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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!

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Recipes Uncategorized

The Miracle of Playdough

No, the title to this post isn’t a joke.  Playdough is actually miraculous.  I’d been meaning to make autumn colored playdough with my after school students for several weeks.  I love the idea of using spices to color and scent the dough naturally.  Fall colors (oranges, yellows, and browns) happen to be pretty easy to achieve using common spices.  We finally got around to it on a cold day last week.  Freshly mixed with basic ingredients from the pantry, our cinnamon and turmeric doughs were warm, smooth, soft, smooshy, and smelled delicious.

Turmeric-play-dough

Having just come in from outdoor play, my fingers were cold and stiff.  Sitting down to work alongside my students, I couldn’t believe how nice it felt to squeeze and squish the warm dough.  In fact, playdough helps build the small muscles of our hands that children will need to use scissors and hold pencils in the classroom.  Playing with playdough is also calming and soothing – easing tension, releasing pent up energy, and focusing the mind.  Furthermore, playdough certainly encourages creativity and imagination.

Cinnamon-play-dough

We had collected leaves from the playground and pressed them into the dough, admiring the beautiful prints that resulted.  Pretty soon we’d collected cups, spoons, and wooden butter knives from the kitchen to shape, cut, and mold the dough.  Such a perfect simple, soothing, and creativity-boosting activity for the end of a long day!

Playdough recipe

  1. Mix 2 cups flour, 1 cup salt, 2 tablespoons vegetable oil, and 2 tablespoons cream of tartar in a large bowl
  2. Add 2 tablespoons of your spice of choice.  Add more if needed to achieve the color and smell you like.  We did two colors/smells: cinnamon and turmeric.  I’d love to try paprika, nutmeg, and cloves as well!
  3. Pour 1 1/2 cups of boiling water into your mixture. In the future, I’d like to try adding beets or elderberries to my boiling water to increase the natural food coloring options.
  4. Mix the ingredients together to form a dough
  5. Store in a sealed container or tightly wrapped plastic bag
Categories
Children and Nature Home Gardens School Gardens

Seeds!

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
Categories
Children and Nature

No Child Left Inside

The following article was published in the most recent edition of the Charlotte News:

NO CHILD LEFT INSIDE

By: Tai Dinnan Contributor

April 09, 2015

IMG_2515 copyNature Deficit Disorder. Leave No Child Inside. De-natured Childhood. Free Range Kids. What is your reaction to these phrases and slogans?

Experts agree: children (and adults) are spending less time outside. Screen time is on the rise, after-school and weekend time is increasingly structured, and many families lack access to outdoor spaces that feel safe and fun. For me, and the children’s programs I run, the phrases above provide a framework to justify a focus on outdoor play. These new terms, and their emphasis on the importance of getting children out into nature, are backed up with rigorous research. It turns out children need to play, adventure, relax, work and learn in natural spaces to develop into healthy, whole adults.

IMG_9870Though physical health is one of the most obvious benefits of playing outdoors, the more subtle benefits 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.

Luckily, Charlotters have access to remarkable outdoor spaces. Most have large yards where children can play safely within shouting range of the house. A garden, wetland, stream, field and forest border our school. Mt. Philo State Park offers family-friendly hiking and picnicking opportunities. The shores of Lake Champlain offer endless treasure hunting, exploring and swimming opportunities. And don’t forget public and backyard gardens and farms to tend and visit!

IMG_2914Gardens, in fact, provide children with a surprising multitude of opportunities to work, learn and play in nature. School gardens draw classrooms outside for hands-on learning and community service. Vegetable gardens at home give families an opportunity to work together to grow and share nourishing food. Gardens are beautiful, lush miniature ecosystems. They can be just the right scale for children to discover the magic of life cycles, ecosystems, patterns, colors, teamwork, artistry, engineering challenges, flavors and smells. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The school gardens at Charlotte Central School have been expanding. Nestled between the Pease Mountain trailhead and the lower parking lot, the CCS Kitchen Garden is home to raised beds, a perennial herb garden, pumpkin and potato patches, the school’s compost shed and an outdoor classroom. It is a truly lush, colorful, buzzing and delicious place to be—especially in the summer.

IMG_2499When planning summer vacation, families should remember to include plenty of free time outside. For parents who work, make sure to select summer programs that encourage free play, outdoor expeditions, opportunities to garden and plenty of running around. Consider where you get your food: visiting a local farm or signing up for a CSA can be a great way to get outside as a family and connect with the source of your food. The best part of committing to increased time outside for your children? You can join them and enjoy the benefits to your physical and emotional health as well!

Tai Dinnan lives in Charlotte and is the director of the Extended Day Programming and the Turtle Lane Art and Nature Camp at Lake Champlain Waldorf School in Shelburne. She also works with Stacy Carter to run the Charlotte Green Thumbs Summer Camp—a daytime gardening camp for kids in late-June and early-August. For more information about the camp, email CCSGreenThumbs@gmail.com. Tai blogs at growingstories.wordpress.com

Learn more about each of the camps I’m running this summer:

CCS-Garden-Camp-Poster-long-2015

TLCamp_Poster

Categories
Children and Nature Musings

Winter Play: Recommended for all ages

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.  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!  We went on a wonderful winter hike up Camel’s Hump last weekend – 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 the lake isn’t frozen (yet!) this winter, there are always rivers, ponds, and ditches to provide skating opportunities.  We loved visiting the Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area last weekend.

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!

Categories
Children and Nature

Tick and Poison Ivy Season

Memorial-Day-BloomsWe’ve experienced several exciting firsts of the season this past week: our first all-you-can-eat asparagus dinner, our first tulips, our first cilantro, our first thunderstorm, our first creemie (what we call soft serve in Vermont), and my first tick.  I’ve also removed several ticks from our cat, who spends much of his outdoor time stalking mice and voles in the long grass.

Poison-ParsnipThere 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.  Take a moment to learn to identify any poisonous plants in your region.  If you are outside with kids, check out my Poison Plant Guide Activity for young naturalists.  Once you know to identify any irritating plant neighbors, it’s easy to avoid them and enjoy your time outside without itchy or stingy consequences.

tick-ID

If ticks are increasingly common in your area, I encourage you to read my post on Ticks and Outdoor Play.  This five minute read covers the basics of tick identification, avoidance and removal.  Ticks are now part of our outdoor environment in Vermont and Lyme Disease is well worth avoiding.  When you know what to do when you find a tick, it is easier to be carefree as you enjoy outdoor explorations and adventures.

With bright blue skies, warm sun, bird song choruses, green grass, and bright new leaves, I know I don’t want anything dampening the joy and contentment I feel in nature at this time of year.  I hope you have fun outside!

Lewis-Creek-May

 

Categories
Children and Nature

Winter Exploration

Two weeks ago we had the rare chance to skate across Lake Champlain on black ice.  Sub-zero temperatures and a lack of precipitation were not so fun for those of us who love playing in the snow, but they were ideal for building beautiful ice.  And then, last week, snow finally fell and temperatures rose into the 20s.  Finally!  A chance to do all of the snowy recreation we’ve all been craving.  Check out photos of our winter adventures below.  If you’re curious about tracking animals, check out last year’s winter blog posts: Encouraging Curiosity and Problem Solving with Animal Tracking and River Walk.

Walking on water: a view toward the Vermont shore with Thompson's Point and Mount Philo
Walking on water: a view toward the Vermont shore with Thompson’s Point and Mount Philo in the distance
champlain-skating
Enjoying black ice between Split Rock Mountain, NY and Thompson’s Point, VT
Mount Philo Sledding
Mount Philo Sledding: The hike up
Mount Philo Sledding: The Ride Down
Mount Philo Sledding: The ride down
Our snow-covered river road
Our snow-covered river road
Over the river and through the woods
Over the river and through the woods
A turkey takes off
A turkey takes off
The road home
The road home
Categories
Children and Nature Musings School Gardens

In Appreciation of Play

Working with kids in a diversity of settings, I’ve developed a deep appreciation of the importance of play.

I have been working with elementary students since graduating college.  Two years ago I moved from urban schools to a rural one. This past fall, pre-schoolers were added to my mix at work.  My new job was a shift in another way – I moved from public school settings to a Waldorf school.  Each transition has deepened my belief in the importance of play.  Especially outdoor play.

Search “Play” and “Child Development” and you’ll see a never-ending list of scholarly articles highlighting the importance of play for children.  In fact, it seems crucial for healthy mental, social, and physical development.  So why is recess time getting cut?  Why are we filling kids’ afternoons with structured adult-led activities?  Why are we signing  young children up for organized sports?  Luckily, some parents, schools, and neighborhoods are starting to realize how important unstructured and outdoor play is for our children.

At our Waldorf school, we try to create an atmosphere that promotes joy, wonder, and reverence in students.  Free creative play and exploration of the social and natural world is key in the positive development of our young students.  The numerous ways simple natural materials like stumps, sticks, mud, water, sand, and leaves can be used by a group of children never ceases to amaze me.  At the same time, however, it makes sense.  Think about how many different things a basket of polished rocks, dried corn cobs, or a curved stick could become in imaginative children’s play.  A toy airplane, on the other hand, will probably always end up being used as an airplane.  For adults, this makes facilitating imaginative play easy: simple things found in nature make some of the best toys!  Unstructured time, without all sorts of  adult-driven activities, helps kids grow into independent and creative adults.

Peter Gray wrote a recent article in the The Independent titled Give childhood back to children: if we want our offspring to have happy, productive and moral lives, we must allow more time for play, not less.  Gray makes the importance of play clear.  Creativity, getting along with others, teamwork, impulse control, control over emotions like fear and anger, and independence are all qualities that are crucial for success in today’s world. Without regular opportunities for free play, Gray argues, children do not have the opportunity to develop these skills.

Do you work with students, or have children of your own?  Consider simplifying your schedule and leaving more time for free play!  Children who complain of boredom will soon find ways to entertain themselves, leaving you with more time for that long “to do” list.  Think of chores or work you can do on the periphery, keeping an eye on your children without interfering in their imaginary world.

There are numerous resources available for parents and educators wanting to spend more time outside with children.  The Children and Nature Network is one of my favorites.  Their mission is to create a world where every child can play, learn and grow in nature.  They have practical resources for families and a library of research available for those interested in learning about the health benefits of spending time in nature.  Don’t forget, adults also benefit from free time outside to relax, de-stress, and get moving!

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Children and Nature

A Woodlands Playground

Who needs a playground when there are trees, stumps, logs, and sticks to play with?  Balance beams, teeter totters, seats, boundaries, or building blocks – the sky is the limit! Check out some simple and some ingenious ways to turn old trees into a great natural play space:

Balance Beam
Balance Beam
Our "bouncy tree" with suspended branches to hang on or balance on
Our “Bouncy Tree” with suspended branches to hang on or balance on
Natural sandbox border
Natural Sandbox Border
Every playground needs a rotton log!  This one has been picked apart to harvest sawdust - an ingredient in our woodland kitchen
Every playground needs a rotton log! This one has been picked apart to harvest sawdust – an ingredient in our woodland kitchen
"Worm writing" covers this rotten log
“Worm Writing” covers this rotten log
Teeter-totter and balance beams for older students
Teeter-totter and balance beams for older students
Stumps make steps and chairs for our fort
Stumps make steps and chairs for our fort (and a tick-tack-toe board if you have charcoal!)
Hammer and nail practice
Hammer and Nail practice

How do you use trees, stumps, logs, and sticks in your play space?

Categories
Children and Nature Musings

Ticks and Outdoor Play

tree-relaxingFor me, this picture highlights the inner peace and comfort I find when spending time in the forest or resting against the mighty solidity of a tree trunk.  For some, however, an image like this now inspires concerning thoughts about ticks.

The spread of tick-bourne Lyme disease has caused many families to fear outdoor play.  Lyme disease is spreading across the country and incidence of the disease increases each year.  It is certainly something we need to be well informed about.  With certain precautions, however, we can greatly reduce our chances of contracting Lyme disease and continue to enjoy the numerous benefits of outdoor play !

When working with kids, I facilitate a simple tick check when we come out of the forest.  We partner up, with one partner making a star with their bodies and the other looking for black specks.  Then every student examines around their ankles.  We then discuss the importance of checking our bodies’ dark and warm places when getting into our pajamas later that night. When ticks are attached to your body for less than 36 hours, the chance of getting Lyme disease is small!

The Vermont Department of Health has issued a clear and concise handbook that covers all of the basic information families should know about ticks and preventing Lyme disease.  I’ve taken following information from this booklet:

Preventing Lyme Disease Outdoors:

  • tick-IDWear long pants and long-sleeved shirts to minimize skin exposure to ticks.
  • Tuck your pants into your socks to form a barrier to keep ticks out.
  • Wear light-colored clothing so you can easily see ticks on your clothing.
  • Check for ticks, looking particularly for what may look like nothing more than a new freckle or speck of dirt, and remove ticks promptly.  Black-legged (or Deer) Ticks are the species that spreads Lyme disease (click the diagram to the left to learn to identify the Deer/Black-Legged Tick).

tick-removal

Preventing Lyme Disease When You Come Indoors:

Tick checks have been a regular part of outdoor activities for years for families in Connecticut and Cape Cod.  It seems like the rest of us living in the northeast and beyond will now need to make this part of our routine.  Older adults may remember how it was hard to remember to wear seat belts when legislation made them a requirement.  Now it’s second nature!   I strongly believe in the importance of outdoor play in childhood, so get informed and don’t let the fear of ticks keep you indoors.