Friday, August 26, 2011

Exploring nature with children

By Jan Little

Most of us live in some kind of building, one that we call home. But in a larger sense we live in the entire world. That world can be a mysterious place, or it can feel just like home. Imagine a child’s excitement when he can find evidence of animal and insect homes in his own back yard, or know which plants feed the butterflies. Families and children can learn together at Duke Gardens in a variety of classes for all ages.

Water is one of the topics we will explore in a class (pre-registration required) for children ages 6 to 8. Water is necessary for all life, but we rarely think about its source or the water cycle. Most children are surprised to learn that water is a limited resource; additional water is not being shipped in from outer space.
In the program “Drip Drop: Be a Raindrop for the Day,” we will consider how water moves around our planet, beginning by tracing its path in the garden. The children can imagine where they would go if they were raindrops, moving through the garden in drips and splashes or through small streams, watering the plants, and finally joining the ponds and pools before it moves beyond the Gardens’ borders.
Once we are in a watery frame of mind, we can then think about water as a transformer. Liquid, vapor, fog, ice, snow, sleet—how many forms of water can you think of? Regardless of its form, the water we sip today has been moving around this planet for a long time. The water in your cup could be the same water used by George Washington to cook his green beans, or Genghis Kahn could have washed his hands in those very same water molecules, or a dinosaur could have splashed through this water millions of years ago. Water doesn’t go away; it just transforms and moves around the planet over and over.
This class will include creating your own water cycle in a plastic bag, with a pond, land, and eventually a rainy sky for each child to take home and display on a window. All it takes to work is a sunny day.

Other programs to introduce your family to the magic of nature include free drop-in programs such as Nature Storytime and the science and craft activities offered during the four weeks of Fall Family Fun. During Fall Family Fun, you will have the opportunity to investigate the natural world in quick experiments or make a craft to take home. We will also have displays on different weekends of reptiles and amphibians or local wildlife.

Other classes this fall include an introduction to our animal neighbors in “Knock, Knock. Who’s There?” for ages 4 to 6. Their older siblings, ages 7 to 9, can track butterflies and dragonflies through the Garden, learning how these magical creatures partner with plants, in the program “Flying Flowers.”
Youngsters ages 3 to 5 can join us for a month of seasonal explorations in Nature for Sprouts. Children ages 8 and 9 can investigate the impact of trees and shade on temperature in “Shadow World,” and children ages 10 to 12 will complete a foraging experiment over two Saturdays in “Food Fight.” We end the season with the program “Shelter,” which explores the function of shelter as each child builds a shelter and then measures its effectiveness at managing wind, weather, and water.
INFORMATION: For all of these programs, you can get full information at, including a PDF download of our entire July-Dec. events program (or see a quick list in this blog entry). To register, please call 668-1707 or write to

Sarah P. Duke Gardens creates and nurtures an environment in the heart of Duke University for learning, inspiration and enjoyment through excellence in horticulture. The Gardens is at 420 Anderson St.

Jan Little is the Gardens’ director of education and public programs. This column first appeared in the Durham Herald-Sun.

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