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 »

5 First Day Hikes for the New Year

Setting Intentions on the First Day of the Year with a First Day Hike

The New Year is often seen as a moment of reflection and intention-setting.  While on your first hike, consider taking your journal with you.  Nature can be inspiring and provides a place for contemplation and meditation.  A few writing prompts to help you get started:

  • What is a new skill you would like to learn this year?
  • Describe one of your favorite memories from last year.
  • Make a list of the favorite places you visited in your community last year.
  • Make a list of places you would like to explore further this year.
  • What is a new skill that you learned last year?

Here are 5 guided first day hikes to select for the first day of 2017:  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 »

Literary Guide for Natalia Romanova’s “Once There Was a Tree”

Literary Guide for Natalia Romanova’s “Once There Was a Tree”

Download literary guide for Once There Was a Tree.

Natalia Romanova’s Once There Was a Tree tells the story of life after death in nature. Beginning at the end of a great tree’s life, the book spotlights the many visitors and inhabitants who benefit from what the former tree’s stump and roots have to offer. Beginning and ending with human visitors, the chain of use includes bark beetles, ants, and even a bear! Each visitor to the stump gains something substantial from it and begins to feel ownership of it – though each, unbeknownst to them, ends up sharing it with all of the others. In the end, the stump remains and, though many have utilized it as a resource, it continues to offer itself to the world. So who then does it belong to? All of the visitors feel that it is theirs, yet each of them has taken advantage of a different part of the stump. Without realizing it, the people and creatures who feel they own the stump have actually shared it – allowing the stump to truly belong to everyone and, ultimately, to the earth itself.  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 »

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 »

Explore the Local Landscape and Local History with Hike 125

Explore the Local Landscape and Local History with Hike 125

Alongside camping, hiking stands as one of summer’s most classic family activities. The leafy canopy afforded to hikers on forest trails makes the woods a cool and inviting space to explore, and the potential for exploring nature at its greenest and liveliest is enticing for adventurers of any age. From short afternoon hikes to serious treks, the trails of western Massachusetts have much to offer adventurous families.

On top of the many benefits of hiking is an added bonus this summer, related specifically to local trails that are part of properties maintained by the Trustees of Reservations. To celebrate the organization’s 125th anniversary, the Trustees are holding the Hike 125 challenge, a celebratory event that challenges locals to hike 125 (or more) miles of the Trustees’ trails before December 31, 2016. In addition to a strong sense of accomplishment, heightened awareness of natural phenomena, stronger muscles, and a deepened sense of place, all participants attempting to rise to the challenge will be entered to win special prizes – with those who manage to hike at least 125 miles entered to win the best prizes of all.  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 »

Summer Camping Adventures Promote Nature-Based Play and Learning

Summer Camping Adventures Promote Nature-Based Play and Learning

Camping is one of the most classic outdoor adventures of childhood, and thanks to the wealth of state parks and forests found locally, there are endless camping adventures to be had in western Massachusetts! From exposing young campers to sleeping outside to allowing children to experience all aspects of the local landscape, camping trips are full of meaningful experiences.

The long days and warm nights of summer provide the perfect conditions for family camping, a tradition that serves as one of childhood’s most classic summer adventures. Camping trips not only allow children to learn how to live outside of their homes, but provide them with the opportunity to engage in experiential learning about their surroundings during all hours of the day (and perhaps the night, too). From afternoon playtime in the woods to an evening of fireflies and campfires to the misty early morning hours that bring endless bird songs, camping trips offer ceaseless exposure to the sights, sounds, and smells of the world. As an added bonus, children who connect with their surroundings are many times more likely to practice environmentally friendly and conservation-minded behaviors as adults. Read the rest of this entry »

Elms College Bioblitz Encourages Citizen Scientists

Biodiversity in Your Neighborhood

Elms College is throwing a Bioblitz on Saturday, April 30, 9am-3pm at Chicopee Memorial State Park. Teachers, students, parents and friends of all ages are invited to team up with scientists to identify as many of the park’s living creatures as possible in a single day. This is a wonderful opportunity to meet people working in scientific fields and ask them questions about science in general or about their careers specifically. Participation can get community members interested in the biodiversity of their local lands, and as a result make them more invested in conservation efforts. Documenting of local species can give scientists clues for further research. You never know what you’re going to find until you look! Please register online at the Elms College website. 570 Burnett Road, Chicopee, MA. (FREE)

In the past twenty years, childhood in the United States has moved indoors. The average American child spends about thirty minutes of their day in unstructured, outdoor play, and more than seven hours in front of a screen (see this report for more information). Most people intuitively understand the connection between time spent in nature and positive well-being. Fresh air and exercise keep our bodies in shape and our minds focused. But did you know that time spent outdoors in childhood also is correlated with better distance vision? If you and your child pair your time spent outdoors with species identification, this may sharpen your visual skills even further as you try to spot birds, plants, insects, and mammals which may be small, or may dart away at the sight of you. This kind of activity also teaches patience and focus.

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 »

Interconnections Between the Birds & the Bees

Studies of Birds and Insects Illuminate Interconnectedness in Nature

While they seem to fill very separate niches within the environment, birds and insects share some important symbiotic relationships. Both birds and insects play vital roles in the places and spaces that they inhabit (nearly everywhere), and though their roles are not shared, they are sometimes dependent upon one another. Exploring the relationship between the two can illuminate interconnections found within nature, and highlights the ways in which life forms develop relationships based on one another roles in a landscape.

Though most bird-insect relationships are simply predator-prey relationships, there are ways in which the two types of creatures exist in symbiosis – though the insects serving as meals might beg to differ about the extent to which such a relationship is truly symbiotic. Though bird-insect relationships generally result in someone getting eaten, they’re still important and essential to the survival of not only birds, but some plants as well. Read the rest of this entry »

Miniature Tracks of Insects in our Local Habitat

Exhibit Features the Tracks and Sign of Insects

When we think of tracking in nature, our minds generally drift to following the footprints of somewhat sizable creatures – generally mammals, and sometimes birds. Some of nature’s most fascinating and beautiful tracks and sign are, however, left behind by the smallest creatures of all: insects! Insect tracks and sign can be found in abundance and in many forms – if you know where and how to look.

Families can explore the miniature world of insect tracks through a special photography exhibit at the Westhampton Library featuring the work of Charley Eiseman, one of the country’s best entomologists and inhabitant of the Connecticut River Valley. Co-author of Tracks and Signs of Insects, Eiseman has explored the insect world extensively, and his photographs show not only attention to detail and beauty, but deep knowledge of the habits of insects, whose sign can easily go unnoticed by the untrained eye. Read the rest of this entry »

BioBlitz in the Pioneer Valley: Experiential Learning for Novice Naturalists

BioBlitz 2016 Spotlights Citizen Science and Biodiversity in Hampden County

Organized by Elms College, BioBlitz 2016 offers an important opportunity to engage in citizen science in Chicopee! Designed to identify and record as many species of living things as possible, the BioBlitz provides experiential learning opportunities for novice naturalists!

The local landscape is filled with so much life, to locate and identify it all would take the work of many – luckily, that’s exactly what a bioblitz is for! On Saturday, April 30th, Elms College hosts BioBlitz 2016 at Memorial State Park in Chicopee from 9am-3pm. Pairing the knowledge and expertise of scientists, naturalists, and college students with that of children, families, and community members, the event is equal parts citizen science, community service, and community collaboration, and offers unique experiential learning opportunities as a result.

Used in locations far and wide but originating here in Massachusetts, the BioBlitz is a community event used to identify and record any and all species of life found in a specific geographic area. The purpose of such events is to gather information about the populations that locations can support, and to assess the health of an outdoor space. An additional use for BioBlitzes is to educate, allowing citizen scientists to learn about the complex ecosystem in which they live. Read the rest of this entry »

6 Ways to Mix Service-Based Learning with Nature Studies

Service Learning & Nature Studies

By Andrea Caluori-Rivera
MassLIFT AmeriCorps Member at Hilltown Land Trust & Kestrel Land Trust

Learn about different bird species and habitat! Building a birdhouse is a great activity to do on a rainy afternoon that incorporates many skills and interests (woodworking, building, design, citizen science). There are many things to consider before building a birdhouse so take a look at Mass Audubon’s informational site on birdhouses to get started.

Service learning is a great way to encourage active citizenship and a strong environmental ethic.  Last weekend, I sat down with fellow MassLIFT AmeriCorps member, Nick Atherton, to talk about his role as the Service Learning Coordinator at Mount Grace Land Trust and to learn how to incorporate service learning into nature studies projects.

Nick’s primary role is to partner with local schools by creating service-learning opportunities for students that connect them to the outdoors and cultivate environmental awareness. His recent collaborations include interpretive sign making for local trails and research projects on the socio-economic benefits associated with having access to pristine and healthy eco-systems.  He also assists classes with property monitoring of local town trails, and is in the process of helping a middle school class create and care for a classroom garden.  Based on his experiences, Nick explains, “Service-learning empowers young people. It connects them to the community and to their work. It fosters a connection to the land, and makes people stakeholders in their environment.”

With all of these projects, Nick also relies on older generations to pass down their wisdom and skills. For example, in order to start the classroom garden, Nick consulted a community volunteer and master gardener to teach him basic gardening. “These experiences of growing your own food or monitoring properties, they are all best taught from a place of passion, which falls a lot on volunteers to pass down to younger generations.”  Passion is at the core of volunteerism. By donating time to share our skills and give back, we become more connected to our neighbors, family and community.  As Nick mentioned in our meeting, service learning is a great way to cultivate intergenerational skill sharing.  It highlights how we all are integral parts of our community and that everyone has something to teach, learn and share.

So, what are some ways you can combine service learning into your nature studies? Nick and I compiled a few service learning resources to get you started at home and in your community.  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 »

Fall Science: Hands-On Experiments to Connect with the Change of Season

Fall-Inspired Hands-On Science Inspires Outdoor Experiments

Crisp fall days are a great time for outdoor hands-on science! Using fall-harvested crops and the natural phenomena of autumn as inspiration, families can explore everything from weather prediction to animal tracks. These engaging outdoor science projects can be enjoyed by scientists of all ages, and require few materials – the learning inspired by each project will come naturally thanks to participants’ curiosity and ability to observe! Read the rest of this entry »

Autumn Supports Science-Based Learning in Local Landscape

Fall Phenology Inspires Science-Based Learning in Local Landscape

Phenology – the study of seasonal change in plants and animals – helps to illuminate the slow and subtle daily changes undergone in the living things around us. By combining leaf peeping with an awareness of phenology, families can learn about the science behind the colorful fall landscape.

Along with the colorful transitions that the fall landscape undergoes come opportunities to explore a wide variety of scientific topics. Viewing a fall landscape can serve as a catalyst for studies of botany, dendrology, ecology, and natural history, and can help children to deepen their sense of place and their understanding of themselves as existing within – rather than beside – the local landscape.

Studies of the autumn landscape fall into the broad scientific category of phenology, which is the study of the cyclic nature of growth and change in plants and animals – as is generally attributed to the changing in seasons. The phenology of a New England fall involves observations of patterns of death and preparation for hibernation, as annual plants approach the end of their single-season lives and perennials prepare for a season of frozen sleep.  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 »

Every Kid in a (National) Park!

Every Kid in a Park Offers 4th Graders a National Park Free-for-All!

During the 2015-2016 school year, families of 4th graders can gain free access to all of the country’s fantastic national parks! Whether by exploring Massachusetts’ historic sites and national seashore or dreaming about mountainous parks out west, families can engage in both experiential and inspired learning about the treasures our park system has to offer.

Just because summer is quickly waning doesn’t mean that family adventures have to come to an end – and why should they, when national parks have been more accessible to families than ever before! Thanks to the Every Kid in a Park initiative, families that include a 4th grade student (or a home- or un-schooled child of the equivalent age) can visit any of the United States’ national parks for free during the 2015-2016 school year. Every Kid in a Park gives families opportunities to engage experientially in studies of the natural and cultural history of our country, and helps to promote nature-based play and learning by inspiring families to explore the outdoors.

While Massachusetts is not home to any national parks showcasing vast tracts of unique land, the state is filled with national historic sites that speak to the role the state has played in American history – particularly during the 17th and 18th centuries. Locally, the Springfield Armory offers a military history immersion experience within day-trip distance of all of western Massachusetts. In addition to historic sites, a full list of Massachusetts parks reveals natural gems such as the Cap Cod National Seashore and the Boston Harbor Islands, locations that afford visitors the opportunity to explore the state’s Atlantic coastline. 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 »

Hilltown Families on Mass Appeal: Learning Experiences at Agricultural Fairs

Hilltown Families on Mass Appeal: July Segment
Agricultural Fairs Celebrate Local History. Preserve Local Culture

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 hosts 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 Friday, July 31, 2015, this time looking at community-based education through the lens of local culture embedded in yearly agricultural fairs.  Sienna and Seth talk about ways agricultural fairs offer families opportunities to participate in a community integrated tradition while offering a myriad of learning experiences!

Discover information and ideas highlighted here in our post,
History, Culture & Community Can All Be Found at Western MA Agricultural Fairs


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, August 20!

Community-Based Learning at Native Plant Nursery & Wildlife Sanctuary in Berkshires

Weekend with Wildlife Highlights Symbiosis of Native Species

“The caterpillars are remarkable and seeing them up close gives you a new appreciation of the creatures who often go unnotice,” shared Project Native Intern, Lindsay Buesgens.

Dedicated to growing and teaching about native plants, as well as preserving the species who depend upon them, Project Native in Housatonic, MA, offers extensive opportunities to learn about the plants and creatures who live within the local landscape and the ways in which their existence is interconnected. Maintaining 54 acres filled with over 200 local plant species, a wildlife sanctuary, and a native butterfly house, Project Native’s impact is great.

From July 24-26, 2015, families can join Project Native in celebrating the wonders of the natural world by participating in Weekend With Wildlife, a three-day-long event featuring studies of caterpillars, birds of prey, and the many inhabitants of the lush landscape offered at Project Native’s 54-acre farm in Housatonic. Though the grounds at Project Native are filled with enough life to sustain enough wildlife-centric learning to fill hundreds of weekends, the Weekend With Wildlife will include visits from special guest presenters, within whom will come many fascinating wildlife visitors.  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 »

State Forests & Parks: Treasure for all to Enjoy

Massachusetts State Forests & Parks Connect Community to Local Habitat and Natural Resources

In the extreme southwest corner of Massachusetts is a cluster of state parks noted for their spectacular scenery and breathtaking views, including Mount Washington State Forest. Adjacent to the state forest is Bash Bish Falls, one of the state’s most dramatic waterfalls. Cascading water tumbles through a series of gorges, and then plummets some 60 feet into a sparkling pool below. One of the many “so much fun for so little money” locations the DCR manages.

  • “Come out and play!”
  • “Find yourself in a state park.”
  • “It’s your nature.”

These are some of the phrases Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) has used over the years to invite visitors to Massachusetts state Forests and Parks.  They are all true. Here’s another one:  “So much fun for so little money!” It’s unofficial, of my own invention, and so true, too.

The Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation – the state forests and parks – kicks its recreation season into high gear in June.  Plan a visit.  Plan lots of visits.  Let’s talk about the “so much fun” part first.  “For so little money” is covered later in this article.

SO MUCH FUN

The first thing to know about your state Forests and Parks is that there are lots of them – approximately 150 sites throughout Massachusetts. They range from small “pocket parks,” such as playgrounds, in eastern Massachusetts, to several thousand acre forests in western Massachusetts. October Mountain in Berkshire County, at over 16,000 acres, is one of the largest.

The point is this:  Each park is special in its own unique way, whether it is a geologic wonder, like Natural Bridge‘s marble formations in North Adams; or the state’s highest peak, Mt. Greylock State Reservation, in Lanesboro; or waterfalls like the 80-foot Bash Bish Falls in Mt. Washington; or even re-claimed forest land, such as Erving State Forest and many of our other state forests. Read the rest of this entry »

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!

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