Winter is a great time for children; with snowmen, snow angels and those lovely, crisp, winter walks to look forward to. But winter can also mean a life-and-death struggle for much of our British wildlife, as food sources become scarce and the biting-cold weather kicks in.
Winter is the perfect time to teach children in your setting about seasons, ecosystems and their part in helping conserve our wildlife. Here are some fun and practical things you can do to help our furry, insect and feathered friends survive the winter months.
Feed the birds
Unlike the famous “Mary Poppin’s” song, bird food costs a lot more than ‘tuppence-a-bag’ nowadays, but you can still feed the birds cheaply using dried fruit, nuts, scraps and leftovers. Why not teach children the song to accompany some of the following activities?
- You can buy commercial bird feeders for seeds, but it is also lots of fun to make your own, recycling plastic bottles into the bargain. Cut a hole in the side of a plastic bottle so that the birds can reach the seeds and tie a string round the top to hang them up. The feeders should keep the seeds dry to prevent mould growth, and you can use an old pencil stuck through the bottle as a perch for birds to use. Clean feeders once every fortnight to prevent disease, using a mixture of 2:1 hot water and distilled white vinegar. Make sure you rinse and dry them thoroughly before refilling too!
- Remember that there are many ground feeding birds like blackbirds, thrushes and chaffinches who prefer to feed on the ground so scatter some food around on the floor too, or use a low feeder.
- Children also love to watch birds feeding and you could extend this activity to do a bird-count, keep a diary, or set up a wall-chart showing the birds that you have seen at your feeders.
- Make some homemade fat balls to hang from trees or on a bird table. Find a free recipe here.
Create a bug hotel
Making a bug hotel is a perfect way to introduce the idea of insect hibernation to children. Use pieces of old corrugated cardboard, wood, bricks, leaves, sticks, twigs and fallen branches to create some ideal accommodation for insects, spiders, mini-beasts and bees. You don’t need to build ‘The Ritz’ – just make it as large or small as your facilities allow, but position it in a sheltered area of your garden space if you have one.
Help a hedgehog
Everyone loves hedgehogs but in the last 10 years, the UK hedgehog population has declined by a third and there are estimated to be less than one million left in the UK now. Despite hibernating, hedgehogs need shelter, water and food to survive through the winter. Raising awareness of their plight is important, so consider some of the following activities:
- Create a hedgehog mural or some hand-printed art, since the fingers of little hands can look just like a hedgehog if you add eyes and a cute nose and smile!
- You can make some hedgehog-food ‘cakes’ by mixing together some meat-based dog/cat food with some dried mealworms and crushed up cat biscuits. Leave the food outside to encourage hedgehogs, but only enough for one day’s supply otherwise you could attract other unwanted visitors such as rats. In order to prevent local cats from stealing it, cover the food with a large plastic or strong cardboard box and cut an opening just big enough so that only the hedgehogs can get in.
- Create a hedgehog home using an old, upturned plastic box and some leaves, twigs or fallen branches to camouflage it. Download a free factsheet here for more information on easy-to-build hedgehog homes.
- Read stories based on hedgehogs and then talk about them. Consider “The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle” by Beatrix Potter, “The Hodgeheg” by Dick King Smith or you can find a free, online, educational story about “Harry the Hedgehog” here.
Become a water monitor
During the winter, wildlife needs access to clean, unfrozen water. Despite increased rainfall in the winter, water easily turns to ice in the lower temperatures, making it unavailable for wildlife. Set up a water-monitoring wall-chart and add stickers to the chart each time you check the water-availability or provide some water for wildlife. You could:
- Set up watering stations using shallow bowls or old food containers. Remember to refresh the water once or twice a day to make sure it doesn’t freeze.
- Ponds can become frozen too, which can reduce the oxygen in the water affecting fish or other pond creatures. Melting a small section of the ice each day will help protect the oxygen levels. But be careful – fish can be scared by loud bangs on the top of the ice, so don’t use a stick or a hammer! To melt the ice, pour on a small amount of boiling water from a kettle. Obviously, an adult should do this for safety reasons, but if you have a pond in your setting that contains fish, then the children will love watching the ice melt and you can teach them about the different physical states of water too. The open water will also be valued by other garden visitors such as birds and small mammals.