Ponds are fascinating places for most kids, but for any wildlife-mad youngsters they’re an unbeatable Aladdin’s cave just waiting to be discovered. There’s not much to beat sweeping a net gently through the water and then tipping the contents carefully into a jar to see what you’ve caught – but this peaceful pastime is, as every parent knows, not without its potential risks. For all its fascination, the waterside can be a dangerous place for kids – and it’s not just lakes and big ponds that pose a problem; a shocking third of all pre-school accidental deaths around the home are caused by drowning, and a significant number of these happen in small garden ponds.
Pond dipping is great fun and done properly, there’s no reason why anyone should come to any harm; it just takes a bit of organisation and the usual brand of ever-vigilant, eyes-in-the-back-of-your-head approach that is essential for all attempts at supervising small, eager children!
A few basic safety rules are pretty much all that’s required to keep everyone safe and they certainly shouldn’t cramp any budding naturalist’s style.
- Be careful around the edges – so no running, pushing or general fooling around.
- Keep out of the water.
- Don’t put anything from the pond, or that’s been dipped into the pond into your mouth – or anyone else’s for that matter!
- Look, but don’t touch – some kinds of pond-life can give a bit of a nasty nip.
The Right Equipment
One of the great joys of pond dipping is that you don’t really need vast amounts of equipment to get started, but having just a few bits of the right kit can help make the whole experience safer and more enjoyable for all concerned:
An obvious essential, but try to ensure that you have one for every child, to avoid any squabbles which may lead to waterside mishaps. Pick ones that have strong frames and reasonably long handles, but nothing too heavy or unwieldy if there are young children involved. Pet shops and pond suppliers usually have a good selection available for the fish-keeping market and although they’re a bit more expensive than the typical seaside shrimping net, they should last longer. Avoid anything with very small holes, or the kids will end up collecting loads of mud and probably not much else!
Magnifying glasses and pots
Some of the beasts you’re likely to catch benefit from being seen larger than life and it’ll give the kids an opportunity to really get an idea what they look like. Buy some cheap hand lenses, or those transparent pots with magnifying tops and you’ll open up a whole new world.
Pots and trays
White margarine tubs make great temporary containers to view your catch and most creatures will stand out against the light background.
Using spoons to transfer creatures from net to pot, and from pot back to pond, helps avoid the need for handling them and gets round any potential bites, or indeed, damage to the animals themselves.
Dipping itself is simple – just sweep the nets slowly through the water, trying to avoid stirring up the bottom too much. Going over the same area a few times can often be a good approach, because it tends to catch things which have been disturbed as they try to make their get-away.
The next step is to transfer the animals caught to a pot or container that’s been filled with pond water, for identification, and for this part of the procedure, a good guide is indispensable – even if you’re an expert on pond-life yourself – to allow the children to identify their catch. There are many good books available on the subject, and many wildlife trusts and organisations offer excellent identification guides, so it shouldn’t be difficult to get something that’s appropriate for your own youngsters. It’s often a good idea, particularly if they’re pond-dipping novices, to get a guide that has actual pictures or at least very clear illustrations, ideally with an idea of size too. They’ll soon get very good at recognising most of the things they encounter most commonly, but until then, a lot of things do look a bit similar, so a clear picture can help a lot.
Ponds are incredibly rich – in educational opportunities as much as in living things. Home to examples of most of the world’s main animal groups, there’s probably no better place to learn about the interaction of species that forms the basis of ecology – and for any eco-friendly kid having that experience on your doorstep has got to be a good thing.