Thursday, March 18, 2010

Back Yard Nature (from MacBeth's Opinion)

Back Yard Nature

Need to get nature study jump-started in your own back yard? Here are a few suggestions!

1. Let the grass grow a bit and do a lawn study. Do you know how many different plants and animals are in a small patch of lawn? Let a small section of your lawn grow and do a succession study. What is growing there after a year? After two years? I can’t tell you how many school children believe that if only we let the grass grow tall enough, it will turn into trees. A succession area will show your children that other plants arrive on your lawn in a variety of ways, not through instantaneous evolution or spontaneous generation.

2. Start an open compost pile and watch things decompose. An open compost pile, not a new-fangled bin, will reveal the mysteries of decomposition, and provide more learning opportunities than you imagine. Last year, a surprise pumpkin patch grew in our compost pile, and I remember a watermelon growing out of my grandmother’s compost pile when I was a child. This year, Yukon gold potatoes are thriving on the edge of the pile. Compare gardening with composted soil, and gardening without it.

3. Plant a garden with vegetables or flowers. Know the names of the plants. Plant something big, like giant sunflowers of pumpkins. Plant something small, like one of the new hybrid eggplants or berry tomatoes. Plant something native to your area, or plant something exotic. If you have a small yard, or no yard, can you visit a relative with more room? I grew up in an apartment, but my grandma Kerr always planted a fragrant flowerbed at her house, and my grandma Collier always had a bountiful vegetable garden.

4. Make your yard a haven for wildlife. Put up bird feeders or nest boxes. Add a birdbath as a water source. Tame the birds—it’s not hard, and the tame birds will provide you with ours of enjoyment through the winter! Try bat boxes, or butterfly boxes, too. Ladybug and toad boxes are also becoming common. Perhaps the kids can design a shelter to attract other wildlife. A simple brush pile may encourage rabbits to move in. If you live in an apartment, look for creative ways to bring nature closer…a nest box on a fire escape can bring a surprise guest!

5. Place large stones or logs in your yard. Let the kids peek under them from time to time. Worms, pill bugs, centipedes and other invertebrates, and some vertebrates like salamanders and snakes, will find a haven in your yard.

6. Know what’s in your yard. Know the kind of grass on your lawn. Know the trees on your street. Learn the names of the animals and mushrooms. Know which of the plants in your yard are edible, and which are not.

7. Add a water garden. These are easy to build, with kits available at garden centers. The sound of running water may bring the unexpected to your yard. Within two hours of turning on our small pond fountain, our first red-winged black bird stopped by for a drink. Since then, hundreds of birds have stopped by our urban plot.

8. Place stepping-stones through the gardens in your yard. Kids like to step on the stones, hopping from one to another, and they will help to keep young plants safe from stomping feet. Place them in patterns, or randomly. Even my big kids don’t seem to tire of hopping from stone to stone around our pond.

9. Set up a small weather station with a thermometer and weather vane and barometer so the kids can predict the weather, correlate the wild visitors in your yard with temperature, pressure and wind velocity.

10. Finally, let your children dig in your yard. Set aside an area where they can dig for treasure, or take soil samples. Perhaps your older children can set up an archeological dig . We found old nails, hinges, and even a piece of "ancient" vacuum hose when we did our dig! See Dig magazine for more fun.

Need more ideas? Discover Nature Today!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Spring (from MacBeth's Opinion)

Here are a few suggestions for getting out and enjoying the fresh spring air. The books listed here may or may not have a completely Spring theme, but rest assured that they are living books, written to inspire and help you in the great outdoors! For more suggestions on getting out in any season, see my Nature Study post. Happy browsing!

Spring Activities

Download Vivaldi's Spring for free!

Books for spring:

Check the weather!

For Spring copywork, try these books of poetry:

Here's an idea:

Try planting the birdseed that you have been feeding out this winter. Sure, you'll find sunflowers and millet growing, but you might be surprised by the other plants which abound. We have found sorghum, buffalo bur, anise and more in a handful. Planting it is easy. Find a space and sprinkle it onto the soil, dusting it over with another handful of soil so the birds don't find it. Water it well, and watch all summer for the different plants which will grow.

Tracking (great for those of you with a muddy season, or late snowfall):

Check under bird feeders for tracks. Can you tell which bird makes which?

Squirrel, dog and cat tracks are also common. Whose tracks are these?

Head for a pond. Compare the sizes of duck, goose, gull, coot, pigeon,

and swan tracks. Any other unusual tracks?

Read _Crinkleroots Book of Animal Tracking_ (out of print, check the

library). How many of the animals in his book live in your area?

Visit the online field guide to animal tracks, or buy a Peterson's Guide to take along.

Make plaster casts of animal tracks.


Remember to keep the feeder full well into spring. Food is scarcest at the end of winter.

Keep an eye out for returning birds--make a wall chart with dates and numbers of arrivals.

Read a living book on birding (as opposed to a field guide), like _Six Little Chickadees_ by Ada Graham (out of print), about ornithologist Cordelia Stanwood and the birds she studied as her life's work. (More living books listed below)

Set up nest boxes, especially bluebird boxes. Build one yourself with these plans.

Put up a bat house or toad house to combat those pesky mosquitoes.


Familiarize yourself with the wild edibles in your area.

Cook with wild edibles (click here for sample recipe).

Get "Wildman" Steve Brill's wild edibles book .


for Young Gardeners

A Child's Garden (my favorite...for inspiration!)

The Family Garden

All About Weeds

The Savage Garden: Cultivating Carnivorous Plants

Collecting, Processing and Germinating Seed of Wildland Plants (very cool way to make a more wild garden)

Moss Gardening (great for you fairy house fans, and a treat for those who love green)

The Field and Forest Handy Book : New Ideas for Out of Doors (like the title says...picks up where the boys' handybook leaves off)

The Gardener's Atlas (the geographical origins of popular garden plants)

Making More Plants : The Science, Art and Joy of Propagation (a beautiful science book for all ages)

Waterfalls, Fountains, Pools & Streams (a real how to--for big spaces and small yard)

Discover Nature After Sundown (cool activities, great for spring as wildlife awakens)

American Boy's Handy Book (boys pastimes--includes kites, mole traps, everything!)

American Girl's Handy Book (girls pastimes--crafts, decorating)

Shelters, Shacks and Shanties (kids love to build)

Acorn Pancakes, Dandelion Salad, and other Wild Dishes (simple recipes with wild ingredients)

Milkweed and Winkles: A Wild Child's Cookbook (more simple ideas for cooking with weeds)

Brother Cadfael's Herb Garden (the herb book that goes with the mystery series)

For the younger children:

The Salamander Room

Henry Builds a Cabin (follow up to Henry Hikes to Fitchburg)

Twilight Comes Twice

Up North at the Cabin

Look to the North: A Wolf Pup Diary (picture book)

Linnea in Monet's Garden (visit Giverny with Linnea)

Spring Thaw (picture book)

Crinkleroot's Nature Almanac

Inch by Inch (an inch worm measures his world)

The Little Island (seasons from an interesting perspective)

Wait Till the Moon is Full ("Now, see here, my BIG Warm Mother!")

Bumble Bee (Buzz)

Henry Hikes to Fitchburg (Henry is a very Thoreau-esque bear)

One Small Square (field guide) series:



The Night Sky




Robert Frost

Joyful Noise (poems about bugs--for two voices!)

I Am Phoenix (poems about birds for two voices--a favorite!)

Ordinary Things: Poems from a Walk in the Early Spring

All the Small Poems

Great Children's Novels for Spring readers:

Coot Club (Easter holiday adventures with Dick and Dot)

Cry of the Crow (a novel about a girl and a crow)

Sarah Plain and Tall (simply written; a lovely spring tale)

Rascal (a boy and his raccoon)

The Wheel on the School (will the storks nest here?)

Rabbit Hill (rabbits wonder: Will the new people plant a garden?)

On the Banks of Plumb Creek (year round, but the spring scenes are quite memorable)

Why Nature Study?

Nature Study
(Charlotte Mason's Cure for Tired Text-taught Tots)
  • “Let [children] once get touch (sic) with nature, and a habit is formed which will be a source of delight through his life.” --Home Education, pg. 61
  • “We must assist the child to educate himself on Nature’s lines, and we must take care not to supplant and crowd out Nature and her methods with that which we call education. Object-lessons should be incidental; and this is where the family enjoys a great advantage over the school. The child who finds that wonderful and beautiful object, a “paper” wasp’s nest…has his lesson on the spot from father or mother.” –Parents and Children, pg. 182
  • “…It is unnecessary in the family to give an exhaustive examination to every object…” --Parents and Children, pg. 183
  • “The unobservant person states that an object is light, and considers that he has stated an ultimate fact. The observant person makes the same statement, but has in his mind a relative scale, and his judgment is of more value be- cause he compares, silently, with a series of substances to which this is relatively light.” -- Parents and Children, pg. 183

Charlotte Mason's Observations

Charlotte Mason (1842-1923) was a British educator and an observant woman. As a teacher, she spent much of her life watching children learn, and drawing, from her observations, many of the same conclusions we home educators draw today as we watch our own children learn. Nature study was a “must” for Charlotte’s students, and for those she influenced in their homes. She believed that children should be outside with a parent for 4-6 hours per day when they are young, and that older children (12 and up) should have at least one full afternoon a week devoted to outside activities. Meals should be taken out of doors, when possible. “Never,” she writes, “be within doors when you can rightly be without.” Today, at Charlotte Mason College (now part of St. Martin's College), the study of ‘outdoor education’ can earn you a master’s degree. Indeed, outdoor educations centers such as Frost Valley in NY, and PEEC in Pennsylvania, Hemlock Overlook in Virginia, Eagle Bluff in Minnesota, and many others, are popular ways that public schools bring a taste of the outdoors to their pupils. Ah, but as home-schooling families, we can make everyday an outdoor educational experience…

Charlotte’s image of the nature walk included the mother sitting on a large blanket and sending the kids off to find what they can find. They would return with their finds, or describe what they had seen to their waiting mother. This might work well for you. Others may use a blanket as a “home base.” I cannot help but walk with my children and find things. I don’t want to miss anything on our nature outings, and my enthusiasm is contagious. Either way is fine, I believe.

The kids love to find natural objects and learn from them what they can. They keep notebooks, recording their interesting discoveries. They make connections when they read about something they have seen on a nature walk. They develop a strong, respectful relationship with life and its Creator. Nature study becomes the basis for the study of all other sciences—geology, biology, chemistry, physics, and astronomy can all be observed in nature.

The Outdoor Life: Getting Started

Mountain Day

Mount Holyoke College has a lovely tradition: On a crisp October morning at 7am, the morning bells continue to ring past 7, signaling that classes are cancelled. Because many students choose to climb the local mountains on their day off, the day is called “Mountain Day.” I have carried this tradition home, though we try to have our “Mountain Day” once a month, as a special addition to our usual time spent out of doors. Our “mountain” is a local preserve with several different environments—fields, forests, pond, seashore, and even old ruins. Best of all, it is free!

Mountain day is not a substitute for getting out daily! The mountain day location is a special place, away from home, where we can observe the seasonal changes, wild life, plants, and weather. Mountain day is a treat, wildly anticipated by the whole family. Nevertheless, we still go out as much as possible, on a daily basis.

When you plan your “mountain day” getaway, try to find a place that fits this checklist:
Free, or low fee--perhaps there is a “family membership”
Suitable for children
Naturalist available
Night access, if safe
Variety of environments:
  • Seashore
  • Pond
  • Creek or river
  • Field
  • Forest
  • Desert
  • Marsh
  • Swamp
  • Tundra
  • Rain forest
  • Island
No place has all of these environments, or course, but many parks and preserves have several different areas to explore. Check with your local parks department for advice. They can also tell you any rules and regulations. Many preserves forbid collecting anything (a real let-down for unprepared kids). Other places will make exceptions for “schools.” Still other preserves require permission to use the area. While this may require filing forms and a short waiting period, restricted areas are great since they are never crowded.

Your Own Backyard

This is not a cliché. Most back yards are teeming with wildlife of some sort. As a city dweller, I never cease to marvel at the fine variety of life in my yard. Spend time in your yard as you take meals, and see how many kinds of bird, insect, plant, etc. that you see.
If you keep a perfectly manicured lawn, with only one kind of grass (need a field guide to help you learn your lawn?), you can make your yard more attractive to wildlife. Hang a birdfeeder. Add a birdbath. Try piling up some old hedge clippings to make a brush pile. Dig in the soil.

You might consider starting a ‘succession corner.’ Choose a small area. Don’t mow, spray or treat the area. Watch. The grass will grow long, weeds will grow, and young trees might sprout. Different insects will arrive. After a few years, you might start a second succession area beside the first, and see how much faster succession takes place. For more backyard ideas, check out MacBeth's Opinion (a small bookstore, in association with, including a "Swallows and Amazons" page!

The Nature Notebook

Charlotte encouraged her students to keep nature notebooks. The children themselves always do the drawings, and the notebook may include poems, narrations of the natural objects, and pressings of leaves and flowers. Any blank notebook will do, provided it has room for our young naturalists’ pictures. Sometimes they draw right on the pages of the notebook. Sometimes they draw on separate paper and glue it in later. Poems we find, and any other hand written work is added neatly.
The work in a nature notebook is the child’s work, and is not subject to correction. As the years pass, we notice natural improvement in the drawing. As the child becomes a more accurate observer, so his artwork reflects the change. He may never be an Audubon, but he will look back on his work with fondness. A nature notebook is a great habit (Charlotte liked habits) that can stay with us for life. Moms and dads can set an excellent example for the children by starting their own notebooks…I have! Need help getting started? Need hints on drawing natural objects? Try Keeping a Nature Journal by Clare Walker Leslie. This wonderful book has more suggestions that I could ever think possible, including hints for "speed drawing." Also, I have enjoyed using watercolor pencils. Try Watercolor Pencil Magic for helpful hints on using these.

The Nature Hike (or What Do I Bring?)

The daypack for a nature walk can be quite a load to carry; let the kids help. I like to bring plenty of equipment so that there are no missed opportunities. The saddest words on a nature walk are, “Oh, if only we remembered the binoculars!” or “I can’t go in the marsh because I’m wearing my good shoes!” Be prepared for anything your area might have to offer. Here is a quick checklist of items to pack:
General supplies for all fieldwork:
  • bug boxes w/magnifying tops
  • hand lenses
  • nature notebook or paper
  • pencils
  • ruler
  • dissecting kit
  • compass/map
  • binoculars
  • stopwatch
  • Ziploc bags
  • old sneakers
  • water and snacks
  • field guides
  • **flashlight**
Supplies for Wetland study:
  • dip net
  • shallow basin (light colored)
  • buckets
  • seine net
  • plankton net
Supplies for Field/forest/desert:
  • bug net
  • bug cage
  • leaf/flower press
Supplies for Geology:
  • rock hammer
  • gloves
  • canvas bag
  • goggles

Remember: Boots are always shorter than the water into which you wade.
Always tell someone your plan--where you are going, and how long you'll be gone!

after the rain

Transfering Content

It has been a while since I have had access to the main MacBeth's Opinion site. I have not been able to add or edit content, and so the pages are a bit dated. I figured I would toss the old pages up here, link them in a sidebar somehow (experimenting here...), and edit at will. Any suggestions or hints are welcome.