Thursday, December 31, 2009

More EXtensions of Holiday Fun


People have been nice enough to share other ideas for the alphabet of holiday fun. Here are several ideas for the five letters — E, J, Q, X, and Y — that were missing from my earlier alphabetical list.

Trish Epstein shared these suggestions on the AMC Facebook page:

Eat new foods — try new things! Eggnog with nutmeg. Exploring in the woods... or in the attic.
Juggling and other pursuits that require practice... Jokes in joke-books, holiday jello molds, jump-roping contests in the basement. (Great on blustery, indoors days!)
Quiet! Appreciate the quiet wherever you find it, especially in the woods, especially when it’s snowing. Quell the noise for a bit. (This mother likes that last idea!)
• Avoid the need to be X-rayed after winter sports pursuits; instead, eXamine snowflakes under magnification! Act eXuberant!
Yodel when standing atop a mountain. Do some yoga. Yawn after all these activities, and before the Zzzzzzzzzzzz’s....

And one great idea came in that combines many letters: Helen Wybrow of Knoll Farm in Vermont sent along a photo of the bird-feeding snowman she made with her children. They placed birdseed in the snowman’s outstretched hands and on top of his hat, and watched the birds feast.

Many thanks to Trish and Helen, and Happy New Year!

Photo credit: Helen Whybrow

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

F is for Funnelator


One of the best gifts this holiday season came from my brother in Washington State. When Uncle Rik visited here last fall, Ursula begged him to tell her stories from his childhood, especially what she calls “mischievous stories” — tales of pranks and pratfalls.

So he told her a story about a funnelator, a contraption involving a large plastic funnel, two lengths of surgical tubing, and launchable objects. His story also involved a water balloon, the football field across the street from our family home when we were younger, a warm summer evening with a group of friends — and a perfect but ill-fated trajectory into a convertible with the top down.

Ursula loved that story. Uncle Rik clearly remembered. The package we opened on Christmas morning held a funnelator, handmade by Uncle Rik, and three neon yellow tennis balls. The frozen pond across the road provided a practice area the length of a football field. No wind, no worries — and no soaked young man in a convertible.

I should say that the package contained more than the funnelator, but for that I need to tell another story. When my brother’s three children were around the age that our two are now, Jim and I sent them a book we thought they’d like, called Backyard Ballistics. The book’s author was an engineer whose own childhood had included The Boy Mechanic, published in 1913, which directed boys how to build such wonders as “the gunpowder-driven ‘Fourth-of-July Catapult’” that flung “a full-sized mannequin a hundred feet into the sky,” and who wanted to keep alive the spirit of experimentation and amateur science (along with a few good explosions). Backyard Ballistics explained how to build a rocket, which my brother, niece, and nephews did and subsequently launched all around Bellingham, Washington, to the pleasure of every child of a certain age (and to some worried, behind-the-scenes phone-calling and safety-checking by parents). That home-made rocket, along with its launching pad and directions, was also in the box that my brother sent.

I knew that the gift was a signal to me and Jim to enjoy this time with our children, to go outside and play with them, and to enjoy launching every tennis ball and water balloon, every rocket, and even every harmless prank with them while we can. Rik’s oldest child is now in college, with the other two soon to follow. Our children, he was reminding us, will be launching into their own lives soon enough.

Learn more
Make your own funnelator. Great for snowballs, too!
Check out Backyard Ballistics and other amateur science projects on the book's website.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Holiday Fun from A to Z

Vacation started for our children last Friday. By mid-morning on Monday, Virgil was already using the “B” word, for Bored. A day later, though, he was full of ideas for how to spend his vacation. It’s almost as if his internal gears had to start moving in a new way, or he had to engage his brain differently. He helped me come up with the following alphabet of fun things for kids and families to do during the holidays. Help us find examples for letters E, J, Q, X, and Y, or add your own ideas to other letters!

A is for snow angels, an age-old pleasure after fresh snow.
B is for a snowball battle.
C is for cookies — made and decorated by hand, some to eat and some to share. Or cleaning your room or the house, says Mom. (“That’s boring!” cries Virgil.)
Decorate a tree or a bush for the animals. String cranberries or popcorn; set out birdseed or suet.
Forts made of snow, fires for marshmallows, and fishing through holes in the ice: fun with fathers especially.
Give to others. On Saturday, we visited two retirement homes nearby to read stories out loud with people there. Ursula and Virgil dragged their feet going in, but their faces glowed when they were done. Spend time with grandparents, your own or ones you adopt. Play games.
Hockey, on skates or in boots; on ponds, at rinks, in yards or driveways; with gear or without. Make something by hand: a card to send, cookies, a gift, or something just because.
I is for ice-skating — and icicles to lick or use as swords, says Virgil.
Kites fly well in winter breezes. We fly ours over the pond once it’s good and frozen.
Light a candle, go for a walk to look at Christmas lights, make your own luminaria out of candles, sand, and paper bags.
Marshmallows in hot chocolate. Marshmallows roasted. Marshmallows as ammo, says Virgil, who made a marshmallow shooter out of PVC — but please, only outside, says Mom.
Nuts, whole, to crack with a nutcracker. Or chestnuts, pulled out of the coals after roasting.
• Create your own snow Olympics: A three-legged race through the snow. Target practice with snowballs. Make up your own event.
Pack a winter picnic. We take ours in the woods, build a fire, and cook up hot dogs, but there are lots of ways to have a winter picnic.
Ride a snowboard, says Virgil, who wants to learn the basics this year.
Snow sports: Snowshoeing, skiing, skating, sledding, snowboarding. Sword fights, says Virgil – with icicles! I’m not sure about that one, says Mom, who nonetheless remembers icicle sword fights with her brothers.
• Look for animal tracks in the snow. Draw pictures of them, keep a record of what you see.
Ursula says, “Let me read in bed and sleep in, and I’ll be happy.”
Virgil promises to practice his violin every day.
• Go for a walk. Dress warmly. Enjoy winter!
Z-z-z-z-z. After all that activity, sleep well — maybe with visions of sugar plums dancing through your head, says Virgil.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Shortest Day

So the shortest day came, and the year died,
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.

— from “The Shortest Day,” Susan Cooper


Yesterday marked the winter solstice, the official start of winter in the Northern Hemisphere, as well as its shortest day and longest night. Here at Orange Pond, New Hampshire, where our latitude lies between 43 and 44 degrees, the day lasted a few minutes less than nine hours, the night more than fifteen.

Though the Earth as a whole is closer to the Sun during northern winters, the axial tilt of the planet tips the northern hemisphere away from the sun. On the winter solstice, that tilt is at its maximum of 23 degrees and 26 minutes. For us here in the north, that puts the sun at its lowest angle above the horizon.

Not entirely coincidentally, we heard the complete version of Susan Cooper’s poem, “The Shortest Day,” on Sunday night in Cambridge. A month ago, thinking of celebrations of the season, we’d bought tickets to the Christmas Revels for the final night before the solstice. So even though the weekend brought a winter travel advisory and a storm dumped two feet of snow in North Carolina, canceled thousands of holiday flights up and down the Eastern seaboard, and snarled traffic in Boston, we drove down Interstate 93 Sunday afternoon in stately procession behind snow-plow convoys. We arrived in Cambridge in time to join a smaller stream of foot traffic heading across Harvard Yard to the Victorian eminence of Sanders Theater. The snow cloaked the ancient shade trees and whitened the lawns, muffling the sounds of the city just outside the gates.

We carried the quiet expectation with us into the theater, slid into high-backed benches in the balcony, below vaulted ceilings of polished walnut, and watched a show that explored our country’s variegated folk traditions. Those traditions — Shaker, Appalachian, Native American — drew on more ancient winter practices that helped human communities hold together against cold, dark, and famine, and helped them, too, hope for warmth, light, and feast. Virgil squirmed until the sword dance, after which he sat up and joined in to sing of peace and goodwill.

Walking back through the yard toward Harvard Square and its lights and bustle, Ursula and Virgil kicked up powder and pummeled us with snowballs. The winter solstice may mark the year’s shortest day, but it also gives rise to celebrations of warmth and light of all kinds.


Learn more

The Old Farmer's Almanac has a kid-friendly description of the winter solstice.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Of Neighbors and Three-Dog Nights

And I don’t mean the rock band from the ’70s... But before I explain, here’s a dogleg introduction. Yesterday, while I was thinking about wind chill and frostbite, I heard from Susan, who had read the post about snowflakes. Susan passed along a great tip for anyone who wants to feel a little bit like Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley: pre-chill a piece of black construction paper by putting it in the freezer, then bring it out to catch falling snowflakes. They’ll hold their shapes longer that way. She also said she liked how Snowflake Bentley illustrates the trait of “New England stick-to-it-iveness.”

That phrase — “New England stick-to-it-iveness” — reminded me of another fine Vermont illustrator who wrote another fine book about cold New England winters: The Five-Dog Night, by Eileen Christelow. The story follows a pair of elderly neighbors, curmudgeonly Ezra and busybody Betty, through one year on a windy New England hilltop, but the season the book lingers on, for good reason, is winter. That’s where “three-dog nights” and “five-dog nights” come in. As the chill wind begins to blow and the temperature on the hilltop drops below zero, Betty worries about her stubborn neighbor, who refuses to keep his stove running at night. When she sticks her nose in and tells him so, Ezra mutters what she considers crazy things like, “It was only a three-dog night.” If you aren’t familiar with this rural barometer of the bitterness of a winter night — where you need one, two, three, or even five dogs on your bed to keep you warm — you won’t easily forget it after reading Christelow’s delightful book.

Our children love the dogs and the story that shows adults arguing and being stubborn. I love the independence and pride of the book’s two elderly characters and the deft and completely realistic way that Christelow shows their growing friendship. Perseverance, inventiveness, and humor — all components of that famed Yankee stick-to-it-iveness that Susan mentioned. It’s a good trait to have any time of year.

That said, I think it’s going to be a five-dog night tonight. . .

Learn more
The true story behind the story and more.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Baby, it’s cold outside...

The thermometer outside our kitchen window said 18 degrees when the kids left for school this morning. The wind has picked up since then. Our local weatherman told us to expect winds between 20 and 30 miles an hour this afternoon at 2,000 feet. (We’re at 1,500 feet.) According to the Wind Chill Index on the National Weather Service website, that means that when Ursula and Virgil come home this afternoon, the wind chill temperature — the way it feels — will be somewhere between 1 and 4 degrees.

Ursula looked up the Wind Chill Index earlier this month as part of a report on cold-weather safety for her health class. She learned that the first wind chill chart was created by scientists in Antarctica who tracked air temperature, wind speed, and the effect of both on water in a plastic bottle. Scientists now track the effects of wind and cold on human subjects, but the basic notion of wind chill has stayed the same: Wind makes the cold feel colder, makes water freeze faster, and makes us freeze faster, too.

Ursula learned that our bodies have a couple of built-in defenses when we become cold. When the body first encounters cold temperatures, it shuts down (constricts) some of the blood supply to the body’s surface, which allows it to concentrate on warming the inner core, where the heart and other vital organs are located. That, along with their distance from that vital core, is why our hands and feet often give us our first signs that we’re cold.

The body’s second defense, up to a certain point (or I should say, down to a certain internal temperature) is to make us shiver. This involuntary muscular activity creates as much body heat as a slow jog or the caloric heat that comes from eating two chocolate bars.

If we don’t listen to the body’s warning signs, or if we’re unable to respond to them, we can get frostnip (superficial frostbite, usually to toes, fingers, or face), frostbite (deeper freezing of tissues), or hypothermia (our internal body temperature falls). If our core body temperature falls below 95 degrees, we stop being able to produce enough heat on our own and need other help — other people’s warmth, warm food and drink — to survive.

But there are lots of things we can do to stay safely warm in cold weather, like the tips that Ursula collected for her report:
• “If your feet are cold, put on a hat.” That old saying is true. We can lose 40% of our body heat from an uncovered head.
• Wear layers. Layers of clothing trap the warm air created by our bodies. Another old and true saying: “Wear two pants, not thicker pants.”
• Wear wind protection. Wind sweeps away that nice warm layer.
• Wear wool or polypro instead of cotton, mittens instead of gloves. Keep your boots dry and at room temperature, not the temperature outside. You can lose several degrees of body temperature just by putting on ice-cold boots.
• Eat, drink, and don’t get exhausted.
• Listen to what your body is telling you. Go inside to warm up!

Thursday and Friday it’s supposed to be even colder here, down around zero degrees, and also windy. If the breeze is even 15 miles an hour, the wind chill will be –19. That's 19 degrees below zero. The wind chill chart identifies a risk of frostbite after 30 minutes of exposure in such conditions. Ursula’s school keeps students indoors when either the air temperature or the wind chill drops below 10 degrees, so I think we’re looking at indoors play the rest of the week...


Learn more

The National Weather Service has an updated wind chill index and lets you enter temperature and wind speed to determine a specific wind chill.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Junior Naturalist: Snowflakes


“Under the microscope, I found that snowflakes were miracles of beauty; and it seemed a shame that this beauty should not be seen and appreciated by others. Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated.” — Wilson Bentley, 1925


Last week in school, Virgil and his second-grade classmates read Snowflake Bentley. Virgil’s teacher, Mrs. Martin, described the book this way in her weekly report to parents: “The story is about an enterprising Vermonter who in the late 1800s perfected the art of photographing ice crystals using a special camera that could magnify the images.” Mrs. Martin had Virgil and his classmates fold and cut eight-sided (octagonal) snowflakes, even though Wilson Bentley’s photographs were the first to show that snowflake crystals are six-sided (hexagonal).

People made fun of Wilson Bentley for his snowflake obsession, but he eventually became known as the world’s expert on snowflakes. Over nearly 50 years he took 5000 photomicrographs of snow crystals — an unequalled collection that continues to be studied and admired around the world. Thanks to “Snowflake” Bentley and that collection, we learned what every second-grader now knows: that no two snowflakes are alike.

More snowflake science:
• One snowflake can consist of many ice crystals. The six-pointed structure of ice crystals gives snow what scientists call an “ice skeleton” — a loose scaffolding of crystals around a relatively large volume of air. When snow falls to the ground, the air in those spaces becomes trapped beneath other layers. Newly fallen snow can be 90 to 95 percent trapped air.
• A fun and easy way to demonstrate the ratio of air to snow in a fresh snowfall is to squish a loaf of light bread down as far as possible. (Wonder Bread works great for this — it has about the ratio.) If you work hard at it, you should be able to compress the loaf into a two-inch cube.
• When we walk on new snow, it makes a crunching sound. Our weight compresses the snow, which pushes the air out of the crystals. The sound we hear is the sound of breaking crystal .... snow crystals.

Learn more
Snowflake Bentley won a Caldecott Medal for its woodcut illustrations, which were created by another famous Vermonter, Mary Azarian. The book’s website includes many links to curriculum suggestions and activities for teachers and parents.


Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Bringing in the tree


The first year we lived in this house, the year Ursula was born, Jim suggested that we celebrate our first Christmas as a family by cutting our own tree. He got directions to Uncle Tim’s Christmas Tree Farm in Canaan, one hill and four back-road miles from our house. “Uncle Tim” was Tim Lucia, a former commercial pilot who’d cleared several hilly acres of his family’s former farm and planted the sandy soil in balsam, Fraser fir, and Scotch pine.

That first year, we made a couple of wrong turns on our way to the farm, and I wasn’t in the best of holiday spirits when we turned at a hand-painted sign and picked our way up a rutted logging road to Uncle Tim’s. We bumped to a stop next to a small fire tended by Tim and his wife, LeeAnn. He handed us a bow saw and gestured to the rolling land that had once pastured livestock and was now planted in rows of trees. Look around, he told us. Take your time.

I carried Ursula in a front-pack. She bounced with pleasure as we crunched through the snow, her mittened hands holding onto mine, past trees with soft, long needles (scotch pine) and trees with short, thick needles (Fraser fir and balsam). We took our time, but eventually we chose one, and Jim crawled under the overhanging branches with the saw. Ursula and I breathed in the sweet, strong, herbal smell of fresh-cut balsam.

That began our tradition. Nearly every year since then, we’ve cut our Christmas tree together on that scrappy hill farm. When Ursula was one, LeeAnn Lucia was newly widowed, and her friends and family sat with her by the fire. We thought she might close the farm after that, but the sign went up the following year, and we kept going. Soon Ursula walked alongside us and crawled under the tree to take her turn with the saw. After Virgil was born, there were a few years where the girls upheld the family tradition, tromping through the snow and cutting down the tree, while the boys napped in the car. Each time, we waited until we had snow on the ground. Each time, we lingered, enjoying views of Mt. Cardigan on clear days and the sting of snow and wind on our faces on other days. Always, we took our time.

Two years ago, LeeAnn Lucia remarried and sold Uncle Tim’s. The new owners wanted to keep the tree farm going. They wrote letters to community organizations in Canaan, and a scout troop volunteered to take on the farm as a special project. The teenage boys and girls in the coed troop prune the trees, mow the grass between the rows, and plant seedlings. Last year, they walked the farm with a forester, who recommended that they replant with a new variety called a Canaan fir. They thought it was cool that the variety shares a name with their town.

The first snowstorm this year came through on Saturday night and left a couple of inches of snow on the ground. Sunday started out crisp and clear: perfect Christmas-tree conditions. We made a few wrong turns on the way — it’s now part of the tradition — and bumped into a parking spot next to a circle of teenagers standing around a small fire. Virgil joined us for fifteen minutes of looking and then joined the scouts in the fire’s glow while Ursula and Jim and I continued to walk the rows.

The idea of Christmas rituals is as old as the holiday, which is itself built on earlier celebrations of the winter solstice. The act of cutting down our Christmas tree every year is ritual writ small, a gradual layering of idiosyncratic details that’s meaningful only to us. On Saturday, I watched with a full heart as Ursula and Jim dragged this year’s tree, another balsam, across the snow to where Virgil and I waited. I know that traditions take time to form. We’ve taken our time over these past twelve years. At some point, our annual trip has turned into a tradition.

Learn more
Use the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s simple guide to identify common Christmas tree varieties.

Photo credit: Lisa Sacco

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Stories in the Snow: Tracking for Kids

Nicky Pizzo knows that children love a good story. So when she wants to get children excited about going outdoors, even when it’s cold, she tells them about the stories they’ll find. Pizzo, an AMC senior naturalist, says, “Winter is the best time to solve natural history mysteries.”

We may see fewer animals during the winter, but the season helps us see more evidence of their lives by showing us their tracks. A light snowfall on bare ground or on top of an icy crust provides the blank pages. Armed with a little knowledge, children can decipher the clues that animals leave.

Pizzo teaches basic tracking skills in the winter workshops she gives at Joe Dodge Lodge in Pinkham Notch. With adults, she explains the four basic mammal patterns (walker, bounder, waddler, and hopper). But her focus with children is on getting them to notice tracks, not necessarily to identify the animals that make the tracks. She likes to pose a series of detective questions to help them make educated guesses:

1. How many toes does the animal have? Moose and deer have two, dogs and cats have four, and weasels have five.

2. Does the track show claw marks? Squirrel and fox tracks show claws. (Dog tracks do, too.)

3. Is there a line in the snow? Mice sometimes leave the imprint of a tail in the snow; porcupine tails leave troughs.

4. Are the tracks spread far apart or are they close together? Answering this question tells children whether the animal is big or small and whether it was traveling quickly or slowly.

5. Do tracks go over or under downed trees? A bigger animal will go over a downed tree, while a smaller animal may choose to go under it.

6. Did the animal stop to eat?

7. Do tracks stop at a tree? A squirrel can climb a tree, Pizzo tells children, but a rabbit can't.

Even where wild animals aren’t that common, tracks can tell useful stories. “There are tricks to telling the difference between dog and cat tracks,” Pizzo says. “Dogs have pointed toes, and their tracks often show claw marks. Cat tracks are rounded and don’t show claws.” Children can remember these differences by remembering that dogs have pointed faces and cats have round heads.

Pizzo reminds children to use their ears as well as their eyes to follow animal stories. Some of these stories are romances: Owls, foxes, and coyotes, for example, mate in January and February, so even in the middle of winter, children may hear potential mates calling to each other. Pizzo suggests calling back to barred owls — “who cooks for you, who cooks for you all” — to see if they’ll return the call.

Animals also leave their marks in other ways. Pizzo has shown children how to trail a fox by following the little drops of yellow pee that the fox leaves every 20 feet or so. “That’s the fox’s business card,” she tells them. Not surprisingly, once the kids get past an initial “yuck” factor, that’s a mystery they love to solve.

Learn more

• Naturalists at AMC's Pinkham Notch Visitor Center and Highland Center will be offering free, walk-on Snowshoe Walks, including animal tracking, for kids and adults throughout the winter.
• Nicky Pizzo will be offering a program,"Life in the Cold: Exploring the Winter Environment," March 5-6 at Joe Dodge Lodge. This program is geared toward adults and looks at winter plant and animal adaptations, including animal tracks and sign.
• “Identify signs of an animal's journey” (AMC Outdoors, November 2008). Learn more about identifying animal tracks.
• Check out additional AMC winter family adventures.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Forest Kindergartens


The New York Times on Monday carried an article about a “forest kindergarten” in Saratoga Springs, New York. The new program, which started in September and has enrolled 23 children between the ages of 3 1/2 and 6, emphasizes outdoor play. The children spend the bulk of their school days in a woodland park that the state has leased to their school, the Waldorf School of Saratoga Springs. The school also leases a farmhouse in the wooded property with a kitchen, dining area, and play space, but the children's main classroom has no walls and only sky for a roof. On the day that the Times reporter and photographer joined the class, the children played in a steady rain, apparently with undiminished pleasure.

Forest kindergartens began in Denmark in the 1950s and have steadily grown in popularity in northern Europe. Studies of children who attend Germany’s 450 Waldkindergartens point to benefits in better concentration, less aggression, and fewer illnesses. When children from these forest kindergartens go to primary school, teachers observe that they perform better in reading, writing, mathematics, and social interactions, compared to other students.

Waldorf schools, which have their roots in Europe, share a strong belief in the importance of outdoor play and in the connection between imagination, perseverance, and curiosity and the type of free play that was on display the other day in the Saratoga woods.

Our country has been selective in looking to Europe for its educational ideas, but this is one idea I’d like to see take hold. It adds to a growing body of evidence that the great outdoors helps make great kids.

Learn more
A 2006 article from The Guardian (UK) about the Secret Garden nursery school in Scotland.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.