Neighborhood Nature

Our Family's Nature Blog

My Twitter Stream from Our No Child Left Inside Block Party, August 22 September 22, 2009

Since this summer’s No Child Left Inside (NCLI) block party started kind of slow, I pulled out my laptop and started tweeting about events (and non events). Twitter has since erased all those tweets from the public record, so I decided to retrieve them and put them on the web for anyone interested in planning their own party.

I reversed the Twitter order so that the first tweets are at the top of the page, rather than lost at the bottom. That way it reads more like a story. I also added some tweets from before and after the party, plus I added a bit of commentary that I neglected to tweet during the party. Finally, I did some editing and reforming, removing various aspects of Twitter speak but leaving a few #NCLIBlockParty “hash tags,” as they’re called. (That’s a way to search for all the tweets on a topic.)

So, starting a week or so before the party:

We’re planning our summer block party as a “no child left inside” event, hopefully with longer term effects. 12:56 PM Aug 12th

Our “No Child Left Inside” block party is next week. I blogged about its philosophy & posted the activity schedule here: 4:02 PM Aug 15th

Just posted NO PARKING signs for tomorrow’s “No Child Left Inside” block party It may rain a bit, but we’ll survive.  2:06 PM Aug 21st

I probably won’t have time/energy to live blog the party, but I may Tweet about AM nature walk finds. Predicted north winds = good migrants? 2:09 PM Aug 21st

Of course, my kids feel too old for all this. They will help with nature activities, but would rather chase a possible Stint in Ohio. 2:12 PM Aug 21st

Forecast for tomorrow’s “No Child Left Inside” block party: Rain ending, migrating birds arriving for our nature walk.  10:08 PM Aug 21st

And now it’s August 22, the date of the NCLI Block Party:

Weather radar showed some migration in our area last night — saw 4 Robins in front yards instead of the 1 we’ve been seeing. 6:45 AM Aug 22nd

Much more migration to the west of us. Hope nothing rare reported on birding lists — the boys would be begging to leave our #NCLIBlockParty. 6:47 AM Aug 22nd

I almost forgot the other important things about the weather: It’s about 60 and NOT RAINING on our #NCLIBlockParty.  6:56 AM Aug 22nd

So far I’ve counted 10 bird species and only 2 humans other than myself. Fortunately, our #NCLIBlockParty nature walk runs until bedtime. 7:47 AM Aug 22nd

An Annual Cicada just started a song, then quit. Temperature only 59 degrees, but at least it’s sunny!  8:07 AM Aug 22nd

It turned out that my kids were the only ones who woke up early enough for the 8 a.m. nature walk. So we decided to fit in nature observations and activities throughout the day, as they happened.

1 more human — Emma, a naturalist since her toddler years, current geology student, going back to college.  8:42 AM Aug 22nd

3 birds are singing, Cardinal, American Goldfinch & Starling, plus lots of cheeps and chirps, as expected this time of year.  8:44 AM Aug 22nd

The Village’s block party website advises, “Supervise children at all times.” What would @FreeRangeKids say to that?   8:48 AM Aug 22nd

Our street is now closed to traffic — kids are appearing outdoors (some without parents). Safe streets make a difference!  9:10 AM Aug 22nd

The DinoJump and a new neighbor’s moving truck showed up at the same time. Got that sorted out. On with the show!  9:43 AM Aug 22nd

Kids in DinoJump or on bikes/skateboards in the street. Except for supervising DinoJump, adults leaving kids on their own.  11:31 AM Aug 22nd

Having friends over is a vital part of #NCLIBlockParty. Ethan has friends over, Aaron’s can’t come yet. Ethan’s busy, Aaron’s bored.11:35 AM Aug 22nd

We have 13 bird species so far, all summer residents. Aaron and I are going to search for fall migrants.  11:41 AM Aug 22nd

Oh my, Ethan and his friends have started climbing trees! (The few that can be climbed on our block) #NCLIBlockParty must be a success! 12:27 PM Aug 22nd

Now the high school freshmen are playing with sticks and stones. Could we ask for anything more?  12:37 PM Aug 22nd

The next tweet relates to one of the activities we did with the younger kids: Turning over rocks, catching the bugs, worms, and slugs, and putting them in containers for a closer look.

2 preschool girls were just arguing over who had the cutest slug. As they left, they said I should “take good care of them.” 1:12 PM Aug 22nd

Busy, busy, busy — digging for treasures, trading at Nature Swap, wild pets (like tadpoles, mosquito larvae), & soil bugs.  3:36 PM Aug 22nd

Time to slow things down with nature crafts, giant bubbles, building with bark and sticks.  3:38 PM Aug 22nd

Cool thing this year: Lots of 6th to 9th graders active outside with their friends — mixing, talking, doing our activities. 3:40 PM Aug 22nd

Of course, I’ve watched most these kids grow — I can tell WHY things are working — it’s a good mix of great kids.  3:46 PM Aug 22nd

Got to fire up the grills soon. I’ve taken some digital photos of activities, but I won’t have time to post. 3:49 PM Aug 22nd

Aaron’s friend finally showed up. He’s happy, at last.  3:51 PM Aug 22nd

I just counted 50 kids on our street. Half are doing active sports; half older than 10; half are guests from off the block.  4:08 PM Aug 22nd

Our bubble mix: 2 buckets warm water (less what kids spill); biggest Dawn Ultra available; 6 oz CVS glycerin; stand back…   4:26 PM Aug 22nd

Six-on-six touch football in the street, coached/officiated by one of the dads.  4:48 PM Aug 22nd

I hear tonight’s high-school-aged rock band practicing in their garage. (They’re up-and-coming, so we just pass the hat.)  4:54 PM Aug 22nd

First casualty of the day was an accidentally smashed slug. Second: The coach/dad was hit on the nose with a football.  5:23 PM Aug 22nd

I thought 4 gallons of lemonade mix would be enough for a cool day. Then they started playing football.  5:24 PM Aug 22nd

Another dad stepped in as coach/official for big-kid football — his kids are 7 and under, so I think he’s loving it.  5:25 PM Aug 22nd

It’s great to have a long block. We have room for football, bubbles, little kids stuff, bikes, & dinner setup at same time.  5:28 PM Aug 22nd

Dinner’s over, time for bingo under the stars…er, clouds. This tradition is led by one of the founders of our block party.  6:52 PM Aug 22nd

Suspicious activity in the alley — everyone reminded to lock their back door and keep an eye on loose bikes.  7:22 PM Aug 22nd

Our local band (headliners) swung deals for a stage, sound system & lighting — the opening act brought the sound system. 7:24 PM Aug 22nd

Middle schoolers crowding the stage during set up, as bingo concludes at the other end of the block.  7:25 PM Aug 22nd

While the opening act plays the Beatles, Gail & I are putting away tables & supplies with a little help from our friends.  8:07 PM Aug 22nd

As one end of the block rocks on, the other plays ghost in the graveyard. And glow sticks decorate everything.  8:56 PM Aug 22nd

It’s barely 9 o’clock. Two more hours…. I think the parents are ready to call it a night, but not the kids.  8:59 PM Aug 22nd

The street is quiet — just a few clusters of teens/adults. Maybe the day did wear out the kids, as the parents hoped.  9:54 PM Aug 22nd

The #NCLIBlockParty is over! As I took down the barricades, the last kids on the street scootered along, taking down No Parking signs. Bye! 11:10 PM Aug 22nd

And now some tweets from the next day and beyond. I’ve been keeping an eye out for kids playing outside on our block.

The block looks pretty good AM after #NCLIBlockParty. Folks already picked up most the trash, squirrels and starlings getting what’s left. 8:18 AM Aug 23rd

#NCLIBlockParty lost-and-found at record low: 1 scooter, 5 dot paintings, & 1 steak knife left behind — on our front steps until reclaimed.  8:21 AM Aug 23rd  Later some lost kitchenware also turned up down the street.

24 hrs ago there were 50 kids playing outside on our block. Now there is 1 parent pulling 1 toddler in a wagon. (sigh…)  4:01 PM Aug 23rd

At least the boys are bugging me to take them birding at Columbus Park. Soon, Aaron, soon….  4:03 PM Aug 23rd

It’s sunset, but the middle-school skateboarders & four families with younger kids are outside on our block. I’m smiling….  7:40 PM Aug 23rd

And finally, from mid-September:

A dozen middle schoolers took back our street! A diverse group in gender, ethnicity, & mode of transportation. (Just went home for supper.) 5:23 PM Sep 16th    I wish that happened more often!


That’s it for now. I may add photos and more commentary later.


Cardinal Eats Cicada: Two Interests Collide September 3, 2009

Filed under: Animals,Birds,Bugs,Children's Interests,Seasons,Summer — saltthesandbox @ 7:28 am
Tags: , , , ,

Usually it’s kind of nice when two of our family’s interests intersect. But I’m still trying to decide how I feel about what happened this morning when a Cardinal caught and ate an Annual Cicada in our neighbor’s elm tree:

The Cardinal ate the cicada bit by bit. In this photo it's holding the cicada's wing and part of its body.

The Cardinal ate the cicada bit by bit. In this photo it's holding the cicada's wing and part of its body.

One problem we have when birds and bugs interact: Who do we root for? We love cicadas, and we love birds, and one gets eaten by the other! Usually we’re OK with birds eating cicadas, since adult cicadas die off in the fall anyway. But this year there aren’t as many cicadas around, so today’s encounter left me a little sad.

The Cardinal looks a little ratty in this photo, and it’s not just because the photo’s fuzzy. The Cardinals in our neighborhood are molting — shedding their old summer feathers and growing a new set for the winter. That’s why most Cardinals we see right now look bald. They’ve molted their old crests and the new ones are just getting started. Adult female and young Cardinals have similar greenish brown feathers, but I think the Cardinal in this photo is a female, because it has a bright red-orange bill and reddish on the wings.

Two other things about our neighborhood’s Cardinals right now: The males stopped singing a few days ago — they must be done defending the breeding territories they used this summer. Also, there are lots of young-of-the-year Cardinals around right now — sometimes the young ones chase the adults around our yard begging for food. I guess her babies were somewhere else, though, because this mommy Cardinal got to eat her cicada in peace.


Note added Tuesday, September 8, at 8:30 a.m.: I just saw a House Sparrow carrying off a cicada! Counting its wings, the cicada was half the length of the sparrow’s body. The sparrow hid in some brush, perhaps hoping its flockmates would not notice its catch.


For more information about Northern Cardinals, visit All About Birds. For more information about Annual Cicadas, try our Kids’ Cicada Hunt website.


Planning Our “No Child Left Inside” Block Party August 15, 2009

Yesterday I went door to door passing out preliminary schedules for this year’s summer block party. That’s a bit of an undertaking, since our block is really a block-and-a-half long, with closely spaced houses and two apartment buildings at one end. For orientation, the middle of our block looks like this:

My house is the third from the left. Many drivers consider the 25 mph speed limit an unwelcome suggestion. Most days, a kids front-yard life focuses on the sidewalk. On black party days, thew street is closed to traffic, and everyone's focus shifts to the asphalt street.

Here's our block in south Oak Park. My house is the third from the right. Many drivers consider the 25 mph speed limit an unwelcome suggestion, so most kids' front-yard life focuses on the concrete sidewalk. On block party days the street is closed to traffic, and everyone's focus shifts to the wide expanse of asphalt.

In addition to the 50 houses and 2 apartment buildings on our block, we also invite the west half of the next block over, since they live on a major road that can’t be closed for parties. I printed 90 schedules and had fewer than 10 left.

Preliminary Activity Schedule

Here’s the preliminary schedule for our block’s 40th summer party. (Yes, we really do have a small archive that goes back that far.) I’ll give some history, explanation, analysis, and commentary later in this post:

7:30 to 8:30 A.M.– Neighborhood Nature Walk: Look for birds, bugs, trees and more on our block (explorations for all ages)

9 A.M. to 11 P.M. – STREET CLOSES AT 9 A.M. Bikes, scooters, skateboards, and rollerblading in the street, along with sports and games, kids’ outdoor toys, and more

BREAKFAST at 9 A.M. near the middle of the block. Everyone is invited to enjoy donuts, bagels, rolls, coffee, juice, and conversation.

9:30 to 11:30 A.M.– Decorate trikes, bikes, and scooters in the middle of the block AND nature collecting & sidewalk chalk village at our house

10 to 11:30 A.M.– Nature Swap — Children can trade natural things that they have found for natural treasures from around the world

10 A.M. to 2 P.M. – DinoJump! (Kids climb inside and jump like crazy)

11:30 A.M.  Parade (decorated vehicles get a prize)

LUNCH: Everyone eats at their own house. (This makes it easier to get little kids down for their naps.)

1 to 4 P.M. – Build a woodland fairy village and Invention Fair (build and display an invention using recycled stuff)

2 to 3 P.M. – Meet live animals: Tadpoles, toads, & turtles (just a few of our many pets)

2 to 4:30 P.M. – Nature crafts using shells, shark teeth and other natural treasures to make a collage (by my wife!)

3:30 to 5 P.M. – Bubble & water play

4 to 5 P.M. – Face painting by a young artist

SUPPER at about 5 P.M. in the middle of the street. Everyone grills their own main course; one side of the block brings salads and other side dishes, the other brings desserts.

After Dinner – Bingo! (with prizes for kids)

After Bingo – Live music by a neighborhood teen’s rock band

Two Critical Ingredients

Now, if you stumbled on this post while searching for ideas for your first block party, please don’t be intimidated by our busy schedule. In my experience, a block party has only two critical ingredients:

  • Street closed to traffic
  • Shared food

Closing the street to traffic changes everything for kids. Suddenly the neighborhood is many times more interesting, even to kids who usually spend many hours in front of screens. Of course, the other kids on the street are as much of an attraction as the open space. Shared food helps get the adults together doing what they’re supposed to do — talk to their neighbors. Breakfast seems to be the most important meal for this kind of mixing, since that’s when people converse with neighbors who they haven’t talked with in many months. Supper is shared but less effective, since many families spend that meal with friends from off the block.

The other activities help keep kids amused once the initial thrill of the street wears off, plus they provide secondary centers for adult conversation. For families with toddlers and preschoolers, having your kids safely busy gives you more time to talk with adults. The activities are fun and useful, but you could get by with just a few of them.

Developing Block Party Activities

I keep these things in mind as I develop the activity schedule:

Legacy activities. Many activities at our parties are legacies — we tried them once, and now they’re so popular that kids would cry if we tried to drop them. The DinoJump is a legacy; we stole the idea from another block about 10 years ago; now it’s incredibly popular with kids, less so with the adults who have to rent and supervise it. (Even the name “DinoJump” is a legacy, since it’s been years since our jump was actually shaped like a dinosaur.) Bingo is another legacy. In fact, our bingo leader was the recording secretary at that first block party planning meeting, 40 years ago.

Activities express their leaders’ interests. My wife, Gail, is an occupational therapist and artist, so it’s natural that she should lead the afternoon nature crafts. A sports-loving family down the block converts their section of street into a skateboarders’ paradise. And my agenda has long been helping kids build their interests in nature, science, and technology, so I do a bunch of activities on those themes. And now my agenda includes “No Child Left Inside.”

Recycling is good! Many of my activities date back to when I volunteered at Wonder Works, led a Camp Fire group, or ran a Nature and Science Club at our neighborhood school. And my kids and I have had many passionate interests over the years (from cars to dinosaurs to birds), so I tried many of our nature, science, and technology activities at home before taking them on the road. Also, we recycle many activities year-after-year; see Legacies, above.

Every block’s party is unique. There are lots of block parties in Oak Park, each with its own history and leaders. The activities at each party reflect the history, constraints, and current composition of its neighborhood. Planners from different blocks hear what’s going on elsewhere and steal ideas, but somehow every party stays unique. That’s the way it’s always been, but if you don’t like it, you can change it — all you have to do is say you’ll be in charge.

So, that’s the context I considered as I developed the “No Child Left Inside” block party.

This Year’s “No Child Left Inside” Activities

As I discussed in an earlier post (here), there’s a whole “No Child Left Inside” movement out there, and I see our block party as part of it. Of course, all block parties get kids outside, but I’ve been thinking of ways to extend the experience, giving families ideas they can use outside all year.

So, here are activities I’m trying for this year’s “No Child Left Inside” theme:

Neighborhood Nature Walk: The nature walk is new this year. Of course, it fits with the theme of this blog (Neighborhood Nature). We’ll concentrate on front-yard nature this year. If we attract an audience, we’ll try backyard and alley walks at later parties. I’ll help participants discover new animals and plants — things they’ve been walking past all summer but not noticing. We’ll also discuss what to look for as summer ends and fall begins.

Nature Collecting: We’ll restock Collector’s Garden (which is open all year) and haul out a sandbox that we can “salt” with natural treasures. I may also enrich the local supply of acorns, winged seeds, and buckeyes on our street, just to see what happens.

Nature Swap: For the last few summers we’ve been setting up a table of natural treasures that kids can trade for — their natural finds for our natural treasures from around the world. This activity was inspired by the nature swap exhibits at Minnesota Museum of Science’s Collectors’ Corner, Brookfield Zoo’s Play Zoo, and elsewhere. This year I’m also going to encourage the kids to trade with each other.

Sidewalk Chalk Village: As we’ve been doing most years, we’ll be putting Aaron’s old toy car and wooden train sets out in the street for kids to play with. This year we’ll also use sidewalk chalk to draw train tracks, streets, buildings, rivers, and more on the pavement — just like we used to do with Aaron. It kept him outside and amused for hours — maybe other families will try it at their homes.

Nature Crafts: Gail plans to have cardboard patterns of butterflies that the kids can decorate with beads, stickers, and markers and also do nature collages on rectangles of poster boards, either making scenes, like a beach scene with shells, or just making a display of some of their favorite rocks, shells, shark teeth, leaves, sticks, flowers and more.

Woodland Fairy Village: The big trees on our street shed lots of twigs and bark, and these days most of it goes to waste — hauled away by the village when it would be lots of fun to play with. We’ll help kids use these natural materials to build a “fairyland” on some bare dirt in front of our house. They can revisit their constructions the next morning to discover rewards the no-longer-homeless fairies have left behind. (My parents used to leave candy, but we’ll probably leave polished rocks.)

Meet Live Animals: For years my family has displayed wild animal pets during our block party. This year I’m going to focus more on the animals that live right on our block — like soil animals and squirrels.

Those are the ideas I put in the preliminary schedule, but I’m already thinking of other activities. I’ll probably have a table of books — field guides for everyone, Richard Louv and David Sobel for the teachers and school volunteers who live on our block, nature story books for kids — along with blankets and beanbags to read on. I may bribe Ethan and Aaron to show the younger folks some outdoor games they can play on front yards and tree lawns, even after the street reopens. I’m sure we’ll come up with more activities before next Saturday.

Wait Until Next Year!

That’s what we’ve planned for our “No Child Left Inside” block party, but this year is just the beginning. I’m thinking next year’s block party should be earlier in the summer — not right before school starts — so families can discover outdoor ideas they can use all summer long. Also, I’ll recruit parents to the “No Child Left Behind” theme in advance — it didn’t occur to me until weeks after this year’s planning meeting. Maybe some younger families will be inspired to start a Nature Club (like this) for our block. (I’ve got a whole year to dream about next summer.)


Note added September 22, 2009: I used the social networking application Twitter to keep up a running commentary before, during, and after our block party. Now I have collected all the tweets in one place, so you can read it here. (This stream is no longer publicly available on Twitter.)


Of course, if I really want to dream big, I can think about ways to change the traffic pattern in our neighborhood. The Active Living Resource Center has some interesting ideas in this PDF file.


Block Parties: Outdoor and Nature Play, All Day Long! August 12, 2009

Over the next two weeks, I’ll be working with our neighbors to plan our summer block party. That’s the one day of the summer when all the neighborhood kids play outdoors throughout the day and into the night. On other days, most of the kids I see outside on our block seem to be walking to the nearby pool with their families or middle-school skateboarders reclaiming the street. (Full disclosure: I root for the skateboarders!)

So, this year I’m thinking about block party planning in the context of the movement to get more kids playing outside. Organizations involved in this movement include Children and Nature, Nature Rocks, Green Hour, and Chicago Wilderness, with its Leave No Child Inside campaign. There are also parent-to-parent bloggers helping families with activity and field trip ideas, like 5 Orange Potatoes, Double the Adventure, The Grass Stain Guru, Kids Off the Couch, and Kids Discover Nature. (My blog is kind of in the same vein, although our family has older children who are already obsessively interested in nature, or at least in birds.)

So, I’m thinking about things we can do to with the neighborhood kids that might inspire them to spend more time outside after the block party ends. For instance, we’ll restock our Collector’s Garden (see it here), which is already open spring through fall. We’ll show kids how they can play outside with their indoor toys, like my kids used to do with cars and trains and trucks. We’ll try to interest more kids in building with natural materials by helping them construct a “fairyland” with twigs and bark, and then encouraging them to revisit it the next day to see what rewards the no-longer-homeless fairies have left behind. (My parents used to leave candy, but we’ll probably leave polished rocks.)

I’m sure we’ll come up with many more ideas. I’ll post the best ones on this blog.


Be sure and read the comments section! Folks are adding more ideas for outdoor activities.

If you want to read about our applied philosophy and preliminary schedule for the “No Child Life Inside” block party, please go here.

I searched the Web for ideas for a nature-themed, no-child-left-inside block party. Earth Day on Your Block seemed useful, as did this No Child Left Inside PDF file by Sharron Krull, and some of the more general sites on organizing block parties. But I’ve still got lots more digging to do to develop this theme.


My Favorite Family Nature Blogs, Part 1 June 8, 2009

To my way of thinking, a family nature blog is either (1) written by a family who want to share their natural discoveries with the online world, or (2) written for families to encourage them to get out and discover nature on their own, or (3) both of the above. Our Neighborhood Nature blog strives to be number (3). In my explorations of the blogging world, I’ve found examples of all three kinds of blogs, and they’re worth sharing with you.

So, here are some of my favorite family nature blogs. So I don’t overwhelm you, I’ll spread my selections over several posts. Here are the first three:

5 Orange Potatoes. Want ideas for nature-oriented crafts and activities? Then this blog may be for you. It’s written by Lisa, an Ohio mother with two young daughters. She describes herself as “a stay at home, nature lovin,’ felt lovin,’ vegetarian earth mama.” Like many family nature bloggers, she’s a former teacher. Her reason for blogging? “I have been asked numerous times how I have raised such nature lovin’ and creative little ladies. This blog is dedicated to those questions, this is how I do it!” Here are some of my favorite posts:

Handbook of Nature Study. This family’s blog is an “online nature journal using Anna Comstock’s book, Handbook of Nature Study, as our textbook and the great outdoors as our classroom.” Barb, a homeschooling mother of four, presents more than forty “Outdoor Hour Challenges,” short assignments based on the Handbook. Most of her examples were found near her California home. Some of my favorite posts:

Wild About Nature. Kenton and Rebecca write this blog to share their natural adventures with both children and adults. They focus on the nature they discovery wandering near their home in western Wisconsin. The authors are naturalists and nature educators whose website,, includes more examples of their writing, photography, and family-oriented classes. Some of my favorite posts:


Although I’ve only listed three blogs in this post, it would take hours to explore them all completely and many weeks to duplicate  the activities and explorations they describe. I’ll try to post three more of my favorite family nature blogs later this week. If you can’t wait, more family nature blogs are listed in the sidebar on your left.

And if you know of other family nature blogs worth sharing, please link to them in the comments section, below.


Our New Pets: Water Fleas and Mosquito Larvae May 5, 2009

Filed under: Animals,Bugs,Children's Interests,Seasons,Spring — saltthesandbox @ 9:07 am
Tags: , , , , , , ,

We’ve been posting lots about birds and some about buds. Now it’s time for a blog post about bugs!

Bugs have long been favorites in our family, at least for me and Ethan. I was a teenage bug collector, and Ethan got interested in bugs as a preschooler. (Visit our Cicada Hunt website to see what our lives were like back then, and go here to find out what Ethan’s bug collections were like when he was young.) We’ve both kept our bug passion burning, even if when it’s partially eclipsed by other interests, like birds.

As noted in this earlier post, we like to keep outdoor water available year ’round for birds and kids to play in. As the weather warms, that water comes to life with bugs and worms that feed on newly grown algae and the winter’s accumulation of dead leaves.

The first water bugs we saw this year were Water Fleas, a crustacean more closely related to lobsters than to insects. They appeared in early April. The biggest Water Flea in this photo is a bit larger than the head of a pin:

Wtaer Flease swim by using their large antennae as oars. The larger one has a bunch of tiny eggs inside its body.

Water Fleas swim using their large antennae as oars. You can see their insides through their transparent skin. The larger Water Flea has a bunch of tiny eggs inside its body. (The white squiggly lines are scratches in the plastic jar that holds the buggy water.)

To learn more about Water Fleas, go here or here. The see a YouTube video of a live Water Flea, go here.

Just this morning we discovered our first Mosquito larvae of the year. Larvae are baby Mosquitoes, which live in water and cannot fly. The biggest larva in this photo is as long as a of grain of rice:

The blue arrows point to the heads of Mosquito larvae.

The blue arrows point to the heads of Mosquito larvae. They stick their tails through the water's surface to get air to breathe.

To learn more about how Mosquitoes grow up, go here or here.

We enjoy our water bugs outdoors as wild visitors to our yard and indoors as-easy-to-care-for pets. We always keep a jar of buggy water on the back window sill, where the afternoon sun fuels the bugs’ algal food:


Here's our jar of pet Mosquito larvae. We use a piece of paper towel to keep grown-up Mosquitoes from escaping through the hole-punctured lid.

It’s better than a lava lamp as a source of meditative concentration, joy, and inspiration (at least for me and Ethan). We put other jars of buggy water on our front porch rail for the neighborhood children to enjoy.

Now that Mosquitoes are back, we’ll have to manage our outdoor water carefully. We empty and refill most pools at least once a week. However, we always keep one pool just for the bugs. When dragonfly nymphs and other underwater predators prowl our bug pool, no Mosquito larvae can survive for long. When there aren’t enough insect predators, we’ll add a few bug-eating fish. Either way, we make sure no Mosquito larvae grow into blood-sucking adults in our back yard.

We have more bug posts coming up, including beetles on the beach and bugs in the soil.


Update added May 13, 2009: To find out what our water pets were like a week later, please go here.


In mid June we added a new pond water pet: A Water Scorpion. We fed it our remaining pet Mosquito larvae.  Go here to read about it.


Happy Earth Day! We’re Off to Wonder Works April 22, 2009

The boys and I will spend the morning playing with nature with young visitors to Wonder Works, a Children’s Museum in Oak Park. We’ll be there from 10 a.m. to Noon. I’ll be writing more about our activities later. For now, here’s the text of the handout we’ll have available for caregivers:

Earth Day 2009 at Wonder Works:
Raising Nature-loving Kids

Organized by the Gyllenhaal Family of Oak Park, Illinois

In David Sobel’s new book, Childhood and Nature, he discusses ways that educators and parents can help kids connect with nature. Many adults trace their love of the natural world to childhood play in nature. Sobel’s design principles are inspired by the ways kids play when left alone in wooded settings: “Spend time at a safe, woodsy playground, and you’ll find children (1) making forts and special places; (2) playing hunting and gathering games; (3) shaping small worlds; (4) developing friendships with animals; (5) constructing adventures; (6) descending into fantasies; (7) and following paths and figuring out shortcuts” (Sobel, Childhood and Nature, 2008, page 20).

But, how do you raise nature-loving kids if you live in a densely populated place like Oak Park, where your backyard (if you have one) is not much larger than your living room, and the closest woods is more than a mile away? We’ve been exploring these issues on Neighborhood Nature, our family’s nature blog. (See our post on Raising Nature-loving Kids in an Urbanized Environment.)

Today’s Earth Day activities at Wonder Works explore some of the ways families can connect with the nature in their own urbanized neighborhood. They include:

Play in Forts and Dens. Kids love natural places where they can hide and play out fantasies. The Wonder Works tree house is our play fort for today, but you can also build a fort in your back yard using cardboard boxes, fallen branches, or other natural and unnatural objects.

Year ‘Round Water Play. Kids create their own adventures when they “play wet” with plastic dinosaurs, whales, and more. If you leave your plastic pool filled with water all year long, you can play with water and with ice. (This is great in neighborhoods with no natural streams or ponds.)

Build Small Worlds. Make tiny buildings with sticks and bark. (If it’s too muddy outside, then we’ll pretend our homemade play dough is soil.)

Play with Rocks and “Logs.” Load trains and dump trucks with rocks and sticks. Kids can incorporate natural materials into the small worlds they create with their toy versions of transportation technology.

Backyard Quarry. Load up the dump trucks with pebbles, and then haul them around – another example of fantasy play that engages kids with natural materials.

Keep a Pet. Taking care of small wild animals – or domesticated ones – helps kids learn to care for nature. We brought our pet toads as examples, and we show photos of the baby parakeets that Aaron raised.

Enjoy Your Backyard Mammals. Wonder Works staff uses puppets, plastic footprints, and real skins to introduce you to some mammals that may live near your home.

Dig for Bugs. At home you can look for sowbugs, millipedes, worms, and more in your garden. At Wonder Works, Ethan helps you explore soil from their garden, plus some rotten logs and forest soil imported for the day.

Catch Plastic Bugs. Real bugs are great, but fantasy play with plastic bugs and other toys lets kids do things they can’t do in real life.

Search for Birds. Some are common, some are rare – but they’re all wonderful! The Gyllenhaal family shares its passion for birds by showing you some of our projects, and letting kids search for Aaron’s plush bird collection with pretend binoculars.

Salt Your Sandbox. You can take home up to 10 natural treasures from our salted sandbox – then you can salt your sandbox at home with tiny shells and rocks.

Count the Things You Find. This works well with many “nature smart” kids (kids who show a high level of Howard Gardner’s naturalist intelligence). You can count the sandbox treasures. Our family counts birds for Cornell University’s Project FeederWatch (as shown in posters we did for our school’s science fair).

Make Nature Crafts. Get creative with shells and other natural objects. We’ve set up a station where you can make a shell collage.

Read Books about Backyard Nature Play. Our book table has examples of books for educators, parents, and children. [We’ll post our reading list later.]


That’s it for now — have a happy Earth Day, and take some time to play outside in nature!