With clear mason jars in hand, we headed outdoors on our appointed mission.
Soon, thanks to some local fireflies and quick hands, we delighted in the twinkling glow of our natural lanterns. Thus began another memorable summer of discovery in the Missouri Ozarks.
This is the stuff many childhood memories are made of—fireflies, cicadas and warm evenings filled with the sounds of tree frogs, katydids and whip-poor-wills—adventures galore in our own backyard.
For families with young children, getting acquainted with nature close to home can be an inviting and rewarding experience. Getting started doesn’t have to be complicated or require long treks over rugged terrain. Nature discovery can take place right in your own backyard, nearby creek, forest or nature center.
Television glamorizes exotic big-game locations, complete with lions, tigers and bears, but even the smallest backyard is home to wild beasts Among the blades of grass, hardy dandelions and flint rocks there are ant lions, tiger swallowtails and woolly bear caterpillars. Insects are everywhere, and there are so many kinds. Beneath rocks, among weeds and around gardens there is an awesome number of these crawling, jumping and flying creatures. Insect investigation is at the top of the list for many preschoolers. Add a magnifying glass and your little ones are sure to have hours of fun. Just be sure to watch out for insects that sting or bite. Help your children identify those that can sting, such as bees and wasps, and teach them to calmly give them space and respect.
Bushes, trees and gardens provide prime daytime birding. Watch for local and seasonal visitors as they go about their daily routine of bathing in driveway puddles, catching insects and feeding their hungry young. Even your 2- or 3- year-old can keep count of the different bird songs heard or nests found in trees. Colorful cardinals, beautiful bluebirds and cheerful chickadees are some classic favorites for both kids and adults. Put out some seed, fruit or suet and see who shows up for dinner.
At night, fireflies “talk” to one another using only their “taillight signals,” while bats, owls and nighthawks seek their prey on the wing. Many yards harbor at least one of these nocturnal creatures, and you may want to watch for them on a backyard camp-out, complete with tents, flashlights, sleeping bags and s’mores. Camping in your own home yard is also a great way to prepare for future vacation adventures further away. For your toddler or preschooler it is exciting, yet feels safe and familiar.
Invite Wildlife Into Your Yard
It is amazing what you may discover when a portion of your lawn is not mowed for a while. Grasses and wildflowers produce flower heads and seeds feasted upon by hungry insects and migrating birds. Go one step further and start a few native garden plants, put up a bird or bat house or just add a couple of large rocks to create your own small nature viewing station. Your area may serve as a caterpillar diner where you may observe the entire life cycle of some of our state’s moths and butterflies.
Food and water attract a colorful crowd for your family to enjoy year-round. A simple birdbath can be made using an old terra cotta planting pot and a wide ceramic soup bowl. Just turn the planter upside down and place the bowl on top of the pot. Fill the bowl with fresh water and enjoy your visitors on a hot summer day.
Take a Tree Trek
Once acquainted with your home safari, why not branch out and take a tree trek around your neighborhood or along your local walking trail. No matter the time of year, trees are always in season.
In the spring, trees come alive with buds, blossoms and winged seeds. Maple trees provide endless hours of fun with their millions of “helicopter” seeds, and redbud, dogwood and sassafras create splashes of color amongst the bare branches of winter. Ripening mulberries and wild plums add flavor to summer, while persimmons provide the opportunity for tasty baked-good additions in early fall. Native trees such as walnut, pecan, hazelnut and hickory all have edible nuts that are sought after by both wildlife and hungry wildlife observers.
Make a “treasure map” using trees you have identified along a trail and a few other natural landmarks. Mark your treasure with an “X.” Your treasure find may be a picnic spot, campsite or secret fishing hole.
A crayon, a piece of scrap paper or paper grocery bag and some leaves of varying shapes and sizes create lovely artwork suitable for use as decorative framed art or holiday wrapping paper. Leaf rubbings help small children learn cause and effect relationships. For a little natural magic, repeat after me, “If I rub my crayon over this paper with a leaf under it, a picture of a leaf appears!”
Check Out Some Alligator Bark
Winter may seem like a down time for trees, but less foliage means better observations of woodpecker holes, tree gnarls, insect galls and tree bark itself. Many trees can be identified by the texture and color of their bark. Wild persimmon trees have very distinctive, blocky bark that is often compared to that of an alligator’s rough-textured skin. Other trees with easily distinguished bark include American sycamore and river birch. Look for their flaky trunks along rivers and creeks.
Go on a Creek Walk
Creeks, no matter the size, are havens of discovery.
Fish, frogs, turtles, dragonflies, water striders, herons and crawdads are only the beginning. Children of all ages enjoy using a dip net to catch a few water critters to observe. Placed gently in a white tub or other container and viewed with a handheld magnifying glass, water beetles, snails and minnows provide hours of endless learning and fascination. After a few minutes of observation, remember to release aquatic creatures back into their watery home.
No water, no problem! Even a dry streambed can be a discovery destination. With millions of rocks in a multitude of colors, shapes and sizes, most youngsters claim a few favorites. The possibility of finding a fossil or two makes it a perfect pastime. If a fossil is discovered, most want to know more about the life of the featured plant or animal from eons ago.
This Center’s for You
If your little naturalist needs to know more, check out your nearest conservation nature center for some answers. It is a great way to spend an hour or a day. Missouri has several conservation nature centers and conservation areas statewide. Regardless of where you live in Missouri, there is a nature center not too far from your home. Each site has its own unique mix of naturalist-led programs, live native animals, hiking trails and accessible site features.
Conservation nature centers provide information on Missouri’s fish, forests and wildlife.
At your local center you can find out more about your backyard discoveries—fossils, bugs, bats and more. A day trip to a center near you allows your entire family the opportunity to explore more of Missouri’s wild side in a safe environment.
Nature center staff can get you started with information about upcoming free programs to help your family learn more about the outdoors. (You can also find these on our website at mdc.mo.gov/regions.) Topics such as animal tracks, backyard bird feeding, native gardening and nature-themed scavenger hunts await you. Conservation topics such as archery, angling and trapping may appeal to your children as they grow.
Keep it Simple and Safe
No matter your destination, remember to keep it simple and make safety a priority. Watch out for things such as poison ivy, insect bites and sunburn. Keep a first aid kit with you for those unexpected scrapes and stings.
If your discoveries include streams, ponds or lakes, observe water conditions and wear life jackets. While hiking, be sure to stay on designated trails, and don’t forget to take along plenty of water and your little explorer’s favorite snacks. Even though your child is full of energy, remember to take frequent breaks. Young children can tire easily on an outing. In winter, dress in layers for comfort and to prevent hypothermia.
Planning ahead makes a big difference. Simple outings lead to big fun for everyone. So get out and head for your family’s next close-to-home discovery destination and enjoy Missouri outdoors.