisingly loud!).

Food from Farms

It may seem surprising, but there are kids who don't know where the food they eat comes from. A tour of a farm, or better yet, several farms, can help them gain an appreciation of how it all works. It might be best to start by touring a small family farm in which a variety of foods are grown. Later farm visits might show some of the ways livestock are raised and how larger farms work. Some farm tours offer "hands on" experiences, such as milking a cow by hand, feeding chickens, or picking your own produce.
Some ideas for extension & discussion: What are some different ways people try and grow food? Where do we get our food during the winter? How did pioneers eat through the winter? What happens when the weather isn't right for growing? What foods come from far away all the time because they don't grow here? What grows naturally (without planting) that we can eat? Try planting some vegetables of your own if possible to see the process from seed to table.

Micro Worlds

In this activity, children are encouraged to take a closer look at the tiny life on a small patch of land.

First, measure off a small patch of land for each child (about 8-12" square). Try and incorporate different soils or surface types, shady or sunny spots, dry & wet areas etc. Have them get down and close to it and make observations, first with the naked eye, then with a magnifying glass. If you wish, you can let them dig a little to see what creatures can be found in the soil (if their patch has soil). Have them compare what they found with what other students found. Are there any patterns? What sorts of creatures prefer to be underground? Which prefer wet areas? What sorts of plants did you see there?
Try doing this in various seasons and at different times of day, different weather, etc. to see what changes and what stays the same. If you have access to a microscope, introduce this after the children have looked bare-eyed and also with the magnifying glass.

Nature Table

Keep an eye out for interesting natural objects such as shells, cones, abandoned bird and insect nests, seed pods, bones, feathers, shed snake skin, moose antler, driftwood, etc. Place these in a special spot and add a couple of magnifying glasses for examining the items. Encourage them to handle the items, look for patterns and try and figure out what the item is and what might have used it/where it came from.

Bird Feeding & Watching

Bird watching can be tricky for kids who like to move and are easily excited, but with a little creativity, it can be done successfully. First, find a window that is convenient to watch from. Ideally, it will be near some trees. Now, make or buy a birdfeeder and fill it. Hang it so it can be seen from you window. It may take a few days for the birds to find the feeder. Experiment with different types of seed and different heights for your feeder. Keep the seeds dry and re-fill as necessary. Watch and enjoy! Watching from behind a window still required some gentleness from the children, both in terms of sound and action, but the glass between them and the birds helps to reduce this somewhat, and the birds will be less prone to flying off than if the window weren't there.

Star Gazing

From "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" to the "Man on the Moon" children often wonder about the night time sky. Here are some tips for enjoying it together.

  • Find a relatively remote place to watch that has little light pollution from street lights, houses or businesses, such a s a field, park or lake. Choose a clear night when the moon is not full to see the most stars possible.
  • Dress for the weather. Remember that you will probably not be moving around much so add an extra layer of clothing and/or a blanket to keep you comfortable. A warm mug of hot chocolate makes it a special event.
  • Keep the sessions short so the children keep wanting more. Most young children will have a shorter attention span for this than you have.
  • If you need to use a flashlight, cover it in red plastic so that you don't lose your night vision each time you turn it on.
  • Many cultures, from the ancient Greeks to North American First Nations have stories and legends relating to the stars. Add a story or fact or two to your conversation, but don't overwhelm the child(ren) with it. Sometimes enjoying the moment is more important, and the stories can come either before or after you gaze.
  • Do a little homework before you go. Can you tell the difference between planets and stars? Is there a meteor shower or eclipse coming up? Can you spot a satellite? How many star stories do you know? Use these opportunities to learn more together. Some free online resources include: Google Sky (has a great level of detail) and AstroViewer (AstroViewer has customizable printable sky maps)
  • Consider visiting a local planetarium for a tour of the nighttime sky to learn more about the objects you see, and/or an observatory to look at sky objects up close.
  • Try printing out a star map without constellation lines drawn in, and encourage children to make their own constellation lines to tell a sky story.
  • Some more astronomy ideas can be found on the Lemonade wizarding page here.

Nature Journal

Let's face it, many kids could care less about keeping records of their adventures. Children have a gift of living in the moment that doesn't always lend itself to such activities. There are ways, however, tho engage them in sharing their experiences. Some of these include:

  • show and tell: this classic activity is tried and true and encourages communication & listening skills
  • sketching in the field, sketching afterwards--in the field can be more accurate and involve observation skills, but active kids may not want to stop to take the time
  • photography: keeping a photo journal is easier now with digital photography; looking through a children's photos can be an enlightening exerience to see the world from their perspective and notice what aspects are important to them
  • group story--review the activity together and have the children add a line or two each to summarize the experience as you record it on chart paper, etc.; these can be kept and fastened together to make a "big book" that the children can look at in their own time
  • collections--for each trip, collect a single memory item to share (you will have to be careful about this one if you visit environmentally sensitive areas)
  • blog it: you will need to monitor security settings, but a blog can be a great place to record and share experiences
  • scrapbooking: cut and paste with pictures and mementoes is an ideal activity for crafty preschoolers
  • memory box: encourage children to add an item per experience to the memory box; review the box items on a regular basis together and share memories. One method of decorating a memory box can be found here.
  • collage: create a photo and drawing/sketch collage together and hang it for all to see

Waterworks

Flowing water fascinates, from bath time, to the wonders of a flush of a toilet and even a trip to Niagra Falls. Building canals and aquifers is an excellent way to expand on the fun.

At a sandy beach: This setting is great for building large-scale water projects. Provide sturdy sand shovels of different sizes and shapes, a larger bucket (for carrying the water) and several other buckets of various shapes for making buildings and castles. Yogurt containers and other washed-out food containers also work well for this purpose. If the children are reluctant or seem a little lost, try giving them a challenge, such as building a dam to keep out waves, or seeing how long a channel they can make. Can they find a way to make water run uphill?

At a rock beach: Provide containers for pouring the water. Can you make a waterfall? Can you predict where the water will run? Where do you think the puddles will form? Can you make it run slowly?

At a lake or pond: Try making sap boats: find a leaf, twig or long tree needle. Dip one end in some sap (pine or spruce sap work well), float it on the surface and watch it go! The sap breaks the surface tension of the water making the object move differently than if the surface tension remains.

In the back yard:

  • Build a simple aquifer such as one found in a Japanese garden by using hollow bamboo pipes, and/or nailing scrap wood together to make a trough--use whatever materials you have on hand, leaning toward more natural choices whenever possible. Sticks, rocks and piles of soil can be used to support these to make a waterway. Let the children figure it out--all you need to do is supply the materials and space. Be sure to have them fill it using a bucket rather than keeping a garden hose running!
  • Pouring water and filling containers is often popular--another way to channel this is with bucket brigade style games where the children are challenged to fill a large container and carry water without spilling it. These do not have to be competitive, but can be group challenges as well.
  • Supply a bucket of water and some wide paint brushes for budding painters. Watch them paint your house, shed, car, sidewalk, etc. with water.
Indoors:
  • Supply sea shells and walnut shells etc. to encourage children to build (and possibly race) their own boats. A little clay or beeswax in the bottom of a shell can help hold up a toothpick mast.
  • In warm weather, try freezing ice cubes of coloured water. Add these to a larger bin of clear water and watch the colours marble out from the ice.
  • Encourage bathtub playtime. Graduated pouring cups, sponges, ping-pong balls, a clean turkey baster, clean containers of different shapes and sizes, homemade toy boats, sea shells and smooth rocks make good bath toys. The challenge is ending the bath when the water gets cold!

Rocks & Minerals

Investigate:

  • Try to collect a variety of different coloured and shaped rocks to compare and examine. Use a magnifying glass to see small features, crystals and tiny fossils in the rocks.
  • Sort rocks by colour, shape, size & weight.
  • Try naming some of the more common minerals found in your rocks. Some common ones might include granite, gneiss, limestone, shale, quartz, etc.
  • Some rocks are harder than others. Try making marks on a sidewalk or other hard surface with different rocks to compare their hardness.
Build:
  • use a glue gun or rubber cement to help children glue rocks together to make sculptures of animals, buildings, etc.
  • paint a pet rock (acrylic paint wil last longer than tempera)
  • paint a doorstop
  • build a wall
  • line a path or flower garden with rocks
  • use a rock tumbler to polish rocks and make jewellery from them
  • add rocks to your water play to build dams and canals
Extensions:
  • igneous rocks come from volcanic lava--build a homemade volcano together
  • make homemade sedimentary rock by pressing together different colours of homemade paper (see the sidebar at the link) while they are still wet--make 2 and then fold and scrunch one of these into a hard-packed ball and it becomes a metamorphic rock
  • make igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic rocks from gummy candies: for igneous, melt the candy together then pour it into an ice cube tray and let set; for sedimentary sort it by colour and chop up the candy, then spread it into coloured layers on waxed paper or plastic wrap and gently but firmly press it together; for metamorphic rock chop up the candy then press it together into a firm ball
  • some sedimentary rock has fossils embedded in it: explore some fossils then make some of your own
  • try some of the activities from the crystals page
  • visit a local rock and mineral show and look for: rocks that write, rocks that glow in the dark, rocks that glow under infrared light, rocks that glow under ultraviolet light, rocks that can float, rocks that have fossils in them, rocks with cubic crystal formations, transparent rocks that double images when you look through them, a common rock that is often mistaken for gold, an irredescent rock, etc.