Sunday, December 30, 2012

2012--One Little Word: GROW

For the last couple of years, we have chosen a WORD for our "New Year's Resolution" rather than making (and breaking) formal resolutions. This is based on the One Little Word concept by Ali Edwards, a popular memory keeper.

In 2012, our word for the family was GROW. Here is a little of our collected inspiration on Pinterest. This influenced our life in many ways. Looking back we find the following (past tense, though many will continue!):

1. We grew a garden. We made raised beds and followed the square-foot garden method. Need to figure out how to handle squash bugs better!


2. We grew our vermicomposting (yes, worms in the kitchen!) operation.

 3. We grew our family, by adding one little boy! Such a cutie!

4. We grew our interest in nature. Carla became an Indiana Master Naturalist.

5. We grew relationships, friendships, connections, and respect for others.

6. We grew a new website,

7. We grew some skills, like making maple syrup, canning, and additional computer skills.

8. We grew science fair champions (literally for one--sprouts!) and beautiful boys.

9. We grew COMMUNITY! Thanks for being a part of it!

Overall, the word has been an opportunity for us to focus in the background of our lives. We put big GREEN letters that say GROW up above the front door. We see these each day that we leave our house. It will continue to remind us of how we grow as a family, as individuals, and as a community as we connect with nature and the world around us.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Christmas Bird Count at Elkhart Environmental Center

Elkhart Environmental Center was a great setting to participate in the 17th Annual Elkhart County Christmas Bird Count. The annual Christmas bird count in conjunction with the Audubon Society is one of the longest running and more significant citizen scientist activities in North America.

We started counting at the feeders at the center. We spotted the normal feeder birds. I've been to classes there and the variety of birds was fun to watch, even if a little distracting. Outside, we saw a pair of red-tailed hawks sitting high on a branch. The trails along the river were a scenic area for spotting birds . . . and opossums.

It looks like a dog might have gotten this. We saw other signs of wildlife, such as deer and human tracks, along the trail. 

Our fearless leaders, Indiana Master Naturalist volunteers, were excellent spotters, educators, and recorders. 

It was interesting to see the kids do kid things . . . sticks seem to be universal toys everywhere! Snow angels were popular, too. 

While we saw many birds along the way, such as houses finch, goldfinch, cardinals, juncos, nuthatches, tufted titmice, robins, downy woodpeckers, gulls, red bellied woodpeckers, a flicker, mallards, and kingfisher. However, one was particularly interesting. It sat in the same spot for quite some time and was difficult to identify from far away. As we watched it more we got out the guide books and started thinking it was looking and acting like something from the parrot family. After about 15 minutes we decided we thought it might be a canary winged parakeet. We used technology to determine the location so we could check other reports to verify the bird.

I had another beautiful day in the neighborhood. I look forward to exploring this area more! One aspect I REALLY liked was making connections with others with similar interests and getting to know others in the area. One couple lives very close to the EEC and this is their "go to" nature spot. They seemed quite knowledgeable about wildlife in the area as they are out on these trails on a regular basis. They knew where to find the bluebirds, mushrooms, and other aspects of the area.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Rum Village Nature Center

What an interesting start to the day . . . we woke the boys up early to explore a new to us nature center. They did NOT seem excited about the prospects and dragged their feet as they got ready. It got even better as we drove.

Boy 1: Why are we even going there?
Me: So you can play at the nature center.
Boy 1: You can't play at a nature center.
Me: What are you talking about? I see you play at Woodlawn Nature Center all the time.

So, the whole concept of PLAY--is it part of nature education? Are we using play to help connect kids with the natural world around them? Hmm . . . more to study and experiment with this topic.

We also talked about snow and the different types of snow they had been around the last few days. The boys noted that sometimes they see clumps of snow, other times it's like "rain snow" as they called it, flakes, or little pellets. I've always heard of how there are many more words related to snow in one of the Eskimo languages, so found this interesting to read. After reading the article, I realized we do have more descriptors of snow in English than what I initially thought. While SNOW seems like such a simple word and applies to many different uses and situations (noun and verb), we describe it differently from time to time and recognize there are many snow types and descriptors.

The Rum Village Nature Center is a cozy place to study and play with nature. Yes, I said PLAY. I don't know what my son was talking about early this morning. I do find, however, that many times, the interaction I HAVE with my boys when we go to these places is key. I can be there to explore, play, and learn with them and this is key to a positive experience. Just in case you wondered, I did threaten them with no technology for the weekend if they continued wrestling in the center as we arrived. I only had to give one warning--getting better! 

There is a tunnel to crawl through. Somehow, my sons convinced me to crawl through it and to send the baby through it as well. We were able to see a couple of animals that might be underground. We also tried to identify the objects in the various slots. 

The boys checked out their wing, I mean, arm span. They measure about the size of a great horned owl. There was also a display on bees, but they are on vacation for a little while. 

The boys enjoyed matching the colored shapes to their shadows in the forest scene. Then we tried to find where the squirrel, rabbit, jack-in-the-pulpit and other items were hiding.

There was a touch table that invited us to feel, investigate, and examine. I was impressed how my oldest turned this opossum skull he was looking at to have a whole different view and perspective of the skull and teeth. Lots of textures!

They found wildlife games on a computer screen, along with descriptions of the various components of the park. There were also several live animals to look to view. He also really liked the antler. He would be so excited if he found one of these on his own in the woods. I found these tips on finding shed antlers I'll have to pass along to him. The younger one seemed fascinated with this gigantic cone the whole time we were at the touch table. I guess he has gone to a couple of cone classes recently.

A favorite area was the wildlife viewing area. It was neat to see SO MANY birds in one place. The boys wondered why most birders do not feed the squirrels as we talked about the metal and other deterrents to keep the squirrels out of the bird feeders. Squirrels are fun to watch. We talked about their fur and how it's "puffy" like one son's down jacket to help keep the squirrel. They noted out pet rabbit, Snowflake, had fur like that as well.

These pictures do not do justice to the variety of birds, colors, textures, and conversations we had at the viewing window. This is when they started talking about what they wanted to do when they came back. Remember those boys who weren't very excited about our trip . . .

I talked to Vince, the naturalist at the center, about trail suggestions. He took some time to explain a few options. There is a short PAVED path, which is nice for strollers, wheel chairs, etc. Since it was snowing, the baby was out with us, and we had other places to go today, we opted for the shorter path. It was good to talk to Vince about a few other nature center things as well. 

First we had to check out the shelters Vince told me about. My son was really intrigued by these and went back for a closer look before we left. They have an upcoming class on building shelters and other wilderness survival techniques in January:
"January 20th  Wilderness Survival
Be safe and comfortable during all your outdoor adventures by picking up a few tips on wilderness survival. Building a shelter, starting a fire, and finding food are some of the things we’ll practice in this program."

It looks like they have several neat classes on Sundays. Unfortunately, that's a family and church day for us, but they have great options for the nature lover. There is even one on how to make nature films! Okay, they really ALL look interesting to me!

I found their current schedule of classes on their Facebook page.

This child has always found places to hide! This was the "shelter" he found. 


What did I say about him climbing things? He slipped and fell off at first . . . it was interesting to watch him navigate the risk by finding another way to climb that would make it less likely to fall.

While exploring the Rum Village Nature Center's website, I also found they had a flicker site of photos of wildlife. Great shots! There are 160 acres of to explore, with 3 miles of trails and a large playground. My boys are looking forward to going back!

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Lessons from Sledding

We finally have just barely enough snow to go sledding at our house. I know the snowfall varied around the Michiana area. I like sledding, but it seems like I've had a toddler or infant during sledding season which makes it more difficult to be out for too long. I'm determined to find ways to get out in winter this year, though.

This is our second winter in this house. Last year, we were still doing renovations and moving in around this time of year so we didn't get out as much. Today, the boys wanted to try out a new sled they got for Christmas. I helped pull out all our winter clothes. We had to see what still fit the boys. I realized I stashed bigger snow pants I bought on clearance last year. Glad I didn't buy new ones again!

We're lucky there is a small hill at the church across the street from our house. They've always been friendly and open to the kids playing on the playground and such. It was nice to get the boys started for a few minutes and then get back to the baby inside quickly. 

This cute guy didn't last as long as his brothers so he came inside when he was done. I was able to peek outside and see what was up when needed. The older boys kept going and going! It looked like they were having lots of fun.

A scooter in the snow? That's how these boys roll!

When the boys came in, I asked them what they learned about nature while outside. This is what they said:

“I made a snowball.”
--age 3 (guess he's still experiencing things)

“It’s better to go on ice than water. You’d just sink in water. You would slide on ice.”
--age 6 (properties of water)

“It’s really important to go sledding in nature, because if you do it on stairs you’ll just get hurt.”
--age 6 (I remember pushing kids down stairs in boxes as a child) 

“It’s really dangerous to go sledding with my brother, especially when he falls off. “
--age 6 (There is risk in nature--working on a post on this!)

“It’s better to go sledding on snow than grass. Snow makes you go faster than grass.”
--age 8 (yep!)

“It’s easier to sled on snow that has already been sledded on than fresh snow.”
                                                            --age 8 (Physics anyone?)

So, a few questions for you all . . . 

How do you all handle all the hats, pants, boots, gloves, scarves, etc. and make sure everyone stays warm without having water puddles in your house the rest of the day? 

How do you go sledding with various ages that might not be able to last as long outside? What do you with your infants when you're with bigger kids? 

Where are your favorite places to sled in the Michiana area? 

Feel free to leave your two cents on Facebook, too. I'm determined to figure this out this year! 

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night! We started making graham cracker houses yesterday and it turns out that tents are much easier to make than houses. It was interesting to watch my boys follow suit with their candyscapes!

My scene turned into a pup tent, with ice cream cone and marshmallow evergreens, a gummy worm fire, chocolate filled snags, candy rocks, a snow mom and dad, and 4 marshmallow gingerbread boys! The youngest is sleeping in the tent and the other three are climbing on rocks on wood--just like they do in real life. From our family to yours--Merry Christmas! 

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Star of Wonder

I took the family to Star of Wonder at Woodlawn Nature Center on Friday night. This star presentation looks at the astronomy associated with a new star rising in the East as part of the tradition of Christmas.

The center was decorated for Christmas and cookies and milk were available. There was a children's table with related coloring activities. While there were children's activities, my children were not as interested in the program. If I only took the older two boys or gave them some type of study guide there might be more interest. The group mentality takes over and all they want to do is wrestle when they're together. I know this is a yearly event, so might prepare them more for the event next year as it is a good way to connect astronomy to our religious and day-to-day lives. It was VERY interesting to me and other adults in the room. The audience came from as far away as Dowagiac, Michigan, as lovers of both astronomy and the holidays.

The director of the center, Fred deFerbrache, based the program on similar presentations at larger astronomy centers in Chicago. The presentation weaves history, astronomy, cultural traditions, scriptural accounts, etc. to show a possible explanation of three wise men and the star they saw.

This was a great addition to our holiday events. It also piqued my interest in astronomy in the area. I wanted to go outside and watch the stars and planets. I enjoy this time of the year, as the stars are out earlier with our shorter days. 

We're rather new to the area, but have enjoyed astronomy in other places at planetariums. Where can we learn about astronomy here? What tips do you have for viewing the stars in the Michiana area?

These are a couple of things I know going on . . . 
Friday, February 8th--Winter Constellations with Elkhart County Parks. 
Notre Dame has a planetarium! There is a show there on January 11th, 2013.
There is also a Michiana Astronomical Society. Click here for more information! 

St. Joseph County Christmas Bird Count for Kids

Saturday morning I took my oldest son to the St. Joseph County Christmas Bird Count for Kids. I did some bird watching in college for a class and have done some here or there along the way, but really am rather new to the hobby/sport/science (I'd say it's all three!). While many of the parents left their children there for the program, I stayed with my son so I could learn from the experience as well. We recently put a feeder out and are starting to see more birds. This was a good time to dedicate more time to learning all their names, as I haven't known what all was visiting our feeder.

Some of the children were already quite knowledgeable on the topic and had attended other bird counts. One boy had his own adventure pack filled with bird identification tools. He said he often goes birding in the woods with his grandmother. I thought about the need for children to have mentors as they learn more and more about nature. Having a concerned adult that is willing to learn with the child goes a long way. 

My son was trying out binoculars. They keep these feeders stocked all year long. We used a sheet to record how many birds we saw overall. We saw the black-capped chicakadee, dark-eyed junco, downy woodpecker, red-belleied woodpecker, song sparrow, tufted titmouse, and white breasted nuthatch. These all seemed like fairly common feeder birds for this time of year. We were surprised that we didn't see a cardinal!

Michaele Klingerman from St. Joseph County Parks led the children in the bird count. She was very knowledgeable and had great teaching skills for this type of activity and age. She even tolerated my questions that seemed rather silly as I thought about them later (yes, I know about bald-faced hornets--having a momentary lapse of reason). After about 45 minutes at the feeder, she explained how a bird count works, how to use binoculars, the history of counts, and other valuable information. 

We then hit the trails to see what we could find outside. We looked high, low, and all around. We were guided to check out the holes on the trees.

We saw two great blue herons by the water and a red-tailed hawk that was flying. To be honest, my son is used to exploring more in the woods than having a dedicated activity that sometimes needs quiet feet and voices. He was happiest climbing on things. He didn't seem too interested in the birds while we were at the bird count, but guess what he talked to me about all the way home? Yep, BIRDS! Sometimes, I push through activities that don't seem to initially catch his interest because I know he will be interested if exposed to the information. How else will he learn about it?

The kids also loved rolling down the inner tube hill. This will be great to visit when we get more snow! They also have snow shoeing and cross country skiing available. Snow, where are you?  

We ended with hot chocolate and cookies. I look forward to the bird count next year!

Are you a young birder or know someone who is? Check out Indiana Young Birders. They've been giving away bird guides all year!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Singing in the Rain

What heavy rains today! As soon as we heard the afternoon downpour, my kids decided they needed to head out in the rain . . .

Do you have fond memories of playing in the rain? I remember spending time in flooded areas after rain, wading through the waters. Another time, I was in the Dominican Republic and we had heavy rains and flooding. While we went to check on people we knew, I lost one of my flip flops in the high water. A couple of hours later, lo and behold, I found my flip flop streaming through the water across town. Great water explorations!

Cub Scouts at Woodlawn Nature Center

My son's cub scout pack descended upon Woodlawn Nature Center last night. The pack rented the center for the night to host their pack meeting.

They had their traditional meeting and awards and then started exploring.

The boys found the long nose gar, the box turtle, the Canada geese, animal tracks, etc. in the pond room.

They explored with microscopes, felt snake skins, looked at the owls and birds' nests, and swapped stories about insects in the Living Michiana exhibit.

We checked out the rock collection. They were surprised at how heavy galena is! I've always been amazed at the cleavage of galena--cubes!

How interesting that the "big" boys liked the sensory bins too!

They checked out the wigwam and American Indian artifacts and learning materials in the wigwam. They also made s'mores out at the fire pit.

The older boys really enjoyed the drums. How interesting to FEEL the vibrations! Boom, boom, BOOM!

The dinosaur cave was a hit! They enjoyed digging in the sand and finding fossils and bones. "Mom, is this real?"

Woodlawn Nature Center is a great option for a scouting group, birthday party, or other gathering. I have rented facilities and organized many parties in the past. The member rates for renting the building were VERY reasonable for 2 hours. The scout leaders brought in their own food and activities were built into the facility. I wonder if I can convince my boys they need their birthday parties at Woodlawn Nature Center . . . seems much easier than cleaning the house!