A Night Walk

From the beginning of time, humans have sought safe places away from the dark of night. From our snug homes to a circle of firelight, we sense in our bones the danger of being out after dark. I have often thought about this as I walk my dogs at night under the stars. On clear nights, I glance up and find the big dipper and then the Pleiades, the seven sisters star cluster. Blue and hazy if viewed directly, I glimpse it peripherally with wonder, feeling small and insignificant next to its vast expanse and yet comforted by its consistency. In a changing world, these stars have always been out there, in a familiar place, like a touch stone.

The surrounding field and forests, so familiar in daylight, are less comforting at night. Our eyes are not adapted for darkness and there can be a lot of sounds to process. The calls of peepers and crickets are soothing and familiar. The sudden hoot of a barred owl or chuff of a white-tailed deer, though momentary startling, still feel welcome. A yipping chorus of coyotes down in the swamp can raise a shiver, though we know they are no real threat this close to home. Even on a full moon night when we can see well enough to walk unaided, a loud crunching in the forest nearby is enough to make me walk lively back toward the house.

Yet the outdoors at night have yielded some of my most amazing and treasured memories; the discovery of black bears feeding in our apple tree one autumn night, lying under the stars in the grass with our kids during the Perseids, watching meteors with flaming tails fly across the sky, an unexpected and spectacular show of northern lights one winter night, chasing fireflies across the field with the echo of children laughing all around us, a walk through the dark forest on Halloween to show the kids some fairy lights I’d hung in the trees only to witness the rising of a huge, orange, full moon followed by the howling of coyotes.

This dichotomy between the dark mystery and wonder of the night has always occupied my thoughts. I like to go outside at night, but how far from the lights of home can I go and still feel safe? Then one day, my talented daughter-in-law came up with a story idea that rang all my bells. A Night Walk. It is about taking kids outside at night to discover the unexpected and astonishing creatures that can be found in the dark. I added little creatures to find in the illustrations to mirror our search for things outside in the dark.

In sharing this book, or a real night walk, with your kids, I hope your sense of wonder is ignited, along with just a trace of dark mystery.

ANightWalk.com

https://www.exploringnature.org/store/images/items/612_1647985920.jpg

Telling Rainforest Stories Before They are Gone

Most people have learned about the beauty and wonder of the rainforest through books, movies, or documentaries. Many have visited a rainforest exhibit at the zoo or botanical garden or built a mural, poster, or diorama about the rainforest in school. Some have have even visited a rainforest trail in Costa Rica or Belize. But only a relative few have actually spent time exploring wild, whole rainforest habitats.

Rainforests are intense. They are dark, dripping with moisture, and crammed with vegetation. There is a cacophony of noise – bird song, animal calls, insects, and creatures moving through the leaves. The air is thick with humidity and the scents of vegetation, flowers, animal musk, and leaf rot. The tree bark and forest floor crawl with ants, centipedes, and other invertebrates. There are sticky things you don’t want to touch or step in. The truth is, rainforests are a verdant mess. To those who prefer lawns and manicured gardens, the chaos of the rainforest might make you uncomfortable.

Yet, rainforests are havens of biodiversity, providing habitat for untold numbers of plants, animals, fungus, and microorganisms. Their trees and plants are quietly converting sunlight and carbon dioxide into literally tons of lush plant matter and the very oxygen we breathe. They absorb and release water like giant sponges, protecting whole regions from desertification. They are priceless to the health of the planet. And we all know they are being cut down at an unprecedented rate. How does one process this kind of illogical treatment of such a rare planetary treasure? For me, the only solution is to get personal, to tell the stories of the creatures that live there, because there are amazing stories to tell and we better do it before they are all gone.

The Rodent, the Bee and Brazil Nut Tree is one such story captured in a 40-page picture book. It is about how a small, shy rodent, called the agouti, chews through the thick husk of Brazil nut pods to release their seeds. It then buries the ones it doesn’t eat, planting new seedlings every year. Then there is a shiny orchid bee that makes its way into the tightly coiled blossoms of the Brazil nut tree and pollinates them. It is one of the only bees that can get inside. There is also a beautiful, but smelly orchid that the orchid bee needs to attract a mate and which must live somewhere in the forest near the Brazil nut trees. All these creatures living their lives, make up an interactive and essential team that helps each other survive. they also guarantee the valuable harvest of Brazil nuts. If just one of these species are lost, the mighty Brazil nut trees cannot produce their seeds.

This is just one story about how the complex and miraculous parts of a rainforest weave together to form a rich, functioning habitat. Imagine how many more there are that we are yet to discover. In sharing this book, you can bring this story to light, engage your kids’ imagination about how rainforests and ecosystems work, and feel the sense of wonder about our astonishing biological world.

To make this story useful in classroom science lessons, we are providing a free, 66-page, downloadable curriculum bundle with every purchase. Also available is a downloadable activity bundle, free posters, and bookmarks. Find this book at:
BrazilNutTreeStory.com or BrazilNutTrees.com

Authentic Inquiry Questions based on Observations: The Wonder of the Wooly Bear

Fenix holding a wooly bear caterpillar in his hand earlier in the fall.

We have been finding wooly bear caterpillars all over the yard for months. My boys love picking them up and carefully holding them in their hands. My youngest described their long, thick bristles (setae) as “scratchy.” This week he brought the banded wooly bear caterpillar to his eye and asked, “why are these caterpillars so sleepy?” 

There it is: an authentic question generated in context by a learner themselves. Authentic questions reflect what learners genuinely wonder and worry about. Authentic questions reflect what genuinely piques learners interest and holds their attention.  In a lot of ways, authentic questions are the best pathway to science education and nature exploration.

I asked, “well, what do you think? Why might the caterpillar be tired or moving around less?” He thought for awhile and said, “Maybe he is tired. Maybe he is cold and tired.”

When we went back inside, I pulled up the resources on Exploring Nature. I also pulled up an article or two online. I read the description of the wooly bear on the site and articles and asked the question back to my boys, “So, why do YOU think Wooly Bear caterpillars are so sleepy? What might be the reason?” 

Getting the correct answer was not the point. The point was treating their inquiry seriously, and providing them with potential sources that they could synthesize and draw conclusions from and discuss. Then, the next day we discussed the wooly bear life cycleand put the life cycle diagram in their nature journals. 

Eventually, we did talk about the cold weather, the decrease in food sources, and the slowing down and sleep of animals that hibernate. They think it is all very cool. I do too.

Giant Hands-On Habitat Posters

Some of Exploring Nature’s latest & greatest activities include these amazing giant poster building activities:  The Amazon Rainforest,  The Deciduous Forest, and The North American Prairie.  

Both my 3-year old and my 5-year old loved interacting with these posters over the weekend. Besides the discussion around what the animals are and where to find them in their habitat, the cutting and manipulation of the cut out animals was excellent fine motor practice. 

What I think my boys loved most was the large scale format. The posters are designed to print on 4 different sheets of 8×11 paper, and then you pull them together to form a giant poster which can hang on a wall or remain a tabletop activity. 

The animals must be cut out. Then, they can then be pasted for a finalized poster or kept loose to place over and over again in the animals prime habitat. 

This activity is a great way to build fundamental understanding around animals in their habitats and the layers or zones in which they live. They also provide opportunities for cutting, matching, and pasting. I highly recommend these for home or classroom use. 

I’ve spoken to Sheri and she is still in the process of creating more habitats! Yay 🙂 Currently, the three habitats featured are: The Amazon Rainforest,  The Deciduous Forest, and The North American Prairie.  Stay tuned for more habitats and fun.

Exploring Nature with Kids

Hello and welcome back to Exploring Nature. Our incredible founder and lead creative, Sheri Amsel, has invited me to share my experience with Exploring Nature resources in the hopes of inspiring and creating value for this wonderful community.

As a mother of two and former school principal (aka I’m obsessed with growing children’s skillset and curiosities), I am grateful for the depth and breadth of resources on the Exploring Nature website. Though I have been a subscriber for nearly a decade, I have become more reliant on the resources since the pandemic hit New York last March.

Like a lot of other parents, the pandemic has presented a paradox.

On one hand, it has been scary, sad, and just plain stressful to deal with so much loss of life and uncertainty. But on the other hand, the pandemic has given me an opportunity to reimagine how I spend time with my children and what role I play in their education.

Access to Exploring Nature’s resources have become essential, and have provided my family a lifeline during these challenging times.

Through activities that I have downloaded and accessed on Exploring Nature, my children are growing their academic skillset and science muscle, and also their love and sense of responsibility for taking care of the people, animals, and environment in which they live. It is truly magical and makes me feel, dare I say, lucky.

Moving forward, it is my intention to share some of our favorites in the hopes that by doing so we will inspire new adventures and discussions among this special community. Thank you for supporting Exploring Nature and for the work that you do building the world’s capacity to understand and enjoy science, nature, and so much more.

With love & nature,

Stacy

Stacy & her two junior explorers on a lovely morning hike

LIFE CYCLES: Growth and Development of Organisms – Grade 3 (NGSS)

All living things (organisms) have a life cycle. Different organisms may have very different kinds of life cycles, but they all have these in common: they are born, grow up, reproduce and die. They need to reproduce or they will go extinct. So, what kinds of things have organisms evolved in their life cycles to survive in their habitats?
Mammals are born singly or in a small group. They are small and helpless at birth, but they have a much higher survival rate than other groups of animals. How? Because their parents feed and protect them until they can survive on their own. Some mammals are born into a nest, den or burrow that is prepared and guarded by their parents. Other mammals are born into their mother’s protective pouch (marsupials). Mammals often teach their young how to find food and escape predators before they grow up and go out on their own.

Birds share a similar start as mammals, except that they start as eggs and are kept warm and protected until they hatch. Hatchlings are small and helpless. Their parents will bring them food and keep them warm and safe. Bird parents will stay with their young until they can fly (or run), avoid predators, and find food on their own.

Amphibians and reptiles lay many eggs. Amphibians lay soft eggs in the water, while reptiles lay leathery eggs on land buried in sand, soil or plant debris. Both usually leave their young to fend for themselves when they hatch, though some species, like the American alligator, watch over young for a time. Only a few hatchlings survive.

Insects lay many, many eggs, but most of their young do not survive to be adults. Insects have two very different kinds of life cycles. Some undergo incomplete metamorphosis. This is when young insects hatch from eggs looking like miniature adults, called nymphs. As they grow, they shed their hard outer layer, called an exoskeleton. Each new size is called an instar. They have 5-6 instars before they reach their adult size. Insects that go through incomplete metamorphosis include: grasshoppers, crickets, preying mantises, and cockroaches. Many insects, however, go through a complete metamorphosis. This is when new hatchlings, called larvae, look completely different from adults. They feed and grow until they reach a certain size and then form a protective cocoon or chrysalis. Inside their chrysalis, they go through a process called pupation. During pupation, the body breaks down and changes into the adult form. Insects that go through complete metamorphosis include: moths, butterflies, ants, beetles, and bees

The Next Generation Science Standard for this topic in 3rd Grade is:
LS1.B: Growth and Development of Organisms
• Reproduction is essential to the continued existence of every kind of organism. Plants and animals have unique and diverse life cycles. (3-LS1-1)
Try some of the activities to help students understand these important concepts.

Download the whole bundle from the Exploringnature.org science store for a complete Growth and Development of Organisms UNIT.

The African Savannah

The savannah makes up the central part of Africa in a band across the continent and down the middle into South Africa. Some of the countries with savannah are Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Chad, Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Botswana, and South Africa. These grasslands range from desert grass plains to those of trees and bushes. The veldt, typical of the interior of South Africa, is more of a vast area of treeless grassland. Together, this open country is home to many of the world’s largest land animals. The cheetah is the fastest land animal in the world, but it cannot run that fast for long. The lions hunt differently than the cheetah. Members of the pride work together to scare a herd of grazing animals, while a lionesses hides in the tall grass waiting to ambush a passing zebra or gazelle. When the animal is dead, the lions take turns feeding on it and guarding it while others in the pride rest or go off to drink. Jackals and hyenas are mostly scavengers, feeding on animals that are already dead. Waiting until the big cats have eaten their fill, the jackals and hyenas move in to eat what is left over. They may even scan the sky for circling turkey vulture, other scavengers, that signal an animal nearby has died. Sometimes a big group of hyenas will steal a kill from a lion or kill an animal themselves. With few trees to slow them down, animals can run great distances on the veldt. The ostrich’s seven-foot height and good eyesight give it a great advantage in seeing predators from far off. If danger is spotted, it runs! Animals on the veldt often travel in large herds. The more there are to watch and sniff the air for danger, the safer they are. That is why it is not unusual to see herds of ostriches, zebras, gazelles, and wildebeests traveling together. Living in groups is also a good way to search for food and teach the young. The termite is one of Africa’s smaller animals, but it builds its home so large that they can be seen all across the savanna. The dung beetle builds its round nest in the droppings of other animals. Then it lays its eggs inside. As the offspring develop, they eat their way out of the nest. A common bird of the savanna is the weaverbird. Using long stems of grass, they weave great hanging nests. On the ground the secretary bird, named for its black-and-white suit and quill-like head feathers, hunts for mice and snakes to eat. From above, the brown harrier eagle circles, scanning the hot African plain. As always, life here is a race to find food without becoming someone elses meal.

Hunting the Little Red Dragon

Another seasonal resident has just started to show itself above ground, slinking along through clumps of moss and ferns. The little red efts or newts. It is always exciting to spot the first ref eft of the season and, to be honest,  I never tire of finding them.
When my kids were small, we called them the little red dragons and finding them was a cause for celebration (hey, when you’re entertaining small children, you find any excuse for a party, right?).
When the red efts first come out of the water after their metamorphosis from gilled tadpoles, they are less than an inch long. They then grow up to be about 4 inches long ambling along on delicate toes – four in front and 5 in back. Their bright orange color will fade to green later in their lives.
My kids once asked me if they were red because they were hot – which made me laugh at the time, but, in truth, their color is a warning. Their skin exudes a mild toxin that makes them unpalatable to predators.
Eventually red efts will go back to the water to mate and lay their eggs, but while they’re on land we will enjoy hunting them in the underbrush or helping them across the road.

Color a Newt: LINK
Draw a Newt: LINK
Newt Movie: LINK
Match and Color the Salamanders: LINK

Spring Finally Peeps

After a very long winter that stretched its icy fingers well into April, I was very relieved last week at sunset to hear the sound of spring peepers.

The first frog of spring, these tiny amphibians are very loud for their size (1-1.5 inches long). If approached in their wetland habitat, their calls are so deafening and resonate, you can feel them like a tickle in your neck and scalp. Even stranger, despite their powerful calls, you rarely see them anywhere. spring peepers are remarkably well camouflaged and at close inspection go silent before you can locate them.

If you are lucky enough to spot one, you will note a light X on their tan backs, which accounts for their species name “crucifer” – which means “cross bearing”. Spring Peepers are well adapted for their habitat with tiny suction pads on their toes to help them cling to plants.

Only the males sing. They are nocturnal and will sing all night, searching for a mate. After mating the females lay their eggs in the water attached to an anchored plant. The tadpoles that hatch out are bigger than the adult frog.

Listen to a Spring Peeper Here

Learn to Draw a Spring Peeper

Color a Spring Peeper

The Secret to Surviving Winter

So it’s March 24th and the official start of spring has come and gone. When I looked at the thermometer this morning and it was 4°, I got to thinking about how cold, snow and ice affect our sense of well being.

In the fall, after a summer of warm sun and nurturing green, the first cold snap and snowfall are pleasant signs of the change of seasons and the coming of family gatherings. I am invigorated by daily hikes with friends and Silas – our fat, happy dog.

Then I start to snuggle in to cook soups, bake bread and work long hours on illustrations. The freezer is full and the top of the cabinets are lined with canned tomatoes and grape jellies put by from the garden, their colors pleasing and their presence enhancing a sense of safe, warm comfort. The dropping temperatures seem a natural progression and I look forward to getting a lot of work done and catching up on reading novels and other hobbies. I pull out wool hats, long underwear, snowshoes and skis with anticipation.

A couple of years back, I set up my small workshop under the grow lights where, in the spring, my seedlings would be started. The theory was that the full spectrum grow light would help me see my projects while staving off the cabin fever that always seemed to rise in February for me. My secret to surviving winter, as such.

This year’s project is to build a fairy house for my future grandchildren (the first of whom is due at the end of March). I collected fallen birch bark, seed pods, pine cones, and other interesting stones and bits from the woods all summer and set down to build a fantastical little world for the small children that would be coming into our lives.

My husband built a frame and I began to glue pine cone seeds on the roof as shingles while listening to music, Silas sleeping at my feet. I bound sticks with twine to make tiny brooms and used birch bark as siding. One morning I came down to find tiny chairs and a table that my husband had built in his own workshop. A few days later a tiny ladder appeared leaning against the eaves of the house. There be fairies here…

As the fairy house grew, I began to worry who would inhabit this tiny kingdom. This was no home for Lego men, action figures or Barbie dolls. I looked online and found all kinds of figures from small farmers to fairies in gossamer wings. None seemed quite right. But I kept framing tiny windows with bits of wood and constructing a kitchen table and chairs with sticks and bark. Window boxes made of fungus were glued in place and a chimney of pebbles went on the roof.

Then in February, I started to feel that familiar sense of claustrophobia that always seemed to come after many months inside. It had been below zero every night for several weeks and the snow banks were shoulder high. The treacherous ice on the trails was beginning to seem a personal affront. I was tired of wearing spikes and snowshoes everywhere. I hated my wool hat and wanted to break my ski poles over my knee. I turned off the grow light and left the fairy house. I cooked a massive lasagna and froze batches of oatmeal cookies for my husband, made sure there was enough dog food and flew to California to visit my sister.

San Francisco in February is sunny and 65°. The neighborhood gardens are blooming and the smell of their blossoms is heady and rejuvenating. I walked and walked and walked winding through impossibly steep neighborhoods that have never even seen a frost. I stopped now and then to stare off at the Golden Gate Bridge across the bay and marvel at the weird contrast between the view of mountains back home and the view of the heavily developed San Francisco Bay area – still breathtaking but in a different way. That first week, I didn’t worry about my husband or dog much or think about the fairy house at all.

We shopped and sat at outdoor cafes sipping cold drinks watching stylish people walk by. We drove to Point Reyes and hiked the cliffs and then the beach, the sound of the waves ever present and soothing. Her puppy ran wild, tossing into the waves, greeting people, digging in the sand. I understood how she felt. The warmth of the sun and the smell of the ocean were like some kind of magic working its way into my muscles and bones. I wondered if my husband was taking Silas out and skiing. I found a tiny seed pod that would look good in the fairy house garden and put it in my pocket.

My brother drove up from LA and we traveled up the coast to visit the redwoods. We wandered among the giants with awe, their bulk turning the noon sun into twilight. It was hard to see them without feeling a mixture of wonder and shame. The idea that we cut so many of them down is hard to take in. I thought about the scale from Redwood to human to fairy house.

We walked Scott’s pack of dogs on the rocky Eel River and I found a round, flat stone for the tiny fairy walkway and slid it into my pocket.

We drove further north and watched the dogs run with abandon on the wide expanse of beach north of Eureka. We found sand dollars and odd crustaceans I had never seen on eastern beaches. I picked up an interesting shell that would make a artful fairy salad bowl. I breathed in the sea air deeply and felt myself whole again. Then I realized that just as my sense of needing to get away had crept up on me at home, my need to get back to my own pack was becoming hard to ignore. I knew it was time to go.

Back in San Francisco, my sister gave me a little gift before I left. I unfolded delicate tissue to find tiny mice made of wire and wool, dressed in little hats and jackets. They were adorable and exactly the right size to sit at the kitchen table that was waiting in my fairy house back home. Hmmm….

Coming home was still a bit of a shock admittedly. It was still hovering around zero even though it was early March and the woods were icy and treacherous. We went for a hike up a small mountain behind our property and it was frigid and slippery with ice flows pouring over every cliff. Ice flows form when a seeping spring pours out layer after thin layer of water that freeze on the rocks and build up into what looks like a beautiful frozen waterfall. They can be cloudy or filled with colors – brown, green or blue and are quite lovely close up. Despite their beauty, I was anxious and cranky as I stumbled and slid on hidden slicks of ice, regretting having stubbornly left my spikes at home.

My husband kept climbing up, never looking back to see if I was ready to turn back – a technique that over the years he’s found effective for keeping me going. Silas ran back and forth in total bliss, smelling deer tracks and looking back at me to see why I was not running with glee, like him. It was tougher going for me. The crusty, untrustworthy snow kept giving way every third step plunging me shin deep into the snow. I scrambled on disgruntled about the cold and the mean spirited branches that kept snapping in my face with stinging accuracy.

But then something shifted, as it always does while walking. I started to feel warm. My muscles started to feel stretched and humming. I could almost feel those magic endorphins flow into my bloodstream and I started to feel happy and kind of powerful. The view began to appear through the trees behind us showing snowy mountains and the sparkle of Lake Champlain in the distance. It was a stunning sight. I looked out at it and sighed contentedly. I was sweaty, cold and longing for spring, but I was home.

And there were mice that needed to move into their fairy house.