Amazon Scavenger Hunt: a Fun Way to Explore Rainforest Sustainability

Recently my daughter and I were making cookies when she asked me, “Where do chocolate chips come from?”

I considered the glib answer, “From the chocolate chip factory,” but decided to take advantage of a teachable moment and said, “Well, chocolate is made from seeds of the cacao tree that grows in the South American rainforest.”

If you know any six-year-olds, one question inevitably leads to another. So began a conversation about rainforest plants, animals and people that tested the limits of my understanding — all for the love of cookies.


Chocolate, cinnamon and vanilla beans, all from the Amazon.

As we enjoyed our cookies, we talked about other things in our house that came from rainforests. A quick online search later and we were off counting different foods, checking out the furniture and even kicking the tires on the car. As it turns out, a lot of things in our home originate in a rainforest. We easily found 30 items!


Example of mola on a quilt.

 Indigenous peoples sustainably use rainforest resources. Besides food, clothing, tools and homes, some cultures harvest rainforest animals and plants for ceremonial clothing that is passed from one generation to the next. Many cultures trade in non-food items like handmade baskets and bowls, and art produced by some cultures has found its way into our lives. The ornately patterned molas made by the Kuna Indian women of Panama can be found on purses, wall hangings or even quilts.


Example of another mola.

As a consumer, supporting companies and artisans that sustainably harvest these products can make a difference a world away. To raise awareness and enrich your child’s education, why not have your own Rainforest Celebration Day? Get your kids involved and try a rainforest product scavenger hunt or have a rainforest food-tasting party. Feeling crafty? Try making a mola out of fabric you have at home, or if like me you’d probably appliqué yourself to it, try making it out of construction paper instead! Brightly colored craft feathers (chicken, peacock, and pheasant) can be used to make necklaces, arm bands or if you’re really excited, headdresses or crowns for the little princesses in your life. 


Macaw feather headdress.

For more information on indigenous peoples, check out our John P. McGovern Hall of the Americas or the upcoming exhibit Out of the Amazon: Material Culture, Myth and Reality in Amazonia. The Cockrell Butterfly Center offers a taste of the rainforest, literally! Check out the vending machine downstairs, complete with edible bugs. Ask about our Wildlife on Wheels Rainforest topic to bring to your child’s school.

Experience a rainforest close to home with these ideas and your imagination. Happy hunting, and may all your scavenger hunts include cookies!

Book List: The Amazon and Rainforests

Kayapo Mekragnoti headdressThe Museum currently has an exhibition titled Spirits and Headhunters: Vanishing Worlds of the Amazon, so this month’s books feature the rainforest and the Amazon. For over 40,000 years, people have lived in the rainforests, hunting, gathering food and raising vegetables in addition to using the tropical plants for medicine, without harming their environment.

Today, rainforests cover approximately 7% of the earth’s surface.  However, according to author Richard Platt, the rainforests are disappearing at the rate of an area the size of 16 tennis courts every second.  Platt continues to say that by preserving the rainforests we are safeguarding our health and the health of our planet.

Rainforest living up to its name
Creative Commons License photo credit: pfly

Gail Gibbons has written innumerable nonfiction books for young children.  Her books provide easy to understand information with colorful, appealing illustrations. Although it is fifteen years old, Nature’s Green Umbrella is a wonderful explanation of the importance of rainforests to the people of the world and to the environment.

The book contains a simple map of the world so it is easy to see the location of the rainforests.  In addition, vocabulary words are provided so children can learn the appropriate terms that relate to “nature’s green umbrellas.”  You will learn about transpiration, an ecosystem, chlorophyll, emergents, a canopy, an understory, the forest floor, epiphytes, parasites, nutrients, leaf litter, leaching, selective cutting, extractive reserves, “greenhouse effect” and “slash and burn.”

The illustrations are simple drawings of the plants and animals in the rainforest.  Their interdependence is easy to comprehend as the cycle of life is explained in terms a child can understand.  Gibbons also provides a brief explanation of medicines, fruits and vegetables the rain forests of the world have provided.

When attempting to explain a nonfiction topic to a child, Gail Gibbons’ books are always a great place to start.

A very unique, more mature approach to investigating the rainforest is One Small Square: Tropical Rainforest by Donald Silver.  First, picture a transparent four-foot cube–four feet long, tall and wide.  “Place” this imaginary cube on the rainforest floor and picture the plants and creatures that could be found inside. In this layer of the rainforest you might find sloths, moths, hummingbirds, bats, boas, bloodsuckers, army ants, scorpions, Hercules beetles, roaches, spiders, lizards, worms, centipedes, lizards, wasps and more.

What lays beyond the fog?
Creative Commons License photo credit: Armando Maynez

Next, using the same four-foot transparent cube investigate one small square of the understory, one small square of the canopy and one small square of the emergent layer.  Doing this, you will become familiar with the layers of the rainforest and the plants, animals, insects, birds, etc. that might be found in each.

After the information is presented you will find a Match Game where children will match the plants, animals, insects, birds, etc. that are found in each layer of the rainforest to the appropriate layer.  You will also find colorful drawings of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fishes, invertebrates, plants, funguses, monera and protists associated with the rainforest.

Gail Gibbons presents a basic introduction to the rain forest, and Donald Silver provides additional information for older children in a colorful, attractive book.  Choose the one that meets your needs.

Lynne Cherry wrote and illustrated The Shaman’s Apprentice based on a true story first written by Mark Plotkin.  When you open the book you see colorful illustrations of some of the useful plants from the rainforest, their uses and their English names if available.  Who knew you can use Tonka Beans or Custard Apples for fevers or Snakeweed for snake bites?

run forest, run!
Creative Commons License photo credit: mugley

The Shaman’s Apprentice is the story of Kamanya, a young boy who is sick, from the Tirio village of Kwamala.  The shaman goes into the forest to gather leaves, roots and bark and uses these to heal Kamanya who never forgets how the shaman saved his life.

Kamanya liked to follow the shaman into the rainforest and learn about the plants used for healing.  One day a man from another village came to tell the people of Kwamala about men who had come to his village carrying a disease that the shaman could not cure.  Some of the Kwamala tribesmen became sick or died.

Several months later, missionaries visit the village of Kwamala and give the tribesmen quinine to cure the “mystery” disease, malaria.  The missionaries changed life, and the shaman was no longer the most important person in the village because his medicine had failed and the missionaries’ medicine had succeeded.  Life continued for four years until the missionaries left.

Soon another stranger, named Gabriela, arrived in the village.  Gabriela came to study the healing properties of rainforest plants.  She told the tribesmen that the quinine had come from the bark of a tree–the shaman had been right after all!

Gabriela followed the shaman through the forest as she learned about the healing plants.  After several months she left, but returned each year to learn more from the shaman.

On one trip, Gabriela brought the tribe a book containing information about all the medicinal plants.  The chief thought the book was very important and decided that the shaman should teach Kamanya all he knew.  Gabriela knew that in her absence the shaman’s work would continue. So, Kamanya became the shaman’s apprentice, and when the shaman passed into the spirit world, Kamanya became the shaman who healed his people.

The Vanishing Rainforest by Richard Platt is the story of Remaema, a child of the Yanomami tribe and how the tribe adjusts to the coming of the nabe (white people) who, with the exception of Jane, want to destroy the forest.  As trees are destroyed the animals leave, and without animals there can be no forest and all will starve.

Rikomi is a member of the Yanomami tribe who works for the government, but has not forgotten the battles against the nabe.  Rikomi devises a plan to save the tribe and satisfy the nabe, too.  With the nabe’s money, the Yanomami could pay for education and better health care, and with the Yanomami’s help, the nabe could learn about the rainforest.  Readers know that the plan will succeed when the animals return to the forest.

Whether you choose a nonfiction book or a fiction book that tells a story, you will gain insight into this important, unique part of our planet.

Photos: People of the Amazon

Cristina Mittermeier travels around the world to document the lives of indigenous cultures, and her exceptional photographs of the Kayapo people in South America will be featured in our upcoming exhibition Spirits and Headhunters: Vanishing Worlds of the Amazon.

The exhibit will include vibrant feather headdresses, full-body costumes, body decorations, furniture and ceramic objects made by people from 8 unique tribes in the Amazon, and Mittermeier’s photographs dramatically illustrate how the people of one of those tribes, the Kayapo, wear and use their featherwork.

Check out the video below to see some of her amazing work, read  her blog for more on her journeys, and see her photos for yourself, along with some truly stunning feather art, when the exhibit opens Oct. 9.