Preschool Unit Study: Trees

The last three months we studied trees, guided by the family Bible lessons from Sonlight Education ministry. We started midsummer with all trees dressed in bright green leaves. While I’m writing this blogpost, it’s the last week of September. Fall is here! We have been seeing some change in the colors of the leaves, and so we have played and learned with pine cones, acorns, chestnuts, almonds, and more. I want to share with you what we did. And, I hope you gain some nice ideas.

We started our theme with a nature walk in a forest. I asked my children, “What is a tree?” My daughter pointed at a willow. Then I asked, “What about that elderberry bush? Is that also a tree?” “Noooo, a tree has a trunk and branches!” Then we talked about the parts of a tree.

At the small park at the end of our street are many different trees. (We take a walk through that park several times a week.) During our walk, we collected all types of leaves. At home, we pressed and dried them. Later we used a tree identification book and an app to find out which leaf belonged to which tree.

This also made us think about how to recognize a tree when you can’t look at the leaves. Flowers, fruit, and seeds are easy to use to identify a tree, but how can you find out what tree it is in the middle of winter or in early spring? It made my children think about the other parts of the tree. The bark, the twigs, the leaf buds and blossoms — all are also possible ways to recognize a tree. Let children touch the bark and feel whether it is smooth, rough, or maybe flakey like the bark of a birch.

To see and learn about more different types of trees, we went on a field trip to a botanical garden. They set up a scavenger hunt for the children. We looked for the tallest, the biggest, the fastest growing trees and plants, and so on.

One week we learned about palm trees, but we don’t have palm trees in our area. Therefore, we looked at them in books and on the internet. Then we painted a palm tree. We used our fists to stamp the leaves, and fingerprints for coconuts.

Since our street has many oak trees, we decided to spend extra time on this type of trees. We went outside to fill a bucket with acorns. We added some chestnuts and pinecones to the collection. Then it started to rain and we went inside to learn more. I found a cute acorn worksheet that involved cutting, pasting, and numbers. My daughter, almost five,followed the instructions and did a great job. My three-year-old son made his own rules. He did some counting while using the acorns, and he loved cutting the worksheet. We also read a poem about acorns, and we did a coloring page.

For an easy and fun fall craft, we made little owls out of pine cones. We used the “hats” of the acorns with googly eyes inside for eyes, added colored feathers, and used a little piece of orange felt for a beak and feet. The children could do most of it by themselves, and the owls looked so cute.

Then the season of harvesting started. By the end of August, our apples were ready to pick. The children both have their own mini tree. These are only one meter high, so they are able to pick their own apples. Later we processed the apples into juice, apple syrup, apple sauce, and apple turnovers.

We met some homeschooling friends at the forest to pick elderberries and blackberries. The children had a great time. By the end of our walk the children ate all the blackberries!

The children also helped picking our almonds. From a little distance, they threw the almonds in a bucket. That was a fun game. Afterwards we peeled the green skin off and found out all kinds of insect hiding there. We saw little spiders, ladybugs, rolly pollies, and a cute green bug. My daughter wanted to keep that bug as a pet. And so, we ended our tree unit study and transitioned to our next nature theme: insects.

Our Wildflower Pilgrimage Experience

The Large-Flowered Trillium starts out white, then ages to a beautiful light pink. I love the petals’ “ruffles.”

Through the years, our family has taken many guided tours, mostly in national parks. We always learn something new, and it’s a great way to get out of doors on a field trip. This year we were following the Apologia “Flying Creatures” curriculum, and my kids’ assignments included completing the Bird, Insect, and Wildflower Pathfinder honors. So, when a friend suggested attending the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage in the Great Smoky Mountains, we jumped on it!

The title “Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage” is something of a misnomer only because it doesn’t just cover wildflowers. Experts in ornithology, entomology, biology, forestry, ecology, and herpetology join botanists. Artists and photographers are included to teach nature journaling and photography classes. Park rangers and managers round out the experienced staff.

Yellow Trillium were everywhere in the park. it was beautiful!

We chose to focus on wildflowers, birds and nature journaling, though we were sad that the salamander tour filled up so fast! I spoke with a birder who had attended the salamander walk, and he reported that they had seen 11 species of salamander in one morning!

My kids thoroughly enjoyed the wildflower walk, and having an easy-to-use wildflower guide with clear pictures was exceptionally helpful! This particular book is organized according to when flowers bloom, so the smaller kids only had to flip through a small section of the book, rather than the whole thing, to successfully find a match to what they were viewing along the trails. (Most guides are organized according to flower color.) All together, we identified more than 40 wildflowers or flowering bushes/trees.

The only May-apple blossom we found: Our guide had been searching for one in vain until our tour — we felt privileged!

Attending a nature journaling class gave us an opportunity to sit in the shade and be creative. It was a perfect afternoon activity when the sun was hot and the kids were worn out from walking. The kids learned how to embellish their pages with stamps, fancy writing, and even pop-ups.

In the fall of 2016, fires devastated Gatlinburg and the Smoky Mountains, so the forests’ response to the fires was of particular interest to many on the tours this spring. We were delighted with a spectacular wildflower display; apparently the destruction of brush and undergrowth in the forest allowed sunlight to reach more deeply into the forest, and some flowers produce more after a fire anyway. God provides for the smallest detail in His creation. It was a beautiful spiritual lesson and reminder of grace and protection.

It was on our birding tour that I discovered my 10-year-old son needed glasses… Oops!

The kids realized out on the trail why we have been listening to recordings of bird songs: it’s often easier to hear the bird and then find what you know you’re looking for! Completing the Pathfinder honor was a breeze, with help from a guide. With help, we identified 18 birds by sight and an additional six by sound only. Some of these birds my kids were familiar with, like the brown-headed cowbird, red-bellied woodpecker, American robin, and downy woodpecker. But, others were brand new to them, such as the golden-crowned kinglet, yellow-throated warbler, white-breasted nuthatch, northern parula, ovenbird, black and white warbler, black-throated green warbler,and blue-gray gnatcatcher. Along the way we also identified more wildflowers: white-fringed phacelia, trout lilies,and spring beauties.

Our final guided tour was presided over by a Native American; she taught the wild edibles class. Her personal experience was invaluable for the kids to hear, and they appreciated the Native American items she brought, such as beads, porcupine quills, and clothing. We also learned that it’s important not to boil the stinkbugs with the staghorn sumac for tea! 🙂

In the wild edibles class, we learned that squaw root is often the first thing bears eat in the spring. It works as a colon stimulant.

A sick child and car troubles precluded us from attending our last two guided tours, but I felt like the entire excursion was definitely worth the trip and expenses. There is no substitute for an experienced guide along to help the kids positively identify plants and animals in the wild. The more exposure the kids get to these things, the more those plants and animals become like “friends” every time the kids find them. When we returned home, the first thing my kids did was to take a jaunt through our local woods, searching for trillium and lady slippers. That’s my definition of success!

Tips for Taking a Guided Tour with Young Kids:

  1. Be prepared for long walks. Check the printed guide and ask about the terrain. Some walks are labeled “easy” or “along a path”; on those walks a jogging stroller might be something useful for very small children. (But ask first!)
  2. Pack a small, lightweight backpack for every child. Include water bottle, rain poncho/jacket, hat, lightweight pocket guides or laminated fold-out guides, journal or small pad of paper, pencil, binoculars if birding, a magnifying glass (lightweight), and a quiet snack.
  3. In your backpack, a roll of toilet paper and baggies might be very useful for small bladders and those kids who drink all of their water in the first half-hour!
  4. Dress appropriately for the weather, and wear good walking/hiking shoes.
  5. Prior to the trip, it might be helpful to practice walking along a trail looking for flowers and listening for birds. Quietly walking and being observant is a skill, not a natural trait for most children. Preparing them ahead of time for what is expected helps!
  6. Birding tours are probably best suited to older children. My younger kids enjoyed the wildflower tour and the nature journaling class the most. Wildflowers don’t fly or run away, and they are easier to spot!
  7. If you are wanting pictures of the flowers you spot, you probably should tote along an actual camera. It’s difficult to steady and zoom in with a phone camera.

    Catesby’s trillium is considered a rare species, limited to the Southern Appalachians. My kids found this one near our home.

    Searching for lady slippers and trillium close to home

    A pink lady slipper found near home after the trip

    Wild geranium was in full bloom during our late-April excursion to the Smokies.

    The crested dwarf iris provided a lovely complement flower to the yellow trilliums along the roadsides.

    A Jack-in-the-pulpit was a fun find along a river.

10 Fall-Themed Nature Study Ideas

Taking a fall nature walk!

Taking a fall nature walk!

Nature study can be as simple as opening a window to hear bird songs, or as complicated as…well, as complicated as you want to make it! Those following Charlotte Mason’s philosophy might wish to do a short nature study weekly (in addition to frolicking outdoors daily), while others might enjoy folding the study of nature into a unit study approach. There is no right or wrong to nature study!

My 10-year-old son just popped in to ask for another plastic container to catch a stink bug. I replied that I think we’ve used them all (for insects!)…and…didn’t he already have a stink bug? “Yes! But this is a different kind!” he answered. Insects are on our agenda for this month, and acquiring the Insect Honor for Pathfinders is providing impetus for our growing bug collection. (I have to admit that I’m really looking forward to studying birds soon! And no, there will not be a collection, other than abandoned feathers!)

Hopefully our bug collection and outside moth-hatching projects will pan out, but there are many other opportunities for fall nature study. I thought I’d share a few things we’ve done in the past during this season, as kind of a starter list. If you try any of these, or if you have other great ideas to share, please feel free to leave a comment.

  1. Begin a color wheel of seasons that will eventually (by the end of the year) document all four seasons with the predominant colors the children see outside. Credit for this idea goes to Clare Walker Leslie, whose book, The Nature Connection, has some great ideas!

    A color wheel of the seasons three-fourths completed.

    A color wheel of the seasons three-fourths completed.

  2. Go on a scavenger hunt. There are many scavenger hunt printables available online, or you can make your own. (Hint: If you make your own, you may want to pre-scout the area looking for unusual finds to include, such as special birds, trees, or animal tracks.)
  3. Participate in the National Bird Count or conduct a simple backyard bird count of your own. Watch for migrations of geese and other birds. In our area, there is a nature center which has a collection of stuffed birds, bird nests, and eggs, which makes a wonderful rainy day field trip. If you do find a feather or an eggshell, try looking at them under the microscope. I’ve purchased a CD of common bird songs for the kids to learn on our trips to and from music lessons, and am hoping that they will be able to recognize birds by sound soon.
  4. Prior to the big freeze, check out the insects in your own yard. If you have an aquarium or terrarium, praying mantises are around this time of year, and you might be able to find a female and watch her hundreds of praying mantis babies hatch out!
  5. This is a good time to search for pupae of moths and butterflies, too. By marking the spot and checking on it each day, you might just get lucky enough to see the adult emerge! There are wonderful online resources and books about butterfly migrations, and this can introduce a new geographical area to study, too. Follow the butterfly’s path from the ground, and learn about the bodies of water they fly over and the various countries/cities they pass through.
  6. A mid-day hike can refresh students’ minds during these cooler, but not yet cold, days. While you’re out note the fall leaves, and even nuts and seeds, on the trees. Collect a few leaf specimens and start on the Pathfinder Leaf/Tree Identification Honor! We love art projects around here, and painting fall leaves was a favorite when we were studying watercolor techniques.
  7. (Related to #6 . . .) We’ve been known to take drawing pencils and colored pencils along on our walks in a storage clipboard. This is great for documenting landscapes with fall color or drawing specimens you’d rather leave in the out-of-doors. Mushrooms, mosses, ferns, lichen, and tree fungi are wonderful items to capture at this time of year if you’re in the right climate! (Taking along watercolor pencils and then finishing the art project at home with a wet paintbrush is lots of fun, too!)

    Mushrooms: natural art pieces.

    Mushrooms: natural art pieces.

  8. A weather study is a fun project to begin in the fall. Search online for instructions for making your own weather-measuring instruments. If you’re traveling to another climate for the holidays, take along your weather kit for something to compare to home. We once compared weather in Kotzebue, Alaska — above the Arctic Circle — to weather in Arizona during the same time period. It was quite a study to compare such strikingly different biomes! Even a small contrast in weather and climate can elicit interesting results, though. Simply note which trees are out in full color, or which fruits and vegetables are ripening. (Samples are required, lol.)
  9. Fall can be a good time for planting trees, or starting a fall/winter garden. It’s also fun to initiate a seed collection, or plan for a spring garden, beginning with soil preparation and how to amend soil or plant fall cover crops.
  10. Fruit orchards and pumpkin patches naturally translate into wonderful field trips this time of year, and we like to follow up with pie-making and sauce-making, too!

A couple of final thoughts:

Local libraries usually showcase fall-themed books, and it’s nice to stock up for the occasional icky day. With the internet, it’s easy to take a book theme and explode it for indoor fun involving arts and crafts, science experiments, and even writing assignments. It’s a great unit study starter, or a fun “day off” from regular school work. The kids don’t even know they’re learning! LOL.

Check out the Adventurer awards and Pathfinder honors that correspond with this season. Here’s the link to the Pathfinder requirements: http://gcyouthministries.org/Ministries/Pathfinders/Honors/tabid/85/agentType/ViewType/HonorTypeID/5/Default.aspx. There are 95 honors under the Nature category! The Adventurer Awards search tool is here: http://gcyouthministries.org/Ministries/Adventurers/Awards/tabid/83/Default.aspx. (Search under “Nature” for the list of almost 30 awards available. If you are following the Adventurer grade-levels, you can search specifically for nature awards corresponding to your child’s grade, too.)

Happy Nature Studying!

My six-year old daughter took this picture with my camera. I love it! Photography can be used in lieu of drawing or collecting from nature.

My six-year old daughter took this picture with my camera. I love it! Photography can be used in lieu of drawing or collecting from nature.

Homeschool on the Trail: Tracking

 

 

IMG_0272Rain isn’t typically something I wish for on vacation — especially a vacation in a national park where a day of board games in an RV invokes mass hysteria for those under, say, age 99. (“Please don’t jump on the couch. It’s likely made of corrugated cardboard! No, sweetheart, those mini-blinds aren’t — oops — toys. <sigh> Shoes off at the door…wow, that dirt has a high clay content… Seriously, we could make pottery out here. Well, can you think of something better to do?”)

After surviving a mini-deluge in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks for several days, our family of six was thankful for RV (versus tent) camping, and we were all ready to see something besides the interior of our RV. We pulled off near a lake inlet to explore. Tracks everywhere! What a find!

Thankfully, I had previously purchased the perfect tools for such an occasion: a Tracks, Scats and Signs field guide, and the children’s book Who Pooped in the Park? [Homeschool mom does the happy dance! Yeah, you know it.] Turns out park bookstores contain fantastic, hard-to-find-elsewhere resource material, and they are generally indoors. So, if you don’t mind spending some extra dough, you can enjoy a nice hot drink indoors, browsing prime homeschool material while the rain comes down!

We read the book as an intro to tracking for my 3- and 5-year-olds as the older two pretended to be appalled at the title — but wanted to see the pictures, too! Then, armed with the tracking guide, we headed lakeside.

Gigantic webbed bird tracks greeted us immediately. I took a wild guess that they belonged to the white pelicans swimming not too far away.

We had seen raccoon tracks along Appalachian rivers before, so the older kids picked up on those.

Some four-toed prints — with claw indents — took some investigating. As we examined the field guide, comparing the size of the tracks with descriptions, according to the size of those tracks, it could only be a gray wolf or a mountain lion/cougar, and with some careful prodding, my son found claw marks, indicating it probably wasn’t a cat. We were astounded! Though we knew there were a couple of packs of wolves in that area, we never expected to come in contact with evidence of them. How exciting!

A four-toed track with claw marks (not visible; they could be felt, though). Approximately 4.25" long, matching the description of gray wolf tracks.

A four-toed track with claw marks (not visible; they could be felt, though). Approximately 4.25″ long, matching the description of gray wolf tracks.

Deer and elk tracks also could be identified by size and stride. One set of track strides seemed almost long enough to be a moose. By using my hand as a comparison, we later determined that based on the size of the track it was indeed most likely a moose (approximately 5.5″ long for a hind hoof, whereas the elk’s front hoof is 4.75″). Beside the lake was a wonderful stash of willows, so the setting lent itself to that assumption as well.

IMG_0072

As we were leaving, one of the kids spotted an almost hidden track in the grass. Pay-dirt! Five toes, larger than my adult hand — approximately 7″ in length. It was the hind paw track of a black bear. The distinguishing features (from a brown bear): the fifth toe wasn’t in a straight line with the others (slightly lower than the others), and the size was smaller than a brown bear hind print — perfect for a black bear.

IMG_0231

Though the track is hard to see, my hand is sitting comfortably in side a 5-toed track that is larger than my 6.5″ hand!

That one stop by the lake after our rainy days provided as much tracking as our little ones desired, and it gave my oldest kids the opportunity to imagine what that four-toed canine might have been after (the smaller prints were too muddled to clearly tell). But, other spots in Yellowstone provided tracking opportunities, too. Bison tracks littered the ground around geysers and hot springs. And, at one idyllic spot off a trail, bear claw marks were clearly visible. Our trail guide pointed out the long scratch marks, probably made by a baby bear sliding down during a climbing lesson. At our RV site in Grand Teton NP, it was a bit disconcerting to find bear claw marks all over the trees in the campground! It’s probably a bear playground during the winter season!

Bear claw marks on a tree

Bear claw marks on a tree

Our brief experience with tracking has prompted other, more casual, opportunities to explore muddy areas for tracks. Just a couple of days ago, my girls spotted raccoon tracks next to dog, bicycle, and human tracks on our local greenway walk.

Raccoon tracks beside our local greenway walk.

Raccoon tracks beside our local greenway walk

A couple of recommendations: A small measuring tape or ruler is helpful to measure tracks, but if you’re in a pinch, setting a field guide or your hand by the track and snapping a picture does the trick. A field guide is essential if you’re in unfamiliar territory, and it doesn’t have to be expensive. A laminated folding guide is lightweight and portable. And lastly, you don’t have to be an expert! Have fun!

Simple laminated field guides

Simple laminated field guides

 

Nature in the City

Where I grew up, it felt like I was way out in the country with all the privacy in the world. I grew up on a farm, which over time became surrounded by suburbia. Although it felt very safe and isolated on our homestead, I realize now that I was really in town, but with the impression of being in the country.

Fast forward to young adult life. After living in college dorms followed by apartments, I couldn’t wait to have a house and yard again. I took for granted how blessed I was to have had such a nature-based upbringing.

My husband and I bought our first home in a subdivision which felt like so much space compared to our apartment. It was exciting to have our first house together and be able to fix it up, decorate, and play real house. Over time, however, I really began to crave my private outdoor time. I felt like God was calling me back home. In fact, since each of us originated as country dwellers at Creation, I believe we will all be drawn back to our roots, to the place where man first met God.

For those who live in the city, suburbia, or are just looking for some fresh ideas to keep nature new and exciting, this post is for you. How can we spend time in nature and teach our children to be lovers of God’s nature when we aren’t necessarily surrounded by it?

One of the most important things is to enjoy the outdoor space we do have. If it’s a small yard, or even just a balcony or patio, fill it with nature. Add plants, create a children’s exploration garden or an edible garden. Grow flowers and vegetables in containers if need be. Even though we didn’t have much land in our first home, we did have a little dirt to dig in, so we made use of it and planted plenty of plants, shrubs, and flowers. Just getting our hands in the dirt and seeing the fruits of our labor is so rewarding, not to mention great for our health! Whatever the space or lack thereof, we can aim to create the impression of being surrounded by nature.

Another option for gardening in a small space is vertical gardening. When we didn’t have land for a traditional garden, we had a hydroponic tower garden in our home. It was fabulous for growing food in a small space, and a fun project to do with kids. We daily checked the water and chemistry levels and measured the amount of nutrients to add as needed. As another bonus, the watering system adds a soothing waterfall ambient sound to your space.

Tower Garden_2

Even if we can’t get outside in nature all the time, we can bring nature in to us! In a previous post I mentioned adding houseplants, nature trinkets and treasures, nature pictures, and nature themed decor for the times when we can’t be outside. Another idea is to create a nature aura through sound. Something as simple as playing bird sounds in the background can change an indoor atmosphere into feeling more like a relaxing nature space. We personally love the free Nature Sound app. The great thing is that it will keep playing even while other apps are open. My favorite mix is Nature Sound bird songs combined with the classical music station on Pandora. Heaven.

If nature isn’t just outside the front door, go find it. Check out parks, nature centers, farms, aviaries, aquariums, botanical gardens, and plantations to explore. Make finding nature an adventure. If you’re indoors most of the time, try to plan outdoor field trips as much as possible to balance it out. One of our absolute favorite places to go is the Percy/Edwin Warner Park and nature center in Nashville, TN. It has a large creek that is kept pristine and is suitable for walking and playing in. We typically take our galoshes or water shoes (Vibrams for adults, Walmart/Target brand for growing kids) and instead of walking the trail through the woods, we hike the creek. We have gotten some of our most beautiful family photos at this place and have made some lasting memories — like the time a baby crawdad swam into our daughter’s shoe! Priceless.

Nature-based vacations are a lot of fun, too. Especially if we don’t live in nature, an outdoor-based vacation can be an unforgettable experience. I’ve not done a lot of camping, though I’m hopeful to do more in the future, so while this would be an obvious choice for outdoor vacations, it’s not the only one. As a kid, it was my goal to visit a zoo on every family vacation. I planned to visit at least one zoo for every state we visited. My mom also loved taking nature walks, so that was prominent on our vacations as well. In fact, my best memories from childhood family trips involve nature — feeding a giraffe, swimming with dolphins, getting my foot chomped by a clam (or something), hiking to waterfalls… The times spent in nature with my family are unforgettable. I want to carry on that tradition with my own children.

Even if you don’t live on a farm or in the country, there’s no better time than the present to prepare and live like you are in the country. We can start growing our own food, even if it’s just herbs on a windowsill. Study birds, animals, trees, flowers, and learn about food preservation. Research beekeeping, gardening, maple sugaring, chickens, anything and everything related to country living that piques your interest and keeps your hopes alive.

My husband and I periodically talk about our dream home, where we will have plenty of animals, an orchard, bees, a garden, a swimming pond… We keep our hopes kindled by reminding ourselves that this, where we are right now, is a training ground where God has purposely led us to learn more about how to serve Him better.

We may never get to our dream home here on Earth, and that’s okay. Our purpose, as followers of God, is to be preparing our hearts and our children for a better land. Though we may not be able to live on a farm, in the country, or on the perfect plot of land here, I believe we can all still have an Eden mindset. May we allow God to guide and cultivate our hearts on our journey heavenward.

“I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you to myself; that where I am, there you may be also,” John 14:2,3 NKJV.