Nature-Based Learning: Learning through the Lens of the Wild Orchid

“Writing professor Kyhl Lyndgaard finds that 19th-century attitudes about ‘Indian removal’ were echoed by a notable shift in the common names of native orchids.” This is the sentence that begins the article, “Taking Off the Moccasin Flower and Putting On the Lady’s Slipper,” published by Potash Hill, the magazine of Marlboro College. Using the Lady Slipper (sp. Cypripedium acaule), in which we’ve seen a “bumper crop” this year, as a catalyst for learning, let’s begin here, the renaming of native orchids and other plants. Learning about the history and origin of different native plant species names can support a wide variety of subjects, including Native American studies, U.S. history, ethnobotany, poetry, and ecology. In Lyndgaard’s article, these subjects are tied together by weaving a story about Indian Removal through poetry, history, and the renaming of the Moccasin Flower. Read the rest of this entry »

Nature-Based Learning: Learning through the Lens of Lilac

This week with Lilac as our point of entry, we’re getting curious and learning through the lens of food, cultural heritage, and habitat.

Now that we have turned the corner from May to June, notice the changes through your senses. Your senses can tell you what time of the year it is without even looking at a calendar. Just the sound the trees make as their young green leaves tussle together in the treetops when it’s breezy before a rainstorm is enough to signal the time of year. The next time there’s a wind, notice the sound of the trees. How does the sound differ from the winter months when the leaves are on the ground, or in the autumn when they are crisp and turning colors? Layer upon this dance between wind and leaves the changing soundscape of the birds, insects, and frogs, and you can observe what time of the year it is merely through sound. Invite your sense of smell to the table and the conversation deepens, accessing memories through the scent of blossoms, dirt, and summer rains.

LEARNING THROUGH THE LENS OF FOOD

Lilacs are in bloom right now, and unlike the intoxicating smell of Lily-of-the-Valley, which were in full bloom last week, the equally intoxicating scent of lilacs can be captured through taste. If you have access to Lilac blossoms growing safely away from the road and toxic chemicals, give these recipes a try while they are in bloom: Lilac honeyLilac cocktailsLilac waterLilac pavlovasLilac scones, and Lilac syrup. These recipes capture the essence of this flower and are delicious ways to compare and contrast the smell and flavor of other flowers, like lavender and violets. How does our sense of smell and taste combine? What biochemistry is involved with smell, and how does our brain receive information and translate it into memories and emotions? Check out these TED-Ed videos, “How do we smell?” to learn about the biochemistry, and “How to master your sense of smell” to discover the art of smelling. Between the two, learn how smell, taste, and memory are connected through the olfactory nerves.

LEARNING THROUGH THE LENS OF HABITAT 

Learning the scientific name of plants can lead us to learn about the historical context of a flower, it’s place within cultural heritage, and taxonomy. For instance, the scientific name for Lilac is Syringa vulgaris. Vulgaris is Latin for “common” (common Lilac), and the scientific name for Syringa is derived from the Greek word “syrinx” which means pipe. According to Wikipedia, “In classical Greek mythology, Syrinx was a nymph and a follower of Artemis, known for her chastity. Pursued by the amorous god Pan, she ran to a river’s edge and asked for assistance from the river nymphs. In answer, she was transformed into hollow water reeds that made a haunting sound when the god’s frustrated breath blew across them. Pan cut the reeds to fashion the first set of pan pipes, which were thenceforth known as syrinx.” Those reeds were the hollow branches of Lilac.

Word origin is one path to take when looking through the lens of habitat during the season of lilac blooms. Another path is towards the cultivation, propagation, and care for Lilac in your home garden. They’re pretty sturdy perennials that can live up to 100 years. If you ever see a large lilac bush oddly growing in the middle of a field, the chance is there was a farmhouse that once stood nearby. In this video, “The Dirt: Lilacs,” home gardeners can learn about caring for lilacs. It also can help strengthen your appreciation for lilac shrubs in the home gardens of others and within community accessible botanical gardens.

LEARNING THROUGH THE LENS OF CULTURAL HERITAGE

Lilac has a strong presence in our cultural heritage. You can see evidence in annual events that celebrate this fragrant shrub. While they are not taking place this year, festivals like the Lilac Festival in Rochester, NY, and Lilac Sunday at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University have marked the season with cultural celebrations.

Attendance to these festivals, close observation in your garden or nearby botanical garden, and review of lilac renditions by famous and contemporary artists can support multidisciplinary learning while strengthening a sense of place. Paintings to compare and contrast include, Lilacs in a Window by American artist Mary Cassatt and Lilac in the Sun by Claude Monet.

Photo credit: Lilac Infused Honey (c) Sienna Wildfield.


Nature-Based Learning with Curly Willow on the Westfield River. Nestled in the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains on the east branch of the Westfield River, Curly Willow on the Westfield is an emerging space for the passionately curious. A convergence of mindfulness and community-based education. Member, Community-Based Education Network™.

Nature-Based Learning: Spring Chorus of Frogs & Toads

On the heels of a New England winter, spring in Western MA can be very engaging to the senses. This week, take inventory through your senses and notice what’s “speaking” to you.

As you move through the final month of spring, notice what you observe through your senses and how your observations might change and evolve. Our sense of place is interwoven with the seasons and our five senses, deepening our connection to place through seasonal changes. Embedded within this awareness are self-directed learning opportunities that are sparked by curiosity and supported by community-based resources.

WHAT DO YOU HEAR? Native species are a community-based resource that can deliver lessons through our senses. Take, for instance, deep listening to the frogs and toads native to Western MA. Have you ever noticed how their chorus changes through the season? How they are quiet on some evenings and very noisy on others? Pay attention to their chorus (or lack of) and let it guide your learning! It’s a great way to support interests and education in herpetology, biology, and ecology. Start by learning the calls of different native frogs in your region. This video demonstrates how their chorus blends and changes over five months (in just 22 seconds!).

GET CURIOUS: Once you are able to identify the different calls of the frogs and toads in your area, see if you can single out their contribution to an evening spring/summer soundscape. If you find yourself wondering why you hear them one evening, and not the next, get curious and look for the answers. Maybe their mating season has ended? Is the weather a factor? Are they loud or quiet before or after rain? What’s the high and low temperature for that day? These questions and the search for the answers guide learning while putting into practice the process of self-directed education, encouraging curiosity, and delivering the rewards of following your interests.

ONLINE LEARNING:

  • Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Macaulay Library has audio recordings of different species to support your learning of different calls.
  • AmphibiaWeb provides information on amphibian declines, natural history, conservation, and taxonomy.

Photo credit: (c) Sienna Wildfield. Video credit: Cable Natural History Museum


Nature-Based Learning with Curly Willow on the Westfield River. Nestled in the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains on the east branch of the Westfield River, Curly Willow on the Westfield is an emerging space for the passionately curious. A convergence of mindfulness and community-based education. Member, Community-Based Education Network™.

Nature-Based Learning: Lily-of-the-Valley

In shade gardens across the Hilltowns, Lily-of-the-Valley makes its debut in mid to late May. This delicate, fragrant flower is rich in folklore and goes by many names. Learning through the lens of Lily-of-the-Valley, let the different names of this spring flower start as your guide for learning this week.

CHRISTIAN LORE: Names like “Mary’s Tears” and “Our Lady’s Tears” are associated with Christian Lore. Can you think of other flowers that are also related to Christian Lore? Have you ever heard of a Mary Garden? The University of Dayton has a list of “Flowers of Mary’s Sorrows” that are typically grown in a Mary Garden and can support learning about religion through folklore.

FOLKLORE: Pagan folklore associations can be found in the origins of alternative names of Lily-of-the-Valley, like “Jacob’s Ladder” and “Ladder to Heaven.” In Irish folklore, the bell-shaped flowers of Lily-of-the-Valley were drinking cups for fairies. When Ireland converted to a new Christian-based belief system, these two alternative names with roots in paganism took hold.

WORLD CULTURE & HISTORY: In ancient European cultures, the Lily-of-the-Valley was thought to protect homes and gardens and to bring good luck when brought into a home. Even today in France, May 1st is a public holiday, La Fête du Muguet (Lily of the Valley Day). Let this annual observation day lead your learning about French history and culture! La Fête du Muguet is a tradition that dates back to the reign of King Charles IX in 1561. In more recent history, this fragrant flower has been linked to the worker’s rights movement, where they were worn on the lapels while participating in protests and marches.

ART STUDIES & MINDFULNESS: Lily-of-the-Valley has caught the eye of many artists. Looking through the lens of this delicate flower, let it lead you to learn about art history through the many depictions of Lily-of-the-Valley, including paintings by Marc Chagall and Albert Durer Lucas. Study how these artists interpreted the color and texture of this flower and see if you can find what they saw within your own observation of Lily-of-the-Valley closer to home. Photographing and sketching, or just sitting and observing, can train your eye to notice the nuances of light and shadow, shades of white in the flower, and tones of green in the leaves. Get up-close and give the flower a sniff. Does smell engage any other senses? Might you also interpret smells with colors, sounds, or tastes? These mindful moments make your learning relevant to where you live, connecting lessons with a sense of place through the senses, and through the seasons.

Photo credit: (c) Sienna Wildfield


Nature-Based Learning with Curly Willow on the Westfield River. Nestled in the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains on the east branch of the Westfield River, Curly Willow on the Westfield is an emerging space for the passionately curious. A convergence of mindfulness and community-based education. Member, Community-Based Education Network™.

Nature-Based Learning: Early May Buds & Blossoms

It was Albert Einstein, who said, “Look deep, deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” During the spring, as nature bursts into bloom, help deepen your connection to which Einstein hinted by looking towards the emerging blossoms of flowering plants purposefully planted in gardens or self-seeded in the crevices of sidewalks or manicured lawns. Every spring, flower buds emerge and unfold into inviting blossoms, an annual appearance rooted in the seasons of the past. We can “look deep” into that past to learn about botany, ecology, art, and history. But to “understand everything better,” the beauty of a flower invites us into the present moment where it can spark reverence and capture faith in the process of bud to bloom to seed. It is there our understanding of “everything” can awaken.

 

 

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This spring, pick a flowering plant nearest you and spend a mindful moment with it every day. Use your camera or sketchpad to capture it’s unfolding process. Notice its pattern of opening, relationship with pollinators, variants of colors and tones, textures, and smells. Welcome a flowering tulip tree, azalea bush, or dandelion plant into your daily observations and appreciations. Use your senses to connect with the essence of your chosen plant and pair it with self-directed learning about plant science or natural history. Blending the two not only supports place-based education, but it also strengthens a sense of place through the cultivation of respect for nature’s process and, ultimately, “understanding everything better.”


Nature-Based Learning with Curly Willow on the Westfield River. Nestled in the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains on the east branch of the Westfield River, Curly Willow on the Westfield is an emerging space for the passionately curious. A convergence of mindfulness and community-based education. Member, Community-Based Education Network™.

Hilltown Families Printables: Where is it? What is it? Word Scramble for April.

What is it? Where is it?

Allow this free word scramble printable to lead curiosity during April! Support language arts by unscrambling the letters to identify what’s in each picture. In early Spring, look for these treasures in nature throughout the Hilltowns of western Massachusetts and around New England.

Use this printable to encourage local engagement in the natural world by searching for native and invasive species, identifying seeds from different trees, and supporting interests in ornithology, botany, and mycology.

Engaging in the natural world, a community-based educational resource available to everyone, supports a sense of place. Make learning relevant to where you live!

Click here to download.


Hilltown Families Printables is sponsored by Curly Willow on the Westfield River. Nestled in the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains on the east branch of the Westfield River, Curly Willow on the Westfield is an emerging space for the passionately curious. A convergence of mindfulness and community-based education. Member, Community-Based Education Network™.

Nature’s Patterns Reveals Mathematical Reasoning

Nature-Based Learning Supports Math

MATH/NATURE-BASED LEARNING: As you gaze at the base of a pine cone, did you know that you’re regarding an incredible example of mathematical reasoning? Nature’s patterns, as it happens, are deeply rooted in the Fibonacci Sequence and the Golden Ratio. It’s the ultimate in a marriage between the aesthetic beauty of nature, and its mathematical base that makes it make sense. To discover what a learning opportunity this is for the family to share, read our post, “Nature’s Patterns Reveals Mathematical Reasoning.” When outside, look for these patterns in different native species, including sunflowers, pine cones, dragonfly wings, and the eye of a common housefly.


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Nature-Based Resources Support Self-Directed Learning

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Learning through the lens of our community not only supports interests and education, but it also strengthens a sense of place. This feeling of connection to where you live and the places you visit is vital to creating sustainable and resilient communities. In this TEDx Talk, Supporting Education Through Community Engagement, Hilltown Families Founder, Sienna Wildfield, shares the story of the history and mission of Hilltown Families.

During a time when families are being asked to practice social distancing, and curriculum-based learning is online, community-based resources accessible to everyone can also help families support their children’s education through nature-based experiential learning. A few things to highlight:

  • Food, habitat, and heritage are useful points of entry when looking for community resources to support learning.
  • Suitable nature-based resources include wildlife sanctuaries, conservation properties, native species, and local weather.
  • Nature-based resources can support a wide variety of interests, including local history & natural history, map skills & geography, botany & zoology, and phenology & scientific study.
  • The trick to benefiting from these learning opportunities is to be curious, ask questions, and to follow your interests.
    Read the rest of this entry »

25 Self-Guided Hikes in Western MA to Support Place-Based Learning

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Here is a list of self-guided hikes to do with your family or on your own. To support place-based learning, before you head out, conduct an online search about the natural and human history of some of these community-based educational resources. Bring with you field guides, sketchbooks, cameras, and magnifying glasses and spend the afternoon engaged in self-directed, nature-based learning!

Easy Hikes in Western MA:

  • Chesterfield Gorge, West Chesterfield
  • Dinosaur Footprints, Holyoke
  • Field Farm, Williamstown
  • Mass Audubon Pleasant Valley, Lenox
  • Mass Audubon Arcadia, Easthampton

Read the rest of this entry »

Land Trusts & Native Species: Community-Based Educational Resources to Support Self-Directed Learning

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Self-guided hikes are a great way to keep your family active outdoors and engaged in nature! They’re also excellent ways to support learning via community-based educational resources, including land trusts & native species!

Download this free interpretive trail guide Hilltown Families created with the Hilltown Land Trust for the Bradley Sanctuary trail in Williamsburg, MA. This guide goes beyond the typical map and route. It highlights interesting features and information from cultural, scientific, artistic, and historical perspectives. It encourages users to think about how their experience outdoors relates to other interests such as citizen science, history, literature, and social activism. Additionally, it complements the trail guides by providing additional resources and activities that extend your learning off the trail.

This guide takes hikers along the Red Oak Trail, a great walk to do with kids or on your own. On this trail, hikers will see the historical and environmental features of Bradley’s landscape and enjoy a lovely walk along Nichols Brook. One of the most interesting features of the Bradley Sanctuary is an old-growth Red Oak tree that is approximately 5 feet in diameter. Included in the guide is a formula for helping Bradley hikers hypothesize the tree’s age.

This property is available to the public year-round, thanks to Hilltown Land Trust’s land conservation efforts and the foresight of Hilltown residents who value the protection of our natural resources in perpetuity for future generations to visit and love. Each Hilltown Land Trust property has a story to tell. This partnership with Hilltown Families narrates this story for Bradley Sanctuary in Williamsburg, MA, and shows how our community places are connected to our personal stories and interests.

Use this guide to strengthen your relationship to the local land and experience these Hilltown forests and woods in new and inspiring ways.


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Conversation Highlights: The Sunday Evening Edition, August 11, 2019

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 »

Conversation Highlights: The Saturday Evening Edition, June 15, 2019

Conversation Highlights: The Sunday Edition, May 5, 2019

Hilltown Families on Mass Appeal: Learning through the Lens of Spring

Hilltown Families on Mass Appeal:
Learning through the Lens of Spring

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, community-based education specialist and Hilltown Families’ Founder, 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 Monday, April 29, 2019 with Sienna and Danny talking about seasonal patterns, annual events, and national observations as a resource for supporting education and values through community engagement in May.

Click on the video below to view.

  • ANNUAL EVENTS: Plant Sales & Swaps support learning about botany via skillsharing and collaborative consumption.
  • SEASONAL PATTERNS: Farmers’ Markets mark the season. What to look for in May and how that connects you to the community.
  • NATIONAL OBSERVATION: Mother’s Day is a catalyst for exploring local resources (parks) and via self-initiated activities derived from plant sales (gifts) and farmers’ markets (spring flower bouquets + ingredients for culinary adventures at home).

Mass Appeal is a live weekday program that airs at 11am on 22News (Springfield, MA).

Conversation Highlights: The Sunday Edition, March 31, 2019

Hilltown Families on Mass Appeal: Spring Migrations and Baby Farm Animals

Hilltown Families on Mass Appeal:
Spring Migrations and Baby Farm Animals

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, community-based education specialist and Hilltown Families’ Founder, 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 Monday, March 25, 2019, with Sienna and Ashley talking about migrations and new life; community-based resources and service-based learning opportunities that support interests in the field of phenology, the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena, especially in relation to climate and plant and animal life.

Click on the video below to view.

Find out more in these related posts:


Mass Appeal is a live weekday program that airs at 11am on 22News (Springfield, MA).

Sienna’s next visit to the Mass Appeal studios will be Monday, April 29th, 2019!

Vernal Pools: Annual Amphibian Migration

Amphibian migration will be any day now!

On a rainy evening (or two or three) very soon, all over New England, when the snow and ice are almost gone, and the temperature is 40 degrees or more, frogs and salamanders will make their annual spring migration.

 

They wend their way from their upland winter havens to the vernal pools where they hatched to lay their fertilized eggs in the water. Sometimes, however, roads cross these ancient paths, and many of them are killed. The Wendell State Forest Alliance invites families to help our fellow amphibian neighbors avoid this fate by participating as a salamander crossing guard!

Here’s how: Wash your hands (don’t use any lotion), put on rain gear and a reflective vest, take a flashlight and walk to the amphibian crossing closest to your home. Then wet your hands in rainwater, pick them up very carefully and carry them across the road in the direction they were headed. Touching them with dry hands can damage the protective coat on their skin. Ask members of your local Conservation Commission where amphibians crossroads in your town. As this involves activity in the road at night, children must have adult supervision.

The Hitchcock Center in Amherst has instructions for participating as a crossing guard at the Henry Street tunnels on “Big Night,” which you can download here and also apply towards the nearest vernal pool to your home. And Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary in Easthampton has an annual event for Big Night every March, perfect for families with younger children.

Read more about vernal pools in our post, Learning Ahead: Spring Landscape & Vernal Pools.

Hilltown Families on Mass Appeal: Signs of Spring

Hilltown Families on Mass Appeal:
Signs of Spring with Outdoor Explorations

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, community-based education specialist and Hilltown Families’ Founder, 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 Monday, February 25, 2019, with Sienna and Danny talking about a few early signs of spring we can look for through the lens of local species, agriculture, and native habitat.

Click on the video below to view.

As the weather temperatures fluctuate in the late winter and early spring, track the seasonal changes through the lens of local species, agriculture, and native species.

  • LOCAL SPECIES: In late February and early March, several native species (Foxes Coyotes Skunks Racoons) start to stir, finding mates and dens. While there’s still snow on the ground, now is a great time to look for their tracks and learn about their behavior. Nature centers, conservation areas, and local naturalist lead hikes and facilitate tracking adventures for all ages.
  • AGRICULTURE: In March, the maple trees produce our first harvest… maple syrup! The temperatures dictate the maple production, but every year we have annual events that celebrate the sweet sap!
  • NATIVE HABITAT: In late March, as the snow melts, but before the leaves emerge, vernal pools appear. Living laboratories with lessons for learning about ecology, biology, and zoology!

Mass Appeal is a live weekday program that airs at 11am on 22News (Springfield, MA).

Sienna’s next visit to the Mass Appeal studios will be Monday, March 25th, 2019!

Nature Guide for January: Beaver Habitats

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learning Landscape: November 2018

Every month, Hilltown Families features a new Learning Landscape, which aims to inspire learning along with a common theme easily spotted in our surroundings that month. The hope is to bring a little bit of the outdoors inside for inspection, dissection, identification, creative play, art projects, and lots of other educational activities. Download this month’s Learning Landscape to help open up children’s eyes to the unique attributes of each season, and to help them learn how to see these things in nature for themselves.

The November Landscape

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 »

Learning Landscape for September: A Transition Between Seasons Brings a Colorful Table


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

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 »

Learning Landscape for June: Dandelions!


Every month, Hilltown Families features a new Learning Landscape, which aims to inspire learning along with a common theme easily spotted in our surroundings that month. The hope is to bring a little bit of the outdoors inside for inspection, dissection, identification, creative play, art projects, and lots of other educational activities. Download this month’s Learning Landscape to help open up children’s eyes to the unique attributes of each season, and to help them learn how to see these things in nature for themselves.

The June Landscape

After spring’s landscape revival, June is paradise – leaves and lawns are a thick green, the air is warm, and every single living thing around is thoroughly enjoying being alive. The start of summer is an explosion of life so great that it’s nearly impossible to notice the individual phenomena taking place – it comes in one beautifully orchestrated burst!

Of note in late spring and early summer is the appearance of dandelions. Taraxicum officinale, as its scientifically known, is generally considered a weed. Though not the most incredible of flowers, dandelions are some of the first blooms to dot the landscape once the weather warms, and they provide essential food to pollinators – particularly bees. In fact, intentionally leaving lawns un-mowed to allow dandelions to flourish can be essential to the survival of bee populations.

Read the rest of this entry »

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

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

Every month, Hilltown Families features a new Learning Landscape, which aims to inspire learning along with a common theme easily spotted in our surroundings that month. The hope is to bring a little bit of the outdoors inside for inspection, dissection, identification, creative play, art projects, and lots of other educational activities. Download this month’s Learning Landscape to help open up children’s eyes to the unique attributes of each season, and to help them learn how to see these things in nature for themselves.

The April Landscape

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

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

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

Read the rest of this entry »

Learning Landscape: Putting Food on the Table in Late Winter

Every month, Hilltown Families features a new Learning Landscape, which aims to inspire learning along with a common theme easily spotted in our surroundings that month. The hope is to bring a little bit of the outdoors inside for inspection, dissection, identification, creative play, art projects, and lots of other educational activities. Download this month’s Learning Landscape to help open up children’s eyes to the unique attributes of each season, and to help them learn how to see these things in nature for themselves.

Learning Landscape: Putting Food on the Table in Late Winter

The February Landscape

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

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

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

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

Learning Landscape for January: Tracking to Learn Winter Habits

Learning Landscape for January: Tracking to Learn Winter Habits

Every month, Hilltown Families features a new Learning Landscape, which aims to inspire learning along with a common theme easily spotted in our surroundings that month. The hope is to bring a little bit of the outdoors inside for inspection, dissection, identification, creative play, art projects, and lots of other educational activities. Download this month’s Learning Landscape to help open up children’s eyes to the unique attributes of each season, and to help them learn how to see these things in nature for themselves.

The January Landscape

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

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

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

Learning Landscape for December: Shed Light

The December Landscape

Every month, Hilltown Families features a new Learning Landscape, which aims to inspire learning along with a common theme easily spotted in our surroundings that month. The hope is to bring a little bit of the outdoors inside for inspection, dissection, identification, creative play, art projects, and lots of other educational activities. Download this month’s Learning Landscape to help open up children’s eyes to the unique attributes of each season, and to help them learn how to see these things in nature for themselves.

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

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

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

Nature Table for November: Dead and Brown

Nature Table for November is Dead and Brown

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

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

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

How did the plants die?

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

And what happens next?

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

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

Nature Table for September is Pupating

Nature Table for September

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

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

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

How did we get here?

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

Most of us do around here.

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

Mine are up to similar antics, yes.

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

Oh – now we’re interested!

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

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

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

Common species in New England include:

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

Tips for keeping caterpillars for study:

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

Robin Morgan Huntley, Community-Based Education Correspondent

A native to Maine, Robin joined Hilltown Families in early 2011 as an intern and remained over the years volunteering as a community-based education correspondent until moving back to Maine in 2016. Robin is a graduate of Antioch University with a masters in education. Her interests within the field of education include policy and all types of nontraditional education. For her undergraduate project at Hampshire College, Robin researched the importance of connecting public schools with their surrounding communities, especially in rural areas. Robin currently lives with her husband, cats and rabbits in Maine and is a 5th grade public school teacher.

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Nature Table for August: Autobiography

Nature Table for August

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

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

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

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