Make your own Trail Signs to show the way.
Make your own Trail Signs to show the way.
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Autumn seems to fill people with creative energy. The change in weather, the upcoming holidays, and especially getting back to school all just make kids, in particular, eager to get busy. Playing outside in the fall weather is the obvious thing to do, and so is getting used to doing homework again. But sometime kids enjoy back-to-school activities that have some structure but aren't part of their homework.

The activities below are a great way to give kids something different to do, either at home or at school. Some will take them out into the fall weather, while others will keep them busy on blustery days when no one wants to go out.

Try out the back-to-school activities below for a change of pace:

School Bus Game

This back-to-school game makes a good ice breaker for groups of kids.

Truth or Lies Game

Reinforce your knowledge about the U.S.A with this fast-paced rhythm game.

Mud Madness

Kids who like to build -- and those who like to get dirty -- will like this back-to-school activity.

Rainwater Blues

You'll enjoy doing this experiment, but you might not like what you learn about the air you breathe!

See It Safely

Learn a safe way to view and enjoy the next eclipse of the sun.

Ups and Downs

Depending on where you live and the season, your weather chart may have as many ups and downs as a roller coaster.

Autumn Treasure Box

Paint a pretty box to keep and display the natural treasures you can find in the fall.

Twig Collecting

Collect twigs and use them to identify the trees in your neighborhood.

Nature Scavenger Hunt

This is a different kind of hide and seek -- looking for common natural objects will test your powers of observation!

Nature's Orchestra

Be a different kind a drummer and try using only natural objects that you find yourself.

Trail Signs

See if you can mark a clear trail for your friends using only objects from nature.

Leaf Litter

Learn about what's right under your feet by examining the layers of leaves in your own yard.

Leave It to Nature

Clean up for fall the green way -- learn about composting.

Duck Bread Distribution

Make your neighborhood ducks happy by sharing some of your extras with them.

Get the wheels turning on your back-to-school activities with the School Bus Game on the next page.

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School Bus Game

This is one exciting bus ride! The School Bus Game is a great back-to-school activity.

What You'll Need:

Play this game at home or at school.

Step 1: To set up the game, put the chairs in rows, like on a bus.

Step 2: Write the names of all the players on the slips of paper, and put them on a table across the room from the chairs.

Step 3: One player is the school bus driver. She or he says: "The school bus is here. Let's all be on time. Pick up your tickets over there, so we can be in school by nine."

Step 4: After this is said, the other players run to the table to find the ticket with their name on it.

Step 5: If they find it, they run to the bus and get a seat. Whoever is left cannot ride the bus.

Step 6: Play the game over and over and keep score for perfect school bus attendance.

Step 7: Whoever first reaches a perfect score of 5 (for the 5 school days of the week), gets to be the bus driver for the next round.

For a back-to-school game that will test your brain power, try out the Truth or Lies Game on the next page.

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Truth or Lies Game

Test your knowledge of the U.S.A. with the Truth or Lies Game.
Test your knowledge of the U.S.A. with the Truth or Lies Game.
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The Truth or Lies Game challenges your friends to a game of trivia about the country.

What You'll Need:

  • Pre-written true and false facts about America

How much do you and your friends really know about the United States? Play this truth or lies game and find out.

Step 1: The leader of the game must write a list of facts about America. For example: There are 50 states in America. Native Americans were the first people to live in this country. The first president of the U.S. was George Washington.

Step 2: The leader should also write a list of lies about America. For example: France is the name of an American state. Each president has two vice presidents.

Step 3: When the leader has a list of around 20 facts and lies, the game is ready to begin. The leader quickly calls out facts from the lists. It is good if the leader can call out the facts in a kind of rhythm, like a rap.

Step 4: Players respond by clapping in rhythm three times if the statement is true, and not at all if the statement is false. Keep the pace lively.

Step 5: Anyone who claps at the wrong time is out, and the last one left is the leader next time around.

For a different kind of back-to-school activity, see the next page for Mud Madness!

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Mud Madness

Here's mud in your eye! Getting dirty is the name of the game when it comes to building with mud. Try out this fun back-to-school activity.

What You'll Need:

  • Stick
  • Soil
  • Flour
  • Water
  • Dull knife

When you were younger, you probably loved to make mud pies. But now you can do more with mud than make a sloppy blob of goo.

Step 1: Using a stick, mix together some soil, flour, and water until it's stiff and looks like dough.

Step 2: Now shape this mixture into a large rectangle (around three feet by two feet -- about as big as a sofa cushion) and let it dry until it's firm.

Step 3: Once it's ready, have an adult cut the large brick into small bricks with a dull knife.

Step 4: You can use these bricks to build whatever you can imagine -- a building, a city, a space station, or something else entirely. What muddy masterpiece can you create?

Switch from construction to science on the next page, with the Rainwater Blues!

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Rainwater Blues

How clean is the air you breathe? The water you drink? Rain can help you find out. Try out this back-to-school activity.

What You'll Need:

  • Clean pan or jar
  • Coffee filter
  • Second jar or cup

If you've ever wondered what particles slip inside your body from the air you breathe or the water you drink, this is an interesting way to find out.

Step 1: Place a clean jar or pan in an open area just as it starts to rain.

Step 2: Collect as much rain as you can for the first hour of the storm.

Step 3: Now gather the rainwater and carefully pour it through a clean coffee filter, catching the water in a second jar or cup.

Step 4: Peel open the coffee filter and see what the rain washed out of your atmosphere.

You might look at breathing in a new way after checking out the next page.

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See It Safely

When there's an eclipse of the sun, See It Safely with this activity.
When there's an eclipse of the sun, See It Safely with this activity.
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A solar eclipse is a rare event that everyone wants to see, but looking at the sun is dangerous. Make and use this eclipse viewer instead, using these instructions for a great back-to-school activity.

What You'll Need:

  • Two pieces of cardboard
  • Pin or nail to poke hole

A solar eclipse happens when the moon comes between the Earth and the sun. The moon blocks out the sun, and the Earth gets dark in the daytime. But actually looking at an eclipse -- or looking at the sun on any day -- can cause blindness, because the sun's light is so strong. Here is how to make a viewer that will allow you to see an eclipse safely.

Step 1: Get two pieces of cardboard, each about the size of a piece of notebook paper or a little smaller.

Step 2: Poke a small hole in the middle of one piece of cardboard.

Step 3: At the time of an eclipse, hold the piece with the hole up to the sun, with the other piece of cardboard beneath it, as shown.

Step 4: Look at the second piece of cardboard. An image of the eclipse will be projected onto it. You should see a circle with a "bite" taken out of it; the bite is the shadow of the moon in front of the sun.

For another fun scientific after-school activity, see Ups and Downs on the next page.

For more fun back-to-school activities, check out:

Ups and Downs

Measure the weather with Ups and Downs.
Measure the weather with Ups and Downs.
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This back-to-school activity shows you how to keep track of temperature changes, just like weather forecasters do.

What You'll Need:

Step 1: Put a thermometer outdoors -- out of the sun -- and check it at the same time each day.

Step 2: Record the daily temperatures.

Step 3: Make a graph of your temperature readings like the one in the picture.

Step 4: Every week or so, connect the dots on the graph to make a line showing the temperature ups and downs.

Which day was coldest? Which was warmest? What trend do you see over time? Is it getting colder or warmer?

To appreciate the beauties of the back-to-school season, try making the Autumn Treasure Box on the next page.

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Autumn Treasure Box

Display nature's treasures with this back-to-school activity!

What You'll Need:

  • Clear plastic utility box with separate compartments and clear lid
  • Acrylic paint
  • Paintbrush
  • Pebbles
  • Dried seed husks
  • Dried berries
  • Other found nature treasures

Step 1: With different colors, lightly paint the squares of each compartment of a plastic utility box and set aside.

Step 2: While you are waiting for the paint to dry, go on a nature walk and collect small treasures to put in each compartment. Look for unusual pebbles, seeds, and dried berries or leaves. Try to get an assortment of shapes and colors.

Step 3: Then arrange your treasures in the painted box in a pleasant display.

Step 4: Set the box on a windowsill so light can shine through. The paint will make the box look like stained glass.

Another fun collection to start in the fall is a twig collection. Learn how on the next page.

For more fun back-to-school activities, check out:

Twig Collecting

Identify the parts of twigs when you go Twig Collecting.
Identify the parts of twigs when you go Twig Collecting.
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Use this back-to-school activity to make a collection of twigs gathered from trees in winter.

What You'll Need:

  • Plant shears
  • Index cards
  • Tape
  • Pencil
  • Tree identification book
  • Magnifying glass
  • Hole punch
  • String or ribbon

The twigs of each kind of tree have unique shapes and characteristics. You can collect an assortment of winter tree twigs, note the variety of characteristics, and compare and sort them. If you have a good twig or tree identification book, you can even identify the trees they came from using the pictures in the book.

The best time for collecting twigs is in February or March, long after trees have lost their leaves but before they have begun to bud. Get permission to do the following!

Step 1: Carefully cut twigs from a variety of trees one twig from each tree.

Step 2: Tape the twigs to index cards.

Step 3: Write down the color and texture of the twig (these may change as the twig dries). Also, write down the name of the tree if you know it.

Step 4: Study the different characteristics of the twig parts using the magnifying glass, and compare them. Twig parts include:

  • The terminal bud -- called the "bud" on our diagram -- that will become new growth
  • Bud scales to protect new leaves or flowers
  • Leaf scars that show where stems of old leaves were attached
  • Bud scale scars that show where last year's buds were and how much the twig grew over the year
  • Bundle scars that show where sap flowed to leaves
  • Lenticels, the tiny holes or openings through which bark "breathes"
  • Pith, the twig center

Step 5: Make your own tree booklet: Use a hole punch to make two holes in the left side of each index card and tie the cards together with string or ribbon.

Another way to take advantage of the back-to-school season is to play the Nature Scavenger Hunt on the next page.

For more fun back-to-school activities, check out:

Nature Scavenger Hunt

As you explore nature with this back-to-school activity, be careful not to disturb any plants or animals.

What You'll Need:

Step 1: Make a list of things you might find in nature in your neighborhood. They should all be things that nature "casts off," such as dropped leaves and seed pods, feathers, small stones, etc. That way, you won't be taking things that nature still needs!

Step 2: Make a copy of the list for each person who wants to join the scavenger hunt.

Step 3: Then set off, alone or in pairs, to find everything on the list. You can even have a race to see who finds the objects first!

Another way to have a nature scavenger hunt is to find things in nature but not touch them or bring them home. When you play this way, you just mark off each thing on your list as you find it.

This activity is a good way to collect the natural objects to use for other activities. For example, you could look for pine cones to make pine cone creatures, feathers to make quill pens, interesting leaves for leaf stencils, shells for shell art, etc.

One activity you could use some of the objects for a Nature's Orchestra. Learn how on the next page.

For more fun back-to-school activities, check out:

Nature's Orchestra

Give a concert with Nature's Orchestra!
Give a concert with Nature's Orchestra!
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You and your friends can strike up the band with these musical instruments made from natural materials. Try out this festive back-to-school activity.

What You'll Need:

  • Nature objects
  • Cans

Remember: Don't harm live plants or disturb animals in their habitats during this project.

Step 1: With a group of friends, collect rocks, gravel, sand, sticks, shells, and anything else from nature that you can use to make musical instruments. Use your imagination!

Step 2: Put rocks in cans to shake. Use sticks as drumsticks. Maybe you can make a drum from a hollow log or from bark.

Step 3: See if you and your friends can make beautiful music together.

After your concert, you could try making some Trail Signs for your friends to see if they can follow them. See the next page for ideas.

For more fun back-to-school activities, check out:

Trail Signs

Make your own Trail Signs to show the way.
Make your own Trail Signs to show the way.
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Early pioneers and explorers marked their way for others to follow. See if you can do the same thing.

What You'll Need:

  • Nature objects

Whenever people have moved through new territory, they marked the trail so they would not get lost. Native Americans often bent trees to the ground to mark trails. Some of these "trail trees" have grown to full-sized trees. Early explorers and scouts used axe marks on trees. Outdoor youth clubs of today use temporary signs of twigs, grass, and stones, borrowed from the Native Americans.

Step 1: To play a trail marking game, have one person lay a cross-country trail through woods or an open field. The person should make trail markers twenty or so paces apart. (Be careful not to harm any live plants when you are making your markers.)

Arrow shapes, stacks of rocks, or bundles of grass all say "I went this way." A bend in the grass bundle, or a rock beside the pile means "turn this way." Three of anything means "warning." And X means "do not go this way." A circle means "this is the end of the trail." You can use the pictures on this page to help or come up with some of your own.

Step 2: The rest of the players try to follow the trail and see where the person ended up.

Another fun outdoor activity in the fall is examining the life going on beneath your feet! Learn how with Leaf Litter on the next page.

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Leaf Litter

Discover organisms that turn fallen leaves into good soil. Use this cool back-to-school activity to explore the ground under your feet.

What You'll Need:

  • Garden gloves
  • Magnifying glass

Step 1: Find a place in the woods where leaves pile up. Look away from trampled paths or under big shrubs.

Step 2: Move aside the surface layer of leaves. Underneath, you'll find crumbled leaves. Under that, the remains of the leaves look like soil. How do leaves become soil? Bacteria and fungi rot leaves, but they also get help from larger organisms.

Step 3: Use your magnifying glass to look at each layer of litter. What do you see? In the upper layers, you may find beetles eating dead leaves. In moist areas, millipedes break leaves into small pieces that bacteria and fungi work on. In deep layers, spiders, centipedes, and springtails eat bits of leaves crumbled from weathering or broken up by larger bugs. In low layers near the soil, earthworms eat soil and decayed leaves.

As you're taking care of excess leaves in your yard this fall, research and make sure you're taking advantage of any recycling programs in your area. Check out how on the next page.

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Leave It to Nature

Fall into community composting. This is a great back-to-school activity for school or at home.

What You'll Need:

  • Rake
  • Garbage bags
  • Telephone

After you rake and bag your leaves, it's time to pick up the telephone.

Step 1: Call your local city government office and ask if they have a community compost location.

Step 2: If they do, talk mom and dad into loading the leaves into your family car instead of the trash collection barrel.

Step 3: Bring your compost over to the community location and leave it there -- allowing nature to break down the organic material and keep trash landfills free for other disposables.

Help the ducks get ready for winter too. See the next page for more.

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Duck Bread Distribution

Quack, quack, give something back with this great back-to-school activity.

What You'll Need:

  • Old stale bread and cereal products
  • Wild ducks

How often have you watched your folks toss out stale or moldy bread and cereal? Well, stop watching and start retrieving. There are hungry ducks to feed!

Step 1: Take those old edibles to the park or duck pond (or wherever your local mallards hang out) and give the fowl a feast.

Step 2: Be sure to throw the boxes and wrappers away before you leave.

For more fun back-to-school activities, check out:

ABOUT THE ACTIVITY DESIGNERS

School Bus Games by Lisa Lerner and Kersten Hamilton

Truth or Lies Game by Lisa Lerner and Kersten Hamilton

Mud Madness by contributing writers Maria Birmingham, Karen E. Bledsoe, and Kelly Milner Halls

Rainwater Blues by contributing writers Maria Birmingham, Karen E. Bledsoe, and Kelly Milner Halls

See It Safely by Lisa Lerner and Kersten Hamilton

Ups and Downs by Lisa Lerner and Kersten Hamilton

Autumn Treasure Box by Lisa Lerner and Kersten Hamilton

Nature Scavenger Hunt by Lisa Lerner and Kersten Hamilton

Nature's Orchestra by Lisa Lerner and Kersten Hamilton

Trail Signs by Lisa Lerner and Kersten Hamilton

Leaf Litter by contributing writers Maria Birmingham, Karen E. Bledsoe, and Kelly Milner Halls

Leave It to Nature by contributing writers Maria Birmingham, Karen E. Bledsoe, and Kelly Milner Halls

Duck Bread Distribution by contributing writers Maria Birmingham, Karen E. Bledsoe, and Kelly Milner Halls