Saturday, September 21, 2013

Sounds of Summer

Cicadas are pretty active these days, which seems late in the year for Minnesota. While talking with a friend about this, she said, "Cicadas are the sound of summer." A few years ago I wrote a poem about my childhood summers that began with those exact words. Late summer in the city always meant scabby knees and stubbed toes, banana-seat bikes with colorful straws on the spokes, pigtails turned golden from sun, lemonade stands, hopscotch boards drawn on hot sidewalks, and sitting on gnarled tree roots, gazing up into a leafy canopy. Hearing a cicada today brings back all of those images for me. Sound is a powerful trigger.

I wonder what a cicada's song will mean for my daughter, years from now. Will she think about the box of cicada exoskeletons (a creepy, but cool, collection) she's saved over the years? Will she think about the time she got so mad and ran away from home (but let me accompany her), to a grassy boulevard a couple of blocks away where we sat in the shade of trees and listened to cicadas? Will she think about the adult cicada she "rescued" from a sidewalk, only to find that its abdomen was missing so it would probably die soon anyway? Or will her summer memories, triggered by cicada songs, have nothing to do with the insect at all?

I hope she remembers how much time I was able to spend with her in the summer, how we ambled through alleys, scootered all over the neighborhood, biked together, planted gardens, raised monarchs and praying mantises, and picked and ate raspberries and ground cherries. I hope she will still love the crab apple tree in our front yard, the flagstones she overturned in her search for bugs and worms, and the swing hanging from the white pine. Perhaps she will think of the sparrow she rescued from the dog, the bunnies she rescued from window wells, or the secret space between the garages that she called "Ponyville."

How can we help children make those memories and connect to the natural world in meaningful and joyful ways? Does it matter? The two greatest indicators of responsible environmental behaviors in adults are spending time outdoors as a child and having a parent or other role model who values the natural world (Louise Chawla). It doesn't have to be complicated. We don't have to go out of the city or have a degree in environmental education to cultivate a child's love of nature. It's already there. We just have to slow down, notice what kids are noticing, and give them a little time and space to explore.

What will your children remember of summer?

A few interesting cicada facts:

  • Here in Minnesota, we have cicadas that are called dog day (annual) cicadas. They occur every year. The 13- or 17-year periodical cicadas do not occur in Minnesota.
  • Only the males make the humming/buzzing sound. They do this to attract females.
  • Cicada nymphs (young cicadas) feed on tree roots beneath the ground.
  • Adult cicadas only live a few weeks - just long enough to mate and lay eggs.
  • When you find a cicada with part of its body (the abdomen) missing, this is most likely due to a fungus called Massospora.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

"Song is the sign of an unburdened heart"

We often go for family walks around the neighborhood after dinner. Our daughter skips ahead or lags behind, stopping to investigate something along the way, lost in her thoughts and discoveries. One evening as she sang one of her many made-up songs, which tend to be a narration of a game in which she is completely immersed, we noticed a message on a church sign. "Song is the sign of an unburdened heart." Our children's hearts should be unburdened.

I think of how music and nature weave their ways into children's lives. The benefits of both are well-documented for children's physical and emotional health, academic growth, and creativity. So  it really struck me to see the two beautifully played out INSIDE our home one recent Saturday morning.

Jesse loves music and has a small collection of CDs that she plays in her room. She will often dress up in fancy skirts, then sing, dance, and twirl for us. That particular morning, she had us sit in her room while she queued up the song. I noticed the bright sunshine shimmering on her collection of rocks, sticks, feathers, shells, and pine cones.

As I looked around, I also noticed how often nature is represented in her art. Some of her favorite things to draw and paint are birds, butterflies, animals, trees, and flowers. Nature should be joyful, never scary, for young children. We have to allow them to connect with nature in fun and meaningful ways. As you can clearly see from the smile on the butterfly's face, my little one finds joy in nature.

The music began and Jesse started twirling and singing, a look of utter happiness on her face. The song, appropriately, was "Free To Be...You and Me."

Literature Links:

  • Treasures of the Heart, by Alice Ann Miller, is a lovely story about a child's collections and why they are so special.
  • My Mama Had a Dancing Heart, by Libba Moore Gray, is about a mother and daughter, and a celebration of life through dance and the seasons.
  • Come on Rain!, by Karen Hesse, takes place in a city neighborhood. A child and her friends hope for rain on a sultry day, then dance in the streets when it finally falls. I love the language in this story.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Fairy Houses

Magic happens when you take a child outside and leave her alone with nature and her imagination. Fairies may conjure images of forests, thick with green trees and teeming with wildlife, but our fairy houses are located in the city! Urban fairies don't mind traffic, or sidewalks, or a gaggle of kids on bikes. They love the intricate details in any child-built house. Details like leaf hammocks with dandelion flower pillows, play areas carved from the dirt surrounding gnarled tree roots, and picket fences made of twigs and samaras (maple seed helicopters).

This fairy house was built at a school a couple of blocks from our house. Something about the exposed tree roots in the ground, the swirls of bark, the ant community busy at work nearby, made it seem the perfect place for a fairy house. So my daughter and friends got busy gathering natural materials to create their welcoming little abodes. 

During a bike ride yesterday, we stopped to visit the Little Free Library at the school, then sat down beneath the giant maple to read our new books. Of course we also had to visit the fairy houses. I sat and watched my daughter's excitement grow as she created more rooms, added more decoration, and wondered what the fairies would do in their house. We went back again today, not to look at books, but to add rose petals, take pictures, and check for evidence of fairy mischief. 

I found a fun website about Fairy Houses with books, pictures, and ways to connect kids to nature. Check it out, and get outside and let them build!

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Critters in the Garden

Gardening with children provides so many opportunities for discovery, observation, exploration, and fun! One of my favorite things about spending time with kids in the garden is watching them interact with bugs, worms, slugs, and any other critter they happen to come across. I'll be posting many more garden adventures, but this one is devoted to one of our favorite insects... the praying mantis.

For the third year, we bought a praying mantis egg case from a local garden center. Mantids are beneficial insects in the garden, as they eat aphids, Japanese beetles, and anything else they can catch. We put the egg case in a mason jar and waited for the babies to hatch. In late June, hundreds of babies emerged. We released them into the garden and watched as they moved out into the world.

As in summers past, we then lost track of them. Today, much to our delight, we discovered an adult mantis, camouflaged so beautifully on a plant that we were lucky to see it at all.  My daughter couldn't wait to hold it.

So what can children learn from a praying mantis?

  • Empathy: Each living creature has a role in nature. Hold an insect gently and return it to its place.
  • Patience: Waiting for the babies to emerge from the egg case wasn't easy. There was no instant gratification here. But when it happened, it was magical.
  • Connection: Finding an adult mantis in our garden, most likely one that we hatched, made my daughter feel responsible for that insect and proud that she had provided a habitat for it to grow in.
  • Joy: The delight on her face, at seeing this insect and holding it her hand, was priceless.
Literature Links
  • Manuelo, the Playing Mantis, by Don Freeman. A story about friendship, cooperation, and empathy.
  • Hey, Little Ant, by Phillip and Hannah Hoose. Great story of empathy and mercy, told from two perspectives.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013


This blog is something I've been thinking about doing for a while. Our after-dinner outing tonight gave me a great way to get started...

If you are looking for a new place to hike with your budding entomologists, grab your bug nets and containers and head to the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary, a 29-acre gem of a park just east of downtown Saint Paul.

The restored prairie, ponds, and stream provide habitat for insects galore. During our hour-long guided hike, sponsored by Saint Paul Parks & Rec, we netted a ton of grasshoppers, a meadowhawk dragonfly, a damselfly, a long-horned katydid, a cabbage white butterfly, and plenty of seeds from the lovely tall grasses. A U of MN entomologist was along to help identify our finds. Some of the other insects we learned about tonight were soldier beetles, a tarantula hawk wasp (which looks a bit like a giant winged ant), and a male leafcutter bee. Did you know that male bees don't have stingers?

I would have enjoyed hearing the guide's talk about the culture and history of the area, but I was too busy looking in kids' nets, helping them put critters into containers, and watching them squeal in delight or jump back in surprise at every new insect they encountered. Between the children's joy and the sunshine, I'd say it was a pretty great way to spend an evening.

Tips for Bug Hunting With Kids:
  • The best thing about bugs... they are everywhere! As much as I love exploring new parks, you don't have to go to a park to find them. A sidewalk crack, a parking lot, a patch of grass, a garden - these are all places your kids can observe insects.
  • Take containers - small plastic containers with lids work well. You can put the container in one hand, the lid in the other, and gently scrape an insect off a plant. After close observation, let the critter go.
  • Mesh bug nets are great for catching flying insects. They can usually be found at dollar stores. I try to keep at least one in the car. 
  • Sweep nets are made with durable fabric and are designed to be swept through tall grass. Here are some instructions for making your own.
  • Prepare for the weather. Always have appropriate jackets and shoes. Take water and snacks. If kids aren't comfortable, everyone is miserable.
  • If you are squeamish or afraid of insects, try not to let your kids see it. 
  • Take some time to really look at an insect. Have your child describe it. If you don't know its name, make one up! Then try to identify it later. Help your child notice what the bug is doing, where it lives, and think about what it might eat or what might eat it.
  • And here's a song for you to help you learn and remember an insect's body parts (I know you've always been curious)...

Head, Thorax, Abdomen (sung to the tune of Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes)
Head, thorax, abdomen, abdomen
Head, thorax, abdomen, abdomen
Two antennae, six legs, and an exoskeleton
Head, thorax, abdomen, abdomen

Literature Links
  • Are You a Dragonfly? by Judy Allen. This is part of Kingfisher's Backyard Books series, a great series of books about backyard critters. Considers the characteristics of an insect and compares them to a child. Great illustrations!
  • Ladybug Girl and Bumblebee Boy by Jacky Davis. I love the Ladybug Girl series, but this one in particular. A little girl dresses as a ladybug and goes on urban adventures to a neighborhood park, where she and other kids eventually form the Bug Squad.
  • Bumblebee at Apple Tree Lane, by Laura Gates Galvin. This is part of another series I love, the Smithsonian's Backyard Series. This one follows the life cycle of a bumblebee with language and illustrations that appeal to kids. We also love the one about chipmunks.