Wednesday, July 29, 2009
Monday, July 27, 2009
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
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
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.
- 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)
- 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
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.
Friday, July 10, 2009
The kids spent a lovely day at their grandma's house, and she was happy to indulge their newest hobby, rock hunting. They love to choose a special rock whenever we find ourselves out and about. Sometimes, J will pick one up and just carry it with him. Or he might stop to examine it with all his senses, rubbing it, smelling it, and often, licking it. (What better way to truly know a rock, after all?) L often sits down where she is, and scans the area for a special rock. When she finds it, and she always does, she crams it (or, more likely, them) into her pocket (or mine) and it comes home with us. Some rock hunting trips are only limited by our ability to bring the rocks home.
I totally understand this. I've been doing it all my life. I love rocks. I've taken geology three times in college and once again during my Master's program. I cried the first time I saw the Grand Canyon. I felt so still and safe there, among the quiet and ancient rocks. There are rocks that make me feel a little bit sad, almost wistful, like the ones along Lake Superior's shoreline. There are rocks that make me feel a little scared, like the jagged basalt in the Boundary Waters. The white sandstone chunk that I picked up in Southern California makes me feel a little giddy and silly. I have no idea why. Sometimes, rocks can just call out to a person. I just sometimes feel as if I 'connect' to certain rocks. Does this happen to you? If my kids are starting to feel this way, hey, who am I to stop them?
Then again, they might just like the diversity of shapes, colors, textures, and sizes. Which, of course, is equally valid.
Remember the treasure boxes we made? L's is now almost exclusively dedicated to rocks. We've sorted our rocks, organized them (I like to let the kids decide on the categories we use) and traced them on paper. We've done crayon rubbings of their textures. We've painted with rocks, using them as "brushes." We've glued rocks to paper and played hide-and-seek with rocks. (note: this game works best inside) Our rocks are game pieces, money, and characters in dramatic stories that unfold on rainy days. Our rocks take sun baths in the windowsills and we wash them in the tub.
Once, we were on a nature walk and she had an especially precious rock that she'd connected with. She'd been carrying it for about an hour, when she exuberantly took off down the trail....and tripped. The rock went flying. Of course, she was in tears by the time I caught up to her, and she wanted her rock back. I hadn't actually examined the rock, so I didn't even know what I was looking for. The best I could get from her in terms of details were "it's whitish, and it looks sort of like a heart." I searched off and on the trail for a good 20 minutes, every so often picking up what I thought was "her" rock....only to be told sadly, "that isn't my rock."
Leaving the Peace Garden that day was tough. We went home with only J's rock. (Which was lovely, by the way. My geologist neighbor could tell you more about it. I can only tell you it was black and smooth.) Every so often L picks up a rock where we are, and looks it over, and says, "Mama, do you think this might be that rock that I lost at the Peace Garden?" Then, as quickly as she asks, she realizes that no, it isn't. This is sad, people.
But, I digress.
Today, the kids left Grandma's house with a few special rocks of their choosing. J, as usual, had chosen just one special rock. He cradled it in his blankey during the car ride home. L couldn't settle on just one rock, so she held a ziploc bag with 7 beauties in it. We were driving home, playing with the windows, commenting on cars, buildings, and whatever else we could come up with to entertain ourselves during the drive...when suddenly, I heard a weird noise and J was screaming. Screaming.
I yanked the car off the highway onto a side street at about 50 miles an hour so I could check to see if his face was OK, trying to remain calm. "HONEY!" I yelled. "We never, never, never hit someone in the face with a bag of rocks!" (The things you find yourself saying when you have kids....
He's fine, of course. No blood, no broken teeth. But lots of crying, lots of screaming. L was immediately sorry she hit him, and said over and over, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I am sorry I hurt you, J"
When I think about the "hazards of nature" that keep people from letting their kids play outdoors, injuries are certainly among them. It has long been identified as one of the main barriers that some parents face. But I don't think this is what is forefront at people's minds. Except, of course, J's.
Incidentally, here's a place to check out some research related to "risk" involved in playing outdoors. Interesting stuff.
Um, movie people? You might want to check on the timeline. Dinosaurs were on Earth before mammals.
L had swimming lessons. The place where she takes lessons has a wonderfully landscaped entrance--it's practically a park in it's own right--complete with shade trees, a winding path, the soothing trickle of a waterfall, a stream, and gorgeous flowers (mostly natives!) On the way in and out of her class each week, we usually stop so that she can climb on the welcoming hunks of granite that appear here and there along the path. Or, we'll smell the flowers, as we did a month ago when the branches of the elders were drooping, positively dripping with blossoms. Or, we might just stop on the bridge that crosses a shallow, clear stream. We'll look down into the water and watch the silvery fish dart around, or maybe search for animal tracks in the soft mud along the streambank.
One week, we saw a huge and ancient snapping turtle dozing on a rock in the stream, its pointy snout turned sunward. Once, we heard frogs that grew silent when we approached. And the highlight, of course, was the "duck-uh-lings" as L calls them. We watched those sweet balls of fluff totter around on the streambank for what seemed like an hour last time L had a swimming class. She was so excited to find out that they had also spent the morning learning to swim.
On the way in to her class this morning, we ambled along. Searched for flowers among the lush green growth of summer. Listened for birdsong (and identified three species!) Scanned the stream for ducks as we crossed the bridge. Then we spotted a lone male mallard resting in the water. We watched him for a while. He didn't move, so we speculated about what he might be dreaming about. Flying? His babies? Fire trucks? Eventually the kids grew intrigued by the shadows of some leaves dancing in the breeze and we moved on. It was great to have some time to spare this morning so that I could follow their lead, we could meander, and they could stop and look at whatever caught their attention.
But oh, after class. I was in such a hurry to go. Both of my hands were full, and J was in the stroller. He was not happy about being strapped in, so he was screaming, and it was hot, and L was whining because she was hungry, and she wouldn't walk fast enough and I had a ton of work to do and errands to run and my mom had agreed to take the kids for the afternoon. So, I wanted to get to her house in Minnetonka so that I'd be able to get back to my house in the city and have a few hours to work before I had to get back to her house in Minnetonka, get the kids, and get back home to the city. Whew. And somewhere in there I had a few errands to run.
I was stressed, crabby, and I had a headache from slugging a huge cup of dark roast and not eating anything. I wanted to get the kids to mom's so I could work. I was hot. The scent of chlorine wafting off us all was getting on my nerves. I was hungry.
So when dear L tried to stop and feel a soft-looking plant, I rushed her on: "Come on honey, not today." When J pointed at a dark bird swooping through the sky, I didn't stop, "Yep, that's probably a grackle, let's keep going, guys." And when L crept silently to the edge of the bridge and said to me in a stage whisper, "Let's see if that duck is still sleeping" I glanced into the stream, and the duck was still there. Without a moment's hesitation, I said, "Nope, he's gone, I don't see him. Looks like the duck flew away," and I rushed them both across the bridge to the car.
Would it have killed me to stop for three minutes to look at the duck? No. And I wish I had. At the time, I felt so rushed and annoyed, though, that I wouldn't have stopped if it were a spectacled eider.
When the stars align, and I can pull it off, I do love it when I manage to allow enough time for us to be leisurely instead of having to rush. When I can let the kids lead, and I follow. If they feel compelled to stop along the way and watch a duck, hey great, I'm all for it. But today? It just didn't work. I wasn't up for it. Maybe next week the duck will still be sleeping. I hope so.
Wednesday, July 8, 2009
I love eating outside! Be in on a picnic blanket, a fancy table or just a patch of grass, there is just something special about food consumed under the blue sunny skies of summer, no? We have this great old silver maple whose branches just drape over the back yard, creating a delicious breeze and dappled shade. Our "dining set" is an old, rusty number I scored at a yard sale for $25 years ago. The thing is charming since I coated it with "cornflower blue" spray paint.
Dinner was positively lovely the other evening, a sunny, breezy night. We had just sat down to feast on the vinegar-and-salt roasted potatoes (Yum!) that I had made when our party was spoiled by -who else-a bee.
To say that L freaked would be an understatement. She screamed so loud I was worried the neighbors would call 911. She pretty much lept into my arms and buried her face in my neck, screaming the whole time.
We retreated to the safety of the kitchen where she managed to calm down a little bit, and I explained to her that bees are mostly harmless, that they don't want to hurt people, they only sting when scared, and that they actually die if they sting. Oh, and they do something pretty neat: help spread the plants and flowers that we love. Help the plants that grow fruits. But I backed off on that angle. She was so not there yet. She was still fearful and freaked out.
Since she is still fuzzy on the whole "death" thing, I explained: "The stinger is at the very end of the bee. And when the bee stings, the back of their body rips off. And that hurts the bee too. So, you see, they don't really want to sting you."
A couple of days later, she was still asking me to explain this. "Mommy, tell me what happens to a bee when it stings you?" "Mommy, why does the bee's body rip apart?" So I told her, again and again.
I love bees. And although I was tempted to seize this as a "teachable moment" and expound on the virtues of bees, I also recognized that she was still in a place of fear. Rather than inundate the girl with facts and information about how great bees really are, what an important role they play in nature, I just wanted her to not be afraid. That's the first step toward appreciation. After all, she's not going to give a hoot what bees do if she's terrified of them. Right now, she just needs to know she's safe around bees.
In our mail that afternoon was the DNR's great magazine, the Volunteer, and this month's issue had a feature on bees! Wonderful! We got to look close-up at the bodies of different species of bees, and L actually saw how cute and fuzzy the little things are! She was really interested in the pictures and picked a few "favorites" from a page with a dozen or so pictures. Here's a link to a great article on bees from that magazine. I mentioned very briefly that bees help spread plants around, and help fruits and flowers grow.
My hope, of course, is to help her move from fear to curiosity. I want her be intrigued enough by what they do, that she is curious and wants to learn more. So, the next day when we made strawberry popsicles, I had to put in a good word for the bees who pollinated the strawberry plants.
cool bee links to check out:
And did you know the honeybee population is on the decline? It's scary and true. Something big is happening, and scientists are not sure what. Read more about "colony collapse disorder" at this link:
Friday, July 3, 2009
There was, for some strange reason, a pile of freshly pruned branches and twigs scattered about the ground, and for several of the kids at the park, (mine included) this provided fodder for a game I call "gather up the leaves into a pile and throw them into the air"--it was great to see kids ranging in age from 1 to probably 8, all coming up with an impromptu game, then playing together and enjoying nature, despite the fact that they didn't know each other at all. And with no parental involvement or direction. It was cool to watch the game just "happen" spontaneously.
The game ended poorly, as games sometimes do, with one boy, I'd guess him to be about 4, getting mad for some reason, picking up a branch, and just whacking the crap out of a smaller boy, I'd guess to be about 2. The older boy's parents were watching but didn't intervene. The 2 year old wasn't physically hurt, but he was clearly upset and stood off to the side for the rest of the time the game went on. Just watching. It was sad, and I felt a little weird about it. I wanted the parents to intervene, or to have the bully make peace somehow. They didn't seem to care at all about what had happened, they just ordered the boy to the sidewalk with them so they could walk on. I felt sorry for the 2 year old.
L and J saw the incident happen, and stood quietly watching while it was "going down" but quickly moved on. The drama of kid play never fails to surprise me. My kids were over it before I was, although they did lose interest completely in the leaf game after this happened.
L and J each had brought along a doll stroller and had great fun pushing their "babies" (stuffed cat and puppy, respectively) around under the huge, spreading oak trees. After the leaf drama, they resumed racing around and around with the strollers and pretending to "go home"-walking as far away from me as they comfortably could, (always turning around to make sure I was watching them go, and still within their sight), then turning around and racing back to me. Sometimes they even stopped to collect "spaghetti" for me on the way. (stacks and handfuls of thin twigs)
And the trees, oh, these trees were mammoth! And they just felt so, I don't know, happy to me. Was it all the happy people enjoying the first evening of a long holiday weekend, milling about beneath them? Was it the sunshine wrapping each and every leaf in warmth? (I could practically hear the leaves at work, photosynthesizing their bad ol' selves like nobody's business) Was it the fact that today was the first day it's been above 60 in days? Who knows? Who cares?
It's summer in the city. 'Bout time.