Science ideas for young children: Chasing ants

Ants crawling around the yard, sidewalk or driveway? Conduct some simple investigations to learn more about them.

The other day I was waiting for my 11-year-old daughter to return from a summer day camp field trip. The bus got caught in traffic, so I had to find ways to entertain my 3-year old son. I noticed ants crawling across the sidewalk and we decided to investigate. Below are several questions and investigations recommended by Michigan State University Extension that you can do with youth. The focus of these lessons aren’t to simply impart knowledge, but to facilitate the joy of exploration and discovery. These are not designed to “give youth the answers,” but to empower them to ask questions, explore and discover on their own. When a young person asks a question, resist the urge to answer it, and instead reply, “What do you think?”

  1. What makes an ant different and the same from other things? How many legs do they have? How are they different from other insects?
  2. Are all ants the same? Why might they be different sizes or colors? Are smaller ants just younger versions of big ants? How do you know? The University of Nebraska-Lincoln offers information on ant identification.
  3. Where do ants live? Why do they make anthills? Is the dirt in the anthill different than other dirt? Why? Do more ants live on one part of the yard than the other? Do different kinds of ants live in different parts of the yard?
  4. What do you think ants eat? Do all ants eat the same things? Try putting down something sweet like candy or sugar, something fatty like grease or potato chips and something with protein like cat food and see what the ants are most attracted to after an hour. Did you get more than one kind of ant to the different foods?
  5. Where are the ants going? See how long you can follow an ant. Are they going home? Are they looking for food? Are they going in a straight line? Do they know where they are going?
  6. How do ants find their way around? If you put a stick or rock in their path, will they go around it or over it?
  7. How can ants hold on when they climb up the side of a tree?
  8. What do you think the anthill colonies look like underground? Depending on the location, you can dig a hole and do an investigation. Anthill Art has made some aluminum casts of ant nests and you can see how they are made in some videos. How are the tunnel layouts different? Why might ants choose a different layout?
  9. What would life be like in an ant colony? Where do they go to the bathroom? Do they have trash? What might they do with it? How are the ants affected by rain?

Next time you see ants, don’t let them ruin your picnic, but use it as a chance to explore science!

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