Insects fascinate some kids – while other children are squeamish about any creepy crawly critter.
If you are a parent or caregiver who cringes at the sight of anything with more than four legs, you may unintentionally send your child signals that insects are something to fear. Instead, why not foster their love of nature, and let them explore bugs to their heart’s content in the backyard?
Your kids can learn about insects’ lives with some simple tools and a bit of time.
Through exploration and observation, even the most timid child may realize that insects aren’t something to run from. Since insects are so easy to locate and capture, they are a great way to introduce kids to nature.
Insects are one of the easiest animals a kid can explore up close – so insects can introduce kids to the ways animals live.
Grade school age kids usually possess the dexterity to capture insects. Younger children love to get an up-close look at insects; however, they need someone to capture the bugs for them.
What is an Insect?
An insect has three body parts and six legs. When you are looking at an insect, you are looking at its exoskeleton, as its skeleton is on the outside of the body. They have a head, which has eyes, mouthparts, and antennae. Insects use their antennae to feel their way around, communicate, and even smell or taste … it depends on the type of insect.
The middle body part is the thorax (chest area); the six legs and two-to-four wings are attached to the thorax. The largest body part is the abdomen. It may surprise kids to learn that insects don’t have lungs. Instead, they have openings that go from the outside of the body to within the abdomen by way of tubes. If you watch a perching insect’s abdomen you can see that body part move in and out as the insect moves air in and out of its body.
Some insects, like butterflies, go through a four-part life cycle: eggs, larva (caterpillar, in the case of a butterfly), pupa (chrysalis in the life of a butterfly), and adult. Other insects, like dragonflies and grasshoppers, hatch out of an egg looking like a tiny adult. These insects gradually shed their exoskeleton as they grow larger and larger exoskeletons until they reach their full adult size.
Tools for Insect Exploration
You can give your kids tools for collecting and observing insects without spending a lot of money. You can find insect collecting kits that don’t cost a lot of money online and at toy stores.
Your kids will want a magnifying glass to get a better view of the insects. Show them how to hold the magnifying glass close to the object they want to enlarge as opposed to close to their eyes.
A bug box holds small insects and usually comes with a magnifying top; a bug jar is larger. If your child has the opportunity to catch large insects (grasshoppers, dragonflies, butterflies), go with the bug jar. This will result in less damage to delicate legs and wings. Enthusiastic collectors may want a small plastic animal tank that allows for longer observation times.
Kids often put a handful of grass in with an insect as food, but that may not be what the insect eats. Remind kids that insects eat specific types of food, be it other insects, specific green plants, decaying plants, etc. Observe insects in a bug jar or tank for a couple of hours in order to learn about insects and then release the animal.
Most insect kits for kids contain a short-handled net. If you are looking at an individual net, know that we call the shorter nets “sweep nets,” used for sweeping over long grass for clinging insects. Longer nets work well for capturing flying insects because when the insect flies to the base of the net the child can grasp the excess fabric above the insect, so it doesn’t escape.
A white piece of cloth is an unusual tool that insect catchers can lay beneath flowers, tall grass, or shrubs. Shake the plant and watch any clinging insects drop to the white cloth, where they will be easier to see and capture. A simple field guide about insects geared to kids will help kids identify the types of animals they are capturing.
Kids Can Learn about Insects by Capturing Them
When kids go out looking for insects, they can look in a variety of locations. They can look on plants, or they can dig a few inches into the soil for burrowed insects. Kids can also roll small logs and lift rocks, always standing behind the object and pulling the item toward them so any flying insects escape away from the child’s face.
Bug boxes, jars, and tanks can hold insects for short periods of time so kids can observe the body parts and watch the insect move. For larger jars and critter tanks, include some twigs and grass so the insect has something on which to cling.
Watching Insects with Children
Catching and watching insects is a great way for kids to gain a better appreciation for the characteristics of animals and how they survive. Since insects are small enough and safe (except for bees, wasps, and hornets) to capture and observe, studying these small creatures are a great way to get kids outside and noticing details of the natural world as they learn about insects.