How to Build a Connection with Nature in Your Homeschool

Nature study has always been a major focus in our homeschool. In fact, throughout their primary and early elementary years, nature study was primarily the only science we covered.

While easily accessible, nature study incorporates so much more than just the study of plants and animals in our backyard. It can include the study of weather and climate patterns, even ocean currents and tides.

To help you kick off the new school year with gusto, I am giving away a basket load of wonderful nature study goodies that I know you and your kids will absolutely love.

How We Approach Nature Study

I try to incorporate a nature lesson each week. This begins with spending quality time outdoors. With a tween and teen, this basically means we go for hikes or evening walks as a family. When they were younger, however, it meant playing in the creek near the lake, building imaginary worlds in the backyard, and even climbing trees.

Foraging for Mushrooms: A Wild Edibles Nature Study @EvaVarga.net

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. Your purchase at these retailers helps to support my family.

Read my post Keeping a Nature Journal to learn how to get started in just 5 simple exercises. I’ve written more extensively about How We Approach Nature Study but how it is done is less important than just getting outside and exploring the world. Here are a few of our lessons from the past:

Here are some Summer Nature Activities to get you started before school begins next month.

nature journaling

If you would like to take it a little further or if you have an older child, consider learning about a master naturalist like Anna Botsford Comstock, Jane Goodall, or Carolus Linneaus.

For classroom or home educators, I also teach an extensive class on Nature Journaling in the Classroom if you’d like more guidance or are interested in earning course credit.

Nature BasketNature Study Giveaway

As promised, this basket of goodies is sure to delight you and your kids. I have included several of our favorite field identification books, a practical guide to discovering the natural world, and an outdoor workbook for families and classrooms. The contents of the basket are worth over $90!   

The Nature Connection by Claire Walker Leslie ($15.95)

The Practical Naturalist from DK Publishing ($22.95)

National Audubon Society Pocket Guide: Familiar Birds of Sea and Shore ($9.00)

National Audubon Society Pocket Guide: Familiar Birds of Lakes and Rivers ($9.00)

Tree Finder: A Manual for Identification of Trees by Their Leaves by May Theilgaard Watts ($5.95)

Rocky Mountain Tree Finder by Tom Watts ($5.95)

Millie & Cyndi’s Pocket Nature Guides:

Painted Ladies of North America ($7.95)
Hummers: Hummingbirds of North America($7.95)
Talons: North American Birds of Prey($7.95)

 

Bonus: NaturExplorers Incredible Creeks eBook ($8.95) … to be sent separately

Enter to Win This Bundle

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Back to Homeschool Gift Baskets

But Wait! That is not all ~ 52 homeschool bloggers have joined together to provide one massive back-to-homeschool basket giveaway! Take a peek around these 52 sites and enter to win as many baskets as you like.

Gift Baskets 2016 CollageEach blogger is conducting her own giveaway, so you never know. You may end up winning more than one! All giveaways will be live on Monday, August 15.

Wildlife Biology for Middle School: Develop Skills with Animal Cams

animalbehaviorWildlife Biologists are scientists that observe and study the behaviors of animals. They frequently observe the features of certain wildlife and determine the role these animals have in their specific ecosystems. Many Wildlife Biologists specialize into a particular area of study defined by ecosystem or species. Some of these fields include: Entomology (insects), Ichthyology (fish), Ornithology (birds), or Marine Biology.

Youth interested in learning more about animals and the study of wildlife can learn a great deal from the comfort of their home via a webcam. Though limited in scope, animal cams can provide a glimpse into the lives of animals and are one tool to help develop our understanding of animal behavior.

I have compiled a list of some of my favorite animal cams from around the world. Take time to browse them all or utilize the printables I’ve provided below to develop a more in-depth wildlife biology study on your favorite animal.

ethologyOur Favorite Animal Cams

Birds

Bald Eagles

Location: Decorah, Iowa
Best time to watch: Eggs may begin hatching between March 25 and March 29 based on a 35 to 39 day incubation period.

The Decorah bald eagles nest atop a large white oak tree in a secluded valley. Their eggs hatch roughly 35 days after they are first laid, which means that three eggs within the nest right now are due any time now.

Location: Turtle Bay Eagle Cam (Redding, California)

We became captivated by this breeding pair when we first moved to Redding in 2011. The female Bald eagle has successfully fledged 14 eaglets and in 2015 had 3 youngsters in the nest!  This is not the first time she has done this, as she did the same in 2009 and 2010.  Only 5% of Bald eagles successfully lay and fledge three eaglets. Though this animal cam is currently offline (the eagle pair have moved), their story is fascinating.

Hummingbirds

Location: La Verne, California
Best time to watch: March (chicks are hatching any minute)

Bella the Hummingbird has been nesting for more than 10 years. Her nest is about the size of a golf ball, and her eggs are only about the size of a mint. Every spring she lays eggs and a couple weeks later the world watches new life being born. This year, she last laid her eggs on the 6th and 8th of March. When I checked in with her as I wrote this post, they’d recently hatched.

Great Horned Owls

Location: Montana
When will you see babies? Due in roughly 2-3 weeks.

The Montana owlets are due two or three weeks from now. Since owls are nocturnal, this is a live feed worth checking out later at night when the other animal cams have little or no activity.

Spotted Owls

Location: High Desert Museum (Bend, Oregon)

When we lived in Bend, the spotted owl pair at the High Desert Museum were receiving a lot of media attention. It had previously been believed that Spotted Owls required old growth forest to survive yet here were a rehabilitated pair who had successfully reared several consecutive clutches of chicks. Sadly, I believe the owl cam is presently offline.

Penguins

Location: Aquarium of the Pacific (Long Beach, California)
Best time to watch: All the time.

The above the water cam shows the edge of the rocky beach, where penguins hop in and out of the water. You can watch as they swim and float on the surface. They also have a below the water cam to view the penguins as they dive and dart below the surface.

Mammals

Bears

Location: Katmai National Park, Alaska
Best time to watch: In July when their babies are born.

A mama bear and her three bear cubs is what you’ll get if you tune into the Brooks Falls animal cam, which features big shaggy brown bears catching fish, wading around, and just generally having a good time in Alaska’s Katmai National Park. Since bear cubs are only due in July, this cam currently hosts a continual stream of highlights gathered from several live cams.

Manatees

Location: Blue Spring State Park (Maitland, Florida)
Best time to watch: Winter and early Spring
We first discovered the Save the Manatees Club when we were planning a family holiday to the Florida Keys. Though the manatee season has ended, favorite clips are still accessible. The live cams will resume again next season.

Sea Otters

Location: Monterey Bay Aquarium (Monterey, California)

You can watch sea otters here from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Pacific Time. Daily feeding times are 10:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m., 3:30 p.m. And who knows? Maybe you’ll spot an otter pup somewhere in there.

Sloths

Location: Atlanta, Georgia

This sloth cam, part of Zoo Atlanta, lets you become virtual best friends with two-toed sloth Cocoa, his lady friends Okra and Bonnie, and baby sloth Raisin. Though it’s currently offline, you can still log in at 1:30 pm ET every other Wednesday for sloth chats.

Reindeer

Location: “North Pole”
Best time to watch: Holiday season
Reindeer who aren’t employed by St. Nick live in the colder climates of North America and Europe where they feast on a diet of moss, leaves, and grass. They are sometimes referred to as Caribou in Canada.

Fish

Sea Dragons

Location: Aquarium of the Pacific (Los Beach, California)

Found only in Australian coastal waters, Sea Dragons are bony fish related to seahorses, pipefish, and seamoths.

Invertebrates

Jellyfish

Location: Aquarium of the Pacific (Los Beach, California)

Few things are more calming than watching these serene, colorful jellyfish float their lives away.

Ecosystems

Kelp Forest

Location: Monterey Bay Aquarium (Monterey, California)

Watch this underwater kelp forest cam to see an astonishing array of diverse fish and invertebrates. If you’re lucky, you’ll see a wolf-eel chow down on a squid or some fish.

Coral Reef

Location: National Aquarium (Baltimore, MD)

African Savanna

Mpala Live – Meet the animals that roam Mpala in Kenya’s Laikipia area. Their website also provides field guides, lesson plans, and activities that you can download free to get more out of your viewing.

~ ~ ~

For a comprehensive collection of animal webcams, visit Live Animals TV, the world’s largest collection of animal webcams.

wildlifebiologyWildlife Biology Lesson Plans & Printables

I have put together a simplified ethogram or inventory of behaviors and actions exhibited by an animal. The free printable will be available for my newsletter subscribers later this week. Take a moment to subscribe today. It will be available only for a limited time.

Most aquariums, zoos, and wildlife centers around the country have developed activity guides and animal observation lessons. You’ll find curriculum and materials for many of the animal cams shared above at the original host site. Many of these can be modified for use with animal cams as well as during your site visit. Browse their education links to see what you can find.

e·thol·o·gy
noun: ethology
  1. the science of animal behavior.
    • the study of human behavior and social organization from a biological perspective.

The Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, Illinois provides a wonderful Zoo Observation Data Sheet whereby students use an ethogram-based data sheet to record animal behavior. Thereafter, students use the data they have collected to develop their own animal behavior research project. Their materials can be adapted to wildlife viewing locations around the world.

You may also wish to download this very informative Animal Behavior slide show presentation to become familiar with the range of animal behavior and understand the methods that ethologists use to study animal behavior.

 

Summer Nature Activities

With summer in full swing, family vacations may already be a treasured memory, or a much-anticipated pleasure. In Northern California, a family holiday often means a trip to a lake, creek, or river.

summer natureWhether your summer holiday is still fresh in your memory or an adventure you are all yet looking forward to, I thought I would pass along some resources for turning your outdoor nature experiences into art and writing opportunities.

Summer Nature Activities

If you have additional suggestions, please let us know. Leave a comment here or post your suggestion on my Facebook page. I hope you and your children have wonderful nature encounters.

 

The Ultimate Guide to Studying Insects

For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by insects. I have curated an insect collection of my own for years and I love sketching them in my nature journal.

Insects are all around us and their abundance makes them the perfect introduction to the world of zoology. Studying insects is a wonderful experience for upper grades to begin using the taxonomic binomial naming system for the first time.

ultimate guide insects

An Introduction to Insects or Basic Entomology

Insects belong to the phylum Arthropoda. As such, they have a hard exoskeleton which they molt several times as they grow, bilateral symmetry, and jointed appendages (legs and antennae).  The arthropod phylum is the largest in the animal kingdom – more arthropods than any other animal.

The phylum can be further divided into four classes:  Insects – 3 pairs of legs, Arachnids (spiders & mites) – 4 pairs of legs, Crustaceans (crabs & lobsters) – 5 pairs of legs, and Millipedes & Centipedes.

If you are looking for a fun, hands-on curriculum for upper elementary or middle school students, I have compiled a number of my favorite lesson plans in a unit study approach, Introductory Entomology. Through hands-on activities, real life simulations, and multi-media presentations this six-week unit incorporates more than 10 entomology lessons and suggested extension activities.

I have also gathered a number of great resources and lesson plan ideas from across the web to provide you with the ultimate guide to studying insects.  You’ll most assuredly find inspiration and activities galore – many of which include free notebooking printables. The following list should get you started on your insect studies:

  • Bug Collecting – A step-by-step guide to collecting bugs and insects
  • Adventures with Insects & Critters – All about collecting and keeping insects and other small critters
  • Conduct an Insect Survey – Collect data to calculate the diversity of insects; includes a free notebooking printable
  • Aquatic Science: Spring Pond Study – Get the kids outside equipped with a small wash tub, an ice-cube tray, and this free download to investigate aquatic critters
  • BugScope – Provides free interactive access to a scanning electron microscope so that students can explore the world of insects
  • Integrated Pest Management – One of the lessons in my Introductory Entomology unit engages kids in a cooperative learning, simulated experience
  • Keep a journal of your observations – See Cicada for a spectacular example
  • The Xerces Society – A nonprofit that protects wildlife through the conservation of invertebrates and their habitat. Find a wealth of insect resources on their website.

When teaching about insects in middle school, I feel it is important to introduce them to the use of a dichotomous key and to provide ample opportunity to practice classification skills. I put together a PowerPoint presentation to introduce kids to the differences between insect orders. You can download the presentation here:  Insect Classification.

damselflyIn addition to the broad resources I have shared above, I have also compiled a number of hands-on activities specific to insect orders.  You may wish to study insects one order at a time or perhaps you have a budding coleopterists (an entomologist who specializes in the study of beetles) in your family.  The links provided here are grouped according to the most common insect orders:

Lepidoptera:

Hymenoptera:

Odonata:

Orthoptera:

Hemiptera:

  •  Links coming soon

Other:

june beetle noseLiterature Connections & Lapbooks


There are numerous non-fiction books about insects.  One of my favorite books is a book of poems by Paul Fleishman, Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices. Written to be read aloud by two voices – sometimes alternating, sometimes simultaneous – this collection of 14 poems celebrates the insect world, from the short life of the mayfly to the love song of the book louse.

While I highly recommend the print version for the gorgeous illustrations by Eric Beddows, I also recommend the audio version – particularly if poems written for two voices is unfamiliar to you. Upon listening to this book, my kids delighted in creating insect poems of their own.

In my quest to share with you the best of the best, I came across a few wonderful posts that are perfect for younger siblings:

Citizen Science

There are numerous opportunities for people of all ages to explore insects and contribute to real, ongoing research.

caterpillar

Field Trips & Excursions

Many zoos and aquariums have special exhibits that feature insects.  I’ve highlighted a few here but be sure to contact natural history museums and zoos in your local area.  While smaller venues may not have a permanent exhibit, they may feature insect exhibits periodically in their rotation.

Career Opportunities

Students in upper grades may already have an idea that a career in biology or zoology is in their future.  Some may be interested in collecting insects and not realize that their hobby can actually be a possible career.  If you are interested in learning more about the possible career options in entomology, read my post Science Career Options: Entomology Careers.

Insect Hotels: Nesting Habitat for Mason Bees

The plight of the honey bee and other pollinators is of concern to me.  Insect hotels or habitat for insects is the perfect project for our Roots & Shoots group to show care and concern for animals.  It was also a great introduction  to service learning for my STEM Club kids.  I thereby invited both groups to join us for a day of insect revelry.

I began by introducing the kids to the Mason bee, the common name for a species of bees in the genus Osmia, of the family Megachilidae (Blue Orchard and Hornfaced the best known species). They are so named for their habit of making compartments of mud in their nests, which are made in hollow reeds or holes in wood made by wood-boring insects.

Unlike honey bees (Apis) or bumblebees, Osmia are solitary; every female is fertile and makes her own nest, and there are no worker bees for these species. The bees emerge from their cocoons in the spring, with males the first to come out. They remain near the nests waiting for the females. When the females emerge, they mate. The males die, and the females begin provisioning their nests.

Osmia females like to nest in narrow holes or tubes, typically naturally occurring tubular cavities. Most commonly this means hollow twigs, but sometimes abandoned nests of wood-boring beetles or carpenter bees, or even snail shells. They do not excavate their own nests. The material used for the cell can be clay or chewed plant tissue. One species (Osmia avosetta) in the palearctic ecozone is known for lining the nest burrows with flower petals.

Females then visit flowers to gather pollen and nectar. Once enough provisions have been gathered, she backs into the hole and lays an egg. Then she creates a partition of “mud”, which doubles as the back of the next cell. The process continues until she has filled the cavity. Female-destined eggs are laid in the back of the nest, and male eggs towards the front. Once a bee has finished with a nest, she plugs the entrance to the tube, and then may seek out another nest location.

By summer, the larva has consumed all of its provisions and begins spinning a cocoon around itself and enters the pupal stage. The adult matures either in the fall or winter, hibernating inside its protective cocoon. Most Osmia species are found in places where the temperature drops below 0°C for long durations, like Canada, and they are well adapted to cold winters.

insecthotelsBuild It & They Will Come

Maintaining Mason bee habitats or insect hotels can be a simple, yet powerful way for people of all ages to intimately connect with the awesomeness of nature. Mason bees don’t sting unless they’re squashed or squeezed so they’re kid and pet friendly and don’t require protective clothing or training to work with. Since they’re sociable but solitary, there’s no need to coax colonies into complex forms. A well-designed and well-built habitat with ample nearby pollen sources will naturally attract mason bees, can allow intimate year-round observation of their lifecycle, and especially for teachers, parents and community garden programs be a powerful real-world teaching tool.

Mason bees are increasingly cultivated to improve pollination for early spring flowers. They are used sometimes as an alternative, but more often alongside European honey bees. Most mason bees are readily attracted to nesting holes; reeds, paper tubes, or nesting trays. Drilled blocks of wood are an option, but do not allow one to harvest the bees, which is vital to control a build-up of pests.

I found the post, Housing Mason Bees at Bees, Birds, & Butterflies particularly useful as I researched the how-tos for building insect hotels.  You can also purchase pre-made insect hotels from a variety of sources.  For example, Esschert Design Bee House. The kids had a great time building their own and it allowed their creativity to show.  Most of the kids recycled materials (soup cans, two liter bottles, etc.) to create a cylinder to hold bamboo and paper tubes. Many of the kids stated they wanted to build a wooden frame around their tubes and planned to finish their projects at home.

Attract Pollinators with Native Plants

To help bees and other pollinating insects (butterflies) you should provide a range of plants that will offer a succession of flowers, pollen, and nectarthrough the whole growing season. Patches of foraging habitat can be created in many different locations, from backyards and school grounds to golf courses and city parks. Even a small area planted with the right flowers will be beneficial those with small yards shouldn’t hesitate to do their part.

  • Use local native plants.
  • Choose several colors of flowers; particularly attractive to bees are blue, purple, violet, white, and yellow.
  • Plant flowers in clumps.
  • Include flowers of different shapes. Bees are all different sizes, have different tongue lengths, and will thereby feed on different shaped flowers. 
  • Have a diversity of plants flowering all season.

Contact your local extension agency to learn what plants are native to your area.  You may also find useful fact sheets provided by The Xerces Society.

Additional books & resources:

Homegrown Learners

Our Local Bald Eagles: Liberty, Patriot, & Spirit

It wasn’t long after our move to northern California that we learned of Liberty and Patriot, the two iconic bald eagles that had began nesting near the Sun Dial Bridge in Redding in 2004. The two eagles have touched the hearts of Shasta County residents and a live webcam was installed in a tree adjacent to their nest so that the community could peak in on them each year. Many in the community have also stood behind the pair when Turtle Bay expressed interest in building a motel on the property where their nest resides. 

Bald Eagles
Each year the birds return, Liberty lays her eggs, and the pair migrates in July after their eaglets have fledged. In 2013, however, their story took a dramatic and somewhat surprising twist, as Patriot disappeared in March and a third eagle entered the picture, killing two of the couple’s freshly hatched eaglets.

Patriot returned in April but died in May after fighting with another male, whom some believe is Liberty’s new mate, Spirit, who joined her in the fall.  Liberty laid her first egg with Spirit earlier this month. When we observed them on Friday, we were able to see Liberty move about in her nest with the aide of a spotting scope. However, we didn’t see Spirit during our stay.

bald eagle

Bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) are native only to North America. Our national symbol nearly became extinct in the 1970s, with only 419 known nesting paris in the lower 48 states. Thanks to legal protection and education, as of 2007 there were 13,000 nesting pairs. Shasta Lake, in northern California, is the most densely populated breeding spot with 22 pairs. In July 2007, bald eagles were removed from the Endangered Species List, but remain protected by other legislation.

  • Ninety percent of the bald eagle’s diet consists of fish, living or dead. They are at the top of the food chain. Humans are their only threat.
  • Bald eagles don’t get their distinctive white head and tail until they reach maturity between three and five years. Juveniles are solid brown and are often mistaken for golden eagles.
  • Nesting pairs mate for life and will continue to add on to the same nest year after year. The largest recorded nest is 30 years old and weighs over two tons.

Upon our return home, the kids illustrated an eagle in their nature journals as I read aloud some of the past news reports about the birds.  I also shared with them the facts above and they were encouraged to add these to their journal.

If you are interested in learning more about birds, read my post Bird Anatomy where you will find free printables and access to a PowerPoint Presentation.

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Submitted to the Outdoor Hour Challenge at the Handbook of Nature Study.