Monday, July 13, 2015

Cork Boats

Enjoying the outdoors with a 'toy' is always a great way to engage a child, even those children who might not find nature a favorite past time or find 'toys' to young. Often times while playing around they begin to notice the world around them, find critters, see the trees and water ways... slowly they are engaging without even being aware of it. And, when nature is involved for older students they find creating something like a cork boat or twig raft -- seems to feel more natural and enjoyable, inviting the love of play. I find adults cannot resist this activity!

A favorite project of ours is to make cork boats to play with in a little stream or even the edge of a pond or small lake. They are quite simple to assemble outdoors, require little materials, can include natural elements and hold up well.

List of supplies for each boat

3 wine corks, used or new work fine
2 thick rubber bands
1 small eye hook
several feet of string or yarn
1 toothpick
1 foam or paper 'sail'

Taking your three corks line them up and then wrap a rubber band on each side, two total, to hold them together flat. Make sure the rubber bands are nice and tight. Then screw a small eye hook in one end of the boat. Tie your string or yarn to the eye hook this is to hold on to the boat, so it doesn't get away. Finally, create a small sail for the boat out of either paper or small colored foam sheets (preferred method) and add it with a toothpick poked into the top of the boat. You can easily add a leaf on a stick or wrap your string onto a stick handle  - small ways to add nature into your projects. For you older students you can invite them to gather small sticks and use the string/yarn to assemble a traditional 'raft' concept too. Then play and enjoy! Super easy, just requires preparing materials ahead of time.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Pond Viewers

One activity that is always a favorite in the summer months is creating a pond viewer. We have done this activity a few times and used them both at lakes and ponds. What I have found is a lake became much to enticing to play in which in essence ditched the activity. A pond however, felt more inviting to actually step more carefully in the water and view without to much extra play. As well, a pond seemed to offer more immediate life to discover vs a the lake we used. That more immediate gratification seems to prolong interest.

To create a pond viewer you need just a few simple supplies. For this activity I asked that each family scout out their own metal can, the size of a #10 can that restaurants use (great source to hit up) or a very large coffee can. With coffee cans though be sure to double check they are metal as many are cardboard. They were to arrive with both ends removed, which a simple can opener will do safely. I provided for the activity some duct tape, scissors and a couple rolls of Syran wrap/plastic wrap. (I also brought a can opener for the families that were not prepared) I had a fold up table prepared to work on as this location did not have tables, however the pond was in a great location and a new journey for us to explore as a group.

The kids then took turns cutting and covering both ends/edges of their metal cans to ensure nothing sharp could hurt them. I asked parents to double check their work. Once lined with tape the kids then took a piece or two of plastic wrap (I suggest a double layer for sturdiness) and placed it over the can tightly. Once it was placed over the can they then secured it with more duct tape. Nice and tight!! The idea is that your plastic wrapped end can be put faced down into the water and you look through the open end, no water is to come into the can to make for clear viewing under the water. If your plastic wrap is taped loosely it will leak, which can make for a frustrating tool.

Once everyone had a completed project, we cleaned up and hit the trail in search of good access to the pond area. I had pre-visited the location with my family to ensure it would meet our needs. We found about 4 spots with very easy access, fun exploring areas, quality viewing and wonderful little finds. The kids found several different kinds of little fish, snails, fresh water clam shells (which we discussed why there were just shells - a sign of a critter eating them), nice rocks, unique plants and little treasures like a couple of coins. Even parents got in on the action to see how it worked. Older students waded out further and the younger students we kept closer to shore. They really enjoyed exploring a new way to look at a pond! Fun and hands on!!

These were some of the treasures the kids found using their pond viewers. We had many, many more including crawfish but I didn't get photos of them.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Woodland Floor With A Sieve

Using a sieve in nature can be a lot of fun and a great way to really get up close to the smaller elements we so often pass through quickly. Exploring one habitat at a time throughout the year with a sieve is a wonderful way to find those small elements and spend time with them. So, if you focus on different habitats consider adding this tool to your tool box.

My husband assembled a small set of sieves for me to use with our Nature Club. He used some scrap wood and a roll of metal screen to create them. He tried his best to keep them safe for kids by keeping all of the screen folded in, tucked and secure as to not cut little hands. He also braced the corners to help keep them solid as kids aren't always the most gentle of creatures. As well, if one fell while in action we'd like to not have the tool break on them.

I chose a park that offered great choices in forest floor space. It has hills, loads of trees and shrubs, decaying logs and fallen tree debris, a stream, a little waterfall, quite a few trails and open space. As well, we had picnic tables to work with. I ensured there was ample parking for the number of families joining us and was able to let folks know about restroom amenities. I asked families to come prepared for weather, bring nature journals and a pencil (or colored pencils if able), any field guides they might have found to be appropriate for a forest and a magnifying glass or loupe if they own them.

For this activity we broke into small groups and each group then chose which areas they wanted to explore and find places to work with their sieve. The used a cup and their hands to gently scoop up the forest floor and place in the sieve and then a child or team of two worked to gently shake out the debris and dirt. Once it was thinned out then they would take time to see their findings. The process was done about 3-4 times in different areas of the forest for each team. As they discovered great stuff they would bring it down to our work area, picnic tables in the park, and lay them out on an extra sieve. I also had some white paper towels laid out to help the details and colors pop.

Each group tried different types of places among the forest floor such as the base of a tree, under the edge of a decaying log, in piles of decaying leaves, in open areas, under little shrubby plants, near the base of a waterfall, along a stream and near a trail. Different areas certainly offered different results. That in and of itself was a great lesson to discuss. Why some areas produced better results than others.

Once we had all of our findings then we returned to the picnic table as a group and shared our finds. Many families brought along various magnifying glasses and loupes. I also provided several loupes and magnifying glasses to share. I also was able to bring along our stereo-microscope and plug into to our vehicle with an extension cord to use at a table. Kids were having a great time viewing their findings and sharing with each other. Much excitement! We also broke open some field guides to to identify a couple of slugs, a bug and a mushroom. After the fun wore off in sharing and identifying it was time to journal our findings. Each kiddo chose items to observe closer and draw or write about in their nature journals. They are also invited to share their journal work if they choose, which some gladly come right over and share where as others are quite private in their work. All styles of journal work are honored and appreciated.

Tips For This Activity

Choose a dryer spell to get a good forest floor look. If it were to moist you'd have a harder time breaking up the soil or get clumps of debris.

Have teams switch areas to see if results were different, as some have better patience than others.

This would go great following a One Square Foot observation or a Micro Habitat with a decaying log activity.

Small clear containers or jars would be great to place specimens in after they find them. Small flat dishes would work best with a micro scope if you are using one, so that slug slime doesn't end up on your platform.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Nature Club: An Overview

I have been organizing a Nature Club within our homeschool group for about 4 years now. Our scheduling of activities is posted through our MeetUp group. We meet two Fridays a month, sometimes one extra if activities and time allows. I keep the time and day of the week consistent to ensure a fairly regular attendance of families so that they can build upon our activities. This also sets families up to use materials, supplies, field guides, tools, journals, etc on a regular basis and then they feel better about their purchases. I also then know that a majority of the kids/families then have gear to use for specific activities. The one item I request for all kids is a nature journal and pencils. This is a very inexpensive request that is doable for just about anyone. Any age is able to journal -- on a drawing level. If necessary they can bring paper on a clip board to work with and use at home as they please.

I prefer to give a month or two lead time on the activities. This time allows families to create studies at home around what we might be doing in Nature Club. Many families really do appreciate this! I love to hear what they are doing at home, what books they read ahead of time, what collections they have started, what new tools they are now using and other adventures they have enjoyed related to our group experience. The kids are always so excited to share with me. Always a treat!! I also do my best to group a couple in a row in related themes/topics. This isn't always the case, but if I can do a couple of forest scenarios, tree/botany, beaches, birds, etc then again families can build further at home with the theme.

A Nature Club outing on average runs about 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Rare occasion we will run longer if the activity needs it. Hikes will usually run 2-4 hours. Some of our local nature center field trips that are ran through their education departments usually run 3-4 hours. I only do a couple of these a year as to not overwhelm families or require to much of their time. If an activity requires longer drive time then I do my best to offer a bit of a longer experience so that a family feels it is justified, both time wise and gas wise.

I have a couple of local nature oriented organizations that I have worked with routinely and have built a nice relationship with that we use for some outsourced events each year. I have attended their teacher trainings, used their materials and have proved our group to be of consistent attendance, prepared and willing to adapt to their programs. Having these connections has been wonderful! It offers outside educators outside of myself with a different influence and often times introduces new to homeschooling families to these groups. Sometimes outsourcing these activities with local groups has caused our traditional scheduling of a Friday to be altered, but typically that is well received.

At times an activity might require a small fee. If it is super minimal, then my family will cover it as we enjoy the Nature Club experience for our family/children. If it adds up though, then I pass this small fee (to cover the materials) to our families. If it is small, like $.50 or a $1.00 then I might collect the day of the activity from each family, often on an honor system. If it is more than that I will collect ahead of time through PayPal. 99% of our families have come on board to PayPal and it has really simplified life. If you do use the route of PayPal it takes 3-4 working days for funds to transfer to your bank account for use, so plan accordingly. At times a family might 'donate' a couple of dollars to what I do, this is always rolled into a future Nature Club outing and helps to keep costs down. Other than that, our Nature Club is completely free and I do my best to keep it that way. If I do have activities I'd like to do that will cost money, I will work hard to keep it trickled throughout the year so that it is affordable for families. I will offer several free events and then a small fee based one or two, then a series of free events.

Just like staggering the cost of events versus free events, I also do my best to stagger the locations of our activities. While many will work well in parks located near my home, I do try to branch out to different areas that other families live or further out of our neighborhoods/towns. I do use parks or woods near me because I know them best, I can pre-visit easier to plan out an activity and know what amenities are on hand. I will always attend a park, trail or location prior to ever using it. This way I am truly aware of what the quality is like, how well it is attended, if it feels safe, if it offers amenities, to see what parking constraints might be, to know if a park use fee is applied, what the habitats are like and how easy it is to access them safely. I never book something site unseen.

As for ages in our Nature Club, nature is for any age. Infant to adult. What a person puts into it is what a person will get out of it. While some 'activities' we do might be geared for older or younger kids, they can be adapted and still used well. I shoot for multi-age and it is up to each family to work with their children to make accommodations or through conversation and questioning bring it up a notch. We usually have all elementary aged kids to some early junior high aged kids. This is mainly because this particular homeschool group is naturally heavily weighted this way. That said, it really just depends on the person. I have found this is the most challenging part... feeling like I need to meet every person's needs, perfectly. I never enjoy the feeling that an older kid just wasn't into it or it was a little to difficult for a younger child, but reality is I cannot meet everyone's need exactly. I have come to terms with that. Leaving almost all activities somewhat open ended with the results is what makes it their own experience and allows for the depth in which they will take that experience. All I do is offer the opportunity or activity with a bit of guidance or instruction and then it is up to them to run with it or do the bare minimum. For the most part, everyone is great and enjoys them selves!

As for the term 'activities' -- we are not just a hiking club, a free play group or a nature trail club. I look for different activities that will help kids learn a bit more about the natural world, possibly experience something that they may not have done before or an activity that just works better in a larger group setting vs always in a small family unit or alone. Sometimes an activity is more structured, in the project concept, and sometimes it is wide open in terms of interpretation. Sometimes we do just meet and explore or play in nature and sometimes we gather to hike or nature trail an area that feels a bit safer in a group. I do my best to mix these up. Activities are almost always a go no matter the weather. Few structured things might need rescheduled, but they are very far and few between. We live in a fairly mild climate with some rain, some cold temperatures and sometimes a little thunder storm but unless safety is an issue Nature Club happens. We really encourage families to outfit themselves and kids well for weather, come prepared with back up clothing/towels/shoes/food/drinks/materials, etc.

This is a basic overview of what I do with our Nature Club. I have really learned from experiences over the years. I have a better idea of what works, what is a hit, what is a flop and what might be difficult. I have worked on communication with students and parents. We have put some guidelines in place in terms of attendance with our homeschool group as a whole and that has really helped with follow through in our group. I am always open to suggestions and even open to other families or youth taking the lead on a Nature Club activity (great for our teens). Knowing what folks might be looking for has helped to keep things running. Always being on the lookout for new ideas, books, resources, tools, groups, organizations, trails, parks, people and subjects is a constant! I am always ON when out and about in terms of new things that might be a great fit for what we do. This has helped to have our group grow and our attendance be wonderful. I am grateful for our group and look forward to many more years with our Nature Club.