Maybe your child has naturally gravitated toward new interests during the pandemic, or maybe they need to be gently shepherded away from the iPad—here are six hobbies you can try together:
If you ever made soap from scratch for science class, you may be wary of letting your kids mess around with lye—but Kathy Lee, mom of 9-year-old Laren who recently emerged as a soap-maker, explains that there’s an easy bypass. “We went the safer route and just bought the stuff that you chop up and put in the microwave.”
This is called soap base, which Lee purchased from Joann. Laren adds essential oils for fragrance and pours the melted base into silicone molds (she has flowers, ovals—all kinds of shapes).
To brighten up your melt-and-pour soap, opt for soap dyes or natural colorants (like turmeric or beet root powder) to ensure that the color doesn’t fade. Stir slowly when mixing in colors and fragrances; you don’t want to stir up air bubbles.
Laren plans to try embedding real flowers in her soaps; you can also spice things up by adding seeds, coffee grounds, even small plastic toys.
The best part about this hobby is that you can technically get started without any equipment— though a trowel or even a screwdriver can help you dislodge stubborn specimens, and a segmented container (like an egg carton) is useful for organizing your child’s collection.
If your kiddo dreams of unearthing dazzling crystals, you may have to head to Arkansas’ dig-your-own mines. But in DFW, we have rocks that are arguably even cooler.
“Around here you’re going to find fossils,” reveals Donald Slater, who owns the rock shop Nature’s Gallery in downtown Carrollton. “One of the best places nearby is Minerals Wells Fossil Park. It’s free to collect; anything you find is yours.”
Otherwise, Slater says, your best bet is an accessible creek or riverbed such as Ladonia Fossil Park, a designated swath of the North Sulphur River about an hour and a half northeast of DFW. “You can actually go walking up and down the river,” he says. “There’s some decent fossils, like mosasaur. You’ll find bones there, and teeth and arrowheads.”
Closer to home, he mentions Furneaux Creek in Carrollton (where, as a kid, I spent many hours with my dad squelching through mud and sifting the rocky beaches for ammonites, clams and other fossilized shells). Be sure to also watch for creatures that aren’t fossilized while traipsing through creeks. “That’s part of the fun,” Slater says. “Even if you don’t find much, especially for kids, it’s the thrill of hunting, getting out in nature and seeing what’s out there.”
Slater speaks highly of the Dallas, Fort Worth and Arlington gem and mineral clubs, as well as the Dallas Paleontological Society. “They really like to have kids” at their classes and field trips, he says. “The clubs are very good for a kid to learn.” And, of course, you can always get advice at your friendly neighborhood rock shop.
Knitting & Crocheting
Kids who enjoy knotting friendship bracelets might like other yarn crafts. (And, ahem, boys can knit too.) Amy Young, co-owner of West 7th Wool in Fort Worth, explains that yarn comes in various weights, or thicknesses. “Really thin yarn is going to be harder to learn with, really chunky yarn might be a little bit easier, but really the middle of the road is where you want to learn.”
She recommends what’s called worsted weight yarn, paired with U.S. size 8 knitting needles or a size H crochet hook—and plenty of patience. “A lot of people want to make a perfect item the first time they knit, but you have to know it’s not going to be perfect,” Young says. “Not even an adult can make a perfect little square the first time.”
You can hit up your local yarn or craft shop for beginner’s kits, demos and classes (as the pandemic allows), but Young also points beginners to YouTube channels like VeryPink Knits.
Once your child gets the hang of creating stitches, make sure they come up for air once in a while.
“When you’re concentrating so hard to make your hands do a certain thing, it’s good to take breaks,” says Young. “It’s good to stand up every 30 minutes or so. Especially for kids—they need little short breaks.”
A lot of families cooped up at home have tuned in to the avian drama outside their windows. Give your own child something new to watch by maintaining a bird feeder, hummingbird feeder or even just a birdbath. Though binoculars can be helpful, they’re not necessary for basic backyard birdwatching—especially for younger kids who can’t easily hold or manipulate them.
To identify your feathered friends, purchase a field guide. (I’m an avid birdwatcher—the hefty Sibley Guide to Birds is my favorite for its beautiful illustrations; Peterson Field Guides for Young Naturalists: Backyard Birds is an option specifically geared to middle-grade readers.) You can also download the free Merlin app, which gives you possible IDs for a bird based on characteristics you input.
And while studying a field guide will boost your kid’s birding IQ, experts will tell you the best way to become a better birdwatcher is, well, to watch the birds. The more your child gets out in the field—even if that field is your patio—the more they’ll learn. Encourage them to record what they observe by drawing or writing it down in a notebook.
When your kiddo is ready to look for birds beyond the backyard, DFW is full of parks and trails, though you may be surprised what you can see on a walk around your own neighborhood. Several nature centers (including the Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning Area, the Fort Worth Nature Center and the John Bunker Sands Wetland Center) offer guided walks with seasoned naturalists, and the local Audubon chapters welcome new birders on their field trips.
Pressing flowers not only gives your child raw materials for even more crafts, but it’ll teach them the virtue of patience.
First, you need to pick the right flowers at the right time. As you might imagine, poofy flowers don’t flatten easily (though you can get around that by cutting particularly plump blossoms in half). You also want to pick buds or fresh blooms, rather than more mature flowers, and wait until any morning dew has evaporated.
Arrange the flowers between two sheets of printer paper and place them in a large book—preferably one you don’t care too much about, as the pages are likely to get damp. Your child can experiment with different types of paper and even letting the flowers sit in a vase for a few hours before pressing them.
Stack even more books or other heavy objects on top to add weight. And then … wait.
It’ll take a few weeks before the flowers are ready to become a greeting card or unique wall art. In the meantime, your child needs to leave them alone except to (carefully) change out the paper once or twice. When fully dry, remove with tweezers.
Full disclosure: You can skip the “few weeks” part by using an iron or microwave, but flowers dried without a lot of heat tend to look the best. Patience pays off!
Maybe your child has started channeling the cat and bringing home dead treasures to show you. Tamp down your disgust, and consider nurturing their interest in insects.
But is it even safe to touch dead bugs or keep them inside your house? John Paul Hays, an amateur lepidopterist and intern at Texas Discovery Gardens, suggests freezing your kid’s finds to get rid of any parasites before storing them in a closed container (to, ironically, keep them away from bugs).
Now, your child’s entomological exploits can include live creepy-crawlies too. “To catch something like a butterfly with a net, it’s often good to hold the net by the end and lower it down slowly,” says Kent Caldwell, entomology assistant at TDG. “A butterfly’s first response is usually to fly up.”
Your child can observe the process of metamorphosis by ordering a chrysalis, or capturing a caterpillar themselves, “as long as they know what the host plant is that the caterpillar needs,” Caldwell says. (And never pick up an unidentified caterpillar—some species hurt!)
John Watts, TDG’s entomologist, says he stores live insects in snap cap vials, but any clear plastic jar will work. As long as you don’t screw the cap on tightly, you don’t need to poke any air holes.
But he adds that your child doesn’t have to bring live bugs inside in order to study them.
“I often sweep vegetation in fields to survey what is out. It is amazing just how many insects are out there that you just don’t see,” says Watts. “You will also find many arthropods under logs, rocks, boards, etc. If you do look for stuff under these materials be certain to replace the log, rock or whatever back the way you found it so that the habitat stays intact.”
Watts also says spreading mashed banana on a tree trunk will attract critters, and at night, a white sheet illuminated by a light (especially a blacklight) will become peppered with moths and other nocturnal fliers—nirvana for a budding entomologist.
Image courtesy of iStock.