Presenting…the penguins

Photo by Finley

When most people think of penguins, they think of Antarctica: ice, cold and frigid snow. But, more than half of all penguin species live in more temperate climates, including the Megellanic penguins, which are the focus of a recently opened exhibit at the Aquarium of the Pacific.

Our family is no stranger to these South American penguins. Last fall, Nils spent some time in Chile where he visited a penguin rookery, and emailed us some pictures of the penguins and their nesting grounds. Megellanic penguins are far smaller than the Emperor penguins most of us are familiar with. The South-American birds are about the size of a baby when full grown, measuring at most 2 1/2 feet tall and weighing up to 15 pounds. They feast on anchovies, krill, hake, cod, squid, but have reached “near threatened” status in recent years as fisheries compete for the same foods.

The penguins nest in the southern parts of Chile, Argentina and the Falkland Islands. They often are faithful to the same mate and may use the same nest each year, as long as the nest is still intact. The World Conservation Society noted one penguin pair that stayed together for 16 years, more than half their lifespan!

Each October the female lays two eggs four days apart, and both parents take turns incubating the eggs, a process that takes a little over a month. Megallanic penguins lay on top of their eggs, warming them with their tummies. The penguins spend two to four months rearing the chicks near the nesting grounds before molting. While they are molting — a process that takes almost three weeks — the penguins have to stay on land and can’t fish. Once the molt is complete the colony migrates north to Brazil, Uruguay and northern Argentina for the winter, which is May-August in South America. Then they return again to their nesting grounds in the south, arriving in early September.

Are you ready for a dose of uber-cuteness? Check out the Aquarium of the Pacific’s Penguin cam….here.


Firehouse Field Trip

Photo credit Sarah Lewelling

Field trips remind me of the Richard Scarry book, What Do People Do All Day. I could spend hours poring over Scarry’s spreads showing how logs become paper and wheat becomes bread. The book is like “how things work” meets the high school guidance counselor, providing a behind-the-scenes peek at different careers. Our monthly field trips allow us to find out what people do all day in a hands-on way.

Last week Finley and I visited our local firehouse. First, he tried on the firefighter’s helmet, pants and boots. Then he jumped into the fire truck; they even let him drive it. He got to spray the hose, twice. That was by far his favorite part.

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Aside from all the “let’s pretend” fun, we did learn some important things during our visit. One of the firemen put on all his gear, including his “Darth Vader” oxygen mask, all of which weighs almost 50 pounds and looks pretty frightening. We talked about how if the children ever have a fire in their house, and they see firefighters in all their gear, they shouldn’t hide. Even though the firefighters may look scary, they are there to help. The scary-looking — and sounding —  masks allow the firefighters to breath, while their hoods and suits keep them from getting burned.

The firehouse clearly made an impact. Finley now wants to be an “astronaut firefighter.” Hopefully he’ll never have to fight a fire on his spaceship.

Happy Memorial Day

For many of us, Memorial Day is nothing more than an extra day off from work, a time for barbecues and a signal that summer is almost here. But this day provides a wonderful opportunity to talk with your children about the meaning behind Memorial Day.

Memorial Day has its roots in Decoration Day, when southerners would decorate the graves of the Civil War dead with flags, wreaths and flowers. General Logan declared the first Decoration Day, which was held May 30, 1968. On that day, General Garfield spoke at Arlington National Cemetery, and then 5,000 people decorated more than 20,000 union and confederate graves.

For age-appropriate resources for talking with your children, try:

Memorial Day also reminds us to support our men and women in uniform every day of the year. Children can practice gratitude and letter-writing by making cards and writing letters to troops. You can send them through organizations like A Million Thanks.

How do you talk to your children about Memorial Day?

Perfect Picture Book Friday: Dinothesaurus

Author/Illustrator: Douglas Florian
Publication Info: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2009
Intended audience: Ages 6+
Genre: nonfiction picture book
Themes/topics: dinosaurs, poetry, natural history
Opening and synopsis:
“The dinosaurs
First lived outdoors
During the time Triassic.
While most died out,
Some came about
Later in the Jurassic.”
In a twist on traditional dinosaur books, Florian gives us poems about Stegosaurus, Triceratops, T. Rex and other childhood favorites. And he couples his poems with fanciful illustrations that show the dinosaurs’ personalities and unique traits. Troodon, the smarty pants of the bunch, is pictured with a graduation cap, for example. He also includes a comprehensive glossary, selected bibliography and list of dinosaur museums and fossil sites.
Why I like this book: Douglas Florian is a new favorite. I’m always fascinated by authors who produce creative nonfiction, or in layman’s terms, nonfiction that’s not boring. And he’s really funny. He guest posted on Katie Davis’s blog, where he encouraged poets to employ bad spelling and grammar if it’s funny and to make up words, hence “dinothesaurus.” His poems are catchy. You might just find yourself chanting, “Triceratops./Try-scare-a-tops./Try-wouldn’t-want-to-dare-a-tops.”
Resources: Honestly, there’s no shortage of dinosaur resources available. A visit to a local natural history museum would be a nice tie-in.  National Geographic Kids has a wealth of dinosaur information, including Creature Features about dinosaurs and this brainteaser quiz. Also, you could try conducting your own dinosaur dig and make your own fossils. Grab some small, plastic dinosaurs (you can usually find these at Joanne’s or other craft stores). Hide them in the sand box and give children shovels and paintbrushes to dig for the dinosaurs. Once you’ve found them, follow these instructions to make your own fossils using clay and plaster of paris.
Every Friday bloggers review “Perfect Picture Books.” Find a complete list of book reviews organized by topic, genre and blogger at author Susanna Leonard Hill’s site.

Sun Day, Fun Day

It’s been “showtime” for the Sun lately. The Sun’s first act: last Sunday’s “ring of fire” eclipse. On the West Coast, the Moon passed in front of the Sun just before sunset. Because the Moon covered only 75% of the Sun (depending upon where you were watching), the Moon appeared to be surrounded by a fiery ring. It was a dazzling display that happens once a year.

Now we are poised for the transit of Venus. On June 5-6, depending upon your location, the planet will pass in front of the Sun, an event that won’t happen again in our lifetimes. Transits happen in pairs — two journeys across the Sun eight years apart and then not again for 100+ years. In fact, only seven transits of Venus have been recorded since the invention of the telescope: 1631, 1639, 1761, 1769, 1874, 1882, 2004.

The transit of Venus has played a prominent role in astronomical history. In 1677, Edmond Halley (of Halley’s comet fame) urged his fellow astronomers to track the next transit of Venus in 1761, believing that careful observation would help them calculate Earth’s distance from the Sun (93 million miles) and know the size of our solar system. In 1761 and 1769, scientists mounted numerous expeditions to observe the transit and make calculations. Scientists who often worked solo risked life and limb traveling to the far reaches of the Earth for this international science effort.

How best to observe the transit of Venus?

  • First, find out when you can see the transit in your area … here.
  • Check with your local planetarium or science center to see if it is hosting a viewing event.
  • If not, you can build your own viewer or purchase special glasses (which cost about $2 a pair). Find instructions and/or a list of glasses suppliers…here.
Interested in sharing this experience with your children and students?
  • For teachers, the Smithsonian has a wonderful Venus Teacher Resource Page.
  • One of the most comprehensive sites about the transit, history and viewing is
  • Also, stay tuned for this Sunday’s Mini Page in your local newspaper, which is all about the Transit of Venus.

Finance Lessons: Money Savvy Piggy Bank

I teach an introductory college-level personal finance course. We talk about budgeting, credit cards, credit scores, mortgages, taxes, insurance and so on. The class is an eye-opener for most of my students, and time and time again, they say they wish they had learned these concepts in high school — often before they made major financial mistakes.

With that said, I believe strongly in teaching children about money and personal finance starting from an early age. Most schools don’t do it, so it’s up to parents to take the lead, no matter how qualified (or unqualified) we feel. The good news is, if you start early,  you get to begin with the easy stuff.

And what’s the easy stuff, you might be asking? Start talking about money, modeling the behaviors you want your children to pick up. (But for heaven’s sake, if money’s tight, and you’re not sure if you are going to be evicted, your children DO NOT need to hear about that.) I casually work money into our everyday conversations. When we shop, we talk about comparing prices, sales and coupons. We also emphasize “not wasting,” turning off lights, faucets, etc., and discuss how that saves money and helps our planet. Finally, we’ve talked about where money comes from, namely, jobs, and what those jobs buy — a house, groceries, toys. It’s amazing how much children can pick up when you talk to them about money regularly.

Each of our boys has a Money Savvy Piggy Bank, which has four separate slots: spending (for immediate purchases), saving (for more expensive purchases), donating (to church and other charities), and investing (down the road). Since they don’t get an allowance, my husband and I periodically give them change to put in their piggy banks, and they have to put some change in each slot.

When they want a new toy that Mommy and Daddy didn’t budget for, they have to use their own money. As much as possible, I try to give them control over their own purchases. I only step in if it’s a safety issue, and tummy aches from too much candy count as a safety issue. They have to help me count out the money, since we are working on identifying coins and understanding how much they are worth. The boys also help buy presents for their friends. I establish a budget, and they have to find something that fits within the budget.

As for the donating and investing slots, we periodically clear out the “donating” portion and take the change to church, since we want to model good stewardship. And I can imagine a day when we might buy our first stocks, probably companies like Disney that they are familiar with, using the money saved up in “investing.” But that’s definitely a few years down the line. A nearer-term step might be opening an investing account that pays a dividend.

When Cooper starts kindergarten next year, he’ll earn a weekly allowance so he can learn money management. He’ll have the opportunity to earn extra money by doing chores over and above his regular chores. And, at some point, we might talk about other ways he can earn additional cash outside our home. I remember well running a children’s birthday party business with my friend Andrea when I was 11 or 12. We learned a lot about how to  price our services, manage expenses, etc.

Are you ready to talk cold, hard cash with your kids? There are some great resources available online:

  • BizKids, which airs on some PBS stations, has a wealth of videos, games and other useful tools on its web site. I used BizKids videos when I did a personal finance course for my church’s youth group.
  • Practical Money Skills has financial literacy tools for everyone, including a great set of lesson plans for middle/high schoolers. I’ve used these as well when designing coursework.
  • The FDIC also has a wonderful Money Smart curriculum for both young adults and adults.
  • Shafer…Power! I love watching this family’s journey into entrepreneurship. Check in to see how Paul Shafer and his kids earn some spare change while spending time together and having a blast!

Earthwatch: Hands-on Learning in the Field

Stock photo. Unfortunately, I can’t get hubby’s pics off his phone.

Long story short: my husband recently returned from an archaeological dig in Tuscany where he discovered pottery and human remains at an Etruscan necropolis. While the thought of being married to Indiana Jones is appealing, hubby isn’t a whip-wielding academic. But through, he plays one on vacation. pairs scientists from a number of disciplines with volunteer vacationers, who conduct science in the field. Study elephant behavior in Thailand. Protect sharks in Belize. Journey to China to help giant pandas. Oh, and here’s one of my favorites…study vineyard ecology and biodiversity in Bordeaux.

Even better, Earthwatch has special expeditions designed for families and teens. For family expeditions, children must be at least 10 years old and accompanied by adult family members. But children can work side-by-side with archaeologists to explore Roman England or with marine biologists to track marine mammals off the coast of California, for example. Yes, I am already counting how many years until we can do something like this for our family vacation.

Check out Earthwatch’s 40th anniversary video here to learn more about this fantastic organization.

Have you ever engaged travel experiences with your kids focused on hands-on learning? I’d love to hear about them!

Perfect Picture Book Friday: BOY + BOT

Astute Creating Curious Kids readers know that I typically review nonfiction books each Friday. However, I was lucky enough to win a copy of Ame Dyckman’s first picture book, BOY + BOT, on Tara Lazar’s blog. After reading our new book to more than 20 children over a couple of days, I knew I had to review it for Perfect Picture Book Friday.
Title: BOY + BOT
Author: Ame Dyckman
Illustrator: Dan Yaccarino
Publication Info: Knopf Books for Young Readers, April 10, 2012
Intended audience: Ages 3 through 5
Genre: picture book
Themes/topics: friendship
Opening and synopsis: ”A boy was collecting pinecones in his wagon when he met a robot.
‘Hi!’ said the boy. ‘Want to play?’
The robot blinked. ‘Affirmative!’”
This is a tale of an unlikely friendship — boy and bot — and how they both care for each other in their own way. When bot’s power switch gets turned off, boy thinks he’s sick. When boy goes to sleep, bot thinks he’s ill. The boy feeds bot applesauce; the bot feed boy oil. The boy reads the bot a story book; bot reads the boy an instruction manual, and so on until both are healed.
Why I like this book: I recently read this book to a preschool class of both boys and girls, and both were captivated. This book’s brief text and bright illustrations –by none other than Dan Yaccarino — are perfect for story times or reading at home over and over again.
Resources: Have children imagine what they would do with a robot friend if they had one. What would they play? How would they make their robot friend feel better if he was sick? Using the story framework, older children could rewrite the story with their own words and images.
Making robots out of cardboard boxes is also fun, though you could also do it with a paper bag. Cut a slit up the center of the box or bag, so it opens like a vest. Cut holes for the head and arms. Decorate with dials, switches and gauges made of cardboard, crayons, marker, etc. You also can make mini recycled robots out of toilet paper rolls and pipe cleaners, which I described in our Earth Day post.
Every Friday bloggers review “Perfect Picture Books.” Find a complete list of book reviews organized by topic, genre and blogger at author Susanna Leonard Hill’s site.

DIY Stomp Rockets

We’ve purchased numerous stomp rocket kits over the years. Inevitably the foam rockets disintegrate within a matter of weeks. The plastic launchers often become brittle and fall apart. When I realized how easy it is to make your own rockets and launchers at home, I was in heaven; no need to buy expensive kits year after year.

Now, I confess that our parts came from a backyard rockets kit purchased at Barnes and Noble. The directions below are adapted from the book that was included, Stomp Rockets, Catapults & Kaleidoscopeby Curt Gabrielson. Using the book’s directions (pp .104-105), you can do it yourself even without the kit. Here’s what you’ll need:

2 liter plastic bottle

10-inch (approx.) portion of bicycle tubing

2-foot piece of PVC pipe, 1/2 or 3/4-inches in diameter

Duct tape

Masking tape

1 piece 8 1/2 x 11 paper for your rocket body (make sure to decorate it)


1 circle of paper , 3.5 inches in diameter with a wedge removed


Here’s what you do:

1) Fit one end of the inner tube over the top of the 2-liter bottle. Duct tape to seal.

2) Attach other end of the inner tube over one end of the PVC pipe. Duct tape to seal. This is your rocket launcher.

3) Roll up your decorated 8 1/2 by 11 paper, using the PVC pipe as your guide. Make sure the rocket body fits snugly over the PVC pipe, but not so snugly that it can’t fly. Tape the edge securely.

4) Cut at least three fins from card stock. Ours had a hypotenuse of 3 inches. Tape these to the bottom end of your rocket at equal intervals.

5) Cut a circle approximately 3.5 inches in diameter. Cut a small wedge from the circle. Roll it tightly, making sure the cone fits snugly over the top end of your rocket. Using the dowel, push the cone through the rocket until it emerges at the top end. If necessary, tape it.

6) You are ready for launch! Place your rocket over the PVC pipe. Launches work best with two people: one person to stomp on the bottle, the other to point the PVC up to the sky. We had to blow into the PVC pipe to re-inflate between launches.

You can experiment with your rockets to spark discussion. What happens if you don’t put a cone on your rocket? What if you don’t include fins?

Eat Your Math Homework: Fibonacci Fun

1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89… to infinity and beyond!

It’s not a phone number. It’s not a secret code. It’s not the winning lottery ticket. Nope. It’s the Fibonacci sequence.

We explored the Fibonacci sequence by making Ann McCallum’s “Fibonacci Snack Sticks” from Eat Your Math Homework. We selected a number of bite-sized morsels (gummy bears, strawberries, blackberries) and threaded them onto skewers according to the sequence. For example Cooper chose one gummy bear, one blackberry, two strawberries, three gummy bears, five strawberries, eight gummy bears for his skewer. (Side note: Mmmmmm, gummy bears.) This activity sparked a discussion about the sequence, where you can see it, how find the next number and more.

We turned to McCallum’s book for answers. You may be wondering, as we did, “Who is this famous Fibonacci?” Well, he was an Italian mathematician circa 1170. Studying rabbit pairs and their mating patterns, he devised his sequence of numbers to explain how many pairs of rabbits he would have each month. But you don’t have to breed rabbits to get the sequence. To get the next number, you simply add the two previous numbers together.

This sequence shows up repeatedly in nature, in shell patterns, petals and more. “Nature by Numbers” is a wonderful video showing the pattern’s prevalence.

But I digress…You’ll find Fibonacci fun and more in Ann McCallum’s Eat Your Math Homework: Recipes for Hungry Minds, which combines hands-on math with yummy food. Just wait until we get to Fraction Chips. Your mouth will water.

If you want to learn more about Eat Your Math Homework, check out the book-specific site. The site includes bonus recipes, jokes, coloring sheets and a full educator’s guide.