Autumn has proven to be a great time to investigate the outdoor world and nature as the pioneers might have experienced it. In addition to the history and people involved in this movement west, your children can learn more about the daily lives of these people—how they spent their days, what their biggest problems were, how they found food and water, and what they actually saw along the way. Try studying pioneers in the "first person," and make it more realistic to your children.
Many children have never had the chance to go to a stream or river early in the morning to watch for animals coming for water, observing the animals firsthand. I'll never forget the first time that my father took us all to a stream at sunrise when I was a child, teaching us to sit quietly just out of sight and observe the wildlife that started each morning with a visit to the river. I had never known how brave animals could be when they thought they were alone in the wilds! There by the stream were raccoon and deer and all kinds of creatures, and it was breathtaking for these city kids!
The books written by Jim Arnosky, such as Crinkleroot's Book of Animal Tracks and Wildlife Signs (grades 1–4), have captured some of these lessons that I learned as a child, with all of the "wow" and wonder that I remember first-hand. Arnosky's book, Secrets of a Wildlife Watcher (grades 5 and up), has taught us so much about observing wildlife on some of these hikes. The children can learn all about spotting animals by the signs they left behind, just like the pioneers had to do over one hundred years ago.
Their natural curiosity about animals makes this a wonderful opportunity to introduce the concept of the animal kingdom and how animals are classified. If possible, try to find a map of the United States that shows animals that are native to specific regions. We found a map from the Smithsonian Institution that included this information and it is still displayed on a wall in the den. (Many museums and educational stores also carry this type of map.) I would also recommend a good, basic field guide or handbook about animals and/or mammals. One of our favorites is A Handbook of Nature Study, by Anna Comstock, for grades 5–12. This book has sections for many types of animals, as well as plants found in North America. Another reference for your students is Mammals of North America, by John Burton, of the Science Nature Guide Series, for grades 4–9.
Science was woven throughout the lives of these hard-working and committed travelers. From their need to understand how to find their way across this vast country and all of its terrains and obstacles, to the need to be able to treat their own sicknesses, deliver babies along the way, take care of sanitary conditions, find safe water, and on and on, science was everywhere in their lives. For older students and adults, try to find a copy of the book The Prairie Traveler: The Classic Handbook for America's Pioneers, by Randolph B. Marcy, Captain, U.S. Army. This book was written in 1859 at the request of the U.S. War Department to provide westward-bound pioneers a reference that would help prepare them for their travels. Now reprinted in its original version, the author described exactly what to take along on the journey, how to travel along a trail, how to camp, how to prevent stampedes, how to cross rivers, how to handle prairie storms, build fires, find water, and hunt on the trail.
For younger students, try to locate a copy of Daily Life in a Covered Wagon, by Paul Erickson, for grades 3 and up. This will help them get a feel for the daily lives from a younger perspective. Try to point out the areas where science applies as they come across them. Another book that adds to their understanding is If You Traveled West in a Covered Wagon, by Ellen Levine (grades 3–5).
Enjoy the adventure!