Square in the Grass

This activity is one that I use for Schoolyard Ecology workshops. It is a great warm up for getting people to slow down and really look at the world around them. Once they do, they are amazed at all of the things they have been missing, and they never look at a lawn in the same way again.

To try this, you will need:

  • a ruler
  • tape
  • a magnifying glass
  • a grassy spot in your yard
  • notepad and pencil or pen

Find a nice, grassy spot where you will be comfortable sitting. Look at the grass. What do you see? Grass. OK, experiment over. What's next?

That is what most people see, but today we will slow down and take a closer look. Use the ruler and the tape to mark off a square foot of grass. It does not have to be exactly square, or exactly 12 inches. You just want some boundaries for your search area.

Once that is done, sit down and look at the grass inside the square. On first glance it probably just looks like grass, but unless you have a perfect lawn there is probably a lot more than you see at first glance. Get your magnifying glass and start taking a closer look.

Start with the plants. Look carefully at their leaves, looking for different shapes and different arrangements. You may find different kinds of grass, and many other kinds of plants too. Compare the edges of the leaves, the patterns of veins, and their texture. Look at the variety of tiny flowers as well. Some of them are tiny, but beautiful. As you find different plants, draw simple sketches of them to keep track of how many kinds of plants you find, and what makes them different. You don't have to know their names, although that can be fun too. Just keeping track of how many different kinds should provide some surprises. The number of plant varieties that you find will depend on where you look. I have had people find as many as thirty different kinds of plants growing in a single square.

While you are looking for plants, keep your eyes out for animals too. One of the most common creatures that you find will probably be spiders. Spiders! AAAAHHHHGGGG! Calm down. Spiders are very common creatures, and the vast majority of them are harmless to people. They are so common that if you look carefully, you will probably find at least ten of them in your square. Once you know how many spiders are in your square, you can measure your yard to see how many square feet it has. (# of feet wide times # of feet long = square feet) Multiply that times the number of spiders you found in your square, and you have an estimate of how many spiders live in your yard. You will find that even very small lawns can have thousands and thousands of spiders. In fact, as you look at your square, you are probably sitting on at least twenty or thirty of them.

Assuming that the thought of spiders did not scare you away, keep you eyes out for other creatures too. As with the plants, you don't have to know their names, but you can sketch them and look them up if you want to. You may find creatures on the ground or on the plants. Many of them are camouflaged, so you will have to watch carefully to see them. Keep track of the different kinds of creatures you discover, and how many of each you see in your square.

For many people, all the creatures that they find are classified as bugs. Actually, true bugs are a very specific group of insects called Hemiptera. Use a small stick or toothpick as a probe to dig through the decaying plant material, and you should find a variety of insects (creatures with six legs), but you may also find millipedes (lots of legs, with two pairs per segment), centipedes (lots of legs with one pair per segment), worms (no legs), pill bugs (crustaceans with 14 legs), and all sorts of other creatures.

If you look around carefully, you may discover other amazing things. You may find ant trails or worm burrows. The closer you look, the more you will find. Even people who expect to find a lot are usually surprised with the variety that is really there. Thirty minutes spent searching your square can change forever the way that you look at a grassy lawn.

Have a wonder-filled week.