Pond and Stream Science for Kids
September 14, 2015

by Kim Foley MacKinnon 

You don’t have to live near a teeming ocean, a sprawling lake, or even a rushing river to help kids get their feet wet when it comes to aquatic science. From measuring water velocity to perusing paramecia, there’s plenty to investigate in ponds and streams near you. 

For its hands-on-learning series A Mountain Classroom, which runs throughout the school year for students in grades 5 through 10 at various AMC backcountry destinations, the Appalachian Mountain Club relies on a small pond next to Cardigan Lodge, in New Hampshire. 

“I find that water studies are a fantastic way to ignite the spark that gets a lot of students interested in their surroundings,” says Lisa Gilbert, coordinator of A Mountain Classroom for AMC’s Cardigan Lodge and Highland Center. “Plus, it’s pure and simple fun!”

Don’t have a trip to the White Mountains scheduled? You and your kids can benefit from the same tools and strategies AMC educators use. Follow Gilbert’s great advice on how you can adapt these activities close to home. 

When kids use a hand lens or a magnifying glass to get an up-close look at water samples, they’ll see their favorite swimming hole in a whole new light. For starters, you’ll need a small net. The kind you can get at the pet store for transferring fish from one home to another is perfect. You’ll also need a clear plastic bucket or another type of large, clear container; an eye dropper or a turkey baster; and ice cube trays. 

Have kids get their nets down into the mucky leaf matter and detritus at the edge of a pond or stream and scoop some of it into their nets. Kids can dump the contents of their nets into the clear container, which should be filled with water from the pond. Let everything settle for a minute and then watch what happens. 

You should see lots of young insects and other macroinvertebrates moving around, including dragonfly, stonefly, and mayfly nymphs; crane fly and mosquito larvae; and predacious diving beetles. Using an eye dropper or a turkey baster to catch them, transfer each critter into its own section of the ice cube tray (also filled with water) so kids can get a better look. When you’re done, make sure to release the creatures gently back into the water. The easiest way is to slowly submerge the container then turn it over and remove it. For more info on indentifying pond insects, check out the Stroud Water Research Center. 

Physical tests can be a fun way to tie in basic math and measuring skills. For starters, kids can determine water velocity by measuring a specific length of stream then floating a tangerine or an apple down the same stretch and timing how long it takes to move from point A to point B. Kids can also use a tape measure to check a stream’s width or a yardstick to measure depth. Junior scientists eager to go to greater depths can weight one end of a string and sink it to the bottom. Mark where the surface hits the string before pulling it back up and using a tape measure to find the depth. 

Who knows? By plunging in early, kids may discover a future career—or at least some cool bugs. Have fun!

Find more ways to introduce kids to citizen science in the AMC Outdoors archives.


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On rainy days, chunky colored sidewalk chalk and bathtub crayons take on new dimensions outdoors, and can be fun even for older kids. Try creating watercolors on the sidewalk, or body art with the crayons, and have fun getting wet.

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