Pond dipping can provide hours of education and entertainment – offering children all the fun of rock-pooling without the need to drive to the sea-side – but like anything else which involves youngsters and water, doing it safely is always going to be important. However, with a few precautions and some adult supervision, there are few better ways of occupying young naturalists for an afternoon.
One of the best things about pond dipping is that it really doesn’t need very much in the way of equipment – most of the bits and pieces needed are easy to come by around the home and those which may need to be bought certainly won’t break the bank. A typical pond dipping kit will include:
- Net – an obvious essential to catch pond mini-beasts. It needn’t be a hugely expensive item, but it is worth spending a little more to get a strong frame – many of the seaside “shrimping nets” are a bit too flimsy, although they will do at a push. Garden centres and shops catering for fish-keepers usually have a good selection, but make sure the holes are small enough to catch the water creatures, but not so small that they will pick up too much silt.
- Containers – a range of sizes is helpful to accommodate the catch; White plastic ice-cream or margarine tubs are ideal, since they are easily cleaned and the creatures show up well against the light background.
- Observation pots – small transparent pots with a magnifying lid, often sold in toy shops or found in amateur microscope kits.
- Water-tight tray – makes a shallow container, perfect for emptying the net into.
- Spoons – old or plastic spoons – ideal for transferring small animals between containers. Once animals have been identified and observed for a while, they need to be released back where they came from; spoons can help with this job too.
- Magnifying glass – for looking at smaller pond life. Although small plastic ones are cheap and ideal for children to use, it’s worth having at least one good quality glass lens to be used under supervision.
Once all the containers are filled with pond water ready to receive the newly-caught creatures, dipping itself could hardly be easier simply needing the nets to be swept through the pond and then emptied for investigation. In open water, a figure-of-eight movement can often produce the best results, while amongst the weeds, going back and forth over the same area a few times can help catch animals disturbed from hiding by earlier sweeps.
Being able to put names to the animals they have caught has obvious educational value – but it is just as important for practical reasons. It is worth investing in a good guide book to help identify the beasts – otherwise the avid naturalists may tend to rush on with the catching part and the available holding space can soon be overwhelmed! Many local wildlife trusts and a number of wildlife charities produce excellent pond guides and worksheets – often done in a fun way, so the whole business doesn’t feel too much like school.
Water has an almost irresistible lure for children – and sadly every year some pay the price for their fascination, with drowning being the third most common cause of accidental death at home amongst the under-fives. Fortunately, some simple ground rules for “dippers” – don’t go into the water, be careful around the edges and don’t stick anything that’s been into the pond into your mouth – coupled with a spot of alert parenting should help ensure that everything goes ahead without mishap.
It is also worth bearing in mind the need to keep the pond creatures safe too; many of them are surprisingly fragile and can need protecting from over-enthusiastic youngsters at times, so handling them should be kept to a minimum – a good idea anyway, since one or two can nip!