Monday, June 30, 2014

Finding Nature on a Busy Corner

Last weekend we were helping with a fundraiser for the boys' Little League. The kids and an adult helped hold the signs while the adults sold chicken and potatoes to passer-bys. It wasn't too long before the children started exploring nature in this narrow strip of land between concrete. The first discovery was an ordinary earthworm, which is always extraordinary to my five-year-old.

The earthworm was enthralling for all involved. Yes, the littlest is near the road. Yes, there is an adult right there as well. :-) Then the dandelions became an object of choice, with a few being collected. I'm grateful there are a prolific plants to explore at times (i.e. pick!).

Soon the kids remembered there were mulberry bushes near the car. Break time! They love mulberries and eat them all the time at this season of summer. I love them, too! This article talks about the different types of mulberries. Now I want to do some investigations and see which kind we have in the yard. I tell the kids to look for the darkest ones, almost black, that come off without any tugging, often just falling into my hand if brushed. My oldest typically has purple splotches on his face, purple fingers, and purple soles of his feet about this time of the year!

Soon, they found a Mayfly. They loved observing it up close! Don't worry, it still flew away. It was neat to see a Mayfly nymph in the lake the next week. We could see the separated "tail" and wing "buds". It swam very well, would crawl on their hands, and swim some more! 

They also found a emerald green beetle. They know about the Emerald Ash Borer and were worried it might be one of those. Regardless of its devastating nature, the beetle found a home in one of their musical instruments they made at ETHOS. The children were intrigued by it. Here is a chart that peeks at similar insects. While it may not be an EAB, it warranted serious investigation and observation! 

The Emerald Ash Borer is a serious concern. In Elkhart, 20% of the trees were Ash trees. However, they are quickly dying--that's a loss of 1/5 of the city's trees. Middlebury also was hit hard. 

Oh, right. They were supposed to be holding up signs! Their attention span is only so long and we sold out of chicken early! They needed a few breaks to explore. 

I had a few take aways from this experience:
  • Nature can be found anywhere! Even a narrow strip of grass near a busy intersection.
  • Nature exploration can be a great "break" when doing other work. It's readily available and easy to use. No batteries are required. You get what you get and it's unique each time. 
  • Having adults nearby that allow a little nature exploration makes a huge difference. The moms and dads weren't exclaiming about the icky bugs. We asked questions, guided observations, and allowed them to explore. 
  • My boys don't hang out much with girls. All the kids were united through their discoveries. Gender was a non-issue as they had nature exploration time. 
  • Connecting past learning to new experiences builds on understanding. When we found the Mayfly nymph in the lake, they had already seen an adult Mayfly up close! They are building on their experiences as they explore more in nature.
  • No real tools or expensive gadgets are necessary. They used a makeshift bug box that is really an upcycled cookie box. 

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Lake Days and Indiana Children's Outdoor Bill of Rights

We live near (but not on) a small lake. I like to take the boys out swimming and on kayaks and canoes. The lake is relatively shallow, though it has a deep end where motor boats go. We've had fun so far this season, investigating leather back turtles, watching ducks, looking at pond skimmers, and paddling.

I often get questions on how I take my little ones out with me. Since they were little, I'd visit the lake and put one or two kids between my legs in their life jackets and head out. Some of them are getting older and bigger and can use the kid kayaks. But this last week, all four wanted to go out with me in the canoe. Of course, I had my fair share of comments about having my hands full. As a mom of four boys, I get that a lot. :-)

We checked out the channel, finding several turtles along the way. We watch them duck under the surface and follow them with our eyes as they resurface a few feet away. There is a natural section of a quarter of lake which is lovely! Their newest obsession is to climb out on a tree that goes over the water and jump in! They keep asking to go back and go back.

Have you heard of the Indiana Children's Outdoor Bill of Rights?

When we visit this spot, my kids get to experience several of these outdoor "rights":

1. Enjoy and explore outdoors in a safe environment. -- We take proper safety precautions, practice what to do, and have appropriate risks. In the last trip, one son fell off his kayak in deeper water. I'm glad he did. He was wearing his life jacket properly and we'd talked about what to do. I'm glad he could fall in while I was nearby to talk him through it and see how he reacted and would handle a potentially stressful situation in the water. He did okay and I was close if he needed help. I'll admit my youngest went head in, too, as he got curious about looking over the side of the boat. However, once again, he was wearing his flotation device and I easily pulled him right back in the boat. If they're never exposed to dangers they won't know what to do when the dangers really come. At this point, they know they are not to get into the water for swimming unless we're nearby. We keep an extra eye on the toddler as he is a little less predictable than his brothers.

2. Follow a trail and discover native plants, wildlife and history. -- We chose a water path and talked the animals we saw, the fish under the boat, and the plants along the shore.

6. Climb a tree. -- They had so much fun doing this! It added just the right amount of adventure they needed!

9. Splash and play in streams, lakes, and ponds. -- We went out and it was less than 80 degrees outside. It was perfect. The slower pace of a canoe or kayak allow us to splash each other and see the wildlife around us.

10. Enjoy nature using all the senses. -- What a tactile experience!

11. Ask questions, find answers and share nature with a friend. -- I often heard, "I wonder why . . . " We could speculate, observe, and share some of the best friends we have, our family!

There was a Catalpa tree nearby. It was down low by the canoe, so we were able to see the long seed pods and check out the heart shaped leaves.

There is a natural spring nearby and fresh water flows in several areas into the lake here. It's great to see those source points of water nearby and understand the water cycle better.

They climbed and jumped over and over and over again!

The older boys swam out to where it was a little deeper, working on their building skills and confidence.

We paddled back to the grandparents' house. What a beautiful day! 

The youngest was mesmerized just by watching a butterfly flutter by. We've talked about the light grass under the canoe. We found a snake right there the last time we were out and were able to observe it, tough it, and let it go on its merry way. One last shot! Someone was "fake" floating under the dock. They had me use the timer on my phone to see who could float the longest. Combining nature and technology once again! 

Just a few weeks ago, my husband's cub scout group came out. Three of the boys had never been in a boat before. I was glad we were able to share some of these same Outdoor Bill of Rights activities with them as they had a great time connecting with nature. How might you help a child (and yourself?) connect with nature through the Indiana Children's Outdoor Bill of Rights?

I took all these photos with my iPhone 5. Last year, I received a DandyCase Blue Waterproof Case for my birthday last year! It makes it easier to take pictures near the water, even if my oldest thought it looked a little dorky. It was easy to use and protected my phone. I'll have to do a review for it soon. 

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Fernwood Nature Center Summer Break!

A few things I like about Fernwood Botanical Garden and Nature Preserve:

1. There are plenty of options of things to do, such as visit the library, programs, the nature center, special exhibits, sculptures and artwork, the cafe, the store area, etc.
2. There is a wide variety of types of land--gardens, pond, water features including the river, arboretum, prairie, woods, etc.
3. Fernwood has many "extras" available, such as scavenger hunts, volunteer opportunities, backpacks to check out, geocaching, etc. They have a full calendar schedule.
4. Their membership gives reciprocity to both nature centers and botanical gardens in their respective systems.
5. Fernwood blends "nature" with gardens well. It is a very pretty place with many natural spaces in the nature preserve.
We've visited a few times. Here are highlights:
Stick building with Patrick Dougherty
A Winter Visit to Fernwood

On to our summer break adventure: 

I wanted to go do something with the kids and started heading toward Curious Kids Museum as the weather looked dubious. However, the kids convinced me that Fernwood Botanical Garden and Nature Preserve would be a better option as it was a little closer. Thankfully, the weather held out--it was beautiful! Entering Fernwood, we saw a long snake crossing the road. Of course, we had to stop, roll down the windows and investigate! There are also numerous sculptures along the drive and within the property. These add to the value of the trip, as we talk about lines, color, use of movement, shape, etc.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Inside Outside Michiana Summer Guide 2014

Every child should have mud pies, grasshoppers, water bugs, tadpoles, frogs, mud turtles, elderberries, wild strawberries, acorns, chestnuts, trees to climb, brooks to wade, water lilies, woodchucks, bats, bees, butterflies, various animals to pet, hayfields pine cones, rocks to roll, sand, snakes, huckleberries, and hornets. And any child who has been deprived of these has been deprived of the best part of education.
 –Luther Burbank

Michiana Summer Guide 2014
By Dr. Carla Gull
Follow us on Facebook! Check out Pinterest boards!

Here is a post with links to the "official" city guides for the area.

Junior Ranger Program at Shenadoah National Park

The boys worked hard for their Jr. Ranger patches at Shenandoah National Park! See my tips at the end of the post.

Part of the official ceremony is to be sworn in by a ranger. 

Yep, that's my son working on his Jr. Ranger program while we're driving through Shenandoah National Park. Have you ever tried one of these programs? It's a program for 7-12 year children at many national parks and historical sites. Children have a series of activities to complete while at the site or before. After completing the activities, they earn a pin or badge. While on vacation recently, our oldest two boys worked on their patch! See my tips at the end of the blog post! 

I printed out one brochure while at home, but then needed another one for the other child. There is an option at Shenandoah to rent an explorer backpack full of goodies and it includes a Jr. Ranger booklet. At the cost of $5 to rent the pack (including the $3 Jr. Ranger booklet), it made sense to try out one of the explorer packs. I needed to leave credit card information with the attendants and fill out information in case we didn't return the pack. It was a fairly easy check out process and we could use the pack all day. The program helps children understand the National Park Service in more depth.

My sister often does the Junior Ranger Program with her home schooled children. They recently went on a 2 week trip and completed another 10. They are up to 70 or 80 patches and badges. She said her best piece of advice is to print out the booklets before you go so children can work on the projects before they leave and or as they have time. I used the online booklet for the National Mall in Washington, DC to alert our children to what they may see. I just looked it up on my phone. I thought we might have time to work on it while there, but with just one day and other stops we didn't make it. However, I found it was a great scaffolding activity to activate prior knowledge with the boys and introduce them to other monuments they might see. They frequently mentioned snippets from our car ride intro while we were on the bus or on foot in DC. If you are not going on a trip, try out the online Webrangers program.

Part of the activities include attending 2 ranger programs. While we went to programs on Birds of Prey and Deer earlier in the day, we thought we'd try the Junior Ranger program, too. The kids started with a get to know you activity, passing around a fox and sharing things they thought were cool about their visit to the park. Many of them mentioned seeing deer in the park--there are a lot there! We see them at home plenty, too. I guess live animals in their natural habitats are pretty fascinating!

Then they took a quiz on what types of products come from trees, like t-shirts, gum, etc. They also passed around many unique animal items, like a turtle shell, deer antler, and snake skin.

My niece wanted nothing to do with the snake skin! What were the younger kids doing during this time? Our youngest was building a nest with sticks in the backpack carrier! He does notice birds a lot and sticks are one of his favorite toys!

Our five-year-old was exploring the Jr. Ranger explorer back pack during this time. Since he is a little younger, we didn't do the patch program for him. Having a special bag with tools for him to use was a GREAT addition. He used the binoculars to view birds, he drew with the color pencils, looked through the guide books, etc. I'd say just having something special for him to explore was worth that extra two dollars. It also gave me ideas of things that would be good for his own nature bag. 

Later the older boys and cousins were playing Birds and Worms from the Project Learning Tree book. I've used this with groups as well and here is how we did it during training. I liked how she used tricolored pasta for the worms. It made it easy to administer and would store easily as well. They found the orange "worms" stuck out the most, and then the light colored worms. The green ones were barely noticed!

We found fur nearby while the children were playing their games!

They also played a predator/prey game where the children tried to steal "food" (sticks) from the blindfolded child. The child with the blindfold tried to guess who was sneaking up on them. 

Later, they took a short hike and saw trees that had been rubbed by antlers, exploring antlers as well.

Another cool find was bear claw scratches on another nearby tree! We touched a bear's claw and were able to feel their fur.

We found more deer rubs and a woodland snail! Kids typically have good eyes for all of these. I always ask them to find one "interesting" thing while we are out.

It was another fun program and helped the kids get closer to their patches! Here are the contents of the backpack. It was nice to have a few guide books, paper, etc. 

My tips for doing Junior Ranger Programs:
1. Print the booklet out before you leave home. 
2. Have children work on some projects in the car, before the vacation, or during down time at the hotel or campsite.
3. Plan vacations to maximize Jr. Ranger Programs. My sister plans her vacation routes around these, visiting national parks and historic sites. Their kids have learned so much through these adventures!
4. Clipboards could be helpful to do the writing. Have a special tablet or materials for younger children below the target age so they can be included. 
5. Be sure to have pencils (colored would be nice, too) handy. Lots of them!
6. Visit some of the programs geared just for kids. While they tolerated other programs, they talked about and enjoyed the children's programs most. 
7. Know what needs to be done for the badges. Requirements vary by site. The boys needed to do a certain amount to get the patch. 
8. Encourage the children to ask questions while at programs. Usually, before getting the patch and being sworn in, the children need to talk to the rangers about their experiences in the park. Help them develop these communication skills. 
9. Check out the park's "For Teachers" section for additional educational materials. 
10. Try webrangersstate park programs, or local community programs if you can't make it to a National Park. 
11. Have fun with your children! :-) Talk about their experiences, what they learn in the programs, their observations, etc. What great conversations and experiences we are building!