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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Winter Whispers: A Weekly Drop-off Program for Young Children

After several stormy grey days, I looked out the window this weekend to see the sun illuminating a stunning winter wonderland. A sparkling white blanket laid out across the fields behind my home and, with every tree branch laced in white, the frosted mountains in the background seemed to glow. I set out on skis across the expanse of my neighbor's pasture while my eyes feasted on the landscape's offering of eye candy. I moved over the crusted blanket and felt like a child brimming with excitement. It seemed as though I was transported into a magical land. The cool air on my cheeks was invigorating. The sounds of my skis moving over the snow and light wind blowing through the crusted branches filled my ears.

My excitement grew as I encountered story after story written in the snow by local wildlife. A snowshoe hare left tracks darting across the expanse. A coyote had wandered the tree line along a brook and circled twice around mink tracks before sauntering on. My senses were fully awake as I made my way through the stories and the frozen landscape. Winter whispers many secrets.

I realized the frosty view from inside my cozy home was lovely, but it did not compare with the experience of becoming a part of the landscape - making discoveries and experiencing the inherent wonders of winter first hand. I could not possibly hear the whisper of winter until I was out in the snow, surrounded by frosty air and a world of white!

At that moment, because I work with young children in a classroom without walls, I thrilled to think of sharing many similar wonders of winter with wee ones this season! Every moment, young children are learning about their world and rapidly building strong neural connections. They do so largely through their senses with curiosity as the driver. The more senses that are engaged, the deeper the learning process. Natural spaces in winter provide an exciting, rich learning and play environment. I am pleased to share that for six weeks starting mid-January, the North Branch Nature Center will offer a drop-off program for children, age 3.5 to 5, to discover what winter is whispering about.

Winter offers not only myself but also young children a wonder-filled season to imagine, play, and learn. Winter Whispers is a program that supports children's innate curiosity and individual learning process through play, open- ended art, and exploration of the natural world in the frosty months of January and February. Children will spend a portion of every morning outdoors, having an opportunity to engage all their senses while encountering winter's many wonders. In addition, our program offers time to cozy up indoors for winter related stories, songs, and art as well as exploration of Vermont wildlife's winter habits.


Althea Brown, assistant teacher, and I look forward to looking, listening, and feeling with young children outdoors as we play and learn about ourselves and our connection to the natural world we are a part of in Vermont - all amidst the whispers of winter this season.




Friday, November 28, 2014

Play and Child-driven Learning in a Classroom Without Walls


A field of golden rod and a green forest canopy greeted students upon their arrival at Forest Preschool this Fall.  A landscape, covered in a soft blanket of snow, offered a frosty goodbye at the end of our session. In a classroom without walls, children intimately connected to their natural surroundings and witnessed the wild world around them shift from summer, into fall, and then into winter. Over the session, I and my teaching assistant witnessed the children thrive outdoors while guiding them through their own developmental seasons. The children joyfully played and directly engaged with their natural environment, enthusiastically learning about themselves, others, and their world. Play is central to early childhood development and to our Forest Preschool Program. Play in natural spaces coupled with the room and ability for children to be active in their own learning process forges a strong combination. It stimulates wonder and excitement, allowing for possibility, and sets the stage for students to develop into citizens of our planet.

There are several newfangled phases to describe children being active in their own learning process. I have unabashedly used one in the title of this blog: child-driven. Another term is emergent curriculum. I have used this term to describe the curriculum we use here at Forest Preschool. But, really, this fancy word means that our curriculum is not contained by a specific plan but, rather, is attentive to each child, their interests, and what the natural world has to offer on any particular day. Although we model simple ideas for play and provide art and natural materials to stimulate curiosity and imagination, it is the interest of the children that drives their activity and potential projects. I would like to take you on a tour of some of the highlights from our session this Fall.

One morning we laid out many sticks from shortest to longest. We did so in order to provide inspiration for children to arrange sticks by length if they were drawn to do so. What happened next, when a child joyfully skipped over, was unexpected and interesting. The child immediately picked up another stick from the ground and stroked along the arrangement to see if the different sized sticks made sounds similar to a xylophone. Because this child and several others are drawn to make music, work with their hands, and sort natural items, we embarked on a multi-week adventure, making a musical instrument out of varying lengths of sticks.

The first step in our project was to introduce the idea of using a saw to assist in cooperatively creating a musical instrument. A discussion about using saws safely ensued. I asked the group if anyone would like to saw sticks in order to make an instrument. Several hands were eagerly raised. Once the children passed a safety test, and with proper supervision, we set to work sawing sapling tree trunks into different lengths of sticks. 

The next week, during circle time, I asked if anyone was interested in arranging our previously cut sticks from shortest to longest, then threading p-cord through drilled holes, and tying them on to a larger and thicker length of a branch. Again, several hands eagerly raised and waved with enthusiasm. P-cord was threaded, knots carefully tied, and a chiming instrument was made. Many children were eager to experiment with the newly made instrument and explore the different sounds each length of stick made. Through the entire process, children worked on developing their fine motor skills and ability to work cooperatively. 






Mud Kitchen is a hot spot for child-driven play and learning. We have a wonderfully wet and muddy place in the woods at our base camp that has been transformed into a Mud Kitchen. With simple kitchen tools such as pots, pans, ladles, wire whisks, etc., Mud Kitchen ignites imaginations and provides a rich environment for exploration and learning.

After we finish our circle and snack time, children can choose where they would like to be and what they would like to do in the forest and fields. Many children are drawn to Mud Kitchen, where they become scientists conducting experiments and chefs baking up a storm. A myriad of delicious concoctions are made using a variety of natural material and offered to fellow students and teachers. Birthday and pizza cakes are favorites. While engaging in this play, imaginations are developed. But also, soil science, chemistry, water flow, and skills for cooperative play are learned! Really, the learning is endless. Through an inquiry based style of teaching, children learn where water goes when the rain water dries, who lives in this habitat, what happens to the water when it's cold. When the temperatures drop, but before ice forms, children build resilience and develop self care skills, learning how to regulate their warmth and comfort level.

When parents and caregivers arrive at the end of the morning for pick-up, they are often met by happily dirty and muddy children - evidence of a good day. Through their play and child-centered learning in natural spaces, the youngsters at Forest Preschool are developing foundational life and learning skills with joy, excitement, and a sense of wonder. The soil in the forest is rich, growing endless possibilities in a classroom without walls.












Monday, November 17, 2014

Birding Plum Island and Cape Ann

Barred Owl at Plum Island
It was cold but beautiful for the North Branch Nature Center’s trip to the Massachusetts coast this past weekend. Seven participants scoured the seashore of Essex County, MA in search of ocean birds and discovered the surprising diversity of birds that are around in late-fall. As one season ends and another begins, birds of both fall and winter can be found along the New England coast in mid-November.

Winter birds complemented winter temperatures in our birding adventures. Snowy Owls had just begun arriving from the north over the past week, and one was seen at Plum Island. Loons, scoters, and others were seen migrating south along the coast. Snow Buntings and Horned Larks were active in the dunes at both Newburyport and Salisbury. And a variety of winter birds were seen off the coast, including Long-tailed Duck, Bufflehead, Horned and Red-necked Grebe, Harlequin Duck, and others.

Greater White-fronted Goose in Newbury
While many species of ‘winter birds’ were seen, a handful had not yet arrived to the wintering grounds. Iceland and Glaucous Gulls were notably absent. Common Goldeneye, which can be fairly common in winter, was represented by only a single individual at Brace Cove in Rockport. And Short-eared Owl sightings so far this season have been sparse; we weren’t able to locate any during our dusk attempt.

Snowy Owl at Plum Island
Yet other species we observed were species more typically associated with warmer weather. A Hermit Thrush was observed in Rowley and a Yellow-rumped Warbler in Rockport. An American Bittern put in an appearance at Plum Island and a Great Egret was observed in Salisbury. A few lingering shorebirds were also seen, including Black-bellied Plover and Greater Yellowlegs at several locations.

Perhaps the most unusual sighting was a Greater White-fronted Goose in Newbury, mixed in with a flock of about 250 Canada Geese. This one was a lifer for most of the group. The Eurasian Wigeon seen at Plum Island was another highlight. While not unusual in Vermont, the Barred Owl seen at Plum Island was a pretty atypical species for that location.

American Bittern at Plum Island
When all was said and done, a total of 84 species were observed during the three days of birding (and 1 day of scouting by trip leader Larry Clarfeld). In addition to all the birds, a trip to Cape Ann and Plum Island is enjoyable just for the ambience. The glowing sunsets, scenic vistas, and historic downtowns of the coastal New England towns we visited were all fantastically beautiful. NBNC will be back to the Massachusetts coast in January to participate in the Superbowl of Birding, where we’ll spend a day with youths and adults, participating in this birding competition for the seventh consecutive year.



Complete Species List

Greater White-fronted Goose Sanderling
Canada Goose Dunlin
Mute Swan Purple Sandpiper*
Gadwall Razorbill
Eurasian Wigeon Black Guillemot
American Wigeon Bonaparte's Gull
American Black Duck Ring-billed Gull
Mallard Herring Gull
Northern Pintail Great Black-backed Gull
Green-winged Teal Rock Pigeon
Ring-necked Duck Mourning Dove
Greater Scaup* Snowy Owl
Common Eider Barred Owl
Harlequin Duck Red-bellied Woodpecker*
Surf Scoter Downy Woodpecker
White-winged Scoter Hairy Woodpecker
Black Scoter Northern Flicker*
Long-tailed Duck Peregrine Falcon*
Bufflehead Blue Jay
Common Goldeneye American Crow
Hooded Merganser Horned Lark
Red-breasted Merganser Black-capped Chickadee
Wild Turkey Tufted Titmouse
Red-throated Loon Red-breasted Nuthatch
Common Loon White-breasted Nuthatch
Pied-billed Grebe* Carolina Wren
Horned Grebe Hermit Thrush
Red-necked Grebe American Robin
Northern Gannet Northern Mockingbird
Double-crested Cormorant European Starling
Great Cormorant* Snow Bunting
American Bittern Yellow-rumped Warbler
Great Blue Heron American Tree Sparrow
Great Egret Savannah Sparrow
Northern Harrier Song Sparrow
Cooper's Hawk White-throated Sparrow
Bald Eagle Dark-eyed Junco
Red-tailed Hawk Northern Cardinal
Rough-legged Hawk* Red-winged Blackbird
American Coot House Finch
Black-bellied Plover American Goldfinch
Greater Yellowlegs House Sparrow

*Seen only during scouting

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Record-setting Season for Saw-whets

The Saw-whet Owl banding season is now in its fourth week and owls continue to move through the area in good numbers. In 20 nights of banding between our two stations, we have banded 86 Northern Saw-whet Owls so far. Our busiest night of banding yet was October 24, when 16 owls were banded in Montpelier and 10 in Shelburne.  As the season begins to wind down, the data we've already collected are starting to tell the Saw-whet's story.

A remarkably high proportion of this year’s owls are hatch-year birds; those born over the just-completed breeding season. Roughly 63% of owls captured in Montpelier and 85% of owls captured in Shelburne have been hatch-year. This ratio of hatch-year owls is indicative of high productivity on the breeding grounds and is consistent with observations from other banding stations in the northeast.

The other big news this season was an owl we had banded last fall in Shelburne being recaptured by the McGill Bird Observatory in Montreal! This is the second owl-exchange we've had between Shelburne and Montreal, after re-capturing an owl on Oct. 24, 2013 that they had banded 16 days earlier. There have been no other foreign recaptures or recoveries so far this season. This being only our second season of banding after last year's pilot, we still have much to learn.

We have also been delighted to host over 250 visitors to the banding stations this year. With the banding season ending in early November, there are still a few more opportunities to visit and observe. Contact Larry for information about visiting either banding station.


Our owl banding initiative is supported by a grant from the Oakland Foundation and your support. Help us make sure we can continue this project for years to come by making a donation or adopting an owl.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A World of Leaves at Forest Preschool

"The leaf looks bigger! "I see lines and dirt."
Mother Nature pulled out all the stops this Autumn, transforming the landscape into a brilliant wash of red, orange, and gold. It's a poignant time of year as the natural world is shifting and readying for a long, sleepy winter. With leaves raining down and crunching underfoot, Forest Preschoolers have been alive in their senses and exuberantly exploring the wild world around. Leaves on the ground this time of year are abundant and fascinating; ideal for play and learning. At Forest Preschool, we have been taking full advantage!

Preschoolers learn rapidly from what interests them. When learning is driven by interest, information is more easily retained and strong synaptic connections are made. Many Forest Preschoolers were drawn to pile, move, and build with leaves, others to examine closely, some to sort by shape and color, and count. Many children used leaves in "mud kitchen" baking recipes. Some collected and designed with them. Stitching leaves with a blunt needle was also a source of intrigue. This foray into sewing was a first for many and provided a great way to develop fine motor skills.

"I wonder what THIS might look like under a
magnifying glass?"
I love asking children open ended questions that have no wrong answers. The answers are sometimes priceless but more importantly, they engage curiosity. One morning I sat with a child while the two of us wove yarn in and out of holes punched in several leaves. As we worked the yarn through the leaves, she spontaneously declared, " I could make this anywhere. There's leaves everywhere." I wonder where the leaves are in the winter?" I asked. She took moment and then stated, "Under the snow but you can build a snowman in the snow. But you can't put in on a piece of string!"



Building a nest for an owl backpack!
Many nests for wild animal friends were built using leaves at Forest Preschool. Pretending to be an animal building a nest and then snuggling in the final product is great fun. Preschoolers are primed to learn by engaging their imagination!

Nestled in with owl backpack aptly named Mr. Owl!

"I'm going to use my paws to build the rest!"
Each day I tell an oral story. One day, part of my story told of a red squirrel building a nest with fallen leaves. When the story was over, a child was excited to build a squirrel nest of his own. In the  process of construction, play, and my asking open ended questions, he and friends learned about nest sites, construction, materials used, and the insulating property of leaves. 

Later that morning the child sat back, looked around, and exclaimed, "The world is covered in leaves!" Another shared, "There's mostly maple trees here at Deer Camp."

"Where can we put the door?" "Now, the thing is, can we make a door out of a stick?"

Another busy squirrel building a nest!

Leaves add a whole new element to "mountain climbing,"
healthy risk taking, and gross motor skill development.

Pure joy!

Now that most of the leaves have fallen and the temperatures are following suit, we look forward to what nature will offer the children's innate sense of wonder and endless curiosity in the coming weeks.





Monday, October 13, 2014

Owl Banding – Midseason Update

The North Branch Nature Center’s second season of Northern Saw-whet Owl banding is underway. In collaboration with other owl researchers around the U.S. and Canada, we are operating banding stations in Montpelier and Shelburne to track the fall migration of these incredible birds. While it is still early in the banding season, we have already learned that this year is going to be very different than last.

In 2013, the banding station in Shelburne showed the rate of hatch-year birds we encountered to be only 11%. Hatch year birds are those born during the most recent breeding season. This low rate of occurrence typically signifies a poor breeding season where not many Saw-whet Owls were fledged. So far in 2014, 87% of the birds encountered in Shelburne had been hatch year birds, which suggests that this year's breeding season was much better than last, with high productivity.

This weekend’s public demonstrations in Montpelier and Shelburne were attended by roughly 80 people. We caught and released a total of 9 owls in Montpelier on Saturday and 2 in Shelburne on Sunday. If you are interested in visiting the banding station, please email Larry. And, please consider supporting our banding project by adopting an owl.


Learn more about NBNC’s Saw-whet Banding program. 

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Celebrating 5 Years of Educating Children Outdoors in Vermont

In central Vermont we are welcoming in another school year with stunning foliage, warm days and the ongoing chorus of crickets and katydids. Here at the North Branch Nature Center we are celebrating our 5th year of ECO- Educating Children Outdoors. This year we are welcoming Alex Rob and Carrie Riker to our ECO team. Carrie and Alex bring years of experience leading children outdoors and a passion for connecting children to our rich landscape here in Vermont. We are also thrilled to expand ECO to a new school, Calais Elementary! During the 2014-15 school year ECO will be in 7 schools, reaching 463 children and 40 teachers with a standards based nature immersion program.

Small group work in the forest
In these past five years we have been inspired by all the teachers, parents and of course the students we work with by being immersed in nature throughout the seasons. As a classroom community we are learning with children on a continuous basis through ECO. We are also developing long lasting relationships with students and the green spaces that we visit each week.  Whether it’s sitting around a fire on a chilly winter day, witnessing spring ephemerals unfold or watching skeins of geese fly south, students and teachers are experiencing phenology in an active way that connects them to the place they live in. When asked why we live here in Vermont, most people reference the values of our state that we love so much. The mountains, crimson red maple trees, the change of seasons, clean lakes to swim in, local food, deep snow, family traditions, and small towns with a big community feel.

Through ECO we want to help our students to foster a love for Vermont that will last their entire lives. I can’t think of a better way to do that then to help them understand where they live by introducing them to the natural world that surrounds us and all its wonders.

So, what do children know about the natural world in Vermont? First and second graders at Moretown Elementary can easily name at least 10 native species of animals and what their distinguishing characteristics are. Children at Union Elementary will be able to tell you later this month about the history of stonewalls and their importance in shaping our agricultural heritage.  It may appear that third graders were only playing hide and seek in various locations on the East Montpelier school property last week, but really they are studying habitats from the ground up. What better way to start a lesson than with hiding in 3 different habitats?  If you need a map of Twinfield’s forested trails you can always ask an ECO student. This year students will be become cartographers.

Kindergartners at any of our participating schools will surprise you as well. These are our youngest students and they know where every animal home is in the forest, they can build you a squirrel drey or a giant eagles nest. They will be the first to tell you that in nature we “hurt no living thing”. So be careful where you step and hold that insect ever so carefully.

At the end of a day learning in the forest we feel a sense of joyful exhausted accomplishment. We are also reminded that children will only protect what they love and they will only love what they know.
We know Vermont and we love it.


What is 20? Showing our mathematical thinking.



Symmetry in nature