Winter Nature Study Ideas

Winter in south-eastern Virginia is a toss-up. Sometimes we get snow. Sometimes we just get ice all winter. And sometimes we get, well, not much of anything. This year has been pretty mild, which has been nice since we got so much outdoors-y stuff for the family this year. The kids have been loving our backpacking “practice hikes” around our fields–which is just our normal walks, but with our new gear on. (Well, Mr. Fix-It just puts his pack on to be a good sport with the family–but the rest of us can use the exercise!)

And now that hunting season is over around here, we’ll be able to get off our regular loop and out into the woods even more.

winter nature study 7And since we love nature study so much, you know I just couldn’t let all those moments out in God’s great creation slip by! Here’s some fun nature study opportunities that winter brings along…

  • What’s up in the trees? With the leaves gone, you can see mistletoe; hanging nests for squirrels and bees; bird nests; seed pods (especially with sweet gum and tulip poplars!); vines and ivy; and other things that are harder to spot with full growth. This is also a great time to see things like trees that are growing into each other; which trees are straight and which are crooked; where trees have been damaged and healed; compare big trees and little trees; and compare bark–because all these things are much more visible.

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  • What’s blooming now? What grasses and shrubs are still around? What trees still have leaves (oaks are usually one of the last to lose their leaves!)? How do you tell dead growth from live growth that’s just brown for the winter? What happens to seeds, flowers, and leaves as they freeze or decompose over the winter months?

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  • ¬†Tracks! Winter clears a lot of ground and either mud or snow are great for finding tracks! We see turkey and deer tracks the most, but all bird tracks are pretty easy to spot. More urban areas would probably also still have squirrel, possum, and rabbit tracks. (Here’s a great, outdoor-hardy, field guide for beginning trackers that we use!)
  • Scat! Yeah, that’s a more “scientific” word for…um…droppings. {smile} Winter really opens up the ground with the underbrush dying off and grass dying back. This is another great way to teach your kiddos how to read animal signs and find animal travel trails. (And here’s another great book to help beginners–including mom’s that are new to this like I used to be!)

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  • Nest! And what makes tracks and scat so interesting anyway? Because it can lead to other cool stuff–like finding bedding-down nests from deer. You follow their regular travel paths, then carefully go off the path and scope out nearby thickets for ground nests–which are really just mashed down spots in the grass in a protected spot where the animal rest. We found two the other day, less than 20 feet off of those tracks above.
  • Rubs/Scrapings! Ok, I’m not sure what the scientific word for this is (I probably need to skim one of our books for myself again!) but these are places on trees where deer have rubbed the bark off scraping their antlers. In other areas you might also find claw scratchings (bears!) or other signs on the trees. We almost never see these in the summer because the undergrowth is so thick!

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  • Hair/Fur! This can be a little trickier, but since all the leaves are gone it’s much easier to spot any hair or fur that get’s caught on stiff winter branches and brambles. I also find that the kiddos are not as distracted by all the fall colors, and once the leaves all turn brown they really concentrate on seeing something different, so they spot things quick. (We found a big tuft of deer hair the other day!)
  • Feathers! Again, a lot of times feather are easier to spot in the winter because you’re not as distracted by all the greenery and colors.

winter nature study 3Some other interesting winter lessons we’ve had while out walking around include how and where to shelter in cold and bad weather; how to find food in bad weather and winter time; how winter changes animal travel habits; how cold affects your need for food and water; what materials insulate, and what materials draw heat out; and just general weather and climate conversations.

What I think I love most about nature study as a family is the way it can cross all age groups and snag a broad spectrum of interest for deeper study. The Ladybug is big into clouds and weather vocabulary right now because she’s studying it in school. The Cowboy is interested in finding (and following!) tracks. And Speedracer is big on things he can pick up and touch, like leaves, rocks, fur, feathers, etc. Plus, you can find all these elements to some degree or another in any neighborhood or setting.

Do you get out for nature study much in the winter?

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