Sunday, December 28, 2014

Sneaky Snacky Squirrel Game

What a fun game! Our 2 1/2 year old received The Sneaky, Snacky Squirrel Game for Christmas. Since we're outside a fair amount, it looked like a fun way to bring the outside inside our house. It also looked like a developmentally appropriate game (in about 6 months) for him and the family.

The game is very simple and the box only contains the logs with colored holes where you put the acorns, squirrel tongs, a spinner, directions, and lots of colorful acorns. At first, I thought, "This is all there is?", but then found that I liked the simplicity and enjoyed the game. I pulled out another long set of tongues as we had competition for the tongs.  The tongs were a little awkward to get used to at first; however, after a few turns they were much easier to use. I actually liked this aspect of it as well. The game works on a few preschool skills, such as colors, counting, taking turns, and fine motor skills. Figuring out how to best use the tongs added to fine motor skill development and being aware of how our bodies work. 

Our older two boys came up and it was a fun game that our 2-10 year old boys could enjoy together. They just started playing on their own and asked if we could play again today. My oldest isn't great at hand writing so I liked the additional fine motor practice for him. They could all play it together without any help from mom. The box seems sturdy. I like the outdoors theme. 


To play, the person spins and takes a colored acorn according to the directions on the spinner. No reading is necessary. The Sneaky Squirrel also may need to take an acorn from another player. This can also help get used to interaction like this in a game.

I'm looking forward to using it for an Animals in Winter preschool group we have coming up soon. I thought we could add some "snow" (cotton balls, white pom poms, shredded white paper) to add to the challenge and make it seem a little more like winter. Many of the acorns might be near the roots of the tree or hidden in a hole in a tree as well. 

While playing this game, it's a perfect time to talk about dreys (squirrel nests--those big leaf climbs you see in barren trees in winter), squirrels from our area, habits of squirrels, etc.). We might even have to do some squirrel observations outside!

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Thursday, December 25, 2014

Where's Santa?

My son was volunteering at the "Where's Santa?" event held at Wellfield Botanic Gardens in early December. I stayed with our two younger boys to go find Santa and get some outdoor time. It was nice to explore the gardens after dark!

We were given a set of clues and needed to find various stations throughout the gardens. There were plenty of volunteers throughout the area to help with the activities. We took a nice stroll all around the loop! Lights were on at the stops. Some stations included riddles or activities we had to do, such as sharing three water conservation tips. I thought this was a nice touch to include the natural elements with the puzzle. 

We explored the Adventure Path in the dark and my son was so happy to see the huge butterfly on the heart. I think he even tried giving it a hug!

We also put together a puzzle and deciphered a code! Some of the statues were even dressed up for Christmas! 

At the end of our journey, we found Santa Claus, one of the main volunteers from Santa's Pantry. Our older kids have enjoyed going to their Pay It Forward 4-H club and participating in various service projects around the area. It's inspiring to see all they accomplish through their efforts to help the community. 

After seeing Santa, the kids decorated cookies and drank hot chocolate around a campfire. They also made fake snow and peanut butter bird feeders. Another station had recycled card activities. It was nice to have these additional activities with the entrance fee. Each station had plenty of volunteers to help. 

Before we left, Santa and theToys for Tots were whisked away in the fire truck. That's always exciting to see with a two-year-old! 

Things we enjoyed:
1. Going for a walk as a family at night. We don't tend to take that opportunity after dark very often. With the nights getting dark so early we should explore this option more!
2. The feeling of community. There were so many volunteers and others there to help with the event that also gave back to the community. 
3. Exploring the gardens in a  different setting. It was cool to see the lights on display and to be there after dark! 
4. The challenge of the scavenger hunt! There was a good variety of activities embedded in the hunt!
5. The extra activities. The kids loved the cookies! It was fun to have a few other activities available as well. 

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Making Butter

It's that time of the year again! Science Fair time!

Just about a month ago, we bought a Jersey cow with a nearby family. The cow stays at their place, yet we take our turn milking every day. I will say it's been great to share the cow as we have built in people to share the work and spoils with each day. I'm sure I'll share more about our adventures with the cow and our super local milk! Today I wanted to share about experimenting with butter as our 8-year-old son decided on doing an experiment on making butter.
Our son has been a "let's make butter" advocate since we started getting milk. I must admit that it was really fun to bring a jar of cream to Thanksgiving and pass it around as we waited for the meal until the buttermilk separated from the butter. I saw awe and shock on the faces of my uncle and male cousin who are over 60 and 30. It's pretty neat to watch the natural process of cream turning into whipped cream and then separating out into the cream colored buttermilk and yellow butter. I know I've "helped" make butter at a couple of events, but used to just always buy butter from the store. I think we all typically buy butter from the store so we forget exactly how those sticks of butter get there from milk.

Our son decided to try two different temperatures for his butter--room temperature and cold from the refrigerator. He measured 1/2 cup each into pint mason jars and replicated the experiment 3 times for each temperature.

Our son found it took about half as much time to make butter by the shaking in a jar method when using room temperature cream than it did using cold cream. Still, the cold cream only took about 5-6 minutes for his half a cup of cream in each trial. It was interesting to see what how he gathered information. Initially, he wondered about warm milk, too. He heated 1/2 cup cream in the microwave for 1 minute and then shook. And shook. Shook some more. Yep, more. Most of this required an oven mitt to protect our hands. At about 20 minutes he finally gave up. Later he read about the melting point of butter and started understanding why it never formed butter--it was too hot! 

Each half cup of cream made about a walnut sized ball of butter. You can see the picture of the butter separating from the liquid below. It is really yellow! It's also a lot harder than store bought butter as there are no additives in it--it's pure, unadulterated butter! After a ball forms, I pour off the buttermilk and run the butter through cool water. This helps firm it up and also helps it last longer. 

So there you have it! If you want to make butter quickly (or with less exertion) from cream, use room temperature butter. My son anecdotally thought the room temperature cream did not yield as much butter as the cold cream did. Sounds like another experiment in the making where we measure the resulting butter! We've thought of other extensions--does the size of the jar matter? What if we have more cream in the jar--does that affect the outcome? We've read about making butter in the mixer, food processor, or Vita-mix. I understand the mixer just makes a huge mess and I think the Vita-mix would be messy. For the amount of cream we usually have (at most a couple of cups to make into butter), I think the shaking process is just right and makes my kids MOVE to get their food!

As my son finished up his poster, he mentioned, maybe we should just have a farm. I thought about how much work that is! I also reflected on a recent article I read on Follow the Flavor, a local food blog, about a farmer in Elkhart that is managing Rise Up Farms. Alex Smith wrote, "Farmer isn’t on the list of “professional” careers (i.e. doctor, lawyer, professor), and lacks the social cachet that those careers carry. When you ask young people what they want to be when they grow up, only a small number will say they want to be farmers, though that number is certainly on the rise. I’m not immune to these considerations of wealth and status, and sometimes they make me doubt what would otherwise be a happy career choice. What if the mainstream folks have it right, and I’m wasting my effort?" 
While my dollar spending doesn't always show it, I appreciate all that local farmers do to add to our local food economy. It's nice to know that our beef came from a couple of miles down the road. Any effort we can  to grow our own food and/or buy local food adds to that local food source. Last month, we went to Kalamazoo to listen to Michael Pollan. What a great talk that help me think of our food choices! We also went to Food Dance before the event--delicious and locally sourced! Here's to local food one shake at a time! I have joked that our cow is doing the foraging for us. :-) 

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Nature Study in Winter

Nature study is often reserved for spring, summer, and fall during the “nicer” weather; however, winter has great opportunities for nature study! In fact, as life slows down, it seems like we have more time to interact with nature as well.

Bird studies! We purposely put a bird feeder right out our front windows where the boys always play. Sure they fly away briefly when we first come out, yet they are in a high traffic place for us to observe on a regular basis. Try participating in a bird count or project feeder watch to include citizen science opportunities. We keep bird books by the windows, yet really enjoy our homemade bird books. Find a local winter bird hike
Visit a nature center or wildlife-viewing window. We have at least 8 wildlife-viewing windows within an hour of our house.  It’s great to see the feeding stations hopping at these. Each place has a unique set of birds with identification helps nearby.  There are also several nature centers nearby. We can check out the exhibits, looking for specific study items (owls, rocks, fossils, mammals, etc.), use the nature play areas inside or out, or attend a great program, like a winter wildflower hike

Check out the tracks! On sunny days with little wind, we drop everything to get outside! Hikes through favorite spots yield quite different results than what we find during the summer. With most of the leaves down, we find nests hidden all summer, can see birds more easily, and count dreys (squirrel nests) as we walk. It’s a perfect time to discover animal tracks, trying to recreate what might have happened, whether a squirrel was digging an acorn or a coyote chased a rabbit.

Read about nature. I love snuggling up to a good book when it’s cold outside. Make it a nature selection! Form a book group and/or record what you learn in your nature journals.
Study nature indoors. Try science experiments, cooking with local foods (make your own maple syrup!), and exploring your seasonal nature table. We typically keep rock and fossil studies for wintertime as it’s an easy indoor study.
Explore the many properties of snow. We love looking at snowflakes in the Handbook of Nature Study on pages 781-786. The photos by W.A. Bentley show the detail of snowflakes. We bring snow inside for nature play; take in a program on snow; experiment with water, snow, and color outside; and even make snow ice cream! 
Study the stars. With the earlier sunset, we find it easy to gaze up at the stars as we go back and forth between activities in the winter. It’s great that we can see Orion and Cassiopeia at 7 pm!
Take time for fun! We love combining recreational activities with nature studies. When outside using the toboggan run, snowshoeing, tubing, or sledding, we naturally find ourselves asking questions, making hypotheses, and sharing observations with others. As we make snow people, snow animals, and snowballs, we readily notice differences in snow and nature around us.

This was first published in the December 2014 Handbook of Nature Study newsletter. It's a great resource! 

Monday, December 1, 2014

A Natural Christmas Scavenger Hunt

The boys and I had a great time celebrating the season with this natural Christmas scavenger hunt! I based it on a scavenger hunt by Nature Detectives. They have great FREE printables for nature excursions! I had my magic green and red canvas bag full of items from the scavenger hunt list. We recently pulled out Christmas decorations, so I just found some of the items from our boxes since we used them that morning for Nature Preschool. I even stole our elf on the shelf off the Christmas tree at home! My son couldn't believe I touched him! 

Each child took turns pulling out an item and finding it. We found an elf boot print in the dirt near the house. We also found branches shaped like candy canes up high in the sky. 

A Natural Holiday: Preschool Style

This morning we had our last session of Nurturing Acorns, our nature preschool group that meets once a week. We had a small group, yet enjoyed meeting with everyone throughout the fall! 

We started by writing and drawing in our nature journals, adding a picture of the child to help remember our special time together studying spiders, trees, nocturnal animals, and more! Then we made paper strip Christmas trees (Thanks Mommy Savers!), talking about the children's trees at home, shapes, and colors. It was great glueing practice! One family recently went to Eby Pines for their tree. What great memories and a fun way to get outside!

Later we went out to the larger open space for a little holiday action! I love these Christmas action cards from Oopsey Daisy. We marched like a nutcracker, melted like a snowman, twirled like a snowflake, and spread our branches like a tree! I love using action cards like this from preschool to at least 12 years old, depending on the audience! 

We have a very young group (mostly 2-year-olds) so tried playing with the play dough while we read a few stories. I love seeing what they come up with. As additions, we had letter stamps, so some spelled there names. We had a few wooden and foam trees, red wooden beads, holiday pipe cleaners and popsicle sticks, and more as loose parts add ins. 

We had more books available, yet these were some of my favorites for this time of year, such as The Snow Tree , 10 Christmas Lights , Counting to Christmas , and A Wish to Be A Christmas Tree. I also really like all of Jan Brett's books for wintertime (affiliate links). Many of these books talk about evergreens, animals in winter, and natural decorations. In The Snow Tree, I like how the various animals help decorate the white tree with something colorful that is related to them, like the Blue Jay's feather. In Counting to Christmas, there is obviously an emphasis on counting, but we also see the girl making and giving back to the animals nearby and decorating a tree outside. In A Wish to Be a Christmas Tree, the animals remind the large tree how it is a home to so many animals and they decorate it each holiday season. 

Outside, we went on a special holiday hike, taking Christmas items from my "magic" bag and trying to find them in the woods. I based it off this fun activity from Woodland Trust Nature Detectives. They have GREAT stuff. It's based out of the UK, though, so some things use different names. I also often take their great ideas and modify it a bit. This scavenger hunt was very text heavy for preschoolers, so I found objects for many of the items and put them in my magical bag. Outside we found twigs shaped like reindeer antlers, logs like yule tide log, something white like Santa's beard, and more! 

It was a fun way to get outside on a chilly morning and celebrate the holidays!

For snack inside, we had snowman string cheese and cucumber snowmen, complete with red pepper scarf and raisin eyes and buttons! They were just right! We also worked on a paper chain to help decorate the nature center. 

We also did pinecone weaving (Thanks for the inspiration Rainy Day Mum!) and holiday pattern blocks. They're always fun! I like the pattern block templates from PreKinders

Everyone was interested in making a holiday treat for the birds, spreading peanut butter on pinecones and rolling them in bird seed. We changed out many items in the sensory bin to make it more like the holiday time as well!

One girl even set up the puppet theater area like our books where the animals decorated the trees! I loved how she applied the story to her play! She always has a great imagination!