by Whit Gibbons

June 11, 2006

Find one beetle, and a green leaf with points on the edges. Find a bird with red on its head, and an animal with more than six legs. Find a plant or animal that has a smell, good or bad. This is not a recipe for the bubbling cauldron in Macbeth. It is a recipe, of sorts, though not for witches. It's a formula for making children more aware of their environment by spending more time outdoors. I call it an ecology scavenger hunt.

With school out and long summer days beckoning, children have time on their hands. Marathon video games and endless television are not a good answer to "what can I do?" Such activities seem to dominate the lives and minds of many of today's youngsters, and parents. In fact, do young people even know what a scavenger hunt is? Maybe, but have they ever been on one? Or are games becoming something children only play on a computer?

An ecology scavenger hunt is a good idea, if for no other reason than that too many children spend too much time indoors. Television and computers make it easy to do. And indeed these are important technological advances. In fact, a person can learn a lot from TV and videos. But the living world is outside. And children should be encouraged to spend as much time there as they can. The idea of the scavenger hunt is to locate each item on the list. This means spending time in the front or back yard, the park, or the nearest woods. An additional requirement of the hunt is to read something about the plant or animal, which may entail a trip to the library or the bookstore. And then, even though this is beginning to sound like school is not really out, write a meaningful statement about the item on the list. Or the children might write out a question to ask their science teacher when they go back to school.

Anyone should be able to find a beetle and something written about this ubiquitous group of insects. What kind of beetle is it? More species of beetles live on earth than any other major group of animals, so it's easy to find something to read about beetles. What kind of tree or shrub would a pointy-edged leaf come from? A holly tree should be easy to find or a shrub with stickery leaves. They might save a question for their teacher: Why do holly leaves have points?

As far as the bird goes (which might at first glance seem to be the hardest item on the list) one might have to consult a book to find out which birds would qualify. But maybe you have a red-headed woodpecker in the neighborhood. Lots of other woodpeckers have red on their heads, but it's hard to see. So do ruby-crowned kinglets and turkey vultures. Learn to identify them from a bird field guide. (If you think about this challenge, you'll realize that "red on its head" does not exclude being red all over. Almost everyone can identify a cardinal.)

What has more than six legs? Millipedes, centipedes (which you should NOT pick up because of their venomous bite), and spiders, to name a few. All are present in the woods, and probably even in the back yard, under rocks or logs or tree bark. Finding a plant that smells good just means picking the right flower. Finding something malodorous, like a skunk or stinkbug, might be a little more difficult, but perhaps more fun. (Finding doesn't mean catching. If you see a skunk, just check it off the list and move along.)

To complete the scavenger hunt successfully, one has to do three things--find, read, and write--for five different living things. The reading and writing can be done on days it's too hot or too wet to enjoy being outside. The finding can be at other times.

My list for an ecology scavenger hunt is only an example. Make up your own list. It will help keep children, and maybe a few adults, outdoors--a place everyone ought to become more familiar with.

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