Books, Nature, Outside, Science/Math

Perfect Picture Book Friday: When the Wind Stops

Author: Charlotte Zolotow
Illustrator: Stefano Vitale
Publication Info: HarperCollins Publishers, 1995 (third edition)
Intended audience: Ages 4 and up, though my three-year-old loved it
Themes/topics: nature, natural science, weather
Synopsis and opening line: “The bright yellow sun had shown all day, and now the day was coming to an end. The light in the sky changed from blue to pink to a strange dusky purple. The sun sank lower into the long glowing clouds. The little boy was sorry to see the day end.”
In Zolotow’s beautiful, lyrically written book, the boy’s mother explains that nothing comes to an end. When the day ends at his house, night begins and day breaks at another spot on the globe. Falling leaves signal not the end of autumn, but the beginning of new life, as the decaying leaves nourish the soil. Zolotow’s text is a poetic preschool introduction to the natural world and its cycles.
Resources: This book encompasses much of the natural world. To explain the Earth’s rotation, you need only a flashlight and a globe. Don’t have a globe? Try an orange instead. Show children where you live on the globe (or mark the spot with an x on the orange). Tell the children that the flashlight is the sun. When the sun shines directly on the x (or your city on the globe) it’s daytime there. Now rotate the globe or orange 180 degrees. Explain that now your home is in Earth’s shadow, and it’s nighttime. But see, the sun is shining somewhere else! You could also compost to explain how old leaves and dead plant matter create nutrients and new life. Boil water to show how water becomes water vapor, which creates clouds. Trap some water vapor in a bottle and let it cool. Now you’ve got rain.
Why I like this book: A busy two-year-old serendipitously handed me this book at the library when he saw me pulling books off the shelf. His choice couldn’t have been more perfect. At each sunrise and sunset my three-year-old asks, “Is the sun coming up or going down?” We talk about the Earth’s rotation and the fact that sunset means a new day is dawning somewhere else in the world.  This beautifully written book provides just enough information about nature and its cycles for preschoolers.
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.
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?

Geography, Nature, Science/Math

Creating your own compass

Do-it-yourself compass

Our favorite nonfiction picture books include related, hands-on activities. I think these are a great way for children to learn and expand upon the information in the book itself. As I mentioned previously, I’m working on a navigation picture book. Along the way, I’ve collected some wayfinding activities I hope to include at the end of the book.

Of course I would never include an activity I hadn’t tested myself. Today’s task: make a compass.

Steve Spangler Science has a good version of this activity. He uses wax paper as the float. I sliced a thing piece of cork, about 1/4 inch. Also, I used a common household magnet, rather than one with a north/south designation. This meant I had to calibrate my compass with the known directions.

I wouldn’t recommend taking this sloshing compass with you on your next camping trip, but it’s fun to try at home. Let me know if you do and whether it works for you!

Books, Nature

Perfect Picture Book Friday: Pipaluk and the Whales

Author/Illustrator: John Himmelman
Publication Info: Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Children’s Books, Feb. 1, 2002
Genre: Fiction, but based on a true story
Intended audience: Ages 4-8
Themes/topics: Perserverance, nature, animals, history, geography (Arctic circle)
Synopsis and opening line: Pipaluk and the Whales is a fictionalized account of a true story. In December 1984, several thousand beluga whales were trapped in a hole in the ice off Russia’s Chukchi Peninsula. An icebreaker reached the whales after nearly three months, but the whales refused to head out to sea — until the icebreaker played classical music. John Himmelman’s protagonist is the fictional Pipaluk, a native girl who discovers the whales as she journeys home from a hunting trip with her father. After the icebreaker arrives, it’s Pipaluk’s singing that first moves the whales out to sea. Her song inspires the icebreaker to play music and lead the whales to safety. Himmelmans’ story begins:
“The night was bitter cold. Pipaluk shivered, but she did not complain.”
Resources: Himmelman includes a note in the back with picture of the real story. In addition, there are number of helpful classroom resources relating to this book. For students in grades 3 through 5, a conflict/resolution lesson can be found…..here. An Inuit and the Arctic lesson plan can be found…..here. For parents and teachers alike, National Geographic has a comprehensive beluga whale page with audio….here. Find their kids’ version of the page with maps, video and sound ….here.
Why I like this book: The visual of thousands of whales trapped in the ice is compelling, however I think the most moving part of this book is a community that works together day and night to save helpless creatures. Pipaluk’s family could easily have killed the trapped whales and had enough food for weeks. However, they respected the whales too much to slaughter them. This book goes a long way toward helping children learn to respect nature.
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.


Books, Nature

Nonfiction “Perfect Picture Book Friday:” Mama

This week I’m joining author Susanna Leonard Hill’s “Perfect Picture Book Friday” effort while continuing to spotlight nonfiction each week. This week’s book is “Mama” by Jeanette Winter.
Title: “Mama: A True Story in which a Baby Hippo Loses His Mama During a Tsunami, But Finds a New Home, and a New Mama”
Author/Illustrator: Jeanette Winter
Publication Info: Harcourt, 2006
Genre: Nonfiction fiction (of course!)
Intended audience: Ages 4 and up
Themes/topics: Friendship, family, animals
Synopsis and opening line: “Mama.” That’s the first line of this book and almost the only word that appears throughout this true tale. Winter relies upon her colorful illustrations to retell this story of a baby hippo who gets swept out to sea and separated from its mama in a 2004 tsunami. Owen, as the hippo is later named, gets rescued by Kenyan wildlife officials and adopts 130-year-old male tortoise Mzee as his new mama.
Resources: The Web site OwenandMzee.com has a wealth of resources for parents and teachers including Scholastic’s teacher guide and three classroom activities. Visitors also will find rebus stories, a game and a sing-along.
Why I like this book: This is a versatile book. It’s a quick read, and preschoolers are drawn to the colorful illustrations and the tale of two different species forming a friendship. With words like “mama” and “baby” beginning readers can read the book on their own. For older children, Winter includes an author’s note in the back, which explains the true story of Owen and Mzee. And, more than anything, I am reminded to keep writing for children simple. Winter “tells” her tale in fewer than 30 words.
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.
Nature, Outside

A walk in the desert

For some reason, taking a nature walk has become a kind of New Year’s tradition. Typically, we have lots of time on our hands around the holidays, and the museums we frequent are closed. The kids have played with their new toys and are getting bored and restless. The bottom line: it’s time to get out of the house.

This year, we made sure to tote our “explorer gear.” We brought along binoculars to spot wildlife, a magnifying glass in case we found interesting bugs or rocks, and brand-new walkie talkies “in case we got lost,” according to Finley. We spotted rabbits, a roadrunner and a variety of birds. We collected tumbleweeds. We ran. We explored. We enjoyed being outside on the trails.

Nature looks a lot different in the wintertime, even in southern California. A nature walk can prompt children to ponder: where did the birds go? What do animals do in the wintertime? What do they eat?  Exploring the trails is a perfect adventure in any season.

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.
Books, Nature, Outside, Science/Math

Nonfiction Friday: Caves and Caverns

Cooper snatched this book off the shelf during a recent visit to the library’s science section. (We aren’t allowed to leave the library without visiting the science shelves….never ever.) Often the boys grab books that are geared towards older children, and we only end up reading portions of them. Case in point: I currently have a chemistry book called “Tests” at my house. However, “Caves and Caverns” by Gail Gibbons (Harcourt & Brace, 1993) is perfectly appropriate for early elementary students, including five-year-olds.

This book easily captures the imagination of early elementary readers, especially since caves are home to bats and other creepy creatures, like isopods and copepods. Gibbons provides a wonderful explanation of how caves and caverns are formed through erosion. She also discusses key cave features like stalagmites and stalactites, describes animals who live in caves and talks about archeological finds like bone fragments and cave paintings.

Finally, Gibbons supplies an illustrated list of supplies a good caver needs, as well as cave rules and areas with famous caves. After reading the book, I really want to take the boys to Luray Caverns in Virginia, the state I hail from. In the meantime, I think a trip to Santa Barbara to see Chumash Indian paintings may be in our future.

Education, Geography, Homeschool, Nature, Science/Math

Reindeer Investigation

I thought it would be fun to investigate reindeer, or caribou as they’re called in most of the world. Everything the boys know about reindeer to date has come from their Christmas books, and according to their stories, reindeer fly and occasionally have red noses. Of course this is true of Santa’s reindeer, who are magic, but not all reindeer.

To begin the activity, I asked the boys what they know about reindeer. Answers included that they fly and live at the North Pole with Santa. Then I asked what they wanted to know about reindeer. Here are some of their answers:

  • Can reindeer fly upside down or just right side up?
  • Can they do loop de loops in the sky?
  • Are they ectotherms?
  • Do they live anywhere else besides the North Pole? Do they live in the East, West and South?
  • How big are their families?
  • What do they eat?
  • Can they go fast or slow?
  • What kind of noise do they make?

Next, I asked them where they thought we could find information about reindeer. We talked about looking in books, observing reindeer at the zoo and using the computer. For today, the easiest source was the computer. Here are a few reliable Web sites that should help you and your children answer questions about reindeer.

Geography, Holidays, Homeschool, Nature, Outside, Science/Math

How cold is it at the North Pole?

My eldest, Cooper, is fascinated by temperature and weather. We’ve enjoyed some great books on the subject, including “Temperature: Heating Up and Cooling Down” by Darlene Stille and “What’s the Weather” by Melissa Stewart. I have a whole host of experiments on the “to do” list, including making our own thermometer (stay tuned!)

So, when Busy Teacher Monthly suggested graphing temperatures at the North Pole, I couldn’t help myself. To begin the activity, we talked about weather. I asked Cooper if he thought it was hot or cold at the North Pole and why. We looked at our globe, and I showed him how the sun’s rays hit the North Pole less directly compared to the equator, so it’s not as warm. We discussed what freezing means (32 degrees Farenheit at which point water will start to turn into a solid). Cooper predicted whether the North Pole was generally hotter or colder than where we lived.

Then, using Weather.com, we looked up the average temperatures for the North Pole for each month of the year. (The Web site will give you the average high and low; we went with the average high.) Using a piece of graph paper, we graphed the temperatures using a line graph. Monthly teacher recommends a bar graph, and in retrospect, I think this would have been more age appropriate for early elementary school students.

After we completed our graph, we talked about it. We observed that the average high temperature is below freezing for six months out of the year! We talked about what freezing feels like, comparing it to the freezer at the grocery store. (Brrrr.) And we discussed what kind of clothes Santa wears and why. (No wonder everything is fur trimmed!) And we talked about how the reindeer might keep warm. We’ll be studying reindeer later in the week, so this was a nice lead-in.