Any time is a good time for a nature walk, but autumn, with its cooler temperatures and bounty of color, is a clear winner. We get in as many walks as we can during this time, often just cruising around the neighborhood or at the nearby park. Our daughter's favorite thing to do on a nature walk is to simply look for clues. And since she is only 4, the clues don't actually have to mean anything. They can just be whatever catches her interest -- a colorful leaf, a stick, pinecones, an earthworm, a feather. We always bring a bag so she can bring her clues home (well, not the worm).
Now, what to do with all those clues? Here are some ideas we've come up with. If you do an Internet search for "nature crafts for kids," you will find many great links, as well.
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Go on a scavenger hunt
Come up with a list of things your kids can check off as they find them. The list could include easy things to find (leaf, rock, stick), more difficult items (feather, spider web, squirrel), or route-specific items (flowers in a garden, boulder, dead tree). This would also come in handy when you have a specific craft in mind that you can't do unless you find all the things on the list. To reuse the list, slip it into a clear page protector and use a dry erase or washable marker.
Get a variety of free paint color cards next time you are at a home improvement store. Have the kids pick a color or three, then look for things that match their paint cards. (This idea is thanks to Mrs. Schnepel and Mrs. Askari's Schaumburg Park District Preschool class.) When you get home, have your child make a color collage by gluing or taping their finds to a piece of paper or cardboard, along with the paint card.
Take photographs and create a story or collage that way. We don't have a printer, so my kids help me decide what to take pictures of along the way, and then when we get home I upload them and do a slideshow on the computer. Alternatively, you could bring a notebook and colored pencils or crayons and stop along the way to draw things of interest, be it flowers, an ant crawling in the dirt or the shadows made by a tree's leaves.
Gather a bunch of small sticks, long grass or other items to form the letters of your child's name. If you run across large (non-crumbly) leaves, you could also cut out block letters from them. Have your child glue or tape the letters to cardboard to make a sign for their bedroom door.
Create whimsical creatures
Make a pinecone animal by gluing on googly eyes, pipe cleaner antennae and pebble feet. Draw funny faces on acorns (keep the top for a hat). Sketch a person or animal on cardstock and use leaves and flower petals to add clothes, wings and other items. We did this, but instead of a person, Lily decided to make another flower with the petals she found. Make a baby food jar collection. Sometimes we come home with a bunch of small items that we just don't know what to do with (rocks, ripped leaves, dirt, broken acorns). When we can't come up with anything else to do with these things, we drop them in a baby food jar and they instantly become an art piece, especially if you add some dirt or sand first. We've got a little collection started, and I have to say, it looks pretty neat! (Obviously, put the collection out of reach if your child may throw the glass jar or open it up and dump the contents all over the floor).
Make a collage
The kids' activity blog Play, Create, Explore has some great ideas for collages. Put flattish items between two pieces of wax paper and iron to make a collage. (playcreateexplore.com/2010/04/wax-paper-spring-collage.html) Another collage idea is to stick items on contact paper playcreateexplore.com/2010/05/contact-paper-collage.html). The nice thing about contact paper is that the items can be rearranged at will, which is perfect for Lily, who likes to tell stories with her pictures. Or get a rubber mallet and a large piece of poster board, let them squash everything and see what colors the items make. (playcreateexplore.com/2012/08/if-you-give-boy-hammer.html). This is Justin's idea of the perfect craft time!
Map it out
Draw a map, noting where you found points of interest -- the dead tree, a spider web, a really steep hill, a funny noise, where the sun was the warmest -- whatever you want. My kids love maps. Lily has a large one we made taped to her bedroom wall. She likes to sit in front of it with her dolls lined up behind her and "drive" them to all the different locations we've marked.
Pick up trash
If you've noticed your usual route needs a bit of cleaning up, this is a great way to teach your children about being good stewards of the earth. Last time we were at the beach, Lily and Justin really got into it, and ended up filling a plastic grocery bag full of trash just on the way back to the car -- and this was at a beach we considered to be very clean! Depending on what kind of trash it is, you could even incorporate it into a future craft project.