Get outside, Family!

Get outside, Family!

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Smoothing school stress with outdoor time

Yes, that's a finger. It's hard to work a phone on a hammock.
The transition from summer vacation to a new school routine is easily the most stressful time of the year for my family. We are a month into the term and still reeling from the sudden onset of tight schedules and homework, although thankfully starting to settle in. Getting my kids outside has been one of the best ways to help them relax and recover from the school day. Here are some of my favorite ways we've been getting out there this fall.

Hit the playground: 

With many school cutting back on recess and far less playtime all around, kids are eager to blow off steam and socialize with friends or classmates. If your school allows after-hour use of the playground, you’ll probably find other kiddos there. We also spend extra time around sporting events to allow for playground romping and make plans to meet friends at the park.

Hammock time: 

We installed a couple in our yard this year and found it’s a great way to cuddle and reconnect after school, or for older kids, to enjoy some privacy with a book or earbuds.

Take a walk: 

The kids aren’t always eager to do this, but we’ve insisted on hikes and evening walks through the neighborhood. Sometimes we resort to a sweet reward at the end. It’s worth the extra sugar (and bribery guilt), because a walk never fails to help each of us unwind.

Keep the water games going: 

Summer officially wrapped up a few weeks ago, but fortunately it’s still warm enough here for kayaking, runs through the sprinkler, blasts from a water gun, and – for lucky swimming pool owners – a dip in the pool. When it’s hot, it’s hot, and water makes it a lot more fun to be active.

Try a new outdoor hobby: 

For my family this year, it’s fishing. We haven’t had a lot of luck catching anything but water plants, but they are still having a ball with their new rods and organizing their tackle boxes. The novelty is still there, making it easy to have some time in nature.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Amazing ideas for water play

Magical potion made with nature bits
There is something to be said for boredom, and for sending my kids outside when they complain about being bored. With nothing to do, no one to play with and no screen time left for the day, Younger Son came up with two great ideas all on his own.  First he made "potion," by combining dirt, pebbles, twigs, flower petals (and I'm not sure what all else) and water. We've been reading a lot of Harry Potter lately, I'm sure he was behind this. 

1.       How to Make a Potion. What you need: Water, nature stuff (twigs, stones, flower petals, grass, etc.), clear plastic bottle. Glitter and food coloring would work, too.

Fill the bottle with water and colorful stuff you find outside. Twist on the cap and shake.

Later, my son came up with something he called “a tiny little ocean.”   We found it makes a lovely decoration for the bathroom vanity.

2.       How to Make an Indoor Ocean. What you need: Water, nature stuff, clear plastic or glass container. Plastic animals and a toy boat could be nice, too. 

Fill the container with water and other items. Use as decor for table, bookshelf, bath, etc.  

Although I'm quite proud of my child's creativity (ahem, haughty throat clearing here), I'm pretty sure any kid can have fun with a container of water and items collected from their backyard. When I was a kid, I mixed tomatoes from the garden, moss, sand and water into “stews” in a sand bucket. The variations are endless. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Get the kids outside with a challenge (okay, it's a bribe)

My kids wanted hammocks, and I wanted them outside. So I came up with the Great Hammock Challenge. Upon completion of the listed tasks, they would each receive a hammock. Yes, I know it's a bribe, pure and simple. But I probably would've gotten the hammocks anyway, because hammocks are fun and yet another thing to enjoy outside. This way, I got my family to try a few new things. With the exception of my failed attempt at archaeological excavation (Number 4, below), these "tasks" have turned into activities they've wanted to try again and again. 

Task 1: Whittle something.

We started simple – make a marshmallow roasting stick. All this takes is a few scrapes with a pocket knife. The kids loved this and made enough sticks for our family and the neighborhood. Older Son went onto make a walking stick and started working on carving designs in the wood. Fortunately there is plenty of information online about teaching kids to whittle, including a line up of safety videos, books and tips from This safety article was helpful, too. Soap carving is a way to get started making more complicated cuts, like this family tried.
DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed here are my own. I am not an expert. Please be your own judge of what is right for your family.

Task 2: Build a fire.
My boys are six years apart, so I had to make this age appropriate. Younger son helped me set up the kindling and logs. Older Son got to try a flint and steel fire starter. Again, the Internet was our sage: We found campfire safety and building instructions from Smokey Bearand more tips with pictures from Outward Bound.
DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed here are my own. I am not an expert. Please be your own judge of what is right for your family.

Task 3: Find constellations.

We realized that we aren’t often outside late enough in the evening to see a lot of stars. This goal gave us a reason to stay out a little longer and look up -- always good. I've just started checking out apps for stargazing, including the free NASA app. For screen-free ideas for enjoying the sky as a family, check out

Task 4: Dig a hole.

The idea for this was to get into backyard archaeology, hoping that if we dug deep enough we’d find some sign of previous inhabitants, even if only a plastic toy.  Unfortunately, a lot of our yard seems to have been built with construction fill and we found mostly bricks and rocks. The crawlies and worms were cool, though. Looks like this family had much better luck. The National Park Service's Archeology for Kids site has some fun-sounding project ideas beyond the dig. 

Task 5: Walk at night.

This is one of my favorite ways to end a day as a family, especially if we haven’t been outside much in daylight. The kids complain at first, but once we are all out together I wonder why we don’t do it all the time.

Yep, they got the hammocks!

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Identifying creatures in vernal pools

Fairy Shrimp in action. Credit: Jack Ray
We’re still trying to figure out if the ponds we are visiting are true vernal pools, and Betsy Leppo, Zoologist with the Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program, continues to be a great help. When I told her I’m not finding much sign of life around the ponds we’ve been searching, she said not to give up hope: It may take a few years of observation, through heavy rains and dry springs, to figure out what is happening at a location.

In the meantime, here are some more tips for spotting wildlife at a vernal pool:

  •     Look for egg masses early in the season, from around mid-March to mid-April. They shouldn’t be too tough to spot in small and unvegetated vernal ponds, which offer clear views of the entire pool, Leppo says. We might have to look around a bit in  pools with a lot of vegetation.   
“Wood Frogs and Spotted Salamanders (the two most common vernal pool indicator amphibians) have large egg masses that are usually floating at or near the surface of the pool,” Leppo says. She suggests checking out this handy guide for identifying different species by their eggs. 

  • By May, many of the larvae have hatched, and some egg masses, like that of the Wood Frog, have fallen apart. But that doesn't mean there aren't interesting things to find. Leppo says we still might be able to locate egg remnants of the Spotted Salamander. “The egg matrix is very durable,” she says.

 The smaller long, thin creatures are mosquito larvae, and the larger
fluttery ones are Fairy Shrimp. Credit: Betsy Leppo

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Tips for protecting vernal pools

Vernal pools are rare but important habitats to many species of amphibian, reptile, crustaceans and insects. They require our protection, as they are under threat from development, motor vehicles, lawn chemicals and other human activity. So should curious parents and their children stay out of them?

It’s a question I posed to Betsy Leppo, Zoologist with the Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program. My son and I had been splashing through mud and water around a small pool in the woods, looking for frog and salamander eggs. I want him to explore these places, so that he can learn about them and to value them. But I don’t want to wreck them.

It turns out there is plenty of damage we might accidentally inflict on a wetland  -- killer fungus and sunscreen contamination, among others. But if we take a few easy steps to be careful, it’s absolutely okay to explore, Leppo assures me.

 “I think it’s great to take kids out to vernal pool so they can learn about them,” Leppo says. Part of the learning experience can be “just being aware of the potential impacts you can have.”
It’s a great teachable moment. Here’s how to handle things gently, here’s how to handle an animal carefully. They have to be taught that. It’s a great chance to teach kids how to approach wildlife,” she says.  It’s also an opportunity to help children to get past fears and squeamishness.

Here’s what we need to do to help protect the vernal pools:

Be mindful. Leppo advises to take care where you are stepping to avoid egg masses and creatures in the water. It’s best to remain on the edges of a pond and avoid stirring up the mud too much.

Rinse your hands. Antibiotic soap and sunscreen can be deadly to developing creatures, so avoid these before heading into the water. If you wash your hands, rinse them thoroughly.

Clean your gear. There are two diseases that are devastating wetland animals in some places around the country. They are Ranavirus and Chytrid fungus. (Read more about these diseases here.) Although they aren’t known to be widespread problems in Pennsylvania, they are a concern. Leppo says the way to avoid spreading disease is to wash gear between uses.
The other benefit of washing gear is to avoid spreading invasive plants like Japanese knotweed, reed canary grass, mile-a-minute, purple loosestrife and others, Leppo adds. Seeds can get on our boots just from walking through a yard. She recommends scrubbing all mud off of boots, nets, buckets and the like in a tub of soapy water and rinsing them clean. Conservation professionals use farm-grade antibacterial soap, which can be found at farm supply stores.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Meet a Vernal Pool

I’ve been obsessed with finding vernal pools, those mysterious ponds that appear in early spring where salamanders, frogs and many other critters lay their eggs. Why does this excite me? I’m a nature geek, of course. The other reason is that it’s another way to get my kids just a little more interested in what’s going on outdoors.
Late winter hike -- Will we find a vernal pool?

I’m constantly saying things to my boys like, “Do you hear that jingling sound? It’s the Spring Peepers!”, and we’ve muddied a lot of shoes walking around ponds looking for eggs. I got really excited when my younger son and I went exploring in the woods across from the school bus stop and realized we were ankle deep in water. I was sure we’d found a vernal pool.

But because I wasn’t 100 percent sure, and I like to be accurate, I went looking for a guide. I found one in Betsy Leppo, zoologist with the Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program, who created this webinar for the Penn State Extension. It gives a detailed description of species, geology, vegetation and soil of vernal pools, and how to protect them. More for conservation professionals than nature moms, the presentation left me with a few questions. So I contacted Leppo and she kindly agreed to help.

What fascinates me about vernal pools or ponds is that they appear like magic in spots that may be bone dry by late summer, or at least much less wet. They are created from ice melt and rains, Leppo explained, and a true vernal pool has no permanent inlet or outlet of water. They can be found in a land depression in the middle of the woods, as part of a swamp or marsh, among small shrubs or in a field.

A vernal pool can be as small as “little leafy puddles you can jump across,” Leppo says, or “large wetland thickets where you can easily fill your hip waders.” 

These conditions mean there are no fish, making it a great place for amphibians, reptiles and other creatures to lay eggs without fear their babies will be gobbled up. Many species depend upon these unique waters, in fact. Some salamanders and frogs return to the same vernal pool from which they hatched.

In late winter, creatures begin emerging from the nearby woodlands where they spend the rest of their adult lives, sometimes crossing snow and ice to arrive at a pond to breed. In March and April – long before leaves are on the trees and much at all is sprouting from the ground -- a vernal pool is a busy amphibian baby nursery.

Taking a mud break. 
So how do we know when we’ve found a vernal pool? Leppo says the sure way is to locate one of the species that breed almost exclusively in these waters. In Pennsylvania, that would be four types of mole salamanders, as well as the Eastern Spadefoot frog, the Wood Frog and two crustaceans – fairy shrimp and clam shrimp.

Shrimp?! I had no idea there was anything that could be called a shrimp in the water around here! And I’m not at all sure how to identify species of salamander or frog. First you have to find a salamander or frog, which can pretty hard to do. This is where a field guide is really handy, especially an online guide that also features sound clips of frog mating calls, like

There are many other animals that live around and breed in vernal pools, including species of toad, turtle, frog and newt. The noisy Spring Peeper is another one. Many insects and tiny crustraceans tend to thrive in these waters, creating what Leppo calls a “vernal pool soup” that feeds the larger animals as they develop.  

My original hope for a vernal pool – the puddle across from the bus stop – turned out to have been only a puddle that had pretty much dried up in a few days, which isn’t long enough for creatures to hatch and grow. A nearby marsh seemed like another good possibility. We did find squirmy black mosquito babies and other teeny spots swimming around. And lots of snails. But no tadpoles yet.
Not sure what this is, but it looks cool.

We will keep looking. At the very least, we are having fun squishing around in the mud.

More Vernal Pool Resources:
Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Join the revolution: Play outside!

My children are outside right now playing with other kids in the neighborhood.  It’s the kind of thing that supposedly never happens anymore in America, kids playing outdoors on their own. The game appears to be a soccer/kickball/war/superspy combo, very creative. Yeah, I’m feeling pretty good about my parenting right now.

Except that they won’t be playing like this tomorrow, and maybe not the day after that. My kids might head out into the yard after school, but before they get too busy I will be calling them to the car to go to music lessons. Their friends across the street might be off to sports practice and dance class. And there’s always homework to do.

The links between a healthy child and outdoor play are well documented, and the evidence for more play time in general just keeps building. Simply being outside is one thing – connecting to nature and breathing fresh air. There’s also the special kind of play that can happen when kids gather outdoors, beyond parental interference, with the time and space to organize themselves and their ideas. They enter the Land of Kids.

I know this, I believe in it, I am blogging about it. I understand the dangers of an over-scheduled, over-supervised childhood. But it can be really hard to do things differently. Fears of stranger danger, the pull of organized activities, demanding school work, too little recess and car-centric communities all are real forces pushing our families indoors, into rigid schedules. I encounter these pressures every day.

This day, with the kids outside on their own on the same day that their friends are free, with nothing to do but play, feels revolutionary.  In a way it is. Fortunately, I'm not alone. My neighbors, the parents to my kids’ playmates, want their children outside, too. We all send them out when we can, kind of like the moms of old who wouldn’t permit their children indoors again until they rang the dinner bell.

I used to feel guilty about a free day, worried my kids were missing out, fretting that I just didn't have it together enough to fully maximize their experiences. That finally started to seem crazy. We've cut back, not entirely but enough to have more free time each week. Sometimes I say okay to my kids leaving homework to last on a fine day, and maybe staying outside so long it doesn't get done at all. And then I have to be okay with the resulting grade.

Often our neighborhood is empty of kids playing outdoors, and I think of the block-wide kickball and war games kids played when I was growing up 35 years ago. I met someone recently, a few years older than me, who claimed that as a kid he would ride a raft 10 miles down a creek and then jump on a passing train to get back home. I don’t advocate kids riding the rails, and frankly I wouldn’t go back to the good ‘ol days, even if we could. For one thing, it would likely mean all of us mothers would have to stay home all day, as well.

But we can make little changes around the edges of our lives, revolutionary or not. On this day, the kids have been outside for hours now, having a blast. If I had a dinner bell I’d ring it to call them in. Today it is enough.