February 23, 2018, Deep River, Connecticut

Usually, such a hopeful site, but in February, in Connecticut? Feels too soon.

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Natural Scientists Right from the Start

It’s going to be another great year at Schoolmates. The new Explorers arrived in the rain on Wednesday, September 6. Everyone had raincoats and asked, “Are we going to hike today?” A little rain wasn’t going to stop these enthusiastic children.

After some morning activities in the classroom, we headed outside for a hike. The rain had stopped, but it was still misty and wet. Because of the wet conditions and it being our first day with this class, Kelly and I decided to hike on a road rather than on a wooded trail. The main road passes by a man-made pond in front of the nature center. That pond would be our destination.  “Let’s go see what the frogs are doing,” I said to the group.
Before we started out, Kelly and I peppered the Explorers with information about our journey.

Me: “Sometimes the pond is covered in a plant called duckweed.”

Kelly: “It’s very green, and all you can see is the frogs’ heads sticking up through it.”

Me: “We’ll have to be quiet as we approach the pond, so we don’t scare the frogs.

Kelly: “We’ll have to be still and look closely.

The Explorers walked slowly up to the fence that encircles the pond. Everyone was silent as they took in the scene—a small pond with green-covered water,  surrounded by stones and gravel. Then all at once, they started: “I see a frog!” “There are two on that rock.” “There’s one!” “That one is HUGH.” “There are so many frogs— big ones!”

The Explorers were right. There were lots of frogs, and most of them were out of the water, sitting on rocks around the pond. We all wondered aloud if the frogs were out of the water because of the rainy conditions.

“Can we come back another day?” the class asked. “Absolutely,” I answered. Preschoolers are natural scientists—always asking questions and looking for cause-and-effect relationships. I know from experience with the Explorers of previous years that the question, “Can we come back another day?” is full of intent and expectations. They will want to visit this pond on sunny days, rainy days, and windy days. During these visits they will notice how many frogs are out of the pond and how many are in the water—they will conduct an informal field study. Together the class will make observations, smart guesses and connections about weather conditions and the frogs’ behavior.

The following school day, we returned to the pond. It was a clear day with blue sky, billowy white clouds, and dry air. The Explorers again quietly approached the pond. The frogs were harder to see—most of them were in the water. Kelly and I pointed to a bump in the duckweed and said, “See the eyes?” Once the group knew what to look, for the exclamations started. “I see one!” Look, just his eyes are sticking up!” “There’s one on the other side of the pond.” “So many are in the water.”

This type of investigation will happen over and over this year. The Explorers will study birds, animals, trees, leaves, seeds, plants, snow, ice, hibernation, migration, and more. They will ask lots of questions and look for connections and relationships. They will wonder and experiment, wonder and experiment until they arrive at new learnings and understandings. Kelly and I will be there to inspire, support, encourage, and celebrate the Explorers, and we will have fun all year long. Yes, it’s going to be another great year!

MIT News – Study shows that children think like scientists.

Science Illustrated – Preschoolers think like scientists

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Bon Voyage to the Birds

Pratt Cove

“The red-winged blackbird is the true harbinger of spring.” This is a sentence I repeat at least two or three times a year. I first hear it at the Connecticut Audobon’s Eagle Festival. My children and I went to the festival hoping to learn more about eagles and meet the bird experts. The festival is held in February, when everyone is looking toward spring and the return of migrating birds. One bird expert explained that many robins now winter over in our area, so “the red-winged blackbird is the true harbinger of spring.”

Deep River is home to two freshwater tidal marshes, Pratt Cove and Post Cove. Wild rice grows in these coves, and at this time of year it is ready to eat. Lucky for the red-winged blackbirds, who are starting to think of their autumn journey south. In preparation for migration, many birds, including the red-winged blackbird, enter a stage of hyperphagia, which means their appetite increases and eating is nearly continual. It makes sense: they are bulking up for a long flight to their winter home. This crop of wild rice provides them with lots and lots of food. In September and October the reeds in Pratt Cove are filled with flocks of noisy, hungry, red-winged blackbirds, eating, calling to each other, and flying from reed to reed. I marvel and delight in this predictable happening.

Many birds are now preparing to make a migratory trip south. Watch, listen, tune into the behavior of the birds. Their journey is not easy, many will travel thousands of miles and will meet many challenges: bad weather, electrical wires, air and road traffic, food and water shortages, and more. Bid them farewell and safe journey.

More information:

Winged Migration, a film released in 2001, is a documentary about the migratory patterns of birds. It is filled with beautiful images of birds in flight and in natural setting across the globe. The film also includes some footage of birds encountering obstacles and perilous circumstances along their migrational paths.
Common Sense Media Review

Cornell Lab of Ornithology – Migration

Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center

The ebird link below will take you to an amazing site that maps the annual migratory cycle for North American birds.  ebird.org occurrence maps


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Friday Photo

Look closely, hidden treasures are everywhere.

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A Clearing in the Woods

It took two days of asking and bargaining, but I got Aurora and Stephen to take a hike with me. Actually, for months I have “led by example.” I walk or hike whenever possible. Stephen and Aurora know my beliefs about exercise and being in nature, yet they fight my attempts to get them outside. When motivating children, “lead by example” gets you only so far. After that it’s bargain, cajole, guilt, leverage, and bribe.

It was a simple plan: take the dog for a walk at a local preserve. Stephen agreed to come with me out of guilt; he had stalled long enough the day before that it got too dark to walk in the woods. He knew I had been disappointed, so he agree to go to Canfield Woods with me. Aurora wanted to go shopping. I told her she had to walk with us first. I had a bargaining chip and I used it.

When we arrived at the preserve, I told them we would do the short loop—yellow trail to blue trail. They grumbled, but set out down the path.

Stephen wanted to walk next to me, so did Aurora. They started to push each other. I gave Stephen the dog and asked him to walk ahead.

That worked for a while, then he gave me the dog and started collecting acorns. “Oh good, he’s getting interested in things,” I thought. Then he started throwing the acorns at Aurora. She got mad and said something unkind, and he reacted. “Mom…!” he said. “Mom…!” she said. I walked away in frustration thinking, “Maybe its NOT worth it.”

Eventually they both ran up to me complaining about the other. “She never wants to play with me any more,” declared Stephen. “He’s so annoying,” Aurora said in a way only a 13-year-old can—part bratty child, part superior “cool kid.”

A light bulb went off, and I stopped walking. It’s true, Aurora doesn’t play with Stephen as much as she used to. She’s in the regional middle school now, busy meeting new friends and getting involved in new activities. Stephen has been looking for attention from his sister. If he can’t get the attention in a positive way, then it seems he will settle for negative attention. So he pokes her and trips her. He annoys her and throws acorns at her.

Out in the woods with no distractions—no phones, TV, homework, or friends, the dynamic was clear. We talked about it. Stephen had his say and then Aurora had hers. They hugged and we continued down the yellow trail. Stephen and Aurora walked ahead of me, together in a way they hadn’t been at the beginning of the hike. They settled into the hike—they talked, pointed out interesting finds, and climbed up rock faces, a favorite activity.

It happens all the time: I work hard to get Stephen and Aurora outside in nature and am rewarded in some way. Aurora will share stories about friends and school. Stephen and I will get down on the damp ground and watch a toad, or he will  challenge me to a race. Aurora and Stephen spend quality time together. We relax, we share, we unplug, we connect. It’s always good, if I can wait them out. Start a friendly battle with your kids and get them outside.

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A Close Encounter

An early morning hike with my friend, Caryn was the start to my birthday celebration. We hiked the blue and yellow trails at Canfield Woods as a light rain fell on the leaves above us. It was wonderful. While we walked along a swampy area, I saw something hop. I stopped to investigate and found a toad sitting next to a log. “Let’s play one of my favorite games, ‘How close can I get?'” I said to Caryn.

I stepped off the trail, nearer to the toad and pulled out my camera. I focused on the toad and took a picture. Then I crouched down, moved in and took another picture. The toad sat still. I moved in even closer and took another picture. Caryn said, “It would be cool if you could take a picture straight on.”

“They don’t usually let you do that,” I replied. Then I moved my camera around to the front of the toad, he didn’t move. I held my breath and took a picture.

I stood up, laughed with delight, and returned to the trail. And the toad calmly hopped away. What a birthday gift!

Next time you are out in nature, watch closely for movement, it often means wildlife. Then you can play “How close can you get?”

Remember: When you encounter wildlife, approach with gentle respect. You are a visitor in their habitat. 

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Little Things

And then there is the world of little things, seen all too seldom. Many children, perhaps because they themselves are small and closer to the ground than we, notice and delight in the small and inconspicuous. With this beginning, it is easy to share with them the beauties we usually miss because we look too hastily, seeing the whole and not its parts. Some of nature’s most exquisite handiwork is on a miniature scale, as anyone knows who has applied a magnifying glass to a snowflake.   —Rachel Carson

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Planting Pansies

For my daughter, Aurora, spring means planting pansies. When she was four-years-old my mother came for a visit. My mother (Aurora’s Granny) announced to Aurora, “Wait until you see what I have in my car.” With excitement and anticipation Aurora and Granny walked to the car. On the floor of the backseat were 2 six-packs of pansies and a spade. The pair spent the next hour planting beautiful purple and yellow pansies in a big wooden planter at the front of the house.

Mother’s Day is approaching and I am thinking about pansies. Most Mother’s Days, I buy my mother pansies. I have never questioned it. It’s just something I do, something I have always done. As I remember the sight of Aurora and my mother carefully planting their happy little harbingers of spring, I am reminded of another pair of gardeners. My young, dark-haired mother and me, crouched at a garden bed with spades in our hands and the sun on our backs as we planted pansies.

Happy Mother’s Day

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A late day hike

My friend, Caryn and I took a hike late in the afternoon on a recent spring day. It’s a beautiful time of day for a hike. On a sunny day, the sun rakes across the trees casting long dramatic shadows and illuminates the greenery. Caryn took the best photograph of the day.

ferns unfurl

photograph by Caryn Paradis

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Cute little Critter

Photo by eaglemoon

If you are quiet and still, amazing things will appear.

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