I’m going to find all of them!” my 5-year-old son, Gus, declares without missing a beat.
We’re sitting around the kitchen table, as Gus and his sister, Mabel, age 7, ready their “acorns”: 22 wooden discs they’re painting with bright colors. My question to them: How many of these discs can you find a week after hiding them?
Squirrel-inspired caching is just one of the ways parents and teachers can get kids excited about the outdoors during the winter months. Below are tips on how to try two of our family’s favorites.
SQUIRREL SCAVENGER HUNT
The goal here is to become a squirrel, at least for the afternoon. Infamous for their industry, not their memory, gray squirrels can forget as much as 74 percent of their nut reserves. Mabel and Gus loved this bit of trivia and learning that missing nibbles can sprout into oak seedlings.
Pitting the kids’ memories against a squirrel’s created an excuse for a craft project and set up two opportunities to get outside. Here’s how we held our squirrel scavenger hunt.
• Choose your nuts. I went to a local craft store and found a package of wooden discs I knew Mabel and Gus would have fun decorating. I also wanted something our backyard critter friends wouldn’t eat. The nuts have to be fun to hide and visible enough to find again.
• We used nontoxic paint to decorate our nuts with vibrant colors.
• Once the paint had dried, the kids divvied up the nuts, and we headed into the yard. “OK, squirrels,” I commanded. “Hide your nuts!”
• As Mabel and Gus scurried here and there, I jotted down roughly where each nut was placed, in case our recall in a week was closer to a squirrel’s than I had imagined.
Red-cheeked and grinning, the kids decided they would retrace their route to memorize their stashes. A squirrel might call foul, but I allowed it. The outcome? They each found seven of their 11 nuts, or about 64 percent, and had as much fun finding their caches as they’d had stashing them.
WINTER BIRD BINGO
Like squirrels, blue jays are scatter hoarders and will cache acorns. These birds are year-round visitors to our neighbor Meg’s bird feeders, often joined by several other species of songbirds who ride out the winter in New England. To encourage a little bird-watching, I enlisted Mabel and Gus in creating bird bingo cards, which they can use to spot and track the different species.
• I started at Mass Audubon’s website to confirm the species we can expect to see over the winter.
• I reviewed the list of birds with Mabel, and we came up with likely candidates based on which species had visited Meg’s feeders in the summer. I drew 3×4 squared grids to write in the names: cardinal, northern mockingbird, goldfinch, blue jay, tufted titmouse, black-capped chickadee and…squirrel. Mabel knew we would spy squirrels stealing the birdseed and decided they deserved a square. For a greater challenge, expand the size of your grid and the number of birds.
• If you don’t have a bird feeder nearby, or to increase winged activity if you do, visit audubon
.org for suet recipes to make with kids. Pinterest also has dozens of recipes and activities for DIY bird feeders. Hang one outside near a window for easy viewing.
• Paste pictures of birds onto the grid for reference. Mabel plans to replace our original template with a grid of birds (and a squirrel) hand-drawn by her.
The prize for the first to get bingo? You decide, but we plan to celebrate over cups of hot cocoa.