Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Cemetery Science: examining lichen to learn about air pollution

Today we used Angela Wilkes' My First Green Book to learn about lichen - the fungi-related, moss-like substance often found on tree branches, stone buildings, and gravestones.

Wilkes explains that the color and formation of each set of lichen can help us understand the level of air pollution in our surrounding area.  

Green, "leafy" lichen indicate that healthy clean air is supporting the organism's growth.

Meanwhile, tightly packed, crusty, or "dusty" lichen indicates that the fungi is failing to thrive and had some difficulty growing.

The children and I took a walk to a nearby cemetery and gathered samples of lichen from fallen sticks and old stones, and then examined them. 

We were surprised to find samples of both polluted and non-polluted lichen in the same cemetery; the healthy lichen was at a high altitude atop a large hill that towers over our city, while the polluted lichen abounded in low-lying areas near street access points.

We also discovered crusty lichen in a yellow-approaching-orange hue, indicating even higher levels of air pollution in that particular area.

We hypothesized as to why three different areas of the cemetery contained three different levels of air pollution (proximity to factories, vehicle emissions), and how we might be able to lessen the amount of air pollution expelled into our city (be frugal with electricity so power plants expel less pollution, travel via bus, don't use aresol containers, etc).

We laid out an all-weather blanket and emptied out our satchel with all of our "naturalist essentials" - field guides, magnifying glasses, nature sketchbooks, and colored pencils.

The children sketched some of the interesting objects we'd found in the cemetery, including the lichen, but also tattered flags, seed pods, and some polished stones that someone had scattered lovingly around a grave.

At five and three-and-a-half years old, their sketches are rough, but they're becoming accustomed to the procedure of documenting their discoveries, and it's the process, not the product that counts.

After we'd documented our findings, we ran about and explored until we were thoroughly exhausted, filling nearly two and a half hours with hiking up steep hillsides and good physical activity.

We discussed American flag etiquette, respect for gravestones and those they represent, and touched upon religious topics after the children noticed the letter "X" was repeated upon many stones (the Christian cross). We talked about what each member of our family believed, from Atheism to Christianity, to Buddhism, and mentioned that there were even more options than these - pointing out the Star of David upon an entire neighborhood of gravestones.

 In a focused attempt at cultivating empathy and humanitarian interests in the children, we read many of the epitaphs upon the stones - noting the ages of each person (especially the young) and wondering how they died and who they left behind. We left "thinking of you" stones upon a sad monument marked, "Who is there to mourn for Logan?" (Another blogger has explained the interesting and terrible story behind those words, here.)

Finally, we decided which of our gathered items to return to nature, and which to preserve upon our Nature Table at home. We returned with three new lichen samples, a seed pod, a small pinecone, some deer-nibbled Indian corn, and a tattered American flag rescued from the mud.

Our nature table is becoming quite abundantly filled with treasure.

We plan to return to the cemetery to sketch further natural items of interest, and to conduct more experiments from Andrea Wilkes' environment and nature book. Our interest in nature is instinctual, but supported by the Charlotte Mason method of homeschooling, which you can read about, here. We follow a loose, secular form of the Charlotte Mason method.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Shadow Puppets

 Just a super-quick post with some super-quick October ideas;

We've been having a lot of playing-in-the-dark fun this month, as we approach Halloween. It's been unseasonably warm, so we linger outside to play flashlight games and have glowstick hunts in the grass.

 You can purchase 3 glowsticks for $1 at the Dollar Store, so for $5, you can fill a basket with 15 glowsticks. The kids love it when I wait until darkness falls, then throw handfuls of glowsticks off the porch and across the yard, sending them on a wild race to locate and retrieve every last one. At ages 4.5 and 3, they'll chase after glowsticks until they're ready to collapse with exhaustion - which makes it an EXCELLENT pre-bedtime experience! After 40 minutes of intense fresh air exercise, bedtimes go off without a hitch, and everyone's in a happy mood!

Another of our recent activities was the creation of an assortment of shadow puppets.


Paperboard - nothing fancy, recycled cereal boxes are sturdy enough
Popsicle sticks, straws, etc
Black acrylic paint
Sharpie marker or printer with ink
Scissors and tape

If you're artistically inclined, you can sketch an object of your choosing onto the cardboard, otherwise, just do a google image search for Silhouettes, then print out and glue that onto the cardboard. Carefully cut out your image. Paint black, if you'd like, and attach to a stick.

We're currently obsessed with crocodiles and ballerinas, so those were included among our first creations.

The afternoon before we brought out our shadow puppets for the first time, we took a walk at sunset and noticed how very long our shadows looked compared to when we went walking at noon and our shadows were very short. 

Later, armed with a flashlight and our shadow puppet, we were able to recreate the apparent movement of the sun, making our shadow puppet's shadows shorter to represent noon, or longer to represent sunset.

Of course, our shadows change because of the Earth's rotation while the sun remains stationary, but that lesson is for another day.

Math Smash!

At 4.5, Patrick is beginning to add numbers together on his fingers, so I've begun introducing more games directly related to addition. This game involves adding two dice together. Peggy, 2.5, isn't quite ready to add yet, so while Patrick had two dice to roll and count, she had just one, and that worked out fine for our purposes and each child's abilities.


Playdoh (we used a homemade batch because it was softer)
2 Dice
Toy hammers or other tools
A tray for each child is helpful

First, we worked together to fill a bowl with playdoh balls.

The pair of dice that Patrick worked with had digits written on them, so instead of seeing three dots, he saw the number "3". Instead of asking him to roll both dice at once and get confused, he rolled one dice at a time, adding the correct number of Playdoh balls to his tray after each dice roll. Finally, he then counted up the new number of balls on his tray and announced the sum of the first two numbers.

Now the fun part!

Using our toy mallets from a Whack-a-Mole boardgame, each child smashed his Playdoh balls, then formed a tall stack of "pancakes", seeing who could get their stack the highest before it toppled over.

I pre-rolled about 70 balls for this activity, and it kept the children's attention long enough that they counted and smashed every last ball, providing about 10 minutes of focused math work and an additional 40 minutes of entertainment branching off from the initial activity.

That's a fairly decent ratio of work vs. play for this age group.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

River Stone Name Scramble

Every time we take a trip to the rocky shore of Lake Ontario, I gather baskets of stones from the beach to be used in crafts and as educational materials. I love the natural beauty of the stones, and have used them in so many projects. You can check out my River Stones Memory Game, here.

River Stones Memory: Mod Podge, old dictionary pages, colored pencils, and ink.
Patrick has been working on recognizing the letters that spell out his name. At first we used bits of torn paper with one letter of his name written on each piece, but this was quite flimsy and uninteresting. So in a project that took literally one minute to complete, I put together a bag of name stones for each child. My materials were simply a few ziplock bags, some river stones, and a Sharpie Marker.

Each bag contains only the exact letters in their name, so it's kind of a word-scramble to sort them out and put them in the right order.

 At four-and-a-half, Patrick can sort out and arrange his first name quite easily, so I'll be adding his last name to the bag, soon. He does sometimes place his letters upside-down, so we're working on that. At two-and-a-half, Peggy has a harder time arranging her name, but really enjoys the challenge.

From a tactile perspective, the river stones are heavy and gritty and round - the perfect size and weight to cup in a little palm. They kids love jostling them around in the bag, and Patrick has more patience working on his letters when we use this method.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Sponge Science

For today's experiment, we used sponges from the Dollar Store. You can buy a pack of 10 sponges for only $1, or spring for the extra sponges mentioned below, and pay only $2-$3 more. Plan to do this experiment outdoors.

 Materials used here: 

(1) pack of 10 sponges
(2) large sponges with netting
(1) giant peanut-shaped sponge
(2) chamois (knock-off Sham-Wow)
(4) clear plastic cups

 You can easily do this experiment with only one pack of 10 sponges, a bucket of water, and some kitchen glasses.

First, cut one of your small sponges in half. Take a second sponge, and cut it into four equal pieces. Cut the third sponge into six equal pieces.

I'm was working with two children, so I discarded all of my extra sponge pieces, except for two of every size.

Arrange your sponges on the tray from smallest to largest.

Hand the children one full-sized sponge each, and ask them to examine it and describe what they see or feel. If you wish, they could use a magnifying glass.

Patrick noticed that his sponge had holes in it, and that it felt very "light". This opened up our discussion of the terms "porous" and "non-porous". We said that another word for "hole-y" is "porous", and then we talked about how those holes could let water in. Conversely, an object with no holes might not be able to let water in.

I asked the children to look at the smallest bit of sponge and think about how much water it might be able to hold. Then we tested our guess by submerging the sponge squares in water.

Each child squeezed his/her sponge out over his/her own cup, and observed how much water appeared. Then we poured the water back into the bucket and moved up to the next biggest bit of sponge.

How much more water did this sponge hold? We eyeballed it, and compared this cup of water with our last cup of water, but it would have been a good idea to use a Sharpie marker and make a line on our cup where the water came up to during each round.

How many times do we have to squeeze out this sponge in order to fill up the cup? Patrick figured out that it took him four squeezes of the red sponge, to fill his cup up to the top. Peggy wanted to fill her cup up to the top too, but she'd reverted back to using the tinist size sponge, so it took her about eight squeezes to match his four on the bigger sponge.

 At ages 2.5 and 4.5, they're not going to grasp how 4 and 8 relate to each other, but they WILL realize that the bigger sponge held more water, and took less squeezing than the small sponge. This is still a pre-math concept, and we were able to instil it through hands-on discovery and by building up a physical memory, which has been proven to be more long-lasting than rote memorization.

When we got up to the chamois and the peanut-shaped sponge, we discovered that the cups could be filled to the top with just one squeeze!

Peggy really liked playing around with the sponges, and continued filling and squeezing out all the different sized sponges long after our experiment was over. I gave her a few extra empty cups to play with, and she took turns filling them and peeping at the water line to see if she could get it to match in each cup.

Afterwards, I squeezed out all the sponges and left them on a table to dry. She returned to them and began building a castle, a fairy house, a car wash, and a fire station. The sponges are kind of delicate, and tip over easier than blocks, so manipulating them takes a more gentle touch and greater fine motor control than is required with wooden blocks, so this was an interesting challenge for her.

And at only $1.00 for a bag of 10 sponges, it would be well-worth the cost of getting two or three bags, just for the interesting sensory experience of using them as blocks. Just note that if torn apart or bitten by younger children, the sponge bits could become a choking hazard.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Fairy Treasure: Painted Pinecones

If the kids are lucky and the weather is nice, we often try to squeeze in a "Pajama Walk" just before bedtime.

We change the kids into their jammies like usual, but before they climb into bed, we announce "Pajama Walk!" and herd them downstairs and out the door.

O, joy! O happiness! Bedtime; delayed! Mama and Dad-Dad are the BEST!

We throw the kids into the stroller with some blankets and lucky stuffies and off we go - around the block or down to the field for a 30 minute stroll. If they're super-lucky, cookies and juice may be involved... but this is a bit more rare.

Dusk is a curious and interesting time, and during these walks, the kids are usually very mellow and observant of nature and the sounds of the woods around them. They know they're on borrowed time, so they don't squabble and fidget, and are generally more pleasant to be around than they have been for the proceeding 12 hours. O, if only it could always be like this!

Two extra benefits of the Pajama Walk are that the evening air tires the kids right out, and I'm able to squeeze in some bonus exercise. I highly recommend the Pajama Walk. I also highly recommend bringing bug spray.

Last night, we went for our evening walk, but didn't bother with pjs because I knew the kids were just too rambunctious to stay sleepily inside the stroller. We explored an old overgrown path, and the children ran up and down the woody lane, collecting mini pinecones and tossing them into the stroller. By the time we headed home, we had a collection of 30-40 small pinecones.

Although I generally prefer to leave natural items intact and appreciate them for what they are, both of the children have been on a "fairy kick" for a few weeks, and I thought maybe we could use these pinecones to do something special for our fairies. I washed them gently to remove mud and bugs, and spread them out to dry overnight.

This morning I took a deep breath and broke out the sacred Acrylic Paint for the first time with the children!

Acrylic paint is some serious business. It has the potential to look great, has much thicker coverage than children's poster paints, comes in a beautiful assortment of colors, and is able to be more gracefully manipulated with a paint brush. However, acrylic is a little difficult to scrub off of skin and surfaces once dry, and god forbid you get it on your clothes - you'll just be living with that streak of paint, forever.

The kids did pretty well, and were both very careful with their paintbrushes...

until Mommy wandered off to grab some drying trays, and came back to find this:

"Look, Mama! I's PINK!"
The pinecones themselves were coming out pretty well - the acrylic covered them beautifully.

And if you're going to paint something for the fairies, well, you best get out the glitter, as well. Mama was only brave enough to allow one messy activity today, so I managed the dispersal of the glitter with an iron fist.

We had to allow the pinecones to dry for a few hours, but soon we had a beautiful little assortment of glimmering fairy treasures! Fairies love anything that sparkles, don't ya know? So we left these pretty little fairy toys in a basket beside our Fairy House, for the fairies to discover when they come home tonight.  

We also also plan on using them to play a kind of Easter egg hunt game in the grass. The kids adore any type of hide-and-seek game, and I know this will be a bit hit.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Caps for Sale: book + activity

This week I received a donation of a collection of miniature straw hats.

They came in an assortment of sizes, and I was able to add a few of my own; a child-size hat and some super-small hats from a dollhouse collection. 

Now... what in the world to do with them....?

I did some digging, and was lucky enough to locate an oversize classroom edition of Caps for Sale at the library. Dandy!

Caps for Sale is the story of a peddler who wears his wares atop his head while carefully walking around town. One day, he falls asleep beneath a tree with all of his caps piled high, but awakens to find the caps missing! A hoard of naughty little tree monkeys has stolen the caps, and they remain high up in the tree where the peddler can't reach.

As the peddler grows angrier and angrier with the stubborn monkeys, he finally throws down his only remaining cap in despair - causing each tree monkey to throw down his own cap, in mimicry.

This is a good story - it's short, but with just the right amount of repetition to pull the children in. Plus: naughty monkeys!

Before we began the story, I asked the children if they knew what a Cap was. The 4.5 year old explained to us that "a cap is what they used to call hats, back in the olden days". Well done, Sir.

For the other children, ages four, two and a half, and two years old, Cap was a new vocabulary word.

Storytime happens in the grass, whenever possible.
After we finished the story, I brought out our set of straw caps, and the children were very excited to each be handed one. I asked them to wear their hats like the peddler in the story, and walk across the yard so carefully that the cap wouldn't fall off his or her head.

This activity encourages the children to practice patience, precision, grace, and physical coordination.

Because of their ages, I didn't make any "no hands" rules. It was hard enough for the 2-year olds to keep the caps on their heads while being allowed to hold onto them with both hands. But the 4-year olds walked very carefully and slowly, and had few accidents.

Hold on! Storm's a-brewin'!
Each time the children returned to me, I handed them another cap to stack on top and try to walk with. The 4.5 year old successfully carried 5 caps up on top, and was very proud of himself!

Sometimes it's hard to go slow!!!
This was a very quick activity, no more than 15 minutes from start to finish, including the story.

You can find miniature straw hats in bulk on Amazon here, on craft supply stores like the one here, and I was also able to find many large sets available for around $10 each, on eBay.

Our donated hats had been quickly painted in an assortment of acrylic colors. I do recommend painting them, as the colors of the caps are mentioned repeatedly throughout the book.

You can have your children do the painting themselves, and make it part of your program.

Allow at least an hour for drying time, although they may be ready significantly sooner - acrylic is a very fast-drying paint.  Just take note that acrylic paint will stain clothing, so pull out the aprons and smocks. Or, let them paint naked and be free spirits!

I recommend Golden Acrylic Paints. They're a small, local manufacturer but have excellent reviews and worldwide distribution. I always used Golden Paints for my college artwork.

If you're artistically minded, you might enjoy playing around with the Golden Virtual Paint Mixer gadget, but I digress.

This is an excellent and very simple children's book + game, and would suit the needs of children's librarians quite nicely.