Most students are looking at virtual school this fall, meaning hours and hours in front of a screen. When your kids are glazed over from all that indoor learning, take a break. Go out and play! See what you can learn outside.

We asked four experts for ideas on incorporating nature and outdoor activities into plans you can use to teach a variety of subjects. Here are their answers, edited for length and clarity.

Back to School 2020

Take a math walk

Dan Finkel, founder and director of operations for Math for Love, an organization devoted to making math fun and easy to learn:

No one needs another thing to do, least of all parents. That’s just not sustainable.

The key is to have a little routine you can do every day, something that requires no preparation and almost zero effort. Just take a walk, keep an eye out for mathematical things around you and keep a couple of questions in your back pocket.

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Here are three easy games to play on a math walk:

• How many? Look for something that’s made of many parts, like a fence, or a sidewalk with different bricks or a subdivided window. How many do you see there? Let the kids count, and see that there are different ways to group things and count them. Is it one window, or four panes of glass? How did you get that number? It’s not about just getting “the right answer,” it’s about explaining your thinking and paying attention to units. 

•  Target. All you need is a four-digit house number. Come up with a formula using each of those digits once to try to hit a target number. The classic target is 24, but as you play you can start with 10 as the target for your first game, try for 11 for the next, and go all the way up to 99. Say your house number is 3028; one formula could be: (3 x 8) – (0 x 2) = 24. It’s a game you can play competitively or collaboratively, and you can break it out any time the world gives you four numbers.

Any time you have four numbers, say, a house number, you can play a game trying to get the figures to equal 24. In this case, 24 x 1 – 0 = 24. (JiaYing Grygiel)
Any time you have four numbers, say, a house number, you can play a game trying to get the figures to equal 24. In this case, 24 x 1 – 0 = 24. (JiaYing Grygiel)

• Estimate. How many steps do you think it will take us to get to that next telephone pole? Kids are usually wildly wrong on their first guesses, but then they get uncannily good at eyeballing something and putting a number on it.

Classify bugs

Don Ehlen, owner of Insect Safari, an educational program about arthropods:

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Classification is a foundation for understanding natural sciences. Arthropods (the scientific name for insects, centipedes, millipedes, arachnids and crustaceans) are great because there are so many different kinds that they make really good models for the principles of biology.

Start by going online and looking at the physical differences between groups of arthropods. (There’s a good breakdown here: animaldiversity.org/accounts/Arthropoda/classification.) Talk about different orders of arthropods: beetles, bees and wasps, butterflies and moths.

Close-up of a honey bee, Apis mellifera, on a flower. (JiaYing Grygiel)
Close-up of a honey bee, Apis mellifera, on a flower. (JiaYing Grygiel)

Once you get the idea of classification down, you can go outside and start collecting bugs. The best time of the day is when it’s warmest, typically in the afternoon. Or try the evening, when a whole different cast of characters come out. Hang up a white sheet, shine a light on it (ultraviolet works best) and insects are attracted to the light.

Collect the bugs in any lidded clear container, then try to figure out what it is. Look at the different characteristics. Does it have short or long antennae? Wings? How many? Maybe it looks like a bee, but it only has two wings, so it’s actually a fly. Identify your bug, take pictures of it, make an anatomically correct drawing. An ant, for example, has three body parts: head, thorax and abdomen.

And teach your kids good ethics. When you’re done examining them, put them back where you got them.

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Explore marine life at low tide

Dani Kendall, field program specialist for the Seattle Aquarium:

There are two low tides on beaches along the Puget Sound every day. Good low tide days are: Aug. 29 at 8:50 a.m., Aug. 30 at 9:40 a.m., Aug. 31 at 10:27 a.m., Sept. 15 at 9:50 a.m. and Sept. 16 at 10:40 a.m.

Low tide is when you’re likely to see all kinds of animals. You can visit the aquarium’s beach naturalist page to find a field guide and more resources: seattleaquarium.org/beach-naturalist-program.

Here are some things to look for during low tide:

Barnacles are usually attached to rocks, pilings, clams, any sort of hard surface. If you slow down, you might see a barnacle moving underwater, sticking out its feather feet to pull in food. Out of the water, if you put your ear up to them, you’ll sometimes hear a crackling sound. At Carkeek Park, there’s a big boulder at the north end of the beach we call Whispering Rock, because of all the barnacles.

Aggregating anemones look like little brown doughnuts on the sand or on rocks. Inside, they have folded in beautiful colored tentacles.

Hermit crabs rely on finding shells for homes on the beach (which is why people should leave everything at the beach).

Yinan Zhao, a volunteer naturalist with the Seattle Aquarium, finds a crab molt at Golden Gardens. (JiaYing Grygiel)
Yinan Zhao, a volunteer naturalist with the Seattle Aquarium, finds a crab molt at Golden Gardens. (JiaYing Grygiel)

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Clams can feel your footsteps getting closer and use their modified foot to dig down into the sand. You might see a fountain of water spew out of their siphon.

Whelks are snails we find on rocks. If you see a group of them, they’re getting together to mate.

When the tide is out, it’s a sensitive time for animals. It’s good beach etiquette to leave rocks where they are, and leave animals where they are. Touch gently with your “science finger,” which means one wet finger. Make sure you social distance and explore carefully — there’s life under your feet at all times at the beach.

Even on a day when the tide isn’t incredibly low, the beach is a magical place to explore. Keep your eyes out for eagles, osprey, great blue herons, harbor seals and maybe even a river otter.

Find something on the beach you have a question about? Ask an expert: beachnaturalist@seattleaquarium.org.

Look at the night sky

Michael Simms, outreach education manager at Pacific Science Center:

The trick with sky watching in Washington during summer is that it’s not always kid friendly. That’s because of how late it takes for the sky to get dark and the stars to come out. While you can see Jupiter and Saturn at sunset (around 8:30 p.m.), it’s not really until 10 p.m. that you can see a lot more stars. One thing for families to consider is waking up early (5 a.m.) to see the stars. It would offer better sky viewing for the Perseid meteor shower (visible nightly through Aug. 26) and Mars would be out. That’s a good connection as there were three missions to Mars launched in July.

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There is a lot of action happening this summer. Four of the five visible planets are visible at night, with Jupiter and Saturn being particularly bright. In addition to the planets and stars, there are a number of bright stars and constellations that are out that are very bright at night.

When sky viewing, bring something comfortable to sit on, bug repellent, red flashlight (to keep your night vision), cellphone for emergencies and water. You can use an app, or make your own Star Finder (directions here: tinyurl.com/yxhlnaav) to help you find some of the trickier constellations. Learning about constellation stories from other cultures is a great activity for kids and backyard astronomers, too. Families may also want to make a “science notebook” to draw observations and make notes.

Online astronomy resources from Pacific Science Center:

Grades three-to-five range (activities include tracking the moon phases, creating a sundial and shadow tracking): pacificsciencecenter.org/events-programs/curiosity-at-home/3-5

Regular live virtual planetarium shows: tinyurl.com/y52x7oy9.