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Outside Activities with Children and Looking Under Rocks

Updated on September 1, 2013

Five Minutes and a stick

Undoubtedly, you have heard the scenario where the child says “There is nothing to do” and the parent responds with “Go play outside”, feeling that it is better for them than sitting in front of an electronic device. Playing outside generally doesn’t require lots of input from parents. Children pretty much know what to do when they get out there, but there are times when they may need a little bit of encouragement. It never hurts to show them how to have a good time, while at the same time expending a small amount of effort yourself. If you want to inspire a child to play outside, it will only take about five minutes and a stick to get them exploring.

Lift a Rock

To model an example of wonderful exploratory behavior, arm yourself with a stick and head outdoors to find the nearest rock, brick, piece of wood or other object that is lying in contact with the ground. Use the stick to pry the rock up off of the soil (you can even throw in a little lesson about levers, if you are ambitious) and you are very likely to see at least one living thing under the rock. You might see a plant root, a trail made by something crawling, a worm or a bug. Whatever you see under that first rock, make a big effort to point it out and ask the child questions about it, such as “Why is it under there?” “What do you think it eats?” “Do you think it would be hard to survive under the rock?”

Following the above procedure should get most children motivated to find another rock and lift it up by themselves. If not, you may need to go through the exercise again with them. You may decide to bring a recycled yogurt tub or some other container with you so that some of the treasures can be collected and sorted. Just make sure that if you collect any living thing, plant or animal, that you treat it respectfully and return it to its original home after you are done observing it. Modeling this is behavior is important!

As mentioned above, living things will spend time under things besides rocks. If you don’t have access to rocks, fallen logs are another favorite spot to find things. Other ideas include checking under bricks, patio pavers, garbage cans or if you are in an urban environment, you can look under a piece of rubbish that looks like it has been on the ground for awhile. If you still can’t find anything to look under, then you can ‘plant’ your own thing to observe. Even a flowerpot on your fire-escape is bound to attract spiders or other insects that need a place to feel secure. I have found that the notion of planting a fallen log or a large rock lends itself particularly well to schoolyard studies. If the teacher arranges with the maintenance staff to place an object outside that remains undisturbed, students can go out and check under it throughout the school year.

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Read a Book Before You Head Outside

A Great Resource

If you are dealing with a child who firmly does not like to spend time outside or if your outside time got thwarted by rainy weather, you may need a plan B. A way to gently get a child interested in life under a rock is to read together the book “Under One Rock Bugs, Slugs, and Other Ughs," by Anthony D. Fredericks and illustrated by Jennifer DiRubbio. This book has a nice, sing-song, repetitive style that children find appealing. It will also set-up for them some ideas about what they can expect to find under a rock.

What Can Be Found Under a Rock?

Of course, it depends where you live, but after having lived in several different locations in the United States, I can tell you that no matter where you live, something will live under a rock. Probably the most ubiquitous thing I have found are isopods, commonly called roly-poly bugs which roll up into a tight ball if disturbed. These are harmless creatures, relatives of crustaceans (yes, as in shrimp and lobster). The tickly sensation they make as they crawl across your hand is not to be missed. Just remind the child that whenever they handle a creature they need to be delicate and gentle with it and that they should release it back to where they picked it up.

Worms are commonly found living under things. Also, you may find some things that look like worms, but remember, if it has legs, it is probably an insect, spider or some other type of arthropod. Providing a little hand lens for magnification of legs and other body parts can enhance the experience for children.

Worms and Other Creepers

You may find something really exciting, like a salamander or a snake. I have found this not to be as common, but it is worth mentioning that it could be a possibility. Don’t let this be a deterrent, as all you need to do if you have some worries about it is go online and read-up about what kind of creatures live in your area. Or, try it first with a naturalist. Most state parks and many counties and cities employ a naturalist who has programs that will cover this very thing.

Salamander I found with middle school aged children under a log.
Salamander I found with middle school aged children under a log.

Filaments and Fungi

Sometimes, you may just see some clues left behind without any actual living thing present. Trails can be left behind when ants, worms or other creepers spend time under a rock. Point these out to the child and ask them to make a guess or “hypothesis’ about what could have left the trail.

Fungi love to spend time in dark, dank places, so it is very likely that you will see some fungus growing under the rock. Often, what you will see are the mycelium. Mycelium are thread-like filaments that sprout out from the original spore of the fungus. These filaments can be brightly colored, or just white or dark brown/black. When fungi are present, it means that decomposition is happening and kids love to talk about things that are rotting. Ask them to name a few things that they have seen rotting, like fruit on the counter. Talk about how rotting is an important part of the creations of soil.

Just Get Out There!

By now, you may realize that the stick isn't necessary for this activity, but you can use it if you want. Children like to get in there with their hands. The five minutes? Well, you probably will need to contribute at least that much inspiration. Lifting rocks and other objects is a great way to pass some time outdoors with a child while also passing along a love of nature and a solid connection with the earth. Don’t delay, find a stick and get out there!


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