I have been fascinated with wildlife, the environment and the outdoors in general since I was a little boy, thanks to the many trips "in the country" with my parents. Whether we were spending the weekend at the log cabin, cutting firewood, setting rabbit snares or fishing, I was always in my glee to be out and about in the great Newfoundland and Labrador wilderness. It's no wonder I grew up to be a wildlife technician.
Now a father, I see a lot of my younger self in my two very energetic boys. My oldest, Charlie, is constantly on the lookout for bugs, birds and plants, while my youngest, Andy, is chasing at his heels and learning from him. And like my father was with me, I give them as much opportunity to enjoy the outdoors as I can. In the age of technology, it can be hard to compete for kids’ attention sometimes. If you would like your kids to spend more time trekking and less time texting, or if your child loves to spend time outside and explore new things, here are a few activities you might enjoy together, as my boys and I do.
Pressed Plant Art
A collage of beautiful dried leaves or flowers is a great way to add a natural touch to your home décor. My kids made a colourful fall leaf collage as gift for their mother. It also makes a great gift for a grandparent, teacher or other significant person in your child’s life.
Leaves or flowers can be collected on an outdoor excursion around your home or at a local park or walking trail. Once collected, press them between sheets of paper. I use a professional plant press, but a heavy stack of books will do. Leave them to dry for a few days or weeks, until all moisture is absorbed. Once the plants have stiffened and obtained a paper-like texture they can be removed and sorted.
This part is where the kids will need a little help. Leaves need a parawax coating to prevent colour loss in your dried plants. Melt a stick of parawax on the stove in a large bottomed pot. Remove from the stove and let the wax to cool a little before dipping your leaves. Lay waxed leaves flat on a cookie sheet and leave to dry for several hours. Once completely dried they are ready to be mounted. Most dried flowers retain their colour naturally and can be mounted without the parawax step.
Make your artful display by gluing the leaves and/or flowers to a sheet of stiff cardboard or construction paper, then place it in a frame ready for mounting.
As long as you and your kids aren’t squeamish, bug catching is a great way to learn about insect behaviour and features. While my wife, Amanda, is terrified of bugs, our sons have no such fears. It’s common for Charlie to keep spiders, ants and other creepy crawlers in jars. Or he’ll come running into the house, excitedly yelling about his most recently encountered caterpillar, butterfly or earthworm. He loves to catch insects of all shapes and sizes, letting them crawl through his fingers, while asking numerous questions about their ability to bite, what they eat or why they behave a certain way.
Bug collecting is an easy hobby to get into because insects are everywhere. They are often encountered with very little searching in and around your home and yard, in fields, parks, forests and around lights at night. Most of the collecting I’ve done with my kids has involved a cheap butterfly net, a pair of plastic tweezers and a few empty jars collected from the kitchen. Actually catching insects may require practice; some are sedentary and easy to catch with a pair of tweezers, while others, like dragonflies, are fast and require more skill. Obviously, avoid dangerous, biting or stinging insects, such as bees, wasps and centipedes. If your little ones are really interested, a kids’ guide to insects can go a long way in nurturing their curiosity.
Wildlife and Bird Watching
Make the most of this activity by learning a little about your local fauna before you head out on an adventure with inquisitive minds. The best times to watch wildlife is during the early morning or late afternoon, when a lot of animals are most active. You don’t need to head into the deep forest to find an interesting array of wildlife; many species, such as birds, squirrels, hares, foxes, frogs and even moose, can often be spotted quite close to home.
Encourage the kids to use binoculars and a camera to search for signs of wildlife and take pictures of animals, tracks or any other signs you find. Let them know what to look for and make a game of being super quiet so the animals might be brave enough to be seen. Have them take notes about what they see, so you can look up more information when you get back home.
Visit a Wildlife Park
A visit to a wildlife park is a great way to learn about local wildlife, their natural habitats and the need for wildlife conservation. One example in Newfoundland and Labrador is Salmonier Nature Park, home to approximately 16 native wildlife species including the elusive Canada Lynx, snowy owls, Arctic fox and the iconic North American moose. The majority of the display animals are there for rehabilitation purposes, and many of them have sustained injuries that prevent them from being released into the wild. These animals are kept in sensitively designed enclosures that closely resemble their natural habitat. An easy-going walking trail meanders from habitat to habitat - from mature boreal forest to barrens, peatlands and river headwaters - with informative panels explaining what you are viewing. Besides the captive animals, 84 species of birds, 15 species of mammals and more than 170 species of vascular plants have been recorded in the park.
Search the Tide Pools
I have many fond memories of visiting the tide pools near my grandparents’ cabin that formed twice a day at low tide. Tide pools offer up numerous opportunities to view marine plants, invertebrates and fish, such as kelp, sea stars, urchins, anemones, small fish, crabs, limpets, chitons, snails, sea cucumbers and much more. When visiting tide pools it is very important to respect the wildlife and the sea. Don’t poke the creatures, pull them off the rocks or remove them from the water. Touch all creatures lightly, if at all. Tread carefully on slippery rocks, some of which may be covered in living things, and always be aware of the waves and returning tide.
Watch the Sunset
No two sunsets are ever exactly the same. Watching the setting sun can be absolutely spectacular, and kids can appreciate the changes in the colours, horizon and effects of variations in cloud cover caused by the last rays of blazing orange light as it dips below the horizon. Such displays of colour, and the memories of them, can spur creativity in drawings or paintings or lead to impromptu lessons in physics and folklore as you talk about the science and superstitions around sunsets.
More Kid Friendly Outdoor Activities:
• Visit a salmon ladder or ecological reserve.
• Walk in the woods or hike - or go geocaching.
• Throw rocks in a pond and practise skipping rocks.
• Go berry picking.
• Look for interesting lichens and mosses.
• Collect seashells or rocks.
• Look for wildlife tracks.
• Roast marshmallows over a campfire/beach fire.
• Weave grass and reeds into hats, glasses etc.
• Make bark rubbings (place white paper against a tree and use a pencil or crayon to rub the bark design onto the paper).
• Practise nature photography.
• Go fishing.
Top 10 Nature Tourism Sites:
1. Bird Island, Ellison - closest land views of Atlantic puffins in NL.
2. Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve, the Cape Shore - colony of over 100,000 seabirds.
3. Gros Morne National Park, Rocky Harbour - unique geological and biological features.
4. Terra Nova National Park, Glovertown - marine park with abundant wildlife.
5. Petty Harbour Mini Aquarium, Petty Harbour - seasonal displays of local marine life.
6. Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, Bay Bulls - whales, puffins and other seabirds.
7. Cataracts Provincial Park, Colinet - Deep river gorge with two cascading waterfalls.
8. Fortune Head Ecological Reserve, Fortune - 540 million-year-old Cambrian era fossils.
9. Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve, Portugal Cove South - 542-575 million-year-old fossils.
10. Fossil Forest Footpath Trail, Stephenville - 305 million-year-old carboniferous trees.
- Story and photos by Todd Hollett
Do your kids prefer trekking to texting? Submit a photo of your little ones enjoying nature, and you could see them in a future issue of Downhome!