Life Times Newsletter

Summer 2005
Vol. 7, No. 3

A summer adventure: Building wildlife habitats with your children

One of my favorite Mother’s Day presents was observing five of my grandchildren as they watched a large wild turkey peck at seed beneath a bird feeder in our yard. Even in their excitement, these little ones (aged 2 -7) were careful not to frighten the majestic bird away. A lot of learning took place before they skipped away to become Princess Belle, Spiderman and other magical creatures.

While not everyone lives in habitats of turkey, deer and coyote, any outdoor space offers the potential for wildlife wonder. Bees, butterflies, frogs, dragonflies, lizards, birds and spiders occupy all but the most urbane setting. And even here, many species thrive. But large numbers of today’s kids tend to be relatively unaware of the natural wonders that surround them.

Life in 2005 has moved indoors for a whole lot of reasons. Safety has become a far greater issue than when many of us were free to roam neighborhoods at will. Children now have scheduled baseball and soccer practice, music, art and dance lessons. Playtime for kids between the ages of 3-12 has actually decreased by 7 hours per week from 1981-1997 (Hofferth & Sandberg). Children no longer have time to explore, experiment and develop their own creative hypotheses about nature and the natural.

If you wish to help your children tune into the joys of the outdoors in a safe environment, there is much you can do, regardless of the size of your backyard, patio or deck. Start with a planning process that includes the kids. You can encourage math skills by drawing plans and deciding dimensions. Talk about the height of plants and whether they will look right in a certain location as they grow.

Decide what types of creatures you wish to attract: butterflies, humming birds, song or migrating birds, small mammals, large mammals, ducks, turkey, etc.

Look up plants that are likely to draw intended “wildlife” to your yard. Native species are usually your best bet as they are generally more adapted to the area, tend to be disease-resistant, and are more familiar to native birds and animals.

Consider plants that will offer both shelter and food even during winter months, such as mountain ash, highbush cranberries, hawthorns, crabapples, sweet gum and native sumacs. Evergreens, such as spruce, cedar and pine, offer warm housing for birds that stick around during cold weather.

Summer plants that are welcoming and provide food include sunflowers, black-eyed susans, honeysuckle, phlox and zinnias. Butterflies love butterfly weed, butterfly bush, lantana, and purple coneflowers. Hummingbirds are attracted to bee balm, pineapple sage, wild columbine, and cardinal flowers.

Don’t forget water. Your children will love watching birds shake the dust off their wings and take a little dip in the birdie pool outside their window. If you get as inundated as we are, you will add a thermostatically controlled birdbath heater for winter months when water becomes critical for non-migrating birds. There are also battery-operated mechanisms that deter mosquitoes by keeping the water moving in either elevated “baths” or those on the ground for mammals.

Let your children help design, plant and set up your wildlife environment. Then get ready for year-round pleasure and entertainment shared by the entire family. Next, pat yourself on the back. You have made a conscious decision to improve the world we all live in.

Reference: Hofferth, S.L., & Sandberg, J.F. “Changes in American Children’s Time, 1981-1997.” In Strum, R., Childhood Obesity—What We Can Learn From Existing Data on Societal Trends, vol. 2,
no. 1, January 2005.

Rosilee Trotta, LCSW
Urban Youth & Family Specialist

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University of Missouri Extension Editor: Roxanne T. Miller