Night Watch

It was dark--really dark..  OK, it was not cave dark; if one waited a bit, one could soon make out trees, water and sky, and see where they met.  But for this 12-year-old city-girl looking around under a cloudy, starless sky, it was as dark as any dark I had ever seen.  We were camping in Canada, well north of most cities and towns, far from the light pollution which plagues the eastern megalopolis where I had lived all my life.  To me, it was dark.

The night had come on slowly.  The sun set over the lake as we settle by our first camp fire of the trip.  We had canoed all day, and pulled into our campsite just in time to see the bats come out.  At first, I thought they were butterflies , but there were millions of them.  And I mean millions.  The air turned black with bats swirling our of some hidden cave on the island in the lake where we camped.  Then they scattered and were gone, each bat searching for its own food.

We kids soon settled into our sleeping bags.  After a long day of setting up camp and exploring, one might think that we would fall asleep and stay asleep, but this was not so.  It was noisy in the woods!  there were animal calls--frogs and flying squirrels, and insects--and odd scratching sounds that were very close.  Early in the morning, we awoke to find all our food scattered in a trail heading up the hill, and most of it eaten.  Whatever it was, it preferred chocolate and relished Oreos.  It was clearly the work of a bear.  Black bears were very common in these parts, and, as we saw later, they were no stranger to picnic baskets and campsites.

From the evidence, we quickly put together a view of that evening from the bears' (we thought there might be more than one, and we were correct)  perspective.   Our canoes, laden with food, were moored a short swim away.  It was a short swim for the bears, too.  They grabbed the food bags and headed for shore, and once there, tore the bags open and ate what they liked best as they frolicked up the steep hill behind the campsite.  My mother was especially saddened by the empty "Special Dark" chocolate bar wrapper, torn and left empty along the trail of food leavings.  After a bit of discussion with the rangers, we found ways of preventing the bears from continuing their nightly raids, and we could begin to enjoy the late nights, and the other wild things that haunt the darkness.

In her terrific book Discover Nature At Sundown Dark Elizabeth Lawlor describes the evening and night:  "We are strangers in this noisy world that is pungent with the spicy-sweet fragrance of night-blooming flowers.  It is a magical world that offers us an opportunity to sharpen our senses.  The night is a time to explore, not to fear."  I agree!

When I was teaching, one of my favorite settings was the night hike.  A class would stay overnight in a state park, or a school would have an evening program in midwinter, and I would prepare some activities and readings for the class which would help to familiarize them with the night.  Many had never been outside for long in the darkness, and were frightened.  Some giggled nervously at the thought of being outside in a wild place; some were amazed by the look of the tame school-yard made strange by the shadows of the night.  By the end of the evening, most were thrilled by the experience, whether they had mastered their fears with solo hikes (older kids), or merely had fun with evening sensory activities (everyone).

These night hikes can be done in single families or in small groups.  Finding a place to do a high school night hike is the biggest challenge, but most of us can do an evening hike, even in a city park, with permission of the rangers...and, if necessary, by hiring a naturalist for the evening.  I was amused to find that the evening program in a state park in Massachusetts was nearly identical to the program I did in a state park in NY (and my kids enjoyed getting all the answers right!!).  since many of these activities are easily done in the typical back yard, we can start with these simple plans and materials.  I do list books for night time ideas and information after the activities, but I decided to concentrate on activities this time.  Questions?  Feedback?  E-mail me!

The nighttime activity pack (pack it in secret, so you don't give any clues away!!):

Activities for younger kids:

1.  Taste test (before you go out)

Let everyone have one oyster cracker.  Tell them to remember how it tastes.  Later, at the end of the next activity, let everyone try another oyster cracker.  Does it taste different?  (sometimes we feel that things have a stronger taste if we cannot see as well)

2.  Let your eyes adjust to the darkness when you head outside (this might take a few minutes).

3.  Fox Ears

Make two lines across, with each person facing a partner.  One partner will be moving and he will carefully back away from the stationary partner, while one (stationary) partner is whispering the name of the other partner.  When one can no longer hear his partner, he stops.  He then cups his hands around his ears to make his outer ear bigger, and listens for the voice of his partner.  Can he hear now?  Switch roles, and try again.

4.  What Color?

Give each person a square of construction paper (this is best done in the darkest place) and a pencil.  Ask each person to write the color he thinks the paper is on the paper.  Collect the papers to examine inside when the hike is over.

5.  My Pet Rock (best with a large group)

Give each person a rock, or have each find one on the ground.  Sit in a circle.  Tell each person to hold his rock and get to know its features.  then, when you tell everyone to begin, each will pass his rock to the person to his left.  The group will keep passing rocks until each believes he has his own rock back.  Is it easy or difficult?  Is everyone sure he has his own back?

6.  Sparks in the Dark

While you are all sitting in a group, bring out the lifesavers.  Have each person eat his, chewing with his mouth open, and see what happens when the sugar molecules are broken with wintergreen oil to catch the energy released.  This is really just for fun, but it must be done in the dark.

7.  Sensory bags

Have each person feel inside a bag, or smell a scent, and determine what each is.  Discuss how animals get clues about their surroundings when light is scarce.

8. Bat and Moth

This is a fun group game based on echo-location in bats.  Have everyone stand in a circle.  Put a paper bag (big) over the head of the "bat" (as a blindfold) and chose a "moth" from the other people.  The bat and moth must stay within the circle of people.  The bat can only say "beep" and the moth must only echo back "boop".  Based on the "boop" the bat must try to locate the moth (his dinner).

Older kids:

9.  Solo Walk

This can only be done in a safe place, so if there are any doubts, try the next activity.  On a straight path, one adult will walk 60 seconds away into the dark down the trail.  An adult at the other end will send each participant down the trail until he meets up with the next person.  All must remain silent until this activity is over, as listening is the point.

10.  Solo Sit

Each person sits away from the other participants, within sight, but all must remain silent and listen for 60 seconds.  Discussion of what participants hear, or a writing assignment may follow.


Books for night studies:

Older kids and parents--


Picture books--

Great reading for night time adventure

Discover Nature At Sundown

A Guide to Night Sounds

Forest Bright, Forest Night

Nights of the Pufflings (a true story!)

Owl Moon


Wait Till the Moon is Full

Night in the Country

Hello, Harvest Moon

Bat Loves the Night

Copyright 2005.  Please e-mail for permission to republish.

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