Our family tries – really hard – to get outside every day, even if it’s only for 15 minutes. And I’m not talking about walking to the car! I mean playing and learning outside. We don’t always make it out the door, but that’s our goal, even when the temperature is 20 degrees below zero or the clouds are pouring cold rain all day. Late fall is particularly challenging for us. Here in the Upper Midwest, the whole month of November is an excuse to stay inside. The days are short and gray. The leaves have already changed color and flown from the trees. The air is cold, but it has not yet snowed (and really – what good is cold without snow?). Most plant life is dormant and animals are scarce. It is not a very inspiring time to get outside to play and discover.
But in our never-ending effort to connect with our environment at all times of the year, I rally the troops, bundle up (which gets easier as my girls get older) and usher everyone outside. Here are some of our favorite things to do during the dark, cold days of November.
We love going to a nearby stream to make and float boats. We pile leaves full of natural items collected around the stream and place them in the water. It’s a perfect opportunity to make predictions about what will sink or float and then test the ideas.
We are easily entertained by throwing things in the water. Like rocks, for example, to see how much they splash. Or sticks. We toss sticks off one side of a bridge, run across to the other side and watch the sticks float along by.
Of course, you don’t have to throw anything in the water. There is plenty to explore in close proximity to water. Sitting bundled in winter coats on a sunny shoreline, building and creating with rocks and sticks, is a great way to pass a short November day.
Water is so appealing to young people and engages all their senses. Children can play, create, learn, and connect with water for hours. Any old stream or creek will do, as will a pond, lake, or even puddle. Sometimes we never get past our driveway.
For several years I have participated in Project Feeder Watch, a citizen science project managed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. From November until April, I regularly record all the bird species that visit our feeders. I send the data to a national database where it is used to track changes in bird populations across the country. Feeder Watch gives us the opportunity each November to clean bird feeders, fill them with various seeds and watch the birds.
My girls like to help tally the birds they see, and as a result, they have begun to learn the common winter birds in our area. There are only about 15 species that repeatedly visit our feeders (a manageable number) and they come every day (standing still, within three feet of our window!) On cold afternoons, we quietly engage with our feathered friends, and enjoy discovering more about our feeder birds. For more information about participating, see Project Feeder Watch.
After the magic of a dark Halloween night set aglow with brightly lit pumpkins, we can’t bear to toss away our happy-faced jack-o-lanterns. Instead, we watch the faces age as they begin to cave in. After a week or so, we move our pumpkins from the porch to the far reaches of our yard and observe the process of decomposition throughout the month. We also place whole pumpkins about to provide little nibbles for mice and other creatures.
We take weekly strolls, stopping at each pumpkin along the way to notice changes in the faces. We observe different molds, slimy insides, tiny teeth marks and rabbit scat. We like to make up stories about who came to our pumpkin and act out their adventures.
Soon, our pumpkins are covered with snow. In the spring, we go in search of remnants from our fall pumpkins, but by that time, we’re more interested in the green popping up than the decomposing orange!
Simple walks in the woods, in the prairie or along water can be enjoyable, even in November. For us, the key is to go somewhere different to make it an adventure. We notice things that are different from our yard. We collect things for our fall nature table. We look for insects that are braving the cold.
For us, the most important thing is to get outside and engage with our environment. Even though it’s not always easy, especially on blustery November days, I know we all benefit from a little nature in our lives.
Rachel Sandhorst has taught environmental education for many years, but mostly in the summer. She looks forward to short November days in order to return to her indoor interests, which generally involve making things. She lives on an acreage in Northeast Iowa where she learns with her two daughters and husband, and enjoys the company of an assortment of animals.