If you’ve been anywhere — anywhere! — in the last several years, you know nature exploration is a thing. Nature walks and nature journaling have exploded in popularity, and at every corner you can find watercolor studies of leaves, plants, and insects. But this fascination is nothing new. People once crowed by the hundreds into drafty lecture halls, to listen in awe while explorers of old captivated them with tales of just-discovered wonders. Curiosity cabinets, those aptly named display cases of time gone by, were filled with insect specimens, unusual rocks, pressed botany, and yes, even preserved taxidermy. We as humans have always been enraptured by the unknown, the adventure that’s just beyond the horizon.
Today, especially in #schoolkins circles, there’s such an emphasis put on letting your children out into the wild open, and letting them splash through creeks, dig for worms, and forge their own trail through the underbrush. But if you live in an urban setting or an apartment building, like we do, this kind of exploration likely isn’t a natural extension of your day. There are occasional bursts of nature in the city, yes, but the open prairies come alive by reading Sarah, Plain and Tall rather than stepping outside our front door, and the only tree-houses we’re likely to encounter are those in Swiss Family Robinson.
And I know we’re definitely not the only family making our home in a multi-family building, rather than a mountainside cabin. That’s why I am happy to share this little fossil clay project with you today. It’s a nature project, but everything you need can be gleaned from your windowsill plants or collected from the sidewalks that wind their way through your not-so-wild landscape. We just miiight have foraged a little bit of faux-nature — stay with me here! — from the toy box, too.
To create your own fossils, you’ll first need to mix up some sedimentary rock. You can find fossil clay recipes in a number of places around the internet as well as in several books, but here’s how we did it. Make either a single or double batch, depending on how many fossils you wish to create. (Be sure to measure carefully, or your clay won’t be usable.)
1 c. baking soda // or 2. c. baking soda
1/2 c. corn starch // or 1 c. corn starch
1/2 c. cold water // or 1 c. cold water
Whisk together dry ingredients and water, and pour in to a saucepan. With a sturdy spoon, stir mixture over medium heat for just under 4 minutes, until it thickens into a consistency that’s a little less stiff than playdough. Pour the lump of clay onto a glass plate, and let cool for a couple of minutes, then knead until smooth.
Roll the dough into little spheres, then flatten into discs. Place the discs onto a non-stick surface, like a cutting board covered in wax paper or a Teflon-coated baking sheet. Your sedimentary rock is now ready to take the shape of the items you press into it! Before we made our fossil clay, we snipped rosemary clippings from our urban container “garden”, gathered leaves from houseplants, collected twigs and gravel from the sidewalks and the area around the downspouts, and even dove into the toy storage for some little creatures.
After you’ve imprinted all sorts of creative patterns — there are so many different options! — allow your sedimentary rock to dry. In a dry climate, leaving the fossils out uncovered overnight might be sufficient; you live in a humid climate, like we do, it make take a little longer for the discs to fully dry out. (You might also need to gently place the discs on a wire rack once the tops have dried, so the underneath can dry as well.)
Your littles now have a whole treasure trove of fossils, each one as unique and individual as their imaginations — and each one is as wild and wonderful as the place you call home, whether that’s in a secluded village or many stories into the city sky.
If you live in an urban area, what have you done lately to encourage exploration?