Science & Tech

​Science All Around: Lessons Your Kids Can Experience in the Great Outdoors

My kids were restless. And with just a few hours to spare before both were due for Tae Kwon Do class, an action-packed day trip to the National Harbor, the Smithsonian National Zoo, or Baltimore, Maryland, was out of the question.

No, I needed a quick dad activity that didn’t require spending money, a long drive or a lot of time in the sun. I’d already exhausted most of my go-to summer fun ideas, like the pool, bike riding, sprinkler in front yard, playground, and the movies. I was brain-locked.

Then it came to me. Lightning McQueen, RocketteGirl and I would head into the woods for a nature hike.

Stage 1: A Neighborhood Hike

The week before, we’d been to Rock Spring Park, one of RocketteGirl’s favorite spots in our neighborhood. It’s little more than a narrow two-acre patch of trees shading a paved trail, sturdy bridges and a winding stream.

Visiting Rock Spring always reminds me of the days I spent as a kid playing with my best friend at a nameless place we knew only as “the creek.” We skipped rocks, played “time travel explorers,” or, in winter, we improvised a game of poor-man’s ice hockey: no skates, no sticks, just sneakers sliding around kicking chunks of ice.

Regardless of the season, exploring the creek always seemed to stoke our imaginations. Sure, back then we still played our share of Atari and watched plenty of blurry VCR movies, but we unplugged from technology and connected with the great outdoors far more often than most kids do today. And recent studies have shown that interacting with nature provides kids and adults many physical, psychological and cognitive benefits, including enhancing our creative problem solving abilities.

Stage 2: Into the “Real” Woods

We’d already done Rock Spring many, many times. So, I decided Lightning McQueen and RocketteGirl were ready for a real hike along Scott’s Run.

Scott’s Run Nature Preserve is one of the several county and national parks within a 20-minute drive of our house. It’s a place I “discovered” in high school with my AP biology classmates.

Scott’s Run isn’t the most exotic or challenging place to hike – it’s no Denali or Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park – but it didn’t have to be. With its cascading waterfalls and rocks to climb, I knew my active Nerds would be more than satisfied. Besides, it was free, it was mostly shaded, and it suited our time constraint.

A Big Surprise

When we pulled into the parking lot at the head of the River Trail, I was shocked. Back in the day, it was rare to see more than a handful of cars here during the week. Now I was lucky to squeeze my Highlander into a lot crammed with at least 50 other vehicles.

It was nice to see so many people out enjoying the trails, but the trash they’d left behind was soul-crushing. Glass and plastic bottles, Styrofoam food containers, plastic bags, and other discarded items were everywhere. Along trails, in the water, wedged into stone outcroppings, tangled in the roots and vines of the shoreline.

While we were able to enjoy wading beneath waterfalls and through the streams of Scott’s Run, we couldn’t help but notice how polluted the landscape was around us.

We were able to collect some of the trash we found, but it was much more than we could handle ourselves. And we only saw a single trashcan back in the parking lot.

This was a teaching moment if ever one existed.

Everything’s Connected So Leave It Like You Found It

My kids know littering is “wrong.” But this was an opportunity for me to explain why and also foster in them a greater appreciation for ecology.

I pointed out that the small streams we were wading in connect to the Potomac River, which flows into the Chesapeake Bay, which feeds into the Atlantic Ocean. Like the food chain – which my kids know plenty about – smaller bodies of water feed larger ones. And if streams and stream wildlife get polluted, it can negatively affect the health of everything downstream to the ocean and on up the food chain to humans.

After discussing this, it was easier for my kids to understand that even our own individual efforts to help rid the local environment of pollutants can make a difference.

To reinforce this environmental point, later this summer I’d like to take my Nerds to a new exhibit at the National Zoo called Washed Ashore: Art to Save the Sea. The exhibit consists of 17 marine wildlife sculptures made entirely of recovered plastic and raises awareness of “the ocean’s deadliest predator”: trash.

Other Science Concepts to Highlight on Your Hike:

  • Sound waves – Drop rocks into pools of water to demonstrate concept of sound waves or how seismic waves from earthquakes can cause tsunamis
  • Filtration – Observe the flow of water through and around different shaped rocks, which act like a Brita to filter out silt, sediment and other (non-manmade) impurities as it travels downstream
  • Surface tension – Observe water striders and ask your Nerd how it’s possible for the bugs to walk on top of water
  • Symmetry/Asymmetry – Find examples in leaves, trees, plants, bugs, etc.
  • Geology – Collect a few rocks from the stream bed and see if your Nerds can identify which of the three kinds of rocks they are (be sure not to disturb surrounding areas to do this and return the rocks to the stream bed when finished)
  • Erosion – Look for lines showing layers of rock and earth along the banks of the stream and ask kids what they are and how they got there. Then tell them that the Grand Canyon was created from the same forces of nature!
  • Food chain scavenger hunt – See if your Nerds can “construct” a food chain, top to bottom, from the flora and fauna they can spot along the trail/water
  • Technology – What creative ideas – like this, this or this – can your Nerds come up with to help solve environmental pollution problems?

Need to unplug and connect with the great outdoors? Check out EveryTrail to find a hiking trail near you!

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  • Reply
    Sandi Schwartz
    August 17, 2016 at 11:03 pm

    What a wonderful post! I love your hands-on approach to teaching about nature. I especially thought that the additional science concepts at the end were very helpful.

    • Reply
      Scott Beller
      August 18, 2016 at 6:30 pm

      Thanks, Sandi – So glad to hear we’re/I’m on the right track with our approach.

  • Reply
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