Ponds are teeming with living things, large and small, especially in the springtime. This sifter, created from an embroidery hoop, lets kids get up close and personal with the fascinating critters -- bugs, snails, tiny shrimp, crayfish, and more -- that call the pond's floor home.
Cut two circles (or octagons like ours) from tulle that are slightly larger than a 7-inch embroidery hoop. Place the hoop between the circles. Staple the pieces together around the hoop's perimeter, pulling the tulle tight. (TIP: Staple one side first, then pull it tight and staple the opposite side. Continue stapling around the hoop this way.) Now find an area of the pond where plants are growing or draping into the water (plant roots and leaves provide shelter from predators for pond-bottom dwellers). Lower the hoop into the soil on the pond's floor, sweeping it slowly back and forth, then gently raise it out of the water (if the sifter is empty, try again -- it may take a few sweeps to collect something). Transfer your findings to a small plastic container filled with pond water. When you've finished your examination, gently return the critters to their home.
For further exploration: Get tips on critters to look for, and learn more about your finds, by bringing along a field guide. We like Pond, by Donald Silver, and Pond Life: Look Closer, by Frank Greenaway.
While you can see many animals that make your backyard their home during the day -- squirrels, birds, and rabbits, for example -- many others only come out at night (like raccoons and skunks). This footprint-catching "trap" lets your kids investigate who's hanging out in your yard after dark.
Place a white sheet, folded in half, in an area of the yard where animals are most likely to visit (near a hedge, for instance, or a compost pile). Place cut-up fruit, bread spread with peanut butter, sliced carrots, or hard-boiled eggs in the center, then spread a foot-wide band of dirt around the edges of the sheet. Using a hose or watering can, wet both the sheet and the soil and leave it overnight. The next morning, check your trap to see if any animals have taken the bait, then try to identify them by their tracks. Reset your trap in other spots around the yard -- you might attract different animals in different places.
For further exploration: Check out biokids.umich.edu/guides/tracks_and_sign for images of more than 40 types of animal tracks and tips on identifying them.
Get to know some of your smallest neighbors by observing them up close in this temporary abode.
Cut three or four 2-inch-square openings around the top of a clean, empty carton (we used a half-gallon ice cream carton). Wrap duct tape around the edges of the openings to make them sturdier. Bury a small plastic cup in a vegetable garden or flowerbed so that the top is even with the ground. Place the carton over the cup to protect it from rain, weigh it down with a small stone, and leave it overnight. In the morning, see if any guests dropped by -- just be sure to return them to the garden when their stay is over. To entice more bugs, place some food, such as tiny bits of fruit, in the bottom of the cup.
For further exploration: Not sure who those tiny travelers are? Go to www.insectidentification.org, which helps identify bugs based on their color, number of legs, and location.
This surprisingly simple technique will unearth some surprising results!
Find an area of loose, slightly moist soil (the dirt under a log or landscape timber works well) and push a 12- to 18-inch-long stick two to three inches into the ground. Vigorously rub another stick from side to side against it for about 2 minutes and watch as any worms in the vicinity wriggle to the surface. Try several areas in the yard to see which ones are the hottest worm hangouts, and keep an eye out for baby worms, which are in abundance this time of year.
What's happening: Scientists aren't sure exactly why worms wriggle to the surface, but one theory is that the vibrations made by rubbing the sticks together mimic those of predators, so the underground dwellers rise to escape.
This easy experiment can be conducted anywhere there's a patch of grass and sidewalk, and proves that plants are breathing in the spring air, too.
Invert a clean, empty glass jar over a patch of grass in the sunlight. Place another jar over concrete or asphalt. Leave the jars for an hour, then return to examine them. The inside of the grass jar will be coated with droplets of water, while the other jar should be mostly dry inside.
What's happening: Grass and other plants "breathe" by taking in carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen (the opposite of people). This exchange produces water vapor. Under the first jar, the vapor is warmed by the sun, then condenses on the cooler glass. Since there's no breathing under the second glass, vapor isn't produced, and the glass stays dry.