I think this would a fun craft for school-aged kids (say, the 5-9 year old age group). Although, having said that, my 4.5 year old daughter loved helping with this, so maybe this craft could work for some preschoolers too…
How (and why) spiny leaf phasmid insects make fun, easy and educational pets for young kids. They’re a great way to encourage an interest in entomology and a love of nature.
We’ve had pet spiny leaf phasmids (a type of camouflage insect) for about 4 years now. They make awesome pets! Let me share with you why I think they’re awesome pets for kids, and how to look after them easily (and cheaply).
Spiny leaf insects are a great pet option for kids of all ages.
Babies and toddlers can safely watch them inside the enclosure, which can be brought down to their level, and then put back out of reach again. Once they are able to be gentle, they can stroke them or let them walk on their clothing or arm. (My youngest daughter was about 1.5 years old when we first brought phasmids home. She loved them then, and still does now!)
Phasmids are also great for preschoolers. I’ve brought phasmids in to visit preschool on several occasions. The kids can study them through the enclosure, and those brave enough can take turns handling them (with close supervision).
Phasmids make great pets for older kids too – who might take on more of the responsibility of caring for them. My eldest daughter is 7 years old now, and she still loves showing off her pet insects to her friends (although she hasn’t quite taken on the responsibility part yet!)
Having phasmids as pets is a great way to expose kids to biology (the study of living organisms) and entomology (the study of insects) in a caring and nurturing way. They’re safe for little kids to touch, as they don’t bite or sting. Plus, did I mention they’re easy to look after?
But first, in case you’re wondering what on earth phasmids are?
Phasmids are insects that eat leaves, and resemble leaves or sticks for camouflage. There are about 3000 species of phasmid worldwide. Many are referred to as stick insects, stick-bugs or walking sticks. The ones we have are spiny leaf phasmids (also known as Macleay’s Spectre).
I can show you how to set up a DIY portable phasmid enclosure, for just a few dollars! But before we get into how to look after them, let me tell you a little bit about them – they’re really cool!
The (Fascinating) Life Cycle of a Spiny Leaf Phasmid
Spiny leaf phasmids go though an incomplete metamorphosis – that is they have only three stages of their life cycle: egg, nymph and adult. But there’s two really cool things about spiny leaf phasmids: the relationship they have with the ants, and how they can clone themselves! Let me explain….
Adult females lay a single egg, about once a day or so. These eggs have a sweet knob on one end. In the ‘wild’, eggs fall to the ground, where they are picked up by ants, and carried back to their nest. The ants eat the sweet knob (yum!), and leave the rest of the egg in their nest, thus offering the egg protection from predators who might be leery of an ant bite. Ant nests are also sandy, which provides the eggs with the dry environment they need to hatch. Baby nymphs look, and act, very similar to red-headed black ants (but with curlier tails) which is their first form of camouflage.
This relationship with ants is called a “symbiotic relationship”. Both species benefit – the ants gets a free meal, and the phasmids gain protection, an appropriate egg-hatching environment, and initial camouflage.
Nymph spiny leaf phasmids leave the ants nest and quickly climb a tree, where they’ll spend the rest of their lives. They eat leaves, and drink rain drops or dew. They first molt (shed their outer skin or exoskeleton) when they are a just few days old, and change from looking like an ant, to looking like a dried up old leaf. If scared, they sway, to look like a leaf blowing in the breeze. They continue to grow and molt until they reach adult size.
Spiny leaf insects change in appearance quite significantly with their last molt. The adult males are dark grey/brown colour, with thin straight bodies and long wings. They can fly short distances. The females are much larger, with thick clay coloured bodies with spiky lumps along their backs, a curled tail and very small wings, which are ineffective, as the females can’t fly. But here’s another cool bit. Adult females lay about an egg a day, but they don’t need a male to fertilise them necessarily, because they’re able to clone themselves, in a process called parthenogenesis. (So cool!) With spiny leaf phasmids, only female offspring can be produced through parthenogenesis. (Fertilised eggs on the other hand, can produce either male or female offspring).
but what makes spiny leaf phasmids such great pets?
I’m glad you asked!
One reason they’re great as pets is because they’re safe for little kids to handle. They don’t bite or sting. Their whole defence mechanism is camouflage – so if they get scared, they just sway trying to look like a leaf in the breeze.
The only tricky thing is that they are rather fragile. You have to teach kids not to use their fingers to pick phasmids up (lest they squish them or tear off a leg), but rather to let the phasmid walk on themselves.
Phasmids instinctively want to move forwards and upwards, so if you just put your hand (or any other object) slightly above and in front of them, they’ll generally step up of their own accord. And they are very good at hanging on, actually preferring to be vertical or upside down.
Some kids don’t like the feeling of phasmids walking on their skin – it can feel like a tickle (for younger nymphs and males) or feel a bit prickly (for the adult females). Many kids might prefer to just look, tough gently with their finger, or let the phasmids walk on their clothes instead of directly on their skin. If a leg does get torn off (eep!), phasmids can actually regrow their lost limbs (which is kinda cool in an unfortunate way.)
Another reason spiny leaf insects make great pets is that they don’t need much day-to-day care. Once you have your enclosure set up, it takes about 20 minutes, 2-3 times a week to replace their leaves and clean out their enclosure, plus a few seconds a day to give them a quick water spray to drink.
A third reason, is that looking after phasmids encourages kids to love nature! These insects are a great gateway to learning about habitats, life cycles, metamorphosis, the food chain, parthenogenesis, insect body structure, camouflage, and much more!
A fourth reason, is that its really easy to make a light-weight and portable enclosure. Our enclosure is light enough that my 4 year old can hold it on her lap in the car. This means you can take your phasmids with you to visit preschool! It also means you can take your phasmids to a friend’s house for them to pet-sit while you’re on holidays (or you could even take your phasmids on vacation with you.)
How to set up an easy, portable (and affordable) phasmid insect enclosure
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We’ve tried out several different phasmid insect enclosure designs over the past few years, and below is the type we’ve found to be the most effective. This design lets you keep the phasmids indoors, gives easy access to replace the leaves, allows lots of air flow, and is light-weight and portable.
A mesh waste paper bin / wastebasket (like this black one – or if you’d prefer fashionable pets, you might prefer to buy one in blue, red, white, or aqua!)
Basic insect screen mesh (similar to this) and a large rubber band (like these)
an upcycled jam jar with a narrow opening (or make a narrow opening by hammering a hole in the centre of the lid)
secateurs (like these) and a nearby eucalyptus tree with healthy low-hanging leaves
A plastic container partially filled with river sand (or vermiculite), with air holes punched into the lid (optional – only needed if you have adult females and wish to collect eggs)
You’ll probably have many of these items at home already. The only things we had to buy were the a wastebasket and a piece of fly screen mesh, which we picked up from our local hardware store for under $10. Not a bad price for a new pet enclosure, don’t you think?
Before we set our enclosure up, I first hammered a hole in the jar lid (making sure not to leave any sharp edges), so that we’d have a hole large enough to put branches in easily, but not too large that the nymphs might drown. If you want to skip this step, try to find a jar that has a narrow opening at the top.
To make your enclosure:
Fill the jar with water, screw on the lid (if using), and tack the jar to the bottom of the wastebasket. Add fresh branches of leaves.
Cut a large circle of insect screen mesh and secure to the top of the wastebasket with a large elastic band.
Double check that there is enough vertical space in your enclosure for your phasmids to hang freely from a branch while they molt. And then add your insects! The mesh makes it easy for them to climb all over the enclosure, and it enables lots of fresh air.
You’ll need to spray your enclosure with water several times a day. I set my spray bottle to mist setting, and spray straight through the mesh. The phasmids drink the tiny droplet as if they were dew. (Please make sure you use a new or clean water spray bottle – that is, not one that might have had any previous cleaning products inside, or you might poison them!)
Also, speaking of poisoning, remember to not use insect spray anywhere near your enclosure!
Change the leaves every 3 days or so (although you can leave it longer at a pinch), and replenish water in the jar to keep the leaves fresh.
Regularly clean up the phasmid poo (which look like little brown pellets). If you have adult females, you can also collect eggs. Store the eggs in a plastic container with river sand (or vermiculite, as we use). Add holes to the lid of your container to allow air flow. In spring, leave the container on a windowsill in the sunshine, and spray gently with water every few days, and you might get some nymphs hatching next spring! (Be patient though – some eggs can take up to 2 years to hatch…)
ABC’s Creature Features has a Spiny Leaf Insects page with a quick summary on caring for pet phasmids for kids.
We received our spiny leaf insects from two friends, both of whom have successfully bred them in their home enclosures. According to the internet you can buy some from here. I’ve also seen some for sale in our local pet stores!
* This post contains affiliate link(s) to similar products used. An affiliate link means I may earn a referral fee or commission if you make a purchase through my link, without any extra cost to you. It helps to keep this little project afloat. Thank you so much for your support.
Step 1: Buy a mushroom that has its gills mostly protected (or if its gills are exposed, try to choose one that’s as fresh as possible).
Note: if you’re going to pick a wild mushroom, don’t eat it unless you know its not poisonous! And please wash your hands carefully afterwards.
Step 2: Cut off the lower portion of the mushroom, exposing the gills. This should also ensure that the stem is flush with the underside.
If it’s a store-bought mushroom, see if your kids will snack on the off-cuts. Bumble thought it was delicious! (Somehow food always tastes better when you’re playing with it, don’t you think?)
Step 3: Place the top section of the mushroom gill-side down on a piece of paper. (We used regular printer paper, but I think slightly thicker paper would have been better. We’ll try that next time.)
Step 4: Add a few drops of water to the top of the mushroom cap to encourage the spores to drop. Cover with an upside-down box, and set it aside somewhere where it won’t be disturbed. Leave overnight.
Step 5: The next day, gently lift the box and the mushroom, and you should see a beautiful spore print on the paper underneath!
Each individual spore is incredibly teeny tiny, but on mass they look really impressive. I love the way you can clearly see the shape of the gills. Isn’t it fascinating!
If you want to preserve your spore print, you can spray it with hairspray and let dry.
Or if you’d rather study the spores under a microscope, you can scrape off some of the spores with a needle, and place the spores on a microscope slide. Place a drop of water on the spores and cover with a cover slip. (We haven’t tried this yet – but I’m super keen to do this next time!)
Depending on how hot and humid your house was overnight, you might even be able to eat the rest of the mushroom! Mmmm, grilled mushroom on toast anyone?
Mushrooms are part of a larger group of plants known as fungi.
Most fungi reproduce by releasing tiny spores that then germinate (sprout) and grow into a new fungus.
Mushroom spores are tiny, and can only be seen individually with a microscope. On a mature mushroom, thousands of spores can grow on just one gill!
Different mushrooms have different coloured spores, Mushroom spores can be white, brown, black, or many shades in between!
Find more information about making spore prints from different types of mushrooms here.
This only the second time we’ve tried making a spore print. So far we’ve found it a fun and easy process. It’s making me keen to try making spore prints from different types of mushrooms, and maybe even make a mushroom spore print craft! Stay tuned!
Studying and comparing different vegetable and edible flower seeds – nature study activity for kids.
This year the kids and I decided to try our hand at growing our own food. Jewel, my eldest daughter, has declared she wants to be a farmer when she grows up (just one of her many ambitions), so I thought this would be a great way to introduce some early farming concepts. It’s also a great way for kids to learn about the plant life cycle and where our food comes from.
We decided to try growing from seed, as this is the start of the plant life cycle. Ideally we’d like to harvest our own seeds later on, so we can plant them again and see the full cycle in action!
In the meantime, we bought some seed packets that we thought would be impressive to grow, tasty to eat, and able to withstand our harsh Australian summer sun. We chose mostly vegetables, but Jewel also insisted on a few flowers – so we compromised and chose two edible flower varieties!
But before we planted them, I thought this would be a good opportunity to study and compare them. My girls hadn’t really come across many garden seeds before, and certainly hadn’t had a good look up close!
I set out seeds on two trays (one for each of my daughters), along with seed packets, magnifying glasses, paper and pencils as an invitation to explore, and then let the girls decide what exactly they’d like to do with these materials.
My 6.5 year old daughter Jewel found the ‘invitation’ first, and decided to compare the seeds according to visual characteristics. She referred to the seed packets to help her with spelling, and wrote down which seeds she thought were the longest, biggest, roundest, etc.
She declared that the corn seeds were the biggest, marigold the longest, nasturtium the fattest, carrot the smallest, radish the roundest, and parsley the pointiest.
So awesome to see her combine combination of science, literacy and maths in the one self-directed activity!
As an extension, I suggested she could rank all the seeds according to each characteristic (ie corn seeds are the biggest, nasturtiums the next biggest…), but she wasn’t interested in that at this time. (Perhaps she’ll do this next time…) For now, she was more interested in labelling each seed according to their one distinguishable characteristic.
Jewel and I discussed how different the seeds look, and how a seed’s appearance doesn’t necessarily indicate what the final plant will look like. A marigold seed looks nothing like a nasturtium seed, even though they are both flowers.
A little while later, my 4 year old daughter, Bumble Bee, stumbled across the invitation and took a different approach. The seeds on her tray were all jumbled up by this point, and so she enjoyed studying them and sorting them into their different piles. She wanted to label her piles, so we decided to write plant names onto coloured craft sticks, which could double as seed markers when we plant them later on.
We’re very excited to be planting these seeds, and look forward to watching them grow!
Corroboree frog nature craft idea, to help kids learn about biology, conservation and environmental science.
Have you heard about the corroboree frogs? The northern corroboree frog and the southern corroboree frog are two tiny Australian amphibians with striking yellow and black markings.
We’ve been learning about these fascinating animals recently, partly because they are so awesome, partly because of the conservation efforts to save them (see below), and partly because of another project.
When I spied some bright yellow leaves in our backyard, I came up with a cool corroboree frog nature craft idea.
But first, let me tell you about these amazing animals.
About Corroboree Frogs
There are two species of corroboree frog – the Southern Corroboree Frog and the Northern Corroboree Frog.
Both frogs are tiny (2.5-3cm long), with bright yellow and black markings. Of the two, the southern corroboree frog is slightly larger, with brighter markings.
Their skin is poisonous! They are the only frogs to produce their own poison, rather than obtaining it through their diet. This poison is secreted from the skin as a defence. The bright colours warn potential predators.
They live in, and around, seasonal wetlands in the Australian alps. They are only active in the warmer months.
The northern corroboree frog and southern corroboree frog are listed as engangered and critically endangered. Recently there were fewer than 200 southern corroboree frogs left in the wild.
Their rapid decline is due to a disease caused by the amphibian chytrid fungus, hindering the ability of the frogs to breathe through their skins. Without intervention, there is a real risk these frogs would become extinct.
Captive breeding colonies of corroboree frogs are being successfully maintained at the Amphibian Research Centre, Taronga Zoo, Melbourne Zoo, Healesville Sanctuary and Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve.
Over 2,000 southern corroboree frog eggs have been released to Kosciuszko National Park, and over 2000 northern corroboree frog eggs have been released to the Brindabella Ranges bordering the ACT and NSW. This program aims to maintain frog populations long enough for scientists to develop a cure and/or allow enough time for potential evolution of resilience to this disease.
It’s not just corroboree frogs that are affected by this fungus – it’s associated with widespread amphibian decline around the world. The Corroboree Frog Recovery Program contributes valuable knowledge to similar programs around the world, with the hope of finding a global solution.
You can find out more about Corroboree Frogs and conservation efforts here.
How to make a Corroboree Frog leaf craft
a bright yellow leaf
a greenish yellow leaf
black acrylic paint
fine tip permanent marker (optional)
Mod podge sealer (optional)
What to do
Find bright yellow and greenish-yellow leaves in your garden.
Cut out a tiny frog shape. Make the bright yellow leaf frog about 3cm (for the southern corroboree frog), and the greenish-yellow leaf frog about 2.5cm (for the northern corroboree frog).
Paint on black eyes (or draw on with the fine-tipped marker)
Paint black lines from head to the tail. (Leave more yellow space between the lines on the southern corroboree frog). Let dry.
Coat with sealer (optional).
I made the northern corroboree frog first, cutting it out from a small yellowish leaf. Cutting something this small is tricky!
Initially I tried drawing on the black stripes, until I realised that my fine tipped permanent marker was out of ink! Doh! So instead, I dipped the tip into black acrylic paint and carefully painted on the stripes. (You could use anything with a fine tip, like a toothpick, as your painting tool.)
Next I cut out the southern corroboree frog from a larger, brighter yellow leaf. I painted on the eyes, and then some stripes.
Once they were dry, I added a coat of mod podge sealer, just to protect it a little from small hands, as I knew the kids would want to play with them when they got home from school. As they dried, they curled a little bit, as leaves tend to do.
I think they look quite realistic! It’s not til you turn it over and see the underside that it’s obvious they are made from a leaf.
This craft requires advanced fine motor skills. Older kids (7+ year olds) may be able to do it for themselves. Younger kids will likely need an adult to help, especially with cutting the leaves.
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Decorating autumn leaves: fun STEAM (or STEM + Art) idea: learning about nature and leaf biology.
Aren’t these autumn leaves wonderful!
We discovered a HUGE maple tree last autumn. The girls played in the sea of orange and brown leaves, and we collected a few to take home. Autumn leaves like this are such a treat for us – most of our native Australian trees are evergreen, so it’s only when we stumble across a non-native deciduous tree that we get to experience a little bit of what the US call ‘fall’.