Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Making Room for the Best

On Monday nights, we usually have a family night that consists of a short message, an activity, and usually a snack. We decided to invite some friends for our family night this week and met at Woodlawn Nature Center to work on some invasive species there.

We started by pulling out some invasive species--in this case creeping myrtle (also known as periwinkle or vinca) and bush honeysuckle. While these are both pretty plants, they take over an area and don't allow space for native plants to flourish.

Later, we started a fire with permission from Woodlawn Nature Center's director. This is a perk of membership--being able to having fires at the site. It's even free if you let others join you, but there weren't others knocking down the trees to join us.

While waiting on the fire, the boys started exploring all the insects in nearby logs--they were full of decomposers at work!

Then we had a short message based on "Good, Better, and Best"--there are many good things we can do in life (just as there are plants), but sometimes we need to look for the best we should be doing (or planting or allowing). In the case of invasive species, many of these do not allow the better or best plants to grow in the area. Some even send a type of toxin in the ground that makes it so other plants cannot grow. INPAWS has information to share about these species in making better or best decisions.

Then it was time for s'mores!

While an hour's work doesn't clear a forest, I could tell a difference in this area when I returned today. If more families and groups help pitch in, the impact on the forest would be tremendous. And it can be fun! The boys enjoyed meeting their friends, we knew we were helping nature in our area, and we even had treats. This was the BEST thing for us to do tonight. There are opportunities to help at natural spaces all over the area. There are scheduled stewardship days, but we can also arrange moments like this through our own initiative. How have you helped nature lately? 

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Handbook of Nature Study: Amphibian Grid


I've really enjoyed The Outdoor Hour nature study challenges that correlate with the Handbook of Nature Study. I'm sure there is ALWAYS more we could learn about the topic, but even getting in a little is more than  nothing, right? The April topic was Amphibians and Reptiles, but we definitely focused on the Amphibians. Frogs, mostly. We've had a few great frog experiences this weekend, including a presentation about frogs from our local county parks system. We also spent some time with a toad at the Arbor Day festival as well. This afternoon, we decided to do more parts of the formal grid study . . .

Earlier today I asked the following:

Me: What is an amphibian?
Son: A slimy, wet creature
Me: Where does it live?
Son: In water  
Me: OR 
Son: . . . land

We opened the laptop for resources, pulled out a book about amphibians, and went to work! As we talked about different aspects of amphibians, I was surprised at how much they remembered from the Frogs presentation earlier this week as they seemed to be playing around instead of listening.

My husband actually questioned whether they should be reading this book as it talked about the birds and the bees, or should I say frogs and toads? We were looking at one of the older versions of the
DK Eyewitness Books: Amphibian book.

Observe a tadpole. Draw the life cycle in your nature journal. 
We found a couple resources while we worked on this .  .  .
Indiana DNR Frogs and Toads Page
Maryland DNRd

Sit quietly away from a pond's edge to observe a frog. 
We did this at our Frogs! presentation earlier in the week. 

Copy a poem about a frog into your nature journal. 
We found our poem for the April Grid at Activity Village. They also have a video of the Five Speckled frog song, jokes, and more. 

The Frog
I saw a little frog, 
He was cuter than can be,
He was sitting on a log
And I'm sure he croaked at me!

Listen to a frog or toad in real life or online.  Do your best imitation. 
I told my husband I should have recorded our imitations. :-) I recently looked through all the frogs and toads that live in our area and linked to all of their calls. So, it was easy to go through their sounds after listening to what they sound like here

Another great journey--looking forward to next month!

The Hunger Games

On Saturday, I led an activity about the natural connections to The Hunger Games at Woodlawn Nature Center in Elkhart. I started reading the books several years ago before they were popular and immediately saw the natural applications and opportunities to practice skills and such.

Beth Cauffman pulled together several resources such as books on survival skills, wild edibles, and more.

We started by making nature journals to record what we did throughout the morning, including prompts and additional resources on the topic.

Allison McLean from Elkhart Public Libraries helped us with a Hunger Games Jeopardy Game.

Fred Flury talked about tracking wild animals and signs to look for while out on the trail.

We headed out for a hike, looking at signs of animals (found several tracks!) and different plants in the forest.  We found an old woodchuck den, dreys, places for shelter and food, and more.

This bloodroot is pretty fascinating. Besides the pretty flower, the liquid inside is red, hence the name. It has been used as an insect repellant and for dyes in the past. Among the other plants, we  had to find dandelions and garlic mustard as we were eating those later!

Later we played a game to get to know more wild edibles and medicinal  plants that were mentioned in The Hunger Games and others that are native to our area.

We camouflaged orange pieces of paper, like Katniss camouflaged her backpack so that it wouldn't stick out as easily.

It was interesting to watch everyone use different technique, even going as far as to disturb other areas nearby to throw us off track once we tried to find them.

We talked about different things animals do for camouflage and how it helps protect them, as well as looked at different examples and specimens of this in action.

We played another game to simulate how camouflage is advantageous to the animals.  The items that stuck out the most were found first!

We had the chance to try our hands at archery.

And had some treats . . . girl on fire cupcakes, mint tea with local honey, dandelion tea with maple syrup . . . 

Cinnamon bread (like Peeta threw Katniss), goatcheese and basil (Prim gave to Katniss on reaping day), and a dandelion salad with berries and nuts. The dressing was very simple but delicious. 1/3 cup each of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and maple syrup (which we made at home!).

Delicious! It was fun pulling together elements from the book with nature in our own back yards!

We also had a great discussion at the Nature Nook book group earlier in the week, mentioning how overarching themes talk about sustainability, local foods, foraging, and more! Of course, there are many more resources, quotes, and applications, but here are a few topics to note:

Birds--there are two fictional birds in the story, the jabberjay and the Mockingjay. The Mockingjay is used for communication and as a symbol of hope in the book. 

Wild Edibles--The main character is named Katniss. Her father once told her, "As long as you can find yourself, you'll never starve." Possibilities include, dandelions, cattails, and Katniss, wild strawberries, raspberries, etc. 
Here is a website that discusses wild edibles in the book:
Here is one video that talks about some wild edibles in the movie/book:
Video about where Katniss got her name:

Primitive Fire Making Skills--To survive in the arena, a fire is needed at times to keep warm and to cook game

Tracking -- Katniss uses nature and tracking skills to hunt for food to sell in town and to feed her family. These are skills she learned from spending time with her father in nature. Small game hunting is part of the story, including rabbits, squirrels, etc. 

Animals in the book--squirrels, rabbits, birds, deer, predators, etc. 

Archery-- Katniss's father made her bow and arrows. She keeps this wrapped in leather and hidden in a log in the woods as they are banned in the community. 

Nature Journals--Katniss and her father kept a nature journal of wild edibles and medicinal plants that were typical of their area. 

Medicinal Herbs--Medical care is limited in the poorer areas of the book. Katniss's mother knows about medicinal plants and people often bring people to the home for care when the mother is doing well in life. 

Shelters--Katniss often straps herself to a tree in a sleeping bag to stay safe and sleep at night, though others are able to build more temporary shelters on land. Knowing how to build a shelter with natural elements is a great skill in any survival situation. 

Insects--There is a fictitious insect called a Trackerjacker in the book. This could be used to introduce people to similar insects in the area and myths/facts about these. 

Camouflage--A main character, Peeta, uses his cake decorating skills to camouflage himself with natural elements/materials in the arena when he is wounded. This saves his life and allows him to remain hidden. This could be extended to camouflage in nature.

Survival skills/gear/packs--Some characters in the book are able to procure basic survival items in the arena. Having and knowing how to use appropriate items in an emergency pack can be critical to survival.

Coal--Coal mining is the main type of work in Katniss's area. Coal itself could be a topic, but then broader topics of rocks, mining, etc. could be touched on. We also looked at the different regions and natural elements they have. 


We've been to a couple of Amphibian/Reptile shows through Elkhart County Parks, but I still always have more to learn! As we are studying amphibians through the Outdoor Hour Handbook of Nature Study Challenge, I knew we had to go!

We arrived a little late, but caught the life cycle of an amphibian and all the frogs and toads being passed around. The area around the Briar Patch shelter at Bonneyville Mill is a nice area. We often have family reunions there, so even when we didn't live in the area, we came to this spot! It is easily accessible to trails, a playground, and a water feature.

We saw lots of species, like an American Toad, spring peeper, bull frog and more! I usually go to the Indiana DNR site to find more information about the specifics of amphibians. I put together this frog and toad call list from there earlier about a month ago to put all the calls of the frogs from our area in one place. Some are rare or of special concern in the area.

This is a Spring Peeper--it's a tiny little thing.

As Courtney talked about the characteristics and calls, he shared many of his "jokes" we've heard several times. When he talked about the calls, he said the frogs were looking for girlfriends and boyfriends. All the children from Boys and Girls club started going, "Ewww!".

Cute to see such interest!

Later, we headed to the pond to release the frogs. Most of the children had the opportunity to touch and/or release at least one frog.

There was a whole bucket of them! Courtney had been collecting for a few days, trying to have a different example of all the frogs in the area.

What a face! He seemed more excited in person, just not keen on the picture!

While it was noisy and most of the frogs quickly hopped away, we were still close enough to see the frogs in their natural habitats. Sometimes,  a guided experience like this can help transition to our own explorations later.

Courtney had tried to find a wood frog for several days. One of his children caught one right before we left. This time is great to ask questions, seek clarification of the different amphibians, and discuss the frogs and toads in more depth. I learn so much from these more informal sessions, such as knowing the choral frog is done calling for the season.

This is why we came--the hands on, guided exploration time. Love seeing these guys together!

Arbor Day at Elkhart Environmental Center

We stopped by the Elkhart Environmental Center in Elkhart for the Arbor Day Celebration. There was a nice presentation about how the demise of the Ash Tree is being used as a positive at times, such as making the nice platform pictured and other applications of the very usable wood. The mayor of Elkhart used ceremonial scissors (aka HUGE scissors) to cut the ribbon after he read the Arbor Day proclamation and talked about the general importance of trees. The city forester and others who work at the EEC worked hard to pull this all together.

It was nice and all, but this is REALLY what my kids and niece were doing . . . yep, digging in the dirt!

And I was bouncing a hungry baby to keep him quiet during the presentation. Just in case you thought we lived a perfect life, I thought I'd let you know how we really live some days.

I liked the message on the platform.

I was just being nosy when I snapped this picture. Sounds like he's the artist of these trio of trees! Pretty cool. I'd like to learn more about them.

They were giving away trees and you could mark on the map where it would be planted. 

Kids found places to climb . . .

It was a beautiful day and a great time to explore the grounds of the Elkhart Environmental Center. My husband had never been here. It really is a great demonstration and teaching place as there are numerous elements that can be used for learning about the environment, such as the cabin. It has a water catchment system and other green features.

Various types of compost bins are on display.

A spiral herb garden is also fun to see.

There was free food provided by Olive Garden. My nephew decided to do a wild edible guessing game with my husband. Not sure the hubster was too into! It's neat to see them recognizing wild edibles.

Elevated spaces are always nice!

The kids found a toad and practiced their toad identification skills from the previous night. It seems like it's easier to meet new friends when chasing amphibians!

A portable saw mill was cutting the ash into planks.

The toad kept these guys busy for quite some time.

We looked at the exit holes and marks inside the bark of the ash tree up close. These gentlemen were from Chicago as part of a woodworker's design group.

They have found good solutions to the excess ash wood by creating various furniture and other items.

We checked out the EEC. Puppets were a hit!

The Pollution Solution game was fun as well.

Arborcare was available to answer our tree questions. We have a couple of trees with significant woodpecker activity--it's probably time to give these guys a call!

The Purdue Extension Office also had a display about the Emerald Ash Borer. The kids saw the critter and its effects up close and personal.

This map shows the spread of the Emerald Ash Borer. It's quite interesting to see the areas of concentration and how it was moved, often in firewood.

We walked around a small pond and found several treasures, like this robin's egg.

There was also a Canada Goose nesting.

The trunk of this tree was quite interesting!

A turtle was catching some rays.

We found a couple of cocoons. We really had a great opportunity to interact with wildlife at the Arbor Day festival! While it wasn't part of our "agenda" we certainly took advantage of the great weather and exploration time.