If you’re blessed with wildlife-mad youngsters but you just can’t quite manage to conjure up that flight to Africa before bed time, then don’t despair. Admittedly, while there’s nothing quite like watching animals grazing on the Serengeti, you actually don’t have to go very far to encounter some pretty bizarre and amazing living things. A few steps away from your own kitchen door will usually do very nicely – and you can still be back in time for tea!
Mounting a back garden safari can be a real voyage of discovery for everyone concerned, not least because you can never be entirely sure what you’re going to encounter, even within the confines of your own patch of ground. You can probably all guess some of the likely characters – slugs, snails and spiders are probably a fair bet – but you never know when you’ll come across something a little unexpected, such as a newt hiding under a stone, or a nest of baby hedgehogs in the bushes.
Planning Your Safari
It’s often quite a good idea to give some thought as to where to look a little while before you go on safari. If you have a wildlife area as such, that’s obviously a good place to start, but don’t neglect the rest of the garden; a surprising mix of animals will probably be found here too. Identifying likely looking hiding places under rocks and branches, for instance – and possibly having a quick peek to see if anything’s at home to avoid disappointment – should keep the ball rolling on the day and keep everyone’s interest. If you do have a check beforehand, try to avoid too much disturbance and put rocks back as you found them, to make sure whatever is hiding there doesn’t decide to move on.
You probably won’t need much in the way of equipment – unless you and your kids are particularly confident, it’s probably best not to try to actually catch anything, settling instead for having a good look at anything you do find. Keeping handling to a minimum will reduce the chances of harming any of the creatures you do come across, as well as avoiding any unpleasant experiences with bites and stings. A set of cheap magnifying glasses might be useful, as well as a few nets and jam jars if you intend to do a little pond dipping, but otherwise than that, all you really need is a good guide to the sorts of mini-beasts that you’re most likely to meet.
The majority of the animals you’ll see on your safari will be invertebrates – animals without backbones, such as insects, spiders and snails. Identifying them precisely is a study in itself, but for the most part, kids will be happy knowing what general sort of creature they’ve found – that it’s a kind of bee, or a species of centipede, for instance – and most of us are broadly OK with that level of general biology! If you – or they – want to go further, then it’s probably time to invest in a suitable guide and there are plenty to choose from, so there should be something to suit. What you pick largely comes down to personal taste, of course, but it’s definitely worth looking at a few to see which you all find easiest to use – and don’t forget that good illustrations and an idea of size are an unbeatable help when it comes to identifying creepy-crawlies.
Depending on your children’s interest and what you hope to achieve from your back garden safari, there are plenty of opportunities to make this into an educational experience too. You could, for instance, use it as a chance to teach them some general rules for telling the main kinds of invertebrates apart. It doesn’t have to be anything overly complicated, and even the youngest child can soon begin to tell the groups apart very successfully. Most people can manage worms, slugs and snails, but for the rest of the bugs with legs, all you need is something like:
- Six legs, three bits to it body, often with wings – INSECT
- Fast-moving, with lots of legs and lots of segments – CENTIPEDE
- Slow-moving, with lots of legs and lots of segments – MILLIPEDE
- Eight legs, two bits to its body, never with wings – SPIDER
Taking your kids on a back garden safari is a great opportunity to explore an area that you’re all very familiar with in an entirely different way and it can be a very enlightening experience. An amazing variety of different kinds of creatures can be found in even the smallest city garden, and once you show your kids where to look, they’ll soon come to realise that each square metre of ground is teeming with life. They’ll be invertebrate experts in no time!