Nature Table for January

Crusted Landscape Crackles with Nature Treats

Every month, Hilltown Families features a new nature table whose contents inspire learning along a common theme easily spotted in our surroundings that month. A tradition carried out by teachers, environmental educators, and nature-curious families, nature tables bring a little bit of the outdoors inside for inspection, dissection, identification, creative play, art projects, and lots of other educational activities. The idea behind a nature table is to help open up children’s eyes to the unique attributes of each season, and to help them learn how to see these things in nature for themselves. A nature table can include a variety of items, and is often accompanied by a set of books and/or field guides so that children can take part in further learning at their own will.

January’s slow and chilly start has brought with it some interesting natural treasures. However, as the local landscape is currently crusted over with a thick coating of ice and a slippery dusting of fluffy snow, most of these treasures are the kind best enjoyed indoors rather than out. And, so as to discourage us from becoming frustrated with the cold weather (and therefore forgetting how wonderful the outside is, even this time of year), our current collection follows an exciting theme.

Compiled somewhat by accident, the table is filled with the clues (big, small, feathery, bony, scat-like, and otherwise) left by animals of all shapes and sizes at the scene of some kind of crime – or as our neighborhood creatures would call it – a meal. A true nature detective could take a few quick, close-up looks at our treasures and determine who ate what based on evidence of bite marks, the foods that have been feasted upon, and the size, shape, and contents of bits of scat and regurgitated bits.

Gross? Perhaps for the faint of heart, but not for true natural scientists, the youngest and most eager of whom have been pouring over the collection in search of further clues. Were there accomplices in any of the feasts, or could any of the food items (or creatures) been shared? If we consider the local food chain, might one of our nibblers have eventually been eaten by another? Do these types of murderous feasts take place all year round, or do these hungry beasts’ diets change with the seasons? And, most important of all, could we learn how to happen upon these treasures independently?

The answers to these questions, as well as the countless others that such a study will eventually spark, are readily available to us both through further research in print and web materials and through outdoor adventures, wherein we’ll practice finding and identifying tracks and other signs of animal life. Winter – aside from the cold – is a great time for kids to learn about animal tracks, as fresh snows is a perfect canvas upon which the markings of everything from a tiny chickadee to a tremendously beautiful moose become conspicuous. Children can easily spot and match the tracks that they find to field guides or identification cards (and eventually their own memories), and will gain lots of confidence in their own tracking abilities thanks to the crisp, clear tracks that can be found once the creatures have begun to move around after a good snowfall.

Such adventures are hopefully coming in our near future, and might perhaps dictate the contents of next month’s table. But for now – we’ll stick to solving the multiple “who done its” that occupy our table. See if you can connect the objects in our collection to solve the mysteries of who ate what (or whom)!

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This month’s table includes:

  • – nibbled deer antler
  • – fur-filled coyote scat
  • – pieces of a deer jawbone
  • – feathers
  • – owl pellet
  • – mouse droppings
  • – sunflower seed hulls
  • – toy mouse

Some useful winter, tracking, and food chain titles include:


Robin Morgan Huntley, Community-Based Education Correspondent

A native to Maine, Robin joined Hilltown Families in early 2011. She is a graduate of Antioch University with a masters in education. Her interests within the field of education include policy and all types of nontraditional education. For her undergraduate project at Hampshire College, Robin researched the importance of connecting public schools with their surrounding communities, especially in rural areas. Robin lives and teaches 5th grade in the Hilltowns of Western MA and and serves on the Mary Lyon Foundation Board of Directors.

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