Riparian Zone Nature Study

We are heading off to the pond tomorrow for a nature walk and I thought I'd share our plans here to make it easy for you to pack the kids in the car to try something like this for yourself.

This week our homeschooling co-op will be studying the riparian zone of our local pond. The riparian zone is the vegetative area between land and water.  This zone runs along the perimeter of the pond and it is often muddy and murky.  The riparian zone is the home to many plants and animals.  Because the plants in the riparian zone often provide shade, this zone helps the pond maintain a cool water temperature.  The plants in this zone also help with erosion control and they serve as a filtration system for the pond.

Have you ever read The Wind in the Willows?  The animals in this book spend a lot of time in the riparian zone of the river.

Although you don't need anything other than your five senses to do a proper nature study, I'll include a few items below that you could toss in your backpack if you would like to.

Optional Items to Bring on your Trip to the Pond
-Mud boots
-Containers to collect insects, plants, and other specimens
-Mason jars with lids to collect water samples
-Magnifiying glasses, pocket microscopes, and field guides
-Dip nets 

What to Look For in the Riparian Zone of the Pond
Cattails: Red Winged Blackbirds often build nests on top of cattails. (Don't disturb the nest if you find one). A cut cattail could mean that there is a muskrat at work in the area. 
Eggs: A pond is a great place to find fish eggs, salamander eggs, frog eggs, and mosquito eggs.  If you plan to do this nature study in the summer, you will most likely find minnows and the other creatures at a further stage in their life cycles.
Holes: Holes at the edge of the muddy bank might be a place for crayfish to hide. Holes in trees near the pond can indicate that wood ducks have a nest nearby.
Mud: Bend down and look for animal and bird tracks in the mud.  If your family is like mine, you are probably noisy when you come to the pond and you might scare the animals away.  We like to look for evidence of animals and birds.  Tracks in the mud tell us who comes to the water to feed, drink, and hide from predators.  If you are looking for discarded muskrat homes, check the mud.  Snails and dragonfly nymphs can also be at the muddy bottom of shallow water.
Insects: Look for insects skimming on the water and jumping on the plants in the riparian zone.  A good field guide can help you identify the many insects you will find.

Plants: Marsh marigolds, swamp grass and sedges will be on the outer edge of the riparian zone (near land). Cattails and arrow heads will be in the shallow water.  Pull out the roots of a plant that lives in the water and from a plant that lives on shore and compare the root systems.  Discuss how soft the mud is in the marshy area and why a huge tree couldn't grow in this area.

Logs: Painted turtles are usually found in the marshy grass or sunning themselves on a log.  If you turn over a decaying log, you might also be able to find a salamander

Optional Books to Enhance your Study
Handbook of Nature Study Pages 400-415, 498-500

What are your favorite plants and animals to look for in the riparian zone of the pond?  Leave a comment below with your favorite nature find!

Nature Study

One of the most beautiful things about homeschooling is how it has brought our family together.  "What did you learn in science today?" isn't a question at the dinner table because my husband is right there in it with us every day.  I didn't set out to homeschool, but I'm so glad I took the leap!

Nature study is one of our favorite things to do as a family.  Spending time out in the fresh air and sunshine is so good for the soul.  Sometimes if we have cranky pants on we grab our outside gear and explore in our own backyard. After only a few minutes outside we take a deep breath of fresh air and our moods have changed.

I want my children to open their eyes and I want their minds to be filled with wonder.  Spending time in nature has sparked so many questions about how things work.

"Why does the male red-winged blackbird come in March but the female waits until May?"

"Can I plant three bean seeds so I can amend the soil around each one to change the nitrogen levels?  I wonder if it would change how fast they grow?"

"Are honeybees alive in their hives during the winter?"

And the list goes on...

We found this Polyphemus Moth hanging out in the raspberry patch last June 

The average 8 yr old today can name more cartoon characters than native plants or insects in his own backyard.  Our society is suffering from Nature Deficit Disorder and our time spent indoors is impacting our physical and mental health.  I don't see anything wrong with the occasional TV show here or there, but I want my kids to be alert and curious.  

I want them to notice the small details in this wonderful world God has given us. 

When we started making nature study part of our weekly routine, I used this curriculum.  It's a great starting point.  The author has 48 weeks of guided nature study mapped out for you according to the calendar.  She suggests books to check out from the library that go along with the weekly theme and she has art projects to do with the kiddos.  It's well planned and perfect if you like to follow a plan.  

The only reason I broke away from this curriculum was that my children eventually became so curious with things we found every day in our backyard that I wasn't able to keep up with their natural curiousity and our planned weekly themes.  So I let curiousity be our guide and this is how we do our nature studies now.  

We go outside every day for at least 30 minutes.  We do this in the winter too.  We look for birds, seeds, plants, bark, tracks, moss, etc... We are careful to leave animals in their natural habitat.  We sit down and watch them move, build nests, and interact with one another.  We memorize bird calls and animal tracks.  

When we come back inside we make a few notes in our nature journals.  This year I'm trying these, but for the past few years a simple watercolor notebook has been perfect.  We jot down the date, a brief description of what we saw, and then my kids sketch a picture.  (I snap a photo on my phone when we are outside so they don't forget details).  They like to use watercolor paints to paint their sketches.  

We only add things to our nature journals 2-3 times a week because I want my kids to do their best sketching instead of treating it like a daily chore or something to check off a list.  

We do, however, jot down a few notes in this book every single day.  The squares are small so we just write down the time of day we are observiving, the temperature, a brief description of the current weather, and what we are noticing.  This is a 5 year observation calendar, so you can look back and see what was happening on this date last year and the year before!  We notice the most differences in March and October.  Some years have snow on March 25th and some years it is 70 degrees!

What do you do when it's raining or bitterly cold?
We play games!  There are a ton of fantastic nature games out there.  Match a TrackMatch a Pair of BirdsInto the Forest, and Bird Bingo are a few of our favorites. 

We also love to watch YouTube videos about animals or plants and then sketch in our journals.  World of Animals is an awesome Usborne book that already has YouTube links on each page!  

We found this Painted Lady Butterfly on our sedum plant

Helpful Rescoures to Guide your Nature Study

Field Guides:
 Comstock's Handbook of Nature Study is our FAVORITE resource.  If we go for a walk and notice blue jays, then we come home and look them up in our book.  If we see clover in the field, we come home and look it up in the book.  She provides a ton of questions to guide the children as they think and observe.  

We also like the Audubon First Field Guide series.  We have Birds, Insects, and Trees.

Images to Copy: 
I often snap a photo on my phone and we sketch from that.  But there are a few books that have easy sketches for the kids to copy and paint.  Nature Anatomy, Farm Anatomy, and Watercolor with me in the Forest are the three books we use the most often to learn how to sketch.

 Merlin Bird ID is a fun app that helps you to identify birds as you find them,  You can notify other users that you've spotted something and you can see what has been spotted in your area that day by other bird watchers.  

The Audubon Bird Guide is a fun app that allows you to identify birds and listen to their calls.

What is the most unique plant or animal that you've observed while you were outside?