Climbing trees, digging in the dirt, playing in a creek…these are fond childhood memories for many parents. Children today often don’t have the free time or the freedom to explore the outdoors as we did when we were growing up. As a parent, how can you help your child develop a love of nature and to create outdoor memories of his or her own? You could begin by enticing your child out of the house with a Nature Scavenger Hunt! I work at the Wildlife Center of Virginia – a hospital for native wildlife located in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Our mission is “Teaching the world to care about and care for wildlife and the environment.” Each year our education staff leads hundreds of children on guided nature hikes through the forest. We use activities such as our Nature Scavenger Hunt to spark children’s interest while encouraging them to slow down and notice the natural wonders along the trail. As a parent, you can easily adapt this activity for the age and knowledge level of your child.

Scavenger Hunts for Preschool Children

Before heading out to do your Nature Scavenger Hunt, make up a list of things for your child to find. By drawing pictures of the items rather than writing them, you’ll enable your young child to identify and check off the items on his or her own. For preschool children, the items on your list should be easy to identify:

  • pinecone
  • bird
  • red leaf
  • bug
  • yellow flower
  • round stone
  • stick that looks like a “Y”
  • berries
  • squirrel

Many of these items can be found on a walk around the block or at your neighborhood park. It’s even better if you are able to take your child to the woods or another natural area.

Scavenger Hunts for Elementary School Children

You can challenge your older elementary school child with a Nature Scavenger Hunt like the one we use at the Wildlife Center of Virginia. The Wildlife Center’s Scavenger Hunt encourages children to see the forest as a habitat, or home, for animals. It helps children become aware of the things animals need in their habitats, to notice evidence of animals, and to think about how human actions affect animals.

Items include:

  • A source of water for an animal such as a stream, puddle, or drops on leaves.
  • Food for an animal such as plant material, insects, other animals, or fungi.
  • Shelter for an animal like a hole in the ground, a nest in a tree, under a rock, or under a fallen tree.
  • An easy-to-climb tree and a difficult-to-climb tree. Consider who would find it easy or difficult to climb:  squirrel? A snake? A bear?
  • A seed transporter such as a pine cone, acorn, maple “helicopters”, or dandelion fluff.
  • Signs of animals could be scat (your child will enjoy having a fancy new word for poop!), tracks, or partially eaten vegetation.
  • Something dead. This doesn’t need to be an animal; notice that fallen leaves, sticks, and some of the trees and plants are also dead. Do these dead things just “mess up” the forest, or do they have an important role to play? Dead vegetation provides homes for animals, adds nutrients to the soil, and is food for animals such as worms and termites which in turn are food for larger animals.
  • Something with multiple legs like an insect, spider, or centipede.  No squishing!
  • Animal sounds such as birdsong, cicadas or the rustling of squirrels.
  • Signs of humans might include power lines, litter, human footprints, trail markers, or the trail itself. Do any of these human influences pose risks to wildlife? Do you hear evidence of humans? Even in natural areas we are rarely out of earshot of the sounds of airplanes, cars, or other humans. Could human sounds affect an animal’s ability to communicate or to detect predators or prey?
  • Hidden treasures could be a salamander, a bone, an interesting rock, a beautiful flower; or anything else that is exceptional in your child’s eyes.

Be Open to Exploration

Finally, remember that the ultimate goal of a scavenger hunt is to get your child to explore the outdoors. If he or she becomes engrossed in a creek 100 yards down the trail or captivated by an anthill in your front yard, resist the urge to hurry on to the end of the trail or to complete your list. Your child may have already reached the most important destination: a hands-on and memorable encounter with nature!