Category Archives: The Great Outdoors

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Join the Great Backyard Bird Count

Looking for a great winter or family nature activity? Join the Audubon Society and Cornell Lab of Ornithology‘s Great Backyard Bird Count Friday-Monday, February 13-16, anywhere in the world. 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 142,000 bird watchers from 135 countries documented nearly 4,300 species–or about 43% of all the bird species in the world! 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

Valentines Day for Kids, Nature Lovers, Vintage Collectors and More

Since Roman times, people have celebrated a mid-February festival — once called Lupercalia and celebrating fertility, the holiday was changed by Pope Gelasius in 496 A.D. into a Christian feast day in honor of the Roman martyr Saint Valentine (who refused to forsake Christianity while in prison and sent love letters signed “from your Valentine” to the jailer’s daughter.)  As for the Romans, they were said to sacrifice goats and frolick in goatskin loincloths, the men striking the young women with goatskin thongs. (Some things are better off staying in Ancient Rome.)

Early famous senders of valentines include Charles, Duke of Orleans (like St. Valentine, also in prison) and King Henry V. Geoffrey Chaucer and the poets of the Medieval era linked valentine symbolism to birds, and specifically lovebirds, whom they observed beginning their mating rituals in early spring. Today, 25% of all cards sent in the U.S. per year are valentines.

I love this holiday of love and offer a collection of the Slow Family Valentines posts over the last few years. There’s something here for every celebrant, from parents and teachers seeking easy Valentine crafts to historians and collectors of vintage and rare valentines, to those interested in nature and animals and the ways in which they mate, feed and otherwise display their wonders during mid-winter and throughout the year.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

How to Make Fun and Easy Homemade Valentines

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Vintage Valentines, Part 1: Wordplay, Western, Food and Kitchen

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Vintage Valentines, Part 2: Space Age, Transportation, Winter, Music and More

Spaceman_ValentineThe Best and Worst Candy Heart Sayings of All Time

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Host a Valentine Tea Party

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Make a Quick and Easy Valentine Feeder for the Birds

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Love in Nature and History

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Hearts in Nature: A Valentine’s Scavenger Hunt

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Enjoy this annual celebration of love!

Celebrate Tu B’Shevat, the New Year of the Trees

The Jewish holiday Tu B’Shevat, which occurs in mid-winter in the Northern Hemisphere (sundown, February 3, this year) is known as the New Year of the Trees and, in some circles, as the Jewish Earth Day. Its date coincides with the earliest blooming trees in Israel and it is celebrated by planting trees and plants and by eating the fruits and nuts of trees.

For our family, celebrating Tu B’Shevat represents a way to honor the turning of the year, welcome the promise of spring and new life, and recommit to caring for the land and the planet.

Here are some easy, fun and meaningful ways to celebrate Tu B’Shevat.

Plant a Tree

Planting a tree is a simple and powerful act of faith and stewardship. Even a small yard or balcony can often accommodate a dwarf or potted tree. Alternately, there may be a neighborhood or public space available for the planting. This is a great project for a school, scout or youth group, as well as a family. Some people plant trees in the same place each year and watch them grow over the years.

See Blessings and Poems for Trees below.

Plant Vegetable or Flower Seeds

No space for a tree? No problem! Plant seeds outdoors or indoors that will come up in spring. You may want to plant parsley for Passover or Easter, peas for Earth Day, cosmos for May Day, or pansies for Mother’s Day. Of course, anything that grows will be celebrated anytime.

Try these easy-to-plant seeds, which can be planted in cool weather, are large enough for little fingers to handle, and sprout and grow relatively quickly: beans, gourds, morning glory, nasturtiums and peas.

Take a Photography or Poetry Walk

Sometimes the act of recording your observations with a camera or journal causes you to look around in a different way and notice things and make connections that you might not have made otherwise. Photography and poetry can help us quiet ourselves and focus our time in nature.

Be Kind to Nature

Choose an area near your home to care for for a few hours, in the form of weeding or picking up trash. These simple activities can really deepen our connections to the nature, as well as the people, around us. This can be especially true if we plant and revisit the same tree, or repeatedly care for the same piece of “nearby nature” over the years.

Make an Orange Bird Feeder

Did you know that orange halves make great bird feeders? They’re simple to make, visually appealing and even biodegradable. Best, your orange bird feeder will help you help the birds, at precisely the time when much of their food supply has diminished.

Have a Tu B’Shevat Seder

For those familiar with a Passover seder, a Tu B’Shevat seder is simpler. There are few rules. Hosts and participants decide on the customs that suit the event. Some plant seeds and tell stories that involve trees and tree planting. Others eat plenty of fruit and perhaps only fruit. You may want to choose from or eat all of these seven species which are abundant in Israel: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates.

Make a Fun Fruit Recipe

Why not try a new recipe? The following look very inviting:

Make a Root Viewer

For many, the roots of a plant can be just as fascinating as the parts we see above ground. This simple root viewer lets budding botanists view the magical processes that happen below the surface of growing things.

You’ll need:

  • Clear plastic cups, bottles or jars
  • Seeds and dirt

Fill the containers most of the way with dirt.
Plant the seeds close to one side, one or two per cup.
Put them in the sun and water gently.
Watch as roots form and plants sprout.

Blessings and Poems for Trees

At tree-planting time, you may want to recite a blessing or poem to encourage a long life for the tree. If you’d like, pass a chalice of water and have each person who receives it share a wish, thought or memory. Once the chalice has gone around, the water can be used to nourish the tree.

Simple Blessing for the Planting of a Tree

We plant this tree to honor ______ (name of person or occasion). May this tree’s roots go deep, its trunk grow strong, its branches spread wide, and its leaves and fruit provide nourishment, beauty and shade. May it always remind us of this special moment.

Growth of a Tree

I’m a little maple, oh so small,
In years ahead, I’ll grow so tall!
With a lot of water, sun, and air,
I will soon be way up there!

Deep inside the soil my roots are found,
Drinking the water underground.
Water from the roots my trunk receives,
Then my trunk starts making leaves.

As I start to climb in altitude,
Leaves on my branches will make food.
Soon my trunk and branches will grow wide,
And I’ll grow more bark outside!

I will be a maple very tall,
Losing my leaves when it is fall.
But when it is spring, new leaves will show.
How do trees grow? Now you know!

— Meish Goldish

Slow Snippet: In old Jewish homes, a cedar tree was planted for each baby boy, and a cypress tree for each girl. When two people married, branches from their trees were used to create their “chuppah”, or wedding canopy.

Hope you have joyous Tu B’Shevat!
Many of these activities are adapted from Fed Up with Frenzy: Slow Parenting in a Fast-Moving World, which contains 300+ activities for family fun.

Have Some Shadowy Fun on Groundhog Day

Just in! Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow. He predicted an six more weeks of winter on Groundhog Day.

Groundhog Day, February 2, has basically everything going for it that I love in a holiday — It marks a point in a season; it’s full of folklore and wisdom, superstition, ceremony, civic charm, science, mystery, agrarian history, and weather — and it was featured in perhaps my all-time favorite movie of the same name, which itself is a study in acceptance and inner calm while being outright hilarious in nearly every frame.

Altogether now: It’s Groundhog Day!

In an early morning ceremony, groundhog Punxsutawney Phil will rise from his heated burrow at Gobbler’s Knob, PA, as he has for 127 years, and signal to his handlers whether or not he sees his shadow. No shadow means an early end to winter. And if the groundhog does see his shadow? Six more long weeks of the season. Over the years that the ceremony has taken place, Phil has seen his shadow 101 times and not seen it only 17. (Records don’t exist for every year.) In 2008, the crowd heartily booed the prospect of “six more weeks of winter”, as I suspect they would do this year, as well, should Phil call for even more chilly weather.

Some have stated that Phil’s “handlers” make the prediction for him. What do we think of that?

History and science of Groundhog Day

According to this excellent Groundhog Day site, German settlers arrived in the 1700s in the area of Pennsylvania, northeast of Pittsburgh, which had been previously settled by the Delaware Native Americans. The Germans celebrated Candlemas Day, originally a Medieval Catholic holiday to mark the mid-point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox in the Northern Hemisphere. The holiday also has roots in Celtic-Gaelic and Pagan cultures, where it is celebrated as St. Brigid’s Day and Imbolc, and is a time of festivals, feasting, parades, and weather prediction, as well as candles and even bonfires to mark the sun’s return.

According to Wikipedia, the origin of the word “Imbolc” is “in the belly”, and among agrarian people, Imbolc was associated with the onset of lactation of ewes, which would soon give birth to lambs in the spring.

The German settlers of Pennsylvania put candles in their windows and believed that if the weather was fair on Candlemas Day, then the second half of winter would be stormy and cold. While this has always seemed counter-intuitive to me, this site explains the science of Groundhog Day and that cloudy weather is actually more mild than clear and cold. It makes sense, then, that the shadow would portend six more weeks of winter. (A lifelong mystery is solved.)

The English and Scottish had wonderful sayings to mark this occasion:

The serpent will come from the hole
On the brown Day of Bride,
Though there should be three feet of snow
On the flat surface of the ground.

– Scottish saying
(Note the serpent instead of the groundhog.)

If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Winter has another flight.
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Winter will not come again.

– English saying

Punxsutawney’s first Groundhog Day celebration was in 1886, and though other towns, particularly in the eastern U.S., have Groundhog Day ceremonies — Staten Island Chuck, anyone? — none is nearly as famous as Punxsutawney’s. Some of this may lie with the groundhog’s official name, “Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators, and Weather Prophet Extraordinary”. Still more popularity, and tourists, have come as a result of the movie Groundhog Day. The first official Groundhog Day prediction in Punxsutawney? No shadow – early Spring.

This site has more information about the groundhog itself and about the filming of the movie.

If you are a Groundhog Day movie obsessive like me, you will enjoy this site that breaks down exactly how long Bill Murray’s character, Phil the Weatherman, experiences Groundhog Day in Gobbler’s Knob.

Groundhog activities and crafts

It’s fun to play with shadows, in honor of Punxsutawney Phil and his. Try making hand shadow puppets, something people have been doing since 2,000 years ago in China, where it was performed by oil-lamp light. Have someone project a flashlight onto a wall or other surface. Hold your hands between the light and the wall in various shapes to create shadow puppets. Here are some classic ones to try:

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.

Spider—With palms facing up, 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 outward. Put your thumbs up to form ears. Let your pinkie 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 pinkie 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.

There are also a lot of very appealing shadow and groundhog crafts for Groundhog Day, like the one below from Mrs. Ricca’s Kindergarten and a great round-up of others from Motherhood on a Dime.

Shadow or no, here’s wishing you a happy remainder of the winter, a ceremony or two, a dash of lore and wonder, and a fruitful spring.

Images: Aaron Silvers, Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, Mrs. Ricca’s Kindergarten, Creative Commons

Shadow puppets adapted from FED UP WITH FRENZY: Slow Parenting in a Fast-Moving World, which contains 300+ fun family activities.

First Meteor Shower of 2015: The Quadrantids

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The year’s first meteor shower is upon us. The Quadrantid Meteor Shower is set to peak on January 4th,  between Midnight and 2 a.m. Universal time (7-9 p.m. EST). Although the North American peak will occur at approximately 9 p.m. EST, the radiant will be very low on the horizon. For best viewing , look up between Midnight and 2 a.m., January 4th, your local time. If that won’t work, any time in the six-hour window around Midnight and 2 a.m. should yield some meteors, if other conditions are right. Be warned: Meteor watching is usually best on a clear, moonless night, and January 4th’s waxing gibbous moon may compete with the star show. Asia and Europe are predicted to have the best shows.

The Quadrantid Meteor Shower has been known to rival the popular Perseids and Geminids, in terms of number of meteors per hour, which can near 80. However, unlike those showers, during which meteors are sometimes visible for days, the window of time in which to view meteors is fairly brief.

What is a meteor shower?

Meteors occur when the Earth passes through streams of dust and debris from ancient comets which have entered the Earth’s atmosphere. (When the comet has flown close to the sun, its dirty ice evaporated and that, in turn, caused the comet dust to spew into space.) The Quadrantids are a relatively recent discovery (1830). Their name comes from a constellation that no longer exists on modern star charts. Their namesake, “The Mural Quadrant” has gone the way of other obscure and somewhat whimsical star patterns at one time known as “The Printing Office” and the “Northern Fly”.

How to watch the Quadrantid Meteor Shower

The Quadrantids should be visible with the naked eye in North America and other parts of the world. Sky watchers in cold climates should bundle up, grab a chair (ideally one with some neck support), and perhaps a blanket, head outside where you can see the largest patch of night sky possible (with as little city light as possible), and look up.

Because meteor showers can last for days before and after the projected peak, be sure to scan the skies during the surrounding days, if you can.

A thermos of hot chocolate is a great accompaniment for the Quadrantids.

This American Meteor Society page is a great site for exploring more about the Quadrantids and where and when to see them in your local night sky.

Quadrantid Meteor Shower

Graphics:  Astronomy Now, Photos by Kev

Beyond Thanksgiving: 9 Ways to Cultivate Gratitude in our Families

Thanksgiving presents families with wonderful opportunities to express gratitude. The traditional Thanksgiving meal offers a pause from the everyday and a rare chance to gather with the express purpose of giving thanks. But what happens when Thanksgiving is over? In the U.S., the holiday season officially begins, and with it often comes a great deal of pressure and stress. We mean well, of course. We yearn to create the perfect holiday for our families, complete with a plethora of gifts. But at what price? Gratitude? Meaning? Joy? Much of that is forgotten soon after the turkey has cooled.

How do we cultivate a spirit of gratitude in our families, during the holidays and year-round, and ensure that it is not just something we proclaim during Thanksgiving?

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What is Gratitude and How Does it Benefit Us?

It might help to take a step back to explore gratitude and its benefits. The Greater Good Science Center defines gratitude as having two components. The first is an affirmation of the gifts and benefits we have received. The second is an acknowledgement that the sources of those gifts exist outside of ourselves, that we have benefited from other people—or even higher powers, if that fits your belief system.

That second part is key, say the folks at Greater Good, because its social component heightens meaningful connections with others and stimulates our circuits for pleasure and reward. It also helps with entitlement issues by reinforcing to kids that happiness is a gift from others, rather than an inherent birthright.

People of all ages who practice gratitude consistently report a range of physical, psychological and social benefits, from stronger immune systems and lower blood pressure to more joy, optimism and compassion, and less loneliness. Cultivating gratitude, and the happiness that results, is a skill we can teach our children.

9 Ways to Cultivate Gratitude

Keep a gratitude journal

The simple act of recording our gratitude in writing has been linked to benefits such as better sleep, fewer symptoms of illness, and more happiness for both adults and children. Have family members keep individual gratitude journals, or keep a list as a family. Write 3-5 short items weekly, naming the things you are grateful for. One exercise is to imagine what life would be like without those components. According to the Greater Good Science Center, journaling 1-2 times a week is actually more powerful than journaling daily. Focusing gratitude on people is more effective than focusing it on things. You may want to start journals on New Year’s Day and try to write in them throughout the year.

Practice expressing gratitude

Journaling won’t work for your family? Take time before or during meals to share things you are grateful for. The items can be profound or trivial. As with journaling, sharing needn’t occur every day. The important thing is that kids get into the habit of expressing gratitude regularly. Parents can model gratitude by letting other family members know that they are grateful for them and their specific actions.

Mornings and bedtimes also present abundant opportunities to express gratitude. Have young children greet the day by thanking the sun for rising, the air we breathe, the beautiful trees, and their family members, teachers or neighbors. You may wish to sing a thankful “Good Morning” song (see below). Many parents use bedtime as a quiet time for cuddling and asking children to name three things they’re grateful for.

Seeking another way to help kids express gratitude for others? See below for a fun gratitude craft.

Slow down and create family time

Studies show that play time, down time and family time are vital to kids’ and families’ well-being, benefiting every area of physical, psychological and emotional health.  Children who have unstructured time and play are more creative, collaborative, flexible, self-aware and calm. Families who have unstructured time and play are joyful and close. Slowing allows families to savor the positive feelings and events that are a hallmark of gratitude.

At holiday time and throughout the year, try to leave some down time in the schedule. That might mean reducing the number of activities each family member participates in, or turning down the occasional invitation.  It may take practice to put the same value on “down time” that we do on organized, goal-oriented activity. It may be uncomfortable at first to be idle. If you have to schedule this time in a calendar, do so.

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Be a tourist in your town

Have you ever noticed how tourists are usually delighted? Granted, they’re on vacation together and they have come to their destination to have fun. But they also see everything with fresh eyes. Even if you’ve lived somewhere your whole life, there may be new things to see or do if you decide to do so like a tourist. This is a particularly wonderful activity and mindset for school breaks, when kids are home. As a bonus, there are often special holiday events and activities, like decorated store windows and homes, skating rinks, free music performances, and other things that are joyful, without impacting the family budget.

Find adventure in your daily rounds

At any time of year, you can cultivate gratitude and stimulate positive social emotions by helping your kids see daily life as an adventure. Get up early one day and visit local businesses – watch produce and eggs get delivered to markets and restaurants, see bakers bake bagels and decorate cakes. Or take a walk and stop and say hello to neighbors, shopkeepers, mail carriers and others who are on their own daily rounds. Feeling a part of the neighborhood and community are very important to children’s senses of security and feelings of gratitude.

Along with thanks .. giving

Service is a tremendously enriching act, for ourselves and for others. Studies show that people who engage in “pro-social spending” are measurably happier than those who do not.  It’s not difficult to find an agency, event or individual in your area who would welcome your help, whether for one time or on an ongoing basis. Many people especially need our help over the holidays with meal preparation and delivery, toy and book drives, companionship, and other needs. Jewish Family and Children’s Services offers many volunteer opportunities for individuals and families.

Create a culture of giving in your family

Instead of giving traditional gifts, consider gifting in a recipient’s name to a non-profit or other organization. Research organizations as a family and involve your kids in choosing the most worthy and meaningful to them. Have your kids cull their rooms regularly for toys and clothing that can be donated to someone less fortunate, or have kids request that birthday party guests bring new or used toys or books for donation to the charity of his/her choice, and then deliver those items together. Consider setting aside a portion of your children’s allowances or gift money and having them choose a recipient for a donation.

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Get outdoors

At any time of year, and especially in winter, outdoor time tends to be low on many family’s priority lists. It shouldn’t be. Research shows that nature play has been linked to improved imagination, cooperation, academic achievement, and numerous aspects of physical and psychological health. Nature also provides a terrific setting in which to slow our paces and have new and meaningful experiences that can enhance family bonds, as well as the feelings of awe and wonder that lead to increased gratitude and inner peace.

Celebrate the winter solstice

The winter solstice (December 21 this year) provides a special opportunity to slow down, count our blessings, and experience the turning of the seasons during the hectic holiday time. Mark the year’s longest night by taking a walk, preparing a special meal or having a family game night. Celebrate the sun’s return by eating oranges or hollowing out the center of an orange and placing a tealight or candle inside. If you have leftover Hanukkah gelt or other chocolate coins, place them in bags and surprise children with them. Take a family walk on December 22 to greet the return of longer days.

Crafts and Songs

Appreciation “recipe” for a special person

This craft helps kids convey a special relationship and feelings in a fun, creative way. Help your child create a recipe for a “marvelous mom” or a “delightful dad” or a “fabulous friend” or any other combination using an adjective and the person’s name or role.

You’ll need:
• Piece of construction paper or poster board
• Markers and crayons or colored pencils
• Ruler

Think about the attributes of the recipient that make him or her special.

Write a heading on the paper: Recipe for a (fabulous friend or other).

Using a ruler, draw six or more lines on which to write your various ingredients.

Write the “ingredients” for the person, in recipe terms, such as “6 cups kindness,” “5 tablespoons love,” or whatever else you can think of.

Leave space at the bottom to write out your instructions, also using recipe terms, like mix, add, fold, blend, and so on.

Decorate the rest of the paper, as desired.

My daughter did this wonderful project with her fourth grade class. Here is her “recipe”:

Good Morning song (traditional Waldorf verse and movements)

Good morning dear Earth (lower hands toward floor)

Good morning dear Sun (raise arms into the air)

Good morning dear stones (place hands one atop the other)

And the plants, every one (open out hands, as if blossoming)

Good morning dear bees (move hand around in flying motion)

And the birds in the trees (move fingers like fluttering wings)

Good morning to you (hands out to others)

And good morning to me! (hands across own chest)

 


 

The Truth About Nature: Book Review

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How much do you know about nature? Fans of Stacy Tornio and Ken Keffer’s wonderful Kids’ Outdoor Adventure Book: 448 Great Things To Do In Nature Before You Grow Up, reviewed here last year, will be thrilled that the pair has returned with another charming and informative book that illuminates nature, The Truth About Nature: A Family’s Guide to 144 Common Myths about the Great Outdoors. Like their first book, this one also contains extremely charming illustrations by Rachel Riordan.

So, how much do you know about nature? This book will challenge your assumptions, as well as commonly held superstitions, in a fun way, using a “myth scale” that is easy to understand. Did you think that rabbits love carrots, tornadoes spin clockwise, only male animals grow antlers, and you lose most of your body heat through your head? Me, too! These are all myths, to varying degrees. Learning about these cleverly chosen myths is not only fascinating; some of Keffer and Tornio’s myth busting promotes health, such as the knowledge that you can indeed get a sunburn on a cloudy day, dogs’ mouths aren’t really cleaner than ours, and clear water isn’t always safe to drink.

The Truth About Nature also contains wonderful hands-on activities and experiments, like making slime or creating a cloud in a jar, so kids can experience some of nature’s wonders for themselves. Learning about myths, cleverly divided by season, one can’t help but become more engaged with and curious about nature. Like many of the best nature books, this one will have readers looking and listening a little more carefully outdoors, perhaps on a hunt for a mushroom fairy ring, a rare songless bird, a river that seems to flow upstream, or, yes, a female animal with antlers.

The authors are also running a cool contest:

Win a School Visit and free copies of The Truth About Nature. Enter a video or photo that features a common outdoor myth between September 22 and November 23, 2014.

Here’s that giveaway page. And be sure to check out the authors’ website, Destination Nature.

Got any nature myths or surprises you’d like to share? Let me know in the Comments.

Look Up! It’s The Perseid Meteor Shower

You might see a lot or you might not see many, but if you stay in the house, you won’t see any. — EarthSky Magazine

 

The annual Perseid meteor shower is coming our way. Anyone who lives in the Northern Hemisphere may be in for a good old-fashioned sky show, just by looking up.

The Perseids are debris from a wandering comet that appears as shooting stars each August. (Records of this light show go back to 36 A.D., though the Swift-Tuttle Comet was discovered much later.) They often provide one of the best shows of the year, if the skies are clear and the moon is not full. Because the Perseids follow the full moon by only two days this year, the show may be less spectacular than usual.  :(

The peak of of the show will be Tuesday, August 12 around 3 am local time. Sometimes meteors can be seen up to a week before and after a shower’s peak. Astronomers are predicting as many as 70 meteors an hour for those who are able to see the Perseids. (That said, we always see fewer meteors than these predicted numbers, so don’t be disappointed. One fantastic shooting star blazing through the sky can produce lifelong memories and awe.)

You won’t need any special equipment to see the Perseids. The naked eye is actually best. Just be sure to give your eyes some time to adjust to the dark. And hope for a good show! Here are more tips for viewing the Perseids.

The San Francisco Chronicle offers more information about the Perseids, along with some good viewing tips and a sky map.

If you like, you can even be a citizen scientist and help NASA count meteors! Download a free app for iphones and androids and join the meteor count. (Here are more citizen science projects you might be interested in.)

Some of my family’s most relaxed and memorable moments have occurred while gazing at the stars together. You can’t help but be infused with a sense of wonder, history and mystery while contemplating the cosmos. It’s natural to share those feelings with those around us, as we use the stars to try to look back through distance and time.

My family remembers one especially wonderful August, when we went to the top of our nearest mountain to see the Perseid meteor shower. Lying in the grass in the dark, we could hear choruses of “oohs” and “aahs” coming from all around the mountain,

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.

(Read on for info about Galileo Camp and Natural Nester DIY Camp.)

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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.

Saving Seeds

What better way for kids to learn about the process of seeds becoming plants than to collect, save, plant and grow their own seeds? Seed saving is fascinating, rewarding, frugal and fun!

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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.

San Francisco Bay Area parents, want to find a camp that inspires summer learning and fun? Check out Galileo Camps, with over 40 Bay Area locations. Use code: 2014INNOVATION for $30 off.

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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Thanks to our sponsor, Galileo Learning.

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

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