Sunday, December 20, 2009

"It's a Beautiful Day Out Here!"

These are the words spoken by my youngest the other day. It was 7:45 A.M. Eleven degrees. I was wrestling him into his car seat, trying to strap him in despite his puffy coat, hat that was crammed down over his eyes, mittens on upside-down, slush-covered pantlegs and one boot falling off.

I snapped to attention. Only moments before, I'd been silently griping to myself about my lost mittens, the icy air, the slush. I was annoyed that I had to scrape the car windows (again) and we were running late (again.) And it wasn't sunny outside, and I was cold.

How often do you comment on the weather these days? To friends, family, to your kids? How much of what you say is positive?

What does the winter season mean to you? To me, it means many different things: glorious shining snow, owls hooting, animal tracks and sledding...but I also think of being cold, of the flu, of hot uncomfortable coats, boots, slush, lost mittens, car-scraping and how we've gotta weatherproof our old drafty house. It sucks the enthusiasm right out of me. And why is it so easy and automatic to focus on the negative things rather than the positives? (just look at the size of each of my lists!)

During winter I try to be mindful of what I focus on so that I can help my kids find positive things to focus on too...their experiences are so shaped by what we adults say and do, how we react to things. I want to know what their experience of winter is like, untainted by mine.

So what do you talk about when the weather is not quite what you like?

When we all traipse outside and it's a nose-freezing 2 degrees, rather than say what I am tempted to say (Crap! It's COLD!) I comment instead on how sunny it is. How pretty the tree looks covered in snow. I wonder out loud what the dog thinks of this weather. I'm not overly saccharine or fakey, I just shift my attention a bit.

If it's too early, or I'm crabby and I can't think of a single positive thing, as was the case the other day, I take Thumper's advice: "If you can't say something nice, don't say nuthin' all." And when that happens, more often than not, my kids will say something nice so I don't have to.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Special Dark

One of the best things about wintertime is how early the darkness sets in. (I know, I know, this is also one of the worst things about wintertime, too)

In the summer, we have to wait so long until it's really dark, it can be a rare treat to experience the darkness outside. But in the winter, there's often time to play outside for a little while in the evening, before bed. And, up here in the hinterlands, it gets good and dark very early.

How often do you play outside at night? There is something just wonderful about playing outside in the darkness. Things look different. Even here in the city, most nights, we can see stars. At least a few. That's really exciting. And the moon, seen from the backyard, rather than through a window? That's thrilling too! It can be so exciting to experience familiar places like one's own backyard, or the sandbox, or even the driveway and a sidewalk or path you've walked every day, suddenly in the dark. It takes on a specialness that is almost sublime.

And what is the first thing we noticed when playing outside the other night? Things are quieter. Which somehow seems to encourage children to be quieter. Very few cars drive by. We can hear dogs barking from a few blocks away. We move more slowly, as if checking out the terrain for the first time (and, in a way, we are.) The snow (if you're lucky enough to be outside, at night, during a snowfall) twinkles and sparkles in the dark. You can create your own snowfall by throwing a shovelfull up into the sky, then watching it fall.

The snow on the ground casts a special glow that is just incredible to play in. Snow angels look more angelic. Everything is more enchanting.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Bring it on

The snow is coming! It's been lightly snowing all day here and the past couple of mornings we've found snow on the ground when we got up. It's supposed to stay in the 20's or below this week. The kids are beside themselves.

So this is it! Winter is finally upon us. This morning the kids could barely contain their excitement. L looked at me after she had her face pressed against the window, "The snow is coming, the snow is coming! Are you sad?"

Now granted, it's no secret which season I prefer. Despite this, I do know how to have a good time in the winter, and have grown to love many different outdoor activities: snowshoeing, skiing, winter hikes, etc. But still. Give me an 85 degree day with sunshine over snow anytime. The kids and their father refer to themselves as "winter people," while I am the sole "summer person" in the family.

It is easy for me to gripe and moan about the season's change. I'm cold. Winter is so messy. I don't have gloves yet. I want just a few more weeks that are "unseasonably warm." But this morning, I wasn't crying. Despite the gray sky, the cold temperatures, and the oh-so-dry indoor air, I think I'm ready for this.

It helps to have kids who are so enthusiastic. Truly, they are my role models. I will receive this snow, this season with all the wonder and delight that they do. I will catch snowflakes on my tongue, I will drop everything and play outside with them, even if I'm not in the mood. We will play with ice, eat snow, and go sledding. I am counting on them to remind me how fun this can be.

Sunday, November 29, 2009


I've got a question for you. Well, a few actually.

Several friends and blog readers have mentioned to me that as children, they played outside alone for long stretches of time, stayed out exploring until the sun went down, all without parents nearby. Of course, my kids are only 4 and 2, so obviously some of these things don't apply yet. But it's got me thinking, wondering. No matter what the ages of our children, these questions could spark an interesting discussion.

First: Do you have memories of roaming "aimlessly" outside in nature as a child?
I do-so, so many of them. I must have spent hours as a young child lying in the grass on a hill near our house--but not close enough that any parents could "supervise" my play outside.

Next: How often do you let your kids roam--without you nearby? How much physical distance is comfortable for you outside? How far can they get from you before you worry? Why? Does it depend on the setting, the other people nearby? Is this different from what you had the freedom to do as a child of that same age?

What is this about, this change in circumstance? Are we more-or less-protective than our parents were? Why? Do you believe the world is less safe than it was 20 or 30 or 40 years ago?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Empty Spaces

Remember exuberance?

I love visiting big, open areas with my kids: spaces with few trees, few rocks, not much of anything other than grass (or sand). Playing with with them in places like this is so fun. It's different than the way they play when there are trees and rocks to climb, sticks to collect, leaves to pile up.

They jump. They dance. They spin in circles. Sometimes, they just run. They have room to move, to whip through the air with nothing nearby-just glorious space. They move their bodies through this space, feeling what they're capable of, trying new things, feeling the wind in their hair. Learning what fast feels like. And sometimes, what slow feels like. They play chase. They throw things as far and as hard as they can.

Usually they are also very loud, as if the wide-open-ness of the wide-open spaces just begs their voices to be as full and loud as can be. And how many places are there where kids can really yell, shout, scream, really check out what their voices can do?

It's great to visit these places and watch our kids revel in the freedom, but how about you? Do you remember how to spin in circles until you are dizzy? Roll down a hill? Whoop and holler just because you can? Go outside and find some open space. Your kids will remind you how to do these things. I promise.

Friday, November 13, 2009

An apology to the mother in France, whom I judged 15 years ago...(and to a flock of cedar waxwings)

Many years ago, pre-kids, D and I were in a beautiful open square in Paris. We were sitting on the edge of a water fountain eating brie and bread, watching families as they strolled around.

A cute child of about 2 was interested in a large flock of pigeons as they strutted around and pecked at the gravel on the street. Without warning, the child suddenly screamed and rushed at the pigeons, then laughed riotously as they took to the air, an explosion of feathers and flapping.

After a few minutes,the birds settled again and resumed their pecking and strutting. And then, the child gave a repeat performance: screaming and running toward them as fast as he could. The pigeons, in a flurry, took off again.

I remember feeling totally appalled that a mother would allow her kid to treat animals that way. Scaring the pigeons, stressing them out for his own amusement? WTF? I cried to D, outraged. (Disclaimer: I was a bit of a vehement animal rights activist back then)

And then, I did what all women do before they have kids. I swore that when I had kids I would never....

Fast forward 15 (yes, 15 years)I am remembering this incident because just last week, we were frolicking in the mid-day sunshine at a nearby park. We found ourselves lucky enough to be near a tree where there was a flock of cedar waxwings perched, gorging themselves on berries to fatten up for their migration south.

My kids were enthralled. There must have been 50 birds sprinkled in the branches of a small tree bare of leaves, sporting nothing but huge red berries. They were eating them as fast as their little beaks could pick them off.

Suddenly, (you saw this one coming) J screamed and ran as fast as he could toward the tree, waving his arms and yelling. The birds left the tree as if they were one single creature, taking off from the branches, swirling through the air, then returning to the same tree. The kids and I stood, mesmerized. I forgot all about "correcting" J for yelling at the birds- what we were witnessing was so beautiful.

Once the birds had become comfortable, J did it again! He screamed, ran toward the birds, and off they fluttered. In short order, they came back. Honestly, it was fascinating to watch the birds fly together like a ribbon in the air, and then return, minutes later. More fascinating was watching my children as they saw their actions have immediate effects on wild animals. Watching them realize, "Hey, I have power! I can make things happen!" And most importantly, watching them, completely thrilled and captivated by the fluid motion of birds. Excited by animals and how they react to things.

Sorry, lady in France, wherever you are. I get it now.

PS: The birds, I'm quite sure, are fine. The noise my kids created was minimal compared with what these urban guys deal with every day. And I really don't think the stress created by a couple of yells was enough to do any real damage.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Savor it

There is, no doubt about it, a chill in the air. Fall is packin' up and headin' out.

I know, I know, I'm still in denial about this whole "change of seasons" thing. Halloween has passed. Election day is behind us. The leaves are very quickly departing from the trees. OK-I know. They're pretty much gone.

All too soon, it will be cold, overcast, and wet. Cruddy weather, the biggest barrier I know to getting outside. As much as I advocate being outside every single day, even I will admit it is far easier and often more enjoyable to be outside on a sunny day than on a day that's cold, wet, snowy and gray as far as the eye can see. And we have so many of those days in Minnesota.

So when we are blessed with a few more amazing fall days--huge white clouds, crisp fresh air, sunshine- the kids and I pack up our stuff and head outside-anywhere. We just have to savor every last minute of this: We can still run around with our jackets unzipped. No hats. No mittens. We may start out with them, but they quickly come off and lie forgotten on the trail.

Right now, I'm scrambling like a squirrel, getting us outside as often as possible to soak it up. This usually just means we do whatever it is we were going to do anyway, only we do it outside... we move snack time to the back yard, we read on the front step, or we take the toy trains out to the park for a special adventure.

Anything, anything to get us outside where we can relish this sunshine.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Risk Assessment.

The kids and I spent a glorious morning over the weekend leading a "nature playgroup" at a wonderful and underappreciated gem of an urban park. (One of my most delightful jobs is to lead these nature playdates for families with children...we get out and explore the urban park system and generally have fun just messing around in natural areas.)

J and L (and about 15 other kids!)were frolicking in the sunshine, picking up leaves and tossing them high into the air. We were all on a hill that was dotted with huge, sprawling oak trees. There were sticks and acorns everywhere. J immediately found a stick about 6 inches long, as big around as, oh, I don't know, Barbie's leg. He didn't want to put it down. He was carrying it around under his arm, holding it like a walking stick, even cuddling with it at one point. And in his exuberance, he was running and jumping.

I wasn't going to be "that parent" who won't let her kids play with sticks (and who am I kidding? I'm not that parent.)But then again, it did cross my mind that, well, he was running with a stick.

I actually had an entire internal dialogue about this: Should I put a stop to this? No, he's fine, he's having fun. Let him enjoy it. What's the problem? Relax, I told myself. You worry too much. A wisp of anxiety floated through my mind...well, he could get hurt, couldn't he? But really, what are the chances that he'll actually poke his eye out?

Well, wouldn't you know. The moment I had that awful thought, J fell down. Onto the stick. Luckily, it didn't actually enter his eye, but it came darn close. For a few moments there, I felt like The Worst Mother in the World (again). I mean, I let the kid run with a stick on wet leaves: OK, not the best choice.

So. The corner of his right eye is bruised, swollen, and scratched. He cried for a long time, but was OK. No real harm done. In fact, he's a little proud to tell the story to anyone who'll listen.

I've heard lots of reasons for parents and educators' not wanting kids to play with sticks, and injury is top among them. But it's often there that people stop. Well, OK, I ask them, so what if there was an injury. Would that be OK? Or not? Is the risk worth the benefit? How bad would it be?

When it comes to playing outside, many parents hope and try to eliminate the possibility of any injuries altogether. How can you mitigate every possible risk? I don't think this is realistic, or even possible. I'm certainly not saying I think injuries are good, and I'm not trying to minimize real risk and real injury. I'm just saying that sometimes minor injuries aren't necessarily as bad as we imagine them. The risk of getting poked with a stick is, to me, not high or bad enough to warrant removing sticks from my child's repertoire of playthings. And isn't that how it is with most risks involved in outdoor play? There is often a considerable risk of some relatively minor injury and a much, much smaller risk or something much, much worse. So, when do we refuse to let them have the experience because of the small risk that Something Really Bad will happen?

Now granted, I recognize J was darn lucky this weekend. It could have been really bad. But it wasn't. And most of the time, thank goodness, it just isn't.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The shape of things

On our first foray outdoors in what seems like forever, we decided it was time to gather up all the special rocks we've collected this summer and put them someplace for the winter. L decided they would be "happiest hiding under the snow."

So, we made a nice pile of rocks under our ash tree where they will wait quietly for some snow.

While we were collecting the rocks, the kids noticed that some of them were shaped like circles, there was a diamond-shaped rock, a squarish rock, and even a rock that was "like a line," according to J. We had a great time organizing them and finding a variety of shapes.

This week, why not look around your yard for familiar shapes? Leaves can be triangular, heart-shaped, or roundish. Sticks can resemble letters, slides, or even arrows. Rocks come in all shapes and sizes.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Stomach bugs

Stomach bugs have invaded our house. We're on week three of awful crud. The kids are finally sleeping (fitfully) and instead of cleaning or paying bills, I'm reading the news online.

A recent study by some Dutch researchers shows that people who live within about 2 miles of "green space" have significantly fewer physical health problems. The researchers compared people who live in close proximity to green space with those who don't.

Interestingly, the annual rates for some pretty serious physical ailments were significantly lower among those folks who live close to green space (and presumably, go out and enjoy it once in a while). These folks had fewer incidences of:
  • heart disease
  • Depression and anxiety
  • migraines
  • stomach bugs
  • respiratory infections and athsma

As soon as the day breaks, I'm hauling my two sick kids outside.

Monday, October 12, 2009

what just happened?

Did I say fall was here? I guess I meant something resembling winter is here.

Today we awoke to a couple inches of very wet, very heavy snow. The kids raced to the window and pressed noses to glass, screaming, "snow! snow!"

After I'd consumed my RDI of coffee, we dove into our winter gear and went out back to catch snowflakes on our tongues. We made snowballs. We played with the sand toys (today's snow was the perfect consistency for "snow castles.") Made a huge heap of snow on our picnic table. Danced in circles in the yard. Watched the huge flakes fall from the white, white sky.

Then, we listened. The flakes were so big and heavy they practically landed with a "thud." A robin chortled in surprise from the cedar trees near our garage. Tires of passing cars made hissing sounds as they slid down the wet street. Before long the kids were ready to go in (and so was I, since I have yet to dig out my hat, mittens, etc from storage--hey, I said I wasn't ready for this!) and we had some hot soup and cupcakes.

Now there's a day.

So it reminded me, Lucy came home from preschool singing this sweet song last year, and overall it made the whole "Donning of our Winter Gear" process go so much more smoothly. I get aggravated easily in the mornings when we're trying to get out the door, and it helps so much to have a song to sing...the kids remember all their gear and it's impossible to be crabby when you're singing. Try it! (Special thanks to Miss Lori!)

Thumbs in the thumb part, fingers all together

That's what we say in mitten weather

Hats on our heads and scarves around our necks

Warm boots, warm boots, so we don't get wet!

Monday, October 5, 2009


Oh, my. I thnk fall is upon us.

I'm still in denial over here. I know, I know. It's October. It's not going to warm up again. Not for a long, long time. But -and I know I say this every year --I'm not ready.
Now don't get me wrong. I love the change of seasons. I love autumn and the colors and the crisp air and the smell of the dry leaves on the ground. But the transition from summer to fall has always been a difficult one for me.

And, I have learned to embrace winter, in spite of myself. This was a monumental effort for me, which took years. And I had to be paid to do it. More on that in another post, someday.
For now, I'll dig in my heels a bit and sigh as I put on my fleece jacket. I'm not ready quite yet for this.

The kids, on the other hand, are elated. L looks out the door every morning: "Oh, looks like it rained a bit last night! And it's getting so cold outside!"

Or, when we leave the house, J will yell, joyously, "Smells good!" as he takes in a breath of air so huge I expect him to physically expand.

I really ought to thank my kids-they constantly bring me back to the here and now. I snap to attention, and recognize some of the beautiful things Ihave had a tendency to overlook lately. The smells. The temperature. The visual changes everywhere-in the trees, the grass, even the sky.

I forget the leaf-identification games and the tales of animals preparing for winter (all good activities in their own right, mind you, but for another time--that's not that we're here for)
For fun, I ask them to tell me what's going on in "nature" (a.k.a the yard, for our purposes these days) and they point out incredible things for me. I like to make a game of it, and they are happy to show me the world through their eyes.
I've found that academic, "school-y" questions like, What do you notice about the change of seasons? or What's happening out here? are a bit much for young ones. They're a little too "big" and abstract. To make things easier for my kids to explain, I get specific:

"Tell me what's happening in the garden?" I ask, or, "What seems to happen to the trees in all this rain?" and, "Can you show me one nature treasure?"

"All the plants are shaggy" She tells me, pointing out the frayed petals, the sagging leaves.

"This tree is wearing a wet jacket" she says, rubbing her hand across the slick bark.

Or, my favorite: "There are nature treasures everywhere! And they're wet!"

Thursday, September 24, 2009


"Come on, come on, let's go! Get in the car or we're going to be late!" I barked at the kids this morning. L was due at preschool in a mere 10 minutes and they were messing around in the backyard, playing in the garden.

"Come on, get in the car" I said, aggravated and impatient. Finally the two of them walked up to me in the driveway, each with a flower they had chosen "just for you, mama."

This, of course, made me stop in my tracks.

I took a deep breath. I received the flowers they had chosen for me. I gave them each a big hug, and felt myself unwind.

As we drove to school, (and I tried not to speed!) I wondered, what's this rushing around for? Will it really matter if she's 5 minutes late to preschool? It's not a Presidential address, for goodness sakes. I tried to remember--when was the last day I allowed them to take their time, to lead me instead of the other way around? I feel like these days, I am constantly rushing my kids.

After dropping L off at school (late), I decided to forego the errands I had on our agenda, and I headed straght to a nature center in town. I told J "The morning is yours. You get to decide where we go, how long we stay, and what we do."

I set some rules for myself (see below), and here's what I learned about how J plays outside when there's no one telling him what/where/how to do things:

  • He spent most of his time inside a 10-foot radius.
  • He climbed up and down, up and down their boardwalky-bridge thing 18 times. In a row.
  • He asked me to sit next to him on the edge of this boardwalky-bridgy thing. He said, "I don't want to fall down there (pointing to a small streambed underneath) -You got me safe?"
  • He used his butt to create a slide down a slope, and I'll never get those pants clean again.
  • He spent a fair amount of time picking up sticks, large and small, and throwing them, javelin-style, through the air. Often at me.
  • Then he spent an equal amount of time jabbing them into the dirt, making caveman sounds.
  • He rolled logs with his butt.
  • He collected similar-sized rocks and lined them up in a neat row on a tree stump.
  • He found one plant that he described to me as "pokey" and;
  • He finally asked to leave after about 50 minutes.

Here's what I learned about myself during this experiment:

  • After watching him go up and down the boardwalky bridge thing 4 times, I really wanted to move on and it was hard not to try to redirect him to a different activity. I'm not sure why.
  • My first instinct was to say "no throwing sticks" but there was no one there besides us, and I knew he couldn't throw one hard enough to actually hurt me.
  • It was really difficult for me not to try to get him out of this little "circle of space" he was playing in. I felt like I needed to show him everything else there was to look at, do, etc.
  • It was hard not to ask questions about what he was doing, and why, and what he thought of things.

Try this today. Or tomorrow. But soon. It's good for everyone.

Take your child(ren) to someplace other than your usual nature destinations. Then let them be totally free to explore and play without your intervention. (I suggest a "new" place so that everyone is free from past rules, games, and expectations that have been set in familiar places)

Here are the rules:

  • Obviously, first, make sure everyone's going to be safe. Don't do this on a bluff overlooking the river.
  • Kids can do whatever they want, however they want, for as long as they want (if you need to set some parameters around this for safety's sake, fine, but allow as much freedom as possible)
  • Adults may not say 'no' unless someone is in imminent danger.
  • Adults may not lead the child into any activity. The job of the adult is to observe the child. The child decides what to do, how to do it, for how long.
  • If a child asks you to participate in some way, follow their instructions.
  • Don't ask questions. Just watch. And play, if invited.
  • When the child is ready to leave, leave. If at all possible, let the child decide when to go.

What do you think will happen? Will your kids play differently than you expect them to? How long will they be interested in things? What will the experience be like for you? Will it be difficult not to intervene in their play? Let me know what happens, and if anything surprises you.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Never say never

Once, I was leading a group of third-grade kids on a nature hike through the woods, and we accidentally disturbed a nest of yellowjacket wasps. Within seconds there were hundreds of wasps flying everywhere, stinging everyone. I vividly remember pulling them, one by throbbing one, off kids' bodies, their arms, even one unlucky boy's lip. We all ran like hell back to the nature center and spent the rest of the day doing first aid. I didn't get a single sting that day.

I worked at another nature center for a while that had an active honeybee colony. I had "check up duty" and had to look in on them often. Never got stung.

I have had lunch outdoors countless times with hundreds of elementary school students (oh, the sugary sweets! The juice boxes! The flailing arms, swatting at the wasps!) and never once been stung.

This afternoon, D and the kids and I were outside, and I went up to the side of the house to unravel the hose.

"Be careful." D said, pointing out a couple of yellowjackets lazing around in the air. "You don't want to rile them up."

I went about my business unwinding the hose, trying to get the kinks out. Then I noticed several wasps flying around near my ankles, and I decided it was time to bring the kids to the back yard, lest someone get stung. A few were flying up near my face. I felt one fly into the loose strands of hair that had fallen out of my ponytail.

Not being one to panic, I just ignored it. I figured it would leave as soon as it could, and that the less I interfered, the better. (Note-this is true! Swatting, running, yelling, flailing, all these behaviors are likely to provoke an attack. If you encounter a yellowjacket, best to be calm, and ignore it or just leave the area.)

"Come on, guys, the wasps are getting kind of nervous with us here. Let's go play in the back yard." D hurried them to the back yard and I dropped the hose and followed.

So, the wasp must have been a little put off by my nonchalance. I was standing by the fence chatting with D when, out of habit, I reached to tuck my hair behind my ear.

"Yeoowch!" I screeched, swatting at the side of my head, as a sharp dart of pain shot into my ear. I quickly turned and started toward the house, trying in vain to be nonchalant. Wow did it hurt!

Unlike honeybees, which die after stinging, yellowjackets can sting their percieved attacker over and over. What's more, in response to a perceived threat, they emit a chemical which other yellowjackets sense, and the others will almost always come to defend their nest. And that means stinging-lots of stinging. So, I had riled up their nest and they were pissed. At me.

"Get the kids inside! Get the kids inside!" I yelled. (So much for nonchalance. So much for not instilling fear of bugs into the hearts of my children.)

Poor sweeties. They both started screaming and crying. They were really scared! D got them inside and I rushed to the freezer for a handful of ice. I spent the afternoon with ice on the side of my head. I tried to be calm and keep hanging out with them while they played with D. I didn't want to scare them even further by just disappearing after this happened. They needed to see that it was really no big deal.

The incident occured about 6 hours ago. I am pretty sure I was stung twice on the ear and once on the side of my head. My ear looked strangely like a plum earlier this afternoon, in both size and color.

But, you know. No big deal. I'd rather it happened to me than one of them. And I'd rather they see that it's no biggie. People get stung sometimes, and it's no big deal. Yeah, my ear swelled up (another teachable moment!) and my ear was ringing for half the day, but whatever. The upside is, we got to talk a lot about how different animals defend their families and their homes. We got to talk about why I got stung and they also got to see that this mysterious thing they've feared --a wasp sting--is really not that big a deal.

I've never had poison ivy either. Tomorrow I think I'll go look for a patch of that and roll around.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

What we can do

This morning on the way to L's school, J noticed a huge flock of pigeons whooshing over the top of a building.

"Look at all those birds!" he exclaimed.

The kids wondered why they were in such a large group. I told them that it was a chilly morning, and birds often roost on rooftops or other sunny places in the mornings to stay warm.

"How come we can't fly?" L asked.

"Well, flying is something really special isn't it? It's something that only animals can do -only birds, and insects, and bats. There are lots of special things that people can do that animals can't do. Can you think of a few?" I asked.


"Well," I began, hoping to get them started. "People can write, draw pictures, color, talk..."

"Give. People can give." L said.


Here's something to try:

Today, why not look at an animal and talk with your children about what that animal can do that makes it special. Maybe it's something people can't do. Maybe it's something that people do, but differently. For example, how do squirrels climb trees? How do they eat? How do animals talk to each other?

Monday, September 14, 2009

The End

In my work as a naturalist, I have always tried to be honest about "the hard stuff:" life, death, the fact that not all animals beat the odds, that sort of thing. I'm not overly dramatic or sorrowful, this stuff just happens. It is what it is. When I'm teaching a class of adults, it's much easier to be matter-of-fact about it. With kids, not so much. During early childhood, some kids can be almost neutral towards the idea of death, others are torn apart by it, others are fascinated. It's hard to predict what their reaction will be. Best to be prepared for anything.

Late that evening, I checked on "our" butterfly again (where our story begins), when I went to take the garbage out. She was still there, hanging from a leaf. She didn't look too bad, but still. Something wasn't quite right with the one wing. It was a bit warped, and didn't align properly with her hindwing. Something had definitely happened to her after she emerged. Either she fell, or she was released too soon, her wings still soft. We'd never know. So, she hadn't flown away, and she most likely wouldn't, she admitted. Butterflies don't fly at night or when it's overcast: the sun's warmth powers their bodies.

Trying to predict the reaction our kids would have consumed the better part of an evening for myself and D.

Did I worry that knowing the butterfly had died would somehow cast a pall over their whole experience? Of course. I really didn't want to burst the bubble of enthusiasm. And of course I wanted my kids to be proud, to feel they had had a hand in helping a butterfly find her way in the world. Who wouldn't? And obviously, I would have preferred to avoid the sadness and loss of knowing she died.

In the end, D relented and accepted that I was going to tell them what had really happened. He wasn't thrilled about this; he figured, what's the harm in letting them believe the butterfly flew away happily? And, in reality, there's no harm in it at all. None. I just want them to have authentic experiences. And not all of those experiences are going to have happy endings. And butterflies die if their wings get crushed, because they can't fly. This stuff just happens.

Within moments of coming downstairs the next morning, the kids were clamoring to go check on the butterfly. I led them outside, all of us still in our jammies, and braced myself for the scene: We'd find her crumpled body there in the garden, under the lantana where we'd released her, and maybe we'd have a funeral of sorts for her. We'd talk about how butterfly wings work, and how delicate and fragile they are, and how there are so many butterflies in this world, flying right now.

But she wasn't there. The butterfly was gone. I looked around the plants, the mulch. There was no sign of a monarch anywhere. (Which means, dear reader, not that she flew away, but that she was probably eaten by a toad or a raccoon in the night. Sorry.)

"Hooray!" The kids yelled, jumping up and down. "She's gone! She's gone!"

Uh, well....can't argue with that one....

"Maybe she flew away!" They rejoiced.

You're going to call me a cheater here. Now technically, the kids were under no illusions at this point. They were happy that the butterfly was gone. They said "maybe." They realized it was possible she had flown away. There is an implication there that they also realize it's possible she didn't. That some other fate befell our lady. What they were happy about, then, was the fact that the butterfly was gone, and that maybe she flew away. I didn't press the issue. Lucky me--I could "neither confirm nor deny" as they say.

(If one of them had said, "What happened to the butterfly, mama?" Well, then, we'd have had to have a little talk. But no one said that.) I decided in that instant to let them live with the conclusion they drew based on what they saw. (A basic scientific practice, I might add) I don't believe I misled my children. My children were reacting to one interpretation of events. And that interpretation is possible. Not likely, but possible. I will never know either way.

"Maybe she did!" I crowed, relief washing over me like a hot shower. We played in the yard for a good long time before I managed to get them inside for breakfast.

"You know what would have been really great, Mama?" L said, her mouth full of cinnamon toast. "If that butterfly couldn't fly. Then she could have been an indoor butterfly and stayed with us. "
I just had to gulp down more coffee, and bite my tongue.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

To be continued...

We reared a monarch caterpillar this summer and watched as it spun a chrysalis, then emerged a couple of weeks later as a butterfly. We were all giddy with excitement when it came time to release her. She had spent some time hanging upside down on the lid of her "home," after emerging from her chrysalis. This is a very important and vulnerable time for butterflies. When they emerge from a chrysalis, their wings are crumpled and damp, and for a few hours they hang and are very still. During this time, they pump their wings full of fluid, so they can unfurl and straignten and become strong. When the time is right, they begin to flap their wings a bit and walk around.

When "our" butterfly seemed ready to go, D opened the container and lay it on its side. The kids and I had been out running errands, and I had instructed him to call me when it was "time."He checked the container throughout the day on the day she emerged, and when she was flapping her wings a bit and standing on the floor of the container, he called me. We raced home.

We arrived home and the butterfly....was...just standing there, on the lantana.

The kids cheered to her "Fly butterfly! You can do it!" "We love you!"

They quickly turned to other things, like sliding rocks down the slide, and I tried to hide my concern. I squatted down and noticed that one of her wings was not quite flattened out. It looked a little wrinkled. I wasn't sure this butterfly could fly.

The kids came back to check on her. "What's taking her so long?" L demanded. "Will she fly?"

"Well, honey, I'm sure she'll fly eventually. She's just taking her time right now. Getting her strength up." Which might have been true. She may still have been pumping those wings full of fluid. Or, she may have been injured, perhaps she'd fallen in the container and D hadn't noticed.

After a long half hour, it was time to bring the kids in to get ready for bed. D and I exchanged worried looks every time the kids asked about the butterfly.

"Is she going to fly tonight? Will she be there in the morning?"

All I could say was, "I don't know."

The kids finally got to sleep and though it was dusk, I went out to check on the butterfly. She was still standing on the plant, though she had moved a bit from her original location. Things were not looking good. Usually, butterflies fly within a few minutes of being released.

We'd spent weeks talking about this. The kids were so interested in the chrysalis, and we'd checked it every day, numerous times. We read books about butterflies. We scouted them out when we were on walks. They were counting on "their" butterfly flying away.

"That butterfly is going to fly away tonight, whether it's on her own or into the compost heap." D said ominously. I wanted to agree with him. I wanted my kids to wake up thinking the butterfly had happily flown away and joined the legions of other happy monarchs. If that meant hiding the dead body to maintain the illusion, hey, so be it.

But. I really don't believe in lying to my kids. I have this "truth whenever it's developmentally appropriate" policy. In situations like this, it's mighty inconvenient.

Still. If they believe that she flew, wouldn't it encourage joy, wonder, appreciation? Wouldn't they feel great that they helped this butterfly grow, and then fly away? If they are told that she didn't make it, would it squelch the excitement about butterflies? Make them very sad? Or would it help develop empathy. The honest truth is, in nature, things die. Not every caterpillar becomes a butterfly. And sometimes, despite our best efforts, things don't always go as planned.

D reminded me that they are 2 and 4 years old, and would it really hurt to let them believe she flew away? I reminded him of this "Policy of truth" that we try to maintain, and that this situation was no exception. We fretted. Wrung our hands. What to say. Which angle to present to them. Reality or ideal.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Judgment call

Something really bad could have happened to my daughter today. I'm not at all sure what it was. Maybe you can tell me.

After a lovely afternoon of swimming with the kids this afternoon, I was driving "the long way" home around the lake. The sunroof and windows were wide open, and the kids took notice of all the sounds they were hearing-the waves, the breeze in the trees, the sounds of people laughing as they walked. Most intriguing of all was the "clink clink" of the ropes and lines on the sailboats moored by the east shore of the lake. Although they were both tired from swimming all afternoon, they wanted to sit by the shore and listen to the boats.

Happy to prolong our picture-perfect afternoon, I parked along the road, and we got out, still in our damp swimsuits. We walked across the road, crossed the grassy "boulevard" between the sidewalk and the road, and planted ourselves on a park bench about, oh, 100 feet from the car. We cuddled up on the bench, hunkered down together, watching the boats and the frothy water, a chilly breeze coming off the lake.

"I'm shivering," L said.

"Let's go to the car and get our clothes on, then we can come back here to this bench."

"Noooo!" she protested, "I want to wait here and watch the water."

I sat there a moment, thinking. The car was so close. I knew they were both tired and would most likely stay right there on the bench. But there was no barrier between the bench and the water, and J is after all, only 2. L, I knew, would stay put. And I could be to the car and back in less than a minute. It was literally just across the road. Then we could all be warm and cozy and stay a while.

"Please go get my clothes, mama!" She implored.

"Can you stay right here? Don't get off this bench for any reason. Stay right here. I'm taking J and we'll be back with sweatshirts to warm us all up."

I scooped up a shivering J and we shuffled towards the car. We'd gone maybe 25 feet when I got to the edge of the grassy boulevard, and I heard this from behind me:

"That's really not a good idea, ma'am."

I turned to see two women, one probably in her 60's, and one who looked to be about 10 years older than me, standing together on the path, shaking their heads, looking at me.

"Excuse me?" I said, surprised.

"That's really not a good idea." One of them, I don't know which, said again.

I was totally flustered. I had no idea what to say. "We'll be fine!" I spat, and practically ran to the bench, yanked L off without a word, and rushed both my kids to the car. I was shaking and kind of frantic, a mixture of anger, shame, and fear rushing through me.

I had the following thoughts, all at the same time:

Who do they think they are, questioning my judgment as a mother? Do they really think I'd put my daughter in harm's way?

What was I thinking? How could I be so stupid? What's wrong with me?

My God, what if something happened to her?

When we got home, I watched her little-kid body, her damp, stringy hair, her tanned legs as she hopped to the back door, singing a song about sunshine and boats. My eyes filled with tears. What was I thinking? What if something had happened?

But here's the thing: I try to let my kids have some of the basic freedoms that I enjoyed as a kid. I don't believe in living in fear. I want my kids to feel safe and secure, and not be worried that the boogyman is going to get them, or that nature, or their community is a place to be afraid. I had a highly anxious mother, and spent a lot of my own childhood worrying and being afraid of things I couldn't quite define.

To me, at the time, this decision to run to the car seemed totally reasonable. Middle of the afternoon, me less than 150 feet from her, for maybe a minute, and within eyeshot the whole time. That didn't seem so risky to me.

Now, I'm not so sure. Circling back around the lake on the way home, when I saw the two ladies walking on the path, I considered stopping the car and asking them what they had thought was going to happen. Why, exactly, it was such a bad idea. Were they thinking she'd jump in the lake and drown? Get abducted? Molested?

My mind is reeling. And I feel horribly, horribly guilty for even considering leaving her there for a minute. Ashamed. What if they were right? What if I had left her and one of those things had happened?

Was I (almost) negligent? Where do we, as mothers, draw the line between being OK with a small amount of risk and being stupid? And which of those things was I, today?

Monday, September 7, 2009

Going for it

This tree isn 't quite as big as it looks. But my daughter, she is larger than life.

All at once, she's developed this fascination with tree-climbing. A few weeks ago, we were playing in this wonderful little grove of trees near the house, and she just started going up.

Now, she's unstoppable. Even when she's riding in the car, she's scoping out the trees as we pass: "That looks like a good one to climb, we'll have to come back to that tree."
As you might have guessed, I'm a big fan of trees over plastic play equipent. Let's just compare plastic play equipment, such as you might find at your local neighborhood park, with trees and rocks.

Your typical "jungle gym" apparatus at a park offers basically one way to go up or down. You use the ladder, or the fake rock-climbing bumps. There is a "right way" (i.e. one way that gets you to the top) and all the other ways-which don't get you to the top of the structure, where the other "experiences" await. The rungs on the ladder, the bars, are all the exact same size and dimension. And there is only one place to go. One outcome: reach the top.

A tree on the other hand, offers a variety of ways to get from one place to another. Reaching the "top" is usually not the goal. (Although for some kids, it certainly might be.)There are exciting and interesting things to be found in all sorts of places within the branches of a tree. Tree branches differ wildly in size, shape, strength and texture. This offers great physical challenge and requires the development of balance well beyond what a series of uniform metal bars offers. It also requires coordination and concentration.


There is usually only "one thing to do" with plastic playground equipment. You climb to the top of something, you slide down. You swing. Plastic play equipment is great for letting off steam. Kids love to climb, slide, and swing. Mine are no exception. But it is rather one-sided, kind of a "flat" experience. Go to any playground, there's just not much variation in the way kids play. Get out in nature, on the other hand, and something else happens.

Kids use their imaginations more freely when playing in nature: "Hmm, here's a great big tree. What can I do here? I can climb it, bounce on the low limbs, swing from the branches, hide in the boughs." "Here are some huge rocks--I can jump from them, crawl, lie on my belly, lean against them." With no pieces of equipment directing how kids play, they can be free to make up their own rules and set their own goals for play.

All that aside, it's at times challenging as a mom to let my kids climb trees, jump off boulders, and the like. Occasionally, one of them will jump off something kinda high, "land wrong" and get a minor owie. And sometimes they go really high. Out of my reach. And there are often rocks and roots and other hard, sharp things on the ground beneath them. And what if she falls and hits a branch on her way down? Or, what if he falls off that boulder and cuts his head open?

When these thoughts creep in, and believe me, they do, I really try to see it as a chance for me to work on my own balance and strength. (because, frankly, I've got the "creativity" part down-I can think of a million what-ifs for any given situation)

The thing is, I've got to let them do this. I really believe this is important-it's good for them in a way that nothing else is. And, really, what are the chances of one of these random bad things actually happening? Extremely, extremely small. Is it any less likely that something bad will happen on a playground? Probably more likely, actually.

So, I take a deep breath. I lift him to a bough he can hang from. I give her a boost up to that next branch. And I stand there, under the tree, and we all grow.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

souvenirs from the North Shore

What an utterly beautiful week we had. (Since I haven't bothered to upload a single picture, you'll have to take my word for it!)

Our first official day of vacation started at that heavenly place, Lake Superior, where we spent a glorious day walking along the lake and picking up rocks, throwing rocks (and Crocs) into the lake and collecting sea glass. We spent a long time wandering, watching gulls slice through the air with their chiseled wings, and listening to the water on the rocks.

We lay on the shoreline, watching the water, feeling the cool air on our faces, and bonding with rock after rock. We were in heaven. Well, the kids and I were, anyway. D is not so much into rocks. But he was a trooper and sat there until we were ready to leave.

The kids have treasure boxes that are positively overflowing now, with bits of sea glass, and rocks "shaped like potatoes" (according to J) and tiny sticks of driftwood.

Although many folks frown upon it, I'm a big believer in collecting things we find outside. Of course, if we find an endangered plant or mushroom or live animal or something, I draw the line. But wildflowers? Gorgeous sticks? Pinecones? I say, if we can get 'em home, let's go for it. And you already know how I feel about rocks. (We filled a whole grocery bag at Lake Superior!)

Sure, sure, some people feel you should "take only pictures, leave only footprints" and all that. But I really believe that if my kids are connecting with something from nature on a personal level, and that thing is not critically endangered or in otherwise desperate straits, being able to take something home and give it a special place of honor really deepens their appreciation.

And frankly (though my other naturalist friends will kill me for saying so) it really doesn't do harm to nature to pick a flower. Or grab a leaf from a tree. Or remove a rock from the forest floor. (Nod to my naturalist friends: When I was leading 5-6 school groups of 30 kids each into the woods daily for months at a time, I was singing a different tune. But you see the difference, I'm sure)

We sift over our treasures at home, recalling our walks where we came across this pinecone or that feather. We examine our shells closely, with magnifiers. We compare feathers, noting how different ones feel on cheeks, arms, and the back of your hand. We wrap up our stones in silk scarves, presents for each other from our favorite places.

Sure, at times, we look at photos from our trips (when D or I ever get around to uploading them. heh.) But nothing connects us more quickly to nature than having something of nature in our hands. For many people, children especially, having something real and physical to hold is so important. It builds connection. It calls up memories. It returns us to the woods, the lake, the meadow. We can experience the textures, the sounds, the temperatures of rocks, feathers, pinecones. And this brings us back to a shared experience that we savor together.

Friday, August 28, 2009

up north!

We are heading to the north woods for an extended get-away with the kids. We're going here:

And here:

And here:

'Gonna be lots to tell you when we get back! Have a wonderful week.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

teachable moment

So, I've realized that not everyone shares my enthusiasm for the outdoors. Recently, a close relative who shall remain nameless was at our house playing with the kids. L and J were full of stories about our recent "camping trip."

"We played in the woods and catched bugs!" She gushed.

Relative: "Oh, that must be why you have so many bug bites. Do they itch? Do they hurt?"

L had to think about that one. "Yeah." she concurred. It's not as if this fact hadn't occurred to her prior to this moment, but it wasn't where she had been going with her story.

Relative: "Did you get a lot more bug bites? You were outside for such a long time. I bet you got a lot of bug bites."

L: "Yeah, I did."

Relative: "That must not have been very much fun. There sure are a lot of bugs who like to bite people."

L: Slightly puzzled, "Why?"

Relative: "That's just what they do, honey. They just land on you and bite your skin and drink your blood. Maybe that's why you got sick, maybe something bit you and made you sick?"

(Gasp!) Another teachable moment. This time, it's not the kids whose tolerance of bugs I want to impact. But this was definitely a "choose your battles" moment. Some people, this particular relative especially, are completely convinced of certain things, hold certain opinions (bugs = bad) and aren't much interested in discussing it. Might even be offended that I'd try.

Seconds passed while I thought about this. Wisely, I refrained from speaking. How could I best counter her negative comments about bugs? How could I undo the negative frame Relative had just put on the experience of catching bugs, of being outside? Should I try to tell This Relative some of the many great things about bugs, perhaps remind her how much the kids enjoyed being outside? I knew I couldn't challenge her belief about bugs--I know for a fact she won't budge. But how could I gently redirect the course of conversation? I sat there, contemplating my next move.

L: "No, I just had a virus. The doctor said. And catching bugs is FUN!" she gushed, leaping off the chair to go play.

'Atta girl!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

the camping trip that wasn't

This was to be the second night this summer camping in a tent and the kids were so excited. Unfortunately, L woke up this morning with a low fever. Since we all really wanted to go, and had already loaded the car (no small feat) D and I had planned to "see how the day goes" and once we got there, a little after lunchtime, the kids had a great time playing in the woods, catching bugs in their little tiny bug nets (never mind that they were all mosquitoes!) and we even made some sandcastles at the beach for a while.

On our walk back to the campsite I spotted a tiny baby toad hopping in the grass. I picked it up and the kids were thrilled. L held it so gently and carefully, and J touched it ever so softly with one outstretched finger. When it was time to let the toad go, L gingerly lowered it to the grass and said "bye bye toad, thanks for showing yourself!" She seemed to be doing OK. A little less spunky than usual, but overall pretty good, considering.

Dom and I had been on the fence up to this point about whether to stay or go, should we tough it out and stay through the night, should we just bag it and go home. Normally I'd err on the side of staying at home when one of the kids is that sick...but....we had come all this way, we were camping, everyone had been so looking forward to it. And who knows? We told ourselves. Maybe she'll be fine. I admit that much of this was purely self-interest on our part. We have so wanted to get out camping this summer. The last time we went camping, in early May, it was wonderful, the kids had constant fun and fwhen they finally slept they slept the whole night through. And, we figured today she could just take it easy and maybe the medicine would help kick down the fever enough for her to have fun. That strategy got us through the afternoon, anyway.

Yeah. But then she barfed. Right after dinner, all over our good friends' sleeping pad. That pretty much cinched it for us. Despite her pleas of "but I want to sleep in the tent...please can't we sleep in the tent?" We toasted one last marshmallow, re-loaded the car, and made a long, sad trek back to the city.

Better luck next time.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

sounds good

Aren't children wonderful the way they just take it all in? They are naturally inclined to use all their senses, all the time. We adults get so used to processing our world through one or two channels, it's easy to overlook all the delightful other ways we can interact with the natural world. Here are a few ideas.

Touch: Not only can we touch things with our hands, but we can try to notice the way different things feel under our feet. The kids love walking around barefooted as much as I do, so we are constantly taking in information about the world through the bottoms of our feet! But how much do we really notice? I've been asking them to really feel the ground, the logs, the grass. Take your shoes off too! What does the sidewalk feel like? How about the forest floor? Can you find a place to stand where you can put one foot in the hot sunny sand and one foot in the cool water of a lake? What's that like? Can you feel with another part of your body, aside from your hands and feet? How about an arm? A cheek?

Sight: When was the last time you laid on your back and just looked up through the tree branches? Or lay on the ground and gazed at the clouds floating by? I'm not just talking about tilting your head back either. I mean this: stop, lay down where you are, change your body's orientation from vertical to horizontal, and look. What do you see? Describe it. Watch clouds for a while. Or watch the leaves dance in the breeze. Your kids will be great at this. Ask them to show you how. Another idea: Lie on your tummy and look at what's in front of you. What's down in the grass? Find five things, or ten, or twenty. Make a loop out of string, lay it down on the ground and discover together what's inside that circle.

Taste: Of course, I'm not advocating that you eat the wild plants you find. (Unless you are hiking with a very knowledgable mycologist or naturalist, o'course.) But--where can you find things to taste outside? We have a patch of mint in the garden and the kids love to grab a leaf or two and munch on it when we're playing out back. They also seem to enjoy licking rocks, don't ask me why. This won't hurt anyone, (although it makes my mother cringe) and I like that they are exploring so naturally using all their senses. (It simply hasn't occurred to them not to) Other ideas: Have you ever tried to catch raindrops on your tongue? When was the last time you ate snow? If you aren't entirely comfortable literally taking in the natural world through taste, then why not try eating more meals outside? Or making a batch of Sun Tea? Let a popsicle melt in a cup and drink the sun-warmed juice. Sunshine has an amazing effect on the taste of food and drink.

Smell: The kids are (I think) lucky to have a mom with a bionic nose-and (yay!) they're starting to comment on the smells they notice outside. It's amazing what they can smell. L can smell the rain coming. J loves to smell the flowers. They both love the smell of dirt. (but who doesn't?) Not so much the fresh tar on the street, or the garbage truck as it drives by. So maybe you don't have a bionic nose-how can you encourage your kids (and yourself) to notice more of the world of smell? Next time you're on a walk, challenge yourself to smell ten different things (or let the kids pick the number)-be they plants, fence posts, your neighbor's wet dog running past. Just notice things, or actually make a point to stop and sniff.

Hearing: In the city, especially, it's easy to get used to tuning out sounds. In my neighborhood, there is car traffic as well as almost constant air traffic-a lot to tune out. It's often hard to pick out anything else. But, we love to try. We listen in layers: What do you hear besides the cars? Besides the planes? We close our eyes and listen. (Closing your eyes really does help! It shuts out the other stimuli) They can pick out the birds, the dog barking down the street, the kids playing on the slide nearby. What else can you hear? I ask them. They can pick out the water lapping on the shoreline, the wheels of a stroller. Try this sometime: Go someplace. The park, the forest, your yard. A street corner. Close your eyes. Put up one finger for each sound you hear. You don't have to identify it. In fact, if you make an agreement that you don't have to know what the sound is, it may help you hear more sounds. How many can you hear? (Note: I have found that this is also a wonderful way to "get centered" when I'm stressed out. Brings me right back to the present moment.)

Got any fun sensory games to share? I'd love to hear 'em.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The story of the stump and the log

Recently I happened to drive past a place where the city's forestry department was doing some tree work. Excited, I lept out of the car and described my grand plan for the back yard. Forester Man just shrugged and said, "Sure.Pick out a couple logs." Then he cheerfully carried them to my car. Hooray! I am so grateful! Thank you Minneapolis Park Board.

Something interesting (and unexpected) has happened. At first, the kids were thrilled. That first day they spent a lot of time climbing, balancing and dancing on the log and the stump. But now, the novelty has worn off. When we're outside playing, the kids seem to forget about them. They often play "around" them, rather than integrating them into their play. When they do "remember" that they're there, they love them, and do lots of climbing, piling rocks on them, lying down on the log, etc. But still, it's as if they view the plastic stuff as "toys" and the other stuff (stump, log) as "not toys." So how do I blur that line for them?

Without making a big deal out of it, I try to include them whenever we play: piling sand and rocks and flowers onto them, sitting on the stump to watch the birds, using the log as a lookout tower. Lining up J's endless collection of vehicles on the log, to see if it can hold them all. This week we'll do some crayon rubbings on the bark and paint with water on the stump. Maybe we'll have a snack on the log. We might gather up all of our rocks and arrange them on the log. We'll see.

With reminders and encouragement, the kids seem to easily incorporate the log and stump into our play. What's more, they really enjoy it. I think it's just going to be a matter of time and habit.
So, at the risk of sounding like a total treehugging freak, I am nurturing the relationship between my kids and the log and stump!

Monday, August 10, 2009

stormy weather

Are your kids scared of storms? Mine go back and forth. Sometimes they love 'em, sometimes not so much. If there is a rainstorm during the day, what fun! We are outside in rain gear, splashing away, collecting the rain in buckets, watching the flowers in our garden get drenched.

What helps my kids relax about storms is to watch them, experience them, and talk about them. It's great to find ways to have fun in the rain. Even a simple walk down the street can be a real treat during a storm. When a nighttime storm happens, remembering the fun we've had playing in rain during the day can be a real comfort. Think about it: when we head inside at the first sign of rain, what does that communicate to our kids?

Thursday night's storm was a real doozy. The lightning and loud thunder went on for a couple of hours in the night. I knew L would be pretty freaked by this one. Sure enough, when I opened her bedroom door and crept in, I found her with her hands over her ears, and her face squashed into her pillow. She was sweating. (J slept right through it!)

I brought her to my bed, which is surrounded on all sides by windows. There is a wonderful, spreading silver maple just outside the window. I perched her on my lap and held her tight. Although it was the middle of the night, the city lights, and the frequent bursts of lightning kept the yard pretty well lit. We watched the rain. We watched the tree moving in the wind, and I rocked her with that same rhythm. When the sky lit up with lightning, I held her tight and told her she was safe.

Then, I started pointing out what I could see, and asking her to tell me what she could see. Once she started noticing the familiar she seemed to feel more comfortable, and it helped her mellow out considerably:

  • We watched the limbs wave back and forth in the rain.

  • We watched the raindrops pour down over stuff in the yard: my wheelbarrow, the lawnchairs, the sandbox, the birdbath.

  • I pointed out the garden, and described the water going down into the soil, so the plants could slurp it up with their roots.

  • We listed animals that were so happy it was raining: The ducks on the lake. The birds in the trees, getting a bath and splashing in the puddles. The squirrels in the trees, getting their fur wet and clean.

  • We remembered times that she and J and I have splashed in puddles and played in the rain.

  • And, of course, we talked about thunder. I didn't bother explaining to her that thunder is created by the sudden burst of heated air from the lightning. I didn't go into details about electrons flying around in the sky (a.k.a. lightning). I simply told her that thunder is the sound made by two heavy clouds bumping into each other way up in the sky. The clouds are heavy because they are full of water. A little "scientific license" is necessary sometimes. Heavy clouds, she can relate to. Electrons and air pressure? We'll get to that, later.

Since we didn't go out in the middle of the night, the next day, we checked out the effects of the storm. We looked at puddles. Splashed in them. We checked out the garden, plants still drooping and heavy with the rain. We felt the dirt, felt the softness, smelled the richness of the wet soil. We needed to get up close and personal with the rainstorm. This takes some of the mystery away, and it's good for kids to see that everything's OK, and for the most part, still the same, even after a loud, wet, long rainstorm. Wet and soggy and muddy, but OK.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Got to love the lake!

We head to the lake whenever it's warm enough to swim without our teeth rattling. Our closest one is Lake Harriet, but Minneapolis is just full of great swimming holes/nature adventures waiting to happen.

Here are my top ten reasons for loving our wonderful urban lakes:

10. Sand, sand, sand. An endless supply of it. The kids make towers, riverbeds, and ice cream cones in the sand. And who doesn't love having their feet and legs buried?

9. L's brilliant creation: Sand Angels. (think of snow angels, in summer)

8. The glorious cocktail of smells! Seriously! Have you ever noticed all the smells in the air on a summer day near the water? Take your kids to the lake and ask them what they can smell.

7. The tiny fish in Lake Harriet. I believe they are sunfish. My kids are positively thrilled whenever they appear. L is determined to "get one" by catching it with her hands. You go, girl. I love that they are not afraid to play in a lake when there are fish around! (when I was a kid, my mom was utterly horrified by the thought of this, and therefore so was I, and so we rarely if ever swam in lakes)

6. Our urban lakes are home to lots of cool birds including mallards, canada geese, American Coots, and even, in early spring, the Common Loon. My kids love to watch around the lake. And these are great ones to watch: not afraid of people, generally easy to spot, fairly slow-moving, and active throughout the day.

5. The water is generally warm enough that the kids are happy to play and play and play in it. For a really long time. Lake water is so different from pool water. It feels different on the skin. No chlorine. (although the lakes are decidedly NOT chemical free, not by a long shot) Water has an amazing ability to soothe the soul, no? Have you ever laid down in the water, with just your face exposed?

4. Swimming with unseen animals and plants is something I believe everyone should experience. How else are your kids going to learn that this is safe, OK, fun even? See # 7 above.

3. I realize I am a total geek, but I love having the chance to see the great big Milfoil Harvester, whirring around on the lake.

2. Sometimes, it's really windy, and L loves to watch the waves. Sometimes it's loud and makes interesting noises, and it always feels very exciting to be near water that's moving in this way. I remember the first time L experienced this. She hugged her kitty, "Sad Johnny" and just watched and watched the lake.

1. You just never know what you're going to come across.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

natural play spaces

No, this photo wasn't taken in my back yard. Don't I wish. We took a trip to one of my favorite places last week, and as usual I left feeling totally inspired to make the yard even more kid-friendly and a better natural play space. When I take the kids out to play in nature, I'm always delighted at the things they come up with to do. Climbing, jumping, pushing, pulling, dumping-- it's better "large muscle activity" than any plastic playground, it really is.
Here's my wish list:
  • some good, climbable rocks
  • a log or two, for climbing, balancing, and scooting around on
  • more sand: heaps and heaps of it
  • shrubs, or willow walls or something, for secret "hiding places"

We're off to a pretty good start. The yard is just full of bare dirt which I sweet-talked the Lyndale Avenue construction crew into delivering one afternoon. After using the dirt to correct some landscaping errors, I heaped up the leftovers under an ash tree, where nothing seems willing to grow anyway. This has has provided the kids with hours of fun-they've shaped it into a road, a river, a "town" and of course, it's endlessly good for dumping into the water table or the swimming pool. I want to add sand to "The Dirt Pile" (as we affectionately call it) so it's not quite so muddy and prone to washing away, and then just have a dedicated area in the backyard which would serve as a large "sandbox"--and finally ditch our plastic "tugboat" sandbox, with tiny built-in seats, which my tailbone hates.

So, my next project is to find a good log or two. I have a friend who works at a tree care company, so I've asked him if he can score me one. I'm also scouting my mother's back yard, which borders on a wetland. Surely there must be a reasonably-sized log out there somewhere. If all else fails, check this out. I can actually buy a "natural balance beam" (also known as a log) online. Ah, gotta love free enterprise. Why does this surprise me? You can buy dirt, and rocks, why not logs too? It is just me, or does this seem just a little too weird?

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

strange and wonderful

What was I thinking not telling you this? We were in our first Art Car parade. We decided to make an art car after I co-taught a class this winter with an art car artist from the area. She was such an inspiration, and I thought it would be a great way to art car is such a great way to get people talking and asking questions, and what better way to teach about the environment? So we came up with a theme (water), worked with an artist to make a sketch on the car, and brought the car to a few community events where it was painted and decorated with love. Now my kids flat out refuse to ride in The Other Car.

This past weekend we cruised around Lake Harriet with lots of other art cars, some beautiful, some slightly scary, but all very unique and creative. There were also Art Bikes, weaving through traffic...and we even saw Santa on roller skates. The kids loved it and we learned which one of us is the social butterfly of the family (hint: it's not me). We had a fantastic time. Click here for a news clip from after the parade. Note: the website makes you sit through a short commercial before the news clip comes on. Bleah

PS: the whole teaching-with-a-car-thing? It's going pretty well. Kids everywhere really respond to the car and want to love it up and touch it. Adults ask questions. OK, they're less often about water quality than about Art Cars in general, but still, it seems to make people smile.

And, sadly, this is the best picture I currently have of the car! I'll go and get a better one as soon as there is some daylight.

Monday, July 27, 2009

search and find

The summer weekends are too incredible to spend inside. And summer is just too darn short. As soon as we were fed and dressed on Saturday, we headed out the door to a park that's close to home but one we rarely visit. It's just off the freeway and despite the constant, low roar coming off of I-94, we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. We snuck off the trail and down a steep, rocky slope to the riverbank and stood watching the Mississippi roll on by.

It was a perfect morning: candy-puff clouds dotting the blue, blue sky, the water twinkling in the sunshine. L and J stood quietly for a second or two at the water's edge and then proceeded to collect rocks. L would stand at the very edge of the water, then hoist a rock overhead, and drop it into the water with a satisfying plunk. D and I enjoyed the time to ourselves as this game literally kept the two of them occupied for 15 minutes.

When they started to tire of the rock-throwing game, I challenged them to a search-and-find. This is one of my favorite outdoor activities with young kids-it's so great to help them develop focus and notice details. The game is great for any age, you can tailor the details to what you think your kids will be able to find. "Can you find a rock with stripes?" I'd ask. Then they would each wander, head bent, searching, searching.

The choices are virtually limitless with a game like this. I had them search for:
  • spotty rocks
  • the tiniest rock you can find
  • the biggest rock you can lift with one hand
  • a round rock
  • a gray rock
  • a white rock
  • a rock that wants to be in the river (and of course, they happily obliged the rock's desire)
  • a rock that feels smooth
  • a rock that feels bumpy

And on and on. The game can turn into an organizing game, a matching game, and a classifying game too. (if you want to get all academic) Of course, they are also learning about textures and other physical qualities. It's also great to let them come up with the categories and the adult to do the searching. Like I said, it's a nice way to help little ones develop the ability (and the practice) of noticing details. And of course, you don't need to use rocks-just use whatever's there: leaves, flowers, etc. Try it! Let me know how it works for you and yours.

Sunday, July 26, 2009


What fun! Friday I co-taught a class on Project Learning Tree's early childhood section...there were 25 teachers! Including my former ECFE teacher. Exciting to see so many educators committed to getting kids outside. We chatted about barriers to participation (sadly, the number one barrier these educators cited was parents who don't want their kids playing outside!), creative ideas for bringing nature indoors, and the many, many benefits of getting kids outside: healthier kids who develop a lifelong connection to the outdoors.....what more could we want?

The class was held at Maplewood Nature Center, where they are in the process of installing an early-childhood focused "natural play" area, complete with a kid-sized footbridge, stepping stones, boulders to climb on, and charming nooks and hiding places off a short wooded path. It's a long drive, but well worth the trip.

Off to celebrate L's birthday today at her grandma's house.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

the basics of bug-collecting

"I love ants!" She says, about a hundred times a day.

No longer content to simply watch them, the other day she decided she wanted to bring some inside. Our new "pets" are seven tiny ants, rounded up from the back yard and lovingly relocated to a plastic food storage container. She carries the container around the house and the ants have been sharing a room with the kids. Luckily, they're pretty quiet and don't keep the kids up all night.

If you have a young'un who wants to bring some bugs home-there's not much to it.

First, supplies:
  • A decent bug net is great, if you have one. Those plastic numbers with huge holes (commonly sold as souvenirs at places like zoos and nature centers) are basically worthless. They're flimsy and the small bugs can easily escape the holes.What's best is a "sweep net"-a muslin net sewn around a wire ring, and attached with duct tape to a broom handle. I'll find a link to a super-easy pattern. If you don't have a net or don't want to make one, don't sweat it. Most bugs are pretty easy to scoop up in your hands or,
  • A plastic container such as a "to-go" container from the deli. You can use the fancy "official bug jar" kind with a magnifier for a lid, but you really don't need to. Clear plastic containers allow for easy viewing from all sides and the top. Do I need to mention, a lid is critical?

Where to go:

  • Go outside. Go anywhere. You can find a great assortment of those tiny, cute little black ants (sugar ants) on just about any sidewalk. If you must, pour something sweet on the sidewalk. Return in an hour or so and will likely find a party going on.
  • If you are into more exotic insects like grasshoppers, stink bugs, and the like, head to a place with tall grasses.
  • For walking sticks, sowbugs, and assorted spiders, head to a shady, wooded area, turn over a log or dig around under the leaves. You're also likely to find some worms this way.
  • If you prefer butterflies and moths, you need a large flexible container to keep them in. Check here for a pattern on how to make one.


  • If you're using a sweep net, sweep it rapidly back and forth in the grass a few times. Slowly turn it inside out, gently dumping the insects you find into your collecting container.
  • If you don't have a net, don't worry about it. Just plop down wherever you are and pick up the bugs with your hands. Don't use a pinching motion, that will likely crush the bugs. Just scoop them into your palm gently, then drop them into the container.
  • Don't want to touch the bugs? No biggie-just use a leaf or a stick to scoop them up. The kids and I make a game of just holding a leaf, putting it in the path of the ant (or whatever crawling insect you prefer) and letting it climb onto the leaf. You can then lower the leaf into your container without any physical contact with the bug. (this is how I collect caterpillars)
Getting them home:
  • Don't worry about poking air-holes in the container, unless you plan to keep your bugs for a long time (more than a few days). Insects consume a lot less oxygen than we do, so the air available in a typical pint container is plenty to sustain them. If it makes your kids feel better to have air holes, fine. Just make sure they are small enough that the bugs can't get out.
  • Make sure to add a little something from the bugs' natural habitat. Long pieces of grass from the prairie, or some leaf litter and rotting wood from the forest floor. They'll need to keep eating while in captivity, and they'll also appreciate the cover provided by the leaves. Some caterpillars have only one food source. So if you find a caterpillar, make sure to bring home a few of the leaves you found it eating.
  • Be gentle. Remind your kids to hold the container upright, and not shake it. Bugs are fragile and their legs and wings will break (or worse) if handled roughly.
  • After you've enjoyed your insects, you can make a game out of releasing them. Since many species depend on specific habitats and food sources found in those habitats, it's really a good idea to return to the place where you collected them.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Caterpillars aren't my favorite.

Once, I helped gut and skin a road-killed deer. (It was my first day on a new job, I couldn't say no!) I have buried animal carcasses in my yard just to dig them up months later and examine the bones. I've spent hours digging through the mud I've dredged up from stream bottoms, in search of crawdads, snails, insect exoskeletons, and other such treasures.

It does take a lot to gross me out. But there is one thing that creeps me out big-time, despite my best intentions. Caterpillars. Eew. The ugly truth is, I can't stand them. Unless they are behind glass or in some other confined space well away from me, it makes my skin crawl just to look at them.

So when L's school held a picnic in a park that was literally crawling with them, I nearly went out of my mind.

When it comes to being with kids in nature, I believe it's important to keep your own fears and negative attitudes out of the picture. Really, if you hate bugs or you can't stand being outdoors at night, your kids will definitely pick up on that and they will start to "adopt" that same attitude toward creatures.

Perhaps that's where I developed this aversion to caterpillars. My mother hated them. I have distinct memories of her, reacting with fear and panic when she came across an inchworm inching across my back one day when I was young. For years, I was terrified, and I do mean terrified of caterpillars of all kinds.

As a naturalist, I am a bit sheepish about admitting it, but this was a full-blown phobia I had for a while. I actually managed to work through this awful condition with hypnosis, but that's another story for another time.

So what was once a paralyzing phobia is now really only mild discomfort, so I can generally tolerate the presence of caterpillars without freaking out. And this takes some mental gymnastics. But I do OK. I prefer not to hold them or touch them, and when in the presence of them, I think mostly of the butterfly or moth they will become, and I do OK. And kids everywhere seem to love them. And that's really pretty cool. I get excited about that. So that helps me forget my discomfort a bit too.

Back to the school picnic. Glorious summer day. Dozens of kids frolicking on picnic blankets, eating ice cream, and dancing and playing in a wonderful park full of oak trees. We were having a great time, until I looked down and saw a few caterpillars crawling on the edge of a picnic blanket. Hmm. No biggie. Suddenly I realized that there were caterpillars all over the place. In the grass, on the tree trunks. On people's lunches.

Kids were picking them up, carrying them around. A cluster of kids had gathered around one little girl and when she turned to look at me she had a handful of them, they were crawling up and down her arms, on her shoulders. She was delighted!

Lucy approached me with one, curled up in her hand. "Look, mommy! A callerpiller! Do you want to hold it?" aw, crap.

So, while, yes, I firmly believe that I need to check my attitude and fear at the door, so to speak, so as not to taint my kids' experiences of nature and all manner of critters, I'm also a firm believer in honesty. 'Tis a fine line.

"Yep, honey, it sure is." Deep breath. "I don't want to hold it, caterpillars aren't my favorite. But thanks." She gently put it back on a tree, bless her sweet little heart. J followed her, and, with one tiny finger, stroked its back as it crawled up the tree trunk. They watched it together as I beat back the panic I was starting to feel.

I tried to focus on all these kids having such a great time, making friends with the caterpillars, naming them, organizing caterpillar races. They were so excited. It was great. There must have been thousands of caterpillars, and the many of the kids were just thrilled to be able to see them up close. (note: Nature geek that I am, I have since learned that these were Forest Tent Caterpillars, and this was a pretty typical infestation. It's likely there were actually several million of the darn thing in this particular park. I'm so glad I didn't know this at the time.)

A part of my brain was saying, "Get me out of here! They're everywhere!" And I was trying not to scream. And trying not to look like a complete freak, brushing off my back and feeling my hair to make sure I had none crawling on me. What I really wanted to do was grab my kids and run. Just get out of the park.

Luckily, it was almost time to leave anyway. I managed to very calmly herd J and L back to our pile of stuff, which I realized was probably crawling with caterpillars. (It was.) I shook out our blanket. I picked up our picnic bag. We made our way out of the park. We crossed the road, across which a few dozen caterpillars were scooting. L wanted to stop and watch. I let her, while I loaded up the car and strapped J in to the car seat. "There they go, Mommy, off to find some leaves to eat!" she said happily.

I was exhausted from the effort of holding it together. My skin was crawling. I wanted to appear calm, unfazed. Deep breaths. They don't need to know I'm freaking out. It's OK for them to know there are some things I'm not comfortable with. I just don't want them to feel so afraid, like I did. Like I do right now.

On the way home, I kept thinking of how scared I got as a kid that time my mom freaked out about a caterpillar. I really, really don't want my kids to feel that way about caterpillars, or anything in nature for that matter. At least, not unless they get to that place on their own. I had to keep it together. And, I did the best I could. I was bummed that I couldn't share their joy. I was disappointed that I couldn't play with the caterpillars with my kids.

But at least I didn't run screaming from the park. I didn't lose my head and completely freak out. And that's got to count for something. Sometimes, it's enough for me to appreciate that my kids can appreciate something.