Cultivating curiosity, Field Trip Ideas, Nature, Science/Math

In praise of museum memberships

Yesterday we went to the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach. After having a membership both there and at the LA Zoo for a couple of years now, I’ve become a big fan of membership. Here’s why:

  • If I have a membership, I have to go. I am notoriously thrifty. If it takes me two or three visits to see a return on my investment, you better believe I’ll be visiting the requisite two or three times. Membership provides an incentive for taking the kids every couple of months. We pack a picnic lunch, and it’s practically free (if you don’t count the gas money).
  • We don’t have to see it all every time. If I’m at a new museum, and I know I won’t be back for years, I try to see every single animal, painting, etc. It can be exhausting, but I just hate to miss anything. Membership offers the flip side: we visit over and over again, so we can see as much or as little as we like each time. Today we skipped whole galleries, because it was super crowded, but we watched the sea lion and seal show for the first time, and saw the scuba divers feed the tropical fish. Finley spent a good 15 minutes listening to various whale songs at a kiosk. We didn’t see the otters or the penguins at all. That’s ok, because we’ll be back. As members, we have more freedom to let the children’s curiosity be our guide.
  • As a writer, I love to visit the gift stores repeatedly and see what kind of books are for sale. Now that the aquarium has installed a new polar regions exhibit, there were lots of new books about the Arctic and Antarctic. Visits always generate at least a book idea or two.

So yes, the gift store discounts are nice. The member events can’t be beat. But I love our memberships because they guilt me into visiting; they let our curiosity be our guide; and these visits are always a source of writing inspiration. Do you have a favorite museum or other cultural attraction your frequent?

Field Trip Ideas, Just for fun, Science/Math

Building Curiosity and more

Rover test yard

We recently took a field trip to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to visit the Mars rover test yard. As some of you may recall, my eldest, Cooper, was obsessed with the latest Mars rover, Curiosity, for at least a third of 2011. (NOTE: Curiosity lands on the Red Planet August 5th — 6 months from yesterday.)

The rover test yard is a simulated martian surface composed of dirt, large rocks and hills. The yard houses Curiosity’s “twin,” a second rover almost exactly like Curiosity. Scientists can test out techniques and fix problems using the test rover before trying things out on Mars. While we were there, we saw how Curiosity will use the sun to orient itself on Mars. Cooper also got to “drive” the rover. After commands were punched into the computer, our eager five-year-old got to hit the enter key. One of the most amazing things about the rover was the sound it makes while it moves. It sounds exactly like someone crushing aluminum cans.

During our trip, we visited one of the labs and toured the JPL museum, which chronicles every JPL mission to date. We ran into several groups of schoolchildren and boy scouts. It was a cool place!

To learn more about the Curiosity mission, see the JPL Web site. On Youtube, JPL has a great series, called Building Curiosity ,about all the new rover technologies.

In other news, writer extraordinaire Beth Stilborn granted me the coveted Kreativ Blogger award. It’s almost like getting a Pulitzer. (Hey, I said almost). So, “thanks Beth!” As part of the award, I get to introduce you to six fantastic bloggers and tell you 10 things about myself. First, the bloggers who shall receive the Kreativ Blogger Award are:

Check out these great blogs, please!

Now, 10 quick things about me:

  1. On my nightstand: “Curious?” by Todd Kashdan and a P.D. James’s “Cover Her Face”
  2. Most recently recorded item on my DVR: “Wild Animal Baby Explorers”
  3. Favorite color: Red
  4. Most delicious thing I ate recently: Me Gusta’s tamales. The pineapple is to die for.
  5. Best recent purchase: Levenger’s Nantucket Lap Reader (using it every day for 12 x 12)
  6. Best part of the Super Bowl – game or commercials: The game (if only the Pittsburgh Steelers were playing)
  7. Early bird or night owl: early bird!
  8. Pet peeve: Having dirty feet. I will not walk around barefoot outside.
  9. What drives my kids crazy: I sing all the time.
  10. Dream vacation: I still haven’t made it to Rome despite taking an entire class on Renaissance Italian Art History.
Field Trip Ideas, History

State Park: Antelope Valley Indian Museum

Crushing acorns

State Parks offer vast opportunities for children to learn and explore both indoors and outdoors. I recently took the boys to one of my favorite spots, the Antelope Valley Indian Museum State Historic Park located 70 miles northeast of Los Angeles in the vast Mojave Desert.

It was a welcome visit. The site had been closed for four years for earthquake retrofitting, and had reopened in the Fall of 2010. Our MOMS Club had organized a field trip to the site, so our visit took place outside of normal business hours (Hours: Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.). Our park ranger hosts had developed an hour-long program perfectly suited to the children’s ages.

First they helped the children experience the collection by playing games with them.

“What kind of tools do you have at home?” Ranger Jean asked.

“Screwdriver! Hammer!” the children shouted in turn.

“See if you can find some examples of tools in this room that the Native Americans used,” Jean challenged them.

And so the preschoolers set off to explore. When the children had found a few tools, Jean explained how Native Americans used rocks, twine and sticks to help them do their work.

The boys also heard a Native American story about Bluejay, Crow and acorns. They learned how native people made a kind of oatmeal from crushed acorns and pine-nut butter from pulverized pine nuts. (Pine-nut butter was Cooper’s joke.) The children got to try their hand at grinding the acorns and pine nuts just as the Native Americans did. Then we took a little nature hike along the nearby trail, which typically boasts a beautiful wildflower display during the season. We wrapped up our morning with a nice picnic that allowed us to chat with ranger Deb one-one-one.

For locals: The Antelope Valley Indian Museum , a State Historic Park, is a Southern California gem. Located in the vast Mojave Desert about 70 miles northeast of Los Angeles, the park was once home to amateur anthropologist William Arden Edwards, a set designer in Hollywood. The main portion of the museum is Edwards’s Swiss chalet-style home, which he built directly into Piute Butte. A rock outcropping serves as one wall of the home’s majestic Kachina Hall.

Edwards harbored a deep interest in Native Americans of the southwest, and his home included a room for displaying his collection of pottery, baskets and other artifacts. Years later, he sold the 160-acre property to Grace Wilcox Oliver, who turned the it into a full-fledged museum. She converted the home into exhibit galleries, added her own collections and operated the Antelope Valley Indian Museum for more than 30 years. The State of California bought the site in 1979.

Field Trip Ideas, History, Science/Math

1001 Inventions

Courtesy Muslim Heritage

We recently took in a fascinating exhibit called 1001 Inventions at the California Science Center (on view through March 11th). The exhibit chronicled scientific contributions of the Muslim world during the Middle Ages, including the first University, founded by a Muslim woman, and the first man to fly.

The interactive exhibit captured the children’s attention. Cooper spent time exploring lunar formations named for Muslim astronomers. He also identified constellations  in a mock night sky. We learned why we write our numbers the way we do through an interactive game. (Essentially, the number 1 has one angle; 2 has two angles and so on.)

I’m not sure where the exhibit will travel to next, but there are plenty of resources available on the Web site for those who would like to explore its content. For children ages 11 – 16 there is a teacher kit available online, complete with experiments.

The exhibit highlights several learned Muslims from the Middle Ages. Here are a couple that captivated us.:

Fatima al-Fihri: This well-to-do Muslim woman founded the first university in 841 BCE. When her father died, she used her inheritance to build Al-Qarawiyin in Fez, Morocco, her hometown. Students there studied religion, politics and natural sciences. The University still operates today.

In the 9th Century, Abbas ibn Firnas made the first-ever human flight in an early hang glider. He jumped from a tower in Cordoba, Spain, flew successfully and landed with only minor injuries.

The exhibit makes the case that Muslim advancements during the “Dark Ages” led to the Renaissance in Europe. It was certainly a fascinating history lesson.


Arts/Crafts, Field Trip Ideas

My happy place

The Getty Center is definitely my happy place. Ok, it’s not my ONLY happy place. I’m pretty content in just about any art museum, especially if it’s housed on beautiful grounds. I love major art museums like The Met, the Louvre and The National Gallery of Art (Washington, DC), as well as smaller galleries like the Norton Simon Museum (Pasadena, CA), The Phillips Collection (Washington, DC) and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (Boston).

I think my art addiction hearkens back to my early teens in Germany when my wonderful parents toted my brother, sister and me all over Europe in a Volkswagen van. I saw Michaelangelo’s David in Florence. At 15 I stood in the Louvre and vowed to come back and see everything. Years later, on our honeymoon, my loving husband spent at least three days holed up in the Louvre and the Musee d’Orsay.

As a parent, a love of art and beauty is definitely something  I want to pass on to the boys. Because of the boys’ current interests, we spend a lot of time at science centers, natural history museums, zoos and aquariums. Still, at least every few months, I make sure we visit one of Los Angeles’s many art museums.

The Getty Museum is relatively easy to visit with small children. Parking is $15 per vehicle, but there is no admission fee. To get to the museum, you take a tram from the parking lot to the hilltop location. This is by far one of my boys’ favorite parts of the visit. Robert Irwin’s beautiful gardens are a perfect place to romp and burn off some energy. There are water features galore, which are especially inviting in the summer months. You’ll find numerous places to picnic, a great way to save money while taking in some culture.

A Family Room between the North and East Pavilions serves as a pit stop for parents of small children. Cooper and Finley used markers to contribute to a giant, erasable, illuminated manuscript. They lounged on the replica 18th century silk bed and read books. And, they used foam pipe insulation to build their own modern sculpture.

A new feature since we last visited was the “Be a Getty Art Detective” brochures with tear-out cards. There were two brochures: one for the North Pavilion and one for the architecture and gardens. In the North Pavilion we showed the boys the first of four cards: a picture of a lion’s paw carved of wood. The card posed a question, “Is this the foot of a cabinet or a lion’s paw?” Once we located the paw on a 16th century French cabinet, we discovered the answer was both. The cabinet had several lion’s paws that served as the cabinet’s feet. On the architecture/garden brochure, one card challenged us “travel back in time” by the South Pavilion sign. There we found a fossil of a leaf on the travertine, which dated back 8,000 years. These hide and seek card definitely made our visit more entertaining.

Yes, art museums are often quiet places where people talk in hushed tones and gaze intently at static artwork — not exactly somewhere you’d want to take a screaming toddler. However, many museums, like The Getty, are taking a more child-friendly approach, putting in children’s rooms, interactive displays and venturing into family programming. Art museum are definitely worth a second (or third or fourth) look when you are planning a family outing.

Field Trip Ideas, Science/Math, Travel

What do paleontologists do all day?

At the La Brea Tar Pits

Imagine a dig that discovered an 80%-complete skeleton of a Columbian mammoth, the Ice Age giant. Now picture that dig taking place right in the middle of Los Angeles’s Hancock Park, home to the La Brea Tar Pits.

In 2006 workers excavating a new parking garage at the nearby Los Angeles County Museum of Art discovered a Columbian mammoth skull. Work halted immediately and paleontologists from The Page Museum a few yards away were called in to box up the  fossils until they could be explored. Now young and old alike can watch paleontologists and volunteers as they work seven days a week on “Project 23” as it’s known. Yesterday, when our family visited, workers had opened boxes 1 and 14. Recent discoveries included jaw fragments of a baby bison, bones from a juvenile mastodon, sloth and turtle fossils. A paleontologist patiently answered our question about her work, her tools, etc.

Project 23 is taking place right in the middle of Hancock Park, just behind the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. While you are there check out Pit 91. Though digging at Pit 91 has halted while Project 23 is ongoing, you’ll find exhibits detailing findings from the pit as well as tools and techniques that paleontologists use there.

Access to Project 23, Pit 91  and the famous La Brea Tar Pits is absolutely free! You can park for $9 in The Page Museum lot or use metered parking on Wilshire (I believe there is a two hour maximum). If you want to see complete skeletons after they’ve been cleaned and reconstructed, you can pay admission to The Page Museum. It’s kind of pricey. However, if you complete the children’s worksheet available at the desk near the gift shop, you can get a gift from the store. We got a “Dino Picture Projector.” The best part of the museum is the “fishbowl” laboratory where you can see paleontologists and volunteers hard at work sorting microfossils, cleaning fossils, etc.

If you’ve never been to Hancock Park, bring a picnic lunch and check out the digs. The La Brea Tar Pits and surrounding sites are by far some of the best free entertainment in Los Angeles.

Field Trip Ideas, Homeschool, Nature, Outside, Travel

Field Trip Ideas: National Parks

Inside a Coastal Redwood

The National Parks are some of our greatest national treasures. From Ellis Island to Yosemite these places of natural beauty and historic significance hold a special place in our hearts. Our family recently visited Muir Woods National Monument, a beautiful coastal redwood forest named for conservationist John Muir featuring trees two hundred feet high. It was a magical experience for our two children.

The walk to Cathedral Grove, with some of the most magnificent trees, is only a mile round trip, and the paths are stroller friendly. We transformed our visit into a learning experience by requesting a Junior Ranger Activity Book at the entry gate.  The Park Service has these guides for many (and I mean many) of their parks. The Muir Woods Book encouraged us to listen to the sounds of the forest and observe our surroundings to appreciate their beauty. We learned about tree rings, how redwoods reproduce (via burls and cones), how these trees drink 500 gallons of water a day, and how tannins in the trees’ bark protects them from fires, insects and rot.  The book also helped us identify plants and animals of Muir Woods.

At the end of the trip, we answered a few short question. I emailed them to Muir Woods, though you could leave them with a Park Ranger or mail them in, and we are now expecting a Junior Ranger Certificate. A Junior Ranger sticker badge was included with the book, which Cooper proudly wore on his shirt.

The National Park Service has a number of other resources for teachers and children:

  • WebRangers contains more than 50 games that help children learn about the National Parks.
  • Online Park Fun helps you explore the parks  in person or online.
  • Many of the parks also have curricular resources for teachers planning field trips. These are perfect for serious homeschoolers.
Field Trip Ideas, Geography, Outside, Science/Math

Field Trip Ideas: Scavenger Hunt

My friend Nanda recently reminded me of a fun way to make field trips more entertaining — scavenger hunts! For our trip to a local air park last week, Nanda had pulled together descriptions of several airplanes we would see at the park. The children had to find the planes described, for example a silver plane with red seats or a plane with a star. Once they checked all the boxes, they turned their paper into Nanda, who had brought little gliders as prizes. Brilliant!

The next day, I took my boys to a local zoo. I decided to try another scavenger hunt. Because my three-year-old doesn’t read yet, I decided to use pictures of the various animals we would see for the scavenger hunt. I found these easily on the internet and pasted them into a Word document.  I also left space for us to write down the animals’ names and where they could be found, so we could use our globe when we got home to find their habitats.

The boys definitely paid more attention to the animals when we were forced to read the information and look carefully for the various animals. Hooray for scavenger hunts!

Field Trip Ideas, Science/Math

Celebrating Science Centers

How does wind work?

We have a running joke in our town: while we live in the middle of nowhere, we can be anywhere in an hour and a half — the beach, the mountains and a major city. That certainly holds true for museums and cultural institutions, including one of our favorites: the California Science Center. Since the science center is far from next door, we only make it there every few months, but each trip is a special treat.

Science centers make science fun through hands-on activities and exhibits. This is the type of science I remember from elementary school. While we’ve done our fair share of science experiments at home, there’s nothing like science kids can touch done on a large-scale (and backed by big bucks). Want to learn which materials are good insulators? Check out the giant ice wall in the polar ecosystem exhibit, where you can cover your hands in different materials and judge for yourself. Do you want to learn about solar power? Use a joystick to control a light that mimics the sun; when you shine it on a small car’s solar panels, the car races around the track!

I’m always heartened by the number of school groups and families we see at the science center. Here are kids learning that being a scientist can be fun. To find a science center near you, click……here.

Field Trip Ideas, Homeschool

Field Trip – Channel 3 Newsroom

My aspiring anchors

Nothing stimulates curiosity like a good field trip. Fortunately, I’m part of a wonderful MOMS Club, and we schedule at least one field trip each month. This month, we took the kiddos to our local TV Station, Time Warner Cable’s Channel 3.

The children got to stand in front of the weatherman’s blue screen and do their own weather forecast. They got a kick out of seeing themselves on TV. They also got to see how the cameras and teleprompters worked. They visited the master control room and tried out the anchor desk. They even got to watch a local Sheriff tape a news segment.

Today's weather is partly cloudy

While I highly recommend finding a local MOMS Club or similar group, you don’t necessarily need a group to schedule a field trip. Many places are more than happy to arrange a tour for a small group of moms with toddlers and preschoolers in tow.