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.

Sea Slugs, Snails, and Sea Hares, Oh My!

I love slugs! They are one of my favorite animals, particularly if limiting the scope of the question to invertebrates. In my opinion, they are one of the most beautiful and fascinating organisms.

You’re likely thinking I have lost my mind. “You really think this guy is beautiful?” 

Sea Slugs, Snails, and Sea Hares

Pictured here is the banana slug

Yes, I do. Well, actually, in my mind I was picturing his close relative the sea slug or nudibranch. This summer, I have been volunteering at the new Marine Life Center at the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology and I’ve thereby had the opportunity to learn so much about these fascinating animals. Let me introduce you to the gastropods.

Class Gastropoda 

The Gastropoda or gastropods class, more commonly known as snails and slugs, are a large taxonomic class within the phylum Mollusca. A very diverse group with 60,000 to 80,000 living species (second only to insects in number of species) that includes snails and slugs of all kinds and all sizes from microscopic to large. There are many thousands of species of sea snails and sea slugs, as well as freshwater snails, freshwater limpets, land snails and land slugs.

Sea Slugs, Snails, and Sea Hares @EvaVarga.net

How many sea slugs can you find in this picture?

The anatomy, behavior, feeding, and reproductive adaptations of gastropods vary significantly from one group to another. The class also inhabits an extraordinary diverse habitats including gardens, woodland, deserts, mountains, rivers and lakes, estuaries, mudflats, the rocky intertidal, the sandy sub-tidal, the abyssal depths of the oceans including the hydrothermal vents, and numerous other ecological niches, including parasitic ones.

Sea Slugs, Snails, and Sea Hares @EvaVarga.net

Gastropoda means the belly-foot animals

Snails & Other Shelled Gastropods

Commonly, snails are those species with a single external shell large enough that the soft parts can withdraw completely into it. Those with a shell into which they cannot withdraw are termed limpets.

The marine shelled species of gastropod include species such as abalone, conches, cowries, periwinkles, whelks, and numerous other sea snails. Each produce seashells that are coiled in the adult stage. In a number of families of species, such as all the various limpets, the shell is coiled only in the larval stage, and is a simple conical structure after that.

Sea Slugs, Snails, and Sea Hares @EvaVarga.net

Pictured here is Hermissenda crassicornis

Slugs or Gastropods Without External Shells

Those gastropods without a shell, and those with only a very reduced or internal shell, are usually known as slugs. The various families of slugs are not closely related, however, despite a superficial similarity in the overall body form.

Sea Slugs

The phrase “sea slug” is perhaps most often applied to nudibranchs and they come in an outstanding variety of shapes, colors, and sizes. With translucent bodies, they appear in just about every color on the rainbow. Of course, these bright colors are cause for warning to potential predators that they are poisonous with stinging cells. It is their colors that so fascinate me.

Like all gastropods, they have razor-sharp teeth, called radulas. Most have two pairs of tentacles on their head used primarily for sense of smell, with a small eye at the base of each tentacle. Many have feathery structures (ceratia) on the back, often in a contrasting color. These act as gills.

All species of sea slugs have a selected prey, that is specifically fitted for them to hunt. Amongst the diverse prey are jellyfish, bryozoans, sea anemones, sponges, and other various organisms including other sea slugs.

Sea Slugs, Snails, and Sea Hares @EvaVarga.net

Pictured here is Phyllaplysia taylori

Sea Hares

The sea hares, clade Aplysiomorpha, are often quite large and sometimes described as large sea slugs. They have a small, flat, internal shell composed of proteins. The name derives from their rounded shape and from the two long rhinophores that project upwards from their heads and that somewhat resemble the ears of a hare.

The greatly modified shape of the sea hare and the fact that it orients its body lengthwise along the leaves makes it almost invisible on the sea grass Zostera. An herbivore, it feeds by grazing the film of organisms, mainly diatoms, off sea grass leaves, leaving a characteristic feeding scar on the leaves.

Take it Further

Learn more about Phyla Mollusca in my earlier post, Echinoderms and Molluscs.  You might also be interested in my in-depth zoology curriculum specifically designed for middle school students.

zoology

A Look at the Industrious Beaver: Nature’s Engineers {Middle School Unit Study}

North American Beaver (Castor Canadensis) play a critical role in the ecology of our streams. Their dams create pooling of water upstream, which creates wildlife habitat for many dozens of wetland and slow-moving water species that wouldn’t otherwise be in such riparian habitats.

These industrious mammals provide a fascinating topic for middle school science investigations. Here you will find a variety of resources and materials to engage middle schoolers in real science related to nature’s engineers, Castor canadensis.

A Look at the Industrious Beaver: Nature's Engineers (A Middle School Unit Study) @EvaVarga.net

Beaver Anatomy & Physiology

Beavers are the largest rodents in North America, and they spend most of their time in the water. To protect themselves from the cold and wetness they have waterproof reddish brown or blackish brown hair. They have small, round, brown ears, and powerful back legs for swimming. A beaver’s front legs are not as large or as strong as its back legs.

Beaver skulls and teeth are very big. The two front teeth are orange colored, and they can be up to 5 mm wide and between 20 and 25 mm long. These teeth grow throughout the animal’s life, and they are used for cutting wood. Without these teeth beavers could not cut down or eat trees and wood. Beavers also have see-through eye lids, and closable nostrils and ears for swimming underwater.

Beavers also have anal and castor glands, which they use to mark their territory. These glands are located beneath the tail. The beaver utilizes the oily secretion (castoreum) from these scent glands to also waterproof its thick fur.

The beaver has a thick layer of fat under its skin that helps keep it warm underwater. Beavers have long sharp upper and lower incisor teeth that they use to cut into trees and woody vegetation. These teeth grow throughout the beaver’s life. A beaver’s tail is broad, flat, and covered with large black scales.

A Look at the Industrious Beaver: Nature's Engineers (A Middle School Unit Study) @EvaVarga.net

Beaver Ecology & Natural History

Important natural processes, such as energy flows and chemical cycles, result from the interaction of species within a community. Food webs of trophic (trophic – pertaining to nutrition) interactions among species are one example of how multiple soil-plant, plant-plant, plant-animal, and animal-plant relationships link together within a functioning community. Some species can be highly influential in their communities, even if they occur at relatively low population densities. When the presence and actions of this species tend to form the foundation of how other species relate to each other in the community, we often call the influential plant or animal a keystone species.

“Keystone” is a metaphor equated to the stone in the middle of an arch in a building. Removal of the keystone leads to destabilization if not outright collapse of the other elements that “lean on” or depend upon that keystone.

A Look at the Industrious Beaver: Nature's Engineers (A Middle School Unit Study) @EvaVarga.netThe beaver is often cited as an example of a keystone species because through its dam-building behaviors it has major influences on both the vegetation of an area and the water table. In turn, these factors have strong influences on the abundance and quality of habitat for many other plant and animal species within the community. They engineer, or create, habitat that supports greater biodiversity that would otherwise not exist.

No other animal with the exception of man can significantly alter its habitat to suit its own needs and desires. Native Americans revered the beaver and referred to them as “Little People” for this reason.

In one of the first images of its kind, night-vision cameras recently captured photos of native beavers and invasive nutria working together to build a dam across a channel at Smith and Bybee Wetlands Natural Area in Portland, Oregon.

Beaver Unit Study Resources

Act out a short skit to teach others about the natural history of the beaver – its adaptations for its environment as well as the impact humans have had on it throughout history.

Dress up a volunteer as you learn about the structural and behavioral adaptations of beavers.

Explore the website Beavers: Wetlands & Wildlife to learn more about beavers and their impact on the ecology.

Learn about the history of the Fur Trade and Beaver Ecology including numerous Historical Source Documents.

Learn about Beavers and Climate Change Adaptation Strategies – A Report from Wild Earth Guardians.

Download the Beaver Monitoring App and help scientists study how beavers could be used as a tool for stream restoration and mitigating impacts of climate change.

Reach out to your local watershed associations to learn about watershed monitoring and restoration projects that impact beavers. How can you get involved?

Visit and observe an ecosystem created by beavers in your local area (contact Fish & Wildlife for assistance in locating a dam if you are unfamiliar). Keep a journal of your observations.

zoology

You might also be interested in my 10-week inquiry based science unit introducing middle level students to the study of animals: Zoology: Amazing Animals. Lessons include scientific classification, identifying animal tracks, ecology, and animal behavior.

 

Groovy Lanterns: A Review of a Groovy Lab Subscription Box

In June Groovy Lab in a Box teamed up with Popular Mechanics for Kids and created the popular Groovy Lab subscription box What’s the Matter? The kids and I recently had the opportunity to review this box and just love everything about it.

Groovy Lab Subscription BoxDisclosure: The links in this blog post are affiliate links. 

What’s Inside June’s Groovy Lab Subscription Box – What’s the Matter?

The first of three Popular Mechanics boxes to launch, What’s the Matter? centers around the scientific properties of ice. It is featured in the June issue of Popular Mechanics for Kids.

My son loves unpacking videos and was eager to humor me for an Instagram sneak peak. Here’s a quick look at everything that was inside the Groovy Lab subscription box

The Groovy Lab subscription box is packed with all the materials you’ll need to do the lab activities. The What’s the Matter kit guides kids through an investigation of the states of matter (gas, liquid and solid) and teaches them about the properties of ice. Each monthly kit comes with an engineering challenge and all the materials needed to complete the project, including a groovy lab notebook that outlines all the activity procedures, asks leading questions, and provides a space for your young STEMist to record their observations.Groovy Lab Subscription Box "What's the Matter?"

Groovy Lab in a Box was named a winner of the Popular Mechanics 2014 Toy Awards, which recognizes the best new toys of the year with a heavy emphasis on STEM-related skills and outdoor or imaginative play. Recipients of the Toy Awards encourage problem solving, inspire creativity, spark imagination, and spur mischief. And they’re fun!

Our Favorite What’s the Matter Activity

There are several well designed activities in the Groovy Lab subscription box. Each activity is purposeful a it develops student understanding of the material to ensure success in the culminating activity. This was our favorite activity, the design challenge whereby students were asked to design the lighting of a “groovy” ice hotel and build a portable lantern out of ice.

This was a fun challenge to undertake and my daughter delighted in brainstorming ideas and then following through with her vision. She chose an aluminum tea tin for the structure as it was rectangular and inside placed a small measuring cup (a little larger than a shot glass) for the interior space for the light. She used botanicals and colored layers for appeal.groovylanterns

There were a couple of small challenges along the way, the biggest of which was getting the lantern out of the tin once it had frozen. The rim of the tin was indented a little to accommodate a lid and it was thereby necessary to melt more of the external side of the lantern than she had desired. Not deterred, “I want to do this again!”

July’s Groovy Lab Subscription Box – Out To Launch!

Do your STEMists love catapults? The second of three Popular Mechanics boxes, July’s Out to Launch is the perfect fit for them! In the Out To Launch box, your children will learn about the forces of catapults and things that are elastic.

The Engineering Design Challenge will test their engineering skills as they build several types of catapults, using only supplies from their Groovy Lab in a Box. As always, the Out To Launch box will have a groovy lab notebook where your kids can read about the investigations and design challenge. Plus, all subscribers get access to the Beyond…in a Box web portal for additional learning and fun.

Be sure to start your subscription today with FREE SHIPPING so you can receive “Out To Launch” before it ships on July 28th. Save $10 on a 3, 6, or 12 month subscription to Groovy Lab in a Box. 

Oregon Nature Quiz – First Summer Edition

I have always loved the outdoors and enjoy sharing my passion for nature study with others. I’ve recently completed my coursework to become a certified Oregon Master Naturalist.

To celebrate, I thought it would be fun to create a little quiz to help you get to know Oregon a little better. My vision is to create a new quiz every quarter.

Oregon Nature Quiz #1

How Well Do You Know Oregon?

Here are five photos of plants and animals that are found on the Oregon Coast. Can you identify them? (Hint: All of these photos were taken on the Oregon coast)

  1. What kind of rodent is this?

mammal

2. What is this creepy looking black thing?

fungi

3. Can you name this flower?

flower

4. Is this cutie a lizard or amphibian? Can you identify the genus?

herp

5. This invertebrate is a common sight along the trails and even in our gardens. What is it? slug

Answers:

1. The California ground squirrel (Otospermophilus beeches) is pictured here on the rocky shoreline in Depoe Bay. The squirrel’s upper parts are mottled, the fur containing a mixture of gray, light brown and dusky hairs; the underside is lighter, buff or grayish yellow. The fur around the eyes is whitish, while that around the ears is black. Head and body are about 30 cm long and the tail an additional 15 cm. As is typical for ground squirrels, California ground squirrels live in burrows which they excavate themselves. Some burrows are occupied communally but each individual squirrel has its own entrance. They commonly feed on seeds, such as oats, but also eat insects such as crickets and grasshoppers as well as various fruits.

2. It is rather common in the maritime Pacific Northwest, Frog Pelt Lichen (Peltigera neopolydactyla) can range in color from bluish green to olive brown. It is found growing on both rocks and dead wood, in shady, open forests at varying altitudes. A large, loosely appressed leaf lichen, the lobes are broad, 10-25 mm wide, and the upper surface hairless. Often bearing brownish, tooth-like fruiting bodies on raised lobes along the lobe margins, the lower surface is whitish, cottony, bearing low, broad, brownish or blackish veins and long, slender holdfasts (rhizines).

3. Trillium (sometimes called Wakerobin) is a genus of perennial flowering plants native to temperate regions of North America. Growing from rhizomes, they produce scapes (similar to a stem) which are erect and straight in most species but lack true, above ground leaves. Three large photosynthetic bracts (modified leaves) are arranged in a whorl about the scape. The flower has three green or reddish sepals and usually three petals in shades of red, purple, pink, white, yellow, or green.

4. Rough-skinned Newts are amphibious and are often seen moving to breeding sites during the breeding season. Migration to and from breeding sites varies among populations. Some newts spend the dry summer in moist habitats under woody debris, rocks, or animal burrows with adults emerging after the fall rains. In some populations, adults remain in the ponds and lakes throughout the summer and migrate back onto land in the fall when the rain starts. Often they will form large aggregates of thousands of newts in the water.

Poisonous skin secretions containing the powerful neurotoxin tetrodotoxin repel most predators. The poison is widespread throughout the skin, muscles, and blood, and can cause death in many animals, including humans, if eaten in sufficient quantity. Populations in Crater Lake have been shown to lack this neurotoxin. In most locations the Common Gartersnake, Thamnophis sirtalis, is the only predator of the newt.

5. The infamous banana slug is the common name for three North American species of terrestrial slug in the genus Ariolimax. These slugs are often yellow in color and are sometimes spotted with brown, like a ripe banana. These shell-less mollusks are detritivores or decomposers. They process leaves, animal droppings, moss, and dead plant material, and then recycle them into soil humus.

SCORING:
5 points: You must be a nature docent!
4 points: You are at home on the coast.
3 points: You think the coastal forest is beautiful, but would never spend the summer here.
2 points: You guessed randomly, right?
1 or 0 points: You’d really rather stay indoors.

Unlocking the Secrets of Invisible Ink

Have You Ever Wondered …

How does invisible ink work?

What common household substances can be used to make invisible ink?

What things can you do to reveal a message written in invisible ink?

Steganography is the practice of concealing a file, message, image, or video within another. The use of invisible inks is one of the earliest known examples of steganography. Invisible ink today is mostly considered child’s play, but in the not too distant past, its use and the recipes were considered classified government information.

Using the suggested inks and reagents provided here, write a secret message to a friend. Then get creative and see how many kinds of invisible ink you can find.Unlocking the Secrets of Invisible Ink @EvaVarga.net

Types of Invisible Inks

There are two categories into which invisible inks fall ~ organic fluids and sympathetic inks. You can find many heat-activated invisible inks right inside your kitchen. Another type of invisible ink is chemically activated. Read on to learn more about each.

Organic or Heat-Activated Invisible Inks

Organic fluids consist of the natural methods your likely already familiar: lemon juice, vinegar, milk, or onion juice, to name a few. These organic invisible inks can be revealed through heat, such as with fire, irons, or light bulbs.

The organic fluids alter the fibers of the paper so that the secret writing has a lower burn temperature and turns brown faster than the surrounding paper when exposed to heat. To activate or develop the ink, simply iron the paper, set it on a radiator, place it in an oven (set lower than 450° F), or hold it up to a hot light bulb.

  • any acidic fruit juice (e.g., lemon, apple, or orange juice)
  • onion juice
  • sodium bicarbonate NaHCOsolution (baking soda)
  • vinegar
  • white wine
  • diluted cola
  • milk
  • soapy water
  • sucrose solution (table sugar)
  • bodily fluids

solution is a homogeneous mixture composed of two or more substances. In such a mixture, a solute (baking soda or sugar) is a substance dissolved in another substance, known as a solvent (water).

Inquiry Science :: What other organic inks can you find? Which kind shows up best? Which kind lasts longest?

Unlocking the Secrets of Invisible Ink @EvaVarga.net

Sympathetic Inks

Sympathetic inks contain one or more chemicals and require the application of a specific “reagent” to be activated, such as another chemical or a mixture of chemicals. Most of these inks work using pH indicators, requiring the recipient to paint or spray a suspected message with a base (like sodium carbonate Na₂CO₃ or washing soda solution) or an acid (like lemon juice). Some of these inks will reveal their message when heated.

  • lemon juice, activated by iodine solution
  • starch (e.g., corn starch or potato starch), activated by iodine solution
  • vinegar or dilute acetic acid CH3COOH, activated by red cabbage water
  • ammonia NH3, activated by red cabbage water
  • sodium bicarbonate NaHCO3 (baking soda), activated by grape juice
  • sodium chloride NaCl (table salt), activated by silver nitrate
  • phenolphthalein (pH indicator), activated by ammonia fumes or sodium carbonate Na₂CO₃ (or another base)
  • lead nitrate, activated by sodium iodide
  • iron sulfate, activated by sodium carbonate, sodium sulfide, or potassium ferricyanide

CAUTION: Some of the chemicals suggested here can be hazardous if misused. Always use caution when working with chemicals. Read the information on the chemical label before you start, and always wear protective safety equipment such as goggles, gloves, and aprons. Adult supervision required.

Ultraviolet Light Activated Invisible Inks

Most of the inks that become visible when you shine an ultraviolet or black light on them will also become visible if you heat the paper. Here are are few ‘glow-in-the-dark’ ideas to try:

  • dilute laundry detergent (the bluing agent glows)
  • tonic water (quinine glows)
  • vitamin B-12 dissolved in vinegar

The History of Invisible Ink

The history of invisible ink is incredibly fascinating and swings wildly between high-tech methods and the humblest of approaches. Invisible ink was a key method for spy communications throughout history. Prisoners, Lovers, and Spies is an historical account of invisible ink and the secret communications revealed through thrilling stories about scoundrels, heroes, and their ingenious methods for concealing messages.

The Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, kept under luxurious house arrest for eighteen years by her Protestant cousin Elizabeth I, advised correspondents to write to her employing two commonly used substances: alum (hydrated potassium aluminum sulfate) or nutgall (the tannic acid secreted in swellings generated by parasitic wasps colonizing oak trees). Letters written in alum required the recipient to soak the paper in water, while nutgall needed a solution of ferrous sulphate as a reagent.

During World War II, chemist Linus Pauling worked on an unusual wartime project, formulating new kinds of invisible ink that would resist all known reagents. Pauling and his colleagues experimented with invisible inks made from pneumococcus bacteria (an inert strain so as not to spread pneumonia). The ink-ified microbe would react to an antibody, and then become visible once dipped in a dye solution. However, the ink never passed the experimental stage.

Visit The Art of Manliness for a more detailed look at how invisible inks have been used in espionage and naval intelligence.