Saturday, October 29, 2011

Enjoying Nature at Night with Children

Fifth Weekend Field Trip – Night-time Nature Walk

For each month that has a fifth Saturday I am planning to make an out and about guide to help make your outings a little more fun and science focused.  This month’s outing is perfect for our fall season.  Darkness will arrive earlier and earlier, especially as we set our clocks back next week.  If your children are usually inside or in bed before dark, even your own familiar neighborhood can look quite exotic at night.   Before it gets too cold let’s get our little ones out there to enjoy the darkness without having to miss their bedtime.

Choose a Location:  Your night time nature walk can take place at park open after dusk, a local forest, your neighborhood, or even your back yard.  Please be aware that this is also hunting season so you want to avoid any areas where hunters may be shooting.  Many parks that host educational programs will also run night walks.  Be sure to check the age ranges for the program.

         Long Pants to protect legs from any brambles, bumps, 
         and trips.
        Warm clothing – the temperature can drop pretty quickly.
        Sturdy Covered Toe Shoes – it’s very easy to trip in the  
        dark and  covered shoes will keep you much safer.
        Light-Colored or Reflective Clothing if you will be walking  
        near a road.  Reflective belts might be a good    
        investment  if you plan to walk often.

Bug Spray if you live somewhere where insects are still a problem.

Flashlights - Ideally you would use lights with a red filter helps to maintain your night vision.  You can use red plasticrap or tissue paper attached with a rubber band as a filter.  A headlamp would also be much easier to use so that you could keep your hands free for guiding little ones.  Children will likely want to carry their own flashlights as well.

Things to See/Questions to Ask
Feel the Grass – Is it wet or dry?  Has it rained?  Where did the Water come from? Very often in the fall the temperature can fall so rapidly that they grass may be wet with dew.

Look at the leaves on trees – some trees will fold their leaves at night.

Close your eyes – What sounds can you hear that you might not notice at other times?  You will probably hear insect noises and quieter sounds like the wind through the trees, maybe even owl hoots, but you will be unlikely to hear bird calls as you would during the day.
Can you find the moon?  What shape is it tonight? How many stars do you see? 

Look for Eye-shine.  Pets and animals with good night vision have eyes that reflect the light.  You may see the bright shine from cats or other animals as you walk.  In addition you can look for the eyeshine of spiders as a great way of finding them.  To do this, find a grassy area near hedges or some woods. Hold a flashlight on the side of your head, next to your eye. Shine the flashlight on the ground and look for tiny sparkles of blue or green light. Move closer to the light and you should find a small ground dwelling spider.  Wolf spiders are common. See how many spiders you can spot.  Flashlights can also be very helpful for finding spider webs and certainly make them more visible to children than they would be during the day.

Cross Paths with Critters – At night when all is quiet is when animals in urban areas start to move around.  Even in the city there is plenty of nature to be found when the world is quiet.  Do not be surprised if a Deer, Fox, Turtle, Crayfish, Rodent, or other animal crosses your path (I only named a few).  Remember that to see animals the whole party must move as quiet as possible.
Look for Bats.  If you find one explain how bats are not like birds at all, but that they are more like mice with wings.  If you have the time and energy, a round of Marco Polo on a grassy area is a great way to introduce how bats move by echolocation.

Lay down and Look at the Stars – Take a towel or picnic blanket and lay down for a look at what is above us.  As your kids to tell you what to see or just take in the beauty.
Pretend to be an Owl – Have your children pretend to be an owl.  Where do they think they would find food?  What trees look like good places to land?

Tips from the Expert
Keep the walks short at first- preschoolers may only be interested in a 15-30 minute walk.
Do not turn on the flashlights until you absolutely have to as it will destroy your night vision.

You may want to take a few familiar objects to touch or smell.  Have your children close their eyes and see if they can still identify them.  This is a great way to show then that even though we do not have great night vision, our other senses work just as well outside.
If snakes, scorpions, or other animals that you may disturb live in your area, be careful where you walk and be extra careful to wear protective footwear.

Thank you to my friend, Becky Clark, Naturalist at Pennyrile State Forest Park in Kentucky for being my guest expert.  Becky designs and runs nature programs for families and groups visiting the park.  You can see what is going on at Pennyrile on her blog

A Few Words on Fear of the Dark

One thing that we definitely do not want to do is scare our children.  You may want to talk to your kids about the wonderful things that they can see outside after dark.  If they are afraid you may want to wait until they are not resistant.  Also once you are outside, make sure to notice how your child is doing and honor their feelings.  Making them stay in the dark when they are afraid is more likely to increase the fear than to help it go away.   

Extension:  Sweeten the deal by attracting some insects to study.


Supplies needed:

1. 1 almost overripe banana

2. Bowl

3. Spoon

4. 2oz. of apple cider vinegar

5. ½ lb. brown sugar

6. Plastic wrap

7. Small bucket

8. Wide paintbrush


1. Peel banana and mash in bowl until pasty.

2. Add vinegar and brown sugar to banana. Mixture should be as thick as latex paint. If it is too thin, add more banana.

3. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and store in warm place indoors overnight.

4. Find an open space with several large trees.

5. Just before sunset, pour mixture into a bucket and use a paintbrush to apply a thick coat of the mixture onto the bark of 3 trees.

6. A few hours after dark, check the trees for moths. Use a flashlight covered with red plastic wrap or red tissue paper. Observe moths and other insects that are eating the mixture.


Activities from Night Science for Kids: Exploring the World After Dark by Terry Krautwurst.

Please add your favorite things to find at night this time or year and list your location in the comments area.

Thank you to Becky Clark and Mary Smith for your advice in writing this guide. 

Owl, Bat, Moth and Moon Images by


  1. This looks very cool. Do you attract a lot of moths?

  2. You caught me Loralee. I actually haven't done the moth part yet - most of the time the extensions are ideas that I haven't necessarily done with my kids, but think would be cool. I found it just as I was publishing this blog the other night, but its on my to do list for next week since it will be dark even earlier and I will update with pictures. I had also wanted to see if one of my friends on the East Coast could do it to see the differences, but at the moment I am pretty sure they won't find many moths to visit them due to the unseasonable cold.