Thursday, January 31, 2013

Nature Photography

The nature programs continued at Concord Mall this week with a program on Nature Photography. Lyman Hug from Shutterhug Custom Framing presented. I checked out the "favorite" pictures on his website--what great nature photos!

While giving many tips, he also shared this handout. We could also ask questions . . . I know enough to "sound smart", but really haven't dabbled too much with photography. I can drop words like f-stop and really not know what I'm talking about. I guess it's time to learn and drag out the better equipment. It's so easy to use my phone, though, especially when I'm wrangling kids in the wild!

He shared pictures he'd taken, talked about a few places and equipment, and discussed tricks like using a blind and such. I was ready to be out in nature taking photos after the presentation. Thanks for your efforts and expertise, Mr. Hug!

Here are a few more tips on taking pictures in the snow. My husband spent a lot of time with photography at one point. Our first year of marriage we went to take pictures in the snow--that's how I remember f-stops, as we made adjustments for the brightness of snow. We also have several of the John Shaw nature photography books mentioned in the handout. Time to do it! As I reflected on the tips, the best one is to just be out there, take pictures, and see how you like them.

While my iPhone pics weren't the greatest for the presentation, I did catch a cute smile of my little guy with a friend. So cute! 

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Rock Grid

We used the Outdoor Hour Challenge: Rock Grid Study as the basis of some activities this last week. I love how she gives many options, pictures, helps, etc. I am finding the monthly newsletter is invaluable. I save it to my computer to use later, as the link expires at the end of each month. I pulled out a big box of rocks to help in the process . . .

While we didn't tackle all the activities on the grid, we were able to do several! The boys found a collection of rocks that looked like ovals and then rocks that looked like animals. I am very curious about the rock that looks like it has a snake or worm wriggling through it. The boys had stories about all the animal rocks!

oval rocks
"animal" rocks
We also stacked some rocks . . . I purposely chose some pretty flat pieces of rocks from our collection. We made it up to 12 on this run!

My son retrieved his own "rock" collection (read dollar store gems) for rock stacking. These were harder. He and I couldn't get past stacking 4 or 5 rocks like this. There is a local artist, Artist Grow, who shares pictures of his rock stacking on Facebook. We've seen several of these and some videos of a person actually doing rock balancing. As we put these together, there was an actual "feel" when the rocks came together and would stay. This is rock balancing eye candy. I like environmental art and Andy Goldsworthy, so this is right up my alley!

We painted rocks as well . . . my oldest doesn't like to get messy, but he did his one rock okay.

Picasso would have kept going, painting more and more rocks. These paint pens were handy!

We'd still like to grow some crystals--we even had a couple of kits, but didn't get it done. We did talk about science fair experiments we saw that involved crystals. Lakes and ponds are frozen right now, so no rock skipping. Come to think of it though, there was some stick skipping the other weekend when we visited a frozen pond. We actually did some geological musings while out that day as well when we found a huge split rock! 

We improvised finding a rock that will write on the sidewalk . . . school was cancelled due to the low temps and kids were sick so we used the back of a tile for our "sidewalk". This is the collection of rocks that made a mark. One day we'll make it to investigating hardness at a more sophisticated level.

We made some observations in our nature journals and broke out the colored pencils for coloring our rock illustrations. 


We looked in more depth at one of our thundereggs as well:

We used the bookmark from the rock grid for our rock collections!

My oldest had his own book of Rocks, Gems and Minerals from Christmas. He read the whole book and frequently went back to it as part of his interaction with rocks. It's a nice small size, has good basic information, and is appropriate for beginning explorations. I had many other reference books, but since it was HIS, he used it more!

Start a Rock Collection

On a recent snow/sick day from school, we decided to pull out some of the rocks and follow along with the Outdoor Hour Challenge: Start a Rock Collection. I pulled one box of rocks (there are many more and another display collection on the front porch) that has been neglected for some time. After they explored a bit, they got down to business!

Boy #2 decided he needed to go find his own rock box. He already had a connection to these rocks. See The Power of their Own STUFF

As we looked at options for displaying our rock collections, we decided to go with egg cartons as I had a stack of them upstairs. Boy #3 (age 3, too) was pretty happy just filling the egg carton spaces with rocks from the dollar store vase. He didn't care how many, what kind, or anything like that for this collection. He wanted to fill it up! However, later he and I went through the other boxes of rocks and found appropriate rocks that went along with the rock grid and ideas in the newsletter. He is just 3, fairly quiet, and attends speech classes. It was really neat to hear him using all types of texture and other descriptive words and APPLYING the vocabulary to the rocks he later chose. This is engaged learning at its best, and he thought he was just "playing".

He is my little Picasso (yes, the walls are his canvas right now, along with his sheets, clothing, body, etc.--CRINGE). As soon as he saw the printable a few days later, he jumped on coloring it, recognizing many letters from his name and tracing them. I wrote in the descriptive words and he placed them in with the chosen rocks. 

Seriously so proud of his work . . . he wanted to show his dad, cousins, and anyone else that might be interested. 

The older boys were a bit more meticulous with their work, choosing special rocks. The oldest had a larger egg carton, so he chose many categories on his own. 

I think they would be ready for more in-depth categorizing next time; however, just using the descriptive words from the rock grid was great for their first time doing this activity. For most materials when I've taught, I like to have some "exploration" time without as much directed learning at first. This was just enough to get interested in the different types of rocks available for their collection.

One nice thing is that these can easily be rearranged or changed out at any time. We could also even start new ones . . . endless cartons!

Camouflaged Looper and Photo Contest

Elkhart County Parks and Concord Mall teamed up to have several activities at the mall this week. Saturday night I decided to check out the 33rd Annual Elkhart County Parks Photo Contest and presentation by Tom Arendt. I recognized his name from Tommy's Creature Feature on the  Elkhart County Parks Facebook page. Pictures are added weekly or so to guess what is in the picture. I've enjoyed the variety of animals and quality of pictures in the feature, so knew I'd enjoy the presentation. I've noticed that Concord Mall has been having more events at the mall. The mall schedule lists some upcoming events. While they are not all nature related, there are many that may be of interest to varying groups.

First, I checked out some of the art work. Wow! Lots of great eyes. There are 3 categories: In the Air, Nature of the Photo, and Activities in the Parks. Only the last category had to be taken in the Elkhart County Parks. Great photos! I would like to spend more time perusing these. I was told there were 113 more entries than they've ever had before, so the photo contest was a popular event! There were also good prizes for the top ribbons. Maybe this is something to try next year!

Tom Arendt did the presentation called, "In Search of the Camouflaged Looper". I tried to find him online, but he doesn't have much of a digital footprint. That could be a good thing.

To be honest, the camouflaged looper was not on my radar before, but now I know to look for this inchworm more. This interesting creature actually pastes parts of whatever it is eating on its body to act as camouflage. At the end of the presentation he showed two on different flowers--how very different! Tom shared several tips he had for finding things in nature that others often cannot find. While some ideas seemed simple, the gorgeous pictures, knowledge of the critters, and stories that went along were helpful. I would love to go on a hike with his family sometime!

The following are tips Tom shared . . . watch for movement, something that looks out of place, curled up or chewed on leaves, and odd leaves. Listen for animal calls, rustling leaves, and unusual sounds. Watch for color (thought it's often trash) and color and shape combinations. He also talked about specific habitats. He often uses a screen in aquatic habitats to scoop up specimens to release again later. The striped garden spiders are often found in meadows. In the woods, roll logs to see what is underneath. He cautioned us to roll the log back. If an animal is underneath (like a salamander), move the animal, roll the log back, and then put the animal near the log and cover it up again with leaves. He mentioned riparian habitats where water and land come together. These are usually ripe areas for discoveries. In xeric (desert, dry ground) areas, watch for ant lion pits. In rocky areas, such as the spillway at the River Preserve there are many places for snakes, spiders, and insects. He mentioned rolling the rocks to see what might be under them. The time of day also makes a difference in discoveries. Crayfish are often visible in the daytime. Caterpillars are often nocturnal, so the evening is good to find these. Seasons also offer different species. In spring, amphibians are easier to find, such as the spotted salamander and chorus frog. The breeding grounds are often vernal ponds or pools, such as the pool by the sledding hills at Ox Bow park. In summer, many species are around, such as the foam on the leaves with the spittle bug inside. Fall is a good time to see bald-faced hornet's nests. I know we didn't know we had a large nest until fall this year as the leaves fell away. In winter, bird feeders are a good option, though winter stoneflies are a unique insect that mate in winter and are inactive during the summer. Tom also mentioned to look in odd places and shared a time when they found deer mice in a bluebird house during he off season. He is always watching and always listening.

There are several more presentations this week on nature photography, reptiles and amphibians, historic photos, and furry friends. Find the schedule here! I enjoyed talking to another mom with boys at the presentation (we've found ourselves at other park programs before), the parks people, and the presenter!


Saturday, after returning from a morning out, I found the kids were a little antsy and getting into squabbles with their visiting cousins . . . so, I thought sledding sounded like a great option. I LOVE that there is a small hill I can see from my front window.

The boys and cousins were out for at least an hour. They were much nicer to each other when they came back in. Outside, they were working together solving problems and trying new things. They were also happy and active!


I worked on some sprouts for a friend this week and thought I'd make a little post since growing food in the kitchen sounds natural to me. My son thought it was a natural for his science fair project, too.

I really have liked using the Sprout Master in the past when doing sprouts. We also have just used mason jars with lids like this. I like to use the wide mouth mason jars and recently found that I really liked the pint and a half size jar with the straight side for sprouts when my son did his science fair project on sprouts. We put 1/3 c. of beans/seeds/nuts to sprout in these jars.

There are also several options like this Sprouting Strainer Lid at Amazon, though I've also usually seen them at stores where sprouting supplies can be purchased. Another alternative is to use a porous piece of fabric, like muslin or panty house and a jar lid to strain the water a couple of times each day.

I have also really liked the resources on the website. It has supplies to purchase, good information and helpful hints, and recipes to try. I've tried several I thought were very good. There is a "sprout school" on the left side the page with step-by-step basics and general information about sprouts and their benefits. This page lists different types of seeds/nuts/beans to sprout and detailed information about that particular type of sprouting.

Basic directions are to soak a small amount of the seeds/beans overnight in water the first day. Then drain and rinse the next morning and evening. Continue rinsing 2 times a day until the sprout is how you like it. They used to say that sprouts needed to be in a dark, cool space, but on the countertop is generally fine. Try the sprouts each day until it's the desired taste. Rinse and put in the fridge to start using once the sprout is finished. They are usually good for at least a week.

Locally, sprouting supplies can be purchased at Maple City Market in Goshen and other healthfood stores in the area. We often bought them at the bulk bins when we lived in other areas and also have purchased from Country Life Natural Foods. I drive up there with my sister every 6 months or so and stock up on whole foods that will last.

Do you sprout? What do you use sprouts for? Where do you get your supplies locally? Thanks for sharing!

Oxbow Park Sledding

This last Thursday was pretty cold . . . maybe 18 degrees, but we had a pocket of time when we could possibly go sledding with friends. We made a tentative date, but I had a busy day and really wasn't looking forward to being out in the cold. I kept checking the baby's temperature to find an excuse while I prepared for our Nature Nook book group later that night at Woodlawn Nature Center. Okay, I was probably in a bit of a "mood". But, we'd made a commitment, so we kept it . . .

Hint: Having a big bag of cold weather gear ready to go or already in the van has been so helpful to get out more this winter! I did a quick check to make sure we had all we needed, put the sleds back in the van again, and off we went!

We were trying out Ox Bow as someone from church mentioned she really liked to make a day of sledding there with her kids. She mentioned the warming shelter, how the kids come and go, and the hot cocoa and snacks she brings to eat. It's also nice how the window is positioned that you can see everything going on at the hill. Some parents/caregivers would actually be able to sit in the warm shelter and watch while the kids went up and down the hill as long as the children know there boundaries. However, it's much more fun to go sledding, too, if possible!

The entry fee is $2 per car, but it's not always charged. We went on a no fee day, but I've never known until I pulled up to the gate if we were to be charged. Also, when going to a scheduled program, there is no entrance fee. I even went to a free program and didn't pay anything. However, there is a year pass that goes January-December of each year. It is $20 and makes it easy to go on a moment's notice. I've noticed that when I already have a pass at other venues, I don't mind just stopping by for a bit when we're out and and about. And Ox Bow County Park is a great place to get out and about!

We were the only ones there when we arrived, so I left the baby inside for a little bit while I made a few runs down the hill. We checked on him periodically to make sure he was okay. 

Another great thing about the shelter is that there is also a great wildlife viewing area. This is the other wall of windows. The feeders are stocked over the winter. We saw several cardinals, juncos, chickadees, squirrels, etc. It's nice to have a nature bonus on a sledding trip!

Outside, we saw that someone made a perfect snow angel.

The sledding was good! Up and down we went. It's a good little work out to trudge back up the hill, especially with little ones.

My angel also wanted to make an angel! :-)

Our friends joined us, the sky was pretty, the air was crisp, and we were out doing something active . . .  remember how I didn't really want to go? My spirit was lifted by a little time out. I NEEDED to be outside, yet was finding excuses not to go . . . cold temperatures, busy day, possibly sick baby. Glad we made it out! While I know exercise and being in nature help us feel better on so many levels, I also know it from my own experience!

Another family joined in on the fun. I got to use some of my Spanish skills . . . I used to teach Spanish immersion classes, but it's been about ten years. Rusty, but with more practice it could definitely come back better! It's good to see people out enjoying the snow!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Nurturing Acorns--Animals in Winter

Okay, so these tracks are from underneath the bird feeder at our house. The dark-eyed juncos love hanging out down there! We knew it would be bitter cold today so made an executive decision to stay inside for Nurturing Acorns today. We still had plenty of nature play!

I snapped a picture of these tracks on the sidewalk to Woodlawn Nature Center as we walked in to share with the children later.

We spent some time with letters and animals, practicing fine motor skills with clothespins and dry erase markers.

We also had track stamps and handouts of various animal tracks that we might see out and about.

For story time, we sat by the wildlife viewing area. This is the BUSIEST I have ever seen it! There were many squirrels, a woodpecker, dark-eyed juncos, and many other birds. They do seem to fly away as we approach, but we were able to see a flurry of activity! I'm glad the suet, black oil sunflower seeds, and thistle (thanks whoever put the thistle out!) have been making a difference!

Truly a winter wonderland!

We read The Mitten by Jan Brett and Tracks in the Snow . We put all the different animals in our woolen mitten. Notice the arm(s) on my leg . . . my third child has a hard time letting mom be the teacher sometimes. 

Since we were staying inside, we decided to have some active play! We had a snow ball fight with crumpled up newspapers.

We also pulled out our parachute and sent the snow balls flying! We practiced counting and shaking the parachute. What fun and enthusiasm!

We also did a little snowflake freeze dance, making sharp angles with our bodies like snowflakes. For snack, we had woodland animal crackers on peanut butter logs with a little coconut snow. I had just mentioned to one of the other coordinators that we should start a business making woodland animal crackers. Imagine how happy I was when I found these little critters at Meijer! They were a little more expensive than the standard animal crackers, but fit so well with our theme and were a bit more nutritious. I truly am in love with these and will find many more ways to use them.

We spent time making animal tracks in our "snow" playdough. No, my child wasn't trying to hoard the Safari Ltd North American Wildlife Toob animals. Never.

We also traced mittens onto bags with animals from our story inside.

One of the boys even made a snowman! Reminds me of our balancing rocks!

Some other good title selections . . .

We went on an winter animal puppet walk . . . okay there are no dinosaurs out in the winter NOW, but maybe in the past? We found taxidermy, live, and other examples of all the puppets on our walk in the museum. The turtle quickly shut himself up inside, saying please don't bother me. These Folkmanis puppets are excellent quality. We were fortunate to have a donation to buy several puppets. Looking forward to a puppet stage soon, too.

One more week bringing kids a little closer to nature!