1. Go on a habitat hunt
This was our first, favourite and possibly simplest thing to do in nature.
- Go out habitat hunting. We’re looking for damp, dark places so…
- Explore the undersides of logs and rocks, sift through soil, beneath leaf piles, in the dark recesses beneath plants and so on.
- Closer to home, check window frames and sills, guttering and drainpipes, and the cracks between paving stones.
- Turn over your habitat gently or poke around in it very carefully.
- What minibeasts can you find sheltering there? Look out for centipedes, woodlice and spiders.
- Use a brush to life the creatures gently into a plastic cup or jam jar.
- Inspect them with a magnifying glass. What colours are they? How many legs does each one have? Do they have wings? What do you think they eat?
- Put the wee beasties back, gently, when you’re done and return their home to the way it was when you found it.
- Older children might want to try to identify and classify the insects.
2. Build a woodlouse maze (and perform magic)
Personal experience suggests that, if you have an indulgent grandparent, you can make a not insubstantial fortune out of this game in a single afternoon. Read on…
The science bit: if forced to make a series of turns, woodlice almost always keep turning in the opposite direction to their last turn (so that a right turn will be followed by a left turn, then a right, then a left, and so on). This instinct helps them to keep moving in a roughly ‘forwards’ direction, even if they have to move around lots of obstacles. So…
- Find a collection of relatively straight twigs. They want to be thick enough that your woodlice won’t automatically scale the walls.
- A smooth surface is needed for this trick – a piece of paper on a table, or the table itself if not precious.
- Arrange the twigs into a maze for a woodlouse. Give it lots of choices for directions in which to turn. The ‘walkways’ between twigs need to be large enough for a woodlouse to move through, but not wide enough for it to turn around in (so that it has to keep going forwards).
- Sellotape the twigs so that they can’t be pushed out of place.
- Now find some woodlice. They live in damp, dark places, remember…
- Pick up the woodlice gently with a paint brush and pop them into a jam jar before bringing them back to your maze.
- Locate an indulgent grandparent. Tell them that you are able to communicate telepathically with your woodlice and can therefore control which way they move through the maze. Every time they turn in the direction you ask them, you must be given two pence (the going rate at the time of writing).
- Be patient: your woodlice may scale the walls or try to sneak under twigs. If so, keep trying to find more cooperative specimens.
- Put a woodlouse in the entrance of your maze. Watch it very carefully to see which direction it turns first, left or right
- If the woodlouse makes a left turn first, tell your grandparent that you have ordered it to turn right next. If it turns right, then vice versa. Then rake in the pennies as it ‘obediently’ moves in that direction.
- Continue until you have worn holes in the grandparent’s wallet.
- Toddlers will require parental help to build the maze – something to bear in mind if you’re just looking for a simple activity.
3. Build a bug hotel
I’ll level with you – this isn’t the Ritz. Think of it more as a motel, the kind of place a bug might rest his feelers for a night, to break up a journey across the garden. You can elaborate on the basic model, of course, to add a few more stars to its rating.
Things to bear in mind: Amphibians like stones, bricks and old roof tiles and clay drainage pipes.
Solitary bees will be grateful for bundles of garden cane in the sunshine.
Ladybirds will enjoy piles of dry twigs and leaves later in the year when they come to hibernate.
- Cut off the top and bottom of a plastic bottle, then cut the remaining tube into two.
- Collect as many of the following as you can: fir cones, dry leaves, bits of bark, twigs, dead wood, straw, hay, cardboard scraps.
- Arrange these materials by group, so that all the sticks are together, all the leaves, and so on.
- Stuff each plastic bottle ‘tube’ firmly, layering up different shapes and textures until it is so tightly packed that none of the contents will slip out.
- Leave your hotel somewhere quiet and sheltered outside.
4. Make a spring garland
We sometimes cheat at this and just use cut flowers hanging around the house if they’re starting to look at bit dead and we’re feeling a bit comatose, too. But blossom is best. Much brighter and more beautiful.
- Hunt for blossom on the ground. It’s nice – but absolutely not essential – to have a selection of some whole flowers and some loose petals.
- Spread them out and decide on the order that you’d like to thread them onto your garland. Do you want blocks of colour or a random rainbow? Sprigs at regular intervals between petals or a chaos of shapes?
- Thread a needle, and measure out the length of thread according to how long you want your garland to be. Fold a square of Sellotape over the end, so things don’t fall off it.
- Pierce the thickest part of the first flower or petal and gently pull the thread through.
- Keep going, piercing the thickest parts of the flowers if you can, and thinking about the amount of space you want to leave between them until you’ve threaded your last flower (or your fingers ache).
- Fold another square of Sellotape over the other end of the thread.
- Hang the garland. It’ll be just as nice when the petals dry.
- Toddlers will have to be careful, clearly, with fingers and fiddly needles and thread. Still, under the right conditions, this is actually a pretty good way of practicing the skill, as well as concentration and coordination more generally.