by Whit Gibbons

September 19, 2010

Locate a spider and describe its web. Identify a bird and the type of tree it is in. Find and identify a plant with a flower, fruit, berry, or nut on it. These instructions are part of an exercise for schoolchildren, and the only website that should be involved is the location of the arachnid's trap. Schools should begin having children in K through 12 spend some time outdoors.

Too many children are spending too much time indoors. An ecology scavenger hunt will get them outside and offer myriad learning opportunities. Televisions and computers, the primary culprits in keeping children inside, can be valuable sources of information. But the living world is outside. And children should be encouraged to spend as much time as possible in that vibrant place, where chances for interactive play abound.

An ecology scavenger hunt can be designed for completion during the school day or be used as a homework assignment. Students might spend time in their own backyard, a municipal park, or the local woods. The target items should be tailored for the particular class, and rules should specify whether students can collaborate. Students might work in pairs on the first assignment.

The idea is to locate each item on the list. An added assignment for third-graders and above is to read something about the plant or animal once it's been found. This might entail a trip to the library or the bookstore; whether to allow Internet searches would be up to the teacher. After the research has been completed, students might write a meaningful statement about each scavenger hunt item they were able to find. Or they could be given the option of bringing in an item and asking questions about it that the class would answer collectively. For example, do all plants have seeds? What is the difference between flowers, fruits, berries, and nuts?

Put a beetle, an earthworm, and a butterfly on the scavenger hunt list for the youngest students. They should also be able to find a heart-shaped leaf or one that has points on it. A visit to the school yard to see what is--and is not--on the scavenger hunt list is a good idea. If possible, take the class on a field trip to an environment different from the school's. Scavenger hunts can be conducted at any time of year; just be sure the items listed are seasonally appropriate.

For older students, the hunt should involve greater challenges, such as finding a plant with a distinctive smell. Many leaves produce an odor when they are crushed. Some smell like perfume; others are less agreeable. Any student should be able to learn to recognize a hickory or pecan tree from the smell of the leaf.

Millipedes and many insects produce protective odors. Each smell probably functions to ward off some predator that might otherwise make a meal of the animal. One of the red-banded millipedes is a delightful find because these animals smell like maraschino cherries or almonds. The hydrogen cyanide produced to create the odor is deadly to some animals that might otherwise eat them. So smelling them is okay, but do not taste.

To complete the scavenger hunt successfully, students have to accomplish three tasks in connection with various living things: finding, reading, and writing. Reading and writing are part of the learning process all students are familiar with. Going outdoors to find the item about which to read and write will be an adventure for most of them. My suggestions for an ecology scavenger hunt are only intended as examples. Teachers should make up their own list based on geographical location, season, age and learning ability of students, and so on. Or they might have the students make up the list.

Children might discover that not all formal learning takes place in the classroom and increase their knowledge of their own corner of the world. If nothing else, the exercise will get children outdoors--a place everyone ought to become more familiar with.

If you have an environmental question or comment, email

(Back to Ecoviews)