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.

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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 landscape, 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, simply 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 in order 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 familiar creatures to their habits in other seasons. Notice how well they align with the conditions afforded by the season; their survival depends upon it. Read the rest of this entry »

Learning Landscape for December: Shed Light

The December Landscape

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

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

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

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

Nature Table for November: Dead and Brown

Nature Table for November is Dead and Brown

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

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

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

How did the plants die?

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

And what happens next?

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

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

Nature Table for September is Pupating

Nature Table for September

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

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

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

How did we get here?

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

Most of us do around here.

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

Mine are up to similar antics, yes.

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

Oh – now we’re interested!

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

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

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

Common species in New England include:

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

Tips for keeping caterpillars for study:

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

Robin Morgan Huntley, Community-Based Education Correspondent

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

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Nature Table for August: Autobiography

Nature Table for August

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

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

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

Bird Language Connects Citizens to Their Habitat

Bird Language Connects Citizens to Their Habitat

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

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

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

Nature Table for June: For the Love of Weeds

Nature Table for June

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

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

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

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

Nature Table for May: A World Beneath the Water

Nature Table for May

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

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

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

Nature Table for April: Buds & Blooms

Nature Table for April

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

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

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

Nature Table for March: Maple Buds and Bark

Nature Table for March

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

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

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

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?

Check our list of Weekly Suggested Events to discover first day hikes to select for the first day of the year!

[Photo credit: (c) Sienna Wildfield]

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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 »

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.

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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.

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Nature Table for April

Nature Table for April

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

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

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 »

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