Children and Nature

Foliage Games and Activities

Why do leaves change color?  Why do leaves fall from the trees in the fall?

These questions are common for those working or playing outside with inquisitive young people.  Every fall, I make sure to address these questions in a fun way.  Before jumping into games and crafts, however, remember to cover the basics.

I always introduce my students to a few basic words used to describe leaves and branching.  I make a poster with the following terms illustrated: needle/broadleaf, opposite/alternate, palmate/pinnate/parallel, toothed/lobed/smooth, simple/compound.  This is a great way to practice sorting, identify differences between two similar items, learn tree identification, and begin to start to think like an ecologist.  This website has some nice and basic information that might be helpful to read before leading leaf themed games with students.

After explaining the basics, my groups are ready to run around.  My favorite leaf running game is a Leaf Relay Race.  At one end of our running area, I place three paper bags labeled with large bold text: Maple, Birch, Oak.  I picked these species because they are common trees in our community. At the other end of the running area, I bring a bag filled with previously collected birch, maple, and oak leaves.  After making two lines, each student gets to “draw” a leaf from the bag.  Teammates can help each other identify their leaves.

I explain: “When I say go, the first person in each line will run across the field, put their leaf in the correct bag, and then run back and tag the next person in their team’s line.  That person will then run to deliver their leaf.  The first team back, sitting, and silent wins.”  With younger or urban students, I ask everyone with a toothed leaf to wave it in the air – that, I tell them, is a birch leaf.  We do the same for those with palmate leaves (maple) and lobed leaves (oak).  On your mark, get set, go!

Rather than focusing on who won, I bring the groups attention to the bags of leaves.  The group puts their thumbs up if the leaves I remove from the bag are correct.  We can try again if there are several mistakes (or if we still have a lot of energy).  Otherwise, I congratulate the whole group on their success.  One way to celebrate is to each grab a handful of leaves and throw it into the air on the count of three.  Leaf confetti!

Tree Identification:  With older groups, this is a great time to learn how to use Tree Identification Guides.  I strongly encourage adults to guide the group to a tree they know.  Use a book arranged using a dichotomous key like Tree Finder.  It will offer you choices like, “Are the branches of your tree opposite or alternate.”  Once the group decides the answer, you are directed to the next question.  It’s like Choose Your Own Adventure books!

Leaf hunting comes next.  Our mission: to find the best five leaves we can.  Maybe they’re the coolest leaves, the most colorful leaves, the smallest leaves, or the leaves from our favorite tree.  Collected leaves can be used inside to do a leaf rubbing and leaf stained glass.

Leaf Rubbing: Place one of your collected leaves under a paper taped to a table or on a clipboard, vein side up (to make more bumps).  Scribble on top of paper with a crayon to allow the bumps of the leaf come through.  Encourage students to rub multiple leaves and use many colors to fill their entire paper.

Leaf Stained Glass: “Laminate” leaves between shipping tape and trim with scissors to make art that can be hung in windows like stained glass.  Contact paper allows for bigger pieces of stained glass.  I start by placing a piece of tape sticky side up in front of the student, folding the corners down so that it is gently affixed to the table.  After the student places their leaves, I put a second piece of tape on top.

So, why do leaves change colors?  My favorite way to answer this question is verbally when all students have started their leaf rubbings.  Rubbing doesn’t take much brain power, but it keeps hands busy and allows the group to stay seated.  When I began as a teacher, I read the book: “Fall Leaves Change Color.”  There are other great books that can explain the process at the right level for your group.  Now that I’m more familiar with the facts, I prefer to tell the story without a book, which allows more questioning of students who can often help me tell the story.

Have students who are still interested?  I created a set of cards made up of six pairs of leaves.  They can be used to play Memory or Old Maid.

Children and Nature

Forts and Fairy Houses

“Can we go into the forest today?!  PLeeeaaaaassssee?”

In just one month’s time, the vast majority of our group prefers forest time to time spent on the playground, blacktop, soccer field, or gym.  When asked why, here’s what some students said:
-because we can play and live in the forest and it’s fun
-because it’s fun and there’s things to build stuff
-because once we build a fort, we can go inside and play
-because I get to go inside the cool fort
-I just like it!
-I like to build forts and there’s sticks to use

Our forest forts and fairy houses have evolved over the course of a month.  Some have been built, taken apart, and moved.  Some have grown more and more elaborate.  Some have stayed simple, but have struggled with various team dynamics as we work out a space sharing system that keeps everyone happy. An originally simple tee-pee structure now has a moss roof.  Another has dead bark walls (to keep out predators).  One student hasn’t built anything, but by walking around the same area again and again, he knows it like the back of his hand.

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.  Carrying long sticks is really hard – or on a related note – it’s worth giving people carrying long sticks plenty of room to walk.  It feels colder and darker in the forest.  Moss that is moved onto a latticework of a fort wall can establish itself and grow if kept moist.  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.  …these are just a few of our discoveries.


Most of all, we feel comfortable in a space that felt like mysterious wilderness just a month ago.  We each have developed our favorite area in the forest, and after constructing a fort there, most of us feel pride and ownership, and have become caretakers of those special spots.

So back to the question, “Can we pleeeeaaase go out into the forest?”  My answer is almost always, “Yes!”

Children and Nature

Children and Nature: The Forest

Nature Deficit Disorder.  Leave No Child Inside.  De-natured Childhood. Biophilia vs. biophobia.  What reaction do you have from these phrases and slogans?

I know that children (and adults) are spending less time outside.  Headlines regularly proclaim increasing hours screen time in all age groups.  For me, the phrases above provide a framework to justify a focus on outdoor play.  They are backed up with serious research that proves that children need to play, adventure, relax, and learn in natural spaces to develop into healthy whole adults.

Richard Louv has been a champion for the Children and Nature cause.  In a recent article in the Orion Magazine, he articulated many of his main points.   The title alone summarizes his message: Leave No Child Inside: The growing movement to reconnect children and nature, and to battle “nature deficit disorder”.    Weaving stories around research-backed facts, Louv highlights the many advantages of spending time outside.  Though physical health is one of the most obvious benefits, the more subtle ones add up into a very long list: improved cognitive functioning and development, increased self esteem, more motivation, improved problem solving, encouragement of inventiveness and creativity, cooperation, increased attention spans, and psychological well-being.

In our after school program, we’ve been going into a forest twice a week.  Located right next to the playground, the forest is an unbelievable resource for our town and school community.  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.

As we work, explore, and play in the forest as a group, we encounter a surprising number situations that translate directly to developing life skills.  The students have tweaked the guidelines that keep us safe, changed their actions and attitudes to stay at peace with neighboring forts, found fort sites near more natural resources (sticks and stones), and decided whether or not to work independently or with a group.  Though there have been plenty of conflicts to resolve, many of us have also found many moments of peace in the forest.

As an educator needing to engage a group of 20-30 students from kindergarden through sixth grade, the biggest advantage of natural space is that it meets our diverse interests and needs.  We can all learn at our own pace, make observations at our level, and pick our preferred degree of activity in the forest.  When asked what their favorite thing to do during our after school program, an overwhelming majority of students quickly said “building forts” or “going into the forest.”

Next week I’ll write more about our forest forts and fairy houses – how they’ve evolved, what we’ve discovered, and how these building sites draw us back to the forest week after week.

Home Gardens Personal Sustainability: How-To

Starting a Container Garden

Do you rent?  Do you have limited if any space to grow vegetables this summer?  Are you thinking about moving apartments in June or September?  Do you hesitate to garden because you might have to buy a lot of new supplies?

Good news: if you’re willing to be creative and resourceful, YOU can have an easy container garden this season!  There are a few key items that you will need, and a few key facts that will help your plants thrive.

Key Materials:
-SOIL: The most important and sometimes most expensive item for city gardeners.  I recommend mixing a bagged organic potting mix with compost to prevent compaction and promote more even water release.  Your mix can last up to two years, but after that should be dumped on a tarp or in a bigger container, mixed up with new additions of compost, and used to refill containers.  The best way to get compost is to have a compost bin or worm bin the year before you start to compost.  If you’re a Cambridge resident (or drag a friend who is along), you can get small amounts of FREE compost from the recycling center! I called to confirm that this program still exists – it does.  Just make sure to go during their open hours and bring your own container.  If neither of these options works for you, check out the organic bagged soil options at your local garden or hardware store – then at least your dollars support local businesses.

-CONTAINERS: We get free four and five gallon buckets from Tufts Dining Services for sap collection during the Somerville Maple Syrup Project.  Usually large food-grade containers (you wouldn’t want to garden in old chemical containers!) can be found in the recycling dumpsters by large food service operations.  Keeping an eye on the streets on trash day during the spring can be rewarding – neighbors buy large potted plants and plant them, leaving the plastic containers for the garbage truck.  Make sure to get a large enough pot for your desired plant with drainage holes (can be poked or stabbed).

-SEEDS or SEEDLINGS: Both Cambridge Whole Foods (River and Prospect St.) sell High Mowing Seeds, one of the only organic options in stores.  If you’re on top of your game, you can order from seed catalogues.  This year, we’re almost past that point.  If these options don’t work for you, get what you can find in the grocery or hardware store and plan ahead next year.  Local Farmer’s markets and seedling sales support local farms and community groups.  Locally owned garden stores are also good bets for finding vegetable seedlings.  If you get seedlings, find out what local community sales or sites are planned for the spring.  Buying from chain stores is as problematic as buying food from chain stores – seedlings come from far away and are all raised together, enabling the easy spread of disease across the nation.

Key Tips:
-Plants need sun.  Plants are extremely resourceful when living in questionable situations, but you should place containers in the sunniest place possible.  I’ve grown heat-loving plants like tomatoes under a porch roof with great success, but they are on the south-west edge of that porch and get great afternoon light.
-Keep containers evenly moist.  In the middle of the summer, on hot days, this might mean watering in the morning and at night.  It also means that you should make sure that excess water can drain out holes in the bottom of your containers, especially if containers are not under a roof.  I used an awl to poke holes in the bottom of my containers before filling them, and have them sitting in large, edged plastic plates.  This keeps water from leaking out everywhere – I water until I see it start to drip out the bottom.
-If planting seeds, make sure to follow guidelines on the back of the packet.  Depth in the soil, and planting at the right time of year is key for successful seedlings.
-Make sure your pots are big enough!  I’ve seen too many small containers on porches and front stoops holding struggling tomatoes and other veggies.  The root system of a healthy plant is as big as the above-ground growth.  Use 2-5 gallon containers for most veggies.  Some herbs can grow in smaller containers.
-Keep an eye out for diseases and pests.  Most can be treated easily if caught early.  IF you notice something unusual, google it and include “organic” in your search terms.  The internet can be a wonderful and free resource!  You’ll learn as you go, don’t feel like you need to read a lot of books and become an expert before you even start.

Check out other blogs!  There are a lot of innovative people experimenting with container gardening.  A few I’ve enjoyed recently include:

My first urban porch tomatoes, on Boston Ave. in Medford
Herbs, leafy veggies, and tomatoes in containers in back. Front: using the warm summer weather and direct sun to revive my indoor plants


Porter Square porch garden harvest

Get Involved!

Boiled Down: A Maple Recap

By the end of the Boil Down weekend, I was barely able to speak in complete sentences.  I managed to take the following notes, which still sum up our season’s success quite well:

Friday: Boiled from 7:30am-10:30pm, had 260 students, and about 60 adult visitors over the course of the day.  Cold weather!
Saturday: Boiled from 8:30am-9:30pm, had about 500 visitors despite rainy weather.  Waffles and hot drinks were a hit.  Tons of families dressed in great raincoats and boots and colorful umbrellas.  Finished off Friday’s syrup on a burner near the evaporator.
Sunday: Finished off and canned from 9am-4pm, finished off Saturday’s syrup, canned Friday’s and Saturday’s batches.  Yield: 3 gallons.

Since photos, it is said, say more than a 1000 words, here are a few from the weekend:

Third snow of the year? On the first day of the Maple Boil Down in March? The first field trip group gathers at the Growing Center.
"Does anyone know what this tool is called?" "A Therminator!" "Well, that's close..." Learning about temperature, evaporation, and fire in a city park...with MAPLE SAP!

…and then the camera went away for our rainy Saturday morning entertaining…

The sun breaks through the evaporating steam to keep the afternoon and evening enjoyable for those tending the fire
Well, maybe it was grilling food AND the sun that kept us going!
Finishing off: The final day of our marathon from the comfort of home.
Get Involved!

You’re invited: Maple Syrup Boil Down Festival

Join Groundwork Somerville on March 3rd at the Somerville Community Growing Center for the annual Somerville Maple Syrup Project Boil Down!   Community members of all ages are invited to 22 Vinal Avenue between 10am and 2pm to watch and learn as sap from local sugar maple trees is boiled down into pure maple syrup over a warm fire.  Attendees can expect to enjoy syrup-tasting, children’s music by the Animal Farm, kids’ activities, demonstrations, and much more! Waffles, syrup, hot drinks and Somerville Maple Syrup Project T-shirts will be on sale.

At 11am and 12noon, Animal Farm will be entertaining Boil Down Festival guests!   Animal Farm is a Boston-based trio of musicians and educators whose lively performances entertain and engage children ages 3 to 103! Each thirty minute show will be a colorful blend of original music, storytelling, hilarious antics and games.

Hope to see you there!



My most recent weekend visit to Vermont provided me with some time for introspective reflection.  I thought about my strengths and weaknesses, both personally as a friend and professionally as an employee.  I thought about what I value in my urban community, and what I miss about my rural roots.  I thought about my career path, and those of my parents and friends with whom I spent the weekend.

Upon returning to the city, I also returned to an overflowing inbox demanding my attention.  A handful of the new emails were forwarded job opportunities, requests for informational interviews, and reminders of gatherings of various professional networks.   I also received the weekly digest of articles sent out by Linked In to members in the “Non-Profit Management” field. One article resonated deeply with me, and pulled together many of the seemingly random streams of thought I’d had recently.

The article, entitled “Forget Networking, How to be a Connector,” describes a type of person who thrives on bringing people together and linking others to opportunities and people who might help them achieve their goals.  “Networking I see as a means to an end,” says Jill Leiderman, executive producer of the late-night show Jimmy Kimmel Live. But connecting, she explains, is about using a genuine love of meeting people and making friends to engage and assist one another.  Exactly!  Though there were certainly traits described in the article that don’t match mine, I did finish reading with an excited feeling.

I love listening to friends explain their current challenges, but only if they are willing to listen to the practical and action-oriented advice I craft as they talk.  Whenever I see a job opportunity, I take a few minutes to forward it to past interns, volunteers, and recent graduates who might be interested.  Somehow I always find time to accept requests for informational interviews.  It’s an exciting time in farm-based and outdoor education, and I’m energized by the crowd of people who are trying to enter the field.  Hopefully these daily actions will pay off for me as I consider what’s next on my career path and plan a move to Vermont, away from many of my professional networks.  Then I will need to depend on other connectors to help me establish myself in a new community.  Read the article here, and check out some photos from the weekend in Vermont:

by Katie Rizzolo
By Dina Schulman
by Terry Dinnan
by Katie Rizzolo
Get Involved!

The Boil Down Approaches

Today while sitting at my desk, I took a moment to mentally step back from the hourly coordination craziness that happens during the syruping season.  Assessing the overall progress of the Somerville Maple Syrup Project this year made me much more positive after a morning of creative crisis management.

Groundwork Interns and Staff Help Tap

Sap collection is going at full throttle despite strange winter conditions.  We filled locally available freezer storage space and are now filling up the walk-in refrigerator at the Winter Hill School.  We have volunteers committed to collecting the accumulated sap each day of the week and an intern working to manage this piece of the project.

Students act out the layers of a tree trunk

Education sessions are in their final week in 20 classrooms across the city.  They’re powered by 19 volunteer educators and a second intern, and they’ve have gone on despite an onslaught of recent sickness.  Our Maple Education intern has run two of four “Maple-y” children’s workshops at the Somerville Public Library, which are free and open to 5-9 year olds.

All permits, an added urban complication to sugar making (must have Public Event, Fire, and Temporary Food Service Permits), are in place for the Boil Down Festival.  A third intern is working on planning this time and energy intensive event and creating a manual so the project can be more easily coordinated in future years!

Want to be part of the collective energy, learning opportunities, and fun?  Here’s how you can get involved or help out:
– Families, attend the  Maple-y Workshops at the Library!
– Volunteer to help make the Boil Down Festival a success – volunteers needed March 2nd, 3rd, and the week of March 5th. Email
– Sponsor the Boil Down Festival – last year Groundwork Somerville drew over 700 people to the Growing Center for this event; do you want them to know about your business or come to your store or restaurant after the event? Email
– Print and post the Boil Down Festival Flier in your neighborhood, office, or school
– RSVP and invite your friends to the Boil Down Festival on facebook

Hope to see you on March 3rd!

Get Involved!

Urban Maple Syrup

By the end of January, I begin to think jealously of other “Gardens Coordinators” or Farm Managers who are recharging in their season of rest.  Despite my title, my job is ramping up in preparation for the Somerville Maple Syrup Project.  January through March becomes almost as hectic and challenging as mid summer in the middle of a drought!  Educators must be trained and materials must be prepared so teams of these volunteers can enrich second grade classrooms across the city with multidisciplinary weekly activities.  Sap collecting buckets, spiles, and tools must be gathered and cleaned.  A sap collection schedule, also dependent on a handful of weekly volunteers, must be arranged and clear sap collection instructions must be documented.  And of course, the many partnerships – with Tufts, Somerville Food Services, back-yard tree owners, the Growing Center, teachers, principals, and companies donating to the project – must be re-kindled and confirmed.  Sometimes it feels like a big headache.

BUT, the work pays off.  The Somerville Maple Syrup Project is remarkable in its ability to reach so many different communities and groups across the city while producing a sweet and delicious local food.  We train and rely on over twenty amazing volunteers who commit weekly and together energize and power the project.  Volunteers range from undergraduate students to stay-at-home moms and from Groundwork Somerville interns to previous maple program coordinators.  High School Technology Education students help clean and maintain the boiler that they made in 2006.  Second graders at every elementary school in the Somerville Public School system get to meet cool new guest teachers and learn about their urban environment in a fun and unique way.  Passers by the intersection of Boston Ave. and College Ave. might peer curiously at the buckets hanging from trees on the sloping hill above them.  Upon closer inspection, they might learn about the project by reading the signs attached to each bucket.  Families whose children are not in participating classrooms can go to the library each Saturday at 11am in February to participate in a series of maple-y workshops.

All this energy comes together at the maple syrup Boil Down Festival, which is happening this year on the weekend of March 5th at the Somerville Community Growing Center.  Folks from across greater Boston come to this fun festival perfect for families, local foodies, tree-lovers, musicians, neighbors sick of being cooped up inside, and lovers of maple syrup.  Now who doesn’t belong in at least one of those categories?  In the densely settled city of Somerville, you can join the crowd to see local sap boiling away, turning into maple syrup as steam floats away into the March air.  Smells of waffles and syrup waft into your nose and syrupy songs energize the crowd.  If this sounds like a good time, join us as we embark on the 11th year of the Somerville Maple Syrup Project!

Children and Nature Get Involved! Musings Personal Sustainability: How-To School Gardens

2010 Reflections

Volunteers at the 2010 Maple Boil Down
Volunteers at the 2010 Maple Boil Down

2010 has been busy! The year started with two major seasonal projects for me at Groundwork Somerville – The Maple Syrup Project and our April Vacation Camp.  I made my way around huge learning curve and a floded office which tested our resilience as an organization.  Thanks to a large network of friends of GWS and energetic volunteers, we reached more classrooms than ever with the Maple Syrup Project and boiled down 130 gallons of sap to make just over 3 gallons of maple syrup despite torrential rains that started on the second day of the “big boil” and flooded the city and state.  Displaced from our office, staff worked from coffee shops and living rooms.

Spring Harvest at Argenziano School
Spring Harvest at Argenziano School

Somehow planning and outreach for April Vacation Camp happened and we moved in to our new office just before my 30 campers gathered at the Growing Center to work in the gardens, explore the center’s many mini ecosystems, and cook each of our mid-day meals together. June 1st marked my first full year at GWS and entry into programming that I have coordinated before.

Garden Youth Crew planting at Winter Hill School
Garden Youth Crew planting at Winter Hill School

Our summer was the biggest ever – 24 high school students were employed by the Green Team program along with their 3 assistant supervisors and 3 supervisors; 12 young adults and three supervisors worked as National Park Preservers doing historical renovation in Concord and community service in Somerville, 12 middle school students earned stipends for their work for the Garden Youth Crew, and we worked with hundreds of elementary students in school-yard gardens across the city.  Garden workshops on vermiculture, salsa dancing and salsa making, yoga in the garden, and using garden herbs to make tea connected Groundwork staff with old friends and new and enthusiastic neighbors.  People commented that they kept on seeing Groundwork Somerville staff in brightly colored GWS shirts biking, gardening, and lending a hand throughout the city all summer long.

Carrot harvest at East Somerville School
Carrot harvest at East Somerville School

In the fall, we celebrated our harvest with parents, friends, and students in the school gardens and teamed up with the National Park Preserver team to put all the gardens to bed before Thanksgiving vacation.  As with each season in the gardens, I was constantly challenged, energized, and amazed by the great questions, observations, and actions of our elementary Garden Club members.  The end of the year is my quietest time of year when I can reflect and asses the past year and gear up for the next season.  Volunteer recruitment and planning for Garden Clubs and the Maple Syrup Project starts so the pieces are in place for the new year.

2010 started with some of the most challenging feats of coordination I have ever attempted and ended as I found a balance between professional and personal life – neither dominating the other.  My fellowship with the Environmental Leaders Program helped me hone my vision, reminded me to be grateful for the opportunity to have a job that helps my community and the environment, stressed the importance of balancing personal and professional needs, and connected me to an amazing network of folks working for the environment.  All-in-all, it was an amazing year of learning, growing, and finding stability and sustainability.