Mushrooms are nature's unsung caretakers and are immensely important to the ecosystem of our planet. Mushrooms and fungi are super recyclers, breaking down waste and returning it to the earth. Plants rely on fungi to provide valuable nutrients to the soil that can be taken up by their roots. Many animals rely partially or fully on fungi as a food source. And, the extensive network of mycelium (the part of the mushroom that grows beneath the soil) serves as a communication web, helping many species of trees and plants to pass messages to one another critical to survival.
Mushrooms also come in a variety of beautiful shapes, colors and sizes and once you start looking for them, it’s hard not to get hooked! Introducing kids to the wonderful world of mushrooms is a super way to support focus skills and add a sense of purpose and adventure to your family hikes. Not all mushrooms are safe for consumption though, so it’s important to follow a few simple guidelines to make the whole family feel confident during a mushroom hunt. In this activity, we share a few tips for heading out on a family mushroom hunt.
Learn about mushrooms: Look through photos of mushroom varieties in an app likeinaturalist. You can search for mushrooms by area to see photos of fungi that grow near you. We also recommend the film Fantastic Fungi for your next family movie night! Shorter clips of the movie can also be found online for viewing with kids with or without sound.
Head out for a mushroom hunt! Head outside with a magnifying glass to search for mushrooms growing in your yard, park or neighborhood. Bring a camera to document what you find. Or, invite kids to bring a notebook and writing utensils to draw what they see. Notice the different shapes and colors of the mushrooms you discover. Look closely at the top and underside (where the gills are). If mushrooms are abundant in your area, challenge kids to find one of each color of the rainbow! Here are some additional tips to make your mushroom hunt a success for the whole family:
Look, don’t touch! Before you head out for your hunt, let kids know that some mushrooms have chemicals that are not safe for humans, so when we find a mushroom, we’ll leave it where it is growing. (Note: Though some mushrooms contain toxins harmful if ingested, touching them is not harmful. Still, to be extra safe, it’s best not to encourage kids to pick wild mushrooms). You can also let kids know that the mushrooms have an important job in making healthy soil and helping plants and animals grow, so we’ll leave them where we found them so they can continue to do their important work.
Where to look: Mushrooms grow throughout the year but the fall is one of the best times to find them. They are especially abundant after rain. Mushrooms grow almost anywhere including the forest floor, under leaf debris, on banks of a slope, on fallen logs, inside the hollows of standing trees, and along the trunks of trees, both near the ground and high on the trunks. Mushrooms can also have a distinct smell. Once kids have had the chance to discover a few mushrooms using their sense of sight, challenge them to use their noses to sniff out hidden mushrooms.
Wash hands when done: When your mushroom hunt is finished, help kids wash hands in case a bit of exploring with hands took place.
Make your own mushrooms: If you took photos to document their hunt, take a moment to look through them together and notice the colors and shapes of the different parts of each mushroom. Offer kids art materials to draw their own mushrooms. Kids can also use forest putty and nature treasures to create mushroom shapes. If you have store-bought mushrooms at home, offer kids a few to use as stamps with mud or paint.
Why is this activity great for kids?
Introducing kids to the amazing world of fungi is a super way to introduce kids to the idea that the natural world is interconnected and that all living things play an important role on our planet. As kids turn their eyes to the ground and search in, on and under objects, they also develop their focus skills and practice patience.
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Curiosity means the ability and habit to apply a sense of wonder and a desire to learn more. Curious people try new things, ask questions, search for answers, relish new information, and make connections, all while actively experiencing and making sense of the world. To us, curiosity is a child’s ticket to engaging fully in learning and, ultimately, in life.
Why does it matter?
As a parent, this skill is, perhaps, the easiest to grasp and has the clearest connection to a young children’s learning. We all want my children to wonder, explore and drive their own learning and, better yet, to experience the world fully. Most teachers would agree that the curious children so often seem more attentive, involved and naturally get the most out of time in school. Even the research suggests that being curious is a driver of higher performance throughout one's life, as much if not more than IQ or test scores.
Focus & Self Control
What is Focus and Self Control?
We think of self control as a child’s ability to focus on something in such a way that maximizes learning. In order to do that, they first need to direct their attention and focus on a single thing. They also need to discern which information around them is most important and deserving of their attention. Thirdly, they need something called “inhibition.” Think of inhibition as the ability to control impulses, block out distractions and continue attending to the same thing. Focus, discerning and inhibition all require rather fancy brain work and are thought to be part of the “executive functions” or the set of cognitive processes involving the prefrontal cortex that help us manage ourselves and the environment to achieve a goal.
Why does it matter?
Our world is full of distractions, more today than ever. Kids who are in any learning situation need the ability to control their impulses, block out noise and attend to the person, objects, events, or discussions that are central to learning. As classroom teachers, we saw that kids who did this ruled the classroom. As outdoor educators and parents, we know the same holds true outside of school.
But don’t take our word for it; the research is impressive. It turns out that these executive function skills are closely tied to success in the classroom, higher level education and life beyond school. Experts like Adele Diamond of the University of British Columbia have shown that, “If you look at what predicts how well children will do later in school, more and more evidence is showing that executive functions—working memory and inhibition—actually predict success better than IQ tests.” Although these skills are difficult for young children and don’t crystallize until adulthood, the more kids practice them, the better at them kids become.
What is a Naturalist?
The oldest and simplest definition, “student of plants and animals,” dates back to 1600. The term has evolved over time, it's importance changing as the values of dominant culture have changed. 400 years after that old definition, Howard Gardner, the paradigm-shifting education theorist, added “naturalist” to his list of “multiple intelligences.” Gardner challenged the notion that intelligence is a single entity that results from a single capability. Instead, he recognizes eight types of intelligence, all of which enable individuals to think, solve problems or to create things of value. To Gardner, the Naturalist intelligence enables human beings to recognize, categorize and draw upon certain features of the environment.
A true naturalist has not simply Googled and learned the names of plants, animals, rocks, etc. Rather, he or she has had direct experience with them, coming to know about them and using all senses to develop this intelligence. A naturalist also has a reverence for nature, valuing and caring for living things from the smallest mite to the tallest tree. A naturalist comes to not only knowing the creatures and features of his or her environment, but treasuring them in thought and action.
Why does it matter?
In the process of becoming a naturalist, children become stewards of nature, a connection that is associated with a range of benefits, including greater emotional well-being, physical health and sensory development (not to mention the benefits to nature itself!). In a world in which primary experience of nature is being replaced by the limited, directed stimulation of electronic media, kids senses are being dulled and many believe their depth of both their interest in and capacity to understand complicated phenomena are being eroded. To contrast, the naturalist learns about the key features of their natural environment by using all of his senses and be interpreting open-ended and ever-changing stimuli.