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It’s difficult to do nature study when the weather doesn’t cooperate or when your surroundings aren’t very nature-friendly. In this post, we’re going to explore 20 ideas for doing indoor nature study when it’s less-than-ideal to go outdoors. If you’ve missed any of the previous posts, be sure to check those out, but for today let’s jump in and ask Karen for some ideas.
Sonya: Welcome, Karen Smith, to the podcast again. We are continuing our nature study series, and before I tell you the topic for today, I want to ask. How long have you been doing nature study? Or is that too personal of a question?
Karen: Not at all; all my life.
Sonya: Good answer. All right, how much of that time have you lived in a town? And where there are cold, wintry conditions in the winter? The winters get cold and snowy and icy. How long of that time?
Karen: Pretty much all my life.
Sonya: Okay, well there you go. Then I think you’re going to be very qualified for our topic today. Here it is. These are the questions, and they’re basically about less-than-ideal circumstances. So one is asking for ideas for winter:
Question: We have a few weeks where it stays below zero and months of being too cold to go outside with notebooks. We’re starting the SCM Nature Journal this year and I’m sure that will help.
And that’s Journaling a Year in Nature which you wrote, and it has a whole season of ideas for winter nature study so that’s good. Next question:
Question: What do you do when your local area is cutting down trees? We do cultivate our garden, but it’s only 12 feet wide by maybe 30 feet long. Nature is so squeezed around here.
So I’m reading into this that it’s basically less-than-ideal circumstances. It’s weather that’s not cooperating; surroundings that are not nature-friendly.
Karen: What can we do without going outside?
Sonya: Well, yeah, I know we’ve done posts before on nature-study ideas for winter, and some of those are outside. And haven’t we done one for in the city?
Sonya: So today you’re going to focus on indoor nature study. All right, fire away. How do you do that?
Karen: Well there is plenty that we can do, because nature is all around us all the time. It’s not just outdoors, nature is within our houses. Many people have house plants. Many people have pets. So those are just two examples, but there are so many. I have a whole list that we can start to go through, if you would like.
20 Ideas for Indoor Nature Study
Sonya: I would love to hear your list. Go for it.
1. Watch birds fly across the sky
Karen: So one thing you can do is watch the birds fly across the sky from your window in the comfort of your own home.
Sonya: In the heating. Oh yes.
Karen: Different birds fly in different ways, so observe how the different birds fly. You don’t have to go outside to do that.
2. Put out a bird feeder
Karen: If you have bird feeders in your yard, and you should if you can have them, put food in it. I know there are different neighborhoods that have regulations where you can’t have a feeder; somebody might live in an apartment where they can’t have a feeder, there’s no place to put it, but if you can have one, put a bird feeder out. Watch the birds that come to it in the comfort of your own home.
Sonya: And I believe we’ve done a post on bird feeders and what types of feed different birds like best.
Karen: Yes. Now, some things that you can do. If you already have bird feeders, and you are continuing to, say, see the same birds, and you’re tired of seeing those same birds, keep at it. More birds come the longer you keep your food out. Over the years, not during a single day. Maybe there is a bird grapevine or something, but you can offer. You can also try offering different types of food. Maybe you just put out sunflower seeds. Try putting out some suet. Try putting out peanuts that are in the shell. Now, I will caution you on that. The squirrels will take those before the birds do, so just put a couple out in the morning, unless you want to feed all the squirrels too, and you can watch those too.
Sonya: The squirrels too, okay.
3. Put out a bird bath
Karen: So wildlife comes to your bird feeders. You can put out a bird bath, if you don’t already have one. Now, for those of you who are looking to do this in the winter time, there are heated bird baths that you can buy.
Sonya: Oh my.
Karen: And they’re not like saunas or hot tubs for your bird.
Sonya: A little steam rising. (laughs)
Karen: They do plug in. They are electric, and they just keep the water temperature above freezing, so the birds have a water source and they can get a drink. And interestingly, it’s not just the birds that come. We have the neighbors’ cats come and drink out of our bird bath in the winter time. And of course the squirrels do, so there again, the water, open water, in the winter time will draw birds and other animals to your location, and you can observe them from your window. You can also try putting the feeders in different locations in your yard.
Sonya: Why will that change things?
Karen: Different birds like things in different places. Let me give you an example. I had a problem with raccoons opening up my suet cage and eating all my suet, and so I moved my suet to the tree, and I came up with a way to hang it on the trunk of the tree. And more birds come to it now than they did when it was hanging on a pole. Now, to make it more interesting, sometimes you get down to where you just have a small chunk of suet left, and it’s a little difficult for the birds to get. So one day I took that out, and I just wedged it into a split tree trunk. I thought, “Oh the raccoons will just eat it.” But what I found is that the woodpeckers prefer going to the one that’s wedged in the trunk more than they do the one that’s in the cage hanging on the tree. They like it where they can perch; they can cling to the tree. But they go to the one that’s in the wedge.
Sonya: Interesting. Experimenting.
Karen: Try different locations. Try different ways of presenting the food. You might be surprised at what you see.
Sonya: Yeah, attracting different birds.
4. Learn bird calls
Karen: Another thing you can do inside is learn the bird calls.
Sonya: Oh that’s true; All About Birds is a great resource.
Karen: Right. There are different websites and apps, and, for those of us who are old school, there are CDs. Play the calls of birds you know that are in your area. Use your field guide if you’re not sure. A field guide will tell you which birds are in your area, and you can listen to some of those calls. Learn them, and then when the weather is nice, you can go outside and hear the birds singing their songs in the springtime.
Sonya: Yes. They are so vocal in the springtime.
Karen: It’s when they are getting their territories set. “This is my space,” and it’s when they’re drawing a mate. And so that is a good time, when the weather is nice, and you want to go out again.
Sonya: Yeah. So now you’ve done your research, and you’re better prepared to enjoy it in real time.
Karen: And you’ll see more birds if you can hear them and recognize their calls.
Sonya: Good point.
5. Find spiders and spider webs
Karen: Now here’s one that I know most moms do not like.
Karen: You can look for spiders and their webs within your home. Because there are spiders who are outside, and there are spiders that live inside, the ones that are inside, if it’s a warmer day, they’re going to be active.
Sonya: Nature study.
Karen: And their webs are always there. We’re constantly taking them off out of our corners and light fixtures and things like that. So look for those. That’s nature, and that’s within your home.
6. Grow flower bulbs
Karen: You can also force some flower bulbs to grow. There are kits at the stores that you can buy that will give you the instructions for doing that.
Sonya: We did that one year, my youngest and I. Someone gave us a bulb for Christmas, and so when it was time, we would draw what it looked like every few days so we could chronicle its progression and growth.
Karen: That’s a great thing to do. Now you have a focus for several weeks of nature study within your home.
7. Observe your houseplants
Karen: If you have house plants, outside of the flower bulbs, you could also force those. Observe those houseplants. How are they different? What happens if you move a houseplant to a different location?
Sonya: Oh yeah. See, this happened, and I didn’t even think of it as nature study. We repainted our dining room, and we put the plant back in on one wall. It used to be right up next to the window. We put it on the back wall, it’s only what, 10 feet away from where it was, and the sun can still get in there, so we figured it would get more sunlight at the angle. But it just started withering. It was dropping leaves all the time.
Karen: It wasn’t proper light for that plant.
Sonya: Yeah, so we moved it back and it’s happy.
8. Observe a bouquet of flowers
Karen: You can do experiments like that with your houseplants; you can get a bouquet of flowers from the store. Bring them home. Look at how they are different. Look at what makes up that flower. What are the parts? There are the petals and all those different parts of the flower. You can look at those and observe the differences on the leaves. You can see that. You can even put them in a vase of water. Notice which ones wilt faster than the others. There’s always some that you have to remove before the whole bouquet is finished.
Sonya: Which ones last the longest, yeah.
9. Observe the clouds
Karen: So that’s all nature study. You can observe the clouds in the sky from your window. Some days, when you live where it’s cold and snowy a lot. Some days it’s just dreary gray, but there are days when the sun comes out, or it’s partly cloudy, or even mostly cloudy, and you can notice the different cloud formations. How are the clouds moving in the sky? Clouds do move. So you can watch the movement of those because of the wind currents. You can get a feel for the wind without being out in it.
10. Record the weather
Karen: You can record the weather. Take a couple of weeks, longer, if your child’s very interested in that, and just record the temperature each day. Record if it was windy or not; was it sunny? was it cloudy? Any of those types of things that are weather-related that your child wants to record, you can do that.
Sonya: Okay. Now here’s a question for you, because when you say record the temperature each day, the hindrance, the blocker I came up against, is if I record it first thing in the morning, that’s really different from if I record it at three o’clock in the afternoon on a winter day. And if so I record it in the morning on one day and three o’clock on the next day, I get really weird weather patterns. So what do you suggest for that?
Karen: You can record the lowest temperature and the highest temperature for the day. If you don’t have a thermometer at home, an outside thermometer, to do that, go to your local TV station’s website, and find out what was the high temperature, what was the low temperature.
Sonya: Or a weather app.
Karen: Your weather app tells you, or the National Weather Service, or the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, is also a good option for that, and so you can go to these places that record the weather.
Sonya: So lowest and highest, or just same time every day, what the temperature is at your house. Thank you.
Karen: And it depends on the age of your children how detailed and accurate you want to be, and not just the age of your children, but the bent of your child. Is your child interested in this and really wants the details on that? Or is it just, “Yeah, whatever.”
Sonya: “Is it sunny or is it cloudy?” that’s it.
11. Watch a sunrise or sunset
Karen: So keep that in mind. Watch a sunrise or sunset. In the winter, you don’t have to get up very early to see sunrises.
Sonya: Yeah and sunset, it’s also happening pretty early.
12. Grow mold on bread
Karen: You can look at those things. You can grow mold on bread.
Sonya: Okay, now this sounds like a science experiment.
Karen: Well, but mold is nature, and so science experiments oftentimes are nature study because we’re seeing how our world reacts. Different things in nature react with each other, so there are different things you can do. Get several slices of bread and set up different moisture levels for each piece, and put them in different locations in your house. Put one in a dark closet; put one where it’s light and sunny; put one in the refrigerator where it’s cold. Compare.
Sonya: Are you putting these in zip bags?
Karen: Yes. Put them in a bag so the dogs in your home don’t eat them.
Sonya: Good point.
Karen: That’s just one thing you could do. You can look at the mold with a magnifying glass. Just observe what happens. That’s nature study.
13. Grow crystals
Karen: There are different crystals that you can grow inside. Rock candy is one that most people are familiar with. It’s oversaturated sugar solution; you put a string in it and crystals form on that string, but there are also other crystals that you can grow with some different household products. Find an experiment book that will give you guidance on those types of things work.
Sonya: And then I assume you would look at those crystals with the magnifying glass?
Karen: If you wanted to. Yes. I remember as a child I received a crystal-growing kit as a gift and I thought it was fascinating.
14. Experiment with friction or simple machines
Karen: You can do experiments with friction or simple machines. These are both physics-type things, but again it’s nature study, because friction is part of nature. Even simple machines are part of nature. A fulcrum. How are you going to move that heavy object up the stairs? Maybe you use a ramp. How do you sweep the floor? That’s part of physics. Even the way you hold a broom, that’s all part of that, so don’t overlook those more abstract types of nature-study things.
15. Kitchen chemistry experiments
Karen: Chemistry experiments are another thing. You can do that with baking. Baking is chemistry. Cooking is chemistry. So don’t overlook that.
Sonya: Winter is a good time for that.
Karen: It certainly is. What happens when you add vinegar to baking powder? Make sure you do that one where it’s easy to clean up.
Sonya: Yeah, in the sink or in the bathtub.
Karen: But there are other things. Cornstarch and water. What happens when you when you mix those? There are all these different things that you can do chemistry-wise. It’s nature. It’s how things interact with each other.
16. Dissect owl pellets
Karen: Here’s a favorite of mine. Get some owl pellets from a science supply place, and there are ones that will sell to homeschoolers, and you can buy as many or as few as you need for your family. So if you only need one, you can buy one.
Sonya: One owl pellet.
Karen: Yes. And have your child pick it apart and find out what’s in it.
Sonya: Okay. What can we share with people who are not sure what an owl pellet is?
Karen: When owls eat their food, they eat it whole, and some of what they eat is not digestible. The bones and the fur, in particular, of a mouse, say, that they eat can’t be digested. And so their bodies are designed to package those indigestible things into a pellet-shaped object, and then they regurgitate that.
Sonya: So you could see what the owl ate.
Karen: So the results are the bones and some of the fur. That would be in the pellet, and they are sterilized. The science supply companies sell sterilized ones, so you don’t have to worry about other things that could be with that.
Sonya: I’m assuming they come with instructions?
Sonya: Oh good. Okay, that could be interesting.
17. Grow mushrooms
Karen: You can grow mushrooms. Mushroom-growing kits are very common at stores today. Get those, follow the instructions, grow mushrooms, and then enjoy eating them because those mushrooms are for eating. They are safe to eat.
18. Experiment with magnets
Karen: Do experiments with magnets. They’re another one of those nature things that we don’t think about as nature study, but they’re there. Let your children play with magnets.
19. Make rainbows with prisms
Get a prism and split light into rainbows. Every winter I put a prism, I have two now, in a window. They’re in my south window, and as the sun moves across the sky, I get rainbows in that room because I position them so that it will split the light into rainbows in that room. You can shine other lights through it and see what you get. Let your children play with prisms, and again, science supply places friendly to homeschoolers sell those. You can get one prism.
Karen: All right, just a couple more.
Sonya: Yeah, these are great ideas; keep them coming.
20. Observe reflections
Karen: You can observe reflections on windows and mirrors. That again is properties of light, which is nature. What reflections do you notice?
Sonya: What doesn’t reflect?
Karen: What doesn’t reflect, what does reflect? How does the sun or the light have to be to get a good reflection? All these different things.
21. Observe rocks
Karen: And one last one. When the weather is nice, or when you are out someplace, collect some rocks, bring them home, and save them for those times when you cannot get outside to do nature study. Let your children look at the rocks and observe them. Magnifying glasses are great for this, or you could maybe use a pocket microscope. They don’t even have to identify what types of rocks they are. They can just look at how they are different, how they’re the same, how were they made up, and all those different things.
Sonya: Great ideas. A lot of ideas to choose from, to customize for the different children in the family in the different ages.
Karen: And you can level up or down with many of them.
Sonya: Yes. Same activity, just increasing or decreasing what you’re looking for. Excellent. Thanks so much.