– by Marybeth Lorbiecki
Editor’s Note: Marybeth Lorbiecki’s new book, The Prairie That Nature Built, stems from a childhood love for the open spaces nearby. We are pleased to offer her lovely, autobiographical essay, first published in Stories from Where We Live: The Great North American Prairie, (Milkweed Editions, 2001)
I have a kindred spirit bird. A golden throated, lyrical songster. It’s not something I ever looked for, or expected. It just kind of happened.
I grew up in a city in the waistband of Minnesota, flat country that boasted granite under the belt and fertile fields as its everyday dress. In town, houses lay across plains like dotted Swiss, and trees decorated the lines of its rivers, the Mississippi and the Sauk, giving the cityscape its shape.
I knew nothing about the history of the place except that this was my mom’s hometown, and she had been a homecoming queen. Not much to go on. Also, about a mile from us, past the big Fingerhut Factory on 8th Street, was a sign that you could read on your way into town over the Sauk bridge: “St. Cloud, All American City, pop. 42,000.”
I lived in a neighborhood of crackerbox bungalows with green Lego-block lawns. Once I’d reached the age of street crossing, I found my stomping ground as exciting as stale saltines. I wanted to EXPLORE, to find new lands, to discover new creatures—WILD creatures. So whenever Mom would let me, I’d follow my older brother, Mark, on my bike three blocks to the open fields behind the new North Junior High. There we’d stash the bikes and head out. The tall grasses burred our socks and swished our legs as we waded through. This was our wilderness.
Rumpled with little hummocks that I thought had to be prairie dogs holes (Mark said they were just gopher holes), it rolled out before us, a mix of sweet cloverlike smells wafting up as we walked. I’d grab old woody stalks and point them at Mark like swords, or run and chase the monarchs, or collect striped caterpillars in my pocket. I found flat stones I was sure were Indian arrowheads (Mark said they were just rocks) and gouges in the earth that had to be dinosaur footprints (Mark said they were just dried puddles). Plenty of other treasures caught my attention, too: box turtles and frogs, garter snakes (I can still pick up a garter snake with ease!) and salamanders, grasshoppers, and beetles. That’s not to mention the Archie comics, old newspapers, and dirty magazines we found, and the stack of mismatched pieces of wood for a fort Mark and I commandeered. On any given day, we could be pioneer sodbusters, Indians hunting buffalo, spies, or Johnny Quest and his enemy.
Our land of adventure stretched all the way from the busy street, 12th, to the Sauk River, the old broken down Boy Scout bridge, and the airport. I loved tramping as far as that and then circling back for our bikes, then on through the vacant lots on the other side of 25th Avenue. I knew nothing of the plants that I passed as we walked. To me, they were all weeds, but interesting ones—some with thorns to avoid and others with flowers to collect for Mom.
Though this was our wilderness, it wasn’t our home. Always keeping an eye out from different points in the fields were the stout, tenacious little stalkhangers, the western meadowlarks. This was their territory, and the meadowlarks would make that clear, singing their national anthems in floating flutelike warbles. Perched on a swaying swash of grass, white backs cloaked with a spattering of mud brown, each would proudly display its gilded throat and belly adorned by the shiny black V necklace. I thought they were great—troubadours for a queen (Mark said they were just meadowlarks.)
But as impressive as each robed musician was to me, the bird really was a mere commoner. There were too many of them around to merit much attention (spotting a cardinal could give you points; but a meadowlark rated somewhere between a robin and a field sparrow.)
As I grew, my wilderness changed. Houses rose up like baking cupcakes; first
there was a scoop, a darkened mound, and then, pop, a whole house would appear, bare earth all around that would soon be frosted over in a shade of astro turf. Soon followed the sidewalks and the cul-de-sacs, the community center and the ball fields, the churches and convenience stores. Each time a new building sprouted, my world shrunk, the edges getting thicker and tighter until not a single unspangled lot remained.
That’s when I started wondering where the meadowlarks went. I also realized I suffer from an odd breed of claustrophobia—not of small inside places, but of small outside ones. In order to breathe properly, I discovered I need some unmade areas in the landscape around me—wooded ravines, abandoned railroad beds, wild edge rows to fields, unmowed meadows, or untethered grassy slopes, undocked beaches, untamed bluffs.
I’ve heard that when the Navajo make blankets, they deliberately weave in a mistake or an empty spot, an opening in the pattern so that spirit is not locked in, but can flow in and out. Whether that’s true or not, I seem to seek out places to live where there are one or two undeveloped spots, spaces that are not empty and not full, places in the middle, doorways for the spirit.
After I went away to college in the Twin Cities, I stopped visiting vacant lots, pastures, farm fields. And I stopped seeing meadowlarks. At first, I didn’t miss them. I had my bits of wilderness in the woods on campus.
But when I’d travel, my eyes would naturally scan the land, seeking out my sunshine-breasted friend. I’d never see one. At least not up close. The few I’d manage to spy were always on a fencepost or an electric line as I rushed past in a car on the highway. I never got to hear one. It was like seeing a silent movie with no subtitles or musical score. And my imagination had no hope of creating anything like a meadowlark’s melody.
Rumor had it that besides fewer prairies, open fields and lots for habitat, new farm machinery had made it possible to plant earlier in the spring and harvest earlier in the fall. This meant fields swept clean first of nests and later of the plumping-up food required for the meadowlarks’ autumn migration. More and more of the birds weren’t making it. Perilous stuff.
Then I took a trip to Nebraska. On a short trek at dawn, I was greeted by a dazzling, yellow-throated, black-spangled male atop a fencepost only three yards from me. He tossed back his beak and sang as if performing for only me. Such incredible dips and trills! He went on and on for a full ten-minute performance. He even drew a crowd of six, standing around him awed, and rather than being frightened, that meadowlark puffed himself up like an opera star and sang all the harder, his throat wobbling like a cat were caught in there. He was the cockiest, most handsome bird I had ever met. I was enchanted. I was in love. Just what he wanted.
But I am fickle, and I could not sit there all day. So I eventually got in my car and drove away.
But I did not forget. I had caught his song on a little tape recorder I had brought along for interviews. The tape could not do him justice.
Not long afterwards, I asked my husband, David, to design a logo for my freelance writing business. He’s an artist, so I thought he would create something that smelled of ink and paper and books. That’s when fate stepped up for notice. The logo David unveiled was a meadowlark crafted in black ink, like an old-fashioned woodcarving, with my name linked to it in space. The bird’s head was tipped and its tail long and fanned, like that of a mythic bird set to carry me away with song—my siren. “Why a meadowlark?” I asked, wondering what it had to do with writing.
David shrugged. “It seemed right.”
And it did. I looked at that little guy on my calling card and thought, “It will make my card memorable if nothing else.”
Inside, though, I knew why we had been paired. We both loved the same kinds of spaces, the out-of-the-way spots, far from the crowds, filled with tall grasses and bordered by trees. We didn’t quite fit in the run of the mill places, and we didn’t want to talk, we wanted to sing—do things our own way and do it with flourish!
A little while later, it became clear that all this stuff about loving wild lands and having a kindred spirit was not a free ride. I was asked to help work on a project to preserve 20,000 acres of prairies and grassland in Polk and St. Croix Counties. Our goal? To save these spots for the future and protect the disappearing prairie and grassland wildlife species whose habitats were being built or paved over. Guess who was one of these species? The western meadowlark, of course. Its population had declined 90% in 30 years.
Almost as if touched by a charm, I was transformed into the president of a citizens’ group, the Western Wisconsin Prairie Project.
And who I did start seeing (more than anyone else did I’m sure) on power lines and country fence posts? My friend the meadowlark, calling away at me, cajoling, reminding, beseeching. In fact, I was beginning to find him a bit of a nag, since this citizens group was no easy deal: meetings, phone calls, letters, presentations, brochures, contests.
Of necessity, the summer transformed into a crash course on the meadowlark’s original home – the prairies. My spirit bird was presenting to me a cornocopia of delights: purple wands of blazing stars, yellow sparks of partridge peas, nodding round faces of bright sunflowers, winking blue-eyed grasses, crimson torches of cardinal flowers, and the majestic grasses turning rippling shades of blue, purple, rust, and wheat in autumn’s crisper.
Having made the acquaintance of some of the prairie’s flowers and plants, and their beauty, the richness of my early wilderness hit me in a new way. I wished I could walk go back in time and walk those fields behind North Junior High again, just for the thrill of it (especially with my brother Mark so this time he could be the tag-along and I could be the smart aleck). Had those furrowless fields been prairie remnants? I wished I knew. I wished too, that I could zip even further backwards in a time machine to see the past life of my first wilderness, the wildlife and the peoples who had come to before me, the Sauk, the Dakota, the Ojibwe, the voyaguers and the settlers.
Since I can’t live in reverse, though, I’ve started reading a little area history and planting prairie species in every blank spot in my world: front yard, back yard, side yard, boulevard—a new obsession from my feathered sidekick. And I’ve cheered from the sidelines as some kids in Clear Lake, Wisconsin cleaned up the abandoned, littered land behind their school and planted a new prairie future, one complete with meadowlarks, we hope.
As for my project, the Governor of Wisconsin recently signed the Western Wisconsin Prairie Habitat Restoration Area into reality. Over the next years, the state will make partnerships with landowners, land trusts, parks, and others to make permanent homes for the meadowlark and the other grasslands wildlife in our area. My two young prairie-loving daughters, Nadja and Mirjana, frontline workers on the project, each received one the Governor’s commemorative pens. I hope they will always remember the parts they played in putting aside some grassy spirit holes for our prairie pals. Perhaps they’ll even find that one of those birds or butterflies or frogs or snakes picks them to be their kindred spirit.
As for my kindred spirit, it flies on before me, resting on fenceposts and singing till I catch up. Looks like I’m in for a lifetime of prairie adventures, whether I’m ready for them or not.
– by Carol L. Malnor
Editor’s Note: As a long-time teacher, nature educator, and instructional designer for a national education company, Carol has a uniquely helpful perspective on the current demands being made of teachers. We recently asked her to shares a bit of the perspective she brings to her new Common Core blog.
Last week I heard a report that two of our most scarce natural resources are “darkness” and “quiet.” Thinking back to my childhood, I could totally agree. I grew up in a suburb located between Chicago and Gary. Steel mills and oil refineries surrounded our little town. I thought a “clear night” was when we could see the few stars of the Big Dipper. Most nights a combination of smog and light pollution turned the sky a dull gray.
Maybe that’s why I became enthralled with the brightness of the stars in northern Michigan. When I was twenty-something, my husband took me camping at Clear Lake. Not only was the water clear, but the lake also made a “clearing” in the dense forest canopy. One moonless, summer night I took a midnight swim. The stars reflected in the black water of the perfectly calm lake. Floating on my back in the middle of the lake, I couldn’t tell where the lake ended and the sky began. The power of nature flowed through me.
As a teacher, I wanted my students to experience the power of nature; too, and got them out into nature in big and little ways. Some of our most memorable end-of-the year field trips were hiking in the mountains near Big Sur, canoeing the Sacramento River, and whale-watching in the Pacific Ocean. Great moments to be sure!
But even during the regular school day, I tried to get my students outside noticing the subtle change of seasons, listening to migrating Sandhill Cranes high overhead, or just watching clouds.
But there were lots of days when going outside wasn’t an option. That’s when I turned to the power of books, especially picture books, to bring nature into my classroom. The simple text along with vivid illustrations, captured my students’ attention, even the 7th and 8th graders!
The books were such a success that I wanted to share them with teachers. That’s one of the reasons why I created my blog Inside Outside Nature. Each week I featured two or more books along with lessons plans for inside and outside activities. Most of the activity suggestions came from my own personal teaching experience.
I can hardly believe that I taught my first class of high school students 40 years ago! Over all these years, I’ve seen lots of educational reforms come and go. I’m excited about two new reforms that are being accepted across the country—Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). I think these standards are an antidote to the rote memorization of isolated facts that has recently dominated education. As I’ve become more and more familiar with CCSS and NGSS, I’ve realized that the standards set the stage for helping students read, write, and think critically and creatively about science topics.
My NEW blog Common Core: Making the Connection (www.carolscommoncore.com) continues to feature great picture books with lesson plans, but there’s an added dimension—the lessons plans is are aligned with Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards. I hope to make teachers’ lives a little easier by giving them ways to easily integrate the standards in their reading and science classes. You’ll find a new lesson each week until mid-June. Then the blog takes a summer vacation and will return in mid-August.
– by Marianne Berkes
Twenty-five years ago I moved to Florida and became fascinated with frogs and their cacophony of sounds from a pond in the back of our home. In my first book, Marsh Music, published in 2000, I turned those night songs into a story about frogs performing a concert. At the end of the book, I added two glossaries, one of the cast (12 different frog species) and one for musical terms. I was thrilled when the Booklist review called it “an entertaining way to teach children about both nature and music.”
My second book, my first published by Dawn Publications in 2002, was Seashells by the Seashore, about a young girl who combs the beach collecting specific shells for her grandmother’s birthday. In it I alluded to the importance of conservation and living in harmony with nature, which of course, made it a “Dawn” book. A laminated tear-out identification sheet was included in the paperback so budding young naturalists could take it with them for a day of discovery at the beach. And of course, in the book is a glossary of the different shells.
My purpose for writing those books was that after reading them, kids (and adults) would feel the moist air outside after a rain and really listen to the sounds of frogs. Or they would go to a beach with sand between their toes, discovering, touching and feeling the amazing works of art the mollusks that live in shells create.
Those two books, and the fifteen that followed, identify me as an author who combines fact with fiction–”creative non-fiction.” What is a child’s perception of learning? I believe most children learn by doing
Tell me and I forget
Show me and I remember
Involve me and I understand.
When I write my “informational picture books” as they are now called, I determine how I can get kids inside the book. How can it be interactive? In 2004, I used the age-old song “Over in the Meadow” to which I put a different twist and wrote Over in the Ocean, in a Coral Reef. Kids sang the melody as they were learning to read. Because it rhymed and had a meter, it became easy for them to pick up on the lyrics. They were memorizing the book through repetition as fundamental skills were being learned. You can even listen to me singing it!
Now there are six “Over” books published by Dawn where kids act out what the animals in various habitats do as they learn about them and count them. Add spectacular artwork (I am so lucky to have great illustrators make my words come alive) and you have fun-to-read picture books that kids want to read again and again. For older students, there is interesting information about the habitats at the end. Also in the last few “Over” books there are hidden animals that kids of all ages love to look for as they learn.
Popular non-fiction author April Pulley Sayre recently said, “Administrators are starting to recognize that non-fiction writing is the key to student achievement.” Bravo to that! So many wonderfully written non-fiction picture books for kids are launch pads for discussion and learning.
Enter the Common Core Standards which have become a classroom reality in 45 states. They emphasize an increase in the amount of informational text for students to hear, read, and write. Teachers are now looking for non-fiction picture books from a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) point of view. And STEAM adds “art” to the mix. Dawn’s beautiful nature-awareness books provide skills to help kids be critical thinkers and increase success in reading, math and science, as well an appreciation for our natural world.
Each book is carefully vetted by experts in the field and many have curriculum connections. All my books with Dawn have free “downloadable” activities for educators (and parents). For example, my last four books published by Dawn:
Please click Activities on the web site and see the wonderful variety of free downloadables for yourself!
– by Glenn Hovemann
We feel downright cutting-edge here at Dawn, thanks to our new venture into a virtual pop-up book. “What’s THAT?” you might well ask. Here’s the story.
Not long ago our tech wizard and developer, Malachi Bazan, wandered to the center of our office and announced, “Hey, everyone, take a look at this.” He was hovering his tablet above one of our new picture books so that you could see the book on the screen of the tablet. Then an extraordinary thing happened—the frog on the page jumped right up from the screen! “I just had to try and see if this would work,” Mal said with his usual modesty.
Did we get on board? You bet. We just released one of our new books, The Mouse and the Meadow, with a free pop-up app. The result is that characters in The Mouse and the Meadow dramatically spring to life—the owl swoops, the mouse runs, and the snake lunges as the story is being read aloud.
We took a demo to a local school and were not surprised—the kids exclaimed “awesome!
Here’s how it works. From our website (click on New Pop-up App on the left sidebar), or from a QR code on the back of the new book, you go to our webpage where there are links to the free app. Download the app onto your smartphone or tablet (both Apple or Android versions are available). Activate the app and tell it to “go,” then hold your phone or tablet about two feet away from the book (it’s best to avoid glare from lights) and in a few seconds your device recognizes the page and the characters on that page “pop up” on the screen and the narration begins. The touch of a finger animates the characters.
This remarkable technology is called Augmented Reality, and this is the first time that we know of in which it has been applied to creative non-fiction—stories with real characters from nature. The Mouse and the Meadow is a dynamic, true-to-life story written and illustrated by Chad Wallace in which a curious young mouse ventures forth into the meadow for the first time, and gets a crash course on life from creatures both friendly and not so friendly. He witnesses a caterpillar becoming a chrysalis. He marvels that fireflies can glow. He has a thoughtful encounter with a turtle. A garter snake would have him for lunch. A great horned owl nearly does. The Mouse and the Meadow builds vocabulary and presents important concepts, such as pollination, animal survival, and food chains. Science and story blend seamlessly.
Dawn’s interest is not to distract attention from the content but to enhance children’s involvement both with nature and with the reading experience. On an educational level, Augmented Reality can make reading come alive in a completely immersive and interactive way. Plus the rhyme of the story makes it fun to listen to the words as you watch the action of the pop-up.
Please take a look at this exciting new feature and tell us what you think.
– by Sue A. Miles
The following is reprinted, with thanks, from the Buckingham (Virginia) Beacon.
If you were lucky enough to be read to as a child, or if you have experienced the joy of reading to your own children or grandchildren, then you know the importance of the illustrations in children’s books. The soft drawings of Garth Williams’ work in Little House in the Big Woods, Eloise Wilkin’s cherub children in the classical We Help Mommy, or Maurice Sendek’s friendly monsters in Where the Wild Things Are; such illustrations remain in your mind as visual masterpieces.
Add to that list, Buckingham’s own Cris Arbo, who just recently published, along with Florida author Marianne Berkes, What’s in the Garden?—a sweet and informative book about gardens, food, and the natural world, with Arbo’s glorious illustrations bringing alive the sounds, smells, and life of the text. What’s so special about the illustrations is that many of the children in the book are from the local area, all making the book even more unique.
Arbo, who moved to Buckingham County in the 1990’s, has been an illustrator for over 40 years. Living in New Jersey, London, New York, and now Buckingham, Arbo has worked on projects for PBS, illustrated book covers, on magazine and animination projects, and on classic works such as The Hobbit and Beatrice Potter. “A company had me take Potter’s book illustrations, which were very small, and reproduce them in a larger format, so they could sell them on posters and calendars,” she said. “During that time, we didn’t have the technology to blow up a drawing, as it would become distorted.”
Her most recent work, What’s in the Garden?, is a classic example of not only her incredible talent, but also for her love and respect for nature. “I’ve been illustrating for Dawn Publications for several years,” said Arbo. “What attracted me to that company is their commitment to nature awareness books for children. I’m a nature freak.” What’s in the Garden? offers a simple, rhyming format for children about what comes out of a garden. The text provides hints about a possible fruit or vegetable, while Arbo’s illustration shows the plant. The next page pictures a child eating a garden salad or holding a blueberry pie, along with a simple, adult guided, recipe designed to stimulate the child’s appetite for food, as well as for nature. The back of the book has informational sections on the featured fruits and vegetables, how they grow, and a list of other garden books, songs, and websites. All surrounded by Arbo’s vibrant and detailed illustrations.
The process that produces such a visual masterpiece is not a simple one. “The publisher sends you a manuscript with a deadline,” said Arbo. “I then turn in sketches to show them what I plan to do. I do them fast as they are just ideas in my head.” Once given the OK, Arbo then begins the task of collecting photos and material of what she plans to draw; then the drawing board process begins. “This particular book took 15 months to produce,” said Arbo. “There’s no normal when it comes to illustrating. I use an illustration board which has a special surface for water color or acrylic. I make a pencil drawing on the board, fill in colors with transparent water colors, and then work in the details, using acrylic paint, colored pencils for texture, fine point pens and ink for the tiny details.”
Arbo notes that some illustrations take longer than others, because of the fine details. “Because it’s realistic and it’s a teaching tool for children, I have to make sure it’s correct.” Thus, if you see a flower or a bug in a picture, that flower would be blooming during the time that the tomato plant had tomatoes or the blueberries were ripe. “The tomato plant in the book has ladybugs and aphids on it,” said Arbo, “because that’s what a child would likely see if they were looking at the plant in a garden.” If you look at all the drawings, such fine details make the illustrations not only real but also come alive with color and action.
Even more special is that most of the featured children are from the area and the background scenes are local. “I asked one of our area schools to suggest children to use,” said Arbo. “I wanted to make sure I had a variety of children in the book to reflect our society.” That means that salad-eating Ethan Williams is from Buckingham; Mini Wallace, the little girl harvesting carrots, is the daughter of Buckingham’s extension agent; and Albert Yeung, who is eating broccoli, is the son of the China Restaurant owners in Dillwyn. Arbo also incorporated the publisher’s children into the illustration as well as her own youngest daughter and, just for fun, her husband from his elementary school picture.
The background scenes are also local. “The pumpkin plant is from my neighbor’s garden,” she said. “The blackboard in the broccoli picture came from Buckingham Primary and the apple blossoms are from a tree down the street. I had to go to a farm in Appomattox to take a picture of celery growing.” Arbo also has a huge morgue of photos for references, including nature magazines and books.
Mornings are Arbo’s most productive time of the day. “Because of the detail of the work, I can’t draw more than five hours a day. I have to hold very still and get right up on the board. I take a break and do some yoga and then continue in the afternoon. I never draw at night.” Arbo is currently working with Dawn Publications, located in Nevada City, California, on the book’s promotion. “We make contact with every library and school in Virginia, as well as newspapers, magazines, and television stations,” she said. She also does book talks and signings and will be part of the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville. She hopes to begin a project with her husband, Joseph Anthony, which will sequel A Dandelion Seed, a children’s book written by Joseph and published several years ago.
Because Arbo has a great respect for the Buckingham County school division, she dedicated the book: “To all the teachers, staff, and students in Buckingham County. You all are great!”
– by Mary Quattlebaum
Go take a hike! And autumn, with its changing leaves, is the perfect time to do just that. Parents and educators can hit the trail with kids or just stroll with them to visit a nearby tree.
No matter the length or level of vigor, such walks help kids both “connect with nature and establish and maintain a lifetime of fitness,” says Dr. Gregory Miller, President of the American Hiking Society. The organization encourages active, safe outdoor fun, and its website www.americanhiking.org is a wealth of information, including a tipsheet on the 10 Essentials of Hiking.
Miller loved hiking and exploring as a child in California. His dad, an avid outdoorsman, shared his passion and skills with Miller, who in turn, has shared them with his children, Devin, 22, Jason, 20, and Priya, almost 16. The family has hiked in Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands, but Miller especially treasures the places they’re able to visit more frequently, including the Scotts Run Preserve in their town of McLean, Va. To be memorable, he says, a hike doesn’t have to be in an exotic locale. Giving kids the chance to play in the woods and regularly explore their “nearby nature” can be just as—if not more—engaging and pleasurable.
Like Miller’s dad, mine has long reveled in the natural world. And being able to thank him for sharing his knowledge of and appreciation for nature with his children and grandchildren has been my greatest joy in writing the three books in the Jo MacDonald series. The pond, garden, and now forest in Jo MacDonald Hiked in the Woods were all part of my childhood home—places my six siblings and I could play in and care for throughout the seasons and years.
As a parent and environmentalist, Todd Christopher speaks to the impact of such experiences: “For children, it’s [often] not about the scale or grandeur of the setting—it’s more about the intimacy of the experience. Something as simple as discovering animal tracks in the mud, or spotting an owl flashing through the trees, or finding a caterpillar feeding on milkweed leaves can qualify as a big adventure for a little person.”
As a child, Christopher’s favorite outdoor spot was the woods at the end of his street. This seemingly “small and rather ordinary” place was a “wonderland of trees to climb, birds to watch, and forts to build,” he recalls. Christopher encourages such regular connection with “nearby nature” in his book The Green Hour: A Daily Dose of Nature for Happier, Healthier, Smarter Kids. He’s taken his own children on amazing bird-watching trips to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Kempton, Pa., but he feels that Leila, 9, and Elijah, 12, will just as happily remember the familiar wooded parks of their childhood, places where they have often picked wild black raspberries or hiked beside a stream.
Giving kids the opportunity for playful “green time” can be a challenge in our increasingly hectic, scheduled world. But as Miller and Christopher point out, the best kind of woodland experiences need not involve faraway trips or expensive equipment or even much time. Such experiences may be as close as the nearest park or clump of trees.
For additional information on kid-friendly walks on the wild side:
– by John Himmelman
I became acquainted with frogs well after my obsession with insects, and only a short time after my obsession with birds. It was my wife Betsy who put them under my radar. She went through a period where she was feverishly producing watercolor paintings—frogs being her subject. I loved how they looked and wanted her to keep painting them, so I set out to hunt down new “models” for her. In doing so, I got to know more about these amphibians and soon added them to my list of obsessions. My interest in frogs sprang from an aesthetic appreciation, but the more I got to know them, the more I got drawn into their dewy world.
Yes, there is still that aesthetic appreciation. I mean, frogs just look. . . cool, and by cool, I mean unflappable. Imperturbable. Non-chalant. This must have something to do with those relaxed, slanted pupils, giving them the look that everything’s just fine with them. That half-grin doesn’t hurt the image. Nor does the fact they spend most of the time sitting back, or floating, while life goes on around them.
Now add in their proclivity for song. Those big, bubbly throat sacs fill with air and let loose, bringing to mind the billowy cheeks of Louie Armstrong blowing his horn. One does not need to see the vocalist to tell who he is. Each species has its own song to sing. Those songs, like most animal songs, are declarations of territories and amorous invitations to females.
A few years back I set out to find and photograph every species of frog and salamander in New England. This endeavor brought me chest deep in secluded pools in northern Vermont in search of mink frogs; flipping rocks in a drained Massachusetts canal seeking mudpuppies; and venturing out on cold, rainy March nights in Connecticut to join the spring peepers, spotted salamanders, and woodfrogs as they emerged from their winter slumber. Quests are fun. We can give them to ourselves, or they can be given to us. Finding that which you seek is also fun. With the frogs, there is an added bonus. They call out to you. They are the sirens of the ponds, puddles, lakes, and streams, inviting you to get your feet wet. Sometimes, they are in the last place you expect to find them. Last spring, Betsy and I were walking to our hotel in Mariposa, California (not really a haven for wildlife), when I heard “ribbit… ribbit… ribbit…” It came from a little creek beside the hotel. I took out my cell phone and recorded my very first introduction to Pacific tree frogs. It’s the recording you hear at the Activities page on the Dawn Publications website. (Scroll down to the Noisy Frog Sing-Along book cover.)
Learn to listen for the frogs. When you hear them, seek out who is calling. Watch them sing. This melds within your brain the image of the singer with the song he sings. Once you have done this, you will only have to hear to song to conjure up that image. For me, who started on this amphibious journey as someone who simply liked to look at frogs, it is a trip come full circle. I hear. I close my eyes. I see. I smile.
– by Glenn Hovemann
The Wilderness Society recently noted that the “thoughtful use of technology . . . may actually encourage spending time outdoors.” What a delightful observation! As every teacher knows, kids need a variety of learning tools—and lots of kids are attracted by technology. So why not use it to their benefit?
Apps—closely related to “enhanced e-books”—can be very effective learning tools because they can so smoothly combine the best features of a book and a game. Dawn’s newest app, Noisy Bug Sing-Along, is a perfect example of how the learning experience of a book can be expanded and enhanced.
In the book Noisy Bug Sing-Along by John Himmelman, children see wonderful, accurate close-ups of insects, and begin to learn where all those sounds on a summer evening are coming from. Crickets! Cicadas! Beetles! Katydids! Grasshoppers! Each makes a unique sound, and quite often it is LOUD. The book uses onomatopoeia and explains that bugs are not using their “voices” to make these sounds, but rather they move various body parts to make the sounds.
As an app, Noisy Bug Sing-Along offers all of the above. In addition, children hear the author’s narration—including his wonderfully creative onomatopoeia—as well as the real recorded sounds of the bugs. And when little fingers touch the on-screen bug, the child not only hears its sound but also sees how the insect moves its wings, or abdomen, or other body part to create the sound.
And that’s not all. Whereas the book introduces kids to concept of sound waves as vibrations going through the air which can be converted into the form of a graph, the app goes further. When kids touch a short sound wave for an insect on screen, the full sound wave recording for that insect opens up, and the child can follow along the ups and downs of the wave as it plays. What a delightful way to learn!
As is customary with Dawn products, both the book and the app offer additional information about each featured insect.
Dawn’s apps focus on both fun and learning—and avoid the unnecessary distractions, the bells and whistles that seemingly are for their own sake. In a thoughtful article in Washington Parent, Mary Quattlebaum addresses the concern of educators who ask “whether such ‘screen time’ cultivates a child’s deep pleasure in words or reading, or is merely a distraction?”
Quattlebaum quotes Mary Ann Scheuer, the librarian at Emerson School in Berkeley, Calif., who reviews books online (greatkidbooks.blogspot.com) and serves on a task force on book apps for the American Association of School Librarians. Scheuer believes that “the crux is how to balance interactivity that draws readers into the story with the many bells and whistles that distract them from understanding the story.”
Be guided by your child’s interests and learning style, advises Scheuer, whose oldest daughter prefers print as opposed to the youngest’s embrace of apps. “Understanding how stories unfold, and that stories are related to printed words are essential early literacy skills,” she says. When chosen and used judiciously, book apps and enhanced e-books can be “wonderful elements that contribute to the early literacy experience.”
Of course there is no substitute for quality reading time together with a child, whether the book is digital or print. Quattlebaum suggests attending to the child’s “developing interest in words and story rather than the medium.” (Disclosure: Quattlebaum is also the author of three books published by Dawn Publications.)
In the case of Noisy Bug Sing-Along, kids are fascinated by bugs, so why not take advantage of this teachable moment? In fact, the whole family can get in on listening to bugs, imitating them, and identifying them. Field crickets go chirp-chirp-chirp; kids will sing like bugs with glee-glee-glee!
Apps are complex creations combining the art and the text of the author, John Himmelman, with the animation and audio skills of Malachi Bazan of Simply Nature Media and Dawn Publications. Himmelman illustrated the book digitally, including secondary “layers” of art in addition to what is seen in the book, so that additional parts of the insects can be shown as they move, as well as additional background art. Himmelman also provided recordings of the insects, which Bazan formatted to reveal the sound waves.
Bazan, coming from the world of digital products is accustomed to such collaboration. He formerly participated in producing Hollywood animated movies as well as video games for a major game producer. Himmelman immediately adapted to the situation and quickly became a facile collaborator.
– by Sally Hodson, Ed.D.
Part 4: Explore & Experience
Planet Earth is home whether you’re a plant, an animal or a human. Our Earth is the only place in the universe we know for sure that can support life. So how do we prepare young people for the 21st century challenge of caring for our planet so that it can sustain future generations of plants, animals and humans? In short, how do we educate our kids to be eco-literate?
Think of this as learning the language of our planet. To be literate in Earth–speak, we need to understand how life on Earth functions and how we interact with it. And we need tools to help our heads to think, our hearts to feel, and our hands to act.
This month, we’ll add Explore and Experience to our Eco-Literacy Toolkit
Explore & Experience
I’m sitting on a whale-watching boat surrounded by a group of kids. We’re observing a family of killer whales swim past us. Our boat is stopped, with engines off to give the orcas space and quiet. We all hear the WHOOSH! of each orca breath. These orcas are familiar to us – they are part of Granny’s clan. One young orca leaps out of the water. Another slaps his tail against the surface with a loud crack. Without taking their eyes off the orcas, kids ask rapid-fire questions or sit enthralled by the magic of being so close to these majestic animals. On the return trip, we talk about how orcas live in the sea. Many of the kids draw pictures about their experience meeting this wild orca family. Most have decided to become marine biologists.
“In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand and we will understand only what we are taught.”
Baba Dioum, Senegal environmentalist (1968 speech to the International Union for Conservation of Nature)
Kids learn to love and care for the earth by spending time getting to know the natural world. Most kids know more about a Smart phone, iPad or video game than how a tree breathes or a water drop finds its way to the sea. The lives and habitats of plants and animals are far removed from the everyday experiences of most young people.
How do we change this? Open the classroom door. Take your class outside to experience the natural world in your own neighborhood. No matter where you live, there’s an adventure waiting for you to explore with kids. A local field, pond, woodland, park or seashore can provide a wonderful place to try out lots of great nature activities. Watch a spider spin its web or a follow a bird’s search for seeds and insects. Try different activities that encourage kids to explore the natural world with their minds, senses, imaginations and emotions. As kids observe nature, they begin to ask questions and want to investigate further. The following is one of my favorite activities, adapted from Joseph Cornell’s classic Sharing Nature with Children.
Meet a Tree
A tree is a living being that eats, rests, circulates and breathes.
1. Choose a large deciduous tree. Spend some time getting to “know “your” tree.
2. Use all your senses. Look at your tree carefully. Use a hand lens. Describe how it looks. Smell your tree. Touch and feel your tree’s bark.
3. Close your eyes and hug your tree. Sit quietly with your tree. Imagine how old your tree might be. Talk to your tree. Give your tree a name.
4. Listen to your tree’s “heartbeat.” Place a stethoscope against tree to listen to sounds of sap flowing up the tree to its branches.
5. Breathe with your tree. Air that you breathe comes from your tree. People breathe oxygen that trees breathe out. Trees use carbon dioxide that people breathe out. We need each other to live.
6. Who are your tree’s neighbors? What animals and insects live in your tree? Who visits your tree?
7. What questions do you have about your tree? (e.g. what species is your tree? how does it make food? survive storms, cold and drought?) How can you find the answers?
8. Write story about a day in the life of your tree. Draw a picture of your tree.
Use technology to connect kids to places and animals that you can’t visit.
1. Remote wildlife cameras allow us to watch the lives of animals such as eagles, owls, seals, bats, salmon or whales without disturbing them. Examples:
2. You-tube videos provide great field observations of many species of wildlife taken by scientists and amateur naturalists. Example:
3. Documentaries provide close-up encounters with wild places and animals throughout the world. Example: Call of the Killer Whale: http://video.pbs.org/video/1095936179
4. Role-play lets kids use their imaginations to understand and experience the lives of other animals. What’s it like to be an orca who “sees with sounds?” or salmon that smell their way home?
Many free downloadable activities are available at this website relating to Dawn books. (Go to the Teacher’s/Librarians tab on the website and select Downloadable Activities from the drop-down menu). Here are a few activities related to Granny’s Clan: A Tale of Wild Orcas that encourage kids to Explore and Experience:
– Salmon Journey (see Smelly Fishy)
– Seeing With Sounds (see Echoes Show the Way and Who’s Out There?)
Next month we’ll look at the last installment, Act as a Steward, to involve students in action learning projects in your own community.
Here’s the thing about bugs: once you start noticing them, you cannot stop. Once you become aware of the colorful array of moths bonking their heads on your porchlight, you’ll check for them every time you’re at the door. Once your ears hone in on the katydids scratching out a dry rhythm in the treetops, you’ll smile when they return the following summer.
Insects can be found 24 hours a day and 365 days a year. They’re in cities, parks, and yards. They are under water and on dry land. They are high in the trees. They are in the soil beneath our feet. They’re in your basement and on your windowsills. To find them, it’s just a matter of adjusting your awareness to include them in your radar.
It is the happy “lament” of the naturalist that the most casual observance of some little creature is enough to spur an hours-long, or even a lifetime, adventure. For those of us with curious minds, it is not enough to simply observe and forget. We enjoy learning things we did not know. Learning is not a chore. It is the reward of the experience.
Insects are great ambassadors to the outdoors for several reasons. Foremost is their accessibility. Remember, they’re everywhere. Most have forms that we find beautiful, or at the very least, curious. We learn that there are reasons for those forms, and those reasons will open up volumes of new questions. Along your journey, you discover similar creatures that have found unique ways to express their forms and functions in the natural world.
You are on a treasure hunt where the prizes continue to shift and multiply, and where the hunt can be all the more sweet when shared with others.