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May-June 2010 Selected Content

Good Stuff - Rebecca Rupp

TOODAY I SAW A RED BERD: Nature Journaling for Kids

Journals come in every flavor under the sun. They can be emotional sounding boards, idea notebooks, what-I-did-today-style diaries, reading records, travel logs, sketchbooks, or all of the above, all at once. They can also be used to bring you and your kids closer to the outdoors.

"A field journal is essential to a scientist's fieldwork," states the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). The AMNH suggests that for each outdoor expedition, young naturalists record their observations, thoughts, and questions, augmenting entries with sketches, photographs, maps, charts, data lists, bark and leaf rubbings, and pressed specimens. "Your journal will be unique to you, reflecting your personal style," the AMNH adds. A field journal, it also points out, is a useful adjunct to the museum's annual Young Naturalist Awards, an inquiry-based science program for grades 7-12. (For more information, rules, and deadlines, see http://www.amnh.org/nationalcenter/youngnaturalistawards/.)

For elementary-level kids, the AMNH's Online Field Journal at http://www.amnh.org/nationalcenter/online_field_journal/index.html has printable journal pages to accompany investigations of sea shells, birds, insects, butterflies, rocks, leaves, animal tracks, reptiles, flowers, fish, and spiders, with helpful hints and question lists. For the same age group, the California State Parks "Exploring Nature in Your Neighborhood" site at http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=25384 has a printable all-purpose Nature Journal Observation Sheet, plus activities. For older kids, the AMNH's "How to Keep a Field Journal" at http://www.amnh.org/nationalcenter/youngnaturalistawards/journal.html has examples of historical nature journals, a brief tutorial on field sketching, and journal discussions, suggestions, and examples from museum scientists.

The Connecting with Nature website at http://www.connecting-with-nature.net also has helpful information for nature journalists of all ages, with many suggestions, sample pages, journaling prompts, and an explanation of the Grinnell Field Journal System used by professional field biologists.

Keeping a Nature Journal by Clare Walker Leslie and Charles E. Roth (Storey Publishing, 2003) covers journaling styles, journaling throughout the year, drawing how-tos, and tips for teaching journaling to various age groups. It's illustrated with excerpts from Clare's own nature journal, which make you itch to get outside with a notebook and a handful of colored pencils. Anna Botsford Comstock's Handbook of Nature Study (Comstock Publishing/Cornell University Press, 1986) is a reprint of a book targeted at elementary school teachers, written by Cornell's first female professor in 1911. It's easy to see why it stayed in print: there are nearly 800 illustrated information-crammed pages, including such chapters as "Use of Scientific Names," "Correlation of Nature Study with Arithmetic," and "Why and When to Say 'I Don't Know,'" plus detailed sections on animals and plants (many of each).

There are a lot of pre-designed ready-to-go nature journals for sale. Adrienne Olmstead's My Nature Journal (Pajaro, 1999), for example, is a spiral-bound consumable (you write in it) notebook for ages 8-14, with challenges, multidisciplinary activities, and worksheets related to five different "natural worlds" (woodland, meadows, ponds and streams, the seashore, and twilight). Toni Albert 's seasonal ecojournals, recommended for the same age group, include activities, sample entries from the author's nature journal, and space for kids' own observations and drawings. Titles are A Kid's Spring (Summer/Fall/Winter) Ecojournal (Trickle Creek Books). These and a range of other creative student nature journals and journaling instruction books (and much more) are available from Acorn Naturalists, an environmental educational supply company (956 El Camino Real, Tustin, CA 92780; (800) 422-8886; http://www.acornnaturalists.com).

Any blank notebook can serve as a nature journal, however - though in our experience a book with good stiff covers is best (you'll end up doing a lot of writing and sketching with it balanced on a rock, a tree trunk, or your lap) and it's often useful, since you'll be using it in the messy outdoors, to transport it in a protective plastic bag. The blank book also has the vast advantage of adapting more readily to the interests and personality of the journal keeper. Our oldest son, Josh, early on, was fascinated with bugs: his first nature journal includes a list of Things to Feed Ants and an extremely imaginative depiction of the inside of an ant hill. Ethan, a fish man all the way, included in his a diagram of a submarine for viewing fish underwater, which sadly we never managed to build. Caleb's first nature journal entry, at the age of five, cut right to the chase: TOODAY I SAW A RED BERD.

It's spring. Head out with a handful of pencils and see what happens.

One more for parents: the Web site of the Children & Nature Network at http://www.childrenandnature.org/, a group devoted to encouraging kids and families to reconnect with nature, has news and research reports on nature education, and a book list for parents and teachers including a downloadable 20-page "Parent's Guide to Nature Play."

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

The cover of Jacqueline Kelly's The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate (Henry Holt, 2009) pictures a little girl in button boots holding a butterfly net. She's surrounded by leafy vines, birds, bugs, and a microscope, which pretty much says it all - and when I was an eleven-year-old girl, also with a butterfly net and a microscope, I would have adored it.

I also adored it now, as a grown-up.

Calpurnia Virginia Tate, known to her family as Callie Vee, is growing up along with her six brothers on a cotton plantation in Texas in 1899. (Callie Vee's favorite brother is Harry, the oldest, but I have a soft spot for Travis, age ten, who names his kittens after gunslingers.) Callie Vee has boundless curiosity and a knack for observation, and when she becomes convinced that she's discovered a new species of grasshopper, brother Harry gives her a journal for recording her scientific observations. As the year progresses, Callie Vee becomes both fascinated with science and disenchanted with the ladylike future her mother has planned for her, filled with knitting socks, baking biscuits, practicing the piano, wearing corsets, and going to debutante balls. (Your heart bleeds for her when she opens her Christmas gift: The Science of Housewifery.)

Luckily Callie Vee finds a kindred spirit in her curmudgeonly grandfather, who has a laboratory in a backyard shed, where an ongoing project involves turning pecans into whiskey (with, so far, awful results). After an abortive attempt on Callie Vee's part to check Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species out of the public library, her Granddaddy not only lends her his own copy of the forbidden book, but allows her to come along on his collecting expeditions and to share in his homemade experiments. Together, the pair finds a plant that might just be a genuine new species, which they hopefully send off to the Smithsonian Institution.

The book is told in the first person by Callie Vee herself, who has a wonderful voice, feisty, bright, and determined. I was reminded of Caddie Woodlawn with a science twist - though clearly Kelly's Calpurnia is unique. Frankly, I can't think of any other fiction book that so compellingly tells the tale of a science-minded girl coming into her own - and mercifully without the fatal flaw of I-am-teaching-a-science-lesson that does in so many books of this ilk.

Astronomically recommended.

For ages 10 and up. Available from bookstores and online book suppliers.

Charlie's Playhouse

"Why evolution toys for kids?" asks the kicky You Tube video introducing the Charlie's Playhouse line of products. "Because there aren't any."

Founder Kate Miller was unable to find interactive games and toys suitable for introducing her two young sons to concepts of natural selection, speciation, and evolution - and so, undaunted, she went out and founded a company. The Charlie of Charlie's Playhouse is the formidable Charles Darwin himself, and the Playhouse website is a treasure trove of resources for budding evolutionary scientists. My favorite among them is the Giant Evolution Timeline Playmat ($49) - 600 million years of evolution on a colorfully illustrated 18-foot mat. Kids can hop, skip, and jump through 12 geologic periods and six mass extinctions, while learning about key events, ancient animals and plants, and scientific names and pronunciations, and picking up insightful facts from a bearded cartoon Darwin in a catchy red shirt. Furthermore, unlike most play mats, this one neatly folds up accordion-style and can, in less active moments, be read like a book. The Evolution Timeline is also available as a wall poster ($29). Both come with a helpful activity guide.

Then there are the Ancient Creature Cards - a fat 67-card pack, each card with a picture and paragraph of information about such fascinating weirdos as Brontoscorpio and Spriggina - and the Evolution Flip Book in which evolution takes place before your eyes in seconds, as fins turn into legs.

For more product information, visit the Charlie's Playhouse website at http://www.charliesplayhouse.com/. The website also includes a terrific illustrated bibliography of books on evolution for kids of all ages and evolution-related links for both kids and adults. Find lesson plans and curricula, get hints for celebrating Darwin Day, and discover what you'd have looked like as a Neanderthal.

Callie Vee (see above) would have loved it.

Makedo

This Australian company makes cool connectors. I mean, really cool: using these black and aqua-blue pins, clips, and hinges along with a handy plastic construction tool, you can cobble miscellaneous junk - boxes, bubble wrap, egg cartons, cups, paper-towel tubes - into a wonderful array of buildings, vehicles, and sculptures. Videos on the website demonstrate just how it's done and a picture gallery shows many examples of perfectly brilliant results.

The connectors are available in kits for one (69 pieces, including 30 pins, 30 clips, 8 hinges, and a construction tool) or three (170 pieces, which Makedo explains is enough bits for one person to make three things or three persons to make something really big). Kits cost, respectively, $25 and $50, and shipping just at the moment is free.

The infuriating drawback is that Makedo cannot yet ship their product to North America. They expect to be doing so soon, and customers who order in advance will be able to take advantage of introductory discounts. But you'll have to wait a bit. On the other hand, it's going to take you a while to save all those tubes, cups, and boxes. In the meantime, check it out at http://makedo.com.au/.

© 2010, Rebecca Rupp

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