Summer is the perfect time for our kids to enjoy a playground picnic, harvest veggies from our home gardens, and yes, escape the heat with a big glass of lemonade and a book indoors. Summer is also a time when bugs and spiders thrive, which means there are bound to be interactions between our cherished young bipeds and these small, six- and eight-legged creatures.
“These animals have really cool behaviors and a unique life history. They’re organisms with a life and a purpose,” says Sara Stevens, director of animal collections at Butterfly Pavilion in Westminster. “Don’t look at them as pests. Look at them as an opportunity.”
Here are three ways kids can handle bug-run-in scenarios safely (for all involved) and even learn from insects in the process.
When Bugs Crash Your Picnic
Your family just situated the red checkered blanket—making sure it wasn’t settled on an anthill—and you’re sitting down to enjoy your sandwiches, fruit, and juice boxes. That’s when an unwanted guest (or many of them) arrive. It’s not time to bust out the fly swatter or start tap dancing on the curious critters. Try using a sturdy napkin to shoo the insects away, and make sure your food is covered, especially the sweets and proteins that tend to draw these crawling critters. You may even be able to distract the insects by setting a “sacrificial” piece of food a few feet away. If all else fails, the best option might simply be to relocate. “If you have the ability to disengage from the confrontation by moving over a table, that’s sometimes the only distance you need to not have to deal with them anymore,” Stevens says. “Being willing to give them space, like you would most other wildlife, is helpful.”
Learning opportunity: Ask your young picnickers open-ended questions about the insects like why they seem to all return to a particular tree. “Maybe it [initially] feels like these are pests invading my space,” Stevens says, but “you can turn it into this wonderful opportunity for scientific discovery.”
When Bugs Are in Your Yard
Pulling out a butterfly net or bug catcher to capture ladybugs, lightning bugs, and their docile brethren can be great fun for youngsters looking to interact with, and learn from, the natural world in their own backyards. Just make sure it’s fun for the insects as well. “To learn about some of the native invertebrates (animals without a backbone) that have their home in our gardens does involve catching animals with a net or a container and observing them,” Stevens says, but “the quicker you can release them the better.” If kids are going to keep them for longer than a couple minutes, make sure that the insects are in a well-shaded area with a little bit of water.
Learning opportunity: Explain to your budding entomologists that bugs are happiest in their natural environment, so it’s important to release them after a few minutes of captivity. Encouraging kids to do so is a great way to demonstrate empathy, Stevens points out. “If you’re trying to teach children that animals are something we value and that the world around us is something we value, then that empathy should extend to invertebrates as well,” she says.
When Bugs Get Into Your House
That fly buzzing around the windowsill or the spider hanging from your bathroom mirror are technically on your turf, but that’s no reason to smoosh, smash, or send them spinning down the toilet. If the creature can’t fly, try delicately scooping it into a jar or cup (use a spoon to guide them if necessary), sliding a piece of paper over the opening, and then dumping the crawler gently outside. Flying insects typically congregate near light sources, Stevens says. Try turning off your overhead lights and when the insect heads toward your window instead, simply open the window so they can fly free. If that doesn’t work, use the jar/cup technique for flyers as well. Unless you’re certain what the animal is, avoid picking it up with your hands, Stevens recommends, since some invertebrates can pack a bite exponential to their size.
Learning opportunity: In normal conditions, it’s difficult (and possibly dangerous) to get close to a spider or wasp. It’s a different story, however, when there’s a glass barrier. The next time you catch an insect in a glass container, call your child over to take a look at it before you release it. Try asking them questions like: Can you count how many legs it has? What does its stinger look like up close? Can you describe its eyes and antennas?