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FUN : Nature

Backyard Science & Fun with Nature in Southern California

Your Guide: Catherine Criolla
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I recently read an article about parents paying lots of money to take their kids on “educational” vacations to all kinds of exotic locations.  While travel can be mind expanding, it isn’t necessary to travel to have great experiences, since there is so very much to see, find and do that is educational and fun right here in our own backyard. 

Los Angeles is a gigantic laboratory where kids can explore habitats, habitat loss, native species, endangered species, invasive species and exotic species.  Just about any outdoor space with a few plants (even in pots or other containers) attracts bugs, which in turn attracts birds, and then other animals, making a habitat for interesting critters.  The next thing to do is to figure out what/who you have attracted!  You can even participate in citizen science projects on spiders, squirrels or birds, right in your own backyard (or anywhere else you go).

BUGS (insects and spiders):

Spot them, count them, collect them, identify them — kids love bugs, and they are everywhere (the more stuff to eat and places to hide they have, the more there’ll be).

Insects of Los Angeles Basin Book Cover

Start by looking at a few photographs of Common insects of L.A./So Cal.  Then when you’re hooked get ahold of a copy of Insects of the Los Angeles Basin.  If for some reason, this isn’t available on Amazon, you can get it at the Natural History Museum bookstore (or direct from their publications office –

If you still need help (or you just wanna have fun) check out

Spiders — Ever wonder what those eight-legged creatures in your backyard really are?  Check out photographs of common spiders of L.A.
And if you want to help catalog the spiders in greater L.A., you can participate in their spider survey.

Butterflies (and butterfly gardening!) — If you love butterflies (or at least want to find out more) check out the website of the LA chapter of the North American Butterfly Association (NABA)Their meetings are free and open to the public and there’s lots of great information on their website.

If you want to make a butterfly garden, or at least plant something to attract a butterfly or two, look their butterfly garden website for a list of plants (or just plant a butterfly bush, some milkweed and any member of the cabbage family).

Birds of the Los Angeles Region Book Cover

The Audubon Society is the first stop, and the calendar and list of classes is a good launching point.  A really nice new reference book is Birds of the Los Angeles Region. A smaller recommended starting point is Birds of Los Angeles: Including Santa Barbara, Ventura and Orange Counties.

It can be fun to start a checklist of birds you’ve seen – you can model it after the one from Debs park if you like


Squirrels — Did you know that our native Western Grey Squirrels are slowly being driven out by the Fox Squirrel, which was originally brought to L.A. and released on the grounds of the West L.A. Veterans home so that civil war veterans could hunt and eat them?  You can read more about this on the home page of the Fox Squirrel Research project.  YOU can help monitor the waning presence of the Western Grey through this website.

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Places to Visit & Things to Do

Anyone interested in natural science, animals, plants and what’s around us in greater L.A.  will want to visit (and take the kids to) all of the following places:

The Audubon Center at Debs Park — The checklists of plants and animals found there are a great place to start your own checklist for use in your own backyard or around Southern California.

The Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens — You may think of this as a place to see lions and tigers and other exotic animals, but if you look hard you can find out a lot about our local environment, and of course you can see a lot of local wildife (especially birds) if you look carefully.

The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County — The Discovery Center is wonderful for small children, as are their monthly Critter Clubs and Family Fun Days.  The mammal halls have dioramas in them that also show all kinds of plants and animals, and the bird hall has every bird you can want.  Since they’re all identified, you can learn what they look like and then go home and look for them in your back yard.  The chapparal hall is a must for those living in Malibu or the canyones who want to understand the natural cycle (and why there are so many fires)

Ballona Creek — Take a bike ride and stop and check out the birds — egrets, pelicans and other birds are attracted to the wetlands. 

The Santa Monica Pier Aquarium run by Heal the Bay is a great place to learn about the ecology and marine life of the local coast.  And the Heal the Bay website also features the beach report card so you can choose the cleanest beach to visit

The Children’s Nature Institute — offers easy nature walks for families with small children.  Led by volunteers, these easy hikes (rated for stroller friendliness and recommended for children 8 and under) are a great way to introduce kids to different natural habitats around L.A.

The Cabrillo Marine Aquarium — the place to take small children tide-pooling


Basic Reference Books to use in your backyard: Next time you spot a new or unusual plant or critter, you can look it up with these books. Learn about local bugs, birds, lizards, squirrels, oppossums and more!

Reptiles and Amphibians Book Cover

Books for Kids:

Backyard Science Book Cover

Books about places to visit in Los Angeles: