Summer Storms: A Reading List

With the heat of August in New England come evening thunderstorms, lighting up the sky, providing a soundtrack, and cooling the earth. This month we are featuring titles exploring summer storms. This booklist includes a variety of titles for weathering storms of all kinds, from thunder and fog to hurricanes and floods. Not only do these storm titles touch upon relevant late-summer themes, but in some cases serve as important reminders of how to take on challenges and meet fears head-on, with the storms serving as metaphors for difficult moments in life. Read the rest of this entry »

Nature Guide for January: Beaver Habitats

Tips for Exploring Beaver Habitat: Lodges, Dams, Caches, and Adaptations

Native species and our natural habitat are excellent community-based resources to support interests and education! Download our free Nature Guide, Tips for Exploring Beaver Habitat: Lodges, Dams, Caches, and Adaptations, to learn about beavers and their habitats.

Not only is winter the ideal season for tracking because of the blank canvas that snow provides, the cold temperatures help to open up access to habitats that cannot be explored during the rest of the year.  In particular, winter is an excellent time to learn about beaver habitat!

Once ponds have iced over for the season, beaver habitat is easily accessible on foot or with the help of skis or snowshoes.  If the ice is safe, go visit your local beaver pond.  Find the beavers’ lodge and inspect it up close to see how it’s built.  Search for evidence of warmth, like steam or melting snow atop the lodge.

Across the pond, visit the beavers’ dam.  Since the dam is holding back water above a river or stream, the ice around the dam is often thin and unsafe for walking on.  From a safe distance, examine the dam’s construction and observe the types of trees used and the size of the trunks that were felled.

Don’t be fooled by misconceptions – beavers don’t hibernate during the winter!  Be sure to walk around the pond to search for evidence of recent forays into the snowy landscape.  In places where the entire water surface has frozen over, beavers may maintain an open hole in the ice for coming and going.  They may also chew on young branches, leaving behind the inner twig wood.  Read the rest of this entry »

30 Community-Based Educational Highlights: Forensics to Cosmology. Fiber Arts to Local Museums.

Paleontology to Contemporary Art. Forensics to Cosmology. Literature in Translation to Robotics. These are just a few of the community-based learning highlights we’re featuring this week. Peruse our list and make plans to get out into your community and learn while you play!

Featured seasonal highlight this week:

Historically, living without refrigerators in New England required strategies for prolonged food storage and preservation. Early New Englanders didn’t have the luxury of refrigerators, but they did harvest ice from frozen lakes and ponds to keep food stored without spoiling. The frozen chunks of ice harvested were kept insulated by materials such as sawdust in a dark, cool place so that the ice would last beyond the winter months. Throughout the winter, check our list of Weekly Suggested Events for community events and demonstrations of ice harvesting. Here are three featured resources in Western MA to add to your itinerary: Ice Harvesting: Community Events & Resource. Read the rest of this entry »

12 Community-Based Educational Highlights: Counting Birds to Caroling. Birthdays to Holidays.

Ornithology to Language Arts. Citizen Science to Placemaking. Dickinson to Dickens. These are just a few of the community-based learning highlights we’re featuring this week. Peruse our list below and make plans to get out into your community and learn while you play!

Featured seasonal highlight this week:

A fun holiday tradition, caroling events are wonderful intergenerational events that explore choral music with your family and friends. With many songs sung during the holiday seasons rich in history, there is much to learn, plus it’s good for your health and wellness! Download our Nov/Dec issue of Learning Ahead: Cultural Itinerary for Western Massachusetts to discover more about these annual events listed below. Read the rest of this entry »

10 Community-Based Educational Highlights: Language Arts to Technology. MYO Gifts to Pastry Gifts.

Zines to 3D Printers. Cookies to Hand-Knitted Scaves. Current Affairs to Placemaking. These are just a few of the community-based learning highlights we’re featuring this week. Peruse our list below and make plans to get out into your community and learn while you play!

Featured seasonal highlight this week:

During the holiday season, gift-giving is considered a traditional aspect of our seasonal celebrations.  Instead of purchasing a gift, gift givers can also look to the domestic arts, crafts, and visual arts for inspiration in making handmade gifts that encourage originality and thought. There are ways to give gifts that are value-base (non-commerical & creative-free play), support learning, and are accessible through community-based events, resources and opportunities! Resources include Craft Fairs & Open Studios, Makerspaces and Bakeries.  Interests include Language Arts, STE(A)M, Fiber Arts, Math, Mindfulness, and Pastry & Culinary Arts. And opportunities include Glassblowing, Zines, Journal Making, and Knitting.

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10 Community-Based Educational Highlights: Chrysanthemums to Candy Science. Creative-Free Play to Service-Based Learning.

Glassblowing to Mooncakes. Quakers to Ecosystems. Creative-Free Play to Nature-Based Learning. These are just a few of the community-based learning highlights we’re featuring this week. Peruse our list below and make plans to get out into your community and learn while you play!

Featured seasonal highlight this week:

Veterans Day, a U.S. national holiday originally known as Armistice Day, provides communities with the opportunity to honor and learn about the service provided by former military members. Chances for community service to support and honor veterans are available right here in our own community, and families can also learn about military history on Veterans Day by engaging in living history demonstrations and activities. Read more in our post, Volunteer & Cultural Opportunities to Honor Veterans on Veterans Day in Western MA.

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8 Family-Friendly Farms for Pumpkin Pickin’ in Western MA

QUESTION AND ANSWERS

Where’s a good place to pick pumpkins with the kids in Western MA?

  • Patricia McCarthy Krutiak recommends, “Whitney’s Farm Stand. Route 8. Cheshire, MA.” (Berkshire Co.)
  • Heather Dunham Katsoulis recommends, “Westview Farms Creamery in Monson (Hampden Co.); Austin Brothers Valley Farm in Belchertown (Hampshire Co.); and Fletcher Farm in Southampton (Hampshire Co.).
  • Jessica J Logsdon recommends, “Whitney’s Farm in Cheshire.” (Berkshire Co.)
  • Nancyjo Craig Rongner recommends, “We always go to McCray’s Farm in South Hadley. You can visit the animals, grab ice cream or lunch, and head out to their pumpkin patches via wagon ride. Mt. Tom provides a really pretty fall backdrop as the leaves change.” (Hampshire Co.)
  • Rebecca Sutton Heath recommends,” Ioka Valley Farm in Hancock… hay rides pumpkins, animals and games… oh, and corn maze- so much fun!” (Berkshire Co.)
  • Kate Erickson recommends, “Fletcher Farm in Southampton off Route 10. Free hay rides and a kid play area.” (Hampshire Co.)
  • Amanda Florek recommends, “We are heading to McCray’s Farm this weekend!” (Hampshire Co.)
  • Heather Richardson recommends, “Randall’s Farm and Greenhouse in Ludlow.” (Hampden Co.)
  • Rebecca Trow Addison writes, “I haven’t found any places in the Greenfield/Amherst/Northampton areas.”
  • Anna White recommends, “Howden Farm in Sheffield, MA.” (Berkshire Co.)
  • Jo Buswell Sauriol recommends: “Westview Farms Creamery.”

Add your suggestions in the comments!

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10 Community-Based Educational Highlights: Pumpkins to Sauerkraut. Social Studies to Literature.

Herbariums to Fermentation. Indian Dance to Jane Austen. Immigration to Botany These are just a few of the community-based learning highlights we’re featuring this week!

Peruse our list below and make plans to get out into your community and learn while you play!

Featured seasonal highlight this week:

There are so many different uses for pumpkins!  One of America’s oldest native crops, modern day uses include carving as ornaments for Halloween, prepared as pies, and highlighted as the main attraction in agricultural fairs (largest pumpkin contests) and fall festivals (pumpkin roll & pumpkin games).  Needless to say, pumpkins are an integrated part of our fall traditions in Western MA. Find out how pumpkin can support an interest in pastry arts and Colonial History through seasonal pies in our post, How Pumpkin Pies Support Interests & Education.

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11 Community-Based Educational Highlights: Fall Festivals to Community Meals. Textile Arts to Classical Music.

Inspired by the town’s 1915 celebration, “Pageant of Patriotism in honor of Independence Day,” Conway Festival of the Hills took form in 1967 as an annual event, celebrating local talent and culture. Every year, families come to witness a Conway tradition: the skillet toss! Along with the skillet toss there are many activities to behold: a log splitting contest, live music, handmade crafts, parade, pancake breakfast, community dinner, and their most popular event, a book signing with local authors. This year the festival happens on Saturday, Sept 29 & Sunday, Sept 30.

Locavore Dinner to Vegan Picnic. Textile Arts to Classical Music. Garlic to Tofu. These are just a few of the community-based learning highlights we’re featuring this week!

Peruse our list below and make plans to get out into your community and learn while you play!

Featured seasonal highlight this week:

FALL FESTIVALS
During the autumnal months, communities celebrate the change of season with festivals that bridge agricultural and cultural traditions. These festivities celebrate not only the harvest season but also the cultural traditions that define Western Massachusetts’ unique identity. Fall festivals are a community space that acts as an intergenerational gathering place for folks to come together in the spirit of the season and share in the harvest and local traditions. Engage your community and attend a fall festival this season!  It’s a great way to meet your neighbors, new friends and contribute to the preservation of this region’s unique character, culture, and history. Check out these featured annual fall festivals that happen in Western MA.

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11 Community-Based Educational Highlights: Apples to Woolley Bears. Agriculture to Folklore.

Can Woolley Bears (Pyrrharctia isabella) offer us an indication as to the severity of the coming winter? Common North American folklore says that a wide brown band calls for a mild winter and a narrow one calls for a severe winter. While there is no scientific evidence for this prediction, looking for these little guys and examining them closely with your kids opens up channels for learning while connecting to the seasons.

Honey to Botany. Thin Places to Developmental Psychology. Interpretive Dance to Bioblitz. These are just a few of the community-based learning highlights we’re featuring this week!

Peruse our list below and make plans to get out into your community and learn while you play!

Featured seasonal highlight this week:

APPLES
Apples, one of the earliest (and most delicious) signs of fall, have been an essential part of New England agriculture for centuries. McIntosh apples are undeniably the most iconic of New England’s apples, and make up over two thirds of the regions apple crop! Macs and countless other delicious and fascinating varieties of apples are grown at orchards across western Massachusetts, and families can enjoy this year’s fantastic apple crop by visiting an orchard to pick or purchase a bushel. Participate in the tradition of apple-picking and support local agriculture! Check out local orchards and farms in Western MA for Pick Your Own Apples, including Park Hill Orchard (Easthampton), Outlook Farm (Westhampton), Bear Swamp Orchard & Cidery (Ashfield), Quonquont Farm (Whately), Clarkdale Fruit Farms (Deerfield), and Bashista Orchards (Southampton).

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10 Community-Based Educational Highlights: Peach Tea to Chicken BBQ. Zen Buddhism to Hindu Traditions.

A few annual community harvest meals to check out this weekend include the Plainfield Volunteer Fire Department and Shelburne Falls Eagles annual chicken BBQ’s this Sunday.

Fireside Poets to Local Peaches. Zen kōans to Holy Tulsi. Monarch Butterflies to Beavers. These are just a few of the community-based learning highlights we’re featuring this week!

Peruse our list below and make plans to get out into your community and learn while you play!

Featured learning highlight this week:

COMMUNITY MEALS
Intergenerational opportunities to gather around the table for a community meal with friends and neighbors are available at nearly every agricultural fair. From blueberry pancake breakfast to BBQ chicken dinner, there’s something for everyone! Visit fair websites to see what’s being served this year and make plans to sit with your neighbors and start up conversations. Let your children learn about local history through stories your elderly neighbors might share, make new friends, and walk away with new community connections. Read more about community harvest meals and festivals in our Late Summer/Early Autumn Season issue of Learning Ahead.

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11 Community-Based Educational Highlights: Service Dogs to Community Meals. Art Studies to Food History.

Summer is camping season! Campgrounds are open, tents are aired out, and the makings for s’mores are ready for starry nights surrounding the campfire telling stories and enjoying each other’s company. The smell of the campfire defines the spirit of summer outdoors in New England. Read more about the season of summer camping and discover local resource in our Summer Season issue of Learning Ahead.

Impressionist Art to Irish Dance. Johnnycakes to Scones. Shelter Animals to Service Dogs. These are just a few of the community-based learning highlights we’re featuring this week!

Peruse our list below and make plans to get out into your community and learn while you play!

Featured learning highlight this week:

CUMMINGTON FAIR
Agricultural fair season is starting next week, beginning on Thursday, August 23 with the Cummington Fair, a local tradition since 1883 when it began as the Hillside Agricultural Society. At the time, the stated goal of the society was “the attainment and diffusion of scientific and practical knowledge in the cultivation of the soil and the raising of it’s various and useful production as comprehended in The Department Of Agriculture, Horticulture, and Pomology.” Over the last 150 years, the Fair has stayed true to its roots, while adding a wide variety of vendors, music acts, and fun activities for children! The horse and ox pull is a real favorite, and don’t forget to check out the prize-winning livestock. Learn more about how agricultural fairs can support an interest in the humanities by downloading our Seasons issue of Learning Ahead for Sept/Oct for our late summer/early fall learning itinerary. Then head to the Cummington Fair starting on Thursday, August 23 and running through Sunday, August 26.Cummington Fair. 97 Fairgrounds Road, Cummington, MA ($)

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10 Community-Based Educational Highlights: Endangered Species to Physics. Traditional Crafts to Technology.

Summer is the season for fishing! With all of its many rivers and lakes, Western MA has an abundance of fishing spots that help people connect to the landscape and the rhythms of the season. Support and integrate your interests by downloading our Seasons issue of Learning Ahead for July/August for our summer learning itinerary, take a look at our Literature Guide for Dr. Seuss’ “McElligot’s Pool,” and learn about the history of Gyotaku, the ancient Japanese art of printing fish.

Basket Making to Catapults. Alchemy to Sports. Nature Hikes to Observation Days. These are just a few of the community-based learning highlights we’re featuring this week!

Peruse our list below and make plans to get out into your community and learn while you play!

Featured learning highlight this week:

SELF-DIRECTED LEARNING: MUSIC STUDIES
Playing music has immense benefits for your brain, in addition to being a calming and enjoyable activity. You can find out about the benefits of playing music and ways to build a practice habit in our post, How Playing an Instrument Benefits Your Brain!

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10 Community-Based Educational Highlights: Jacobite Risings to Princess History. Paprika to Venus Fly Traps.

During July and August, blueberries become ready for picking. There are many farms in Western MA where you can pick your own berries, or farm stands and markets to purchase local berries to enjoy at home. Read more about the season of berries in our Summer Season issue of Learning Ahead.

Vincent van Gogh to Miriam Makeba. Knitting Circles to Shaker History. Spices to Royalty. These are just a few of the community-based learning highlights we’re featuring this week!

Peruse our list below and make plans to get out into your community and learn while you play!

Featured community highlight this week:

BRYANT DAY
Come celebrate Bryant Day with an afternoon of history and literature at the William Cullen Bryant Homestead on Saturday, July 21, 12-4pm! Learn all about 19th-century history with lectures, guided tours of the Homestead, and a special performance of Civil War-era ballroom dancing by the Small Planet Dancers. If you are a dancer or a dancing enthusiast, you won’t want to miss this wonderful opportunity to experience traditional 19th-century dances. There will also be a wide variety of food and craft vendors. For more information and a complete list of activities, please visit Bryant Day. William Cullen Bryant Homestead. 207 Bryant Road, Cummington, MA ($)

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11 Community-Based Educational Highlights: Singularity to Anthropocene. Puppets to Drums…

Owls are featured heavily in mythology and folklore from around the world. Ancient peoples had many, often contradictory, views on these mysterious creatures.

Literature in translation to Rube Goldberg Machines. Singularity to Anthropocene. Puppets to drums. These are just a few of the community-based learning highlights we’re featuring this week!

Peruse our list below and make plans to get out into your community and learn while you play!

Featured community highlight this week:

THE WORLD OF OWLS
In ancient Greece, the owl was sacred to the goddess of wisdom Athene, who favored the bird after it chased away the mischievous crow. Among the ancient Celtic people of the British Isles, the owl was known as “cailleach,” or “old woman.” Associated with the Crone figure from the Celtic Triple Goddess, the owl was seen as a psychopomp, or guide to the land of the dead. In “The World of Owls,” on Monday, July 9, 6:30-7:30pm, learn all about the natural and cultural history of the owl, including some of the ways that this bird has been misunderstood. This presentation is appropriate for children ages 6 and above. Westhampton Public Library. 1 North Road, Westhampton, MA (FREE)

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10 Community-Based Educational Highlights: Moon Phases to Goat Yoga. Bubbles to Fireflies.

This summer, engage and learn with your kids through bubble blowing!

This week, we have two words for you: Goat Yoga. Need we say more? Well, just in case stretching with Capra aegagrus hircus isn’t your thing, you could explore the phases of the moon, learn how to use regular household items to conduct kitchen science experiments, take part in an artistic interpretation of the game “telephone” with James Taylor’s daughter, Sally, learn about fireflies and run through a field reveling in their luminescence, or enjoy early 4th of July fireworks displays.

Whatever your interests, Western MA has learning opportunities for you. Check out our list of Weekly Suggested Events and let Hilltown Families show you what’s out there and how to make the most of it. We’re the place where you and your family’s interests and values intersect with the adundant resources in Western MA. Read the rest of this entry »

10 Community-Based Educational Highlights: Pickleball to Rhubarb. Cake History to Garden Tours.

What do Chiffon, Tunnel of Fudge, Sock-it-to-me, Watergate, Jell-O Poke, Hummingbird, Funfetti, Chocolate Lava, Viennetta, Red Velvet, Bacon, and Pops have in common? They are all popular cakes!

Fiddle Music to Senegalese Music. Pickleball to Kusudama. Plastic to Cake History. These are just a few of the community-based learning highlights we’re featuring this week!

Peruse our list below and make plans to get out into your community and learn while you play!

Featured community highlight this week:

RHUBARB FESTIVAL: This time of year farm stands all over the area are selling rhubarb. A local delicacy, rhubarb has been enjoyed all over the world for thousands of years in both sweet and savory dishes. In China, rhubarb has also been prized for its medicinal properties. For most people, the most common application of rhubarb is paired with strawberries in crumbles or pies. Many 19th century cookbooks even refer to rhubarb as the ‘pie plant.’ Come learn all about things you can do with rhubarb and taste some delicious sweet and savory rhubarb dishes at the 5th Annual Lenox Rhubarb Festival on Saturday, June 9, 10am. Plants and cookbooks will also be available for sale. 18 Main Street, Lenox, MA (<$)

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14 Community-Based Educational Highlights: Woolcraft to Pottery. Falcons to Food Trucks.

Community events to choose from this week will connect those of us who feel at home in a crowd of fellow enthusiasts, as well as those of us who prefer a more intimate gathering, with our local resources and opportunities. Engage with others interested in woolcraft, arts, and pop-up food culture at weekend festivals happening throughout the region. Then feed your quieter side with a poetry reading for life-long learners, an intergenerational wildflower hike through a wildlife sanctuary, or have a once in a lifetime opportunity experiencing a falcon return to your gloved hand after a local ornithology talk.

Whatever your interests, Western MA has learning opportunities for you. Check out our list of Weekly Suggested Events and let Hilltown Families show you what’s out there and how to make the most of it. We’re the place where you and your family’s interests and values intersect with the bountiful resources in Western MA. Read the rest of this entry »

Learning Landscape for April: Spring’s Big Night & Vernal Pool Habitat

Learning Landscape for April: Spring’s Big Night & Vernal Pool Habitat

Every month, Hilltown Families features a new Learning Landscape, which aims to inspire learning along with a common theme easily spotted in our surroundings that month. The hope is to bring a little bit of the outdoors inside for inspection, dissection, identification, creative play, art projects, and lots of other educational activities. Download this month’s Learning Landscape 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.

The April Landscape

April is a month of massive transition here in New England. March’s maple sugaring season often runs
into the month’s earliest days, while the tail end of April is filled with new life and much green. Spring emerges
on its own time, and its arrival varies from year to year. Regardless, the pattern of melting, emergence, and
growth remains the same annually, and the events outlined in this Learning Landscape follow the same
trajectory at some point between mid-March and mid-April every year.

This month, we focus on the annual Big Night of springtime – the moment at which frogs and salamanders (and occasionally other damp-dwelling creatures) emerge from their winter hibernation to mate and lay eggs. Frogs and salamanders both burrow deep down in the muddy ground for the winter, lowering their body temperatures to make it through the cold. Then, when the timing is just right, they’ll come out.

The night when amphibians return to the spring landscape is often referred to as the Big Night, and it happens on the first rainy night when temperatures surpass 40 degrees. Generally, this happens once most snow has melted, but sometimes the Big Night takes place when there are still lots of patches of snow around. Frogs and salamanders can be found in ponds and in vernal pools, special (and essential) habitats for these creatures. Explore your surroundings to locate amphibian habitats, and use these spaces as a catalyst for learning about early spring’s burst of life.

Read the rest of this entry »

Learning Landscape: Putting Food on the Table in Late Winter

Every month, Hilltown Families features a new Learning Landscape, which aims to inspire learning along with a common theme easily spotted in our surroundings that month. The hope is to bring a little bit of the outdoors inside for inspection, dissection, identification, creative play, art projects, and lots of other educational activities. Download this month’s Learning Landscape 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.

Learning Landscape: Putting Food on the Table in Late Winter

The February Landscape

Humans much prefer February (and its early season equivalent, December) to January for its lengthening days, warmer temperatures, and gentler storms. But for those whose lives are dictated strictly by the natural elements, February can be a harsh month depending on the status of local food stores.

During a mild winter, most animals will easily be able to find what they need in order to survive throughout the season. When conditions are harsh, however, food sources can become scarce while the effort necessary to access them can become much greater.

Whether a winter falls towards one of these extremes or is somewhere in the middle, it’s worthwhile to know how to identify, locate, and even consume a few common winter wildlife food sources. If you know who eats what and when, you’ll have a greater chance of learning to track local species. Monitoring likely meal sites over time can alert you to the patterns of the creatures you share your natural space with, and can bring you into closer alignment with the natural world.

Exploring outdoors in February is generally quite enjoyable; temperatures regularly surpass the freezing point, the sun shines often, and if you’ve been active throughout the season, you’ll likely have a good walking path packed down by late winter. This month, pay special attention to a few common wildlife food sources. Note the changes that each feeding area experiences to understand the role that it plays within the local ecosystem. Read the rest of this entry »

Learning Landscape for January: Tracking to Learn Winter Habits

Learning Landscape for January: Tracking to Learn Winter Habits

Every month, Hilltown Families features a new Learning Landscape, which aims to inspire learning along with a common theme easily spotted in our surroundings that month. The hope is to bring a little bit of the outdoors inside for inspection, dissection, identification, creative play, art projects, and lots of other educational activities. Download this month’s Learning Landscape 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.

The January Landscape

January in New England is bleak. Deep snow covers the ground, and temperatures hover – unwavering – right around zero. Modern humans instinctively shy away from what we see as a harsh landscape, but all around us, creatures are going about their lives. If we project our human interpretation of winter upon the scene, it appears dormant, bleak, perhaps even depressing – how could anything be alive within it? Yet all around us, the natural world is indeed very much alive, directly experiencing winter as another moment in its existence. Creatures roam about, insects are literally snug as bugs underground, and trees stand tall and unfrozen, filled with natural antifreeze.

This is not to say, however, that winter does not have an impact on nature. Each species changes its patterns to live in alignment with its surroundings, and just as January elicits certain behaviors and attitudes from humans, it does in animals as well.

You can prove this to be true yourself by exploring the natural world during this frosty month. Look for signs of life, and compare the winter habits of native creatures to their habits in other seasons. Notice how well they align with the conditions afforded by the season; their survival depends upon it. Read the rest of this entry »

Learning Landscape for December: Shed Light

The December Landscape

Every month, Hilltown Families features a new Learning Landscape, which aims to inspire learning along with a common theme easily spotted in our surroundings that month. The hope is to bring a little bit of the outdoors inside for inspection, dissection, identification, creative play, art projects, and lots of other educational activities. Download this month’s Learning Landscape 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.

After the first snow of the season, December is blank – the blank white canvas the perfect backdrop upon which to begin to notice the particulars of nature. The early winter landscape is devoid of the brilliant color that marks all other seasons, and for once, the absence of all of nature’s magnificent detail is a treat! Suddenly, tracks abound, meal waste litters the ground, and scat is cast with abandon.

Without the richness of what the natural world usually has to offer, early winter draws attention to the things that otherwise blend in. The tracks of chickadee feet and blue jay wings; the apples smashed by deer hooves and pinecones decimated by chipmunks; fox, coyote, and a mysterious other – none far from the dooryard.

These small discoveries feel new in a snowy landscape; but is it possible that they’re always there? Learn the landscape this December by shedding light on that which surrounds you. Read the rest of this entry »

Nature Table for November: Dead and Brown

Nature Table for November is Dead and Brown

Every month, Hilltown Families features a new nature table whose contents inspire learning along with 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.

Slowly but surely, summer’s lush green has turned into the distinct brown that both late fall and early spring wear so well. Our eyes, currently calibrated to notice bugs more than anything else, have helped us to recognize that as the season has changed, so have the habits of the creatures we’ve been watching. What we missed out on, however, was the slow change that the vegetation around us was experiencing – and now there’s nothing much left save for a few patches of hardy lawn grass.

“Wait – what happened?” tiny naturalists want to know. They’re not mystified that the change took place – being old enough to take the seasonal change for granted, they’re more in tune with nature’s details at this stage of life. So it’s not the passing of summer and the coming of winter that has us hooked, it’s the actual science behind the change.

How did the plants die?

Is plant death the same as creature death?  Or human death?

And what happens next?

Theorizing together, our young naturalists were able to come up with some good guesses themselves. Almost-daily expeditions into our small patch of woods have alerted us to the fact that not all of the plants around us died at the same time. We’ve also noticed that while the early fall weather made us take off layers, we now wish we had more layers to add on. The agrarian background that some of us bring to our naturalist work told us that to keep garden plants alive; we can cover them to protect them from frost.

Do you see a pattern here? We did. Read the rest of this entry »

Nature Table for September is Pupating

Nature Table for September

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.

This month’s nature table was inspired by a likely seasonal catalyst, but is filled with very unlikely specimens, given where we started. What began as a discussion of seasonal foods has somehow evolved into the creation of a horde of young entomologists! (Or perhaps it would be more fitting to say that the topic has pupated.)

Rather than a collection of the numerous varieties of both cultivated and wild apples that can be found in orchards, farms, and backyards, this month’s nature table is a terrarium filled almost to capacity with more species of caterpillars than I, the head naturalist, have ever noticed while experiencing nature. We have the classic monarch, the hated hornworm, the fear-inducing hickory tussock, and at least twelve other species – some of whom we haven’t been successful in identifying.

How did we get here?

“Ms. Huntley, I have an apple tree at home!”

Most of us do around here.

“It’s so tall!  And it always drops apples on me while I wait for the bus!”

Mine are up to similar antics, yes.

AND it’s FULL of CATERPILLARS!  They’re eating ALL of its leaves!”

Oh – now we’re interested!

This moment – the one intended to spark a foray into local culture, local history, pollination, and a host of other topics – has steered us in a completely different direction. We discussed the eastern tent caterpillar with disdain, told stories of the browntail moth, and shared opinions on the legitimacy of using woolly bears to predict the severity of a winter. I thought we might return to apples the next day, or perhaps the one after, but young minds are not easily swayed, and now I am responsible for upwards of twenty impossibly small and squashy beings.

As it turns out, caterpillars are a perfect topic of study and are the easiest and most entertaining of all the live specimens I’ve allowed to be kept as “pets.” A simple terrarium with a few inches of dirt and a tightly attached screen lid is a perfect home, though I’ll admit that trial and error during our early caterpillar days lead to the unfortunate death of more than a few specimens.

Together, we’re learning how to watch them, how to identify them, and how to care for them. We’ll watch as some pupate and emerge as winged beasts before the morning chill lasts all day, and we’ll wait to see which ones burrow and make their grand entrance in the spring. We’re exploring new field guides, noticing details, and even conquering our fears – but the best part of our learning is that we are truly learning together. The young naturalists are at this point perhaps even more expert on the subject of caterpillars than I am. We’re truly in this experience together.

Common species in New England include:

  • Monarch
  • Milkweed tussock moth (caution: tussocks can feel like stinging nettle to some hands)
  • Hickory tussock moth
  • Tomato hornworm
  • Gypsy moth
  • Woolly bear
  • Cabbage worm

Tips for keeping caterpillars for study:

  • Collect a small portion of the plant you found the caterpillar on – it’s probably its food.
  • Mist your terrarium a few times a day; otherwise, it will dry out, the food plants will dry out, and your caterpillars will begin to dry out as well.
  • Give your caterpillars a few sticks to climb on.  Many of them like to climb, and others need sticks for their cocoons and chrysalises.
  • Keep a few inches of soil at the bottom for burrowing species.
  • Be sure to put your terrarium outside for the winter, but make sure it’s protected (unheated garage, tool shed, etc.).
  • Be prepared to struggle with identification!  There are many, many species, and it can be very difficult to find names for all of them if you’re not an expert.

Robin Morgan Huntley, Community-Based Education Correspondent

A native to Maine, Robin joined Hilltown Families in early 2011 as an intern and remained over the years volunteering as a community-based education correspondent until moving back to Maine in 2016. Robin 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 currently lives with her husband, cats and rabbits in Maine and is a 5th grade public school teacher.

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Nature Table for August: Autobiography

Nature Table for August

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.

August is heavy in the air. Slightly shortened days, daytime humidity, and a slight evening chill are the hallmark (and ominous) signs of a summer that has begun to give way to fall. As always, we’re attuned to the changes happening in the natural world around us, yet somehow our emotional response to the change in seasons can cloud our ability to notice the natural phenomena nearby. Rather than marveling in the shifts taking place all around us (dandelions are scarce, baby birds have fledged, berries are almost out of season), August tends to make us nostalgic – the impending ending inspiring reflection rather than observation.

As a compulsive treasure collector, I gather small souvenirs wherever I go. My house, my car, my backpack, my pockets, and the house, car, backpack, and pockets of everyone I adventure with are littered with tiny specimens. Sometimes delicate and always fascinating, these treasures hold stories. Not only are they emblematic of a certain type of habitat, a growing season, or the cycle of life and death, they serve as narration for my summer adventures. The small pile that has accumulated is a double autobiography: it shares the story of the landscape, and shares my story as well. The way that I have moved through the landscape and the ways that I have interacted with my surroundings all become clear in this mini-museum of summer’s artifacts.  Read the rest of this entry »

Bird Language Connects Citizens to Their Habitat

Bird Language Connects Citizens to Their Habitat

Why do birds vocalize simple chirps sometimes while at other times they emit elaborate, melodious songs? “Bird language” is a term referring to the combined chirps, songs, and behaviors which allow birds to communicate with each other. Humans can study the sounds and behaviors of birds in order to gain an understanding of what they are communicating.

The following video gives examples of bird sounds and their meanings:

Why study bird sounds? The study of bird language intersects with the broader topics of animal studies and biology, and can connect people to their local habitat through a greater level of awareness of animal interaction. Learning about bird language, and identifying birds by sound, requires concentration and careful listening skills. An interest in ornithology can thus improve our listening skills in general. Quieting the mind and tuning in to particular sounds and sensations is a skill which can be applied to mindfulness, and even music studies. Bird songs have in fact had a great impact on human music, and as a result, culture. Read the rest of this entry »

Community-Based Educational Highlights: Rare Books to Grist Mills. Lebanese Mountain Bread to Independent Cinema.

Each year, approximately 2 billion popsicles are sold worldwide. But where did the idea for this tasty treat come from? Find out more in this TED-Ed lesson: How the popsicle was invented by Jessica Oreck.

Rare Books to Grist Mills. Lebanese Mountain Bread to Independent Cinema. These are just a few of the Learning highlights we’re featuring this week!

Click on link to view our suggested event or video and make plans to get out into your community and learn while you play!

Featured community highlight this week:  Does your child aspire to be a playwright or actor? Thespians ages eight through twelve are invited to two workshops with the Piti Theatre Company for a crash course in contemporary drama. On Saturday, July 15 from 10am-12pm, a playwriting workshop will lay the groundwork for a complete “Play in a Day” production. The following Saturday, July 22, this play will be rehearsed and performed. Both events will take place at the Greenfield Public Library. Experience all of the excitement of playwriting and acting in just two weekends. 413-772-1544. 402 Main Street. Greenfield, MA. (FREE)


DramaEntomologyCivil RightsAstronomy ♦ Service LearningLocal HistoryCulinary Arts  ♦ TranscendentalismLinguisticsMusic StudiesBears  ♦ Shakespeare ♦ PlacemakingPotteryFilm Studies ♦ EngineeringMakerspace


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[Photo credit: (cc) Annie]


Learn Local. Play Local. is supported in part by a grant from the Belchertown, Buckland, Chicopee, Colrain, Cummington, Gill, Hadley, New Salem, Plainfield, Shelburne, Westhampton, and Worthington Cultural Councils, local agencies which are supported by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, a state agency.

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10 Community-Based Educational Highlights: Solar Science to Paleontology. Arts & Crafts to Creative-Free Play.

As you gaze at the base of a pinecone, did you know that you’re regarding an incredible example of mathematical reasoning? Nature’s patterns, as it happens, are deeply rooted in the Fibonacci Sequence and the Golden Ratio. It’s the ultimate in a marriage between the aesthetic beauty of nature, and its mathematical base that makes it make sense. To discover what a learning opportunity this is for the family to share, read our post, Nature’s Patterns Reveals Mathematical Reasoning.

Fermentation to Nature-Based Learning. Chemistry to Dinosaurs. Citizen Science to Arts & Crafts. These are just a few of the community-based learning highlights we’re featuring this week!

Peruse our list below and make plans to get out into your community and learn while you play!

Featured community highlight this week:   Wistariahurst, former home of prominent silk manufacturer William Skinner, now serves as a cultural and educational center. Wistariahurst helps to preserve Holyoke history through educational programs, exhibits and special events. This 1874 estate is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Visitors are invited to engage in self-directed tours, Sundays through Tuesdays, including tours of the art gallery. Group tours (5+ people) are available additional hours by appointment. 413-322-5660. 238 Cabot Street. Holyoke, MA. (DONATION)


Solar SciencePaleontologyLanguage ArtsLepidopterologyStorytellingCreative-Free PlayMathAmerican Sign LanguageZymologyIndependance Day


Join our stellar team supporters!
Become a sponsor of Learn Local. Play Local. and see your banner here:

[Photo credit: (cc) Felipe Del Valle]


Learn Local. Play Local. is supported in part by a grant from the Belchertown, Buckland, Chicopee, Colrain, Cummington, Gill, Hadley, New Salem, Plainfield, Shelburne, Westhampton, and Worthington Cultural Councils, local agencies which are supported by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, a state agency.

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Support Hilltown Families, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, with your tax-deductible donation.

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