What living thing weighs more than 35 blue whales, but could be walked over without it knowing? Yep, a fungus — specifically, a honey mushroom in Oregon that is larger than 1,600 football fields and is thousands of years old.
Fungi might seem boring at first, but once the learning starts, facts like these make it hard to stop. They can also be a great way for kids to learn about the natural world because they are easy to collect and come in a variety of different colors, shapes and sizes.
Many people (including myself) enjoy foraging for wild mushrooms to eat. I recommend buying mushrooms from the store if you plan to incorporate fungus into your edible explorations with your kids. Unless you are very experienced in mushroom identification, it’s easy to mistake deadly mushrooms for delicious ones. Touching and handling poisonous mushrooms can’t hurt you — but make sure you trust your kids not to put wild mushrooms in their mouths before they get their hands on them.
What are mushrooms, anyway?
Mushrooms are the fruiting body of fungi, like flowers are the fruiting body of plants. There are many different kinds of fungi — from the mold on your bread, to the delicious chanterelle, to bread yeast.
Scientists used to think fungi were plants, but soon realized that they don’t make their own food from sunlight, water and carbon dioxide like plants do. Also unlike plants, which are made up in large part by lignin, fungi are made up of chitin, like insects.
Fungi start as tiny spores. Some types of fungi only grow on fallen logs, some only on the bodies of certain animals and some only on certain plant leaves. Once a spore finds the right spot, it sends out tiny threadlike tubes that create a fluid, very similar to our stomach acids, which help it digest its food source. Soon, these threadlike tubes grow and spread until they form a mat called a mycelium (my-seely-yum). You can see a mycelium sometimes while digging in dirt or breaking up a rotted log.
When conditions are right, a fungus puts up its fruiting body, often a mushroom, which creates more spores. The process begins all over again.
Fun mushroom activities for kids
First, going on a fungi safari can be really fun! Mushrooms come in all kinds of shapes, sizes and colors. There are even mushrooms shaped like tiny bird’s nests, which produce spores in little packets that sit in the bowl of the “nest” and spread by getting splashed out by rain drops (I’ve seen these at Squilchuck State Park in the fall). Forests are great places to look for mushrooms. Don’t forget that if you want to collect mushrooms and take them home, many places require a permit. But you can always leave the mushrooms be and take pictures if you don’t have permission to collect. Ask questions and encourage your kids to ask questions as well — such as “Where are we seeing most of the mushrooms?” and “Are certain kinds only growing in certain places?”
Next, make a mushroom spore print! Besides just being cool, spore prints can be a way to identify different kinds of mushrooms. Here’s how you do it: Take a mushroom cap (a portabella from the store works just fine if you can’t bring home a wild mushroom), and place it gills-down on a piece of white paper, then cover it with a bowl. Let it sit for 24 hours — don’t move it! Then carefully lift it from the paper — now you can see all the spores that the mushroom released. Use hairspray to preserve it if you like.
Make mushroom art: Cut a mushroom into slices, dip them in washable paint and use them as stamps on a piece of white paper.
Grow your own mushrooms: There are lots of websites that will sell you your own mushroom garden to grow your own edible mushrooms year round. It can be a fun way to teach responsibility to kids, just like gardening.