ECOLOGICAL SCAVENGER HUNTS MAKE GREAT SCHOOL PROJECTS

by Whit Gibbons

September 17, 2017

Too many children today spend too much time indoors. School assignments that involve outdoor exploration will help alleviate this problem. Plus, most teachers appreciate having made-to-order projects that can be used at any time of the year. An ecology scavenger hunt will get children outside and offer endless learning opportunities.

The disconnect between children and the natural world, which many believe began with the arrival of television, is exacerbated by computers and smart phones. These devices can be valuable sources of information, but the living world is outside.

Introducing kids to environmental adventures outdoors gets them off their phones and computers. Teachers can design the ecology scavenger hunt for completion during the school day or as a homework assignment for completion in the student’s backyard, a municipal park or nearby woods.

Target items should be appropriate for grade levels K through 12, but students any age can learn to collaborate by working on an assignment in pairs or small groups. The basic goal of a scavenger hunt is to locate items on a list.

At the youngest levels, the challenge would be simple. For example, find a spider and its web, a bird in a tree, a plant with a seed or nut on it.

Goals can be tailored for schoolchildren of any age. Those for higher grades would be more difficult. How many strands are in the web? What kind of bird is in the tree and what is the tree? Do all plants have seeds?

Added assignments could be to research the ecology of the plants and animals that have been found and write a meaningful statement about them.

Another option is to have students bring an item to class and ask questions about it that the class would answer collectively.

Do all spiders build webs? What is the difference between fruits, berries and nuts? What birds do not nest in trees or bushes?

A visit to the schoolyard to see what is – and is not – on the scavenger hunt list is another option for the teacher. If possible, take the class on a field trip to an environment different from that of the school. Scavenger hunts can be conducted at any time of year; just be sure the items listed are seasonally appropriate.

For advanced 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 pleasant. Any student should be able to learn to recognize a hickory or pecan tree by the smell of the leaf.

Millipedes and many insects produce protective odors. Smells often function 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 is OK but not tasting.

To complete the scavenger hunt successfully, high school 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 their geographical location and the season, as well as the age and learning ability of students. Or they might have the students make up the list.

Children need to increase their knowledge of their surroundings and discover that not all formal learning takes place in a classroom. If nothing else, the exercise will get children outdoors – a place everyone ought to become more familiar with. Many parents could benefit from a scavenger hunt challenge as well.

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