Our Cabinet of Curiosities

A few years ago, I read aloud Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck to the kids and we delighted in the story as well as the accompanying illustrations.  For years prior, I had kept a growing collection of seeds, cones, feathers, bones, leaves, insects, rocks, sand, galls, etc. – things I would gather in our regular nature outings.  As a former elementary science specialist, I also had a large collection of specimens that students had given me over the years.  I had always simply referred to it as the nature study cabinet but upon reading Wonderstruck, my kids renamed it Our Cabinet of Curiosities.

Earlier this year, I came to realize that our collection had grown beyond what I could display nicely in the small curio cabinet that once held my Avon doll collection when I was a child. As you can see in the “before” picture, I have stacks of shoeboxes atop the cabinet and piles of specimens on the table.  It was a mess.

nature table

Then one day when the kids and I were on a quest for some thing or another at a second hand store, we came upon this moderately sized china hutch.  I bought it without much thought as to how I was going to get it home – I drive an Accord, after all.  I’d figure out something .. I couldn’t let it slip through my fingers.

When I finally got it home a few days later with the help of a friend (thank you, Jenn!!), the kids and I enjoyed organizing and displaying our collection of curiosities.  There are still many specimens and rock samples that are not on display, but the cabinet allows us to showcase our favorites.  The cupboards below allow us space to store our nature journals, leaf collections, and many field guides.  There is even space enough for a few small tools (hand lenses, wind gauge, etc.).

Our Cabinet of Curiosities is where we can display our nature collections and marvel at our natural world.  Do you have a collection of natural objects or curiosities?  Share with us by leaving a comment below.

World MOON Project

World MOON ProjectI am excited to share with you a citizen science project that my kiddos and I have been recently taking part … the World MOON Project.  The acronym draws attention to the mission of getting students to observe the world first hand and stands for More Observation Of Nature.

This is a great project for homeschool families, including co-ops and after school programs.  With the World MOON Project, students from around the world learn how the Moon works from both their own local point of view and also a global perspective. The project is divided into two phases.

The first phase:
During the first, students learn from their observations and class discussions how the Moon changes location and shape (phase) in a regularly-repeating cyclical pattern from the point of view of your community. Students observe the Moon each day, record their observations and discuss their findings in order to learn, through personal inquiry, patterns in the Moon’s behavior in their own community.

The second phase:
The second phase is organized into three three-week parts. In each three-week part, the teacher sets aside one day for her/his students in grades 4-8 to write an essay to share globally with other project participants. By sharing what they’ve learned about the Moon in their community and comparing what they’ve found with the observations and findings of the other students from around the world, they develop a greater understanding of astronomy.

The World MOON Project is flexible; participants can choose specific curriculum goals or address all areas (lunar phases, inquiry skills, nature of science, etc). Each teacher can adjust their participation to his/her needs. Free handbooks guide teachers and students through the project.  Visit the website to find out more about the World MOON Project. Click Teacher Handbook or Student Handbook to learn in detail how the project works.

We are taking part in the fall 2013 project but it will be offered again in the spring.  I encourage you to take time to familiarize yourself with the project and consider it for your own curriculum.

To coordinate with our study, we’ve also explored the moon’s influence on the Earth’s tides.  In July, we observed the tidal changes along the Oregon coast while staying at my Dad’s.  We also created a tide graph of the month’s tidal heights – see my post, The Secret of the Tides, for more information.

The Outdoor Classroom

Outdoor learning adventures are a great way to ignite passion for learning in a child’s heart. Outdoor adventures have the power to capture and hold the attention of even the most active learner. Here are some strategies for maximizing your  learning adventures in the outdoor classroom.

learning outdoorsStrategy 1 – Start in your own backyard

You don’t have to go far or spend a lot of money. Just step outside and let the adventures begin.   Take advantage of Junior Ranger programs in local, state, and national parks; where the great outdoors is the predominant classroom.

Strategy 2 – Be curious 

Use their natural curiosity to help guide their outdoor adventure. Encourage the kids to be detectives – to be curious and ask questions. Don’t fret … you don’t need to know the answers! Kids look for answers to those questions during the learning adventure – which will more than likely continue even after you come back indoors.

Strategy 3 – Hands-on research

Give kids the opportunity to explore and dig deeper into their learning adventure. Getting dirty really helps add to the fun of the adventure.  Back inside, encourage them to find answers to their unanswered questions using the internet or encyclopedias and books you have in your home library.

Strategy 4 – Write it down

Model for them the process of keeping a journal or notebook.  Have kids  record observations, identify, journal, draw, write stories, or make a video about what they see or have learned.  Doing it alongside them will help to assure they stick with it.  Eventually they will take ownership and eagerly record their observations without prompting.

Strategy 5 – Review new material

Take time later to review new learning in a fun way to make it stick! Have your adventurer come up with creative ways to teach others about what they have learned, such as a game, poster, or video.

Strategy 6 – Celebrate new learning

Share videos, pictures, and artwork with others. Posting work on Facebook and blogs is an awesome way to celebrate new learning and will encourage others to follow your example.

Now — Step outdoors and let the adventures begin!

10 Steps to More Sustainable Living

In my daughter’s letter to Santa this past Christmas, she asked for a better environment.  A sustainable lifestyle has been a topic of discussion often in our family with reducing our carbon footprint as our goal.  We like to travel so we make concerned efforts to reduce our consumption in other areas. While we still have a long way to go, we are making progress and I share with you a few of our steps to a more sustainable lifestyle.

carbon footprint10. Reusable Canvas Bags

We have stopped using plastic and even paper bags upon making purchases long ago. It was the easiest change to make. When we sometimes forget to bring in our canvas bags, we simply carry them in our arms or put the items back into the cart, keeping the receipt handy if questioned.

9. Stainless Steel Bottles

We each have our own water bottle that we keep with us or easily accessible in the car. Rather than purchase bottled water, we refill when we can. Restaurants are always willing to allow us to fill our bottles. While we were at the Grand Canyon recently, we were impressed to discover that the park system has now eliminated the sale of bottled water.  Instead, refilling stations can be found throughout the park ~ even the elk have figured out how to operate the dispensers.

While I am not opposed to the occasional soft drink, we also limit our consumption by not purchasing them for the home. Instead, we treat ourselves to the occasional soda only when we dine out.  Relatedly, while we do not often eat at fast food restaurants, when we do, we abstain from using plastic lids or straws.

8. Buy Fresh & Seasonally

The kids and I have been reading labels since they could read. We avoid things with high fructose corn syrup, palm oil, and artificial additives. We try to buy only fresh foods – particularly organic.  We buy our milk from a local farmer and regularly visit the farmer’s markets.

Relatedly, we do much of our shopping at Costco buying our staples in bulk. This not only saves money but also generally reduces the amount of trash we generate as there is less packaging.  We consciously purchase products with less packaging. For example, we buy loose leaf tea rather than using factory made tea bags that are often wrapped in plastic.

7. Reuse / Shop 2nd Hand

I am not a big shopper. This makes it easy to not consume products and materials that I really don’t need. So many clothes are now made outside the U.S. – the amount of energy required (fossil fuels) to bring these products to us is astounding. We thereby try to purchase only what we need, even then first trying to find them second hand.

One of my favorite resources is FreeCycle.com We have been able to find many goods that others have wanted to pass on. Similarly, we rely on word of mouth (and today, Facebook plays a major role). My daughter recently received a Singer sewing machine from our landlord when his wife wanted to pass it on. I’m a little surprised his daughter didn’t want it, but we are very pleased to be the recipient of such a wonderful gift.

6. Unplugging & Energy Efficient Appliances

We have over time upgraded to energy efficient appliances and lightbulbs whenever possible. When not in use, we unplug our electronics: toaster, coffee pot, mobile phone chargers, etc.  Even if nothing’s attached, many chargers still use energy (if it feels warm, it’s using electricty).  The natural lighting in the house is great so we use electric lights only rarely and then only for a short time.

5. Plan Errands

I plan out our errands around town to avoid unnecessary trips. I plan ahead to squeeze in as many tasks as I can in the time we have available and cluster them to make a circuitous route back home. I love it when I can spend two-three days entirely at home.  Similarly, we coordinate our milk pickup with another family to avoid both of us driving out to the farm every week.  When the kids get a little older, we will bicycle more often but presently we live across town from most of our lessons – swim team is 8 miles from the house.

4. Line Trash w/ Newspaper

This is the most recent change we have begun to undertake. Though it is a little more time consuming (and occasionally messy), it again saves money and has a significantly smaller impact on the environment.

3. Cloth Diapers & Napkins

When my kiddos were in diapers, we used cloth diapers and laundered them in home.  I am surprised I hadn’t realized it then, but thanks to a close friend (Thank you, Jennifer!!)  I have recently also begun to use cloth feminine napkins myself.  By simply switching to cloth we not only reduce our carbon footprint, we also save money.

2. Mindful Eating

Vegetarians save at least 3,000 pounds of CO2 per year compared to meat eaters. We’ve thereby increased the number of vegetarian meals we eat each week.  We are also mindful of waste.  I have read that about one-quarter of all the food prepared annually in the U.S., for example, gets tossed, producing methane in landfills as well as carbon emissions from transporting wasted food.  I thereby make a concerned effort to prepare just enough for our meal.  When dining out, we frequently share meals.  This not only saves in energy but also assures we don’t over eat.

1. Drive a Hybrid

We haven’t yet converted to a hybrid. Our cars are paid for and run well. We just aren’t excited to make car payments again. We know, however, our next automobile will be a hybrid. We drive so much, it is the logical choice. However, we follow a strict maintenance plan – air, oil and fuel filters are changed according to schedule and the tires are properly inflated and rotated.

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While these changes are not necessarily achievable overnight, the gradual lifestyle changes will have a big impact on the environment.  I know we have a long way yet to go; there are more changes we can make for more sustainable living.  We continue to seek out actions and lifestyle changes ourselves.

What choices have you made as an individual or as a family for sustainable living?

Project Noah Badges

We have been using Project Noah, an award-winning software platform designed to help people reconnect with the natural world, since it was first launched in early 2010. The project began as an experiment to mobilize citizen scientists and build a digital butterfly net for the 21st century. Backed by National Geographic, Project Noah is mobilizing a new generation of nature explorers and helping people from around the world appreciate their local wildlife.

We love how the Project Noah community is harnessing the power and popularity of new mobile technologies to collect important ecological data and help preserve global biodiversity.  In addition to providing a tool for ecological data collection, it is also an important educational tool for wildlife awareness and preservation.  Contributors the world over are able to share their experiences and communicate with one another about a shared interest.

One of our favorite things about Project Noah are the virtual badges.  The patches were influenced by the merit badges from the Boy Scouts and Girls Scouts. These patches help identify the specific strengths of the members. They also encourage new members to continue contributing to the project. Ultimately,  earning patches is a fun way to encourage kids to get outdoors or as a reward for their efforts.  Project Noah badges are divided up into four categories:


Spottings patches are earned by the number of spottings you’ve contributed overall to Project Noah.


To earn Mission patches you’ll have to join and contribute spottings to specific missions that have special requirements on the category and type of submissions they’re looking for.

Special Achievements

Special Achievements are earned through interesting relationships between the spottings you submit. For example, if you upload spottings from at least three countries you will earn the Globe Spotter.


Specialist patches are reserved for people who submit a significant amount of spottings for a specific wildlife category. For example, if you upload a significant number of fungi spottings you will be deemed a specialist in that category.

project noah patches

We like to print the Project Noah badges we have earned onto sticker paper and adhere them to the inside cover of our nature journals.  My journal is pictured above and shows the Specialist and Spotting patches we have earned thus far (Missions and Special Achievements are on the back cover). It is a fun way to document our contributions to the site as well as celebrate our explorations of our natural world.

I have dabbled with creating my own missions for online courses I teach and for localized classes I coordinate for homeschool kids.  I have come to learn, however, that user created missions are designed for small groups, classrooms, and individual users and are thereby only local missions.  As such, participants do not earn a mission patch.  Larger organization will need to contact Project Noah directly if interested in setting up a custom mission and thereby tapping into the global community of citizen scientists.

Nature Journaling in the Classroom

Many homeschool families engage in regular nature studies.  A nature journal is your ticket to a deep exploration of the world around you, providing a place to record your encounters with the natural world — from the everyday to the sublime. Field sketches, regardless of the degree of artistic talent with which they are rendered, force us to look closely and observe nature as it really is. Simply put, nature journaling is the regular recording of observations, perceptions, and feelings about the natural world around you.

nature journaling

The past couple of years, I have been teaching an online course, Nature Journaling in the Classroom.  It is designed to help teachers and informal educators integrate nature journaling into their K-12 art and science curriculum.  The course is offered through the Heritage Institute and optional, university credit is available.

J.L. Fottrell, a geologist who teaches drawing classes at Land Between the Lakes National recreation area in Tennessee/Kentucky and at Bowie Park in Fairview, Tennessee, recently selected my course because he had never made a systematic, concerted effort to study nature journaling.


Fottrell had this to say about his expectations at the conclusion of the course, “I expected to learn some techniques and methods for teaching the subject in a more organized, school setting.  What I learned   was what I expected to learn plus a lot more.  The reading assignments were full of good ideas and much of it was thought provoking and insightful.  I feel that I got a lot more out of the books than I expected.  The other exercises … pushed me beyond where I was, in my understanding of the subject.  I believe that I’m much better educated about nature than I would have been, had I not taken the course.”

H. Lent, a teacher in Oregon, recently took my course along with another I teach, Alien Invaders.  She spends her day between the High School, where she teaches algebra and the Middle School where she teaches 8th grade math, MAN (Math, Art, & Nature), and two art classes.  I love how she morphed the two courses together and devised a year-long study of invasive species, integrating math, science and art.

Upon completing the coursework, Lent shared with me, “I did not realize that nature journaling was such a powerful tool in life and can be integrated into any curriculum and any grade level. The sooner the better obviously to train kids and make it a life-long endeavor.  I learned the important items to include in the journal daily: how to label; to include date, place, weather, colors, feelings. Drawings and/or writing are each valuable and students can develop their own style to document their observations.”