We want our kids to engage with nature, to learn to respect animals, plants and natural environments, but sometimes in our busy, modern lives this can seem a difficult task. Gardens are a great place for children to develop a meaningful relationship with the natural world and even the smallest garden or courtyard can play a fundamental role in creating the wildlife ‘wows’ which can kickstart a lifelong love of nature. Here are a few simple ways to bring nature into the garden and how they’ve helped us appreciate the wildlife around our local patch.
Our Feathered Friends
Birds offer accessible wildlife encounters. They are widespread, large enough to see clearly at a distance and most are fairly easily identified with a basic birdbook. Attracting birds to the garden is quite easy with a feeder and simple birdbath. A birdbath can be created with a large plate or plant saucer. (It’s helpful if the edges slope or if a ramp is constructed from something like a small piece of wood to allow small creatures to get out of the water if they fall in.) Fat balls can be bought and hung in feeders or from strings, or they can be made with kids by melting fat (suet or lard) and incorporating seeds, nuts or dried fruits before it cools – about one-third fat to two-thirds mixture. It can then be set into the required shape and hung in the garden or laid on the bird table. We have kept the plastic trays from recently bought fat blocks to use as moulds for our own bird treats. (NB: If fat balls are sold in mesh bags, always remove the bag before hanging them out for the birds as it can trap and injure them.)
The starlings which nest in next-door’s roof are particularly fond of the fat balls and visiting tits and finches like sunflower hearts. We did used to put out niger seeds for the goldfinches, but over the past few years they seem to have rejected these in favour of the sunflower hearts, so we have stopped providing them. Birds can easily be watched from the window or a concealed place in the garden, although this week a very scruffy robin has been down within a couple of metres of me and the kids to collect insects from the lawn.
Red kites soaring overhead are another favourite in the garden, but nothing can beat the experience we had a couple of years ago when a pair of great tits were nesting in the bird box outside the shed. The children had been watching the pair feeding young for several days and we’d listened, entranced, as the young greeted each adult visit with very audible cheeping. Then one day we were at the end of the garden when the youngsters decided they were ready to leave the nest. They came out one by one over a period of about ten minutes and the kids saw each one leave, the last emerging and flying over to the fruit cage where it landed on my shoulder for a few seconds before fluttering off over the fence. It was a really magical experience – a wildlife ‘wow’ which will be remembered by all the family for many years to come.
To see the YouTube video of our great tit flying from the bird box to the window feeder to collect sunflower hearts, click here…
I love the fact that my kids notice birds and deem them worthy of close attention. My father is a keen birdwatcher and I don’t remember a time when my experience of place wasn’t inherently coloured by its birdlife. Wherever I go, I’m aware of the birds I can see or hear (both those I can identify and those I can’t) and the habitats that indicate which species might be around. This awareness has been developed through years of observing very ordinary birds in very ordinary locations, but it is a large part of who I am when I’m outside and I hope my children come to feel this way too.
A couple of years ago I bought the kids an explorer outfit and it came with a magnifying pot which has been a big success. Bug hunts around the garden have uncovered all sorts of creatures which live nearby, but which we have never seen in such detail. It has also taught us about the value of watching and waiting, for the first worm to emerge from the vegetable bed or for the spiders to crawl out from under the greenhouse staging. Observing and discussing is easier when the insect can be studied for a little while before it is released back where it came from.
There are excellent, free or cheap resources to help kids and parents identify mini-beasts such as the Woodland Trust’s ‘Creepy Crawly Spotter Sheet’ which can be downloaded for free or their Minibeast Swatch Book, which we gave to the kids for Christmas, and which has handy little flaps which show pictures of a number of common species with helpful information on the back. The Guide to the Butterflies of Britain laminated fold-out chart produced by the FSC and available from sites like the RSPB shop is also handy to carry around and really informative. My kids also like looking at all the colourful pictures. (These suggestions are purely based on personal experience. I derive no financial benefit from any of my recommendations.)
One of our favourite mini-beast encounters in the garden was with a snail so large it didn’t really deserve the title ‘mini’-beast. We found Roman the snail, who was a Roman, Burgundy or Apple snail (Helix pomartia), in our garden about 5 years ago. I discovered him on the side of our raised beds with a small army of less enormous snails in attendance. Once we’d identified him we decided Roman was an appropriate name due to his species and seeming leadership qualities. We watched him over the following 3 years as he munched his way through our lettuces.
He used to hibernate on the outside of the raised bed by the fruit cage and then appear in the spring, ready to be spotted every few days around the garden in a good-natured game of hunt the snail. Then a couple of springs ago he seemed slow and wasn’t even interested in the lettuce we left out near him. A few weeks later I found his empty shell and we sadly said goodbye to our loveable garden companion. We kept the shell and the kids like to compare it to our normal garden snails – an example of the fascinating variations in nature.
Plants for Pollinators
At this year’s school summer fete (at my children’s primary school) I choose ‘Plants for Pollinators’ as the theme for the plant stall to encourage the kids to learn a bit more about these essential creatures. We had a visit before the fete to a local community garden for a tour of the pollinator area and to plant out some sunflowers for pollinators. I grew 45 dwarf sunflowers (an almost impossible task due to the local ninja slugs) for the fete along with many other plants for pollinators, and most were bought by both parents and children to be planted in gardens and containers. We also had a pollinator quiz and sold cakes which highlighted which insects were our key pollinators and what their role was in our food production.
Busy week in the kitchen baking for the fete
I was aiming to get kids thinking about our reliance on these important creatures and I believe we can all do this by growing and planting sunflowers or other flowers to attract pollinating insets to the garden. A dwarf sunflower (I grew ‘Waooh!’ and ‘Little Leo’) has the advantage of large seeds which are easy for children to handle and plant, it doesn’t need staking and the flowers are produced close to eye-level on a plant which will be equally happy in the ground or in a pot. The seeds should be sown between March and June, either in a greenhouse or on a windowsill. They flower from July to September. I find it is best to get them well established with sturdy stems before planting them out as then they are less susceptible to slug damage. If planted in a container I have found using copper tape (easily purchased from nurseries, garden centres or online) around the perimeter of the pot to be extremely successful in warding off unwanted hungry visitors.
Although the sunflowers aren’t blooming yet, earlier in the week a hummingbird hawk moth visited the flowerbed, alighting briefly on the borage and calendula flowers before speeding off to grace another garden with its presence. It’s the first time I’ve seen this species in the garden and luckily my daughter also caught its quick floral tour. I even attempted to film some of it, but due to my inept videoing skills, only filmed the bark path along with my excited commentary!
One final way to encourage wildlife encounters in the garden is to create habitats for our native species. This can be done in even the smallest of space by inserting a few drinking straws, bamboo canes or some straw into a cardboard tube and hanging it up to provide nesting sites for beneficial insects like lacewings and ladybirds. A small pile of sticks on the ground or a larger log provides a home for beetles, woodlice and other ground dwelling creatures. On a slightly bigger scale, hedges provide nest sites and shelter for wildlife and long grass creates habitat for insects like caterpillars (a good excuse if you never get time to mow the lawn!)
Getting kids involved in creating habitats leads to interesting conversations. It helps them understand what wildlife requires in order to thrive (places to shelter, breed, forage and feed) and how we can help to provide these habitats in our gardens. It’s exciting when animals discover the habitats and begin to use them – when great tits decided to nest in the bird box for another year or when the solitary bees found the holes in our binstore and sealed up the entrance with mud to protect their developing eggs, the children felt that they had made a real connection with nature.
Small children are the most amazing sponges and they get excited about anything which excites those around them. When they experience amazing wildlife encounters in the garden, they realise that nature is all around us. They build up a relationship with this natural location over a period of time – seeing it develop through the seasons and watching the development of the plants and animals. They make simple discoveries which reveal the wonder of the natural world and they create memories which will influence who they become in later years.
If you have found these ideas interesting and useful, do check out the first in the series ‘Building a Willow Den’ and subscribe below for notification when I publish the last two posts in the series: ”Sowing and Growing’ and ‘Magical Lands’. I’d also love to hear about the Wildlife Wows you have shared in your garden. Thank you.