"Lift up this rock, Mom! Let's see what insect families we can find!" As my 4 year old-nature lover and I lifted up the rock, we found hundreds of ants with their eggs, isopods galore, and the occasional sneaky millipede. We became observers of a whole world under the rock, and through my son's perspective, a whole world of questions…and it only took 30 seconds.

This daily activity was the inspiration for "5 Minutes or Less" activities to get children outside in their own environment and investigating nature around them. Several of the activities have picture books that blend well with the activity. Get Ready, Get Set, Explore!

Sprout Your Socks

This idea came from Lynn Brunelle's book, Camp Out!: The Ultimate Kids' Guide. It is a wonderful activity for any age and has an added benefit: using all those stray socks that don't have matches! Once outside, you and your child put a sock on OVER your shoe and go for a nature hike. You could hike around your yard or hike around a park. The point is to get the sock dirty and pick up any seeds that might attach themselves.

After the hike is over, put the sock in a plastic zip bag with a squirt of water. Tape the bag on a window in a sunny place and check daily to see the sock slowly sprout to life! After the sock sprouts, you and your child can investigate what types of plants might be growing on the sock. Your child may never view socks the same way again.

Look Under a Rock

This activity is as simple and as powerful as you can get. Simply find a rock to turn over and observe!

  • What kind of insects do you see? 
  • What patterns in the dirt can you find? 
  • Are there any slug trails or worm holes?

Your child may want to find different rocks and compare the findings, or look under the rock during different times of the day and see the differences. After the exploration, Under One Rock - Bugs, Slugs, and other Ughs by Anthony Fredricks and Jennifer DiRubio is an excellent book to use as a prompt to talk about the experience.

Wildlife Hunt

Have you ever thought about having a nature hunt inside your house? This 5 minute activity shows children how wildlife can live in your habitat, too. All you need is a flashlight and a little bravery. You and your child can look for signs of life all around the nooks and crannies of your house or apartment. There might be a spider web on a baseboard, an insect on a screen, or something interesting on the inside of a windowsill. Identifying the evidence of wildlife becomes a natural next step.

If you would rather go outside, have a "Five Senses" wildlife hunt.

  • What signs of life does your child hear? 
  • What does the bark of a tree feel like? 
  • What does that blade of grass smell like? 
  • What signs of wildlife might be easy to see?

Taking just a few minutes to focus on senses other than sight can provide a unique way to observe the "wild."

Catch a Raindrop

It is common to see a child stick out her tongue to catch a raindrop, but with this science activity, you can catch it and bring it inside! The materials you need include flour, a pie pan, and a rainy day. First, sift some flour into a baking pan or pie pan until it is about one inch thick and covering the pan. Take the floured pan outside and let the rain come down on the pan for about a minute.

When the rain hits the pan of flour, a tiny "dough drop" is formed. These "drops" can then be sifted from the flour and examined. You can count the flour drops, compare the differences in size and shape. If you have a food scale around the kitchen, you can even compare the weight of the flour drops! Raindrop, Plop! by Wendy Cheyette Lewison and Pam Paparone takes the child on a counting journey through a rainstorm. Your child will want to read the book as soon as they feel a raindrop!

Nature Alphabet

"Mom! That stick looks like a "T!" After a big rain and wind storm came through, we had several sticks that had fallen in our yard. What a great opportunity to create a stick alphabet. My son started collecting sticks, organizing sizes, and started thinking about what we would use to make all the different letters; a short stick to connect an "H" and a walnut to dot an "i." After the alphabet was complete, we rearranged the sticks to create words. Not only was the alphabet reinforced, but our yard was cleaner too. Discovering Nature's Alphabet by Krystina Castella and Brian Boyl is a visually stunning book that connects with this activity. After looking at the photographs in this book, your child's natural curiosity and sense of observation will be sent to new heights.

Hints and Tips

Jennifer Ward, author of I Love Dirt!, reminds us that "dirt can be the most delightful play item in nature. Here's the scoop: it washes away from hair, clothes, skin, and toenails, so fret not about allowing your child to get a bit messy when outdoors" (2008, p. 43).

Use what you have:

  • A paper towel roll with some old crepe paper taped on the end can be a great tool to observe wind direction.
  • An old flowerpot can be placed halfway in the ground sideways to create a "toad hotel."
  • Cotton balls can be stretched and manipulated to look like the clouds your child sees in the sky.

The sky is truly the limit with these quick and easy activities. Enjoy your time in the outdoors!

Dr. Catherine Hagerman Pangan is an assistant professor in the College of Education at Butler University where she teaches science and social studies methods. After receiving the "Golden Apple" for engaging math and science teaching in her 4th grade classroom, she moved to the "Big Apple" where she completed her doctorate at Teachers College, Columbia University. She has worked with students and teachers in cities around the United States including New York City, Dallas, Philadelphia, and Indianapolis. Wherever she is, she likes to get people exploring and appreciating the outdoors!