Nature Table for June: For the Love of Weeds

Nature Table for June

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.

It is hard to believe that we had forgotten the look of a landscape cloaked in green, but we had. The entire outline of our landscape has fluffed its green, leafy feathers into a brilliant and rounded version of its former self. The bones we had grown so accustomed to seeing have thrown themselves triumphantly at the sun – and suddenly there’s more green than we could ever have imagined.

In a landscape so lush and laden with countless shades of the same hue, it takes close observation to take note of the subtle differences from green to green. From a distance, oak leaves blend near-seamlessly with pine needles and dandelions camouflage themselves in even small expanses of lawn.

It is in this early part of summer that we re-ignite our feud with weeds, those specific green-and-leafiest that we have deemed inferior within our landscape. At the onset of summer (and especially in years like this), we still cling tightly to the tendrils of the young plants we have helped take root in our once inhospitable clime. We so enjoy our suddenly lush lawns, our patches of fresh herbs, our blooming bushes, and our seedling vegetables that we take the invasion of alien life quite seriously. Dandelions are eradicated with trowel and claw or beheaded by a mower, unruly grass species are cut short, and rogue wild berry bushes are hacked back. It’s a bit gruesome, really, and certainly lots of work! Read the rest of this entry »

Nature Table for May: A World Beneath the Water

Nature Table for May

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.

Though the weather has finally warmed, the landscape has cloaked itself in green, and birds and peepers have returned in full force, it’s not at all summer yet. April’s forced buds satiated our appetite for natural brilliance and staved off our impatience for all things warm, but the itch is back, the rain is relentless, and the chill in the air lingers each morning. Despite the wet weather, many watery elements of our landscape are off limits: spring rains have filled rivers and streams to capacity, the rushing, rollicking waters lapping against rocks and trunks not accustomed to being a part of the river’s flow.

Regardless of the river’s springtime “off-limits” designation, wet weather calls for wet learning, and our young naturalists have channeled their already damp enthusiasm into explorations of an oft forgotten soggy habitat: the bottom of the pond.  Read the rest of this entry »

Nature Table for April: Buds & Blooms

Nature Table for April

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.

The long, patient wait for the weather that we qualify as spring usually takes longer than expected. Mother nature teased us with warm, melty weather more than once this year before spring truly came, and though the seasons changed with the vernal equinox weeks ago, springtime’s leaves, flowers, and creatures have yet to grace us with their presence. Mud season reigns – rivers are running high, driveways are rutted, and boots are still a necessity.

This month’s nature table honors the impatient naturalist: those who need a taste of spring before the earth is ready in order to truly believe that there is an end in sight. April’s collection is made up of branches cut from trees and shrubs for the purpose of forcing buds. Quite common in New England, where spring really takes its time waking up, the practice of forcing buds is both scientifically fascinating and morale boosting. Naturalists can study the process of leaf out and bloom that various trees and bushes go through, and those who cannot await spring with patience can enjoy an indoor dose of spring a few weeks ahead of schedule.  Read the rest of this entry »

Nature Table for March: Maple Buds and Bark

Nature Table for March

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.

The surest sign of spring in western Massachusetts is the appearance of buckets and tubes on trees lining our winding rural roads. Sugar season marks the end of winter’s harshest weather, as the sap begins to flow only when daytime temperatures are above freezing. From living history to delicious meals, there is a multitude of community-based ways to engage with this sweet element of our natural and cultural history, but the naturalist’s way of learning about sugar season is not to simply observe it, but to learn to become a part of it!

The specifics of sugaring are basic enough, so long as you have sufficient trees to make the time spent worthwhile – which is where the first challenge of sugaring lies! There are thousands of species of maple trees in the world, and at least 13 of these are native to the United States. Of these native to our country, at least 7 different native maple species can be found here in western MA. When leaves are in season, it’s easy enough to distinguish sugar maples from non-sugar maples. In the absence of leaves, however, sugar maples are much more difficult to spot!  Read the rest of this entry »

Nature Table for December: Winter’s Only Green

Nature Table for December

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.

Things have really quieted down lately. Temperatures have dropped, and a blanket of snow lays across the ground, signaling stillness and silence to the natural world. For the next few months, most things will be frozen in a state of perpetual hibernation/meditation until springtime rolls around. Our new wintry landscape is not completely devoid of life, however: hardy birds, hungry mammals, and harried humans will carry about their hustle and bustle thanks to adaptations that make survival through the winter months a possibility.

In addition to the creatures who brave the snowy weather, there is one other sign of unfrozen life dotting the landscape. Evergreen trees, fascinating exemplars of evolution and adaptation, cast their green-clad branches against cloudy, snow-filled skies during what’s supposed to be the off-season for local plant life. The strength that it takes to remain green throughout the winter is almost unbelievable, and humans have a long history of fascination with the winter green of evergreens. In fact, the magic that such trees are believed to have had is at the root of the tradition of bringing trees indoors at Christmas!

So how is it that evergreens maintain their green year-round, while deciduous trees cycle from leaves to bare branches annually? The magic is in the evolution of evergreen needles. Scientifically speaking, evergreen needles work just like deciduous tree leaves – they absorb sunlight to fuel photosynthesis and work to keep trees alive. Unlike the leaves of deciduous trees (think maple and oak), however, evergreen needles have a special waxy coating that helps them to retain water year-round. Rather than drying out when the landscape cools and freezes, evergreen needles retain moisture and keep their color. Instead of losing needles seasonally, evergreen trees endure an endless cycle of needle loss and regrowth, much like humans experience with hair. Read the rest of this entry »

Nature Table for November: Deer Hunting

Nature Table for November

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.

With fall’s chilly air and crisp, frosty mornings, have come changes in the ways in which local creatures interact with the landscape. Frogs and salamanders have buried themselves in blankets of thick mud, birds have started to migrate south (leaving space for their Canadian neighbors to stop by), and mammals have embarked on the final push to collect goodies to tide them over through the winter. Fall brings about a change in the ways in which humans interact with the landscape, too. Just as creatures sense the coming winter, humans also brace themselves for the changes that lie ahead. These days, we humans have most of our overwintering needs met by the marvels of modern technology which bring us ripe tomatoes in December and other unseasonable joys. Despite the ease with which we can find fresh sustenance during these modern winters, many folks still stock up for the off-season by preserving and preparing foods they’ve grown or gathered themselves. The agrarian elements of our ingrained need to stock up for winter have held out. This month, our nature table focuses on an element of the fall season that, despite its usefulness in preparing families for winter, has waned significantly in popularity over the course of the past two generations.

Deer hunting was once commonplace amongst the hills and valleys of western Massachusetts. Deer (and their elk cousins), were hunted long, long before European settlers even dreamed of coming to North America, and the seasonal hunt of deer was important in the diets of New Englanders for centuries. Read the rest of this entry »

Nature Table for August

Patterns, Perception & Preservation

This month’s nature table is written by environmental educator Phoebe Gelbard, a recent graduate of Northampton High School and a freshman at the University of Massachusetts.

This summer, whether you are swimming in a river, admiring a striking sunset, or smelling a flower, you can observe recurring shapes and patterns in the landscape around you. Change is a constant, and as each month fades into the next, previous patterns fade and new ones begin to appear. While we are all familiar with certain designs that are found in our backyards, such as the heart-shaped leaves of clover and the spiral of a snail’s shell, other patterns that involve multidimensional interconnectedness are more difficult to recognize. These patterns, known as fractals, are described as expanding or evolving symmetry because of the way that they repeat themselves when taking both a closer look and when stepping back.  Read the rest of this entry »

Nature Table for July

Nature Table for July

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.

Things are dry this summer, and the landscape shows it. Leaves are droopy, moss is crispy, and the water lines on river rocks are alarmingly high above the current flow. Despite the drought’s impact on our surroundings, it makes rivers especially accessible for exploration. Even the smallest of adventurers can navigate through knee-deep pools and miniature falls – and that’s exactly what we’ve been up to. We’ve rambled up and down rivers and streams, clambering over rocks and splashing in pools, all in search of meaningful sensory experiences that will lead us to a deepened understanding of the place in which we live.

Last July, our bug-centric nature table was dictated by similar circumstances: hikes and swims and river rambles amongst the hills of western Massachusetts. Our focus this year has shifted, and we’ve had our eyes on the river since the warm season began. This month’s nature table is once again bug-centric, but is all about the bugs that we’ve found in the water – or rather, the evidence of bugs that we’ve found in the water.

Read the rest of this entry »

Nature Table for June

Nature Table for June

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.

I like to intend my nature tables to echo the out-of-doors, their contents shifting and changing as the local landscape changes outside. My classroom nature table is no exception to this description: our collection ebbs and flows constantly, evolving alongside both the seasons and our interests. This month’s nature table, however, defies the season-specific nature of such tools. Our collection of lichen samples certainly speaks to our current curiosities, but its contents could have been collected in essentially the same condition during any time of year – which is just one of the many fascinating qualities of this amazing living thing.

Lichen can be found almost anywhere within our local landscape. Here in our small river valley, it’s plentiful in the woods and on the rocks by the river. Searches in similar places throughout western Massachusetts will reveal a wealth of lichen in similar locations. It’s incredibly resilient, fairly plentiful, and comes in far more varieties than most folks would imagine. Though its crispy (and sometimes green) lobes and layers seem plant-like, lichen is actually both a fungus and an algae at the same time, and exists thanks to a symbiotic relationship between the two.  Read the rest of this entry »

Nature Table for April

Nature Table for April

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.

With April – and true spring – comes annually the final tug of the landscapes cozy winter blanket. This year, despite the mild winter, the earth has fought its inevitable awakening like a child refusing to rise after a fitful night of sleep. March presented a constant struggle for spring’s arrival: like parent and child tugging blankets and flicking lights on and off, the earth fought its own tilt towards the sun, countering each stretch of warm, sunny days with a return to gray skies and bitter winds. The recent snowstorm, blanketing much of the state with the thickest snow coating since last year, stands as the final showdown in the earth’s reluctant spring awakening: the tired child stomped itself out of bed, flicked off the light switch, and buried itself deep, deep in its cozy blanket nest, knowing full well that such a snuggle would be short lived.  Read the rest of this entry »

Nature Table for March

Nature Table for March

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.

Creatures really get a bad rap within the colloquialisms of the English language. We scorn people for their hare-brained schemes, we shame those without manners for their pig-like eating habits, and we accuse the flightiest of folks of being bird-brained. Within these phrases is a theme: that humans’ intelligence is far superior to that of certain animals. Perhaps there was once a hierarchy of animals that dictated which ones were insult-worthy; if there were, rabbits, pigs and birds were clearly low on the list.

Lately in our classroom, we’ve been putting a lot of thought into the idea of being “bird-brained.” We’ve fed and observed our feathered neighbors all winter, and nothing in our observations points to the lack of intelligence on the part of our feeder friends. Birds seem to be, in our experience, very intelligent – with one exception: they smash into our school’s windows with surprising frequency.

Read the rest of this entry »

Nature Table for February

Nature Table for February

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.

We, like the creatures we share our landscape with, spent the better portion of the fall and early winter resigning ourselves to the necessary hunkering down that the coming of cold and snow so requires. Perhaps as the result of being beaten into submission by last year’s constant snowfall (or maybe in anticipation of another year’s worth of excessive drifts and banks), we found snow boots, ski pants, thick coats, and all manner of hats and mittens at the first sign of frost this winter, and as soon as the daylight began to wane, we receded further into our indoor bunkers, hiding out stubbornly until the arrival of springtime. But now – much like creatures whose bodies adapt to the seasons – we’re finding that our stubborn reluctance and our thick layers are simultaneously unnecessary. The unseasonably warm temperatures as of late are inspiring us to end our self-imposed semi-hibernation; bare arms are making a comeback.

Here in western Massachusetts, many of the creatures with whom we share our landscape follow a winter routine quite similar to ours. Coats thicken, food is stockpiled, and the big rest is near. Local woodchucks, bears, bats, chipmunks, and certain mice take wintertime hibernation the most seriously, their bodies stockpiling layers of fat in order to support them through months’ worth of waiting and occasional waking. Other familiar local creatures like raccoon, skunk, and squirrel follow a pattern of hunkering down when winter hits, but they don’t hibernate quite as seriously as some of their other mammalian cousins. These creatures can still be spotted poking around their familiar warm season haunts, but are far less active during the winter. Regardless, the creatures know what’s up: when it’s cold, food becomes scarce, and hiding out (awake or asleep) is the best way to pass the time and ensure survival. Read the rest of this entry »

Nature Table for January

Nature Table for January

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 – the cold, dark, first one of the new year – is generally the one that launches birds’ most challenging time of year. With January generally comes ice and some serious snowfall, blanketing the local landscape under a beautiful and fluffy covering that, for humans, sparks unscheduled days off and season-specific outdoor activities. For the creatures with whom we share the local landscape, however, the ice and snow typical to January means something else: an increase in the amount of time and energy spent finding food, and a decrease in the accessibility of winter food sources.

This January, though, humans and creatures alike can’t quite seem to be able to figure out what to do with themselves: not only are we short a good foot or so of snow as ground covering, but we haven’t even experienced temperatures below the freezing point for more than a few days at a time. El Niño has given us a warm winter – one that doesn’t allow us to depend on seasonally-dictated routines in order to explore nature. Where last January certainly lived up to expectations, granting perfect conditions under which to search for animal tracks and sign, this January leaves the landscape largely exposed, offering itself as a buffet for the hardy species who stick around these parts through the winter.

This month’s table is not our usual kind: it is a dinner table of sorts, focused on the January habits of our feathered friends. Read the rest of this entry »

Nature Table for November

Nature Table for November

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.

Since the month has begun, the once-orange forests filling our river valley have become suddenly bare; late October showers scattered delicate leaves across our fields and roads. Everything around us is preparing for a big sleep. We see it in the squirrels’ scurrying, the chipmunks’ furious collecting, and the absence of some of our warm weather feathered friends.

It is at this time of year, though, that we begin to scour the landscape for a variety of signs of the beginning of new life. While the rest of the landscape stalls all growth and hunkers down for the first storm, this year’s seeds enter the spotlight. From tiny flecks to spiny cones, seeds come in all shapes and sizes, and can easily be found en masse amongst their suddenly bare pre-winter surroundings. Read the rest of this entry »

Nature Table for October

Stories in the Landscape

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.

It is during the turning of seasons that our own affect on the local landscape becomes most apparent. While the life that surrounds us makes its colorful and dramatic shift from summer to autumn, the portions of our landscape that to which phenology does not apply become all the more apparent. Our houses, our roads, our street signs, our stop lights – all of these things remain relatively unchanged as the seasons go by, refusing to yield to the gentlest forces of nature. Because our awareness of our surroundings involves the consideration of both natural and man-made elements, we become all the more aware of seasonal changes when they are contrasted with the lack of change elsewhere.

Recently, we’ve celebrated the end of river wading season and have spent some time exploring the shallow current of the river. Amidst discoveries of crayfish, caddis flies, and volcanic rock are discoveries of things that, unlike small creatures and stones, did not end up their on their own. In sloshing our way downstream to conduct this year’s Rapid Biotic Assessment, we found everything from bits of pottery to an oil filter, reminding us every few steps of the role that our own lives play in the life of all rivers.  Read the rest of this entry »

Nature Table for September

Telling Stories of Nature

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.

There are signs all around us that the end of summer is nigh – the rivers are running lower than ever, forest mushrooms are out in a rainbow of round-capped glory, the evenings darken earlier, apples are dropping of their own volition from branches, and our glowing sun-tanned bodies have returned to the concrete confines of a place of a different kind of learning. It is with summer’s end that our experiential nature-based learning begins to wane, but rather than putting our summer adventures behind us, we share them wholeheartedly, allowing connections to be built between the deep biotic immersion of summertime and the more structured learning we experience once the leaves turn.

This month’s nature table is a collection of objects intended to inspire curiosity, but also curated specially for the purpose of sharing stories. Our collection has migrated from our own tabletops to a space where it can be enjoyed by our entire community, and the curious summertime finds it holds inspire everything from cries of excitement about skull recognition to groans of frustration when it’s discovered that what looks like a duck’s bill doesn’t even belong to a bird. More than this, though, this month’s collection inspires the sharing of tales from summer and beyond – tales inspired by objects, memories whose recollection is dependent upon the recognition of the shape of a shell, the color of a feather, or the patterns in a rock’s layers.  Read the rest of this entry »

Nature Table for August

A Collection of Experiences

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.

So many of this summer’s days have been spent in cold waters underneath an umbrella of green and camp kids I have the privilege of spending time with. The young naturalists leading me through the forests that fill the Nonotuck Biome have reveled in the discovery of everything from water snakes to the perfect walking stick, and have walked with wonder through the process of falling in love with their surroundings. The small discoveries are frequent, serving as the pulse that pushes us further into the river-y veins that give life to our landscape.

It is, however, in examining closely not each small moment but the sum total of all of the small moments that we realize what we have truly learned together: that the earth is alive, and intensely so. When we compile the many experiences that we have had within a day, a week, or a season, we are left not with a stream of images but something larger – something encompassing our entire bodies, our entire consciousness.

Experiencing the seamless flow of life from field to forest to flowing waters with all of our senses allows us to connect the millions of moments we have experienced singularly: the texture of paper birch leaves; the sweet smell of a mushroom-covered nurse log; the chill of river waters moving under a thick canopy; the pattern of sunlight on moss; the maddeningly infinite song of water rushing over rock; and the endless other sensory experiences that light up our synapses when we experience our landscape fully.  Read the rest of this entry »

Nature Table for July

July’s Nature Table is Ready to Crawl Away

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.

There’s nothing scary about mammals. There’s nothing scary about birds. Fish are perhaps a bit odd looking, and might produce a scare when discovered in murky waters, but they’re pretty safe creatures too. There isn’t much to be truly scared of within the plant kingdom, either. Bugs, on the other hand, have the power to produce negative reactions the likes of which other creatures can only dream of eliciting from humankind. There’s just something about them – or many things, maybe – that can induce panic in humans of any size. So what is it about these miniature beasts that bothers us so much? This month’s nature table contains a collection of potential panic-inducing specimens that may lead us closer to forming an answer to this question.

In the heat of July in western Massachusetts, the small-yet-intrepid youth explorers leading me this summer have begun to discover a wide range of creepy-crawlies in all kinds of different habitats. We’ve found mites in rich soil, giant beetles amongst wild strawberries, wolf spiders on river rocks, spittle bugs frothing on buttercup stems, and ticks (the least welcome of all discoveries) navigating their way through forests of leg hair. For the mini-naturalists I’m adventuring with, these creatures have been met with kindness and curiosity rather than shrieks of terror (the ticks received a slightly less warm welcome, but still no shrieks), but for many kids, the discovery of anything small that can crawl is a terrifying experience. The discovery that a small crawling creature can also fly – well, let’s not imagine the panic that might induce.  Read the rest of this entry »

Nature Table for June

The Space Between: Finding Dichotomy to Learn About Nature

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.

We humans do some of our best learning through observation. Even those of us who have yet to develop any consciousness surrounding this aspect of our learning process still depend on the powers of observation in learning about the world. Observation is the means of education for that which we cannot experience; while we will never experience what it’s like to sprout from an acorn and spend a season growing slender and leafy, we can watch the process and reflect on what we’ve seen.

While observation is often looked at as a process of watching, it is actually a process in which watching is very closely intertwined with both reflection and comparison, and this is especially true in learning about our surroundings. We observe the changes taking place around us throughout any given season, and we use our ability to reflect on earlier days in the season and compare these memories with what we’re currently experiencing. It is in this balance of experience and some brain-based form of Venn diagramming that our best understandings are built.

This month, our nature table focuses not on a seasonal theme but the idea of dichotomy – a division that exists between two separate groups of things. Read the rest of this entry »

Reborn! Nature Table for May

Spring is Here & New Life is Welcomed

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.

Spring has arrived here in West Franklin County quite suddenly. Just as the very last traces of the most stubborn and well-frozen snowbank disappeared, so came 80-degree days, red faces, and an almost instantaneous burst of light green just about everywhere. We somehow managed to entirely bypass mud season this year, and have not had to exercise patience in waiting for the landscape to dry so as to easily accommodate our adventures. The brown grass is about to give way to a surge of new squashy green stuff, and newly-hatched leaves adorn the twig-ends of each and every deciduous branch that the eye can see. Indoors, our collecting follows this common thread of hatching, and new life is beginning right before our very eyes. The landscape is awake, and so are the creatures. And when the creatures have awakened, they reproduce as if their lives depend on it. Read the rest of this entry »

Nature Table for April is Strong as a Rock

Nature Table for April is Strong as a Rock

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.

Everybody needs a rock.
I am sorry for kids who don’t have a rock.

These words – the opening lines of Byrd Baylor’s Everybody Needs a Rock – carry with them deep meaning, both literal and metaphorical. It can be hard to feel sane and grounded at this time of year, when each day is a game of waiting for the sun and searching for small patches of green. Especially after the long, cold winter that we experienced, finding patience for the slowness of early spring is difficult. It’s difficult to remember that the earth is doing slow growing, it’s difficult to notice that each day gets a little bit better, and it’s difficult to appreciate the small things like slowly melting snow and growing leaf buds.

It’s this time of year, more than any other, that it’s important for us to have a rock, in both the literal and figurative sense of the phrase. Unlike any plant or living creature that we can find nearby, and still much unlike human beings, rocks are things of natural beauty that have been created slowly, slowly, slowly over huge expanses of time – longer expanses than any plant, human, or other living thing could ever hope to live for. Of course, rocks are not alive, but nevertheless their age and slow creation is astounding. Close inspection of the millions of tiny speckles, scratches, crevices, corners, and textures that make each rock unique reveals this slow process and long, long existence. Read the rest of this entry »

Nature Tables: A Year in Review

Nature Tables: A Year in Review

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.

After a year’s worth of Nature Tables, my own awareness of the local landscape has become heightened greatly. After a full seasonal cycle filled with monthly posts, it is time to reflect on what has come and passed, so as to look forward to another year’s worth of awakening, growth, and rest. Whereas humans mark their starting over point in mid-winter, when January’s snow coats the ground and temperatures remain frigid, nature begins again in spring, when the ground re-emerges from the melting slush and thrusts forward a whole new crop of green and growing life. And so it is that in anticipation of this forthcoming burst of new life that I reflect on a year’s worth of collecting, a year’s worth of paying close attention to the subtle and constant changes taking place all around me… Read the rest of this entry »

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. Read the rest of this entry »

Nature Table for December

Thanksgiving Snowstorm Shakes Out a Unique Blend for December’s Nature Table

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.

Winter here in West County came early this year, blanketing the ground with a pile of heavy, wet snow and pulling down anything and everything willing to bend. The woods, roadsides, and backyards of our area are littered with tree debris, and once-sturdy trunks now stand like wounded warriors, their bright, fleshy interiors bared for all to see after the loss of a limb (or two or three). Our own beloved crabapple, which grows its roots just outside the classroom windows, has lost nearly a third of its beautiful feeder-baring limbs.

The early snow and subsequent rain and melting has seemed to confuse us slightly, and this month’s nature table reflects the lack of seasonal connectedness that we’ve experienced. We prepared ourselves for winter and faced its snow and frigid temperatures, only to find that once we’d mastered the boots-and-snowpants routine, it was warm enough again to brave the blacktop in sneakers. Similarly, our nature table contains bits of evergreen as reminders that soon, they’ll truly be the only green that we see, while out the window, a mix of brown and green grass mocks our dedication to its demise.  Read the rest of this entry »

Nature Table for November

November’s Nature Table is Filled with Beginnings and Endings

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.

It’s dark outside these days, and the hills all seem a little less tall now that they’re devoid of the leafy fluff that extends their reach a little closer to the clouds. While it may seem that the change in seasons signals to the natural world that it should slow to a stop, there are beginnings amongst all of the ending.

This past week, my classroom hung the first few in a collection of bird feeders outside our windows. We’ve tracked goldfinches, blue jays, nuthatches, chickadees, and some small woodpeckers outside of our window, and the bird journal is quickly filling up with sightings. The buffet of thistle and sunflower seeds has attracted a wide variety of feathered folks, and we’re proud to feed them suet from a local farm. An outdoor snack time afforded us the opportunity to inspect our feeder-holding crabapple, allowing us to discover the many perfectly round holes pecked into its bark. We’re looking forward to continuing to learn how to identify the bird species found locally, and are planning to participate in some feeder-related citizen science this winter. Read the rest of this entry »

Nature Table for October

This Month’s Nature Table Illustrates Rhythm of Nature

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.

The rains have littered the October ground with a crackling sea shed from the maples outside our window. Fall at our West County elementary school is beautiful, as it turns out, and warmer than we expected. Stories about the chill of fall air sit on the shelf, waiting for the cooler mornings to last all day long and provide the proper climate-context for their telling. Even our wardrobes are confused, and small bodies alternate constantly between winter coats and t-shirts as the temperature bobs up and down. Our classroom “pets,” a collection of pond snails, move about their bowl at approximately the pace that fall has arrived at this year, and they devour green leaves at about the same rate that those outside our window have changed. Our caterpillar has come and gone, his quick chrysalis-ed exit to an outdoor overwintering suspected to have been the result of a few days’ worth of boredom in our room. Read the rest of this entry »

Nature Table for September

A Transition Between Seasons Brings a Colorful Table

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.

September has brought a nature table filled by the hands of young amateur scientists. As we work to build our new classroom community together, we’re also learning how to look at the world around us. Writing lessons take us outside with clipboards, ready to write about the things that we find. Science sends us on a hunt for specific items, though we’re easily side-tracked by crickets and butterflies. Math surveys are centered around favorite local animals, and whether or not we go hunting with our families. Outside games disintegrate into a group effort to free apples from trees using sticks…

Lucky for all of us, fall’s graceful appearance comes on slow, allowing us to soak it in. Our collecting so far has been filled with excitement over the very, very first signs that the seasons are beginning to change. Sumac – plentiful ’round these West County parts – has started to turn a little bit, and golden rod is blooming with glory. Both of these have been major players in our early fall table-scape, reminding us of the overlap of summer and fall. The half-eaten apples we’ve found (and have watched quickly brown) can only be the leftovers of a feasting animal, though the students don’t seem to be inclined to believe its origins.  Read the rest of this entry »

Nature Table for August

Taking the Table on the Road Reveals Diverse Collection

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.

It’s no secret – the tail end of summer is fast approaching. The nights are cooler, the air is drier, and the natural wonders of fall are preparing to emerge. The recent rainfall is providing the perfect growing conditions for the first mushrooms of the season, and we’re greedily gobbling up the very last of the year’s blueberry harvest. While summer’s end can be bittersweet (and often times jam-packed with last-minute adventures), it’s also filled with natural treasures – summer’s final gems continue to slowly emerge throughout the month while signs of fall begin to appear, making for a simultaneous beginning and end.

Summer’s travels have made for a collection filled with items found locally, as well as items found in slightly more far-flung destinations. Alongside the Massachusetts forest’s wealth of galls, nests, and twigs are treasures from the desert and ocean – a crab’s shell from Maine sits alongside invasive zebra mussels from Nevada’s man-made Lake Mead and a delicate butterfly collected from a desert trail in the mountains from which the Colorado River flows.  Read the rest of this entry »

Nature Table for July

Rivers & lakes dispense gifts for July

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.

When the air is thick and muggy and temperatures stretch beyond the thermometer’s eighty degree marker, we head to the river. Though the river is a major feature in our landscape no matter the season, the hot days of midsummer compel us to develop a much more intimate relationship with the ripples and rapids than we’ve upheld throughout the rest of the year. Our far-away glances and detached musings about river-bottom happenings slip silently into the current, transforming as they cool into true knowing – our feet dig deep into the sandy river bed, our hands feel the rocks’ soft surfaces, and our veins pulse a little cooler, a river in miniature inside of ourselves.

July is indisputably a time for swimming, a time when we direct all of our attention to eradicating our skin of prickly, sticky sweat, a time to submerge ourselves with abandon into the dark water that rushes down from the hills. In the summertime, we experience our landscape much differently than we do any other time of year – and not just because it’s full of life. Warm weather grants us the opportunity to explore wet places without protection – bare feet, bare arms, bare bellies. Read the rest of this entry »

Nature Table for June

“June Is Bustin’ Out All Over”

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.

Our recent weather is unmistakably that of early June – thunderstorms have filled our small West County valley with thick, muggy air and heavy, low-hanging fog that hides the tops of hills. The landscape is so green we have to squint sometimes, and the darkest bits of nature are lost amongst all of the light. It’s obvious that June is going to be good to us – wild strawberries are starting to bloom, the summer’s first mushrooms are starting to pop up, our school garden is fully planted, and the frogs have been plentiful and easy to catch. June’s nature table will be our last of the school year, but not my last for the summer. I’ll continue to collect items all summer long, saving, storing, and preserving what I can to share with my fellow nature enthusiasts in the fall. Read the rest of this entry »

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