Earth Day has to be one of my absolute favorite holidays.
It’s a day when even ordinary non-Pagan folk celebrate the beauty and bounty of our Earth Mother — whether they’re joyously sharing their appreciation for this amazing blue-green planet of ours, or mindfully examining their own lives for ways to protect, respect and preserve the thriving more-than-human ecological web that shapes and sustains us. As if that weren’t awesome enough, the holiday falls in mid-April, when the land itself is a delicious cacophony of colors and scents and sounds! The whole natural world seems to be shaking off the lethargy of winter, eager for new beginnings. We need a day like this, friends. Oh how desperately do we need it!
Earth Day has long been a holy day for me, and I’ve marked it through personal and family rituals for years. But this year, I was especially blessed: I had the chance to help out with the Earth Day service offered by my UU church this past weekend. And it was nothing short of marvelous.
First, can I just take a moment to share my awe-struck gratitude? I get to be part of a church community that embraces science and reason alongside silly “woo” things like trust, stubborn optimism, and a hope that sometimes borders on the downright gleeful.
The theme of this year’s Earth Day service was unabashed celebration of the wonders of our beautiful “blue boat” home. While there was a brief acknowledgement of things like climate change, pollution and extinction — and the deep sense of grief and loss these things can cause — an attitude of celebratory love permeated the service. One of our congregants who works as a science educator shared a homily on biophilia and how the resiliency of the natural world can inspire us to greater compassion and more effective action in our own lives. (I was practically swooning in the aisles when she opened with a story about the symbiotic relationship between sapsuckers and rufous hummingbirds, followed with a quote from E.O. Wilson. Yes! I get to go to a church where this is a homily that happened!)
Then came the “interactive” part of our interactive all-ages Earth Day service.
Our minister, Rev. Kate Landis, had asked me to brainstorm some ideas for Earth Day-themed activities to do that could reasonably work in a room of 150+ people of all different ages, physical abilities, attention spans and allergies. Easy, right? Over the next few days I did some research and daydreaming (and a bit of nervous hand-wringing over whether my idea would actually work), and finally I pitched my suggestion: Phenology Bingo. Things almost went off the rails when Rev. Kate thought I’d said phrenology, the quack-science of determining people’s personalities by measuring their skulls. But I quickly put her fears that I was a crazy person to rest — or at least reassured her that I was the good kind of crazy!
Phenology is the science of how climate (temperature, precipitation and the changing amount of daylight) impact the timing of natural, biological events (such as plants blooming or dropping leaves, or animals migrating or mating). The church I attend, Shoreline UUC, is situated on a beautiful site complete with gardens, mighty douglas firs and an old apple orchard, so there were innumerable signs of spring unfolding right outside the Sanctuary windows every morning.
The idea behind Phenology Bingo was pretty simple: everyone gets a “scavenger hunt” checklist of springtime sights and spends fifteen minutes wandering around the church grounds outside trying to find as many as they could. Then they all head back inside and break up into Bingo teams. Rev. Kate draws items at random out of a hat — if you or someone on your team has that item checked off, you get to mark it on your team Bingo card. First team to Bingo, wins!
My hope was that this activity would give people of all ages and abilities a chance to explore at their own pace, to work by themselves or together, and to share their knowledge as well as their wonder with others. Some of the items I included on the scavenger hunt list were super easy (find a tree with flowers on it; find a plant that’s your favorite color) and others were more challenging (find an invasive plant species; find a bird that is building a nest). There were even bonus “wild card” items: being able to find and identify a bird, insect or plant species that wasn’t on the list, for instance, could earn you a free spot of your choice… (In fact, that’s how the Green Team won!)
The entire experience — from planning and preparation, all the way to playing the game on the day itself — was such a joy! During the scavenger hunt, I wasn’t looking at tulips or robins (I’d already scoped things out the day before). Instead, I was watching the humans: a little girl insisting that her dad take a picture of a slug with his phone; a group of folks suddenly pointing skyward in excitement as a hawk swooped overhead; an older member lingering by an apple tree she’d helped to plant 15 years earlier, breathing in the scent of its newly-opened blossoms; a lanky young man getting all the way down on his hands and knees to peer at a bug on the ground, asking his friend, “Is this an ant? Does this count as an ant?”
After the Bingo game (our team was just one dandelion away from winning when the Green Team beat us to it!)… the congregation shared some of their surprises and joys, even with such a brief time outside exploring. When the teacher who’d given the homily announced that she’d discovered sapsucker holes in one of the cedar trees, the whole room broke out into cheers!
I get to go to a church where this is a thing that happens.
Below are the instructions for the game, if you want to give it a try with your church, coven, circle, grove or community group next year (or heck, next weekend)! You can also click here to download these instructions as a .pdf along with a sample Scavenger Hunt List and Bingo Card.
(I was so caught up in the excitement of the day, I totally forgot to take a picture of the hand-drawn Bingo posters that we taped to the wall. Maybe someone else at church that day remembered to snap a few photos and would be willing to share? Email me!)
What are some of the signs of spring you’ve experienced in nature recently? [ Folks might name either biological changes (like birds singing, flowers blooming or pollen allergies acting up) or non-biological/climatic changes (like longer, warmer days and more sun and/or rain). ]
These changes are part of what scientists call “phenology” (literally, the study of appearances, from Greek “pheno-” to show/appear and “-ology” to study). Phenology is the science of how climate (temperature, precipitation and the changing amount of daylight) impact the timing of natural, biological events (such as plants blooming or dropping leaves, or animals migrating or mating).
Phenology is important because it teaches us about how plants, animals and the earth are all connected in an interdependent web (Unitarian Universalism’s 7th Principle). When trees put out leaves or flowers, this provides food for insects like caterpillars and bees — which in turn become a food source for birds and frogs, who are mating and feeding their young at this time. (What would happen if the flowers bloomed too early one year and there were no bees around yet? Would the flowers get pollinated? Would the bees have anything to eat later?)
Do you know any scientists? You sure do!! What would you say if I told you that you could be a scientist just by going outside and exploring nature in your own backyard? Ordinary people all over the planet can be “citizen scientists” by paying attention to the natural world and writing down their observations. Things like: How many birds did you see at your bird feeder today, and what kind were they? How many flowers have bloomed in your garden? What day did you see the first new leaves on your favorite tree? Then, citizen scientists share their observations with others (often online), and researchers can come along and gather all that information together to see the BIG PICTURE of what’s going on in nature during different seasons, and how changes in climate and the environment impact that big picture.
Today, we’re going to play a game of Phenology Bingo, and you’ll get the chance to be a citizen scientist, too — you’ll explore the natural world around you, and then get together with your fellow citizen scientist teammates to compare notes and pool your observations!
[ Explain the rules of the game (see below). It might be good to point out how some of the scavenger hunt items are animals that might be hard to spot or might get scared away by noise. Encourage people (younger kids especially) to be “sneaky, like nature spies,” observant but quiet and gentle. If there are really little kids, remind them that we are using our senses of sight, hearing and smell, but not touch or taste! Don’t pluck the flowers — let them grow so we can enjoy them again next year! ]
- Scavenger Hunt lists
- Pencils, pens, crayons and/or makers
- Large Bingo posters (one per team)
- Tokens (eg. paper flower cut-outs with tape on back) (optional)
- Slips of paper with one list item each written on them
- Hat (or bowl, basket, etc.) for drawing slips
- Prize(s) (optional)
Instructions (for outdoor play)
- Introduce the concept of “phenology” to the congregation (see above), and explain the rules of the game before getting started. Split everyone up into teams (easiest way to do this is probably by seating, especially if service is held in the round — eg. each section is a team). (2 min.)
- Hand out Scavenger Hunt lists (or make the lists available in the Order of Service), along with pencils, crayons, markers, etc.
- Invite everyone outside to explore the church grounds, rain garden and orchard. Folks can work together in teams or family groups, or by themselves, to find as many of the items on their list as possible. To keep the game fun and the service moving, remind people they only have a certain amount of time to find the items — maybe have someone announcing a countdown during the last few minutes (eg: “Five minutes left!” “Only three minutes left!” etc.) (10 – 15 min.)
- Call everyone back inside! (2 – 5+ min.)
- Once everyone’s back inside, one person (the minister or game leader) stands up at the front and draws the slips of paper from a hat, calling out the item listed on the paper.
- For each slip drawn, everyone on a given team compares lists to see if anyone on their team has that item marked off. If so, and the item also appears on their team’s Bingo card, they place a token (or draw an X) on that spot.
- Continue until one team is able to complete one full row, column or diagonal and calls out Bingo! (5 – 10 min.)
- Depending on time, continue to play to determine 2nd, 3rd, etc. place — or just for fun!
- Wrap-up and transition.
(For indoor play — In the event of terrible weather, instead of going outside, folks can stay inside and use this game as a getting-to-know-you game. Teams gather together and ask each other when was the last time they noticed/experienced each item on the list. For each item, if at least two people can recount an experience in the past [week/month], the group can check that item off their list.)
Wrap-up will depend on what comes next in the service. If there’s time, it might be fun to bring all the groups back together and asking folks to share with some questions, such as the following:
- What was something you found that surprised you?
- Was there anything you found that no one else on your team did?
- Was there anything on the list that no one on your team found?
- How did you feel when you were outside exploring?
- How did it feel to get together with your team and compare results?
- What did you learn?
- Earth Day Phenology Bingo – Full Packet pdf download
- “What is Phenology?” from the National Wildlife Federation
- “Why Phenology?” from the USA National Phenology Network
- “Phenology and nature’s shifting rhythms,” a TED talk by Regina Brinker
- Lots of other cool phenology-based games and resources on the USANPN website
- Citizen scientist projects that you can get involved in! Such as Project BudBurst, The National Ecology Observatory Network (NEON), The North American Bird Phenology Program, Journey North, Earth Alive and iNaturalist
• “American Robin,” by Melissa McMasters (CC) [source]
• “”Houpette” aka mama Robin is back for round number two!” by Irina Souiki (CC) [source]
• “Hungry American Robins at my Mom’s Yard,” by Monika Soltysik (CC) [source]