Taking a Sock Walk: a Strategy for Nature Study

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Take a sock walk to get a closer look at the seeds in your area. (Photo credit (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2012)

[This article is the first in a series to accompany the September Simple Science Newsletter. Click on the link for more information, and the other nature studies in the series for the month.]

Getting Kids’ Attention…

When it comes to things to observe in the environment, seeds are one of the toughest items to draw a child’s attention.

  • They are small (often very small…)…
  • They are often hidden…
  • They are brown…
  • They aren’t very flashy…

In the birding world, birders refer to the plethora of sparrows, inconspicuous warblers and other tiny brown birds as “LBJs,” or “little brown jobs.” Like our seeds, they don’t stand out, and tend to blend into the backdrop, as well as into each other.

Seeds might be the “little brown jobs” of the plant world. In short, if we struggle to get kids to notice things around them, anyway, we have to nearly bend over backwards to get them to pay attention to things like seeds. So, we develop engaging ways to get them to interact with their surroundings. Such as a “sock walk.”

What’s a Sock Walk?

A sock walk is a fun way to sample some of the tiny plant material, including seeds, that goes otherwise unnoticed when we take a nature walk.

Materials (per person)

  • an old pair of socks (bigger than your shoes)
  • tweezers
  • a hand lens
  • an observation page
  • a glue stick
  • a pencil
  • camera (optional — I never go anywhere without mine, though)
  • 15-30 minutes of outdoor time
  • 15-30 minutes of indoor time

Procedure (outside)

  1. Place an old pair of socks over your shoes. Here is a way to use those poor, mismatched socks that have lost their mate, or ones that are thin but you haven’t had the gumption to discard them, yet. Please make sure that students put the socks OVER their shoes, to protect their feet from thorns and other sharp objects.
  2. Head outside to an area that has dense vegetation. Watch out for poison ivy, bees and uneven ground. Try out different areas (mowed vs. unmowed, meadow vs. roadside, etc.) to compare your findings in different areas.
  3. Walk in areas that have many plants.This might not be the normal path you would take!
  4. Carefully remove your socks.Practice this beforehand — if students yank off the socks, or shake them out, they will lose their “findings.”

Procedure (inside)

  1. Place your socks on the table top and observe. Students are probably going to say they don’t see anything, or all they see is dirt, or grass. The point is to get them to notice that all that “dirt” is really a collection of bits of many kinds of things.
  2. Use the tweezers to begin to pick off debris.Have students sort the objects they collect into piles on their observation page.
  3. Classify and categorize findings.I try to pick off all the things that look the same before moving onto the next type of object. This forces me to evaluate each piece and compare it to the others as I go. I also notice children revising their classifications as they find new items. Encourage students to really sort: don’t put all the grass together — sort out “yellow grass” from “bits of brown grass” from “green grass clippings.”
  4. Glue like items onto the page and label.Make a small circle of glue, and use the tweezers to carefully stick items to the glue. Circle the items, and label the circle with descriptors (“tiny, gray-green flecks”).
  5. Take a guess.Let students guess if they think they know what something is. The accurate identification isn’t as important as the thinking process.
  6. Post on bulletin board to dry. These observation sheets can be laminated or sealed in plastic laminating pouches, and placed in the students’ science notebooks.

Here’s a photo gallery of the process, as we conducted it at home:

Things to Consider…

A sock walk is a perfect early autumn nature study learning task, as you are likely to find the greatest variety of plant life at that time.

You will likely notice wildflowers that are in flower (that is, not yet forming seeds), or ones that have seeds too big to pick up with your socks. This is a perfect opportunity to explain to students that there are many different ways to collect data, and that a scientist has to understand the limitations of a technique when drawing accurate conclusions.

For example, we noticed acorns growing on low branches of oaks during our walk. Our sock walk was designed to look for and collect plant seeds — I would ask the students if they thought this would collect ALL the seeds there were to collect, then have them explain their answer based on what they observed with their eyes, as well.

Taking a camera along helps students to realize that plants grow and develop along different timetables. While some had mature seed heads, others were still in full bloom.

We did not find as many seeds on our socks as we did other plant material. Don’t instruct students to only look for seeds. Let them sort all the plant debris, then make a determination which are seeds and which aren’t. If you don’t get a lot of seeds, there could be a number of reasons why — a good conversation for students. Possible reasons:

  1. The plants in your area were not yet forming seeds.
  2. The seeds were not the kind that would stick to socks easily.
  3. You didn’t choose the right location to collect the most seeds.
  4. You didn’t walk long enough or far enough.
  5. Wind, water, or animals had already moved the available seed.
  6. Etc… See what else the students come up with.

Optional Follow-up

We decided to collect the seeds from one of our socks, then plant the other:

Plant your socks to see what grows!

If you do this step, it’s important to remember a few things:

  • Many wildflower seeds need sunlight to germinate. In the wild, the seed are scattered on the surface of the soil, not buried or planted. So do not cover the socks with more than 1/8 to 1/4 inch of soil. We chose to bury half, and leave the other half on the surface.
  • Many wildflowers have complex germination processes. Sometimes, the seeds germinate slowly over the fall, and overwinter under the snow for a very early start when snow melts. Other plants have seeds which need to go through a cycle of chilling overwinter then warming in the summer, before germinating the next fall. So you won’t get all of the seeds germinating at once.
  • Many wildflowers aren’t good competitors. Although it’s strange to imagine, it’s hard to grow some weeds from seeds! They often only grow on the poorest of soil, and won’t grow if planted in “good” soil. Also, some species don’t compete well with other plants, and depend on being the only plants in the area in order to grow.

So this is a fun step to try, but you won’t want the students to depend on results from this step in order to proceed with your unit of study — there are too many other factors, and this will involve a lot of waiting. I like to plant a few of the socks, then take care of them myself as we go on to other topics. If something grows, I drag them out to show the kids — a nice surprise for them!


Adventures With a Hand Lens, $8.95, Barnes and Noble.

Adventures With a Hand Lens, by Richard Headstrom, includes many explorations of plant, insect and other material using a simple hand lens.

If you are interested in growing your own wildflower garden for future sock walks and wildflower nature studies, consider scattering some of your own wildflower seeds. Uncommon Goods has Scatter Garden Kits for attracting butterflies, seed-eating birds and hummingbirds.

Click on the photos for ordering information.

Scatter Garden Kits, $12.00, Uncommon Goods.

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2 responses to “Taking a Sock Walk: a Strategy for Nature Study

  1. Pingback: Ten September Nature Studies Going on at Our House | On Planting Seeds…

  2. Pingback: Dreaming Big! | Dawn Publications

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