Local Science and Nature Projects For Wintertime Blues

Right about this time of year, my imagination slows to the metabolic pace of a sloth, and I run out of ideas  and motivation to keep us actively learning at home. For my son and I, exploring outdoors is the ultimate weekend fun – but only if we don’t have to lug around coats and hats (as we are equally likely to lose them). Luckily, New Orleans winters don’t last long, and there’s a plethora of activities and fascinating institutions that can help parents who want to keep the excitement of science and nature alive during the cold season. Here are some cheap and easy projects we’ve had success with at home, as well as some local places that are fun for both you and your kids to visit on cold or rainy days.

Kitchen Counter Science

Growing papaya trees from seed
Growing papaya trees from seed

There are a number of items in the produce section of any grocery store that you can use and then grow a second crop of your own from the scraps. Some examples are green onions, pineapples,  garlic, celery, potatoes, avocados, lemons and peaches. The length of time for each of these is different, so if you’re on the OCD side of kitchen cleanliness and organization, choose things that will take shape quickly such as a carrot or scallions. If not and you’re in it for lessons on a full life cycle, try for an avocado or lemon tree you can plant in the ground next fall (or keep it indoors in a sunny spot for a few years to watch it grow). Some items can grow in only water and others will need a small pot of soil, and all with different light requirements.

Backyard Nature

A small compost bin with worms is another easy learning project for small kids. Worms eat their weight daily, and if you have the right proportions of high carbon (dry leaves, newspaper, cardboard) materials and high nitrogen (fruit and vegetable scraps) materials, the worm bin will not smell – and has the added benefit of giving you compost that makes everything grow better and serves as insulation for plant life over winter. It’s a great way to teach kids about reusing items like cardboard and paper, reducing household waste, how to create soil (something we could use a whole lot more of in Southeast Louisiana), how important worms and other beneficial insects are in our ecosystem, and (if you have older kids) you can even talk serious biology and chemistry.

Around Town

Cockroach the size of your head!
Cockroach the size of your head!

When you are itching to get out of the house but temperatures are too low for a park, there are countless places to go that don’t cost much money and can be interesting for both you and them. My favorite is the Audubon Insectarium, where there are bugs to pet, bugs to eat and bugs to disgust. The local exhibits of the types of termites, spiders, and pollinators give your kids a new view of where they live. Also, the butterfly room is heated if you’re just plain over winter.

Other ideas for learning on the town when school isn’t in session and there’s no reason to hang out in the cold (i.e. parades) are free educational workshops put on by local nonprofits interested in fostering a sense of community. They can encompass everything from appropriate technology to all ages yoga to black and white photography. Check out a few of the calendars for these local organizations with under the radar, free (or next to free) offerings for aspiring scientists and naturalists:

Temperate Adventures in New Orleans and Beyond

Boat tours, local artists exhibits, and weekly ranger tours through wetlands are available at our hyper- local National Park, the Jean Lafitte Barataria Preserve. Just over the centennial anniversary, Barataria Preserve offers free classes throughout the year for kids and adults on a wide variety of topics. Calendar available HERE.

New Orleans families' Christmas trees take part in Army Corps of Engineer pilot program to save the coast.
New Orleans families’ Christmas trees take part in Army Corps of Engineer pilot program to save the coast.

Taking a road trip through nearby US Fish and Wildlife Refuges is never a bad idea on an otherwise dreary day.  You can drive through Bayou Sauvage, check out the Christmas tree project where disposed Christmas trees are helping to contain soil erosion and provide habitat for at-risk species, or you and your family can take it one step further and sign up to volunteer for a grass planting in the marshes.

Canoe and kayaking trips are available throughout the year in some of our most historic and geographically important waterways. Check out Kayak-iti-Yat to go on a guided group paddle through Bayou Bienvenue near the Industrial Canal or go out on Bayou Saint John with the New Orleans Recreation Department. Times and reservations are available on their website.

Please share your local, family favorite science and nature adventures!


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