It goes practically without saying that children love being outdoors. It doesn't matter if they're in a cultivated garden, an empty lot overgrown with weeds, or on a suburban sidewalk. A child will find something fascinating to capture his attention. Just watch a 3 year old on a walk to the local park; he'll stop time and again to investigate a broken twig or an interesting leaf. Older kids love wandering through meadows and woods, overturning rocks to see what kind of minibeasts crawl out, or noticing the way falling leaves spiral on their trip from tree branch to ground.
Creating a wildlife sanctuary is a wonderful way to show your child how nature works and how the seasons affect wildlife and plants. "Your own nature-scape, large or small, is the perfect place to teach kids about the complexity of life while having a great time," says Pete Quasius, President of Audubon South West Florida. He explains that deliberately planting certain flora (bushes, flowers, herbs), will attract all manner of fauna (birds, butterflies, bugs). "Plant some parsley, and a black swallowtail may decide to come visit," he says. "Milkweed will pretty much guarantee a busy butterfly garden." And before you get butterflies, of course, you get caterpillars and their cocoons, giving curious kids a self-contained lesson in the cycle of life. "Gardens, both backyard plots or pots on the patio, are great classrooms," says Quasius.
Here are some ideas for getting up close and personal with nature, whether you've got a rolling meadow or a narrow patio to play with. Remember, there are four basic elements wild birds, animals, and insects will need to make your garden their home.
- Food: You'll need to include plants that produce seeds, berries and acorns, and attract insects. These critters will, in turn, supply food for birds and animals.
- Water: Your visitors will need a source of clean water to drink and bathe in.
- Cover: Animals need a place to escape from predators and from the elements.
- Places to raise young: Newborns need protected spaces if they are to grow strong enough to care for themselves.
Create a Mini Meadow
Set aside a small corner of the garden as a wildflower patch or "meadow' for birds, animals and insects.
What to do:
- Design the garden. Have your child map out her meadow on a large sheet of paper. Explain how trees and shrubs provide food, shade and nest sites for birds, insects and animals; how rock piles, hollow logs and grasses protect small animals as well as being a good place for them to find grubs and insects to eat; and how a birdbath will provide water so birds can drink and bathe.
- Choose native plants. These are the plants nature designed to grow in your climate and soil conditions, so they guarantee quick results Ask at a local nursery if you're not sure what plants are best for your climate zone or soil type.
- Leave it to nature. Instead of dosing your meadow with harmful pesticides, leave the pest-control to nature; birds and some beneficial insects make plant-unfriendly bugs their prey.
Prepare a Pond
A pond can be home to water plants, insects, fish, frogs, and toads as well as a vital water source for birds and animals.
What to do:
- Find a place for your pond. Get your child outside on the hunt for a sunny area away from overhanging trees.
- Decide how big and how deep. A large pond will attract toads and graceful, swooping dragonflies, while frogs will be happy in smaller ponds.
- Construct your pond. Dig your pond together, making sure the sides slope and shelve in gradually to provide shallows and muddy margins for birds. Get your child to pad the hole with newspaper or sand before positioning a pond liner. Ask at a large garden center, or go to Water Garden or Pond Market for supplies and info.
- Plant your pond. Choose a mixture of native plants that live under the surface of the water and oxygenate it; plants that live on the surface with roots that remain under the water; and plants that can float in deeper water.
- Keep it safe. Fence off your pond and don't let children play near it without constant supervision.
Build a Brush Pile Paradise
A brush pile in the corner of your yard or garden can become a vital and welcome shelter for insects, lizards, frogs and toads.
What to do:
- Position your pile carefully. Explore the garden together to find an area with good drainage, in a corner or against a wall or fence, where there are already plants and shrubs to provide food for visitors.
- Use a mixture of ingredients. Build a base for your brush pile with layers of logs and work up with fallen tree limbs and branches, sticks, twigs and dead flowers. Aim to build it around six feet high and ten feet in diameter.
- Front and back doors. Remind your child to create pathways as she piles materials on, so that animals can get right into the middle of the brushpile to rest and perch.
- Plant native vines and creepers as cover for the brush pile, and border it with wildflowers.
Feed the Birds
It's surprisingly easy to attract feathered friends to spaces as small and confined as a pocket garden or a narrow balcony.
What to do:
- Put up a bird table or feeder. Different types of birds prefer different types of feeders and food, so find out what birds are common in the area where you live and help your child put up the feeders that will suit them best. If you're lucky enough to live in an area populated by hummingbirds, hang brightly colored sugar-water feeders to attract them — show your child how to clean the feeders and refill them every few days.
- Birds need water, too. A large, shallow dish your child can refill with fresh water each day is ideal. Place a stone in the corner so small birds can bathe too.
Invite a Butterfly Flutter-by
Attract beautiful, delicate butterflies to your garden or balcony with a patch or pot of the nectar-rich plants they love.
What to do:
- Search for a sheltered, sunny spot. Butterflies are cold-blooded and need to keep their body temperatures above 70°F so they can fly well. Shelter from the wind is important too, so they can avoid using too much energy as they fly, feed, mate, and lay eggs.
- Plant the right flowers. Buddleia, purple coneflowers, lavender, and pinks are ideal. Host plants, which nourish caterpillars, include milkweed, parsley, and passionvine.
- Provide water and a spot to sunbathe by placing a flat rock in the middle of a large, shallow saucer of water.
Crown an Ant Kingdom
Because these self-contained sanctuaries don't take up much space, they're ideal for indoor wildlife watching.
What to do:
- Find an ant-proof container. Use a large glass fishbowl with a smaller glass jar placed inside to prevent your ants from building their tunnels in the middle of the container. Fit a lid to keep the contents as dark as possible. Punch tiny holes in the lid for air circulation.
- Search for an ant colony. Go on a backyard safari together to find your ants. If you don't have a garden, try a local park or order the ants online. Once you find one, carefully dig enough soil and ants, along with any eggs and larvae, to fill your ant kingdom around three inches from the top so the ants won't be able to escape through the air holes. If they're biting ants, wear gloves and let your child watch without digging. Try to locate a queen — these ants have a larger body and will usually be surrounded by larvae. Without one, your child's ant kingdom won't last.
- Provide food. Your child can offer her ants bread soaked in sugar water or topped with a drop of honey. The ants will get most of the liquid they need from their food, but your child can drop in a wet cotton ball every few days just in case; make sure the soil remains damp.
- Wait and watch for the ants to start working on their new home. Discourage your child from moving the container, as this could make their new tunnels cave in.