Fall-Inspired Hands-On Science Inspires Outdoor Experiments
Crisp fall days are a great time for outdoor hands-on science! Using fall-harvested crops and the natural phenomena of autumn as inspiration, families can explore everything from weather prediction to animal tracks. These engaging outdoor science projects can be enjoyed by scientists of all ages, and require few materials – the learning inspired by each project will come naturally thanks to participants’ curiosity and ability to observe!
As foliage begins to shed its summer green, explorations of leaves and trees become especially engaging. Using leaves found on trees right in a backyard, families can practice leaf and tree identification. Plan a tree ID matching game by collecting leaves of various shapes, sizes, and colors from nearby trees, then have scientists work to match each leaf to its tree of origin. Older participants can practice specific species identification by using field guides to identify each species that they’ve matched leaves to. Further leaf learning can take place by watching leaves breath in a bowl of water – after patiently waiting for a few hours, close observation will reveal air bubbles of the same sort that are released from human mouths while under water!
While gardening season in New England starts in the springtime, fall is the right time for planting pumpkins inside of pumpkins! Using a pumpkin and a little bit of potting soil, families can plant a fall crop of pumpkins quite easily. If the top of a pumpkin is cut off and the inside filled with soil, the seeds inside the pumpkin will begin to sprout and grow right out of the pumpkin! While cold nights will cut a new pumpkin plant’s life quite short outside, pumpkin sprouts can be brought inside and placed in a glass terrarium in a sunny spot in order to enjoy the indoor life. Scientists who are fascinated by all things icky can engage in a longer and slightly more disgusting version of this project wherein a pumpkin is left to decompose on a layer of soil inside of a terrarium – seeds will sprout once they’re in the soil and free of decomposing pumpkin debris. Winter squash can be used as a pumpkin substitute, too!
And just like our tree ID matching game, try it out with various pumpkins and gourds found at local farm stands and markets. Take a picture or purchase/pick for your collection like the one pictured above. Learn the names of each one and ask the farmer about the culinary and folk history of these beautiful treasures.
As the days cool, watching the weather becomes a waiting game for the appearance of frost, freezing rain, and eventually the first snow. Families can install their own low-tech weather stations at home using a single item found in nature: pine cones. Pine cone weather stations help to predict precipitation by opening and closing based on moisture levels in the air. In order to distribute seeds efficiently, pine cones open in dry weather and close up during times when air is more moist – like right before a storm! Place pine cones in an area visible from inside for easy weather predicting, and watch carefully as they change.
Families can even make the most of the longer nights that fall brings by engaging in nighttime science projects. Animal tracks and signs can be collected by creating a backyard tracking station, where a small patch of mud collects tracks from animals wishing to munch on a pile of delicious snacks serving as bait. After nighttime animals visit the tracking station, footprints, teeth marks, claw marks, and perhaps even bits of hair or scat can be found!
Other activities that help families to make the most of increased hours of darkness include a nighttime scavenger hunt, where hearing plays a major role in outdoor exploration, and moon journaling, where young scientists observe and track the changes in the moon’s phases.
[Photo credit: (cc) MOTT]