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Backyard Activities Can Provide Educational Respite From Cabin Fever During Coronavirus (COVID-19) Outbreak, Says Associate Professor Sarah Carrier

Young mother showing her 5 years old girl what inside of the jar. Mother and daughter studying nature together, holding the jar with plants inside. Teacher showing her little student jar with bugs and explaining to her about what inside. The girl looks excited.

With the Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak shuttering schools across North Carolina and the nation, many parents are left wondering how they can quell cabin fever while making sure their children take care of their physical and emotional health as they continue to learn.

Sarah Carrier, Ph.D., an associate professor of science education at the NC State College of Education, says that it is important that children are still able to enjoy time outdoors, away from screens, as we practice social distancing.

“There is a tremendous amount of research on the physical and emotional health benefits of being out in nature,” Carrier said. “Simply being outside helps relieve stress, and that’s something we can all use right now.”

To help parents get their kids outside and learn about the environment around them, Carrier has compiled a list of suggested activities that parents can do in their own backyards, in local parks or in state parks — many of which have hiking trails that remain open although state parks’ visitors’ centers and campgrounds are closed.

If parents opt to go to a park, they should keep a distance of at least six feet from other people. In addition, Carrier said that park visitors should be mindful about following best practices in nature: not leaving litter and only taking photos of their findings.

Go on a Scavenger Hunt

Scavenger hunts can take on many forms, such as asking children to find items of different shapes, colors or textures or asking them to look for evidence of different types of animals that have visited the area. “Children should share their findings, describe how they made their choices and point out how those choices differ from each other,” Carrier said. “Parents can encourage children to use descriptive words such as using more specific names for colors like saying “kelly green” instead of “light green.”

Some examples of possible scavenger hunts include:

  • Find 5 different shaped leaves
  • Find 5 different shades of green or brown
  • Find 5 different odors
  • Find 5 different textures
  • Find 5 different types of animals or evidence of animals like a spider web or a bird nest

Make Leaf and Bark Rubbings

The underside of leaves have veins that children can see and touch and, by putting a leaf under a piece of paper and rubbing chalk on top, children can create a replica of these features. Kids can also use a sponge to rub paint on the underside of a leaf to make a leaf print. Similarly, children can learn about various tree bark patterns by pressing a piece of paper to the tree trunk and using chalk to rub and transfer the bark pattern.

Learn about Animal Behavior

Children can learn a lot about small animals like birds or squirrels by finding a place to sit outside and watch them. Kids should take notes on the different types of birds or squirrels they see as well as some of the feeding behaviors they notice. Children can also walk around the area to see if they spot any nests for the animals. In a similar activity, children can count the number or types of butterflies and moths they find and document the types of plants the creatures visit.

Go Cloud Watching

Children can lay on the grass, look up at the sky and count the different types of clouds they are able to spot. Then, parents can help them look up photos of the different cloud types — cirrus, cumulus and stratus — to see if they can identify the clouds they saw.

Learn About Life Underwater

For families who have access to a stream or other body of water, adults can help children position themselves near the bank to identify any fish, crustaceans or insects they may see. Kids can gently turn over rocks to look for insect larvae that may be hiding, although Carrier reminds families that anything that is removed should be put back to protect the organisms living there.

Make Observations Using Your Senses

With the exception of taste, children can use all of their senses to collect observation data about their surroundings.

  • Hearing: Kids can sit outside and listen to the types of sounds they hear, documenting man-made and natural sounds. They can also describe the volume and pitch of the different sounds they hear.
  • Touch: Touching different rocks, mulch, bark or leaves, children can document the different textures they are able to find. Parents should help kids avoid touching poisonous plants.
  • Sight: Kids can use their eyesight to engage in a variety of counting activities, including counting the number of clouds, trees, rocks or bugs they see during a given time frame.
  • Smell: If you break apart a leaf, the fluids inside reveal different odors. Children can describe the odors of various types of leaves, as well as the distinctive smells of things like grass, dirt and mud.

Start a Rock Collection

Kids can search for different types of rocks, collect samples and classify them by color, texture, size, pattern or other criteria.

Carrier said that there are a variety of guidebooks — including Thirty Great North Carolina Science Adventures, edited by April C. Smith and Carrier — that can assist with these activities, which will help children not only learn to identify differences and patterns, but help them stay active.

“Time outside is critical for parents and children during this difficult time and the payoffs are feelings of calm and connection in our amazing natural world,” she said.