The best place to ignite your child’s interest in the world of nature is your own backyard.
You don’t have to be a scientist or even an amateur naturalist to introduce your child to the wonders of nature. All that’s needed is a sincere interest in helping your child learn about nature and a willingness to be a companion in exploring the natural world.
Many wonders of nature already exist in your backyard—birds building nests in the trees, earthworms rejuvenating the soil, an occasional rainbow arching across the sky, spiders spinning intricate webs. Just focusing attention on these wonders and talking about what you and your child can discover through closer observation is an excellent way to start the nature-exploration process.
Another way to help your child become a young naturalist is to invite more wildlife into your backyard. There are simple and safe ways to do this. It can even be done on small balconies and decks as well as in larger yards.
Inviting wildlife to your backyard involves providing food, water, cover, and a place for wildlife to raise their young. Once you’ve accomplished these things, you may wish to certify your yard as an official wildlife habitat. This certification is available through the National Wildlife Federation and may be something you and your child would like to work on together. It's a fun project that can be tailored to parenting children of any age.
In creating a wildlife habitat, there’s no need to do everything at once. You might start by providing a source of food or water. Just this one change will likely increase observable wildlife activity in your yard.
While native plants are the best way to provide food for wildlife, supplemental feeders are also useful. Native plants are plants that were growing naturally in an area before people introduced plants from distant places. Talking to someone at a local nursery or garden center is a good way to get information about plants native to the area where you live.
Once you have this information, look for plants that produce or provide berries, seeds, nuts, nectar, pollen, and foliage, as these are excellent food sources for wildlife. Involve your child in selecting and caring for native plants for your yard or deck.
You can also involve your child in setting up and maintaining supplemental feeders. While you can purchase a variety of bird feeders at many hardware and garden stores, you can also make your own. Making your own bird feeder will probably be more fun, while also teaching your child about recycling and reusing.
Ideas for making bird feeders out of typical household containers can be found at a number of different websites, including these:
As all living things need water, providing a water source is an important step in inviting wildlife into your backyard. Besides drinking, wildlife also use water for bathing. Adding a bird bath is a simple way to make water available for birds and butterflies.
The saucer of a large plastic planter can be used to make a simple birdbath. Simply turn the planter upside down, place the saucer on top of it, and fill the saucer with water. A fist-size stone can be placed in the center of the saucer to keep the saucer from blowing away and to give the birds and butterflies a place to land.
The water should be changed and the saucer cleaned several times a week. The plastic saucer is lightweight, making it easier for your child to handle as she changes the water and cleans the dish. It’s best to place the birdbath close to some bushes to provide cover for visiting birds.
Provide cover and a place to raise young
Wildlife need places to hide so that they can feel safe from predators. They also need cover during inclement weather and a safe place to raise their young. Butterflies and moths lay their eggs on wildflowers and bushes, and birds often build their nests in trees and bushes.
Native vegetation—including trees, shrubs, and tall grasses—makes excellent protective cover. Wild animals also use rock piles, brush, and decaying logs for cover.
Certifying your habitat
Once you’ve gone through the process of providing food, water, shelter, and a place for wildlife to raise their young, there’s only one more thing to do to get your yard certified as a wildlife habitat by the National Wildlife Federation. This is to maintain your yard or garden in an environmentally-friendly or sustainable way. This means reducing or eliminating the use of chemicals which may be harmful to wildlife.
Once this is accomplished, you’ll be ready to apply for certification and become a part of the National Wildlife Federation’s Wildlife Habitat program. By visiting their website, you can get all the information you need to apply. From this website, you can also learn about other home, school, and community habitats.
Working toward and obtaining the certification is sure to be a source of great pride for your child. The process will also foster better understanding and appreciation of the natural world.
Dr. Ruth Wilson is an educational consultant and curriculum writer. Her primary areas of expertise are early childhood environmental education and peace education.
Boy with frog photo courtesy of the National Wildlife Federation; Birdbath photo by Ruth Wilson