Child’s Play

Mark’s granddaughter Claudia playing with worms.

by Mark and Ben Cullen

Nature is waiting for your children.

After a year of entertaining and educating kids from home, adults are wondering how to engage youngsters in activities that have nothing to do with screens and computers.

We believe that there is a world of opportunity to engage kids in an experience with nature. Here are our top nature projects for kids:

  • Bug hotel. 99 per cent of the bugs in your garden are beneficial. We need more of them. No matter what size garden or balcony you have, bug hotels are a great way to open young eyes to the natural world and introduce them to the “kingdom of rot” (our expression). A bug hotel is anything that will rot and attract bugs. Healthy soil, after all, is just organic matter that has rotted down. We recommend that you use straw, corn cobs, pinecones, tree branches, bark, duff material that you will find under any evergreen tree (rotting needles, seeds and cones) and hollow canes from raspberries, bamboo or any plant with hollow stems.

Create a “cage” using wire mesh to hold the materials in place and add solid blocks of wood with 3/8” holes drilled into them about 12 to 15 cm deep, for mason bees to lay their eggs and hatch next year.

Once completed, mount your insect hotel at least two metres off the ground, protected from prevailing north/west wind. And wait. Maybe for a year or two, for earwigs, hoverflies, ladybugs, and sow bugs to find your hotel and make a home there.

  • Worm farm. Kids loves worms. Help them create a home for worms that allows them to view worms doing their work. As they move through the soil consuming organic matter, they leave nitrogen and microbe-rich worm castings (poop) behind. Worms are the foot soldiers of the garden. They never stop working, though they bury deep for winter and do not do much during the depth of cold mid season. They need to be cold so enjoy your worm farm indoors only for a week or so. Then release your worms back onto the soil.

Using a large, transparent pop bottle, cut the top off and drop 3 to 4-centimetre layers of soil and sand into the bottle. Place two or three worms from your garden onto each stratum of soil or sand and tape the top back on. Do not use the screw top as air is needed to keep the worms alive. Add moderate amounts of water, just enough to moisten the soil and sand but not enough to drown the worms.

Enjoy the view using a magnifying glass in the transparent bottle, as your pet worms travel through the various levels of soil and sand.

  • Outdoor Art. All of us are looking for ways to say “Thanks” to front line health workers and first responders during the pandemic. Having the opportunity to paint a flowerpot or wooden sign allows kids to express their creativity and gratitude to frontline workers. In some places, we have seen messages painted on rocks, such as those in the photo, flanking a walkway in the conservation area near Stouffville. Rather than plucking them out of rivers, you can find river rocks at a landscape supplier. Use a paint that is waterproof.
  • Forage a “floral” arrangement. Many perennials in our gardens and weeds in our public meadows produce seed heads that are interesting, especially when combined with red twig dogwood and evergreen boughs. Look around your neighbourhood and if you see something interesting that you can use to create a palette of wildness in a pot of soil, be sure to ask permission from the owner. Use your imagination and consider a display at your front door or your condo balcony.

Mother Nature has created a world of wonder for us. Indulge your child’s imagination and your own as we celebrate it.

Mark Cullen is an expert gardener, author, broadcaster, tree advocate and Member of the Order of Canada. His son Ben is a fourth-generation urban gardener and graduate of University of Guelph and Dalhousie University in Halifax. Follow them at, @markcullengardening, and on Facebook.