In 2007, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a report stating that the lack of free, outdoor play posed threats to the physical and psychological well-being of kids, spurring a movement toward getting kids outside, active and involved with nature. Collecting and identifying plants is a safe backyard activity that fosters a lifetime of connection with and appreciation of the natural world.
In his groundbreaking book "Last Child in the Woods," Richard Louv compiled research suggesting myriad physical, emotional and cognitive benefits to connecting with nature through outdoor play. For example, children who are exposed to nature have better-developed senses and attend to details. Learning about plants, how they relate to each other and connect to the natural world helps children to develop important cognitive skills that will serve them throughout life. Stopping to smell the roses, literally, by focusing on plant life and nature rather than school, family and extracurricular pressures provides kids with a much-needed mental time-out.
Plants grow throughout the world and through all seasons, so no matter what your location or the time of year, your kids can find plants to identify and learn about. Safety is naturally a priority, but even your backyard likely presents dozens of species for kids to find, collect and identify. State and national parks provide further resources. Many offer interpretive trails suitable for all ages and ability levels with displays or guides that explain the natural history of the region.
Getting started as a backyard naturalist is easy and inexpensive. Naturalist Jim Conrad recommends field guides as the most useful tool when learning to identify plants. Field guides have color illustrations, descriptions and further information on plant species and can usually be borrowed from the public library. The pictures make field guides easy to use, even for kids with developing reading skills. For older children, the Internet is also a valuable tool, with hobbyist naturalists, universities and conservation organizations maintaining a wealth of information to help with identifying and learning more about hard-to-find plant species.
A basic understanding of how plants are classified will help you get your kids on the right track to identifying them. All plants belong to the plant kingdom and are set apart from other species because they produce food from sunlight. Within the plant kingdom, there are four major divisions of plants: mosses, ferns, gymnosperms--which include pine and palm trees--and flowering plants. Each major division represents significant evolutionary advancement for plants. Within these broad classifications, plants are further divided into increasingly narrow categories, or taxa. Plants that share more taxa in common with each other are more closely related.
Identifying plants goes beyond simply assigning it with a name and posting a picture in a scrapbook. Each species is distinct and possesses its own adaptations that allow it to survive in your particular area. Each species also interacts with the other species--other plants and other kingdoms, like animals--around it. Help your children to see how what makes a particular plant distinct also makes it well-suited for the kind of life it lives. For example, collecting and identifying autumn leaves helps kids to understand how deciduous versus evergreen trees survive cold winters.