If you're interested in learning more about pollinators and wildflowers in Montana, here's a link to a nice booklet put out by the Forest Service.
What signs of spring are you seeing around your house?
Springtime has come to Pattee Canyon, and the kids are noticing the yellow blooms of the Arrowleaf Balsamroot on the hillside and the Dr. Seuss-ian flowers of the paper birch tree by the gate. We’ve been hearing more songbirds, and enjoying nibbling on the fresh chives growing in our little vegetable garden.
Some other new additions to the garden are the bumblebee home and water dish, two ways that we’re helping to create a hospitable environment for pollinators. The kids worked hard to build a sheltered underground home for a bumblebee family to move into, and filled the bee water dish with shiny glass marbles (normal rocks would work just fine, too), to give the bees a safe place to perch while they drink. The water dish helps them to save energy, so that they don't have to fly down to the creek in search of water, but can preserve their energy to pollinate the flowers in our garden and in the woods.
This week, we were lucky enough to have a visit from Alex, a falconer and friend of the preschool who brought his three-year-old Peregrine Falcon, Mel, by the school to teach us a little bit about these amazing birds.
Peregrine Falcons are raptors, a group that includes owls, hawks, falcons, vultures, and our locally beloved ospreys. Raptors can be identified by their strong, gripping feet and talons (for catching their prey), sharp beaks (for tearing meat), and big eyes on the front of their heads which can clearly spot prey up to several miles away.
We learned that Peregrine Falcons are the fastest animals in the world, and can fly at speeds of over 200 miles per hour when they’re plummeting down to the ground to catch their prey. In fact, the birds' unique anatomy has even inspired the design of fighter jets.
It was an informative visit, which became unexpectedly exciting and noisy when a group of about ten Stellar’s Jays spotted the falcon, and started calling out alarms from the treetops above the school. Mel was trying to be on her best behavior, but became noticeably agitated by the jays.
If you’re interested in finding out more about raptors in our region, check out the blog of Raptors of the Rockies, or this Big Sky Journal article about a falconer in Wyoming.
Thanks, Alex and Mel!
Missoula is full of wonderful little pockets of nature, and there’s something particularly special about the wilder, more untended areas, where kids can witness the life cycle of the forest in action. We recently took a field trip to the Tower St. Open Space, a city-owned parcel of wilderness a few blocks west of Reserve St., an amazing slice of riparian habitat just off of one of Missoula’s busiest thoroughfares.
Along a side channel of the Clark Fork River, we heard chickadees, Canada Geese and flickers, watched a family of mallards take flight, and saw evidence of beavers in the numerous chewed-off trees branches. We checked out woodpecker holes, climbed on a huge fallen-down cottonwood tree, and did a wilderness scavenger hunt. The morning started out with a snowstorm, which gave way to sun and blue skies, and then the snow started again as we hiked out. Truly springtime in Montana.
It was incredible to watch the kids work together as they navigated the sometimes tricky terrain. The snow made things slippery, but plenty of hands were extended to help one another out. What a team!
The chickens and ducks at our school provide the students with all sorts of opportunities for learning. Even before entering the coop, the kids use their risk-assessment skills (a key component of early outdoor education) to determine whether or not the electric fence is on. Once inside, they work together to look around for eggs, using resourcefulness and non-linear thinking, as the hens don’t always lay in the same spots.
Over the school year, the kids have learned to approach the animals in a calm and controlled way, something they don’t automatically know how to do, especially if they don’t have animals at home. They’ve developed confidence, and some enjoy picking up the chickens, having learned which ones are least skittish and most amenable to being held.
Eggs can be an excellent tool for hands-on math lessons. By collecting the eggs in a bucket, and then adding or removing them, the kids develop early math skills.
We always try to use our “math language” during this activity, using words like “plus” and “minus” even as we embed the math into a story problem to make it more concrete for their creative little minds (“If a fox came along and ate two of the eggs….”).
Some kids like to bring in produce scraps for the birds, which can encourage dialogue about food waste, and the food cycle. It can also provide a handy motivating tool on reluctant mornings. A gentle reminder that the chickens are waiting for their food can be a great way to get kids excited about getting out to the door!
If you’re interested in spending more time around chickens or other farm animals, there are plenty of places in and around Missoula to do so. The PEAS Farm, in the Rattlesnake, has chickens and pigs and is open to the public. It’s a great place for a low-key self-guided farm visit. Hawthorne Farm, on Miller Creek, has a bunch of farm animals, including bees (and some kid-sized beekeeping costumes to try on). Contact them first about coming for a visit, and bring along some cash for honey or eggs! If you’re looking to go a bit farther afield, a trip to the Wild Rose Emu Ranch in Hamilton is well worth the drive. These birds are fascinating, and kids can see the emus at every stage of life, from the turquoise eggs to the giant adult birds. Call first to arrange a visit.
Any other local farms you like to visit? Leave a note in the comments!
After doing some research and picking up two pallets from a local business we got to work. I am an inexperienced and imprecise builder, but this turned out to be an easy, fun project that is getting a lot of use from the kids. The entire kitchen is constructed from two pallets, a couple extra 2X4s we had lying around, hooks and screws, a hammer for hammering apart the pallet, drill, tape measure, and a hand saw or jigsaw for sawing the boards. We used one pallet as the back and hammered apart the second one to use the individual boards for the shelves and counter area. I had a general plan before starting, but as we progressed we added and built as inspiration struck. Upon completion I gave the whole thing a coat of waterproofer and then we hit the local second-hand store in order to collect the necessary kitchen supplies.
The kids ended up doing most of the construction themselves, including drilling the holes.
The kitchen in its new home in the children's play area, with an unlimited supply of cooking ingredients!
After reading about space we decided to make our own planets. This is a fun, easy project that all ages will enjoy. Watching the cup melt and change shape is definitely a highlight. This project can also be done as a modern art piece or to learn about the effects of heat. They would look great strung up or made into a mobile!
~ Clear or opaque plastic cups (the ones with the number 6 in the recycling symbol on the bottom of the cup work the best)- I used Targets up and up brand
~ Colored permanent markers (sharpies work great)
~ Parchment paper
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and color the entire outside of the cup with permanent markers. The metallic markers create a fun effect!
Some kids wanted holes punched in their planets to hang them up.
And some made eyeballs instead.
Let the feather collecting begin! Our fall and spring resident flock of turkeys have been visiting daily. Currently they number around 20 and have been gorging on snowberries, chokecherries, grass, and seeds. They are very tame, which the dogs and children love, and will let you approach within 15-20 feet. The squirrels on the other hand, are not enjoying their continual presence. If the turkeys spot a squirrel they rush at it, heads outstretched, and chase it off.
Beyond just being fun, an outdoor based education provides many benefits to a child. The parents and community benefit as well by having happier, healthier, and more engaged children and future adults.
Children who are regularly outside in nature have improved gross (large) motor skills, and an increase in physical activity (Bell and Dyment, 2006). They can be found running, climbing, jumping, and balancing, using and engaging the muscles of their entire body. When faced with a steep path strewn with rocks and logs, children accustomed to flat surfaces, such as parks and sidewalks, will have a difficult time traversing, but a child of the woods will confidently fly over the obstacles lying in her way. They develop a confidence in their bodies and a physical awareness from constantly testing themselves on uneven and unstable surfaces. The natural environment is very inviting to children to explore and test their limits. They can't help but move. A child may be too afraid to try the balance beam at the gym, but a log lying on the ground will often draw him in. A ladder may seem imposing, but tree roots crisscrossing a hillside create the perfect way to get to the top of a steep hill. Dragging and assembling logs into a fort uses arm, leg, and back muscles in a way not easily used when playing on a playground. All this physical growth is happening while children are engaging in unstructured play, unaware they are learning and developing, no one needing to force or teach these physical skills.
Children show more creativity in their play when in nature (Bell and Dyment, 2006). They are not restricted in their play by the environment and are free to use their imaginations to their fullest extent. Many toys have predetermined uses and children will engage with a toy in a limited number of ways. Children playing in the woods may be using a stick as a boat, but their play can easily evolve, as children often do, and the stick may become a spoon to stir a pot of soup, a writing tool for drawing in the mud, for digging, or added to the wall of a fairy house. Because there are no man-made toys in nature children must use their imaginations to turn what the find into a toy and are more likely to engage with others on a higher creative level. Playing with others becomes more creative rather than assuming roles based on the toys and props around them.
Communication and Social Skills
When playing in nature children demonstrate better communication skills and cooperation (Bell and Dyment, 2006). When playing inside, children have a limited number of desired toys and space, which often leads to conflict within a group. Nature has endless amounts of space and unlimited quantities of sticks, rocks, pinecones, and leaves for children to play with. Since children are engaging their imaginations at a higher level when outside, they will interact more with others, providing the chance to practice their developing social skills in a positive way. Social skills are not practiced as frequently when children are inside with their interactions focused on toys. Often children will start large projects while playing in nature, which leads to the necessary level of cooperation and communication to get the job done. A large rock or log needing to be moved, or a shelter or bridge needing to be built is easier done when a group figures out how to work together and communicate effectively.
When children are allowed to spend a large period of time outdoors they have a corresponding decrease in their exposure to germs that are present inside. They are also less likely to become ill because of an increase in sleep due to fresh air and exercise. Obesity, an unfortunate side effect of a society which spends a majority, if not all, of the time inside (in addition to other contributing factors) is reduced in children who spend plenty of time outdoors. Studies have also shown a decrease in ADD symptoms in children who spend more time in nature (Kuo and Taylor, 2004). Stress, a contributing factor to decreased health and well being, is reduced when given access to nature. According to Wells and Evans (2003), locations with a greater number of plants, greener views, and access to natural areas show more significant results in reducing stress. Urban environments expose us to an overwhelming amount of stimulation which fatigues the brain, causing impaired cognition and self control (Marc Bermain el al). A healthy mental state leads to a healthier physical state.
Perseverance, planning, engineering, problem-solving, testing, and observing are all learned while playing outside in nature. Children learn the best way to construct a fort through trial and error, testing different methods and materials, solving problems that arise, and sticking with it until the project is completed. They observe the changes around them, ask questions, hypothesize, test, and observe some more to see if their theories hold up. They learn to question the world around them by watching the life cycle of frogs, deer, birds and other animals up close. Discovering a carcass will lead to many questions and discussions regarding life. Observing a rotting log will teach about microbes, composting, and the discovery of a whole new world thriving beneath. Being outside allows our brains to work effectively and efficiently without all the distractions of modern life.
Children have a natural, but varying, desire to seek out risk and experience the accompanying sense of exhilaration produced when pushing the boundaries. In our ever controlling environment it has become more difficult for children to experience a sense of risk in a positive and appropriate manner. Despite the increase in safety regulations for playgrounds, there has not been a corresponding decrease in childhood injuries (Chalmers, 1999, 2003). Research suggests that childhood injuries are not a result of the play equipment, but the result of how children use the equipment (Ball, 2002), using it in unforeseen and unsafe ways. The restrictions imposed by the design of the play equipment and restrictions placed by persons of authority are limiting children in the development of risk assessment. They never learn how to push their bodies and minds in a gradual and age appropriate manner. This can lead to other and arguably more risky behaviors, such as drugs, alcohol, and social risks later in life. Allowing a 2 year old to cross a log, a 3 year old to hop across the rocks in order to cross a stream, an 8 year old to climb a tree or build a fire, and even later a teenager to go hiking or camping alone allows a child to experience risk in a healthy and productive way, learning about the world and how to gauge what is safe or not. Exposing children to nature and educating them on its beauty and dangers also teaches them to pay attention to their surroundings, their abilities, and to assess risk and weigh the possible outcomes of different choices.
Much to the kid's excitement we are now back in lamb business! Yesterday we took a trip to Deer Lodge to pick out the two lambs that will be taking up much of our time until the end of summer. So begins the daily ritual of feeding, watering, training, and taking the lambs up the dirt road behind our house for their morning walks. So far these two are much calmer and more manageable than the two we had last year.
In true form of a waldkindergarten (forest children) education, we decided to take the family bird watching in the pouring rain to Lee Metcalf Wildlife Refuge and partake in their 50th anniversary celebrations. As we were preparing to go, Mayana exclaimed she was so excited and Mica responded, "what a perfect day to go." I guess a little deluge was not going to stop them. The rain eventually stopped and it turned out to be an amazing day of bird watching, including a pair of rather close sandhill cranes, spotting some of the first buttercups of the year, an up close examination of the ear of a living long-eared owl (it was a huge hole in the side of their heads- quite shocking!), and discovering several treasures.
Thanks to Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge and their staff for a wonderful visit!
I am a nature-loving, animal-loving, child-loving, art-loving, Missoula mom, educating the next generation of confident, free thinkers.