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For the Birds

Age: 3 to 8+ Time: Under 1 hour
Materials: Pine cones, twine, nut or seed butter, bird seed
Skills: Creativity, Naturalist, Sensory, Empathy

It started one morning when we spied tiny three-toed tracks in a coating of newly fallen snow — a bird had been busy in our yard. When our 4-year-old asked how the bird was able to find food in the frozen earth, I had some ideas, but I wanted her to think it through. And, I was happy she was thinking about the well-being of the small creatures around us. Together we went outside to see for ourselves. After observing a cardinal and a sparrow or two, we went online to, where we read about the winter habits of local birds — and came up with a plan to give our feathered neighbors a little midwinter snack.

As we worked, we asked questions about our habitat, the environment, even a little science. We’ve found this activity works well in group classes, too. It’s easy to put together a small bird buffet -- and feel more connected to the wildlife all around us.

The Guide

  1. Wonder Together: Which animals stay for cold weather? How do they stay warm and fed? How do we stay warm and fed? Are there any similarities? What can we do to help them?....How about make a birdfeeder?
  2. Look Together: Keeping these questions in mind, go outside together. Help your young one get into observation mode by bringing along homemade binoculars (two toilet-paper rolls taped together) to keep her thinking about what she’s looking for. And then let her look! Open-ended questions will help: Do you see animals who are here for the winter? Where do you think they live, and what are they eating? Make a list of the creatures you see. A pigeon? A squirrel? Depending on where you are, you might even see a fox or a deer.
  3. Gather Together: As you walk and talk with your child, discuss the things that help you get through the winter -- and what you might be able to do for the birds. You can’t make them little sweaters or invite them inside your home, but you can make them a little snack, right? As you consider this idea, look for pinecones, and start thinking together how you might use them to serve the birds a midwinter treat.
  4. Gather Materials and Get to Work: Tie a 12” to 18” length of string to each pinecone and place birdseed in the bowl. Position the bowl on the baking tray; it will help keep cleanup to a minimum.
  5. Experiment: Hold up a pinecone and talk with your child about how you can hang it outdoors for the birds. How will you get the birdseed to stay on it? Let your child try dipping the dry pinecone into the birdseed. Does it stick? Give your child time to consider the other ingredients at hand; if the idea doesn’t occur to her, you can model putting peanut butter on the pinecone.Mess time for the birds means some messy time for your child. Let her use spoons or even her hands; tactile experiences help preschoolers develop sensory skills--and the ability to make a mess today opens doors to creative thinking later in life. (A few licked fingers only add to the fun.)
  6. Bring Them Out: Once the pinecones are loaded up, head back out and pick out places to tie the feeders. Now’s a good time to talk about the birds’ needs -- would a tree limb work, or a porch rafter? Maybe even a fire escape? Think about what would be convenient for the birds (and still allow you to take a peek).
  7. Watch What Happens: Make sure to check back often so your child can see who is feeding -- and how the feeder changes over time. Nothing beats the thrill of watching birds flutter over, take a nibble, and flutter away!

Why is this activity great for kids?

What starts out as a nature walk and a small kitchen craft ends up packing in a lot of growth opportunity for your child. Encouraging children to consider the comfort of those around them builds empathy, a sophisticated skill for self-interested preschoolers, and one that will make them far better equipped to handle social pressures like bullying. Since young children tend to learn better through hands-on play rather than passive learning, this project’s emphasis on direct observation and sensory experience helps engage them as they discover more about the habitat around them. Plus, getting into that peanut butter is a liberating, sensory-stimulating mess, which helps them prepare to think creatively later on. By taking a concrete action, you help nurture their sense of service. And of course, the time spent in shared discovery results in extra bonding time for both of you.

Do This Activity In A Class

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Do It Yourself

We think all families should be learning outside. Try this activity with your child and begin to see the power in outdoor, play-based learning. Have fun!

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