Birding is awe-inspiring. It connects us with a sense of place, and gets us outside to explore our neighborhoods and towns. It's also great for travel: One of my favorite things to do when I visit a new place is to go for a walk in the morning to see what species I encounter.
So how do you make this wonderful pastime more engaging for children? I'm the Community Programs Manager at Seattle’s Seward Park Audubon Center, and I often bird with a young crowd in tow through the ancient woods of Washington's Bailey Peninsula. Here are the strategies I use to keep little birders absorbed for hours (or minutes) on end.
How to Bird
Start off by reminding kids that birds are hard to spot, but easy to hear. Have them close their eyes and listen. Can they point to where the song is coming from? I like to teach common mnemonics like the American Robin’s cheery up, cheerio, which can be picked up on almost any bird walk in the United States. Learn some mnemonics for common birdsong here.
Where to Go
You don't need to go far. Birds can be seen on the city street as well as in parks, yards, and nature preserves. It does help if you can stick to areas near water if you can. You’re likely to spy herons, egrets, and swans, which are easier for kids to see. Plus . . . ducklings!
What to Look For
Striking out on live birds? Point out the signs they leave behind such as nests, cracked seeds, whitewash (poop), or owl pellets.
Which Optics to Use
Binoculars can be very hard for young children to learn how to use. Kids also have trouble looking through spotting scopes. Instead, focus on staying still and looking for the movements of birds and other animals. Or, for more fun, make a pair of DIY cardboard binoculars to get your kid into practice.
The best way to get a kid interested in birding? Make it a game! Here are three ways Nicholas Lund (The Birdist) puts the "fun" in "birding fundamentals.
Birding is a game that has a goal: To see as many birds as possible. For some kids, counting up from zero to some arbitrary number—5 different kinds of birds, for example, or 20 birds in one outing—will be enough to stay focused and have fun.
To fire up kids’ powers of observation, make a list of target birds before heading to the yard or park. Use general categories like ducks and hawks or even critters in groups of threes or fours. You could also make a rainbow by finding feathered subjects that cover ROYGBIV.
Let Them Lead
Some kids will do anything to be in charge, and outdoor exploration is a great opportunity to encourage their independence. Let them choose which park, or pull up a map of your area and let them choose which green patch you visit. Once there, let your child choose the trail and lead the way, pointing to objects or areas they want to study as you go.
If your child is advanced enough to use binoculars, teach proper usage by asking kids to read signs at varying distances. Start with the closest and move farther away until they’re okay holding the barrels steady and turning the focus wheel. Once those basics are down, play I Spy to have them re-find smaller objects.
Most children know what a pig and dog sound like—but what about a Red-eyed Vireo? Ask kids to imitate the bird sounds they hear, then use a field-guide app to pull up the IDs and play back clips. The key is to let them voice their own translation of the songs and calls
Freebie Alert! Don't have a field guide app? Download our handy Audubon Bird Guide App to start learning 821 North American species.