Explore the yellows, reds and oranges of autumn with a fun-filled scavenger hunt.
An outing into the natural world can give the whole family exercise, fresh air and an opportunity to explore and connect with nature. If you’re looking for a bit of structure for your day’s exploration, a fun way is to organize a colour scavenger hunt for the kids on one of the many forest trails in our provincial parks. This type of hike works at any time of year, but perhaps is best in the fall when nature emerges from a green cloak and adds a multitude of yellows, oranges and reds to her palette.
Paint chips handy
Gather up some of those paint chip strips the hardware store gives out. You can pick any set of colours you want, but to keep the game moving you are going to want to have a good selection of greens and earth tones as well as those yellows and reds. Assign certain colours to each child, which they have to match along the trail you are walking. Older children can get a more challenging selection – shades of blue are often tricky.
Any kind of selection process can work. Find all the shades on one strip, or just one shade on five different strips, or if you are very energetic, you can cut them up and create a bingo card of all different colours. You can run this as a cooperative or competitive game. How strict you want to be on shade matching is up to you. I am usually pretty rigorous in looking for good matches of shades of greens, yellows and reds – you will be amazed at what the kids can come up with!
Sources of colour
The goal, of course, is not just to find colours, but also to get kids to look closely at nature. On a forest trail in autumn, there are plenty of things to discover and discuss, such as colourful insects and berries (blue ones on the dogwoods). But the most obvious source of colour are the leaves.
When your kids find yellow leaves that match the colour on their paint chip strips, you can discuss with them why leaves turn yellow or red. Explain that the shorter days cause the tree to stop food production in the leaves. As a result, the chlorophyll (green food-producing chemical) in the leaf dies and the other materials in the leaf now have a chance to show their true colours. A family of chemicals found in many plants are the carotenoids, which are yellow and orange, thus we get yellow leaves. If the tree spe- cies has a lot of sugar, such as Maple, the sugar gets converted into anthocyanins first, which are red. Even these chemicals eventually break down and the fallen leaves slowly turn brown.
If there has been a little bit of rain, the forest trail can give you reds and yellows from a different source. Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of fungi that spend most of their time as almost microscopic threads running through the soil and in dead wood. Fungi are the most efficient organisms at breaking down dead wood. Without them, the woody debris would pile up, locking up nutrients required for other plants to grow. When conditions are right (usually high moisture), the fungal threads grow into above-ground fruiting bodies of fantastic shapes and colours.
Choose new names
After the kids have found their colours and investigated the organism, it is time for them to give the paint chips new names, ones that reflects the organisms they have discovered. Thus, “Sunshine” becomes “Autumn Poplar Leaf” and “Flaming Sunset” becomes “Mushroom Cap Red.”
Of course, there will be many questions about the colour-matched organism that you and your child may not know the answer to when you are in the field. This is no reason to limit speculation and discussion about each discovery. Write down your questions, take pictures of the discovery (aren’t digital cameras grand?) and do a little research back home, or come into the park office and talk to a park naturalist (me!). A few minutes on the internet is all it will take to answer some questions like, “Why do leaves change colour”? Other questions may remain mysteries forever. That’s okay. The hunt is always more than half the fun.
Respect the Environment. Everything in a provincial park is protected and should not be picked or removed from the park. If the kids find something that is not growing, they can pick it up and pass it around for people to look at, then put it back. If it is growing, the child can take the rest of the gang over to look at it and leave it in place.
Watch for poison ivy. Poison ivy is common in provincial parks, particularly at the boundary of field and forest. In autumn, it turns a nice burgundy colour, so it might attract the eye of your colour-seeker. Be sure you know what it looks like and identify it for your child before going for a walk. If you think your child may have touched it, wash with soap and water as soon as possible (always a good idea when you come out of the woods anyway). And remember, dogs and footwear can have the poison ivy juices on them, which can be transferred to people. Be aware, wash and keep your family itch-free.