Flower Shows Offer Lessons in Botany & Habitat

Orchids & Tulips: Learning About Botany & Habitat

Every winter, the Pioneer Valley’s greenhouses burst into bloom despite the cold weather outside. Bulbs, planted in the fall, come to life and bloom just as the dreariest time of year begins to relent. Not only do these first blossoms bring hope towards the end of winter with their color and fragrances, they present a seasonal opportunity for families to learn together about habitat, the life cycle of plants, and the structural nuances that differentiate one species from another.

Beginning in February and continuing through the first few weeks of March, three different annual flower shows will be open to visitors in the Pioneer Valley. The first of the three is the Orchid Society’s annual show, follow by Spring Bulb Shows at the Smith College Botanical Garden in Northampton and the Mount Holyoke College Botanic Garden in South Hadley.  Read the rest of this entry »

Summer Opportunities to Connect People to Place through Wild and Cultivated Food

Summer Opportunities to Connect People to Place through Wild and Cultivated Food

Summer offers learning opportunities that integrate culinary arts with botany and agriculture. In addition to many, year-round offerings of culinary workshops and resources in Western Massachusetts, seasonal events such as guided wild plant walks can open up new doorways of interests and add local, fresh ingredients to your cooking practice.

Whether you are interested in wild plant walks, gardening, farming, or cooking, there are ample opportunities for you and your family to connect with your community through food and plants. Here are several community-based educational resources and events to support your interests while engaging in your community this summer: Read the rest of this entry »

Invasive Species an Unlikely Catalyst for Community-Based Learning

Invasive Species an Unlikely Catalyst for Community-Based Learning

We’re unfortunately quite familiar with invasive species here in western Massachusetts. From the dreaded Emerald Ash Borer gnawing its way through every tasty tree in sight to Japanese knotweed crowding nearly every riverbank for miles around, invasive species have made our place their home… but how is it that this happens?

Though quite unwanted and dangerous to our fragile ecosystems, the numerous invasive species that have become part of the local landscape can serve as a community-based resource for learning. Through studies of local habitat, opportunities for citizen science, and targeted community service efforts, local families can use invasive species as a catalyst for building knowledge and cohesiveness both at home and in the community at large.

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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 »

Listen for Frogs, Become a Citizen Scientist!

Listen for Frogs, Become a Citizen Scientist!

Just in time for the awakening of amphibian species, Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary offers a training on the FrogWatch citizen science project! Using this and other resources, families can learn about local species of frogs and salamanders and can engage in important conservation work.

Not long from now, local ponds, wetlands, and vernal pools will be teeming with life. Teetering somewhere between ice-crusted and mucky as of late, these aquatic habitats are home to a variety of fascinating species – including many types of frogs! As the landscape awakens, families can prepare for the appearance of local amphibian species by learning to identify common species, exploring the life cycle of amphibians, and engaging in citizen science opportunities.

Hibernating amphibians rise from their icy winter sleep on the first rainy night when the temperature rises above 40 degrees. Known sometimes as “the big night,” this occasion is cause for celebration – and for science. Families can serve as salamander crossing guards, helping the creatures to reach their breeding pools and taking part in citizen science at the same time.

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Hilltown Families on Mass Appeal: Learning on the Watershed

Hilltown Families on Mass Appeal: June Segment
Habitat to Support Community-Based Education

Hilltown Families and Mass Appeal (a weekday, hour-long lifestyle program on NBC) have teamed up to offer a live monthly segment on WWLP 22News!  Each month, Hilltown Families’ Founder & Executive Director, Sienna Wildfield,  joins Mass Appeal host, Ashley Kohl, to talk about ways to engage in your community while supporting the interests and education of your children (and yourselves!).

This monthly segment continued on Thursday, June 25, 2015, this month looking at community-based education through the lens of habitat.  Sienna and Ashley talk about community-based events and resources that support an integrative approach to nature-based learning:

Summer months are a great time of year to get outside with your kids and allow nature to become their classroom.  During the warmer months, look through the lens of your local habitat to find ways for your families to engage in your community while supporting interests and education.  What you will find are opportunities and resources that integrate learning cross a variety of interests, including:

  • River ecology to support interests in insects.
  • Wetlands to support learning about the food chain.
  • Bogs for discovering unique native plants.

Points of entry to community engagement that not only support interest and education, but also support the values of many families include:

  • Outdoor adventures supporting intergenerational engagement while learning about the river.
  • Citizen scientist opportunities to engage families in the scientific process while learning about river ecology.
  • Family volunteering that support service-based learning while keeping our rivers clean and protected.

Discover information and ideas highlighted here in our post,
Learning Along the Watershed: Rivers, Wetlands & Bogs.


Mass Appeal is a live weekday program that airs at 11am on 22News (Springfield, MA).  Our next visit to the Mass Appeal studios will be Thursday, July 25!

Amherst Bee Friendly Week to Begin on National Arbor Day

Amherst Seeks to “Bee” Friendly!

Amherst has declared the week of April 24th – May 1st as “Amherst Bee Friendly Week.” In efforts to meet the certification requirements, community-based programs, workshops and educational opportunities are being offered!

The Town of Amherst is hoping to become the first certified “Bee Friendly” community in Massachusetts! In an effort to assist the declining honey bee population, Shelburne’s Piti Theatre Company, led by Jonathan Mirin and Godeliève Richard, are leading a campaign to raise awareness, educate and create more bee friendly habitat.

“Amherst Sustainability Coordinator Stephanie Ciccarello and Grow Food Amherst embraced the Bee Week idea last year and have incorporated it into their programming in 2015. They are pioneering the Bee Friendly Town model and it’s very exciting,” said Jonathan Mirin. Read the rest of this entry »

Mapping Vernal Pool Habitats Hosts Loads of Learning

Mapping Vernal Pools

Families can explore and map local vernal pools all on their own! The process of inspecting, mapping, and tracking present species is quite a project to undertake as a family, but is one that can provide endless opportunities for learning and exploration of the natural world.

Vernal pools are the breeding grounds for some of spring’s most exciting life – literally! Not only are they home to special species like fairy shrimp, who spend their entire lives in vernal pool habitats, but the watery mini-ponds provide a venue for salamander and frog species to lay eggs for late-spring hatching. While some vernal pools in western Massachusetts are well known (Sheburne’s High Ledges are home to a local favorite), there are certainly many, many more vernal pools whose locations have yet to be officially determined.

Families can explore vernal pools in their neighborhoods by using the Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program’s GIS Data vernal pool maps, which can be downloaded either as a GIS layer (for tech-y families) or as a datalayer in an online map. While there’s still lots of snow on the ground, the sound of peepers will soon be serenading the hills on spring evenings, and vernal pools will be slowly coming alive with fresh water and lots of fascinating life.

But what about those vernal pools that have yet to be mapped by the state? Read the rest of this entry »

Wild & Scenic Saturdays Offer Experiential Learning Along the Westfield River

Wild and Scenic Saturdays on the Westfield River
April through October, 2014

Click to view larger image.

Wild and Scenic Saturdays cover a wide range of topics and include activities that cater to families with children of all ages. Additionally, the learning embedded in each and every one of the events will help children not only to better understand the river ecosystem, but will allow them to connect the things that they experience in the watershed to concepts that they’ve learned and home and school.

For over twenty years, the Westfield River has been distinguished as a National Wild and Scenic River. The river and its watershed provide critical habitat for a great many plant and animal species (rare ones included!), serve as a source of clean drinking water for humans, and offer us a place to commune with nature and enjoy activities like kayaking, fishing, and hiking.  Treat yourself each month to Kurt’s column, The Ripple: Stories About Western MA Rivers. This month he features the Westfield River in his post, “The Cure for All Things Pavement.”

During the coming months, the Westfield River Committee is offering a series of Saturday workshops, work days, guided explorations, and other events in order to engage the community in a process of learning about and how to care for the river and its watershed. The Wild and Scenic Saturdays offer a mix of educational activities, opportunities to engage in community service, and adventures into the watershed’s fascinating wilderness. Read the rest of this entry »

Orchids & Tulips: Learning About Botany & Habitat

Every winter, the Pioneer Valley’s greenhouses burst into bloom despite the cold weather outside. Bulbs, planted in the fall, come to life and bloom just as the dreariest time of year begins to relent. Not only do these first blossoms bring hope towards the end of winter with their color and fragrances, they present a seasonal opportunity for families to learn together about habitat, the life cycle of plants, and the structural nuances that differentiate one species from another. Read more in our post, Flower Shows Offer Lessons in Botany & Habitat.


[Photo credit: (cc) sunoochi]

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YardMap: Make Your Yard a Personal Refuge

Get a Bird’s Eye View of Your Habitat

YardMap is a citizen science project offered by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The goal of YardMap is to support the lab scientists’ work in understanding bird populations. Families participate by creating maps of the habitat provided within their yard (whether it’s native or not) using Google maps, which are then submitted to the lab…

The average American lawn is filled with lush green grass and some landscaped trees and shrubs. Here in western Massachusetts, we’re lucky enough to be able to live amongst natural and beautiful surroundings like forests, fields, mountains, and water of all types. Even if we have grassy yards, many homes are surrounded by natural habitat that has existed since long before our homes were built. Of course, we do have an impact on the environment around us, but our small communities leave us with the opportunity to work to blend in with nature, rather than set ourselves apart from it.

Natural habitat is incredibly important for supporting the many different kinds of creatures who share your surroundings. Plant and animal populations exist within a delicately balanced system that can easily be influenced by eliminating or drastically changing habitats. One way to ensure that your effect on your surroundings isn’t negative is by planting native species of trees, shrubs, and even flowers in your yard, but with the growing season rapidly coming to an end, what should families do in order to support natural critter habitat? Participate in YardMap!

Read the rest of this entry »

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