Skip to the content

Nature Observations

Immersing yourself in Oregon's natural landscapes is an epic way to observe nature, but it's not the only way. For our own safety and the safety of the most vulnerable in our population, many of us are spending all or nearly all of our time indoors. Though it can be easy to disconnect from nature in these circumstances, we encourage you and your children/students to use this as an opportunity to notice the little ways that nature colors our lives as we look out our windows, walk our dog around the block, or watch a spider scamper across the ceiling. 

The BEETLES Project at the Lawrence Hall of Science uses "I Notice, I Wonder, It Reminds Me Of" prompts to support exploration of outdoor areas. We recommend that you read the whole lesson if you are a teacher or outdoor educator planning to lead students in nature observations, but here are some main ideas and questions to give you an overview of the approach.

When we pay attention to our surroundings, we notice things with our senses - the scent of a flower, the wing movements of a bird, the crunch of feet on dried leaves. In this stage of exploration, focus on describing these sensory experiences. 

Some questions you might use as you interact with students:

  • Is there another sense you can use to observe this organism or ecosystem? Encourage students to use multiple senses (but be careful with taste!).
  • If you observe from a different location, do you notice different things?
  • Is that what you can observe with your eyes (ears, nose, etc.), or is that your possible explanation for what you observe? For example, a student may say, "I notice it is looking for food" when observing an animal digging in the ground. It's great to encourage deeper thinking about the reasons for what students observe (and you'll do just this with "I Wonder"), but it can also distract from deep, focused observation. 

When we observe the world around us, it is natural to have many questions. Why is this animal digging a hole? How long will it take for all of the leaves on this tree to turn yellow? Why is the scent of this flower changing over time? In this stage of exploration, we take the time to think about all of the things our observations have made us wonder. If students keep coming back to the same idea (for example, "I wonder what it is."), model other words that can follow "I wonder":

  • "I wonder why..." 
  • "I wonder how..."
  • "I wonder if..."
  • "I wonder when..."

The way each of us interacts with and observes the world depends on our unique experiences and perspectives. Students should feel encouraged to make connections between their own lives and what they are noticing and wondering when they make nature observations. In this stage of exploration, encourage students to compare what they observe to things they have previously observed or experiences they have had. For example,

  • It reminds me of the character in...
  • It reminds me of the time I went to my neighbor's house and saw...
  • It reminds me of something my family uses when we... 

You can use this three-step process to guide all sorts of interactions with the natural world. It's great for walks in the woods or desert, but it also works for watching out the windows as trees turn green in the spring, birds land on power lines, or clouds blow past. If you take the time to support students in learning this approach, you will be able to rely on it time and time again in future activities.

Nature Observation Activities

Description:

Compare two areas with different biodiversity. Here are some examples of areas you might compare, either by visiting them if it is safe to do so, or by looking out a window:

  • A parking lot and a park
  • A garden and a lawn
  • A section of forest where lots of light reaches the ground and a section of forest where very little light reaches the ground
  • A lawn and a crop field

Compare and contrast the biodiversity in each area. Here are some options for how you might make these comparisons. Choose whichever option you prefer, or design your own method for recording what lives in each area.

  • Make an inventory (a list of all of the different kinds of things) in each area.
  • Make a sound map of each area. For example, do you hear different bird or insect calls in each area? Does the wind sound different in each area because of how it blows different kinds of plants?
  • If you are in an area where you can safely and legally collect pieces of plants, collect a leaf from each kind of plant in both areas. Make a collage or other art piece that highlights the different plants in each area. Draw animals and other organisms that you observe.

Here are some questions to think about (and write about in your journal, if you want):

  • Which area has more biodiversity? How did you decide?
  • How is the biodiversity in each area affected by humans? For example, are people controlling which kinds of plants live in the area? How does this affect what animals might live there?

Description:

Scientists who study weather and predict weather changes are called meteorologists. Meteorologists use a variety of tools to help them understand weather changes. Make your own weather station to observe temperature, air pressure, wind speed, and rainfall! 

Consideration: Rubbing alcohol (optional) should only be used with adult supervision.  

Make your own cloud: Have you ever wondered how clouds form? There are several types of clouds, but they all have something in common: they are made of water. You can use household materials to make your own cloud in a jar.

  • Record your observations as you make your cloud.

Consideration: In this activity you will need a half cup of very hot water. Please handle with caution with an adult’s help.

GLOBE Observer: Your observations can help scientists track changes in clouds in support of climate research! To participate, just download the app, go outside and follow the prompts in the app to observe your environment. Photograph clouds, record sky observations and compare them with NASA satellite images to help scientists understand the sky from above and below.

ConsiderationGLOBE Observer requires access to a smart phone and ability to download an app.

Description:

Let’s experiment with different surfaces to see how they affect water flow!

  • If you are able to go outside, take some bottles/cups of water and spray bottles full of water, and try pouring and spraying water onto different surfaces. Try pouring and spraying water on different surfaces:
    • Pavement: driveways, sidewalks, patios
    • Grass or flowers
    • Trees or shrubs
    • Dirt/soil
    • Water puddles
  • Bring paper or your journal if you’d like to write or draw your observations. Think, talk, write, or draw about these questions:
    • What does your container of water represent? 
    • Some surfaces are permeable (allow water to pass through) and others are impermeable (do not allow water to pass through). Are any surfaces you are testing permeable? Impermeable?
    • When you pour water on the pavement, where does it go? Where does it go when you pour it onto the grass or dirt?
    • How fast does water disappear on different surfaces? Which one is slowest/fastest?
    • How do different surfaces (soil, trees, shrubs, grass, rocks, logs, pavement, houses) affect water flow and absorption in our watershed? 
  • If you are not able to go outside, gather different items inside to experiment with, such as: a towel or washcloth (to replicate grass/soil), sponge (to replicate grass/soil), plate (to replicate pavement), tinfoil (to replicate pavement), house plants, etc. Conduct your experiments in a sink, bathtub, or shower so you don’t make a giant mess!

Want to try and build your own watershed model? You can build a model inside or outside!

  • Watch this silent video for an example of a watershed model.

Description:

Who doesn’t like getting their hands a little dirty?  Explore differences in soil types and composition in this neat and simple Soil Stories activity. 

  • If you aren’t able to go outside to collect soil, see if you can find any inside! Maybe you have some plants that are growing in soil, or maybe there is soil on some vegetables that haven’t been washed yet. You might not be able to find enough soil inside to do a “soil shake”, but you could still make careful observations of the soil you find. 
  • If you can’t find any soil, watch this video to see the living world of soil under our feet. And you can look closely at this poster to learn about the biodiversity in soil.

Want to do more soil experiments with the soil in your yard or nearby open space? 

Try this soil texture analysis experiment or this soil erosion demonstration to see the variability and importance of soil.  

Considerations:

For the soil erosion demonstration, you will need three plastic bottles. Please enlist the help of an adult in setting up the structure for the soil erosion activity and use care when cutting bottles.

For the soil texture analysis, you will need a mason jar or plastic jar with a lid. 

How to observe arthropods:

  • If you are able to go outside safely, one of the best ways to observe arthropods is to sit or stand quietly in one spot. 
    • To observe with your eyes, first look around to see if you notice any arthropods. Then, instead of searching for arthropods, pay attention to any movement you see. Let your eyes follow the movement, and see if it’s an arthropod that is moving!
    • To observe with your ears, listen carefully for any noises that might be caused by arthropods - like the buzz of flapping wings!
  • If you are observing arthropods inside, there are a few key places to look: 
    • On the windows
    • Along the window sill
    • In the corners of the ceiling or floor
    • On or near plants, like houseplants or ripe fruit
  • Before you start making arthropod observations, you might want to visit the Online Activities for this week to learn more about all the different kinds of arthropods. 

Arthropod behavior (making an ethogram):

If we take the time to really watch the arthropods around us, we can start to notice lots of interesting behaviors. An ethogram is a record of animal behaviors. Find a live arthropod to observe and use this ethogram sheet to record what the arthropod is doing. Or, you could make a similar sheet in your journal!

Variation 1: Are you able to observe an area where many arthropods are visiting, like a plant with flowers on it? Instead of making repeated observations of a single arthropod, make repeated tallies of the arthropods you see. For example, every fifteen seconds, count how many bees, how many spiders, and how many ants you see.

Variation 2: If you can’t view a live arthropod’s behavior, observe a video of an arthropod. To keep your focus on the arthropod, turn off the sound if there is any narration or music playing in the video. Here are two videos to try:

This is Why Water Striders Make Terrible Lifeguards

Dung Beetle Rolls Enormous Dung Ball with Difficulty

 

Safety Consideration:  

While most pollinators, such as bumble bees, mason bees, and honey bees are docile, it is important to be careful and give them space when observing them as they pollinate flowers.  People with allergies to bees and pollen should take particular care.

Build a Mason Bee Home

When people think of bees, they often think of honey bees.  Did you know there are approximately 500 species of bees living in Oregon? You can follow these instructions to build bee habitat to encourage them to pollinate the plants in your neighborhood!  

For more information about Mason bees and keeping them, check out:

10 Tips for Keeping Mason Bees

Building a Home for Mason Bees

Pollinator Patrol!

Pollinators are everywhere in spring, but they keep moving!  Finding them means you have to look closely and pay attention.  If you have access to a yard, a window, a patio, or balcony, watch for flies, moths, bees, small birds, or other possible pollinators.  Observe any activity you see, especially if there are flowering plants in sight. If you can get close to the flowers, look closely - you’ll probably see some pollinators!   

  • If there are multiple kinds of flowers nearby, look closely at each. Do they have the same pollinators?  How many different types of pollinators can you count?  
  • Do the pollinators you observe appear to be collecting pollen? Sometimes you can see small bright orange balls of pollen being carried by insects!  Other pollinators, like hummingbirds, may be more interested in the flower nectar.  
  • Write down what you see, or take pictures if able. See the Nature Journaling section below for ideas. 

Public Science

Oregon has an active statewide community of bee enthusiasts.  Check out the Oregon Bee Project for information about garden plants that attract bees, field guides to identify different species of bees, and an ongoing project to map the bee species people see around the state.

Oregon Bee Project 

The Quest to Find Every Kind of Bee in Oregon (video)

Go on a flower search. 

  • If you have safe access to outdoor space (for example, a backyard or an area where you walk a pet) see how many flowers you can find in bloom right now. Some flowers have bright colors that are easy to spot, but look closely at all the plants you see - they might have flowers that are small or green! Don’t forget to look at trees!
  • If you do not have safe access to outdoor space, you can go on a flower hunt inside! You might find flowers on houseplants or on some of your food. You might find photos or drawings of flowers in books, on clothing, or on food packaging. Think creatively about all the places you might find flowers!

Dissect a flower.

  • Take a look inside a flower to locate and identify the different parts that the flower uses to create pollen, catch pollen, and make seeds. The Edmonton & Area Land Trust has simple instructions for a flower dissection, or for more explanation, check out this version from Scientific American!
  • Though many flowers have the exact same parts, these parts can look very different. If you can find more than one kind of flower, compare the shapes and locations of flower parts in different kinds of flowers.
  • If you don't have any flowers to dissect, don't worry! See the Online Activities for an online version of a flower dissection.

Considerations: Flower dissection requires scissors or a knife/scalpel. An adult should supervise.

Make a pollen trap.

  • Flowering plants make pollen in their flowers. Some plants depend on pollinators like bees, flies, and birds to move their pollen from one flower to another, but many plants depend on the wind to blow their pollen. This blowing pollen falls onto flat surfaces (or goes up our noses and causes allergies!). 
    • Pollen Nation shows you how to make and set up a pollen trap to learn about the pollen that is blowing in the air around you. You can even submit a photo of your pollen trap (with adult supervision) after it collects pollen, and it will tell you how many pollen grains were caught on your trap. (Note: If you would like to submit a photo of your pollen trap to Pollen Nation, follow their exact specifications for the size of your trap.)
    • You can find written instructions for making a pollen trap, and ideas for making a trap if you don't have black paper, here.
    • Record notes about how much pollen your trap collects. 
      • Are some of the pollen grains larger than others?
      • Is there a pattern to how the pollen grains are trapped on the paper rectangle?
      • Do you see any plants around you that might be sending pollen into the air right now?
    • For extra fun, put out multiple pollen traps and see whether different amounts or types of pollen collect in different areas.

Considerations

  • This activity should not increase your exposure to pollen (which is already in the air when you set up your trap), but if you have a severe pollen allergy you might consider skipping this activity.
  • Pollen trapping works best on dry days.

Description:

Drawing and observing a tree in detail is a great way to learn more about trees, their parts, and their important role in the ecosystem. You can observe trees in detail even from your window! In The Closer You Look (en español), students will draw and write from memory about a tree, then head outside or to a nearby window to closely observe all the parts of a tree to see how much more they learn when looking closely.

Links:

The Closer You Look - Compare your ‘from memory’ tree to the real thing!

En español: Cuanto más cerca lo veas, mejor

Other Activities: 

  • Do you have access to a smartphone and want to contribute scientific data to NASA? Check out this Measure A Tree activity to measure a tree near you. 
  • For more backyard tree activities, check out these resources from Project Learning Tree.

Considerations:

  • Measure a Tree requires access to a smartphone or device with an internet connection capable of streaming video and sound.

Description:

Creating a bird feeder and placing it outside is a great way to attract birds that you can observe closely, even through your window!  If you have a yard, the feeder can be away from the house, or some feeders can even be under the roof overhang or on a window sill. The following links contain several different plans to build bird feeders, from recycled everyday materials, or more involved plans if you have tools and wood to use.  Other links have ideas for things you might have in the house that birds would eat.

Considerations:

  • Bird feeders can be messy (birds don’t use napkins or worry about dropping food bits)
  • Feeder should be in a place safe for birds (out of reach of cats, not next to large picture windows they might fly into)
  • Other animals might love your bird feeder too.  If you find it is attracting raccoons or other wild animals, you may have to move it or take it down.  
  • Get help from an adult in choosing a location and installing the feeder. 

Links:

Simple Bird Feeder Plans:

6 Fun and Easy Bird Feeders That Any Kid Can Make

Make a Bird Feeder Out of Recycled Materials

Instructional Videos: 

How to Make a Simple Bird Feeder

Pine Cone with Peanut Butter Bird Feeder

Bird Food Ideas: 

Feeding Birds With Kitchen Items

10 Best Types of Birdseed and Food

These activities are part of weekly activity sets that we are providing for parents and teachers supporting students while schools are closed. For more information, return to the Educational Resources for Stay Home, Save Lives page.

Questions?

Please don't hesitate to contact us at outdoorschool@oregonstate.edu or 541-737-4391 if you have any questions about the Outdoor School Program!