Backyardsafari's Blog

Environmental Inspiration in Your Own Backyard

Exploring by Bike July 1, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — backyardsafari @ 9:22 pm
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Today started out as just one of those days–I felt listless and irritable about meaningless things. I spent a long time on the phone with tech help, and spent some of that time yelling at the robot operator. I would never ever do that to a real person just doing their job, so the poor automated message guy bore the brunt of my anger, repeatedly telling me he didn’t understand what I was telling him, as I replied with loud variations of connect-me-to-a-real-person-i-don’t-care-about-serial-numbers.

As the light started to change from the regular daylight to that golden evening glow I decided to dust myself off and go out for a bike ride. There is a path a friend and I talked about going on and I thought I’d better find out if my out-of-bike-shape self could actually even make it before I shamed myself in front of someone else.

It was a nice ride–my legs really are out of shape for pushing the bike along but the evening was cool, the light beautiful, and the wind streaming in my face.  I rode as far as the downhill slopes would take me and then took a break to investigate a wetland area beside the road that I always see while driving but never up close.

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I’ve been noticing a lot of these wetlands along highways recently—I assume someone is planting them as an efficient natural way to slow runoff from the roads and collect water during rainstorms, but I’d love to know who! Do lots of companies do this kind of thing or is there some kind of state run movement?

To emphasize just how much you can find nature even in the middle of a city, suburb, or road, I took a picture of my bike from the other side to show you:

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I couldn’t make it back up the hill without stopping, so I used the break to get a closer look at the colorful wildflowers next to the path. In the past I would have felt self-conscious having the drivers see me pushing my bike or dawdling in the weeds, but I’ve gotten better at not worrying what people passing by think of me.

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I always think of the phrase “a riot of flowers” when I see them growing all together like this. I just can’t think of a more perfect expression for their bold, unapologetic nature and strewn positions, like they are spilling out across the earth.

I zoomed in on this milkweed flower and was surprised to find a bee visiting, moving deftly between the petals. I tried out the zoom on my phone camera, but it isn’t as focused as I had hoped.

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Hidden off among some bushes were these tasty jewels, ripening in the fading sun. I decided to leave them for the birds, as my many classes teaching kids about runoff made me too paranoid about what may be washing down from the golf course next door. They sure do look good, though!

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It seems like I have to learn the same lesson over and over that I won’t have any ideas to blog about if I don’t go outside. I somehow convince myself it is the other way around–that some great idea will inspire me to head out the door, but it is almost never the case. It is only once I am there that I notice all of the great things around me and come home bursting with thoughts to get down in writing.

It was really fun to explore the neighborhood by bike, especially from the safety of the bike path. In an ironic twist, I almost got hit by a car on this trip, when I spent 99% of the time away from roads. I was waiting at a cross walk, following all the rules, pushing the walk button and waiting for the sign. I have flashy lights and also there was still full light to see by–not just that dusky light that makes everything blur together. Luckily (?) I am too paranoid to trust other people to notice me, so I watched the other cars through the corner of my eye as I started across. I noticed that 3 rows of cars were moving forward, when only 2 should have as the one waited for me before turning left and quickly realized he didn’t see me at all. I screeched to a halt midway through the road as a big rusty truck made his way through. The driver saw me then and apologized out the window with a “my fault.” I do think he meant it and that it had probably scared the crap out of him, so I just continued on my way.

There seems to be some debate among the biking community about wearing helmets–I don’t understand it enough to really comment on it now, but this is a good example of why I will always always always wear one–not to mention the fear of smearing myself on something completely of my own accord. I can too vividly imagine my family members lamenting ‘why didn’t she just wear a helmet’ and how horrible it would be for them, and I don’t really trust other people or myself to not mess up.

I read recently that crossing at cross walks can sometimes be more dangerous than crossing in the road, because if you are right in the middle of the road cars have to see you, while they might not always at a cross walk. Even though I was on a bike path at the time this is something I will have to keep in mind and explore more in the future.

Anyway, I didn’t mean to have this post take such dire turns! Don’t worry Momma, I promise I am careful :).

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Anyway, I made my way home safely, enjoying the air sliding by me.  Despite the drama near the end, I had a wonderful time getting out in my neighborhood and seeing it from a new angle. I could go a lot farther than I can just by walking, and while also getting to see things up close that I otherwise have only seen from the car. I also got to see a number of groundhogs and rabbits that I wasn’t fast enough to catch on film.

I will be interested to see how the journey to travel by bike continues, and what happens next!

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(Note: I know this picture is sideways–I kind of like it this way!)

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Do any of you dear readers explore by bike? Are you at all comfortable riding on the roads and if so, how did you get there? Do you prefer to see the natural world by wheel or by foot? Feel free to leave your thoughts and experiences in the comments!

I hope everyone can spend some time exploring their neighborhood this weekend. As I learned again today, you just can’t imagine what you might find until you’re out there! As always, I’ll see you out there.

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On the Move June 20, 2011

I went out for my run at dusk tonight, making my way along the sidewalk through flickering waves of lightning bugs. My faltering night vision made the distant landscape a blur of dark green trees, a smudge of grass, a watercolor wash of gray sky. The houses along the street had turned their lights on, something which always makes me wonder about the people inside and seems quaint, even if it is not.

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Photo Credit

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After many weeks of alternating short walk/run intervals, I can finally run for longer periods of time without my brain wondering why I am doing this to myself and questioning every step. The Couch to 5K program helped me very much until about week 5, when I just couldn’t keep up mentally with the transition to long periods of running. I like being able to tell myself that it is only __ minutes until I can stop, that out of my entire day this is no time at all, and that I will get a break soon. I still use the Couch to 5K app but now choose whichever interval I want and sometimes stay on the same one for a long time before moving on, rather than following the prescribed path.

I can finally run in 10 minute intervals at a time, and it feels amazing! This isn’t a lot for many people in the world, but it is a lot for me and I am happy to be here. I am also starting to see that it might someday be possible to run more than this, perhaps even for some real distance, without wanting to stop every second of the way.

I am only at this point because I very specifically did whatever worked best for me without questioning it or telling myself I should be better.  For example, I am not great with competition. It is not the thing that motivates me. If I am having a bad run, I just tell myself that there will always be another run the next day, and the day after that. Instead, I challenge myself in small ways–I always pick a point just a little further to run to after I am supposed to stop, I try to keep my pace faster just a little bit longer, etc. In my case the thing that will get me outside the most is finding the joy in a great song, the power of my own body to push me forward, and a good breeze moving through the trees.

But maybe you need something different! Maybe you need to have someone yell at you to push through it, maybe you need to put up pictures of someone climbing Mt. Everest, maybe you need a friend to chat with, and on and on. The key here is to find what works for you and not let any person, book, or blog, tell you that it isn’t the right way to do it. For me, it is to tell myself that any action I take today is better than what I did yesterday, and trust that it will grow from there. I encourage you to explore what might help you get outside more, to listen to your instincts about how you are feeling and trust that you know best. Because who could know better than you?

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The days are going by and I am working on my summer goals. So far I’ve planted green pepper and tomato plants out on my balcony and added some colorful bits here and there to make it a nicer place to spend time in. I started taking walks around the neighborhood with a friend, which has been a lot of fun. I’m surprised how easy it was to turn our usual talk-while-sitting gatherings into talk-while-walking ones. Also, as of this Friday I have begun to work on one of my main goals: to use a bike instead of the car for local trips around town. I am very excited to have a shiny new hybrid starter bike to help me put this plan into action.

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Not to mention the very awesome detachable basket…

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I’ve never used anything besides a mountain bike before, and the thinner tires are an interesting change. I’m also scared of riding on the roads and get tense every time a car passes me even on our quiet streets, but I am really excited to experiment with it and see how it goes.

I am also interested in exploring another avenue of being moved by my own power. Since I started running a few months ago I have been thinking about this a lot and have a new appreciation for the human body from an evolutionary point of view. It’s just amazing what we are capable of, and every part of it astounds me. Even our ability to store fat is awesome–what a great adaptation that helped our ancestors survive all kinds of trials in the past. And sweating! Did you know that humans/primates are the only type of animal with sweat glands on virtually all the skin? This means we can regulate our own body temperature in a way few others can.

I am truly grateful for this new view of my body through the lens of where it comes from and what it is capable of. It has definitely changed me for the better.

I encourage everyone to find something–anything, outdoors or not–that they do only for themselves, and find the way of following that interest that works best for them. There are so many exciting things in the world, and only this one life to do them in! Why not learn how to climb a mountain, how to can food, how to speak Spanish, how to play badminton, how to identify bird songs, how to jump from one rock to another, how to make a good cup of coffee, how to use pastels, how to follow animal tracks, how to play the mandolin, how to look for crayfish, how to catch fireflies, how to take on the world……

You are the product of one million years of human evolution, 200 million years of mammals, 3.8 billion years of life. You share the world with 7 billion other people. Many of them dream with you, and wake up with you. All of them want to be happy and healthy just like you do. There are 5,489 other species of mammals in the world giving birth and raising their young just like you. There are 1,000 different kinds of conifer trees turning your breath into oxygen to be used again. With that kind of support all around us, what aren’t we capable of?

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Summer Wishes May 25, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — backyardsafari @ 6:14 pm
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As I mentioned in my last post, my days are currently filled with nature outings with kids in a local school district. The school year is ending, however, and my schedule will change with it.

Almost 2 months ago I brought running back in to my life. My goal is simply to feel physically capable again. I am specifically going for this amorphous I’ll-know-it-when-I-feel-it goal rather than any kind of weight or calorie number. I feel weird about endorsing products, but the “Couch to 5k” program was really helpful in getting me started, especially one of the many matching iPhone apps. The app lets me play music from my phone but also counts down the time and tells me when to run, walk, and when it is halfway so I can turn around and end up at home. I don’t think I would have been able to keep up my motivation without this. It helped a LOT to have a set amount of time I would be running for and have a goal to work towards. I’ve recently switched to a more ‘barefoot running’ style (on the balls of my feet using a minimal shoe) and had to start over a bit with slower times, but I am still using the app.

I’m surprised at how much I’m enjoying running this time around. I’ve gone out a few times here and there in the past but it never really stuck. Now I actually look forward to it. I think part of it was changing my goal to focus on being strong and capable.

Taking this one step has encouraged me to take more, and a recent post by travel blog Married with Luggage got me thinking about what I really want and what I can do every day to achieve it. Then I remembered fellow nature blogger Go Explore Nature‘s 2010 fall and summer nature ‘bucket lists’ and decided to make one of my own.

So without further ado, here is a list of things I would like to add to my life and work on this summer:

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1. Get a road bike with a basket and start using it instead of the car for local trips (grocery store, downtown etc.).

2. Finally plant the tomato and pepper plants I grew from seeds in a real container (I probably should have done this a while ago–oops!). Remember to actually take care of them.

3. Turn our balcony into a place that is fun to hang out in, spend more time there. (Small table and chairs? Lanterns? More plants?)

4. Use running as a way to explore new places. (Try out local parks, trails, and explore on vacations. I recently went running while at a friend’s house in another state and it was really fun to see everything from that level!)

5. Try to add more evening walks to our week.

6. Start drawing/nature journaling again. Try going to a place specifically to draw.

7. Take better advantage of the many farmer’s markets that take place in my area

8. Local baseball team games! My husband and I love going to these and I am excited for the season to start again. Outside, deliciously bad stadium food, free giveaways.

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We’ll start with those 8 for now and see how they go.  The one problem is the top 3 things I’d like to do pretty much all involve some initial money investment. As a person who tends to get very excited about things for short periods of time, I hate to put in the money if I’m not sure it will really stick. I will try to get creative with my planter boxes and balcony furniture and scour Craigslist for a cheap bike, but if anyone has suggestions for how to do these things more affordably, I’m all ears!

I’m glad to at least have made a list–I might not accomplish all of it, but if I never made the list then I definitely wouldn’t. What kinds of fun things would you like to accomplish this season? Maybe you’d like to take up fishing, learn how to cook a local vegetable you haven’t tried before, take a walk around the neighborhood, or climb that nearby hill you see every day? For our southern hemisphere friends, maybe you’d like to try to get out more even in the cold? As Married with Luggage asks on their blog, what can you (and I!) do today to make our lives happier?

So come on, summer! Let’s see what we can do.

 

Outdoor Fun for All Ages May 19, 2011

Almost every morning during the week I wake up, eat a banana and–if I’m organized enough and remembered to wash the old congealing milk out of it–pour coffee into my travel mug, climb into the car, and drive in the opposite direction of all the commuting traffic out into the neighboring community in which I work. After much planning, my outdoor days with grades K – 8 are finally here!

For these days I put together a series of outdoor activities and lead each class through them, teaching them about topics they have learned throughout the year in as hands-on a way as possible. Some grades travel to nearby locations like a wetland or stream, while others learn right on the school grounds. They are so much fun, and I have been having a great time! The kids are wonderful and have a lot of great questions and insights.

Unfortunately, I won’t put up the many adorable pictures I have of the kids themselves, but I thought I’d share a few other photos of the days and what we have been up to. Below is a random collection of pictures from a variety of different activities.

I feel very lucky that I get to do this for my job!

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The owner of the wetland’s rule was that everyone had to get at least a little muddy. Many of them fulfilled this obligation!

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And this station didn’t hurt…

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Some crayfish discovered during a macroinvertebrate study.

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A ghostly bee keeper suit watches over some kids learning about hives.

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A local dairy farm shows some kindergartners the different parts of the feed they give their cows. This matched a later activity where I gave the kids vegetables and we talked about the different body parts they kept healthy.

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A sign showing how to get to the “plant art” station at the end of the boardwalk.

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Some clay pots painted by a kindergarten class drying in the window. Later, they filled these with soil and planted seeds in them to take home.

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A large tooth (I believe cow) that students found in the stream during the macroinvertebrate study.

It’s been so fun to go out with all of the different age groups and help them experience nature. I have learned so much and love hearing their thoughts and impressions of the different activities. I end every day with what I call “Nature Letters,” where students pick a family member or friend to write a letter to about their day. They have to include at least (1.) something they learned, (2.) their favorite part of the day, and (3.) something they did that day that they would like to do again with the person they are writing to.  They write the letter first and then draw a picture to match. I LOVE reading what stood out to them about the day and like to imagine the person they are writing to getting the letter. One girl wrote to her older sister, and drew a picture of them collecting litter together sometime in the future. Another included “BEST MOM EVER!” in all cap bubble letters at the end of his. In the example I do with the class I always write to my grandma (hi, Grandma!) so some of them write to grandparents as well, or cousins, or a best friend in a different class. I am very careful with students to NEVER ever say “mom and dad” or “parents,” always “families.” It’s a simple change in words that helps to include every student, whether they are raised by another family member, their dad and stepmom, a single parent, their brother, their two moms, etc. etc.

Anyway, in a second grade class I noticed that one of the girl’s drawings had me in it! In the picture I am holding a ziploc bag with some milkweed seed pods in it, which I used to talk about seed dispersal and plant adaptations. So, in case you have been wondering what I look like, look no further!

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I also want to say that these days are partly made possible by volunteers who come out and help me lead stations. This is especially necessary if a grade has more than one class of students. In these cases I simply couldn’t do the days without them, and I am very grateful there are people who are interested and able to spend time with the kids to teach them about nature.

As a quick public service announcement I just want to say that if you happen to have any spare time (which, I know, is rare), please consider helping out your local schools! I had a very difficult time finding volunteers this year and I know the parent teacher groups are having the same problem. Also, many public schools have had funding for assemblies, art programs, and extracurricular stuff completely cut out, and they would LOVE to have an interested party come in and do some programs with their kids. Maybe you could lead a class or two in an outdoor painting activity? Or bird watching? Or bring in vegetables from your garden? Or lead them in a song about nature? The possibilities really are endless and I’m sure there is something to match up with your specific interests.

If you have a particular hobby or specialty you would like to share with students but don’t know how to get started or what age-appropriate activity matches, please contact me and I will do everything I can to help! I can be reached by e-mail at any time at askbackyardsafari@gmail.com.

I hope everyone is having a great week getting outdoors. As always, I’ll see you out there!

 

Environmental Education and Autism May 10, 2011

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Disclaimer: I am not a trained special needs educator, and am still learning how to best engage with Autistic and other special ability students. This post is about what I have learned so far in my journey to work with students on the Autism spectrum in my school district. Each student is different, and what works for one child might be completely wrong for another. There is also a lot we are still learning about Autism Spectrum Disorders, and so some of what I am writing could change in the future. If you would like to work more with children with special needs, please work closely with their educator to ensure that your activities are as safe and engaging as possible. 

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Do a quick google search for “outdoor activity” + almost any grade and a variety of activities on different topics come up to start you on your way. Do a search for “outdoor activity + autistic students” and it is a completely different story.  To be fair, every student on the autism spectrum is different, and as a result it is hard to write curriculum the same way you can for “neurotypical” students.

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been trying to expand programs into the special needs classrooms. It has been a great experience so far, and I have learned a LOT already. I want to make it clear right off the bat, though, that I am writing this just as a novice for other novices. While I hope to take some coursework on this subject some day, I have not yet, and everything I am saying here I have just learned from a few experiences and reading a variety of blogs and websites.  I wanted to write it up anyway, though, because there are so few activity descriptions out there, and even if every child is different I think it can help to at least have a starting point to jump off from.

First, anyone considering doing an activity with a class of autistic students should speak as much as possible to the special needs educator. If possible, go into the classroom a few days before your activity to just sit silently and watch the students–this can really help you feel more prepared. I would recommend listening carefully to the way the educators speak to the students, and the methods they use to communicate with them.  For example, in my class there is one deaf student, so I learned the signs for a few simple words related to my activity like “tree,” and “bird” before going in. You will probably notice that the room is very quiet and there isn’t a lot of extraneous explanation. Students on the autism spectrum tend to do best with direct and specific instruction.

Many times, students with autism also have sensory processing disorders. The details vary greatly for every student, but generally you should avoid loud sudden noises and be willing to stop to take a “sensory break” if necessary.  On this note, the very best piece of advice I can give someone who is interested in working more with these children (or any child, for that matter!) is to always be willing to change your plans. I would even explicitly tell the teacher that you would like them to stop you or step in if they feel that the children need a break or should be doing something else.

It is also useful to provide the teacher with info on what you are planning to do ahead of time–they might want to take the class to the outside area first to get them used to it, or talk about some of the topics before you get there. In some cases, you might even find that the best thing you can do is just provide the teacher with activities and materials to work with the students her/himself.

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When I think about being an educator, I always think of Walt Whitman’s poem “There Was a Child Went Forth.” In the poem, everything a child sees or learns become a part of him. I feel the same way as an educator! Everything I read or experience comes back to help in small, unexpected ways. For this reason, I recommend reading as much as you can from the many blogs, books, and websites available. There is still so much we don’t know about autism, so each source will tell you something a little different. When I was creating the activity written out below, I was wandering around a store looking for different textures to use. I had been planning on using mainly rough textures, when I suddenly remembered a blog post written months ago by a mother of a 4-year-old child on the spectrum. In the post she talked about how he went through a phase where he rubbed playing cards on everything because he really liked the smooth feeling. Because of reading that post months ago that at the time was nothing more than a story, I changed my tactic and gathered together a variety of textures, including smooth and soft ones.

The activity I ended up creating is about trees and their different parts.  I started off by singing this song from the “Sequoia Riverlands Trust” website. It is to the tune of “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes,” and goes through the crown, branches, trunk, roots, etc. The special needs educator at my school recommended to me that songs with hand motions are useful–that way students can sing or hum along if they want, or can just follow along with the motions.

Next, we went outside to an enclosed courtyard in the school and walked around feeling the bark of the trees, the smooth leaves, the soft dandelion flowers, and anything else we could find. This part went fairly well, except that one student got very upset at first because he had put his jacket on and thus thought he was going out to play. This makes sense to me in hindsight because routines are a very important tool for autistic students, and he has probably been taught specifically that he needs to put his jacket on before he goes to play. This kind of thing will come up when you are teaching, and, if you learn from them, these mistakes will make you better for the next time.

Finally, we came back in the classroom. We ended up doing a finger painting activity where the students drew a tree trunk on a paper and then used their thumbs dipped in paint to make leaves. I had a whole other activity planned for this part, but the teacher thought this would be best instead based on the kind of day the students were having. I had brought the finger paints along as a sort of un-formulated back up plan, and was really glad I did! It makes me look like a bag-lady, but I try to keep as many supplies as possible in the trunk of my car just for this kind of scenario. In the future, I will make more detailed back-up plans like this in case I need to use them with the students.

As I said, we did not end up using the other activity I had planned, but I want to write it up anyway because the teacher said she thought it would work on a one-to-one basis with the students.

To tie in with the tree song, I constructed a tree “puzzle” out of a variety of materials. Autistic students generally like different tactile sensations, so I tried to make it out of as many different textures as possible, as mentioned above.

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I cut the tree trunks and branches out of sand paper for a rough texture, the leaves out of vinyl fabric for a smooth texture, and flowers/fruits out of yarn for a soft one. I made one complete version of the puzzle and taped it to a small white board so the students could look at one and copy it if they needed to. My original idea was for the students to arrange the parts in the proper order onto white poster board to make a tree. I realize now that it might be even better to have the pieces already arranged and have them spend time feeling the different textures and helping them label the parts, although this probably depends on the individual abilities of each child. The completed tree looked like this:

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As mentioned, this one is taped to a white board so I could label the different parts in real-time.

While students on the autism spectrum tend to like different textures, which textures they like depends entirely on the student. In the class I worked with, one student really enjoyed the rough texture of the sand paper bark while another became very upset after touching it because he preferred smooth textures. For this reason, the greater variety you have the better off you will be, with something for each child.

I sent a letter home to the families of these students explaining what we had done that day, lyrics to the tree parts song, and a description of how they could make their own tree “puzzle” if they wanted to. I am a big believer in this type of thing so that the families can work with their child later on what they learned in school–I try to do this with every class I work with, not just the special needs classes.

I had a great time working with these students and I can’t wait to do it again in the future. Again, the most important piece of advice I can probably give is to be flexible, that it will not always go the way you think it will, and that’s okay! In my head I imagined the children being very engaged in the tree puzzle, exploring the outdoor space with awe, and everyone carrying me out of the schools on their shoulders cheering about how great the activity was (…okay maybe not that last part). In reality, one student had terrible allergies outside and starting sneezing, and then became very upset about the horrible and overwhelming sensation of his newly stuffy nose, we changed activities at the last moment, and my entire session lasted half as long as I had originally planned.

I am not there yet, but every time I go in to this classroom I get a little better and a little more aware of how to best interact with these awesome students. I am always looking to learn more, so if you have a favorite resource about engaging with Autistic students or working outside with special needs children, please pass the information my way! If you are a parent or educator and have any insight on what kinds of things your child/student likes to do outside, I would really love that information as well. Also, she probably won’t see it, but I want to give a quick thank you to the simply amazing special needs educator at my school who has been willing to work with me, teach me about her students, and help me be a better educator myself!

If you would like to read more, here are some of the resources I have found helpful so far. It is by no means an exhaustive list, and I am still looking, but it is a place to start!

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AutismSpeaks.org

National Autism Association  

WrongPlanet.net

10 Activities for Autistic Students

Outdoor Toys for Autistic Children

How to Use Play Therapy to Treat Autism

Best Physical Activities for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autistic Children Activities

StarkRavingMadMommy.com

HartleysBoys.com

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Thank you so much for reading! I hope some of this information can be helpful to other environmental educators/outdoor enthusiasts looking to bring the wonderful world of nature into a special needs classroom. If you have any other insights, advice, corrections, or information, please leave it in the comments or send me an e-mail to askbackyardsafari@gmail.com. See you out there!

 

Spring Growth April 8, 2011

What a difference a day makes…

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As much as I love nature and being outside, I am not a person who is good at raising plants. I want all of the benefits with none of the work, and I don’t do the research necessary to really care for them well. As a result, I just don’t keep them! Every summer, though, I suddenly wish I had tomato plants. I sometimes go and buy a full grown plant, setting it out on my balcony and heading out every now and then to collect the glowing fruit.

This year, though, I am trying to get a head start. I bought this little tomato starter kit and some seeds, and tried to follow the little set of directions on the back. I’ve already had to ask my excellent Facebook friends for tips, like should you rotate the plants so they don’t get leggy (yes) and now am wondering how I ‘cut back’ all but the strongest seedling. Do I snip it with scissors?  Pull out the whole plant? And how do I know the right time for putting them outside?

It is a learning process, but it has been so much fun just to watch these little guys spring up in the window in front of my work desk. I have watched them grow with speed and force, unfurling their leaves and reaching for the sun. They turn as I rotate them, leaning their faces back toward the light.

I can’t promise they will make it through a whole season of living with me, but I am certainly going to try! In the mean time, I am going to take pictures of them every day, just like I did for the Backyard Transition Challenge last fall. I encourage you to do the same! If not something you are growing, than just something you see changing around you–a bud on a tree branch, a weed in your yard. It is always a great experience to watch something grow and be able to look back and see how far it really has come.

Happy Spring!

 

Bird Nests in Your Backyard March 3, 2011

Today it is 33 degrees outside. Tomorrow it will be 41. Saturday, 52.  There is a lot of rain in the forecast, but on March 12th a “full day of sunshine” is proposed. Do you know what this means, readers?  In the northeast United States, spring is coming.

As you may have guessed from my recent posts, I will be very happy to see winter go. In the mean time, though, I have noticed a surprising benefit to the leaves being off the trees.

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Bird nests! If you keep an eye out, you can see them easily right now through the branches of trees, without the dark foliage to camouflage them. I sometimes see them in my neighborhood, nestled against the bare bark. I also sometimes see bird and squirrel nests in the trees while I am driving. I usually am not able to stop to take pictures, but I enjoy seeing them and getting a glimpse of how animals are living and raising their young.

Last year, when this blog was still a baby, I discovered a pair of mourning doves nesting on my balcony. They eventually laid eggs and hatched a squab. I really loved having them there and was sad to see them go.  Last May I also had the opportunity to see a killdeer nest and have a reader submit video of bluebird and wren babies living in his backyard. All of this means I am very excited to have the chance to look at some bird nests up close before all of the leaves grow back and birds take up residence again.

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The change in season also means that birds are going to start building new nests soon. Gathering material to build nests is a lot of work, so some people put out “nest material holders,” for birds to visit and borrow from.  You can buy professional versions of these, or you can make your own. Here is a crafted nest material holder shaped like a little house, and here is one made from a mesh onion bag.

One of the professional sellers also has a lot of great information about how to make your own and what materials to use. I am going to copy and paste some of that info here, but please know that I got the info from another website: http://www.bird-house-bath.com/nesting-materials.html

 

“You can put out centralized stashes of nest material. It can be natural materials like straw, small sticks, and twigs, or man made items such as yarn and string. Always use natural colored, un-dyed man made items. Try putting out any combination of the following:
– Thin twigs
– Dog and cat hair – If you have dogs or cats, and we do, you know what a cakewalk this one is. Simply brush pet and pull insane volumes of hair from the brush. Later, you can be enormously amused that the cute little bird babies outside were raised in a nest from your pet hair – as your pet glares out the window.
– Human hair – from your hairbrush
– Thin strips of cloth – cut about an 1 wide and 4-6 inches long
– Feathers – old down or feather pillows are a resource for this
– Long dried grasses
– Yarn or thread or string cut into 4-6 inch lengths
– Pieces of cotton, fluff. We actually purchased an inexpensive cotton filled throw pillow on clearance for this and had enough nesting materials to share with all our (equally strange as ourselves) birding friends for several seasons. Next time, it’s a smaller pillow!
– Long wilted leaves from daffodils, tulips or iris
– Small strips of cellophane – cut thinly and 4-6 inches long
– Spanish moss
– Regular moss – Once a season we pick some moss while on walks and lay it out to dry for a few days, them add to our nesting materials supplies.
– Pine needles – plenty of that to go around in most places.
– Milkweed silk – this one is favorite of several species of birds and worth collecting a few pods if you can. American goldfinch and orioles use ot often.
– Horse hair – Do you ride or know anyone that does? Horse hair from manes and tails is great stuff and very strong!

Items we do not use:
– Dryer lint. While there are several opinions about this, we tend to stay away from anything that may harm the birds. If you get dryer lint wet, when it dries it is hard and crumbles apart. Also, it is unclear if dryer sheets or other chemicals used when washing clothing is harmful for birds so we choose to not go there and give them items we are positive will not hurt them. Laundry detergent or fabric softener residue just does not sound good to us. Maybe it will not hurt them is not enough for us to test.
– Plastic sacks such as grocery bags – We have seen these suggested and think it is a very bad idea. Who has not seen a plastic sack after it has gotten wet and then dried up? Maybe you set on a damp spot at one time. They get hard and brittle and the logo dye cracks of them in flakes.”

This website recommends putting these materials out now (early March) to get birds started. I also want to echo what they said about using plastic–I have read that many birds are running into trouble by using plastic fibers in their nests that don’t insulate the way natural materials do. As a result, the eggs don’t stay warm enough and do not hatch. For this reason do not use anything plastic, and the more natural materials you can provide, the better!

I want to end this post by linking to some really amazing bird nest videos from the always lovely Sir David Attenborough. These should get you inspired for the upcoming nesting season!

First, here are some very clever ways that birds camouflage their nests. If you like to craft/sew/make things you should especially watch this! It is astounding to me that birds can do such delicate work with only their beaks!!

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Next we have one of my favorite examples, the Australian bowerbird. In addition to building a large covered structure, this bird collects and organizes found objects into pleasing arrangements to attract a mate. Some birds only collect blue items, others have a variety of colors. It is a lot of fun to watch the birds placing everything just so, and examining with a critical eye.

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Finally, here is a type of nest I had never seen before looking up the previous videos. It is a giant “apartment complex” of straw that houses hundreds of birds. Keep watching until the end so you can see their little heads poking out!

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I also want to give a shout out to one of my favorite nature blogs, www.goexplorenature.blogspot.com. The author recently said on Facebook that she is building a nest with her sons out of materials they find on neighborhood walks. She is going to be posting about it soon (I believe tomorrow, Friday), and I encourage you all to check it out!

So what about you, dear readers? Have you noticed any bird nests around? Have you seen any birds building yet around your yard? Do you ever put out building materials for them? What other signs of seasonal change are you noticing and looking forward to?  What do you hope the next season will bring?