If you had to pick one animal for kids to study, spiders might be the ideal choice.
They’re easy to find. They let kids come close. There’s no need for kids to try and be quiet. And there’s no need for awkward tools, such as binoculars.
And they’re astounding.
Jeff Rahlmann, a volunteer naturalist for Seattle Parks, based in Discovery Park, has led many kinds of field trips. But his favorite, by far, is spiders.
“There’s so much amazing about them!” he says.
For example, when spiders want to migrate, they pull a long strand of silk out of their buts, hold it to the wind, and float off, a behavior biologists call “ballooning.” Or take this fact, that Rahlmann always shares with his classes:
“If you had a pizza party with all the tastiest insects, like flies, mosquitos, gnats, earwigs, fleas on the pizza and you invited all the other animals that eat insects, like bears, frogs, birds, lizards, the spiders alone would eat half of all the insects.”
And the fact that they are often overlooked, and that many people needlessly fear them, makes them all the more intriguing.
“They’re kind of like an underdog, and I’m big on the underdog,” he says.
Perfect for remote learning
Carolee Walters, a first grade teacher at West Woodland Elementary, teaches a unit on spiders every fall. If you’re in Seattle in the fall, spiders are everywhere.
It’s an ideal project for remote learning, she says.
“Instead of looking at a screen one more time, that’s something you can do no matter where you live, whether it’s a house or an apartment.”
Walters starts the conversation by having a class survey on the question. “Do you like spiders?”
Then she reads them a book: “Spiders,” by Gail Gibbons.
And then kids start talking, and talking, about experiences they have had with spiders.
“It’s not so much ‘listen to the teacher talk,’ but ‘learn and share together,’” she says. “It puts kids in the role of observer and sharer.”
Every few years, the kids will find a spider right in the classroom.
“All pandemonium breaks loose,” Walters says.
After the first burst of excitement, the kids calm down, take turns looking at the spider, and a couple of them will volunteer to move it to a safer place.
“It makes for a memorable class bonding experience,” Walters says.
She also hands out books on spiders to everyone in the class. (That’s another great thing about spiders. There are a lot of children’s books about them. Ms. Walters can provide a spider book for kids of every reading level in her class.)
Walters says the best spider-related activity your kid can do at home is to observe and record what they see.
“I’m a big fan of child scientists doing what grownup scientists do,” she says. Give them a notebook, or a clipboard, have them sketch a web, or keep notes on how a web changes day to day.
There are a variety of spiders you might find, from the brown house spiders that roam your house, (Those need to stay indoors, or they’ll die, Rahlmann says) to tiny jumping spiders that stalk their prey in potted plants on your front porch. Webs can be the orb shape most people recognize, or follow other plans. Discovery Park’s wood is home to many spiders that weave dome-shaped webs.
Rahlmann has these tips on finding spiders. Foggy mornings or windless days with light rains are good times to find webs, because the water droplets will catch on the web and make it stand out.
If you want to find spiders at work, the best time is after a rain storm.
“The next day is always a good day because the webs are knocked down and they’ll be building their webs again,” he says.
Here are some of the spider books in Ms. Walters’ first grade classroom
“Spiders” by Gail Gibbons
“I’m Trying to Love Spiders” by Bethany Barton
“A House Spider’s Life” by John Himmelman
“Spiders: Biggest! Littlest!” by Sandra Markle
“Spectacular Spiders” by Linda Glaser
“Spinning Spiders” by Melvin Berger
“Miss Spider’s Tea Party” by David Kirk
“Anansi Goes Fishing” by Eric A. Kimmel
“Anansi the Spider” by Gerald McDermott
“Diary of a Spider” by Doreen Cronin
More for your backyard explorer
Spider time! Five common Seattle species
Worms, bumblebees, roly-polies and more; get to know the insects and creepy-crawlies in your yard
How to get your kids started on backyard birding
Originally published Sept. 18, 2020