Bluebell Field in England (photo used under Creative Commons license)
Happy March Equinox Everyone!
Humankind’s imagination is as vast as the solar system we live in! Out of our imagination comes tools for working, farming, and building. If we let our imaginations soar we become inventors. In fact, inventive thinking and problem solving is something we do everyday. We see a problem and come up with a solution. In the Oak Meadow 5th grade science curriculum, students study technology and design and work on their own inventions. It’s so much fun to see what they imagine and bring into the world! They construct things that help with a job around the house, create toys for pets, and design many other practical and useful items. Humankind just seems to long for answers to questions!
Long ago astronomers sought answers to the many questions about the universe. When an answer wasn’t in sight, they imagined and created stories or guidelines for their lives. They imagined stories about the stars they saw in the night sky, imagined the sun went to sleep each night, and imagined the world was flat. In future years we have come to understand more about the universe through observation. In observing the rising and setting of the sun, astronomers imagined a great dome over the Earth’s sky and called it the celestial sphere. They imagined the celestial equator as being in the middle of the north and south poles and right above the Earth’s equator.
During the March equinox, when we have twelve hours of daylight and twelve hours of darkness, “the sun crosses the celestial equator, to enter the sky’s Northern Hemisphere. No matter where you are on Earth (except the North and South Poles), you have a due east and due west point on your horizon. That point marks the intersection of your horizon with the celestial equator, the imaginary line above the true equator of the Earth. And that’s why the sun rises due east and sets due west, for all of us, at the equinox. The equinox sun is on the celestial equator. No matter where you are on Earth, the celestial equator crosses your horizon at due east or due west.”
St. Patrick’s Day is an enchanted time – a day to begin transforming winter’s dreams into summer’s magic.– Adrienne Cook
Every year, on March 17th, people who celebrate St. Patrick’s Day don their greenest garb, search for four-leaf clovers, eat corn beef and cabbage, dance the Irish jig, march in parades, and search for the leprechaun and his pot of gold. There are many famous Irish sayings and blessings that come to mind. One of my favorites Irish blessings is: “May you always walk in sunshine. May you never want for more. May Irish angels rest their wings right beside your door.”
Whether you are Irish or not, it can be a joyful occasion for both young and old. As a child, my favorite part of this celebration was wearing a bit of green (so I wouldn’t get pinched). I also delighted in imagining how a leprechaun might appear, as well as hearing the legend of this mythical creature.
Since St. Patrick’s Day falls on a Saturday this year, there is the expectation of extra revelry. One of the oldest worldwide celebrations is a parade. The first St. Patrick’s Day parade in the United States was held in New York City in 1762, which was before the Revolutionary War and prior to its independence. If you’d like to join one in your area, here is a list for every state and throughout the world.
If you prefer to enjoy a quieter celebration, perhaps your family would like to host a gathering that includes educational games and fun-filled activities. You could have a treasure hunt to search for a “pot of gold”. Instead of playing “Pin the Tail on the Donkey”, you could have a geography lesson by pinning the country of Ireland onto a map of Europe.
Playing group games can be a lot of fun, too. Here are the rules for “Leprechaun, Leprechaun! Where’s Your Shamrock?”
One child is the leprechaun, who sits in the middle of the circle with eyes closed.
One of the children in the circle hides the shamrock behind his/her back. It’s suggested to have an adult distribute the shamrock so everyone gets a turn.
Circle children say: “Leprechaun, Leprechaun! Where’s your shamrock? Somebody has it in their pocket! Guess who? Maybe you? Maybe a monkey from the zoo! Come on, Leprechaun, find your shamrock.”.
Leprechaun opens eyes and has 3 guesses as to who has the shamrock.
Child with the shamrock becomes the next leprechaun.
A St. Patrick’s Day gathering could also include a healthy green treat, such as a Mint Patty Shake that will delight the palette of all your guests. Here is a simple recipe:
1⁄2 cup refrigerated coconut milk
1 pint mint chip ice cream
2 cups packed baby kale
In a blender, combine coconut milk, ice cream, and kale. Cover and blend until smooth. (Makes 2 – 8 oz. servings)
While you are sipping on your green beverage, you could share some St. Patrick Day jokes and riddles:
Q: Where can leprechauns always find gold on St. Patty’s Day? A: In the dictionary!
Q: Why are leprechauns so concerned about global warming? A: They’re really into green living.
At the end of the festive day, you might enjoy reading some special books about St. Patrick’s Day. The site, Fireflies + Mud Pies, has an excellent source of books that will be a delight to story readers and listeners, alike.
Oak Meadow’s k-8 teacher, Sarah Antel, shared this wonderful article on her thoughts regarding the tapping of maple trees. I hope you enjoy reading her wit and wisdom on the subject of the “Sugarin’ Season”!
It is hard to imagine on a subzero day, but trees will soon be ‘waking up’ as their life-giving sap starts to flow from the roots, where it was stored in the shortening days of autumn, to the leaf buds awaiting to unfurl. One tree in particular in the Mid-West and North Eastern United States and Canada provides more than beautiful scenery.
The Sugar Maple, Acer saccharum, is tapped this time of year so humans can harvest its sap; the liquid will ultimately be boiled into maple syrup or maple sugar. The Sugar Maple is tapped because its sap has the highest sugar content relative to other tree species (2%-3%). North America is the primary producer of maple syrup. The weather is ideal for this sap flow; the nights are below freezing so sap stops flowing, and the spring days are warm and often sunny, which encourages sap flow. A weather pattern such as this prevents the tree from turning sugars to starch. Once the nights are above freezing, and the days warm into the 50s, the sap will turn and is no longer ideal for making high quality maple syrup.
The modern maple sugaring industry has made sugaring an efficient and scientifically driven business. However, many of the tools used now still have distant roots in their ancestry. The Native Americans were the first people to make maple syrup. There are many stories of how this wonderful tradition was discovered. One story tells of how a warrior sunk his tomahawk into a tree trunk and water flowed out; his wife then boiled meat in the water and it made syrup. Another legend tells of a Native American finding a sweet icicle formed from the liquid of a broken maple branch.
Native Americans’ methods of making syrup were rather ingenious. Some tribes collected the sap in birch bark baskets or hollowed out logs. They allowed the liquid to freeze overnight, then they removed the layer of ice as the sugar did not freeze. Several nights of freezing and removing the ice left them with a much sweeter liquid as the sugar content became higher. Another method, which may have been paired with the ice removal, involved adding hot rocks to the sap; this would cause the sap to boil and the water to evaporate. The sugar again became concentrated and the liquid thicker.
Today, no matter a person’s level of technology, the methods of making maple syrup remain essentially unchanged. If you live in a part of the world where the weather allows for maple sugaring, you can make your own syrup with just a few buckets to collect sap in. If you do not live in a maple producing region, you can still include this rich lesson in your curriculum. Sugaring has so many cross curricular connections; one can explore density, history, measurement, botany, nutrition, geography, etc. The list goes on!
Whatever you choose to do with the information, enjoy sugaring season where ever you are, and the next time you put maple syrup on your pancakes, you will know a bit more about where your food came from.
This is a special guest post by Oak Meadow K-6 teacher Meg Minehan.
Meg Minehan is an Oak Meadow teacher for grades K-6. She currently homeschools her own children using the Oak Meadow curriculum. Meg co-leads a monthly forest and fields program for preschoolers in Chester, Vermont. She embraces winter by cross country skiing and sweating in her woodfired sauna.
Although all of us at Oak Meadow extol the benefits of getting children outside, we also recognize that getting young ones outdoors in winter can be quite challenging! Here are some helpful hints to help you and your children embrace these blustery, and for some of us, downright frigid days.
Perhaps most of you are familiar with the oft-quoted saying, “There’s no such thing as bad weather…” Although my feelings about that quote can change depending on my mood, the wind speed, and the type of precipitation I am about to endure, it is important to acknowledge that wearing appropriate clothing in winter is a must. These past few weeks, you may have encountered temperatures that are too cold to be safe. Most days, however, can be safely enjoyed, if only for a short time, provided you and your children are clothed appropriately. But even after investing in or, better yet, inheriting quality outdoor clothing, how do you entice children and their caretakers to go outside?
For many children, a fresh snowstorm is usually a welcome invitation to play outdoors. There are the obvious tried-and-true activities, such as sledding, snowman making, snow fort building, snowshoeing, and skiing. Now that my children are older, ages 16, 13, and 10, these are some of their favorite activities. I no longer need to encourage them to go outdoors. In fact, usually I am calling them in, so we can get some of our Oak Meadow work done. When my children were young, however, this wasn’t always the case. Sometimes they needed a hook, something to entice them to “get out and blow the stink off ye.” (quote courtesy of my father, Ed Minehan) Here are some ideas that worked, at least some of the time, for my family.
Get Moving and Follow the Tracks: On the coldest days, the only option was to keep moving. Even getting out for a short hike or snowshoe was still worth it. To keep things interesting, we often went tracking. Because we live near the woods, this was, admittedly, pretty easy for us. But driving to a special trail adds a sense of adventure too. First, spend a little time familiarizing yourself with tracking patterns. Is the animal a straight walker, hopper, waddler, or bounder? Kids can practice walking in these styles as well. Next, examine the print of the animal’s foot. Notice the shape and size. Can you count the toes? Are their claws present? What other nearby animal signs or clues can you spot? To maximize child participation, I made each of my kids a laminated detective tracking card with pictures of the four patterns and common prints. I photocopied our cards from the Shelburne Farms Project Seasons book. There are many great tracking guides or cards available. We approached each tracking expedition like a mystery. As they got older, my children became more interested in the C.S.I. scene. They loved following the tracks and searching for evidence of last meals. Yes, sometimes the results were a little gruesome, but always exciting.
Curriculum Extensions: Keep in mind these snowy mysteries can lead to imaginative storytelling, story mapping, further research, and investigative writing projects. These activities can easily be integrated into science and language arts lessons. Talk to your Oak Meadow teacher about substituting assignments. We want you and your children to embrace winter too!
Trail Games: Simple trail games are another way to keep things interesting on a cold winter walk. One of my favorite games is Christmas Tree for a Mouse. I learned it from Rachel Carson’s Sense of Wonder. As we walked through the woods, we would look at various trees, gauge their relative sizes, and decide which animal would be perfectly suited to which tree. This can be a fun way to talk about the animals that live in your area. This game could be easily modified if Christmas trees aren’t part of your family’s traditions. Maybe you could find the tree with the best treehouse option for a mouse, a mink, or a bear. If you and your child are feeling really ambitious, you might even assist with the building process.
Winter Art: Scavenger hunts and treasure walks were also a good way to build enthusiasm for a cold winter walk. After collecting simple treasures, such as pine needles, cones, and winter berries, we would put them in a mold with twine or raffia hangers, fill with water, and wait for them to freeze. We’ve used mini-bundt pans for wreaths, but silicone molds work even better. These lovely ornaments or sun catchers can be hung nearby. Quite often, however, I would encourage us to share our decorations with the birds and squirrels. Aha! Another “excuse” to get out for a walk.
Finally, on those days when everyone needs a little extra enticement, there is nothing like the promise of homemade hot chocolate and a favorite board game awaiting. Happy winter!
NOTE: Oak Meadow recently posted a great link on Facebook about following tracks: http://www.audubon.org/news/a-beginners-guide-reading-bird-tracks-snow
As I sit here this evening with a winter storm warning in effect for my area of New England, I am once again fascinated by how these tiny snow crystals can impact whole regions of the United States.
Some of you may have read The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder. That story is about an actual winter storm that raced across the prairie lands of the United States in the winter of 1880-1881. In his book The Children’s Blizzard David Laskin gives an account of the deadly prairie blizzard of 1888 and he also gives an excellent description of the different types of snowflakes there are and what the conditions are that create them. I highly recommend it if you are interested in the science of snow!
The Native American Indians had many ways to predict the weather by observing what was happening in the natural world around them for clues. In the 1880’s the weather news was sent via telegraph across the United States from Army base to Army base. The weather often arrived before the news of its coming. Today we have the National Weather Service and technology to help us predict storms and to warn us of storms.
If you are interested in learning more about snow crystals, go to your library and find the book Snowflake Bentley. You may also want to visit snowcrystals.com.
The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree
Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.
“I heard a bird sing
In the dark of December
A magical thing
And sweet to remember.
‘We are nearer to Spring
Than we were in September,’
I heard a bird sing
In the dark of December.”
– Oliver Herford, I Heard a Bird Sing
Such a beautiful poem! I love to recite it every year around this time.
This year I’ve looked at it a bit differently because I have many students in the Southern Hemisphere. Those of us in the Northern Hemisphere are tilted away from the sun and experience these darker December days while my students in the Southern Hemisphere are enjoying warmer days as they are tilted toward the sun. Here, north of the equator, the December solstice brings the longest night and shortest day of the year and the Southern Hemisphere experiences the longest day and shortest night. As I look forward to snow falling, students in the Southern Hemisphere head to the ocean for summertime fun!
I looked for a poem to share with my Southern Hemisphere friends, but couldn’t find one. If you know of one, please share it with us!
If you would like to learn more about what is happening on the Winter Solstice on the planet Earth, go to EarthSky.org and enjoy!
After the holidays, the one memory that lingers the longest for me is the fun my family had playing a board game together. There is something about sitting together, watching each other smile, laugh, grimace, and pout!
I’m not talking about a video or online board game. I’m talking about an actual game that has a board that one unfolds from a real box. I like to play a real board game in which one can feel the pieces and move them with one’s own hand. I like a game with a lot of pieces that has to be set up before the game can begin. I also like a game in which I could choose to be two or three players, and I also like a game with a bit of intrigue! Catan is a front-runner, and the games of Clue and Monopoly happen to be favorites of my family because they can take so long to play. We start a game and take a break for a snack or lunch and go back to it when we’re ready. Sometimes we even finish a game the next day.
A board game is a lot more than fun. It’s imagining strategy, thinking through moves, and creating logical outcomes. It is also practice for some important skills that we all use in our daily lives. We practice cooperation, we learn how to compromise, we work together through collaboration. Playing a board game with family and friends also gives us time to practice sympathy, compassion, and empathy with our fellow players.
I’ve played so many fun games! I love Scattergories, Apples to Apples, and the new game Sagrada is quick and fun! What games are your favorites?
If I only had one holiday tradition that I could carry out, it would be quality time with my family and friends every year! I asked my colleagues to send in their favorite holiday traditions, and the responses were fantastic. I would like to share their stories that prove family time is the true joy of the season.
Kay Gibson:I love the idea of sharing traditions. I tend to celebrate the season. I usually go to a solstice gathering where we have a bonfire and lots of good hot food and drinks. Hot apple cider and a warm bowl of chili in the glow of a fire is a great tradition for me. It is especially fun when there is snow on the ground, as it brings more light into the darkest part of the year (here in the northern hemisphere).
Sarah Antel:Foods connected to my family’s heritage have always been important and taken a center stage especially at the holidays. Growing up and into present time, Hungarian lekvar cookie dough was rolled out on my great grandmother’s wooden board, systematically cut, filled with prune butter, rolled around the filling, and baked. At some point during my childhood, Christmas Eve dinner consisted of Polish peirogies, shrimp, and a light mushroom soup. I’ve continued this tradition in my own home on Christmas Eve. And now that Sicilian traditions are also a part of our life, Christmas Day includes an abundance of seafood, eggplant parmesan, and Italian wedding soup.
Meg Minehan: Our family has a few favorite holiday traditions. Ever since my kids were quite young, we have decorated a tree for the animals. We create edible ornaments, such as birdseed and peanut butter pine cones and popcorn cranberry garlands. We choose a spruce, pine or balsam fir that is “just right.” It is especially fun during a snowy December when we can go back a few days later and inspect the visitors tracks!
Another favorite tradition we’ve incorporated in more recent years is our family, homemade gift exchange. We draw names, and the only rule is you must make the gift. These gifts are simple and fun. Sometimes treats are concocted in the kitchen or treasures are created with wood scraps, paper, or yarn. It is amazing how much thought goes into these presents. One year my son made his oldest sister a rustic birdhouse because he knows how much she loves birds.
Of course, food is always a part of our holiday gatherings. Even though most of the year we try to limit ourselves to more wholesome treats, this time of year, we bring out the white flour and colored, sanding sugar for holiday cutout cookies. These are in addition to the other traditions… i.e. Santa, our Christmas tree, etc.
Andy Kilroy:Our family does advent calendars, but a little differently. In Denmark, there are little elves called Julen. These little guys wear big red hats and the night of November 30 creep into the house and put chocolate on the calendars, which are embroidered and hung up on the wall. They then go and help themselves to sugar in the sugar bowls or canister leaving tiny footprints in the sugar they spill. In the morning of December 1, the children wake up and fly down the steps and discover 24 pieces of chocolate hung on the calendars – one for each day before Christmas to count down to the big day. Here is a picture of the calendar I made years ago for my son.
Lesley Arnold:When my kids were little we invited all their friends and parents to our house for a production of “The Night Before Christmas”. Our friend, a music teacher, interspersed the show with Christmas songs we all sang. Each family brought a present (in secret) wrapped with their own child’s name on it. (We tried to have it be a small gift so none were “outdone” by someone else’s gift.) I read “The Night Before Christmas” and my husband and friends acted out the poem. It was a big production with costumes and all! We even had a tiny sleigh and reindeer that we made and put on a pulley across the ceiling. The big event, though, was Santa Claus arriving. We put a picture of a fireplace in a doorway and he arrived through that! My father played Santa Claus and no one even knew it was him. In his big bag were all the presents for the kids. He called out each name and they came up and got their present. What a celebration it was! We still talk about my oldest daughter playing the sugar plum fairy at age 4! A wonderful event and the memory is the best gift!
Anna Logowitz:My sister and I were always in charge of choosing what color Chanukah candles we wanted for each night, and as we got older we also learned how to melt the ends so that they would stay upright in some of our shakier menorahs. The family menorah was simple dark metal, but over the years we accumulated two more. Our Aunt Nancy died when I was 9, and she had a flat little menorah, which became my sister’s and is now with me. My parents also went on a trip and brought back a beautiful one from an art school fair that branched like a tree and had birds sitting in it. We came up with different candle patterns, new ones each night, and watched to see which candles would last the longest.
My mother grew up Christian, and she repurposed two of her family’s traditions for us: Christmas cake became Good Luck Cake, to be eaten on the new year, and every year we made cookies – using Jewish and secular cookie cutters and a lot of very colorful homemade icing – to take to a party that we had with two other couples who had all been in a mixed marriage group with my parents before we were born. We ate them for dessert after latkes and corned beef, over a very large game a dreidel. That party is still going on after 35 years, I believe.
We usually managed to do at least one special thing every night, whether it was being out and about or doing something at home, and we would always pick one night to do Chanukah full out, i.e. make latkes, which are a lot of work and leave the house smelling like oil and onions for days! I used to love to go to school the next day with the smell still in my clothes, because it meant that this was a special time of year.
Michelle Menegaz:We have started a new tradition based on an old one. Every year we had the most beautiful poignant Advent Spiral celebrations in a beautiful round healing sound temple. We used our own apples, drilled holes for candles and made a spiral of greens, stones, shells, small wooden animals, wild berries of winter, etc. Along the path, we placed large golden yellow paper stars. Children would walk alone (if old enough) into the center of the spiral, light their apple candle from the lit pillar in the middle, and then walk back out, placing their apple on one of the stars. We had quiet singing and music as they traversed this highly symbolic journey of traveling through the dark to find light at the center of it all, then bringing their light back out to the world.
Over the years my growing daughter got tired of this and we got tired of the huge effort of making it. For a few years, there was nothing and it felt sad. Last year, we had an impromptu gathering of about 7 teen girls, some of whom helped me create a huge labyrinth of greens outside in the snow atop our pasture hill. We had a campfire down below and when it was dark and the mood was right, each girl trudged up the hill, took up an unlit beeswax tea light in a pint mason jar, walked the snowy path between the greens, and lit their candle from the same pillar in the middle. Those waiting sang songs of light and joy. They headed back out and nestled their jar amongst the greens, and cavorted down the hill. There was more laughter, more shouting, more action, more unbridled LIFE so it had a different tone. But every single girl thanked me profusely and said it was the best thing they had done in a long time and that they missed this sort of thing. We will be doing this again this Solstice!
So, review the essence of what you treasure about your traditions and see if you can bring that to meet your growing children, even the young adult ones, in a new way that feeds them still.
We will love to hear from you! What are your favorite holiday traditions?
Photo from the Vannucci Family, baking gingerbread cookies
December has arrived, which finds most of us in the full swing of holiday activities that connect us with seasonal rhythms of nature. Many of these festivities are surrounded by family and food, and a time for celebrating traditions. The most important tradition for the holiday season isn’t purchased at a store or doesn’t come wrapped in a package. Instead, it is spending time with family and friends. The memories made with those most precious to you can last a lifetime.
Here are ten ways to enjoy your holiday season with favorite family traditions:
Start a Family Memory Book – Everyone loves something made by hand, so why not create a family memory book? Every year, have each family member draw a picture of a favorite holiday activity, or even add a special photo to the book. These will be treasured as the pages and years grow in numbers.
Play Family Games – Holiday-themed charades can fill your home with laughter and joy! Playing a new board game every year is another enjoyable way to share quality time together.
Camp Out in the Living Room – Enjoy a family campout right in your living room. Light candles or a fire in the fireplace, play holiday music, sing songs together, and cozy up for a night with visions of sugarplums dancing in your head.
Share Stories – Read one of your childhood’s favorite holiday stories aloud as a family. Telling stories about your personal childhood will especially delight your children.
ActOut Stories – Acting out a holiday story can be a memorable tradition. Writing your own family play and presenting it to extended family members and friends is always exciting. You might even like to videotape it, start a new videotape every year, and then plan to watch the video of your family’s past year’s performance.
Be Playful – Your imaginations can soar with creativity and playfulness! Hide some of the holiday gifts instead of putting them in their regular place. Write out little clues and follow footprints made by the elves.
Be Secretive – Children love secrets! Make some extra traditional holiday cookies or special treats and secretly place a plateful at a neighbor’s door. There is nothing like making everyone smile as this little mystery is unfolded and solved!
Learn About Other Cultural Traditions – Go to the library and pick out stories of holidays in other cultures. Make a traditional meal or complete a craft project related to one of the cultural festivities.
Gift Yourself by Giving to Others – Have your children pick out one of their own toys, games, or clothes – something they like and think would be a joy to share with others. Go together to a local shelter to hand out the presents.
Invent Your Own Family Tradition – If you’re looking for a special way to bring your family closer this year, come up with your own favorite family tradition. The most valuable and long-lasting traditions start in the heart of your family.
This time of year I start thinking about the birds in my area. The temperatures are dropping close to freezing. I see birds in great flocks swooping into the bird bath and landing on the feeder. Last week there were about 15 Common Grackles splashing and crowding into my bird bath. The winter is upon us here in New Hampshire. The birds need to eat quite a bit of food to keep up their energy for traveling south. Those that stay will need food all winter. I often look out the kitchen window in the winter to see a little black -capped chickadee at the feeder, and I wonder how it can keep warm. The tiny little feet and the skinny little legs look so vulnerable. They need high energy foods and lots of it! I know there are Oak Meadow students that enjoy watching and feeding the birds. If you do also, then you might like to join the Project FeederWatch that is a program of the Cornell University Lab of Orinthology.
“Project FeederWatch is a winter-long survey of birds that visit feeders at backyards, nature centers, community areas, and other locales in North America. FeederWatchers periodically count the birds they see at their feeders from November through early April and send their counts to Project FeederWatch. FeederWatch data help scientists track broadscale movements of winter bird populations and long-term trends in bird distribution and abundance.“
Here’s one: The Common Grackle often allows ants to crawl over its body so that they may secrete formic acid, which is thought to kill parasites, a practice called anting. Besides formic acid from ants, the Common Grackle has been observed using various other substances, such as walnut juice, mothballs, lemons, limes, and choke cherries in similar ways.
Do you watch the birds? Do you keep a list of the birds you’ve seen? Let us know!