Sedges Have Edges :: Nature Study

We went to the museum again for our weekly nature walk… though, the weather was a little chilly and due to a slight miscommunication in scheduling, our walk didn’t get put on the interpretive talks / animal encounter schedule until a just a few moments before we were to begin. Alas, it was just the 3 of us, allowing us time to practice and focus more on the challenge for last week’s Green Hour Challenge

I decided to focus on tree buds (as I knew it would be do-able in the field with lots of kids – should they come) and they would be able to extend the activity easily at home. Before we departed, I jotted down some notes and made a quick sketch in my journal to label the parts of a typical branch.When we started on our walk, we headed directly to the pond. In Central Oregon, the Ponderosa Pine and Junipers dominate… so I knew the best place for deciduous trees on the museum grounds would be near the pond.

We spent a few minutes watching the trout, a turtle and a Canada Goose before we turned our focus to ‘Signs of Spring’. Each of the kids pointed out trees that had buds on them. I told them that spring also brought out resident birds in search of nesting sights, migrating birds stopping by for a rest and a meal, and the rushes and grasses would send up new green shoots. They were quickly able to find evidence of new sedges growing up along the banks of the pond.

I shared with them a poem I used to teach my 4th graders:

“Sedges have edges,
Rushes are round,
Grasses have bumps all the way to the ground.”

We then took a small branch clipping so we could look more closely at the buds inside. It was uncomfortably cold out and I knew they wouldn’t be able to focus much longer outdoors. When we got back inside, they each climbed up on a bench and pulled out the small loupes to take a closer look at their discovery.

I encouraged them to sketch their branch in their nature journals. I was confidant Sweetie would have no difficulty but she struggled a little with the right technique. She wanted to trace the entire branch and was frustrated the branch was larger than her journal. I made a few suggestions and she was underway.

Buddy, on the other hand, surprised me. He doesn’t normally color or sketch anything! But he got right to it and completed his sketch in just a few minutes. Needless to say, I was impressed that he got even a slight resemblance (he’s done nothing but scribble before now). He is a little budding artist, too! (yes, the pun was intended).

I, myself, didn’t get a chance to sketch a single bud. Though I did bring home the clippings we took and I made a few notes. We’ll come back to our journals again tomorrow.



Distractions on a Roller Coaster

The past two weeks have found us in a slump, once again. It seems that just as we get on a roll and are engaged in a variety of learning activities, something will come about that pulls us off track. I can’t really pin point any one thing in particular… sometimes it is just my own enthusiasm or lack thereof. I feel I should work on that but then again, it is nice to relax once in a while, too. To let everyone have a chance to absorb everything and rejuvenate themselves for the next ride up.

Theresa at La Paz Farm recently wrote about an article she read in regards to inspiration and reassurance. Her post was very timely and I immediately ventured forth to read the article in its entirety. The following excerpt really spoke to me and helped me to accept that what I am doing is the right thing for us.

4. Consider everything educational. We must stop dividing the world into activities that we deem educational and activities we deem not. Everything we do – whether we call it work, play, veg time, or study – has value. Their minds are growing and processing information, each at a particular and unique rate and process. Don’t panic when all they do is play. Look intensely at that play and know that there is value in it.

When I first declared my intent to homeschool my children, my friends and family would comment, “You’ll do so well. After all, you are a teacher.” Alternatively, they would say, “Oh, I couldn’t do that. I don’t have the skill or the patience.” I have to admit that I always feel a little twinge of uneasiness when I hear this. Being a teacher isn’t a guarantee for success. There are many successful homeschooling families that do not have a teacher leading the way. In fact, I don’t feel that I am leading the way at all. I want the kids to take the helm.

5. Let them lead, but don’t be afraid to offer some direction. Just because we have decided not to set the agenda, doesn’t mean we, as parents, are without good ideas. It’s okay to introduce new topics and ideas for daily activities, but also be prepared to change course and let go when our ideas are not well received. If it was a really good idea (in your mind) go ahead and do it yourself, without the kids.

A Standards Based Education tells everyone—students, parents, teachers, and administrators—what all students are expected to know and be able to do at specified grade levels. Oregon has developed academic content standards in English/ language arts, English language proficiency, mathematics, science, social sciences, physical education, health education, second language, and the arts. As a former teacher, I am very familiar with these standards. On the other hand, I don’t feel that the cookie-cutter educational system is what is right for my children.

Here is another post by Theresa at La Paz Farm that puts my thoughts into a historical perspective. I couldn’t agree more. As the world becomes smaller, it is becoming increasingly apparent that my own education was lacking, particularly in the areas of the classics and world history. I think we covered the American Revolution in fifth grade but we didn’t touch upon it again.

The current trend of environmental education is lacking the truth that in order for one to feel compelled to protect the environment, one must first have first-hand experiences in nature. A love for the outdoors. With our societal fears of lawsuits and stranger-danger, children are less often exposed to the world at large and more frequently their entertainment is largely based on technology (television, portable DVDs, game systems, etc.). This is one of the biggest reasons why I desperately want to continue to provide my children with the experiences we have doing living history… but that is subject for a future post.

For more on this topic, read Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv or my previous post on the same topic.

Taking the Pledge to Pack – Decorating Canvas Bags

Yesterday afternoon, our Roots & Shoots club gathered to enjoy one another’s company while decorating canvas bags. It was part of a global effort to reduce our use of plastic.  Most of the girls enjoyed the activity and were focused for nearly 45 minutes on their bags… the boys on the other hand, were more interested in burning off excess energy. Amazing how boys and girls differ so much in this regard.

I had stencils & fabric paints readily available and as the children worked on their bags (everyone brought their own), I talked about the purpose of the activity (to reduce our use of disposable paper and plastic bags). Through a little research, we have learned that the production of both paper and plastic bags uses a tremendous amount of natural resources. There are pros and cons to both materials and thereby the “greenish” choice is to use re-usable bags or baskets (canvas, hemp or other natural fibers).

When the children had completed their bags and while we waited for the paint to dry, I had activity stations set up in the kitchen to allow the children an opportunity to explore how a bird’s beak/bill is specially adapted to eating specific foods. I found the activity in Ranger Rick’s Nature Scope Birds, Birds, Birds! activity book. I also found an adaptation available here a a PDF download, Fill the Bill.

It was a great hands-on activity extension to our nature study focus area on birds. Earlier that morning, I also did a read-aloud from our Wildlife Fact File on “How Birds Build Nests”. I’m loving our new home school schedule! 🙂

Sugaring Time: Making Our Own Maple Syrup

A month or so ago, while Sweetie was enjoying her pancake breakfast, she inquired about how they make maple syrup. I explained the process to her as best I could from memory and as I concluded she asked if we could try to make some ourselves.  I assured her that we could. That in fact, her Papa J was an expert on making your own syrup.

It’s Sugaring Time!

I pulled out an article he wrote for his company newsletter years ago in which he described his experiment tapping Big Leaf Maple, Alder, and Wild Cherry trees in the Willamette Valley. We gave him a call and he shared a little more about his experience tapping Maple trees. We talked about getting together with him but travel and work obligations just didn’t cooperate. We would just have to play it by ear and see what developed.

A few days later, we met up with him for a birthday dinner and he presented us with the taps. “You’re in luck, Sweetie. The weather the past few days has been just right for tapping trees,” Papa said. “You’ll just need to find some over there in Central Oregon.”

Making Our Own Maple Syrup

By sure luck, as I was explaining this endeavor to my girlfriend, she mentioned that her grandmother had a Sugar Maple in her yard. “I’m always having to rake her leaves in the fall!” she exclaimed, and she gave us permission to tap it.

We tapped it on Monday around 12:30 p.m. and within a few hours we had collected nearly 1 liter! I was actually surprised with how quickly it started to flow. Unfortunately, the weather has since changed and the flow has slowed significantly.

The bottle was in place for just a couple of days as we had a bit of a cold spell and the sap flow had slowed significantly. We were fortunate though to collect nearly a 1/2 gallon of sap from that one tree. As we wanted to do the experiment with Papa, we stored the sap in the refrigerator and waited until he came to visit.

Papa came over a week later and we got to boiling down the sap we had collected previously. You can see in the photo, that the sap has just come to boil… from that point, it took about an hour and a half to finish the process. Unfortunately, we yielded only about 1 tablespoon of syrup but it was so yummy! While they waited, Papa read a book about Maple Sugaring to Sweetie and thereafter, they spent the rest of the evening drawing.

Fortunately, in the weeks that followed, we were also able to locate several other trees and obtained permission to tap those as well.  As the weather was more conducive to tapping in the following weeks, we employed 8 taps and collected enough sap to yield a greater quantity – enough to enjoy on our pancakes!

Thank you, Dad, for sharing your experience with me. Your love of nature has certainly shaped who I am as a woman and is a major part of why I chose to home school the kids.

Maple Syrup Unit Study

We covered a variety of topics associated with maple syrup such as:  trees to tap, parts of a Maple tree, where maple syrup is produced, tapping tools, maple syrup products, the maple syrup process and even more.  It was a great week of fun learning.  Here are a few of the resources we used throughout our study:


For a unit study on maple sugar, Little House in the Big Woods, is the perfect book. Told from four-year-old Laura’s point of view, the story begins in 1871 in a little log cabin on the edge of the Big Woods of Wisconsin and includes chapters devoted specifically to sugaring time.

Little House in the Big Woods is the first book in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s treasured Little House series, which was based on her life growing up as an American pioneer. You might also be interested in the complete Laura Ingalls Wilder set that includes: Little House in the Big Woods, Little House on the Prairie, Farmer Boy, On the Banks of Plum Creek, By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, These Happy Golden Years, and The First Four Years.

Hidden away since the 1930s, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s never-before-published autobiography, Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, reveals the true stories of her pioneering life. Some of her experiences will be familiar; some will be a surprise. Pioneer Girl re-introduces readers to the woman who defined the pioneer experience for millions of people around the world.

With this heavily annotated edition, with maps and appendices that enrich the text, readers can revel in her memories of her family and their pioneer life from 1869 to 1888 in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and the Dakota Territory.

The Little House Cookbook: Frontier Foods from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Classic Stories by Barbara M. Walker is far from just a cookbook, it’s about a way of life that was a hard existence, but one that many of us dream of. Whether you are already a “Little House” fan, or are new to the series, this book can be enjoyed by all “wanna-be 1800’s pioneer women.”

It includes more than 100 recipes introducing the foods and cooking of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s pioneer childhood, chronicled in her classic Little House books. This is not just a cookbook, it’s an interactive history book, and an in-depth analysis of Laura Wilder’s Little House books.

We also enjoyed:

The Maple Syrup Book by Marilyn Linton

Sugaring Time by Kathryn Lasky

Sugarbush Spring by Marsha Wilson Chall

Memory Work

From where I lingered in a lull in March
outside the sugar-house one night for choice,
I called the fireman with a careful voice
And bade him leave the pan and stoke the arch:
‘O fireman, give the fire another stoke,
And send more sparks up chimney with the smoke.’
I thought a few might tangle, as they did,
Among bare maple boughs, and in the rare
Hill atmosphere not cease to glow,
And so be added to the moon up there.
The moon, though slight, was moon enough to show
On every tree a bucket with a lid,
And on black ground a bear-skin rug of snow.
The sparks made no attempt to be the moon.
They were content to figure in the trees
As Leo, Orion, and the Pleiades.
And that was what the boughs were full of soon.

~ Robert Frost


We created one of our first lapbooks, Maple Syrup, as a part of our unit study. This free download covers the how-to of sugaring very well.  There are mini-books for the tools and equipment, the process of tapping trees, what trees can be tapped, and science experiments.


  • Tree Ring Diagram (from Arbor Day) provides a description of tree layers. As the kids are young, our focus was on understanding there are layers to the tree and that the sap runs in the one called sapwood.


Our Iditarod Unit Study – A Summary of Our Activities

We have recently completed our unit study on the Iditarod Sled Dog Race. We enjoyed learning about the Arctic and the history of the race. We also enjoyed charting the progress of our mushers each day and learning more about sled dog racing. This post serves as a summary of the many activities we incorporated. I owe many thanks to the homeschooling families that preceded me and posted their activities on their own blogs. They are an invaluable resource and I turned to them most frequently as I planned our own activities. Sweetie also enjoyed looking at their blogs and would occasionally ask if she could also do one or more of the activities they shared.


Math – We printed musher stat sheets to record the progress of each musher. We also created probability graphs for this years participants. I walked Sweetie through the calculations and we used tiles to create a visual to represent each group. I didn’t expect her to understand much of the process but I wanted to at least expose her to circle graphs and probability. I was very surprised when DH came home that evening and she excitedly narrated what each graph represented and who she predicted would have the best chance of winning. She remembered what each graph represented and what the numbers were communicating. I was very pleased. iditarod unit studyArt & Handcrafts – We studied the artwork of Pacific Northwest Indians and Inuits. We still working on a carving a family totem pole in rock (more on that later). We carved Arctic animals in ivory soap. Sweetie created watercolor paintings of Balto, Arctic Wolves, and an Aurora Borealis.

Science – We watched a few movies about the Arctic. Sweetie made a coloring book about the animals from Alaska. Buddy sorted pictures of Arctic Animals with Sweetie’s help. We joined our COOL friends for a guided snow shoe walk. The walk was led by naturalist volunteers with the Forest Service and they pointed out many things in relation to winter adaptations, the water cycle and climate.

History / Social Studies – We added the Serum Run and inaugural Iditarod to our Book of Centuries. We learned how the musher prepares for the race, including the supplies needed, clothing, food and equipment. Sweetie made a model of a dog sled with Popsicle sticks and labeled the parts of the team. We scanned the newspaper for articles about the Iditarod. As a family, we enjoyed a REAL sled dog ride near Mt.Bachelor.

Geography – Created a wall map with all the checkpoints marked. We checked on the progress of each of our mushers daily and marked their location on the map. We discussed the climate and other characteristics of several of the checkpoints.

Language Arts – We read several books about the Iditarod, the Arctic and Alaska (see resource list below). Sweetie did several pages from Draw Write Now! (Arctic Loon, Arctic Fox, Polar Bear, Walrus, and The Polar Regions). She did a few worksheets with related spelling/vocabulary words. She used many of the little books & worksheets to put together her Iditarod Lapbook.


The Bravest Dog Ever: The True Story of Balto by Natalie Standiford
Whale in the Sky by
Iditarod Spirit by Kim Heacox
No End in Sight by Rick Steber
Arctic Lights Arctic Nights by Debbie S. Miller
Woodsong by Gary Paulsen
Looking at Indian Art of the Northwest Coast by Hilary Stewart
Kiana’s Iditarod by Shelley Gill
Polar Animals by Wade Cooper
Akiak by Robert J. Blake
The Great Serum Race by Debbie S. Miller
“Iditarod” Bend Living magazine Feb 2008
Animal Survivors of the Arctic by Barbara A. Somervill
Arctic Babies by Kathy Darling

Blogs & Websites:
Official Site of the Iditarod
Martin Zoo (homeschooling family)
Toad Haven (homeschooling family)
Scholastic (lesson plans)

Free Iditarod Insider Video
Arctic & Antarctic (Eyewitness Video)
Arctic Bears (PBS Nature)
Eight Below
Snow Buddies

To see how we began our unit study, see my earlier post Our Iditarod Unit Study.

Come Gee! Come Haw! – A Sled Dog Ride to Remember

We enjoyed a spectacular morning as a family today. A sled dog ride to commemorate our unit study of the Arctic and the Iditarod. It was truly a wonderful experience and one we will never forget.

The kids had been a little nervous on the drive up to the mountain. They weren’t sure what to expect and didn’t want to be scared. I assured them it wouldn’t be scary…. that it would be similar to me pushing them in the jogging stroller only they would be pulled by dogs instead. This seemed to alleviate their concerns.

We arrived a little early so that we would have an opportunity to get to know the dogs and help with the feeding. When we arrived at the site, the dogs were tied to stakes awaiting their turn to pull the sled. They run anywhere from 1-6 tour runs a day – alternating dog teams for each. There were two teams out pulling sleds and we waited from them to return before they harnessed the dogs for the next two sleds (one for us and one for another family). The dogs were very amicable and enjoyed our caresses. One dog even put his front right paw around another woman’s leg in what resembled a hug as she was petting him.

When the dogs were brought to the tow line, they were lifted up onto their back legs and walked on two legs to the line. I asked the mushers why they did this and they explained that the dogs are strong and anxious… it is one of the first things they are taught when they start working with the dogs. It essentially takes them out of ‘4 wheel drive’ and helps assure the musher isn’t overpowered and so the dog doesn’t take off.

Twelve dogs pulled our sled… I didn’t catch the names of the Team Dogs but the others were as follows:

Lead Dogs: Pepper & Ripples
Swing Dogs: Pele & Echo
Wheel Dogs: Yoda & Joe

It was amazing to see how their personalities and experience had a huge impact on the sled. Both Pele and Echo were essentially puppies (18 and 12 months). Occasionally, Echo would get distracted and would look over his shoulder or get a little tangled in the line.

These are the same dogs that Rachael Scdoris trains with and it was great to essentially meet ‘her family’. Mushing is certainly a lifestyle – but it was nice to take a peak into that way of life, even if just for a couple of hours.Along the trail, Sweetie even asked, “Can we do this again?”

Like all organized tours, they even had a photographer to take our picture. I can’t wait to see them! 🙂

Check out my Squidoo lens The Iditarod: A Homeschool Unit Study for resources and activities to bring this historic race to life for your family.