Enjoy this sample content from Let’s Go Outside! How To Connect Kids with Birds and Nature. There are 28 topics to learn from in this self-paced course—filled with everything you need to know about cultivating curiosity, guiding observation, and fostering stewardship in young naturalists.
From Lesson 3: A Beginner’s Curiosity
One of the best strategies for engaging kids in the outdoors is to put yourself in that beginner mindset. This course contains all sorts of tips to help you reactivate your “beginner mind” to spark curiosity and questioning about the natural world.
So, you know where you’re going, and what you’ll be doing—but how will you use your time?
Consider two ways of thinking: the expert mind and the beginner mind.
The expert mind is the perspective we adopt that assumes we know everything, or at least the important stuff. Relying on past experiences, an expert mind thinks there is one, right way to solve a problem, answer a question, or even go on a nature walk.
A beginner mind or an expert mind has nothing to do with one’s experience level. You can use a beginner mind whether or not you know a lot about a subject or not much at all!
So, for example, you and your kid see a group of common, red-breasted birds. Instead of saying, “Oh, those are just robins,” you instead say, “Oh, look at those birds! I wonder what they’re doing?” Then watch and see what they do next!
It doesn’t matter that you’ve seen them a hundred times before. If you engage your beginner mind, you can enjoy watching those birds together, from a place of curiosity.
Using your beginner mind can be a freeing experience. It’s a great reminder that it’s totally okay not to have all the answers or know what’s going to happen next. Embracing this takes pressure off you and your kid to have answers, and instead allows you both to be curious and ask questions!
As an adult, it can be hard to tap into the beginner mind. But like everything, it just takes some practice!
If you have a difficult time breaking away from the expert mind, think of something you’ve seen many times from a new perspective. Look up at trees from lying on the ground. Close your eyes and listen to one sound at a time. Bend down to explore something below eye level.
By pushing ourselves to notice familiar things from a different perspective, we remind ourselves that there is so much more to discover.
This makes the beginner mind a valuable, lifelong learning tool, for both you, and your kid. By embracing the unknown, you’ll unleash you and your kid’s beginner minds.
Next time you’re outside, give it a try!
Go out and find a plant, mushroom, or other creature that you don’t know the name of, observe it carefully, and then give it a name that would help someone else find it. If you are together, you can do this activity in parallel and then challenge each other to find what you just named. If you aren’t together at the moment, you can challenge your partner to find it another time.
From Lesson 2: Get Outdoors Ready
This course is packed with tips on how to figure out what to look for when you are outdoors. For example, we show you how to use the free Merlin Bird ID App to find likely birds near you to keep an eye out for on any day of the year. You can use this tool whether you live in the same place, or are thousands of miles apart, to connect your outdoor experiences.
When it was first released, it made me feel so much more confident in identifying mystery birds, that I was encouraged to watch birds more often. I use it to discover which birds I’m most likely to see, wherever and whenever I’m going birding.
Using Merlin in this way can help you learn which birds are common and nearby, giving beginning birdwatchers a head start. With photos and sounds of each bird, it makes it easy to study them in advance, so you’re better prepared to notice and name them when you go out.
Let’s learn how you can put this feature of Merlin to use. In the “Explore Birds” option, choose the location where you plan to go birdwatching and the date you plan to go, to see a list. When you sort the results by “Most Likely,” Merlin provides a list of the birds you’re most likely to encounter in that area, on that date. The list is in order, starting from the species most likely to be seen, then and there.
For each species, Merlin has photographs, sounds
a range map, and a bar chart showing how common that bird is throughout the year in the selected area.
Merlin can generate lists like this for almost anywhere in the world.
If you’re physically together with the child you’re birding with, you can create a list together. If you’re apart, you can each find your top 10 most common birds with that “Most Likely” feature and compare your lists. In late August, my daughter and I are most likely to see Blue Jays, American Goldfinches, and Black-capped Chickadees, where we live in Ithaca. Near St. Louis, where my daughter’s grandparents live, the most common birds on the same day are Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets, and Mourning Doves.
My daughter and her grandpa can compare these lists and enjoy talking about these differences and why they exist. They can help each other learn their common birds and connect from a distance. The information in Merlin makes it easy and fun to learn about unknown birds, wherever they are.
Once you dig in, I think you’ll find you’re better able to locate and identify all the birds around you. Apps like Merlin empower kids to find answers and satisfy their curiosity. By knowing local birds, kids develop their expertise, and I think you’ll find that they’ll love showing off their naturalist skills!
Bird watchers all over the world participate in Big Day birding events, during which they try to see and hear as many species as they can in one day. Here’s a version you can try any day and wherever you are! Challenge yourselves to find as many birds as you can in just 15 minutes. It doesn’t matter if you know their names—just keep looking and listening for birds for the full 15 minutes. You might be surprised to discover birds you hadn’t noticed before. Repeat the challenge at different times of day or at different locations to see if you find different birds.
From Lesson 3: A Beginner’s Curiosity
In addition to videos and dozens of activities, this course also has interactive elements to help you practice what you are learning. For example, look at each image below, and brainstorm one or more open-ended questions you might ask if you were at this place with your child. Then click on the scene to discover additional questions. Which questions do you think would yield the best discussion?
Start a list of “I wonder” questions you have while you’re outdoors. Your list might be in a journal, posted on a wall, on your refrigerator, or on a whiteboard. When there’s a rainy day or spare moment, see if you and your child can track down information that starts to answer your questions.
Try an outdoor experience where you focus on the smallest things you can observe. Challenge yourselves to explore a small area very closely. Lay out a string, yard stick, or hula hoop and imagine you’re an ant taking a hike along it. Get down low and try different perspectives. Look for tiny details. Be sure to take a hand lens if you have one. What new things do you notice? What do you find interesting? How would the ant describe the hike?
From Lesson 4: The Power of Observation
In addition to your instructors, you’ll also get advice from many other adults who have had success getting kids excited about nature. We cover topics like using a spotting scope, engaging in citizen science, nature journaling, and other methods that jumpstart curiosity and build enthusiasm.
[Kevin] Hi, I’m Kevin McGowan. I’m an ornithologist, birder, and father of two grown children.
Binoculars are a great tool for bringing birds closer. But I find it’s not until kids are older—8 or 9 or 10 for some children—that they have the eye-hand coordination to use them really well.
I recommend a spotting scope. They’re particularly useful for young children, but I think they’re a life-changing tool for all ages, even adults.
Now, spotting scopes are expensive, and I wouldn’t necessarily say to go buy one specifically to teach a child. If you don’t have one, I recommend seeing what resources are available at your local birding club. We have some set up where I work at the Lab of Ornithology, and there may be scopes available for you at local nature centers or national wildlife refuges near you.
Spotting scopes have more magnification than binoculars, but there are two big advantages that spotting scopes have, besides the magnification. One is that the image stands still, so you can actually see it instead of bobbling and trying to hold your binoculars steady. The other, is that you can share the image with another person—it’s not like trying to get somebody on a bird up in a tree, it’s: “Here, take a look right here.”
To get the scope on a bird, the bird has to sit still long enough to get the kid to see it, so there’s some limitations here. But looking at water birds or herons or things like that, those are all pretty easy.
Most scopes you find at a nature center will be on a tripod or some sort of stand. You, as the adult, might want to sit down to look through the scope, so the scope is the right height for your kid. You can hold a kid up to a scope, but it’s so much easier if you just set it to their height. If you’re with a group of kids, try to match the height of the shortest kid. You can also sit in a chair and have the kid in your lap.
I remember when my kids got old enough to be able to sit on my lap and look through the scope. It was a big event. It was a major, major change in the way that they could see the world, and it was a major change in how I could show it to them. When my son was 5 or 6, he would sit in my lap and see dozens of species up close, before he could use binoculars.
It’s sometimes hard to look through a single lens of a spotting scope, so if you can get the kid to put their hand up over one eye, and then look through the other eye, that really helps.
Often, when I offer to let someone look through my scope, they’ll say, “Oh no, I can see the bird just fine.”
But then I love that little intake of breath when they actually look through and see it, and it’s like, “Oh wow, that’s amazing!”
It’s a life-changing experience, and I hope that it’s one that you get to have with your kid.
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Thanks for previewing sample videos and topics from Let’s Go Outside! How to Connect Kids to Birds and Nature. There are more videos and topics to learn from in this self-paced course, plus discussion forums where you can connect with other learners, to help you find new ideas and inspiration to get your kid outside.