Children and Nature Musings Uncategorized

Tracks in the Snow


A favorite children’s book in the after school program read, “Tracks in the snow, tracks in the snow.  Where did they come from, where did they go?”  Whenever I’m out on a walk in the forest and see tracks in the freshly fallen snow, these lines play cheerfully through my mind.

In this past post, I discussed how amazing tracking with children is.  Animal tracking is truly a magical tool that encourages curiosity and problem solving.

However, the benefits can extend to adults too!  Too often we forget to stop and examine the beautiful and interesting details that surround us in our everyday life.  This is especially true when trying to fit exercise and outside time into a busy day.  Mindfulness, curiosity, life-long-learning, and wonder are especially important when there is a need to counteract stressful situations in other parts of life.  Following animal tracks is a wonderfully energizing way to be present in the moment with all senses alert.

My challenge to you: Walk outside in a natural setting, deeply breathing in the fresh air, as often as you can.  If there is a dusting of snow or patches of mud, keep an eye out for animal tracks.  Take time to observe and question: What kind of animal was it?  How did it move?  Where did it come from?  Where did it go?




Children and Nature Personal Sustainability: How-To Recipes Uncategorized

Stinging Nettles! Yum?

Yes, you really should try eating nettles!  And if you’re adventurous enough to try, now is the best time of year.  Foraged wild greens are often most tender, and therefore best to cook with, early in the spring when plants are still young.  Compared to many other wild greens, nettles are quite mild, with a flavor similar to cooked spinach.  They are nutritional superstars, rich in vitamins A, C, D, K, iron, potassium, manganese, and calcium!  Nettles and nettle tea are believed to have many medicinal qualities and have been used as a traditional medicine by many cultures for centuries.  Most importantly, when cooked, nettles loose their sting.


Look for nettles by the edges of fields and yards, along river banks, and along forest edges.  They are often quick to grow where fertile land has been recently disturbed.  I use gloves when harvesting and pinch the tender tops off of young plants.  In the kitchen, I rinse the leaves in a colander, stirring with a slotted spoon to avoid being stung.  Boil in a shallow water bath for about 5 minutes to get a deep green spinach substitute.  Be sure to save your cooking water to drink as tea or for adding a nutrient boost to soup.  Leaves can also be thrown directly into soup broth without cooking ahead of time.

Stinging Nettles fresh (don’t touch!) and cooked

Make sure to sample some nettles plain, so you can get to know their mild flavor.  Then try using them as an early spring spinach substitute.  Here are some recipe ideas I’m planning on trying out this season:

Cream of Ramp and Nettle Soup: This recipe is THE annual favorite in our household!

Nettle Quiche: Use your favorite spinach quiche recipe, but trade spinach for nettles.

Nettle Yogurt Soup: The original recipe is one of our favorite ways to cook with spinach. The surprising combination of nutmeg and cayenne give it a wonderfully unique flavor. This year I’m going to try it with nettles instead.

Nettle Pesto: A delicious garlicky spread!  Use your favorite recipe for kale pesto, but use nettles instead of kale.  This paste would also made a great layer in home made lasagna or pizza.

Saag paneer: This delicious Indian dish traditionally features spinach, fresh Indian cheese (that’s easy to make at home!), and curry spices.  These flavors would also go well with nettles.

Spanakopita: This savory Greek spinach and feta pie would be great with nettles instead of spinach!

Nettle dip: Google “spinach dip” and you’ll get all kinds of mouth-watering options.  I bet they’d be great with nettles too.




Children and Nature Personal Sustainability: How-To Uncategorized

Early Season Greens

If you don’t count grass and thistles, our garden isn’t growing any greens yet.  But there are plenty of fresh greens to be harvested outside the garden!  And roots!  We’ve enjoyed meals of foraged leeks, dandelions, and parsnips this week.


Wild Leeks: Also known as Ramps, are our favorite wild spring edible.  They are delicious and if you know the right places, can be quite abundant.  They often grow by river banks and are some of the first green leaves to emerge in the spring.  Bring a trowel with you to harvest the nice white bulbs along with the green leaves and purple stems.  When foraging, remember to only harvest a small percentage of what is growing in the wild.  We fry them in butter to bring out the sweet mild oniony flavor.  I also love making cream of nettle and ramp soup each spring.


Dandelion Greens: Everyone knows a place where dandelions grow!  Young leaves are tender and less bitter than older ones.  I fried ours in bacon fat with caramelized onions, garlic, smoked paprika, and salt.  They were delicious, slightly bitter, and tender.  Yum!  My next kitchen experiment will be to try roasting the roots for a coffee substitute.


Parsnips:  Wild parsnip leaves produce a sap, or plant juice, that can cause burns to the skin in the presence of sunlight.  Therefore, it’s good to make sure they’re not growing in your yard.  Our field is full of them, and they have begun to send up a new crop of leaves for the season.  Wild parsnips are actually the same thing as edible parsnips, they’re just not bred for big straight sweet roots.  They are, however, delicious wild edibles!  You’ll want to harvest them now, before they send any more energy out of their tap roots and into their growing stalk and leaves.  As an added bonus, when you make sure to pull up the entire plant, you’ve removed possibility of future irritation from brushing up against the leaves later in the year.

Use gloves and a big shovel to harvest, making sure to get as much of the taproot as you can.  Chop off the leaves and discard them when you’re still outside (I throw mine into the field beyond our lawn).  Scrub the dirt off the roots and chop against the grain. Cleaning and preparing can take some time, as wild parsnips tend to be smaller and more branched than garden-grown varieties. Cutting across the grain eliminates possible stringiness.  Sauté in butter and sprinkle with salt and maple syrup.





Happy Foraging!

Children and Nature Home Gardens Personal Sustainability: How-To Uncategorized



In past years, I start posting about signs of spring and springtime activities in April.  After having just enjoyed two muddy days with temperatures rising to sixty degrees and with new birdsongs in the air, it appears as though spring is springing early his year.  And if I jinx it, and we receive the snowy cold weather we’ve been waited for all winter long, great!

Here are some of my favorite spring time traditions:

signs-of-springLook and listen for signs of spring: Jot down notes on a calendar or a piece of paper that you can save.  Keeping a “Signs of Spring” list heightens my sense of awareness when spending time outdoors.  I pay more attention to the little things that are happening around me as the world wakes up from hibernation.  Sounds, smells, sights, tastes, and feelings can all point to signs of spring.  Saved lists from past years allow you to notice changes from year to year.

Learn new birdsongs: Every spring I am reinspired to learn more birdsongs.  First, I review birdsongs of species are common around the house.  There’s a list of mnemonics here and a huge directory of songs to listen to at “All About Birds.”  Then, when I go for walks down our back dirt roads or hikes in the forest, I listen carefully.  As I walk I try to translate what I hear: “Cherrio, cheery me, cheery me,” for example. When I arrive home, I try to identify one or two of the songs I remember (that was an American Robin).  Slowly but surely I identify more and more songs in the outdoor chorus on my own.

starting-seedsStart Seeds: Even if you don’t have a garden, starting seeds can be a fun spring activity.  All you need is a container with a hole poked in the bottom, potting soil, seeds of your choice, and some sort of dish for your container to sit in.  Grow lights or windows with strong southern sun will make for stronger seedlings that will do better if transplanted into your garden.  Plants like peas, lettuce, spinach, and herbs can be eaten as sprouts or “micro greens,” making this project rewarding in as little as 30 days!


Taste the first wild greens of the season: As spring progresses, keep an eye out for wild ramps, fiddleheads, young nettles, or other edible wild plants.  Foraging is most rewarding and delicious in the spring when plants are young, tender, and mild.  They also tend to grow before anything is ready from gardens, satiating our cravings for fresh green treats after a winter of soups, stews, and casseroles.  Read more about the plants I look for here.



Force spring branches: All you need to do is clip branches and put them in a vase filled with fresh water.  Change water regularly, as you would for cut flowers.  Blooming branches, like forsythia, are great for forcing.  At indoor temperatures, your branches’ buds will open into new leaves and flowers.  We clip the bright red branches of dogwood now for a beautiful table arrangement at Easter.

Children and Nature Uncategorized

Tapping Time

It has been a strange winter indeed.  If you can even call it a winter.  Certainly the extended periods of cold and accumulation of fluffy white snow that all Vermonters take for granted have been missed this year.  I’m moving on.  It’s Maple Syrup Season!


The forecast calls temperatures that dip below freezing at night and rise above freezing during the day.  That means it’s time to tap!  We are lucky to be surrounded by folks well-equipped to make delicious syrup from their sugar maple trees.  I don’t feel the need to invest time and money into making my own.  For the past few years, however, I’ve chosen to tap one tree at our house and use the sap for fun and delicious kitchen experiments.  It’s exciting to have a fresh ingredient to use after winter months of soups, stews, and frozen and canned veggies.  I encourage anyone who has a sugar maple in their yard to give it a try!

Learn more by reading some of the posts I wrote during past sugaring seasons:

–> For more detailed instructions for how to tap a tree at home or school and boil sap down in a kitchen, check out this blog post.

–> Want to cook with sap, rather than taking hours to boil it down into syrup?  Check out this post.

–> Want to make your own tap, or spile, from a sumac branch?  It’s free and quite easy!  This post will teach you how.

–> Are you a teacher?  Here are several fun games and activities that can help students understand the science, history, and math behind maple syrup production.

Children and Nature Musings Uncategorized

Time to Play in the Snow!

Wonderful winter hiking: the trail up Camel's Hump
Wonderful winter hiking: the trail up Camel’s Hump

Happy Snow!  Finally, we got something to cover up our icy playground.  (Although, admittedly, we wouldn’t mind a bit more).  Yes, the ice was fun to slide around on, but we were all craving the multitude of opportunities snow offers:  forts, snow people, snow angels (or butterflies), sledding, and yes, probably some refreshing snow eating.   It’s a joy to see what a group of children come up with when presented with a yard full of fresh snow!  For more snowy play inspiration and instructions to cut a six-sided snowflake, check out this past blog post.

Adults should remember to take time to play outside in the winter too!  Winter hiking is a great (free) way to enjoy snow-covered forest beauty, wonderful views, and stay warm outside.   Just don’t forget your microspikes.  I still remember the feeling of skating across Lake Champlain last winter.  It was very magical to glide for miles over one of my favorite lakes – one that is over 400 feet deep in the middle!  Though it doesn’t seem likely that the lake will freeze this winter, there are always rivers, ponds, and ditches to provide skating opportunities.  We love visiting the Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area in Addison, VT.

Skating on Dead Creek
Skating on Dead Creek

Snow also offers the opportunity to investigate the creatures that live near our schools and homes.  Tracking is a great winter activity for children and adults.  Check out some of the animal signs we found on this walk up the Lewis Creek and through the woods.  The thrill of this outdoor detective work is infectious – who doesn’t love finding clues along a trail and solving mysteries?  To read more, check out my post about Encouraging Curiosity and Problem Solving with Animal Tracking.

And if the cold temperatures and dry winter air chap or crack your skin, try making your own salve.  It’s quite simple, is a good indoor project for sub-zero days, is a great thing to have around the house, and makes the perfect homemade winter present!

Children and Nature

Felting Acorns in November

Sometimes, it truly makes sense to re-post a blog entry from the same time last year.  There is beauty to seasonal rhythms, and activities that were perfect in November a year ago are likely just right this November too.  Felting in warm soapy water is a wonderful soothing activity for afternoons that are growing colder and darker.  November is the perfect time to search for acorn caps on the forest floor, before the snow covers them up.   Learn about our first acorn felting adventure below, and try it out!

felted-acorns-2The branches of the mighty oak still held onto their golden leaves – some of the only color left in the forest on the cold grey November afternoon.  Our mittened hands brushed away leaves coating the forest floor.  And then there were squeals.  There’s nothing quite as satisfying as a successful treasure hunt.  We filled our pockets with our favorite acorn caps.  Mission accomplished. Back inside, the water had come to a boil.  We picked out pieces of wool roving, sat down, and started felting.  The warm soapy water warmed our hands.  Conversation meandered as our balls of wool felted more and more tightly into little balls. After a night of drying, felted balls were glued into acorn caps, and our special treasures were ready to go home.  What a great fall project for our group – boys and girls from 4 to 10 years old (and the adults) all enjoyed this activity.  And the acorns turned out great!

Childrens-acorns What you need: – Wool (you can buy wool roving at a craft store, or you can ask anyone with a sheep for some raw to wash, card, and use)
– Boiling water
– Bowl
– Dish Soap
– Fork
– Acorn Caps
– Glue

1) Roll a small fluff of wool roving into a ball.  It should be about three times larger than the acorn you’d like to make.

2) Pour boiling water into a bowl.  Drop your ball into the hot water.  Use your fork to push it under, and then lift it up, draining away the hot water (this first step is best done by adult when working with young children).

Felting-balls3) Drip a drop of soap onto your wool, and roll it gently between your palms.  It won’t seem like a ball right away – keep on gently rolling.  Roll it until it cools down, and then drop back into your hot water.

4) Repeat the process, using the fork to take the hot ball out of the water, rolling between your palms and rubbing with fingers, and adding more soap if the suds go away.  The hot and cold temperatures and the friction of your hands will tighten the wool into a felted ball.

5) If your ball has unwanted cracks, add a thin layer of roving around the ball and repeat the felting process.

6) Wash in cold water, squeeze in a towel, and let dry.

7) Drip glue into the inside of your acorn cap and insert your felted ball.  Voila – your acorn is complete!

If you're felting with a group of children, I'd highly recommend our egg-carton organizer idea!
If you’re felting with a group of children, I’d highly recommend our egg-carton organizer idea!


Children and Nature Home Gardens School Gardens


Seeds surround us as we transition from summer to winter.  For gardeners, this means that it’s the perfect time to save seeds to plant next year.   Try letting some of your leafy vegetables, like lettuce and cilantro, flower and make seeds for you to harvest and save.  For young nature explorers, this means it’s the perfect time to build burdock structures, make wishes on milkweed seeds, find out how far a thrown “helicopter seed” can travel, and create acorn cracking factories by the forest edge.  Children can also participate in seed saving for the next spring – equipped with an envelope, you’d be amazed by how many seeds can be found in a fall garden or meadow.  For teachers, there are opportunities to investigate life cycles, parts of a seed, and ways that seeds travel through hands-on outdoor exploration and discovery.

Seeds in the garden: sunflower and cilantro/corriander
Seeds in the garden: sunflower and cilantro/coriander
Hitchhiking and velcro seeds: burdock
Hitchhiking and velcro seeds: burdock
Flower seeds: bachelor button and calendula
Flower seeds: bachelor button and calendula
Helicopter seeds: Box Elder Tree
Helicopter seeds: box elder tree
Parachute and wishing seeds: Dandelion and milkweed
Parachute and wishing seeds: dandelion and milkweed
Children and Nature

In Appreciation of Forests

This past weekend I took some time to browse through past blog entries.  I noticed certain seasonal rituals and appreciations repeat themselves year after year.  Every fall, right about now, I renew my love of the forest and trees.


As an adult on an elementary school calendar, September is always a month full of new beginnings, logistics to sort out, and rhythms to establish.  This is often hard work!  By October, my students have settled in and are ready for exploration further from home base, bigger projects, and the chance to enjoy the last sunny warm afternoons before winter sets in.  The forest is a perfect place for all of this.  For me, spending time in the forest is calming and rejuvenating – it reminds me of things to be grateful for, puts recent stressors in context, and stimulates my senses.

Here are some past forest-themed blog posts for you to browse.  Enjoy!

Making a discoveryChildren and Nature: The Forest ~ Why spending time outside, especially in forests, is crucial for children… “Upon entering the woods, the temperature drops noticeably.  The sounds change – whispering leaves and the occasional bird chirp blocks any outside noises from coming in.  Our foot steps are quiet on the soft needle-carpeted forest floor.  The smell of moist leaves, moss, and bark filters into our noses…”  (read more)

Mossy RoofForts and Fairy Houses ~ Discoveries and lessons learned from forest play… “We’ve discovered things that would never be possible (or allowed) in a classroom.  Different thicknesses of sticks make different sounds when banged against the trunk of a mature tree.  Pine needles make for a soft landing after tripping over a raised root.  TONS of different mushrooms and fungi grow on the forest floor after a few days of rain, and most of them are really slimy.  Pine sap is the perfect glue, but it’s better to keep it off our clothes…” (read more)

Foliage Games and Activities ~ Fun ideas for educators looking for active hands-on ways to teach students about leaves, trees, foliage, and the changing of seasons.  (read more)

Fairy-House6Zooming In: Fairy and Snail Houses ~ Fun photos and observations after several fairy and snail house building sessions with children… “Outdoor educators take note!  Fairy, gnome, and snail house building ties right into lessons on observation, habitat, ecosystems,  community, and respect for nature.  Building miniature things will lead students to observe the intricate details of pinecones, the barbs of burdocks, the veining of leaves, and much much more…” (read more) 

Welcome to the Woodlands Clubhouse ~ How the creation of a fort in the woods engaged a challenging mixed-age group of students for months after school.  (read more)

Stumps make steps and chairs for our fort

A Woodlands Playground ~ Great photos and ideas for adding natural forest elements to play spaces for children of all ages. (read more)

Ticks and Poison Ivy Season ~ Adults are increasingly fearful of the dangers of being in nature… “There are many possible dangers associated with all the activities we do every day, including playing and working outside.  I strongly believe, however, that the benefits of time spent outside far outweigh the risks…” (read more)

(reposted from October 2014)
Children and Nature School Gardens

Green Thumbs Camp: August 2015

When it comes to summer camp, pictures speak better than words.  The photos below illustrate our wonderful week in the Charlotte Central School gardens and an amazing field trip to Philo Ridge Farm right across the street from the school.  Thank you to my teaching partner Stacy Carter and our assistant Carter, Deirdre Holmes and Abby Foulk for their work in the CCS gardens and compost shed, Charlotte Recreation for administering the camp, Vera Simon-Nobes for welcoming us to Philo Ridge Farm, and all our awesome campers!

Making quick work of a big weeding chore (it helped that we had a "longest root" contest)
Making quick work of a big weeding chore (it helped that we had a “longest root” contest)
Collecting seeds for our Seed Savers envelopes
Collecting seeds for our Seed Savers envelopes
Garden journaling and herb pot painting
Garden journaling and herb pot painting
Our Rainbow Salad Bar - all grown in the school garden!!
Our Rainbow Salad Bar – all grown in the school garden!!
Digging for potatoes - our garden's buried treasure
Digging for potatoes – our garden’s buried treasure
Garden-grown, camper-harvested roasted root veggies: striped beets, rainbow carrots, and purple & white potatoes!
Garden-grown, camper-harvested roasted root veggies: striped beets, rainbow carrots, and purple & white potatoes!
A walking field trip.  Look: our school is right across the road from Philo Ridge Farm!
A walking field trip. Look: our school is right across the road from Philo Ridge Farm!
Observing Philo Ridge Farm Sheep
Observing Philo Ridge Farm Sheep
Meeting Stewart Little (the sheep)
Meeting Stewart Little (the sheep)
Collecting Philo Ridge Farm duck eggs
Collecting Philo Ridge Farm duck eggs
When at garden camp, never forget to water the campers
When at garden camp, never forget to keep the campers well watered
Journaling in the garden
Journaling in the garden