How to Use Backyard Birding to Teach
Updated: Nov 28, 2018
By Jeff Morgenroth
We had two goals in mind when creating Backyard Birding.
First, make it fun. It is a game after all. Luckily, this was the easy part.
Second, make it a tool for learning. As it turns out, this was the more challenging part of design. Let’s talk about the learning components of Backyard Birding, and how you can use it as a way to help yourself, your family, or even your classroom learn more about birds.
See It, Say It
Foremost is the importance of visual association of names with birds. This is why birding guide books are such a staple of learning how to identify them. Everyone can probably identify a handful of birds: crows, robins, pigeons. Certain birds have “made it” into pop culture in movies, TV, or wherever else you get your media. Plus, the most common birds are just that: common. It’s hard to not see them and associate a name with a species.
However, we were pleasantly surprised when testing the game that non-birder folks would often shout out, “hey—I’ve seen that bird!” For the record, it was a junco, which is pretty much everywhere in the Pacific Northwest, but they still get credit for it.
Outside of the game, this person may have never thought about that bird again, but seeing its picture alongside its name creates mental recall, an action that helps information stick. The simple act of recognizing something can become the connection point for future learning.
When you play Backyard Birding, you’ll find that the entire table is constantly saying the names of birds, picking up the cards to inspect the bird’s appearance, and maybe even sharing a comment or anecdote. This creates a feedback loop that will help players learn the names and associate them with the bird’s appearance, which is the first step to spotting birds in the wild and learning more about them through additional research!
Follow the Icons
Next comes the association of the game’s various icons representing seasons and the backyard food and habitat the birds need to be attracted to a player’s Yard. Players will recognize how birds seem to follow the seasons; ducks are prevalent in autumn, while many perching birds are more common in warmer weather. It’s not as simple as “birds fly south for the winter!” By playing you’ll begin to know which birds to keep an eye out for in the real world during the current season, and this will help you learn when something rare has shown up!
Even more important are the Backyard icons. This is where players begin to associate real things in the world with bird biology and behavior. Birds that eat seeds are likely to be seen foraging on the ground, for example, while birds that eat fish are going to be hunting in waterways. If you want to see a bird that lives in trees—look up!
The use of the backyard icons isn’t just a way to determine the dice result of the bird, it’s a tool to show how the environment affects birds in relevant and immediately visible ways.
Time for a Walk
Once you’ve played a few rounds of Backyard Birding, you’ll be armed with some useful information for spotting birds in real life. Here’s an idea: grab a few in-season bird cards and go for a walk. Around the Pacific Northwest, parks along wetlands or comprising forested areas are practically guaranteed to host many of the birds in the game. Use the icons on the card to direct your search.
For example: looking in shrubs or bushes for sparrows, or in trees for woodpeckers—you get the idea. You’ll find that setting out to see a certain bird and spotting it with the help of what you’ve learned is a pretty rewarding way to spend an afternoon! Just don’t make too much noise so you can enjoy your viewing without disturbing the bird.
Other Ways to Learn
Adults working in classrooms, day-care centers, or after-school camps can use Backyard Birding to create extended activities that cross over into many disciplines. Here are a few ideas to get you started!
Guided-Play (5-6 yrs)
Deal out Backyard cards to students, but have an adult manage the Bird cards. Reveal birds and ask if students have matching backyard icons in their hand. Students then have a dice “roll-off” to attract the bird, then discard Backyard cards. This is a great way for younger players to experience the game and begin learning about birds without needing to worry about all the rules.
Walk-and-Play (8+ yrs)
Go for a walk around your environment and instruct children to keep an eye open for birds! Then have them play the game. While playing, challenge them to attract a bird they saw in real life. Then have players learn more about the bird by reading a bird guide book or by visiting a website like www.allabourbirds.org or www.audubon.org.
Lesson-and-Play (8-10 yrs)
Lead a discussion about how animals require food and habitat using birds as your example. Emphasize how birds can look similar but really need very different things to thrive. Then, have the children play. Ask them what they learned about this interplay between food and habitat. This process introduces concepts of everyday science and conservation.
Play-and-Identify (10+ yrs)
Play the game. Then, using the cards or other images of birds in the game, conceal names/images and ask participants to recall details from memory. This is a great way for older children to challenge their understanding of birding concepts.
Play-and-Discuss (12+ yrs)
Play the game. Then ask the students to find other players who attracted the same bird as themselves. The students team up to create a short presentation on their bird, using outside resources for extra details. This method is ideal for getting older children to engage with basic concepts of biology and ecology.