The following was written for the Children and Nature Network Blog:

SCHOOLYARD BIOBLITZES: Connecting Kids with Nature in their Everyday Lives

Picture this: five preschool students, ten minutes, one crack in the pavement, six species and tons of enthusiasm.

On this particular April day, the preschoolers at Hopkins Preschool in Berkeley, CA are pausing (perhaps for the first time) to notice the living things they run over and past each day. Led by UC Berkeley students, the preschoolers are engaged in a schoolyard BioBlitz, a biodiversity study of all of the living plants and animals in a given place at a given time.

Armed with a few plastic cups and magnifying glasses, the UC students and preschoolers head out onto the school grounds. One group, led by UC student Paola Flores, pauses for ten minutes over a crack in the asphalt, where the students discover six different species. They touch and examine three types of plants growing there, noticing that some leaves are round, while others are pointed and that one plant has little white flowers growing on it. They pull the plants back and find little insects, which they pick up and examine under their magnifying glasses.

One of the true joys of going outside with children is their unabashed sense of wonder and contagious excitement over discovering something new.

The children then head to the border of the playground, where Paola encourages them to lift up rocks and vines growing on the fence. One little girl immediately plunges her hands into the dirt and, to her classmates’ awe, pulls out a fat, slimy earthworm. Another little girl dressed in a white party dress then asks Paola to find a worm for her. Paola explains that, to find a worm, she has to be willing to get her hands dirty. She protests a bit at first.

But after a few minutes of watching her classmates lift up rocks and dig in the dirt to find all sorts of critters, she hesitantly touches one of the worms with two fingers, then holds it. Within minutes, she is digging in the dirt to find her own treasures. And soon there are several worms in her cup. As they all dig together, another child exclaims that this is what John Muir did, making a connection to a book their teacher had recently read them.

Schoolyard BioBlitzes are a phenomenal way to connect children to nature, allowing them to observe the natural world in a place where they spend time every day. All they need to do is head out to the yard and observe as many living things as they can.

For children as young as preschoolers, that can be as simple as looking at the different plants and insects, holding them in their hands and describing what they notice. For older children, they can use the app iNaturalist to create a species list for their schoolyard. Other activities can help get them excited and engaged with the plants and animals around them, such as the BioBlitz Dance.

University students make excellent ambassadors for this type of learning. In one Climate Change Action Course we lead in partnership with Save the Redwoods League at UC Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources, UC students are trained on how to lead a BioBlitz. As part of their training, they head out to the local schools to lead these experiences for youth. With multiple visits, the college students can support the youth to turn their learning into action. For example, a group of students might help school leaders design a strategy to support biodiversity on school grounds and then track the outcome of any strategies that were implemented by documenting the biodiversity in the schoolyard over multiple years.

There’s a growing community (or citizen) science movement in this country. During the last 10 years, the National Geographic Society and National Park Service have been partnering to lead a BioBlitz in a different National Park each year leading up to this year’s centennial of the National Park Service. This year, there are over 250 BioBlitzes happening around the country, mostly in the month of May, in celebration of the 100th birthday of what Wallace Stegner termed “America’s Best Idea.” BioBlitzes can run as long as 24 hours, but schoolyard BioBlitzes are a great way to introduce students to observing nature in a few short hours. Or, in the case of preschoolers, one hour.

To learn more about BioBlitzes near you or for resources on leading your own BioBlitz, visit the BioBlitz sites for the National Geographic SocietyNational Park Service and California Academy of Sciences. If you’re in California, visit our California BioBlitz site.