Find a beetle and a heart-shaped leaf. Find a bird with red, white or blue on it and an animal with more than six legs. Find a plant or animal that has a smell, good or bad. This is not a recipe for the bubbling cauldron of the witches in Macbeth. It is a formula to get children outdoors and make them more aware of their environment. I call it an ecology scavenger hunt. Adults may also enjoy participating.
Everyone is spending too much time indoors these days. An ecology scavenger hunt provides an excellent excuse to venture outside and offers myriad learning opportunities. Computers can be valuable sources of information, but the living world is outside. Children should be encouraged to spend as much time as possible in that vibrant place, where chances for interactive play with nature abound.
You can design an ecology scavenger hunt to be completed in a single day or longer, searching in your own backyard or, where permitted, a municipal park or the local woods. The idea is to locate each item on a prepared list. The next assignment is to read something about the plant or animal that’s been found. This might entail an internet search or consulting field guides. If the scavenger hunt is part of a trapped-at-home student’s project, after the research has been completed the student might write a meaningful statement about each scavenger hunt item they were able to find.
Put a beetle, a flower and a butterfly on the scavenger hunt list for young children. They should also be able to find a green leaf with points on the edges. With a little searching, anyone can find a spider web.
For older children, the hunt should involve greater challenges, such as finding a plant with a distinctive smell. Many leaves produce an odor when they are crushed. Some smell like perfume; others are less agreeable. Any student should be able to learn to recognize a hickory or pecan tree from the smell of the leaf.
In setting this up for children at home, a trip outside beforehand to see what is — and is not — on your scavenger hunt list is a good idea. Ecological scavenger hunts can be conducted at any time of year, just make sure the items listed are seasonally appropriate.
Millipedes and many insects produce protective odors. Each smell probably functions to ward off some predator that might otherwise make a meal of the animal. A cherry millipede is a delightful find. These animals smell like maraschino cherries or almonds. The compound they produce to create the odor is comparable to hydrogen cyanide and is deadly to some animals that might otherwise eat them. Smelling them is okay, but do not taste.
To complete the scavenger hunt successfully at the expert level, participants must accomplish three tasks in connection with various living things: finding, reading, writing. Reading and writing are part of the learning process all school-age children are familiar with. Going outdoors to find the item about which to read and write will be an adventure for most of them.
My suggestions for an ecology scavenger hunt are intended as examples. Having a child make up an ecological scavenger hunt list could be a productive exercise in itself. Or make up your own list based on geographical location, season and the age and learning ability of your audience. In the time of covid-19, that audience might consist of you and one other person. Or even just you.
Children will find that not all formal learning takes place in the classroom and may discover new ways to learn more about their own corner of the world. If nothing else, the exercise will get children outdoors — a place everyone ought to become more familiar with. Many parents will benefit from a scavenger hunt challenge as well, if for no other reason than to get out of the house.