It's important for kids to develop an understanding that the human and animal worlds are really not two worlds at all, but are one and the same. Many of the most irresponsible things that grownups have done were results of the misperception that our effect on wildlife will not affect the quality of human life. We're all in this together, human and critter alike.
The garden is a great, approachable setting for kids to begin learning about the wildlife that thrives all around us, quite often without us even noticing. It's easy to make space in your garden for wildlife, and once some critters have moved in, the garden will be of much more interest to children. Kids will love building wildlife habitats, feeding the birds and going on bug hunts to see which creatures have taken up residence in the garden.
- Feed the birds. Putting food out for birds is an easy way to encourage more birds into the garden. Over the winter months, and in spring when they're raising a family, birds are grateful for extra food. Putting out different types of food, and in different places, will attract different birds, so it's worth experimenting to see what works best in your garden. Don't forget to put out a dish of water, too, especially when the weather is dry or very cold. If you're not squeamish, then putting out live mealworms in spring will really help out the parents of insect-eating baby birds! You can even make your own bird puddings - see the link below.
- Keep cats under control. Birds won't come into a garden where they're at risk from a cat. If you have a cat that tries to catch birds, consider putting a bell on its collar so that it can't sneak around. If it's a neighbor's cat that comes into your garden, make sure that the bird table is out in the open - so any birds that come in for food can see if the cat is around. A garden with trees or bushes for birds to hide in will be even more popular.
- Attract bees and other insects. Plant flowers to attract bees, butterflies and other useful insects like hoverflies. Simple, open flowers are best for bees as they find it easier to get to the pollen and nectar inside. Try and have a range of flowering plants in the garden, so that there are flowers for as much of the year as possible. Flowering herbs, like lavender, mint and thyme are great for bees and insects, and useful for us, too.
- Grow sunflowers. Kids love growing giant sunflowers, and they're great for wildlife, too. As long as you don't choose a pollen-free type, bees will love the sunflowers through the summer. And once the seeds have formed, you can put the heads out for the birds to feed on, too.
- Make wildlife habitats. You can buy a lot of wildlife habitats for gardens, but it's easy to make some yourself. A pile of logs or twigs in a quiet spot, or a pile of stones, makes a great home for spiders and beetles and other creepy-crawlies. You can make a simple home for lots of insects by pushing hollow stems (or short lengths of bamboo cane, or paper drinking straws) into a container (like an empty can or plastic bottle) that keeps the worst of the weather out. Hang it up, or leave it in a sheltered spot, and lots of insects will take up residence. You might find that some of the holes get filled in with leaves or mud - that's the work of solitary bees making a nest for their babies.
- Put the right food out. Lots of people leave bread and milk out for hedgehogs in their garden, but it's very bad for them. Hedgehogs eat lots of insects and worms, and if you want to feed one, you should put out meaty dog or cat food instead, and a dish of water. If you want to keep your hedgehog and birds healthy, don't use slug pellets or other pesticides in the garden - they can kill the animals that eat the pests.
- Be careful with bonfires. Hedgehogs, frogs and toads might make their winter home in piles of dead leaves and old twigs in the garden. When you make a bonfire, make sure you sort through all the material before you burn it, to make sure there are no animals at risk. Frogs and toads like damp places - you may still have them in your garden, even if you don't have a pond.
- Add a sloping edge to ponds. Ponds bring a lot of wildlife into the garden because of the water, but they can be dangerous places for animals. Make sure that there is a sloping edge, or some way for animals that fall in to get out of the water so that they don't drown.
- Keep a wildlife diary. If you keep a wildlife diary, then you'll have somewhere to note down which animals you've found, and where. You can take pictures, or keep drawings, as a record of the wildlife in the garden. How does it change through the year? Does changing the habitats you have in the garden, or the food you put out, change the wildlife that comes into your garden?
A lot of the wildlife that lives in gardens is small - insects and beetles and creepy crawlies. But these small animals are important - they provide food for the larger animals and birds that we like to see. Keep the bugs happy, and you'll get more visible wildlife in your garden.
Emma Cooper produces a weekly podcast (internet radio show) called The Alternative Kitchen Garden. You can read regular updates on her garden on her blog.