10 Tips for Taking a Nature Walk in Your Backyard

Image Gallery: Birds A walk in your own backyard is always free. See more pictures of birds.
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It can be hard to knock the amenities -- movies on demand, music on the go, air conditioning in August. It's all good stuff. What else could a modern human need?

Nature. Good, old-fashioned, ear-budless, non-digital, fresh-aired nature. Dirt, bugs and photosynthesis.

Lots of families take a weekend break from the indoors with a trip to the zoo, or the beach, or the local botanical gardens, hiking trail or farmer's market. Every option is wonderful -- but every option costs money and, typically, travel time. The idea of piling the kids into the car with all their gear can deter even the most outdoorsy of parents. But what if experiencing the great outdoors were as easy as stepping outside?

Fun with nature doesn't have to charge an entry fee. It's right there for the taking, just outside your door. All that's required is a little ingenuity and some sort of outdoor space. A backyard is perfect, although you can take a nature walk on a well-decorated patio or even the city street outside your apartment.

It's as easy as planning ahead with a quick Internet search, for a start.

10

Set the Stage

You can learn about what to expect in your region -- and even your own backyard -- on the Web, in books or at a local information kiosk.
You can learn about what to expect in your region -- and even your own backyard -- on the Web, in books or at a local information kiosk.
Photo courtesy of State of Delaware

When you head into a National Park or a zoo for some nature time, it's easy to know what to look for: Just take a peek at one of the information brochures at the entrance. Few of us have info packets in a pocket next to the back door, so it can be a bit harder to see what there is to see. "There's grass, there's dirt, there's a tree" is not a terribly exciting nature walk.

So you might want to do some research. It's not that hard to find out what your backyard might have to offer. There are handy Web sites that will tell you what's in your area. Some may have a zip code search that lets you know which plant and animal species you could see around your home. Some city-government Web sites will often have similar information, as will local information kiosks.

Once you know what to keep an eye out for, you're ready to plan a backyard nature walk. It can be helpful to give your yard a hand and hang a hummingbird feeder if you find out there are lots of them in your area, or install a birdbath or toss out some wildflower seeds in advance, just to make it extra interesting. (This should keep your trek from being like trip to the zoo's gorilla enclosure right when all the animals are sleeping.)

Another crucial preparation, especially when kids are involved, is to know what interesting stuff not to touch, lest a perfectly lovely nature walk end in tears.

9

Learn What to Avoid

Before you head off into your own backyard wilderness, make sure you and your kids can recognize things like poison ivy.
Before you head off into your own backyard wilderness, make sure you and your kids can recognize things like poison ivy.
Photo courtesy of USA.gov blog

The only thing worse than a dull nature walk is a red, itchy one.

Knowing what to avoid is at least as important as knowing what to seek out, especially if there are little ones getting up close and personal with nature. Any great nature walk, backyard or otherwise, is preceded by a brief lesson on how to recognize poison ivy and poison oak.

A book or the Internet can make it easy. Google "identify poison ivy poison oak" to see countless options, or check out the library's supply of plant reference books. Just look at pictures of the itchy stuff and perhaps do a little flashcard-style quiz before heading into the yard.

If you're sure your yard has neither of the lamentable growths, meaning you've done a close and recent examination of the entire space, corners and all, you could probably skip this step -- although really, what harm can it do to learn to identify some plants? Especially ones that could ruin another, future hike?

And speaking of avoiding trouble…

8

Dress Appropriately

The Indian paintbrush is native to the Western United States. If you live in a dry, xeriscaped area, make sure to protect your legs from scrapes.
The Indian paintbrush is native to the Western United States. If you live in a dry, xeriscaped area, make sure to protect your legs from scrapes.
Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

If you were heading into the woods, or into the mountains for a hike or to the beach to collect shells, you'd make sure you were wearing the right clothing: long pants and comfortable shoes for the woods, hiking boots and a just-in-case sweater for a hike at altitude, and a bathing suit or shorts and a healthy supply of sunscreen for the beach.

Your backyard has a dress code, too. It starts with sunscreen.

Beyond that, the specifics depend on the makeup of your yard and the day's weather. Check out your yard and identify any dangers or possibilities. Xeriscaping with lots of rocky areas? Long pants to avoid skinned knees. Tall grass that houses mosquitoes? Long pants and a healthy coat of bug repellant.

A hot, sunny day calls for short sleeves to avoid overheating and maybe a hat or visor. A cool day calls for short sleeves and long sleeves, so as activity warms everyone up there's no need to head back inside for a shirt change. That might spoil the mood of exploration.

Sure, the house is right there, but a successful backyard nature walk is all about changing the context, seeing the yard in a new light. And doing that can call for some special tools. (Don't worry, it's all stuff you've probably got lying around.)

7

Bring Tools

A pair of binoculars can help you get a closer look at the bird building a nest in your backyard.
A pair of binoculars can help you get a closer look at the bird building a nest in your backyard.
Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

You know all that stuff you bring into the yard every time you head out there?

Leave that stuff inside. There will be no lawn mowers or hoses in this experience.

Turning the yard into a different experience calls for different tools. What you're looking for are tools that will help you dig deeper, see clearer, see closer and record what you see.

Just a few ideas include a magnifying glass, a small shovel, paper and pen (or perhaps a bound nature journal -- that can be fun), a couple of small jars and maybe a spoon to collect specimens, and some gloves you can use to pick up potentially slithery, slimy, or jagged finds.

Beyond just finding them, it's great to be able to name them. After all, that bird that's been building a nest outside your house for the last week has a genus, a family and a species. That requires a different kind of tool.

6

Bring a Book

By studying a reference book, you'll be able to identify the common garter snake as harmless.
By studying a reference book, you'll be able to identify the common garter snake as harmless.

One of the most fulfilling parts of discovering nature right in your backyard is finding out exactly what you're discovering. It can make your tiny little world feel utterly connected to the planet -- like your yard is a microcosm of the global ecosystem. Which of course it is.

Grab a reference book -- it can be both useful and fun when you use it to identify all the great stuff you discover out there, like bugs, flowers, birds, leaves, trees and colorful rocks. Beautiful nature books are easy enough to find -- at the library, the book store, or Amazon.com, for a start. You could easily find a big 'ole botany or bird-watching book on the cheap at a used bookstore.

You can also download and print a guide from one of the many educational nature sites on the Web, but make sure it prints clearly and in color, or else it won't be of much use.

The downside of bringing along a paper guide is that you may not want to add to your load. In that case, bring along a little something that will let you look everything up once you're back inside. This one can hang around your neck.

5

Bring a Camera

You'll need a macro setting on your camera to be able to capture extreme close-ups.
You'll need a macro setting on your camera to be able to capture extreme close-ups.
Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

One of the best ways to view the yard through a different lens, so to speak, is to literally view it through a different lens.

A camera is really a required piece of nature-walk equipment whether or not you're using it to identify your discoveries. Whether it's film or digital, it'll add a whole different dimension to the experience when you record it for posterity (and for follow-up, which we'll get to later).

Ideally, if we're talking digital, you'll want one with a macro setting. You want to get up close and see the veins in those leaves, the stamen on that flower, the scales on that little garter snake, or the innards of that translucent worm, and macro lets you do that. Zoom is also a great feature, as is the special setting for outdoors or nature that some cameras have built-in. With a film camera, different lenses let you achieve these types of results.

While cameras are nature equipment you don't want to forget, they're not make-it-or-break-it supplies. Those are, happily, a lot less expensive.

4

Bring Supplies

Don't leave the house without some water for the trek.
Don't leave the house without some water for the trek.
Jupiterimages/ThinkStock

Ever head out into nature without water? Hopefully not, but if you have, chances are you only did it once.

Water is one of those essential supplies, not only because outdoor activity can make you thirsty, but also because even if you don't feel thirsty you can still end up dehydrated. Dehydration, and the illness it causes, can really ruin a nice day.

In addition to water, and especially if little ones will be joining in the nature walk, consider bringing snacks (trail mix!). A hungry belly will cut a nice outing short when you need to go in and make a sandwich. Some other nature-walk supplies might include a towel, extra sunscreen, and antiseptic hand gel or wipes.

Being prepared doesn't only mean preparing for the possibilities. It also means planning the possibilities -- there's no time like a nature walk to learn a little something about nature, and that can take some forethought.

3

Make it Educational

Looking for a botany lesson? Many backyards are full of fungi.
Looking for a botany lesson? Many backyards are full of fungi.
Photo courtesy NPS.gov/ Jim Pisarowicz

Earth Day isn't the only time to learn about all the natural world has to offer. Of course, if you're considering a backyard nature walk, you probably already know that. A nature walk is the perfect time to get in an intriguing lesson or two.

Do you have flowers in your yard? Get up close -- are there any bees harvesting nectar? That's a perfect time to talk about pollination or the way bees make honey. You can also identify the flower's reproductive parts.

Is there a fruit tree, or a vegetable garden? Wild berries? Mushrooms? You can discuss how everyone used to live off the land, how vegetables start as seeds that require water and sunlight to grow, or what it means for fruit to ripen. You can compare fruits in different stages to see the progression.

Blades of grass, twigs and leaves have components and variations. A magnifying glass or macro-setting camera can reveal those. Rocks aren't just "rocks." They can be quartz, or shale. Talk about how these form underground, with pressure, and how the Earth has layers.

Education is great, and is a natural pairing with a nature walk. But it can't be all there is. There's a more important component for a weekend outing -- far more important if you're being a nature guide for kids.

2

Make It Fun

Make a nature walk fun by challenging your kids to a contest: First to photograph a grasshopper wins!
Make a nature walk fun by challenging your kids to a contest: First to photograph a grasshopper wins!
Photo courtesy NPS.gov

If you're pitching a nature walk over a day at the beach or playing video games, you'd better have more to offer than education. A nature walk can and should be fun. That's the best part.

"Fun" can mean almost anything. Perhaps it's a contest or competition, like a nature scavenger hunt, or a prize for the first one to get a picture of a grasshopper or to identify the weeds along the fence. It could simply mean getting dirty, digging for worms or for a certain type of rock. It could be picking bunches of flowers to bring to school for show-and-tell, or for the dinner table.

Another thing to consider is taking the nature walk to another level. Projects like journals, scrapbooks and photo albums can turn a couple of hours of fun into long-term fun -- and that brings us to one of the best nature-walk tips: Make it last.

Here's how…

1

Follow Up

That photo you took of a backyard ruby-throated hummingbird could spur involvement in hummingbird conservation.
That photo you took of a backyard ruby-throated hummingbird could spur involvement in hummingbird conservation.
Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

A nature walk doesn't have to be over when you leave the yard. You can bring nature inside and make it part of regular life. Thankfully, nature exists on the Internet, which makes it pretty easy to get kids involved once you go back in the house.

Call it holistic nature. A picture of a cricket can lead to a visit to What's That Bug, an identification of the exact cricket type living in your backyard, a posting on a message board, and, thanks to Web search, a subscription to Cricket Magazine for kids (and perhaps an award-winning future in entomology). A follow-up to mushroom samples from a moist yard can get more interesting at Mushroom Collecting, where mushrooms' edible and medicinal qualities are explored.

And a photo of a bird you identify as a hummingbird can lead down the road to a real green connection when a search leads to Operation Ruby Throat and involvement in the worldwide quest to document and save hummingbirds. A simple backyard nature walk can lead to learning, fun and, if we're lucky, real change.

For more information on the world of nature, both around your home and beyond, check out the links on the next page.

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More Great Links

Sources

  • Backyard Nature. MacBeth's Opinion.http://charlottemason.tripod.com/backyard_nature.htm
  • Backyard Nature with Naturalist Jim Conradhttp://www.backyardnature.net/
  • In Your Own Backyard. Backyard Nature Center.http://www.backyardnaturecenter.org/content.php?id=4