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Top 10 Ways to Learn in Your Own Backyard

Many parents worry about summer slide, the learning loss that can occur while school is out for the summer. Great news: There is a hotbed of learning right in your own backyard. Science, math, art, history, and early literacy can come alive through the kinds of rich, hands-on, project-based experiences that make learning meaningful, all while you’re having fun exploring outdoors.

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Grow a Habitat Garden and Experience Citizen Science

Small creatures like birds and butterflies are always fun to watch. There are lots of ways to encourage them to visit your garden and linger a while, many of which provide fun and fascinating projects while benefiting your local habitat, your garden and the greater ecosystem of the Earth. You don’t need a large yard to have a habitat garden. Apartment balconies, window ledges, school gardens, and decks can all host local habitat.

Backyard creatures essentially need four things: Food, water, shelter and places to lay eggs and care for their young. Learn more and find resources about habitat gardening. Welcoming wildlife needn’t be complicated. One very easy way to start is by making a bird feeder.

Want to take it a step farther? The Great Sunflower Project is just one of many opportunities for kids to experience citizen science close to home. Citizen scientists are ordinary people of all ages who help scientists and organizations track the count and behaviors of birds, butterflies, bees and others. After all, researchers can’t be everywhere, and many of us have habitats in our backyards and neighborhoods that can help them gain important information about nature. If you have 15 minutes, you can count bees, which are vital for the Earth’s ecosystem, for The Great Sunflower Project. Other projects available year-round allow you to track birds, bats, butterflies, fireflies, wildflowers, meteors and snow, learning about each in the process. See a list of citizen science projects.

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Have Some Gardening Fun

Pizza Garden

You can grow just about everything needed for a pizza right in your own yard and then harvest and eat all the items baked in a pizza. All you’ll need to add is the dough and cheese! Pizza gardens teach design, planning, growing, harvesting, cooking and nutrition. Determine the shape of your pizza garden and decide what you’d like to grown and how you want to divide the space. Round pizza gardens, for instance, can be divided into four, six, or eight spokes, to resemble pizza slices. Mark off areas with string or rocks. Make sure to give plants like tomatoes plenty of room. In addition to tomatoes, try zucchini, eggplant, peppers, spinach, basil, oregano, onions, or garlic. Or grow flowers – red flowers to represent tomato sauce, yellow flowers to represent cheese, pink flowers for pepperoni, and some green leafy plants for spinach or peppers.

Seed Race

Why not make gardening into a game, and create a science experiment at the same time, with a seed race? Choose two or more types of seeds.
Plant them at the same time, in the same conditions, near each other in the ground or in similar containers, indoors or out. (Or plant the same seeds and vary one or more conditions as an experiment.) Water and watch which one emerges first and grows fastest. Stake them with a store-bought or homemade yardstick to measure their progress.

Growing Initials

Give your kids something they can claim as their own, and engage them in early literacy  at the same time by planting seeds in the shape of a child’s initials. Lay string in the shapes of the letters you like and dig a shallow furrow beside it. Plant your seeds – leafy greens work well for this project because they come up quickly and fill out nicely. These include lettuce, chives, radishes, cress, and various grasses. Most greens have fine seeds, which can be planted in a close, continuous line and thinned as needed.

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Make a Wind Chime or Music Tree

Kids love to make music and noise. What better place for that than outdoors? Hang old or recycled pots, pans, tin cans, lids, muffin tins, silverware, measuring cups and other items from tree branches. Group lighter items close together to create wind chimes, or place them farther apart to let kids make music with wooden spoons to experiment with different sounds or learn about the effects of wind.

Have Fun with Water

Outdoor time calls for water play, which allows even the youngest children to learn about the properties of water, as it allows things to float, sink, fill, empty, change textures and temperatures, and move at various speeds. Young children will enjoy a mud play area and lots of old cups and kitchen items for filling, scooping and dumping. Others may enjoy filling cups with water and making “magic potions” with food coloring, glitter and small found objects. Or fill a tub of water and make a fine sea-worthy vessel to play with.

Cork Rafts and Sailboats

You’ll need:
Corks
School or craft glue
Flat toothpicks
Construction or other paper
Ruler
Markers, crayons, or colored pencils
Scissors

Raft: Arrange corks in a square or rectangle, with long sides touching each other. Glue the sides of the corks together. Draw a small rectangle (approximately 1 x 4”) on the paper with the ruler and cut it out. Fold the paper in half, so that you have two rectangles approximately 1 x 2”. Draw your country’s flag, or flags from your imagination, on each outer side of the paper. Glue the toothpick into the inner fold on the back side between the two flags, and let the glue dry. Glue the two halves of the paper together to secure the flag. Affix the toothpick flags into one cork or several corks and set the raft in water.

Sailboat: Glue corks together, following the instructions for the raft, or simply use a single cork. Draw a triangular sail shape on the paper (approximately 1” long on the side that will be glued to the toothpick. Decorate your sail, if desired. Glue the sail to the toothpick on its 1” side and let the glue dry. Affix the toothpick sail into the cork or cork base and set sail!

Elementary and older children will enjoy making a paper boat and sailing it in a nearby body of water, alone or in a race with others.

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Create Garden Art

Artists and craftspeople have long been inspired by the garden. Just getting outside with art and craft materials can open a world of wonder and observation. Gardens, in all their color, variety and changing light, offer great subjects, as well as a place to clear the artist’s head. In addition, they often provide a place where one can get messier than inside a house. Bring tempera or finger paints and paper outside, for plein air painting, paint a flower pot that you can plant in, or make a pretty beaded spider web.

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Blow Bubbles

Bubble blowing may be one of life’s perfect activities. While providing endless possibilities and inexpensive fun, bubbles also illustrate properties of science. Each one is a thin skin of liquid surrounding a gas. The water molecules on their surfaces bond tightly together, because each is made up of two sticky hydrogen atoms and one oxygen one – H2O. More bubble science is explained here. Bubbles can be made using ingredients you have around the house. When the weather’s nice, I often make a bucket of bubble solution and leave it outside with wands and other fun equipment so my daughter and friends can make bubbles whenever they like. It’s always fun and magical to create bubbles and watch them trail in the breeze. Here’s a recipe for giant homemade bubbles and some fun bubble activities.

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Play Web of Life

This is a powerful group game that teaches older children about the interconnectedness of living things. We encountered it on a school field trip to a vibrant marsh and have never forgotten it.

You’ll need:
A ball of string, yarn, or twine

Players form a circle. The leader asks them to name a plant or animal that lives in the area. When someone names a plant or animal, he or she is handed the end of the ball of string. When someone names another plant or animal, the string is unraveled and handed to that person. The game continues this way until everyone is holding the same piece of string. It can be very dramatic for everyone to realize that they are webbed together. Choose one of the players to illustrate what happens when there is change, such as when a tree burns down or an animal is eaten. Have that person pull his or her piece of string to see its effect on all the others.

Slow Tip: If people get stuck on what to say next, go backward or forward in the food and shelter chain. The bird eats a frog, the frog eats an ant, the ant crawls under a tree, the tree provides oxygen for the deer, and so on.

Cook with the Sun

Box ovens employ one of the oldest energy sources of all, solar power. But while people have dried food in the sun for centuries, it was French-Swiss scientist Horace de Saussure who harnessed it for cooking. He used glass to trap heat and create convection while his 1700s peers were still burning mirrors. Anything that can be cooked in a regular oven can be cooked in a box oven, though it’s best to stick with recipes that don’t require raw meat or eggs, until you’re proficient.

You’ll need:
Large sturdy cardboard box, with four sides and a bottom (no top or lids), such as a 10-ream paper box
Heavy-duty aluminum foil
Duct tape
Cookie sheet or large cake pan
4 tin cans, filled with water to weight them
Charcoal briquettes and fire starter
Disposable foil tray or pie tins
Small stone
Recipe and cooking items
Bucket of water for fire safety

Choose a hot day with full sun. Completely line the box inside and out with foil, shiny side out. Tape only on the outside of the box (to avoid fumes getting in the food.) Choose a flat surface away from flammable objects. Line it with foil. Use the tin cans as “feet” to hold the cookie sheet or cake pan, which serves as the oven tray. Fill the foil tray or pie tins with briquettes, approx. one for every 40 degrees of desired oven temperature, and start. Place the item to be cooked on the oven tray (ideas follow). Slide the briquettes under the oven tray when ready (white). Place the box oven down over the items, using a small rock on the least windy side to lift part of the box off the ground for ventilation.

Follow the directions for your recipe. Cupcakes, biscuits, English muffin pizzas, and other items that don’t require long cooking times all work well in box ovens. Try one of our favorites:

Box Oven Pineapple Upside Down Cake

You’ll need:
2 boxes yellow cake mix, prepared
1 ounce butter or margarine
1 8-ounce can of pineapples
½ cup brown sugar
Dutch oven or large cake pan
Second pan or cookie sheet

Place butter or margarine in the Dutch oven or pan and melt it in the box oven. Stir brown sugar and pineapples into the melted butter. Pour prepared cake mix over the pineapple mixture. Bake for 25 minutes or more, until the cake is golden brown. Remove from the box oven and invert onto a second pan or cookie sheet.

Slow Tip: Want to try some super easy sun cooking? Make sun tea by filling a container with water, adding tea bags, and letting the container steep in the sun.

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Enjoy the Night Sky

Backyard fun needn’t only happen during the daytime. Nighttime offers lots of opportunities to explore constellations of stars; meteor showers, like August’s Perseids; or phases of the moon. You can’t help but be infused with a sense of wonder, awe, history and mystery while contemplating the cosmos, as countless people, back to the ancient Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks and others have done before us.

Get to Know the Constellations

With 88 constellations and numerous other stars, the night sky can seem a bit overwhelming. Begin to get to know it by locating a few key constellations and orienting to those. After all, the constellations were themselves created to help the ancients better understand the night sky.

The Big Dipper, which is part of a larger constellation, is a great starting point, as it has an identifiable shape and is usually visible over much of the Northern Hemisphere. It appears like a ladle (bowl) and handle. Seeking the North Star, or Polaris? Extend an imaginary line up from the top corner of the ladle that is furthest from the handle. Polaris is in turn on the handle of the Little Dipper, which appears upside down and facing the opposite direction from the Big Dipper. Continue on from the North Star, away from the Big Dipper, for about the same distance and you will reach Casseopeia (the mythical Queen of Ethiopia), another famous constellation. In the Northern Hemisphere, Cassiopeia is shaped like an “M” in the Summer and a “W” in the Winter.

Consult a star map and continue to find relationships to these constellations.

Slow Snippet: What makes stars twinkle? What we see as twinkling is really the light from the star bending as it moves through layers of the Earth’s atmosphere. That trip takes billions of years, so that what we see is a snapshot of a time in the cosmos that is long past.

Keep a Moon Diary

Taking note of the moon’s phases and rhythms, as it moves through its cycle, is a great way to feel the rhythms of our lives and of nature. Observing the moon and keeping a moon diary can help younger children understand how long a month is.

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Have a Scavenger Hunt

Scavenger hunts are a great way to get everyone exploring and observing in nature.

You’ll need:
Pencils and paper

Create a list in advance or have players contribute to one list of 10-20 things they might find in the backyard or park. A list might include an oak tree, a pond, a red bird, a dandelion, a wildflower, a nest, a feather, an acorn or a hollow log. You or the hunters could also list more subjective items, such as something rough, something orange, something unexpected, or a heart-shaped rock. Teams or players go off to seek the items on the list and cross each off when they see it. One point is awarded for each item found. The person or team with the most points wins.

Make a Nature Bracelet

This is a fun and easy way to get kids to look around them and observe small items in their own backyards.

You’ll need:
1″ or wider Masking Tape, enough to go around each child’s wrist

Tear off a piece of masking tape, slightly larger than the child’s wrist. Place it around the wrist with the sticky side out. Go for a walk or hunt and look for small items in nature that can be stuck to the masking tape, such as leaves, twigs, seeds, acorns and pods. (Generally things that have already fallen on the ground are safe to pick. If in doubt, leave something.) Fill the bracelet by sticking the items onto it and wear it proudly.

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These activities are adapted from Fed Up with Frenzy: Slow Parenting in a Fast-Moving World, which contains 300+ more fun family activities.

Want to take it further? Create your own backyard DIY summer camp with eight weeks of ideas from A Natural Nester and many others.

This post is part of the School’s Out Top 10 Summer Learning series. Be sure to read all the other great Top 10 lists!

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Photos: Susan Sachs Lipman, Kids Growing Strong (pizza garden), Public Domain (night sky), Pass the Cereal (nature bracelet)

Pollinator Week: Have Fun Attracting and Helping Bees, Birds and Butterflies

June 16-22 is National Pollinator Week. It’s a week to celebrate and educate about pollinating animals, such as bees, birds, butterflies, bats, beetles and others, which are extremely vital to our ecosystem. Pollinators support much of our wildlife, lands and watersheds. Nearly 80% 0f the 1,400 crop plants grown around the world that produce all of our food and plant-based industrial products require pollination by animals.

There are so many simple ways to welcome pollinators into our home gardens and other outdoor spaces. In addition to helping the earth’s ecosystem and food supply, you’ll also experience the fascination and wonder that comes from observing the animals you attract. Here are a few ways to get more involved:

Find or add an event through Pollinator Partnership, a wonderful resource about pollinators year-round.

Garden for wildlife with tons of tips and guides from the National Wildlife Federation, which offers a Certified Backyard Habitat Program.

Check out NWF gardeners’ favorite plants for attracting pollinators.

Find more information about gardening for wildlife from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Join the Great Sunflower Project and many other citizen science projects that allow you to help researchers right from your own backyard or a local park.

Spring at the Bird Cafe and bird feeder activity.

Make a quick and easy bird feeder to attract and observe birds.

Enjoy beautiful nature during Pollinator Week and throughout the year!

Photos: Susan Sachs Lipman, Public Domain

It’s Time for Summer Backyard Family Fun

Summer is near, and with it usually comes longer days, less scheduled time and more time outdoors. Whether you have a backyard, front lawn, porch, driveway or deck, summer can offer the kind of simple outdoor family fun that you probably remember from your own childhood. Here are a few ways to welcome wildlife, play classic games, and enjoy the kinds of outdoor activities that get people together and create summer memories.

Note: This post is part of the Second Annual Backyard Barbecue Blog Hop.  I am so excited to be joining with my blogger friends to create a collection of fabulous ideas for family fun this summer. Be sure to visit all of our co-hosts (links below) to see their amazing posts and be sure to share yours at the end!

Feed the Butterflies and Birds

It’s so much fun to attract birds and butterflies to our yards and homes, while actually helping out local wildlife by feeding them. Plant butterfly-friendly plants this summer, or make this easy bird feeder, which will have you backyard bird-watching in no time. Experiment with different kinds of seeds to see which birds each attracts. Or ask for advice at a plant nursery or pet store.

You’ll need:

Cardboard
Heart or other template, optional
2-3 ‘ ribbon or string
½ cup vegetable shortening, peanut or other nut butter, suet or lard (plus, cornmeal or oatmeal, optional)
2 ½ cup mixture of birdseed (chopped nuts, dried fruit, optional)
Small mixing bowl
Plate, shallow dish or pie tin
Scissors
Spoon or butter knife

Cut a heart or other shape out of cardboard, using a template or free-hand.

Poke a hole toward the top and run the string through it. (If using a ribbon, you might want to string it after the mixture has dried a little, using a hole to poke through the hole, as needed.

In mixing bowl, combine peanut butter or other spread with meal, if using.

Spread that mixture over the both sides of the heart with the knife or spoon.

Pour the birdseed and feed ingredients onto the plate.

Place the heart into the seeds.

Hang your feeder from a tree branch or window eave that offers some shelter from wind and weather if possible, as well as a view of visiting birds.

Slow Tip: You can also use a toilet-paper tube, and either string it up or place it right onto a branch.

Play Pick-Up Sticks with Real Twigs

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You’ll need: Approximately 41 twigs.

Hold the twigs in a bundle, then release them so that they land in a pile. Players take turns trying to remove one stick at a time, without disturbing any other sticks. When a stick from the pile is disturbed, the next player takes a turn. Some players use a designated stick to remove other sticks. When all the sticks have been removed from the pile, players total their numbers of sticks to determine the winner.

Make a Beaded Spider Web

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This is an enchanting project that mirrors the intricate work of busy spiders, and provides a whimsical and colorful garden object when finished.

You’ll need:

3 bamboo skewers per web
Scissors or wire cutters
Ruler
Thin wire
Beads of your choosing. Make sure the beads and wire are a compatible size.

Clip the pointed tips from the skewers.

Put the skewers in a bundle.

Cut a 12” piece of wire and wrap half of it tightly around the center of the bundle.

Spread the skewers out until they all point outward like an asterisk, crossing in the middle.

Continue to wrap the wire to secure the new shape.

Cut a piece of wire approx. 18”.

Wrap one end of the wire around one of the skewers twice, about an inch form the center.

String beads along the length of the wire, and then wrap the wire twice around the next skewer. Continue until you are back to the first skewer. Wrap the wire to secure it.

Cut the next pieces of wire 24”, 30” and 36”, and string and bead them around the skewers, as above.

Place or hang your spider web in your garden.

Slow Tip: Beads can be strung tightly along the lengths of wire, or room can be left for the wire to show through.

Slow Tip: Try beading flowers, leaves, butterflies, ladybugs, or other garden features.

Gather a Group for Classic Lawn Games

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These fun, easy games require little or no equipment and have been creating memories for generations.

Duck, Duck, Goose

South Asians know it as Kho Kho, Ghanaians as Antoakyire. German children play a version called Plumpsack, which involves dropping a handkerchief at one player’s spot. Young children play this timeless game around the world.

Players sit in a circle, facing each other. Choose a player to be It. It walks around the outside of the circle, tapping each person on the head and saying, for each tap, “duck”, “duck”, “duck”. Finally, It taps a person on the head and says, “goose” and begins to run around the outside of the circle. The person who is tapped as a goose gets up and chases It around the circle. If the goose is able to tap It before he or she sits down in the goose’s spot, then that person is It again. If the goose does not tag It, then the goose becomes the new “it”.

Red Light, Green Light

Another game played around the world, Red Light, Green Light has many charming variations. In the Czech Republic, it’s called, Cukr, káva, limonáda, čaj, rum, bum! (“Sugar, coffee, lemonade, tea, rum, boom!”)

One player is chosen to be the stoplight. That person turns his or her back to the group, which forms a line approximately 30–90′ away (depending on the ages of players). The stoplight calls out, “Green light!” and the players advance toward the player who is the stoplight as quickly as they can. When the stoplight wishes, he or she calls out, “Red light!” while turning around to see the runners. The runners must stop immediately. Any player caught moving after a call of “red light” has to go back to the starting line. “Green lights” and “red lights” are repeated until the first player reaches and tags the stoplight and is declared the winner. If all the players are out before they reach the stoplight, then the stoplight wins that round. The winner becomes the new stoplight.

Blob Tag

There are so many fun tag games, you needn’t limit yourself to basic tag. Try this fun variation:

Once a player is tagged by the person who is It, the two join arms and become a blob, which chases players together to try to tag them. Other players who are tagged also join arms and become part of the blob. Some play a version in which, when the blob reaches four people, two split off to become a new blob. The last person standing alone becomes the new “it.”

Blow Giant Bubbles

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Whimsical bubbles are a great addition to a summer backyard. They provide hours of entertainment at very little expense. In fact, there’s no need to spend money on commercial bubble mixes at all. A large batch can be left in a bucket or tub for days, or even a week or two, without losing its ability to form bubbles. Bubble mixes are best made at least ½ hour before you need them, so they can settle.

You’ll need:

6 cups (or parts) water
2 cups (or parts) Dawn dishwashing detergent
3/4 cup Karo or other light corn syrup
Measuring container
Large tub, bucket or pan (large enough for the wands to fit inside)

Use Dawn brand dishwashing detergent, if you can find it, for large, firm bubbles. Joy is second-best.

If you’re using the same container to measure both the water and the detergent, measure the water first to prevent detergent foaming in the container.

If your water is very hard, you may want to use distilled water.

Stir the solution gently. It should be smooth, not sudsy or foamy.

Here are some fun ideas for bubble play and experimentation.

Camp in Your Backyard

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Camping out in sleeping bags is fun any time of year— in a backyard, on a porch or balcony, even on the living-room floor. Wherever you roll out the sleeping bags, enjoy some traditional camp activities:

Sing traditional or silly campfire songs like Go Bananas, She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain, Boom Chicka Boom, and Rose Rose.

Make shadow puppets by shining a flashlight onto a tent or house wall. Hold your hands between the light and the wall in various shapes like these:

Rabbit— Make a fist with one hand. Place the other palm
over it and make a peace sign (for ears) with two fingers.

Hawk— Link your thumbs together, with your hands facing
away from you. Stretch out your fingers and hands and flutter
them like wings.

Make s’mores, banana boats, hobo popcorn and other classic camp treats.

 

These activities are adapted from Fed Up with Frenzy: Slow Parenting in a Fast-Moving World, which contains 300+ more fun family activities.

Photos: Susan Sachs Lipman, VA State Parks

 

Be sure to visit all of our Backyard Barbecue Blog Hop co-hosts to see their amazing posts and be sure to share yours at the end!

Co-hosts

All Done Monkey
The Squishable Baby
Creative World of Varya
Discovering The World Through My Son’s Eyes
Twin Falls Mommy
In The Playroom
Slow Family
Adventures of Adam
Adventure in a Box
Planet Smarty Pants

Now it’s your turn!


Backyard Barbecue Blog Hop 2014

Get Ready for Summer with At-Home and Innovative Camps

For many summers, my family divided the season into summer camps, vacation travel, and down-time at home, during what we called Camp MommyAnna. It seemed important to enjoy some of summer’s long days with adventures in our local nature and area and no set schedule. So I’m very excited to participate in The At-Home Summer Nature Camp eCurriculum, which offers tons of ideas to help you create your own at-home summer camp experience.

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The At-Home Summer Nature Camp eCurriculum, from A Natural Nester, contains creative and easy-to-follow ways to keep kids engaged throughout the summer and to make the most of family time together.

The Curriculum includes 8 weeks of kid-friendly lessons, outdoor activities, indoor projects, crafts, recipes, field trip ideas, children’s book suggestions, and more in a full-color PDF you can read on your computer screen or tablet, or print out. The program is designed to be flexible and fit with your family’s schedule and surroundings, so you can incorporate the ideas any time it works for you.

Fun weekly themes to help kids discover and enjoy the natural world include:

An Edible Garden ~ The Night Sky ~ At the Beach 
 A Spot in the Shade ~ Ponds & Frogs
Rain, Rain ~ Wildflowers & Bees ~ Sun Fun

While designed primarily for children ages 5-11, the ideas are fun and adaptable for all ages.

These are the talented and inspirational camp counselors:

Sarah of Imagine Childhood ~ Kara of Simple Kids
Valarie of Jump Into a Book ~ Heather of Shivaya Naturals
Cerys of Nature and Play ~ Linda of Natural Suburbia
Leah of Skill It ~ Amy of Mama Scout
Erin of Exhale. Return to Center and More!

I can’t wait for summer!

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At-Home Summer Nature Camp eCurriculum

Looking for a great San Francisco Bay Area camp?

Of course, summer camps offer terrific experiences for kids that they don’t get elsewhere, and they provide important summer coverage for working parents. Bay Area parents will want to check out Camp Galileo, which combines art, science and outdoor activities around weekly themes. They have programs for kids ages pre-K to 8th grade, in more than 40 locations. The camp philosophy encourages fun and learning through experimentation, discovery and innovation. Each camp is a week long, which allows for flexibility. Extended care is offered, too. Campers through 5th grade are grouped by age and participate in one of four themed camps: Adventures Down Under, Art & Engineering along Route 66, The Incredible Human Body, or Leonardo’s Apprentice: Inventions & Art of the Renaissance. Older kids choose “Summer Quests” that specialize in high technology, building, culinary arts or digital and fine arts. Camp Galileo is partnered with the de Young Museum, the Tech Museum of Innovation, Chabot Space and Science Camp and Klutz. Camp parents speak extremely highly of their children’s experiences. Visit the Camp Galileo site to learn more.

Use the code 2014INNOVATION to receive $30 off (limit one per camper, Camp Galileo and Galileo Summer Quest) Expires: May 31, 2014. Enter the code at sign up by clicking on the purple “sign up” button on the right-hand side of the page.

Sign up for the Galileo newsletter and be entered to win a free week of camp. You can sign up by scrolling to the bottom of the page and entering your email information and zip code.

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Other Slow Family posts you may like: How to Choose a Great Summer Camp

This post is sponsored by Camp Galileo and A Natural Nester. The views expressed are my own.

Join the Great Backyard Bird Count

I am very excited about the Audubon Society and Cornell Lab of Ornithology‘s upcoming Great Backyard Bird Count. It takes place Friday-Monday, February 14-17, all over North America. It’s a great family activity. Anyone can participate, even if you only have 15 minutes and are completely new to birding.

Here’s how it works: You can pick a spot to go watch birds (a backyard, a park, a trail, a marsh, or anywhere you think birds might be) or you can join an organized event. You can download a very thorough check list of birds that are likely to be seen in your area. You record the birds that you see and then go home and either send in your checklist or enter the names and numbers in online.

There are lots more tips about counting and recording birds, tricky identifications, binoculars, and much more on BirdSource’s Great Backyard Bird Count page. The site also features recordings of bird sounds and more activities for kids.

The All About Birds site has beautiful photos and information that can help you identify birds. These are the top birds that were reported during the count last year.

So, why count birds in the first place, and why now? The Cornell Ornithology Lab, the Audubon Society and others use the information from the annual February count to track the health of various bird species over time and, in some cases, take steps to protect them. Mid-February has proven a good time to count, as it occurs just before the major Spring migrations. If you find you like counting, you can actually help year-round on various projects.

Last year more than 17,400,00 individual birds were reported by more than 104,000 people. This year you could be part of the Great Backyard Bird Count.

Read about and see pictures of the 2010 Great Backyard Bird Count.

Make a valentine feeder for the birds.

Get ideas for other great citizen science projects like Project Feeder Watch.


Photos: Painted Bunting and Green Honeycreeper by Doug Janson, Flame Colored Tanager by Jerry Oldenettel, Blue Jay: Creative Commons, Northern Spotted Owl by Susan Sachs Lipman

Preserve the Spirit of Summer in Your Family Year-Round

It was the apex of my childhood, over and over
––  inscription in a beach house guest book

For most families, summer is a season lasting approximately 12 weeks. Into it, we pack most of our relaxation for the year, along with our memories, our entertaining, and our sensual experiences –– whether they involve digging our toes into wet sand at the ocean’s edge or biting into a stack of mozzarella, tomato and basil, drizzled with olive oil, and swearing we can taste the Mediterranean.

It’s the season when the sun kisses our faces and causes our children’s height to spurt. It’s the season of wearing less clothing; spending more time with family and friends; eating fresh, tree-ripened fruit; and spending nights playing games or gazing at stars. In summer, time moves just a little more slowly.

When asked to name a childhood memory, most adults will remember an incident or a feeling from summer. While we can’t actually experience the golden season in December, there are a few fun and meaningful ways to harness the spirit of summer for our families to enjoy year-round.

Make Summer Food and Drinks

Many people associate the foods of summer with spots around the globe that bask in warm climates for much of the year. Think Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, African, Southeast Asian, South American, Mexican, Caribbean, Hawaiian, and regional U.S. dishes that use fresh fish, meats, cheese, vegetables, and herbs, and combine ingredients simply for results that are sensuous and robustly flavored. Cooking from warm climates is not only delicious, but can put you in a summer frame of mind any time of year. Try making Chicken Mole, Ratatouille, Easy Weeknight Fish Tacos, All Season Slaw or Pineapple Upside Down Cake. Recreate your favorite barbecue recipes that can be made in an oven or broiler. Roast marshmallows in a fireplace or over a stove flame for s’mores.

Or make the yummy Mango Lassi (instructions at the bottom of this post.)

Camp in Your Living Room

Camping in sleeping bags is fun any time of year, indoors or out. Rustle up some s’mores in a fireplace or over an oven flame. Sing your favorite campfire songs. Tell stories. Make Hand Shadow Puppets by having someone project a flashlight onto a wall, a practice that goes back 2,000 years to Han Dynasty China! (Instructions at the end of this post.)

Have a Summer Movie Marathon

A dead-of winter double feature or an all-out film festival can put your family back in a summer frame of mind. Make s’mores and watch a rustic- or camp-themed movie like The Parent Trap (original and remake), The Great Outdoors, Camp Nowhere, Meatballs or Cheaper by the Dozen 2. Show a classic summer beach or surf movie (and try to explain to your kids that bathing suits really looked like that):  Beach Blanket and Gidget series, Blue Hawaii or The Endless Summer. Enjoy popcorn and a fun road-trip movie, such as It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, Are We There Yet? and National Lampoon’s Vacation. Have pre-teens or teens? Show Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, One Crazy Summer, Stand by Me or The Flamingo Kid.

Garden for Wildlife Year-Round

Some of the best moments for enjoying birds and butterflies occur during the fall, winter, and spring, even in cold climate zones. This can be when animals most need food and shelter. Watching animal activity, outside or even out a window, can brighten a gloomy day and encourage us to be better in tune with the cycles of nature, especially when we know we’re helping animals find food just when it can be hardest for them to do so. Plant a simple habitat garden with plants that attract birds and butterflies. Make and hang an easy bird feeder and watch the birds enjoy the eatery!

Grow Your Favorite Herbs

Take a page from French gardeners and employ your own potager –– a simple, accessible kitchen garden –– all year. Many herbs do very well in small indoor containers or on a kitchen windowsill. These include basil, chives, cilantro, scented geranium, parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, and edible flowers. You can also grow lettuce indoors. Enjoy the simple act of growing and snipping a sprig of your herbs to add to a soup, a salad or a meal.

Preserve Food

The best preserved food is made from ingredients that are picked and canned or bottled at their peak of ripeness  –– To open a jar and eat a spoonful of blueberry jam in mid-winter is to taste the summer in which it was made. Even Napoleon, not known for being the world’s most sensuous guy, seemed to understand this on a gut level. After all, it was he who offered an award for the person who could invent a way of preserving food for his armies. That, in turn, led to the modern practice of “canning”, making and preserving jams and other foods to eat all year long. If you still have berries, make my favorite triple berry jam. Berries gone? Then it’s time for yummy apple butter.

Jars of homemade jam make great gifts that recipients know are from your kitchen and your heart. Decorate the jars by tying on a custom gift card with a pretty ribbon. Or make a simple jar topper, which finishes a jar of jam in an especially old-fashioned and pleasing way. Instructions at the bottom of this post.

Preserve Memories with Your Family and in Your Home

Small items can have a lot of power. Did you collect sea shells, rocks, beach glass, trip souvenirs or other items? Have fun creating a display of them that you can enjoy all year long. Or make a mobile of your sea shells by poking holes into them with needles, stringing them on fishing line, and attaching the fishing line to sticks. Frame and hang a map from one of your favorite summer locales. Frame or make an album of vacation or summer photos and view them as a family on a winter’s day. Have family members share their favorite summer memories with one another. You may be surprised at everyone’s picks!

Gaze at the Stars

Even though summer’s Perseid meteor shower tends to get all the glory, fall and winter offer some of the best star shows of the year. If conditions are right, you’ll want to bundle up, make some hot chocolate, pull up a comfortable chair, and look through binoculars, a telescope, or the good ol’ naked eye at the Geminids, or the Leonids, or enjoy the marvelous constellations year-round.

Play Games

My summer memories often involve playing games. There seems to be more time in summer for family play, both indoors and out. Try to keep the lightness in your family and your schedule that allows for play. Play is vital for children’s development and family bonding, and is downright fun! Try these fun playground games.

Indoors? Have a family game night and play one of our favorite card games, Slapjack (instructions at the end of the post.)

Foster a Summer Mindset

In addition to warm weather, summer is often special because families approach the season with mindfulness and joy. Try unplugging or continuing to unplug earlier in the day and more often to create family time. Take walks in nature and play indoor and outdoor games, no matter the season. Keep the calendar as light as possible, even if it means saying “no” to some things or scheduling in family time. Treasure the small moments, which just may become big memories.

In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer. 

–– Albert Camus

Mango Lassi

People in India and around Southeast Asia have been drinking lassis (pronounced “luh-sees”), sweet or spicy yogurt-based drinks, for thousands of years. And, with colorful lassi stands on streets all over the subcontinent, their popularity shows no sign of letting up. For good reason. This cooling drink is great after a spicy meal or on a hot day. It works as a breakfast or a dessert. The yogurt base (traditionally a dahi, which is closer to a curd) is said to enhance digestion. And the offering of a lassi is a gesture of friendship. Yes, all this from a drink.

1 c. plain yogurt

½ c. milk

1 c. frozen mango cubes, slightly thawed

1 Tbsp. sugar

¼ tsp. ground cardamom

dash of nutmeg, if desired

Note: the yogurt and milk can be full-fat, no-fat, or anything in between.

You can make this drink with one medium fresh mango and add ½ c. of crushed ice, if desired. You can also make a berry lassi by substituting frozen berries for the mango, or season the drink with cumin or mint.

Place all ingredients except nutmeg in a blender and puree for two minutes or until the mixture is smooth and any chunks of frozen mango are fairly small.

Pour into tall glass.

Shake nutmeg on top, if desired.

Serves 1

Hand Shadow Puppets

Rabbit – Make a fist with one hand. Place the other palm over it and make a peace sign (for ears) with two fingers.

Hawk – Link your thumbs together, with hands facing away from you. Stretch your fingers and hands and flutter them like wings.

Spider – Cross your hands at the wrist. Press your thumbs together to form the spider’s head. Wiggle your fingers in a climbing motion.

Wolf or Dog – Place your palms together, fingers facing away from you. Put your thumbs up to form ears. Let your pinky drop to form a mouth. Bend your index fingers to create a forehead.

Camel – Lift one arm. Hold your hand in a loosely curved position. Hold the pinky and ring finger together. Hold the other two fingers together, thumb pressed in. Curve both sets of fingers and hold them wide apart to form a mouth. Your arm, from the elbow up, will be the camel’s neck.

Jam Jar Topper

You’ll need:

Fabric pieces (fat quarters used for quilting work well)
Pinking shears or scissors
Rubber band
Ribbon (enough for the circumference of the lid, plus approx. 8”)
Glue, optional

Cut a circle of fabric, approx. ¾” larger all-around than the jar band.

If desired, place a dot of glue onto the top of the lid, and place the fabric onto it.

Secure the fabric with a rubber band.

Tie the ribbon around the rubber band to cover, and tie it into a bow.

Attach a gift card or jar label, if desired.

Slapjack

The Deal: Cards are all dealt, one at a time, to all players. It doesn’t matter if some players have more cards than others.

Object: To win all the cards, by being first to slap each jack as it is played to the center.

Players take turns lifting one card from his or her pile and placing it face up in a common pile at the center of the table. Players must be careful not to see their own cards first. Whenever a jack is turned, the first player to slap it takes all the cards in the common pile and places them in his or her own pile.

When more than one player slaps at a jack, the one whose hand is directly on top of the jack wins the pile. If a player slaps at any card in the center that is not a jack, he must give one card, face down, to the player of that card. When a player has no more cards left, he remains in the game until the next jack is turned. He may slap at the jack in an effort to get a new pile. If he fails to win that next pile, he is out of the game. Play continues until one player has won all the cards.

 

Other Slow Family posts you might like:

Back to School: 9 Tips for Taming Fall Frenzy

Seven Ways to Make Summer Last Longer

Enjoy June’s Full Supermoon

Look up in the sky! It’s Supermoon! On Saturday, June 22 and Sunday, June 23, the moon will appear especially large and bright, due to its closer-than-usual relation to Earth. This supermoon, or perigee moon, will be the largest-appearing moon of 2013.

The supermoon will rise from the east around sunset, and then will appear huge and low on the horizon before rising into the sky for the night. Because the moon will be at its fullest Sunday at 7:30 am EDT, both Saturday and Sunday should offer ideal viewing opportunities for those with clear skies.

Read more science behind the supermoon.

Read tips for photographing the supermoon.

The Full Moon

Of course a supermoon is by definition full. People in many cultures throughout history have named the year’s full moons based on the activities that happened during them. The Farmers Almanac calls the June full moon the Strawberry Moon because, for the Algonquin Native Americans, June was synonymous with strawberries. The Cherokee called the June full moon the Green Corn Moon. The Choctaw referred to it as the Windy Moon. Celtic people referred to the June full moon as the Moon of Horses. Throughout much of more modern Europe, the June full moon was known as the Rose Moon, for that flower’s peak.

I’ve long been quite entranced with the full moon names and their variations. Of course, they reflect both the need to mark passing time and the way that time was experienced by people who were living close to the land. Lunar time-keeping pre-dated our modern calendars (and some calendars, like the Jewish and Chinese calendars, are still lunar-based.) The Farmer’s Almanac has a good list of Native American full moon names and how each came to be.

Other, even older, cultures have had moon naming traditions, too. This site lists full moon names from Chinese, Celtic, Pacific Island, Native American, Pagan, and other cultures.

Full Moon Gardening

Lots of people garden using the phases of the moon. The good news is that there isn’t one best time to plant — Each aspect of planting has an associated moon phase, based on how much moisture is pulled up through the soil by the monthly pull of the moon (much the way the moon influences the tides.)

The time just after the full moon is an especially good time for planting root crops, as the gravitational pull is high (adding more moisture to the soil) and the moonlight is decreasing, contributing energy to the roots. For this reason, the waning moon is also a good time to plant bulbs and transplants.

The Farmer’s Almanac offers a wonderful moon phase calendar for the U.S. that allows you to plug in your location and get the exact time of your local full moon.

Whether planting or watching, enjoy June’s full supermoon!

Graphics and Photos: Optics Central, Public Domain, NASA, Susan Sachs Lipman

It’s National Pollinator Week: Have Fun Attracting and Helping Bees, Butterflies and Birds

June 17-23 is National Pollinator Week. It’s a week to celebrate and educate about pollinating animals, such as bees, birds, butterflies, bats, beetles and others, which are extremely vital to our ecosystem. Pollinators support much of our wildlife, lands and watersheds. Nearly 80% 0f the 1,400 crop plants grown around the world that produce all of our food and plant-based industrial products require pollination by animals.

There are so many simple ways to welcome pollinators into our home gardens and other outdoor spaces. In addition to helping the earth’s ecosystem and food supply, you’ll also experience the fascination and wonder that comes from observing the animals you attract. Here are a few ways to get more involved:

Find or add an event through Pollinator Partnership, a wonderful resource about pollinators year-round.

Garden for wildlife with tons of tips and guides from the National Wildlife Federation, which offers a Certified Backyard Habitat Program.

Check out NWF gardeners’ favorite plants for attracting pollinators.

Find more information about gardening for wildlife from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Join the Great Sunflower Project and many other citizen science projects that allow you to help researchers right from your own backyard or a local park.

Spring at the Bird Cafe and bird feeder activity.

Make a quick and easy bird feeder to attract and observe birds.

Enjoy beautiful nature during Pollinator Week and throughout the year!

Photos: Susan Sachs Lipman, Public Domain

Have a Summer Nature Camp at Home

For many summers, my family divided the season into summer camps, vacation travel, and down-time at home, during what we called Camp MommyAnna. It seemed important to enjoy some of summer’s long days with adventures in our local nature and area and no set schedule. So I’m very excited to participate in The At-Home Summer Nature Camp eCurriculum, which offers tons of ideas to help you create your own at-home summer camp experience.

The At-Home Summer Nature Camp eCurriculum, from A Natural Nester, contains creative and easy-to-follow ways to keep kids engaged throughout the summer and to make the most of family time together.

The Curriculum includes 8 weeks of kid-friendly lessons, outdoor activities, indoor projects, crafts, recipes, field trip ideas, children’s book suggestions, and more in a full-color PDF you can read on your computer screen or tablet, or print out. The program is designed to be flexible and fit with your family’s schedule and surroundings, so you can incorporate the ideas any time it works for you.

Fun weekly themes to help kids discover and enjoy the natural world include:

An Edible Garden ~ The Night Sky ~ At the Beach 
 A Spot in the Shade ~ Ponds & Frogs
Rain, Rain ~ Wildflowers & Bees ~ Sun Fun

While designed primarily for children ages 5-11, the ideas are fun and adaptable for all ages.

These are the talented and inspirational camp counselors:

Sarah of Imagine Childhood ~ Kara of Simple Kids
Valarie of Jump Into a Book ~ Heather of Shivaya Naturals
Cerys of Nature and Play ~ Linda of Natural Suburbia
Leah of Skill It ~ Amy of Mama Scout
Erin of Exhale. Return to Center and More!
The eCurriculum will be available May 20, but you can pre-order a copy now.

I can’t wait for summer!

At-Home Summer Nature Camp eCurriculum

Welcome Spring!

(Updated for 2014: Spring will occur Thursday, March 20, at 16:57 UTC, or 12:57 pm, Eastern Daylight Time.)

Spring is almost upon us. In the Northern Hemisphere, the Vernal Equinox will officially occur Wednesday, March 20, at 11:02 Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). This corresponds to 7:02 am, Eastern Daylight Time, and 4:02 am on the West Coast.

During the twice-yearly Equinox, the tilt of the Earth’s axis is inclined neither away from nor towards the Sun, and the Sun is vertically above a point on the Equator. (The name “equinox” comes from the Latin for the words “equal” and “night — on these days night and day are approximately the same length.)

Spring conjures growth and new life, play, beauty, flowers, and the return of the sun and longer days. There are many simple ways to honor spring, from dancing a maypole dance to dyeing eggs.

Celebrations of spring happen all season, of course, as buds bloom on trees and the tulips, daffodils and other bulbs planted in the dead of winter show their cheery, colorful heads.

In my neck of the woods, wildflowers and spring bulbs have recently popped their heads up to welcome this expansive and lovely season. Here’s hoping for a pretty, play-filled spring where you are.

As I often do, at times of seasonal change, I turned to the haiku poets to help give gentle expression to the turning of the year.

Now wild geese return …
What draws them
Crying, crying
All the long dark night?

-Roka

From my tiny roof
Smooth … Soft …
Still-White Snow
Melts in Melody

-Issa

Good morning, sparrow …
Writing on my
clean veranda
with your dewy feet

-Shiki

Opening thin arms …
A pink peony
Big as this!
Said my bitty girl

-Issa

Photos by Susan Sachs Lipman

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