The Michigan Department of Natural Resources is creating videos to help teach kids and adults about a range of nature and history topics at home. Have fun doing these activities in your backyard!
When Michigan schools closed in March, ultimately for the remainder of this school year, and educational recreation venues shut down to help slow the spread of coronavirus, many parents and caregivers began asking themselves the same question: “What do we do with the kids now?”
Seeing the need for more at-home learning resources, Michigan Department of Natural Resources educators set out to help answer that question.
“The DNR recognized early that families and teachers were going to need engaging and relevant educational activities while obeying the governor’s Stay Home, Stay Safe orders,” says Kevin Frailey, DNR education services manager.
Kevin and others in the DNR who work on educational programs—interpreters at state park and fish hatchery visitor centers, staffers at the Michigan History Center in Lansing and the Outdoor Adventure Center in Detroit—began creating videos to help teach people about a range of nature and history topics from a distance.
These videos are available on a recently launched webpage at Michigan.gov/NatureAtHome, along with a collection of other resources, including virtual field trips and online tours, scavenger hunts, games and other easy ways for families to explore and engage with nature and history. The webpage also has suggested reading materials and links to free nature apps, social media pages and websites where families can find more learning tools.
“We know you’re overwhelmed trying to teach your kids from home,” says Natalie Elkins, DNR PreK-12 education specialist. “Start by watching the videos from DNR staff for a stress-free addition to your new learning from home environment—they’re educational, fun and Michigan-based.”
Hartwick Pines State Park interpreter Craig Kasmer created a series of videos called “Tree Detectives” to teach kids about identifying Michigan trees.
DNR nature lesson videos featured on the webpage cover everything from birds, frogs and snakes to tying various types of fishing knots. One video series on the site explores how to identify Michigan trees. Hartwick Pines State Park interpreter Craig Kasmer, who created the videos, calls it “Tree Detectives.”
“My hope was to inspire curiosity in kids. At the time, my nephews were just toddlers and watched Blue’s Clues: ‘Look for clues!’ So I took that idea and used it in my interpretation,” Craig says.
Craig and other interpreters at state parks and fish hatcheries contacted teachers who had planned spring field trips that had to be canceled because of coronavirus concerns to let them know about the videos and other educational resources available on the DNR website. They heard back from many educators about the videos’ usefulness.
“We plan to run with these and use them in our Google Classrooms as assignments to watch and respond to,” wrote Janet Serba, a teacher at Johannesburg Elementary in Otsego County.
Kelly Signorello, a Gaylord Middle School teacher Craig works with, posted a lesson asking her students to “go on a virtual field trip to Hartwick Pines and be tree detectives” by watching one of the videos and answering questions about tree identification and pine species native to Michigan.
When the Michigan History Center in Lansing closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, education staff there began converting museum gallery programs and activities into short videos. Filmed prior to the Stay Home, Stay Safe executive order, the first two 10-minute videos are about the Kellogg brothers and Michigan’s war production during World War II. The content for the videos was originally developed for the Michigan History Museum’s Learn 517 home school program.
“It was fun to take information and activities that aren’t normally seen outside of the museum and adapt it for home audiences,” says Christine McCreedy, the Michigan History Center educator who created the activities and appears in the videos. “We already have plans for creating more segments—with better lighting and a microphone—once we get back to work.”
Since then, the Center has added a series of “Museum People Cook” videos exploring the connection between cooking and history.
For those who want to learn more about our state’s past, there’s also Michiganology.org. Launched in the fall of 2019, the website includes the Archives of Michigan’s digital collections, educational materials for K-12 teachers and interesting stories about Michigan history.
A sensory hike, which involves finding tiny items in nature, each representing a different touch or texture, is one family activity DNR educators suggested to help get kids outdoors and using their observation skills.
In mid-March, the staff at the DNR Outdoor Adventure Center in Detroit started the “Nature in Our Neighborhood” video series.
“Since staying at home, I have really been trying to use the resources at my disposal to create online content that is fun and educational,” says Katie Gillies, Outdoor Adventure Center program assistant.
One of Katie’s favorite things about spring, “the smallest blooming flowers that are super easy to overlook,” inspired the neighborhood wildflower identification exercise she created, offering an activity that families either can do outdoors or adapt for the indoors by researching the flowers they discovered or making their own illustrations of the flowers to color.
Another indoor family activity Katie suggests, and discussed in a video, is making a reusable tote bag out of an old T-shirt.
“This is a great opportunity to discuss the importance of waste reduction and the longevity of material items,” she says.
The Outdoor Adventure Center videos, which also cover topics like turtles, bees, moths and more, aim to inspire outdoor exploration close to home.
“One of the main themes of our Nature in Our Neighborhood series is that given our current circumstances, we obviously are encouraging folks to explore what is literally right in the neighborhood or backyard and that you don’t need to live on a woodlot or a farm to observe nature,” says Natalie Cypher, OAC program assistant. “You can watch the buds change daily on your trees, look for pollinators or learn to recognize a couple of neighborhood bird songs—and you can do this anywhere. Maybe you’ll even find a new interest or hobby.”
Tracy Page, DNR aquatic education coordinator and creator of a series of videos dubbed “Tracy’s Teachings,” also chose topics that most families can do at home with very few materials.
“Sampling macroinvertebrates (little critters that live in water) can be done in a ditch of water, a tiny pond or a vernal pool in their neighborhood. Kids don’t necessarily need to even know what they are, but finding tiny critters on their own helps open up a whole new world of learning and exploration,” she says.
For younger children—like Tracy’s daughters, ages 3 and 5—she suggests short activities like an obstacle course, a nature scavenger hunt or what she calls, in one of her videos, a sensory hike.
“Their favorite is doing a ‘six touches’ sensory hike. We use half an egg carton, and their job, while we are outside, is to find six tiny items in nature that each represents a different touch or texture. So a smooth leaf, a hard rock, a pokey pinecone, et cetera. It is a different hike each time, and it helps them to use their observation skills,” Tracy says.
To learn more about the DNR’s education programs, visit Michigan.gov/DNREducation.