To give your kids an idea of the huge variety of creatures without backbones who live in your yard, start turning over rocks.
“If you turn over a rock of any size, it’s probably going to have something under it,” says Emily Bishton, a long time environmental educator at Magnuson Children’s Garden. You might find worms flexing their bodies to find shelter underground, centipedes breaking into a sprint, families of roly polies that roll into little gray balls at a touch, or whole cities of ants.
And that’s just the creatures you can easily see. The soil is teeming with life, including tiny worms, springtails and mites and microscopic tardigrades.
“Thinking about that is kind of amazing,” says Nicole Parish-Andrews, an environmental educator who works through her company, Foxberry Education.
Parish-Andrews says the creatures who live in the soil can be roughly divided into carnivores (such as centipedes) and decomposers (such as earthworms).
She has an experiment she likes to do with earthworms. Take two clear containers, fill both with soil, but add earthworms to the bottom of one. (This requires kids to go out and collect earthworms. Having them dig, or turn over things in order to get enough pink wrigglers is a very fine way to pass an afternoon.) Cover both in paper.
After a week or two, take the paper away and look through the walls. In the container with worms, you should be able to see the loosened-up soil where the worms burrowed through.
Another way to encounter animals that live in your garden: settle down and watch what insects come to your flowers.
There are butterflies, honeybees, bumblebees and a variety of other bees in different colors and sizes.
“There are bees that are as small as a grain of rice out there,” Bishton says.
Wasps will sometimes stop by for a nectar drink, and so will hoverflies – flies that have black and yellow stripes like bees or yellowjackets, so they look a little like bees, but if you look closely, they only have two wings, rather than four, and their eyes are bigger than any bee’s.
Bishton says it is useful for kids to learn early how to tell bees from yellow jackets, which are more aggressive. (Look for the narrow waist and the lack of hair.)
If you are interested in having more pollinators come to your yard, it’s a good idea to have flowers blooming throughout the year. (A possible science project for older kids: seeing if different insect pollinate different color flowers, says Parish-Andrews. Do pink Echinacea blooms attract the same insects as purple Salvias?
Parish-Andrews suggests another great project for all ages: making a butterfly mud bath. Butterflies like to drink water from mud, she says.
“You can make a little mud butterfly bath by mixing dirt clay water and putting some rocks for butterflies to land on.”
Bishton says that a great way to keep kids exploring the world of the yard is to give kids a “digging spot.”
“It’s just such a fun activity,” she says. “The endorphin release and the imagination it stirs up are very powerful. Kids love doing it.”
Nicole Parish-Andrews has a video about soil creatures.
Magnuson Children’s Garden has a lot of education resources on its website. The page The Worm Bin and other Super Cool Soil Creatures has a guide for identifying animals you might find in dirt or compost, along with cool activities and articles and a song about worms. For information and activities about bees, butterflies and other above-ground insects, visit The Pollinator Garden and other Interesting Insects. Also check out: The Log Pile, and All That Lives There.
Fiona Cohen is the author of “Curious Kids Nature Guide: Explore the Amazing Outdoors of the Pacific Northwest.” She enjoys digging.