Monthly Archives: August 2012

What’s Under There?

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The next time you are on a nature walk, prepare to explore life under an old, rotting log. Bring along a couple of containers or bug houses, some magnifying glasses, and your notebook and pencil.Any large log will do (it should be large enough to create a really tight space underneath), but the more decomposed the log, the better.

“The Earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it, the world and those who live in it.” — Psalm 24:1

A Close-up Observation: A Tiny Forest

First, examine the surface of the log before you turn it over.What is growing on it? Are there any little critters crawling on it? What are they doing?

Look at the area around the rotted log. How does the plant life on the log differ from the plant life around it? Why do you think that is so?

You will probably see several kinds of moss growing. Use your magnifying glass to see the little brown “antennae”-looking things that stick up above the green moss. These are the spore cases of the moss. Mosses don’t have seeds, but produce spores. Their life cycle is very different from a seed-bearing plant’s life cycle.

You might also see lichens, which are drier, and are usually a whitish-green color. A lichen is an interesting organism that has some features of green plants and some of fungi. You can collect lichen — they will dry out and keep their color. If you are starting a lichen collection, make sure to write down the date, name of the place you found it, and what kind of log it was growing on (if you know).

There are some interesting kinds of lichens and mushrooms that you might see — check out the photo gallery below.

Of course, if your log is really rotting, it will also be the home for some tree seedlings. See if you can identify what kind of tree the seedling will grow up to be.

If you’ve brought your nature journal or notebooking supplies, take a moment to sketch the log before you move it.

The Handbook of Nature Study’s Outdoor Hour Challenge #42 Moss and Lichen describes some activities that you can use as a follow-up to observations of moss and lichens in the field. For notebooking pages that you can use with these, and other, plant studies, see Apologia’s Botany Notebooking pages, which include 60 pages that you can use for studies of mosses, lichens, fungi and seed-bearing plants.

Great photos of lichens and mosses can be found in Nicolette’s Notebook and Delightful Learning.

The Notebooking Treasury has thousands of notebooking pages that can be used with any subject, including nature study notebooking pages that are divided by habitat, such as “rotting log,” or “in the woods.”

Use discount code = discount5 to save $5 on your $10+ purchase at


Observation Under a Log: Knock, Knock…

Now, get ready to move the log.NOW, we are getting ready to look at tiny things living under the log, but remember, there might be bigger critters living under there, too. Snakes, chipmunks and other creatures take advantage of the spaces under logs, as they don’t have to work to dig. Because they would rather get away than fight for their lives, give them that chance — turn the log by rolling it toward you, instead of away, so that any big something underneath can safely skitter away, and roll it slowly, so you don’t squish fingers or toes of anyone. Always make sure that your friend is not peaking under the other side of the log before you move it!

NOTE: Use your judgment when deciding to move a log. Don’t move one that is too big to move safely without hurting yourself. And don’t move anything if it will cause too much disturbance to the environment. You are going back to your home, but the log is the only home some critters have right now.


The Process of Science

The Skills of a Scientist


Okay, so you know all the scientific names of all the tropical fish in your school aquarium. You can identify bird songs from 5 miles away. You have the periodic table memorized. That’s the content of science. WNow let’s test your knowledge of the process of science.

Which of the following is not a science process skill?


Observation: Time to Rock and Roll

(the log, that is!)


Ok… Let’s get rolling!One of the first things you might see are the tunnels of one of many kinds of ants. When you disturb their home, you will see them scurrying around, carrying ant eggs and pupae to safer locations down in the ant hill. This is a great opportunity to observe the habits of ants, and how they work together for their survival.

You might also see sow beetles. Some people call them pillbugs or rolly polly beetles. They are not really a beetle.They look like miniature armadillos, and will often curl into a ball if they feel threatened. They like to eat rotting plant materials. Put a few in a bug house with a small amount of the composted log to look at later.

If you’re really lucky, and it’s the right time of the year for your area, you might see striped salamanders. These are locally plentiful, which means, if your area has them, you’ll probably find a lot of them. A little less frequently, you might see red efts, if your rotting log is close to a water supply (efts are also salamanders, which are amphibians, like frogs, so they spend part of their life in the water). If you are hiking at night (try it sometime!), you might be fortunate enough to see a spotted salamander, a large, black, prehistoric-looking creature with yellow spots. They are not plentiful, and are more sensitive to changes in the environment. We used to pay $1 to the first of our children to find a spotted salamander in the spring. The first one was usually unearthed in April or so, by turning compost or digging in the woodchip pile. They hide during the day, and come out almost exclusively at night, so be on the lookout under your log.

Another kind of ant you might see is the very interesting citronella ant. They often are confused with termites, as they are light yellow to whitish in color, and they are often seen in a line of thousands crawling along house foundations. They are not pests, though. They get their name because, if you accidentally squash one, it gives off a smell like the citronella candles you burn to keep mosquitoes away. You can usually see this kind of ant in the late summer, when they move house for the season.

The earthworm is another resident of the secret world under a rotting log. Their tunneling is very important to the energy cycle in the forest. Did you know that dirt is worm poop? That’s a fact that kids just love to hear. On another lens, I’ll tell you how to make a worm bin, and you’ll get to try an experiment that will prove that dirt is worm poop. It’s very cool, and I can’t wait to share it with you. A hint about earthworms: people like to take them home to study, but the kind of worms that you will probably find under the rotten log are particular about their home, and usually die inside (it just gets too warm for them). Be on the lookout for my lens called “Bucket of Fun” for more information about raising worms.

Don’t forget to check out the plant life under the log. You will probably see a net of whitish or yellowish threads that look sort of like roots. These are the underground body (called mycelium) of some non-green plants. Some are fungi — the mycelium is a sort of “root” for the mushroom that will grow above the surface. But others are another organism called actinomycetes. Everyone knows about these, but they don’t know it! Ever smell that wonderful smell that tells you that rain is coming? That is the smell that soil makes when actinomycetes grow after a rain storm. We think that bacteria and fungus are what make our leaves turn into soil in the compost pile, but it is really the work of those nets of white and yellow actinomycetes that you see under your log.

Check out the photo gallery, below, for pictures of some of the critters you might come across under your log. Use this journal page to write and draw about what you see. If you want to make a list of creatures you find, use this checklist.


Look for these…


Be a Good Steward


God created the whole earth for us to enjoy, but He also put us in charge of caring for it. Always make sure that you leave an area looking cleaner than it was when you got there. That means, carefully roll the log back. Replace any critters you have in your critter catchers, where you found them. Pack out any trash you created, and pick up any trash other hikers have left behind. Remember, it’s not YOUR home!


For More Information About Life in the Forest…

One Small Square: Woods

by: Donald Silver, Patricia Wynne

An excellent book if you are doing a nature study in the woods, or preparing for a woodland hike. One of a series.

Amazon Price: $4.51 (as of 08/13/2012) Buy Now

A Field Guide to Mushrooms: North America (Peterson Field Guides)

by: Kent H. McKnight, Vera B. McKnight

There are many field guide series. I have used many of them. Peterson Guides usually group organisms by color, which bothers some people (because it’s not taxonomically correct), but helps beginners.

Amazon Price: $11.99 (as of 08/13/2012) Buy Now

Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses

by: Robin Wall Kimmerer

Amazon Price: $11.98 (as of 08/13/2012) Buy Now

A Salamander’s Life (Nature Upclose)

by: John Himmelman

If your nature study is part of a larger one about life cycles.

Amazon Price: $437.56 (as of 08/13/2012) Buy Now

Lichens (Smithsonian’s Natural World Series)

by: William Purvis

Amazon Price: $10.49 (as of 08/13/2012) Buy Now

A Fascinating Look into the World of Fungus

What’s in the News Now…

Check out these articles about molds, mildews and other mushroom cousins.
Video: From Allergies to Deadly Disease, Feeling the Effects of Climate Change
In this video, doctors blame the world’s strange climate lately, on the rise of exotic diseases caused by fungi.
Paul Stamets and the Holy Grail of Mushrooms
One mushroom expert believes that a certain kind of mushroom holds the secret for the cure of many diseases.
The Strange World of Mushrooms, Above and Below
Just when you thought that you had this taxonomy thing all figured out, they go and find something that breaks the rules. Take a look at a kind of undersea coral which has part of its life cycle that looks remarkably like the above ground mushrooms it so closely resembles.
Better Living Through Mycology
A fanciful description of how the world would be a better place if we just loved fungi more.
Magical Kingdom
A quick guide to mushroom taxonomy.
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Class Pets and Observation

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Low-maintenance, high-impact choices for the homeschool or classroom


I am a nature lover (if you haven’t already guessed). I also taught in an urban school district for a long time, and realized that most of my students did not have the same opportunity to work with nature, animals and gardens as I had growing up. So I always included class pets and animals in the set up of my elementary classroom. Many teachers have class pets. In this module, I will share with you the ones that I found to be the least challenging to maintain, while providing the maximum opportunity for observation and scientific study. I am also putting an emphasis on critters that students might not have already been over-exposed to in school (such as the ubiquitous painted lady butterflies that students see in kindergarten, first grade, second grade, and on and on).

1. Mealworms

Mealworms are not really a worm, but are the larval form of a grain pest called the darkling beetle. They are an engaging substitute to the aforementioned painted lady butterflies for studying insect life cycles, and require very little in the way of materials or maintenance. Here are the plusses and minuses of using mealworms to study insect life cycles:


-Their life cycle is short (a few weeks), so you can observe the changes in the insects while you are studying life cycles in class.
-They are much more durable to handle than the painted ladies (which are definitely a “hands off” insect) — kids can take the mealworms out during all stages and use hand lenses and observation boxes to study them more closely.
-They do not require special food: old-fashioned oatmeal, plus an occasional potato or apple core for moisture.
-They demonstrate complete metamorphosis (egg, larva, pupa, adult).
-They are not sensitive to the temperature and moisture levels of the typical classroom or home.


-They are “ickier” for some kids (and adults!) than butterflies, which are cute and pretty.
-Their food can attract other critters that you don’t want (e.g., mice), so you must make sure their bin is securely covered.
-Occasionally, the oats also draw a tiny mite that looks like white dust — not a danger, but they crawl out of the bin and are a little messy (the University of Kentucky link, below, gives tips on treating this harmless issue).
-You will want to plan what to do with the mealworms you raise, as you will need to remove some regularly (see the “Bonus” section, below, for some ideas).


If your school or home has an aquarium, you can regularly cull out some of the mealworms (at any stage) for a clean, no-cost food supplement. Tropical fish love live food, and raising food for the fish can give an additional purpose to raising the mealworms. I had a pet parakeet once who also enjoyed an occasional mealworm snack — he would get very excited! If you happen to have reptiles somewhere in the school, they, too, eat mealworms. Failing these “consumers,” consider selling the mealworms as a class project, to a local bait shop, pet store or to families with tropical fish.

Basic supplies needed

– an initial supply of mealworms (purchase about 100, at a local pet shop or bait shop — try to get a variety of stages, not just fully grown “worms,” so you will not have them all turn to adults at the same time).
– a 5-10 gal. plastic container with a lid (not clear — grain pests prefer dark places). Drill lots of air holes in the lid.
– bedding material (I used old-fashioned oats. Other sources suggest sawdust, leaf litter, etc. However, oats are cleaner, especially if you are then using the mealworms for fish food. Do not use sand — the insects don’t like it).
– occasional potato piece or apple core, for moisture. Replace often, to prevent mold.

The University of Kentucky College of Agriculture has a web page with some more specifics on constructing a mealworm bin.

2. Crickets


People have kept crickets as pets for thousands of years. In the Far East, it was considered good luck to have a cricket in the house, and families would capture a cricket and keep it in an ornate, tiny cage –its singing was considered a blessing on the house. It is the cricket’s singing that makes it an interesting pet to keep and study in the classroom, as you can use the singing of the cricket as a “thermometer” — the higher the temperature, the higher the frequency of the cricket’s “chirps,” and the more active the cricket. I also found that this nocturnal insect would chirp more on overcast days — kind of a nice sound for a classroom. This presents a perfect opportunity to study cause and effect and do some graphing.Plusses-The habits of a cricket can be directly correlated to the light level and temperature of the environment — a nice opportunity for scientific study in the classroom.
-They make a sound that is appealing to little ears.
– Being close relatives of cockroaches and grasshoppers, they require no special foods (rolled oats and an occasional piece of fruit are clean options for their feeding).
– They are not fussy over temperature and moisture levels (although you will want to control moisture so that their bedding doesn’t mold).


– In your house, there are few things so annoying as a chirping cricket that finds its way into your home while you’re trying to sleep. So you will want to put the critter somewhere where it won’t annoy sleepers, and make sure it doesn’t escape.
– Crickets are content as herbivores (veggie eaters) in captivity, but are omnivores in the wild. If they are unhappy with what you feed them, they will eat each other. I never had this problem, as my kids contributed snack waste (apple cores and the like) to the cause.


As with mealworms, crickets are often raised as food for other pets. So if you have more than one cricket, and you end up with a bunch, you can feed them to tropical fish, reptiles, tarantulas and other school pets. Pet stores often dust mealworms and crickets with an nutrient enrichment powder, or feed them special food, to make them more nutritious to the critters that eat them (a process called “gut-loading”).

Basic supplies needed

-an old aquarium (I used a 5-gal tank that had developed a leak — didn’t matter for a cricket terrarium); cover it with a tight-fitting screen (the tank lid may not be sufficient, as the crickets can escape through the lighting cuts);
-bedding materials (wood chips, a layer of sand, anything clean);
-a small, shallow dish with cotton balls that you can soak for water source — a MUST if you want to encourage breeding;
-a food source (rolled oats, an occasional piece of fruit or vegetable;
-hiding places (an inverted egg carton or a paper towel tube will suffice).

I didn’t include a lamp, although some do. I found that my crickets chirped on very overcast days, which was a treat when we were stuck inside on a rainy day.

The Amateur Entomological Society has a fact sheet on care of crickets as pets, with links to a book on rearing crickets in the classroom.

3. Apple Snails

Apple snails are the largest freshwater snails on earth. Their size and the ease with which they are kept make them a very popular aquarium pet. They are a low-care alternative to an aquarium, if you’d like to have an aquatic pet in your classroom. They are active, and kids can see the trails they make as they clean the algae from the glass. As the snails glide across the glass, students can observe the undulations of their “foot”, and observe their rasping mouth parts — very cool.Plusses-They are algae-eaters, so they will clean the glass of their aquarium, and you won’t have to.
-They are adapted to variable environmental conditions;
-They are easily fed (on occasional piece of spinach or romaine lettuce, plus the algae on the tank glass).
-Lighting needs are strictly for viewing purposes — the snails don’t care.
-They will lay eggs (just above the water line) and multiply in a typical aquarium.


-You cannot include live plants as tank decor, unless you are ok with replacing them regularly, as the snails will eat them. Otherwise, use plastic plants.
-You cannot include any other tank mates with snails. Snails are good fish food: even the smallest fish will snack on your snails. You may end up with empty shells and fat fish.
-As with any other aquatic pet, even a goldfish, periodic water changes are important to keep your snails happy and to keep your classroom smelling fresh.


Apple snails have become an exotic pest in many states. They were once brought to the United States as potential food snails for the escargot industry, and pet snails also have been released into ponds, lakes and streams by hobbyists in past decades. Their size (some species can grow to 6″ in diameter in the wild) and their lack of natural predators makes them a danger to the ecosystem in which they are released. Do not ever release your snails into the natural world! If you decide to get rid of them, give them to a pet store.

Basic supplies needed

-A small (10-gal) aquarium, with hood, lights, gravel, filtration and a small heater;
-Occasional feedings of romaine lettuce or spinach.
-Start with 5-10 snails for a 10-gal tank.

See The Apple Snail Website for more info.


Unusual Class Pets

And now for something completely different!


The above module lists some potential class pets that can be purchased at most bait shops or pet stores. But there are are a number of other critters that are easily kept as pets, if you happen upon them. Here are some that I have kept successfully as an elementary teacher and homeschool mom.


Stag Beetles

Gargantuan beetles with menacing pincers (but that are actually vegetarians). Keep them singly, as the males will fight. I have found them commonly in the lawn, mid-summer. I usually keep them only a short time. Keeping Adult Stag Beetles gives information on the care and feeding of stag beetle pets.

Garden Snails
Garden snails, and their ickier cousins, the slugs, are easy to keep as pets. They feed happily on a leaf of lettuce or carrot top, and lay lots of eggs, which hatch into the tiniest snails. Look for snails in the garden in the summer, when the plants are still covered with dew. Slugs can be trapped by putting a board flat on the ground in the evening — slugs hide underneath it, come morning, and can be plucked up. See Keeping Snails and Slugs as Pets for lots more information.

Ant Lions

Remember that scene outside Jabba the Hut’s palace, where Star Wars characters kept tumbling into the big pits of those sand creatures? Well, ant lions are like miniature versions of those beasts. They are much more common than you think, and you’ve probably passed them by many a time, unawares. The ant lion lives underground in sandy soil (I have found them in cracks in pavement or driveways, at the edges of paved roads and the sandy sides of parking lots). They dig a pit in the sand (see the link for photos), and wait for hapless ants to crawl down in, then their humongous jaws spring up and snatch the creature into its mouth. I kept about ten of them in an old 10-gallon aquarium, in a bed of sand. My 3rd graders used to bring insects in from recess and feed the ant lions before we settled in for read-aloud. Fun, in kind of a macabre way. The Ant Lion Den has lots of great information for your kids to use for research on this very cool class pet.

Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches
The last critter on my class pet list can’t be found on a hike (unless you live on Madagascar!), but can be purchased at a local pet shop. I got mine from a teacher-friend, whose own pets gave birth. For a moment, disregard the last part of this creature’s name, and its value as a class pet: like its pesky cousin, it is easy to feed (I fed mine a handful of dry cat food, plus the odd snack waste, such as apple cores and baby carrots). They conserve water from their food, like the household pest, but a shallow bowl with water-soaked cotton balls will be necessary if you want yours to give birth. Unlike the household version that skitters under the refrigerator when you turn on the lights, the Madagascar hissing cockroach moves slowly, and doesn’t breed prolifically. Unlike the large, tropical roaches you find in Florida, this kind is wingless — if your container has a secure lid, your pets will stay put. This roach gets its name from its habit of forcing air quickly through its spiracles (the breathing holes on an insect’s abdomen) when alarmed, causing would-be predators to drop the roach. It’s very cool — I found, however, that mine got used to handling, and it took a lot to startle them. Your colleagues will be creeped out, but your kids will love them. Read more on this Madagascar hissing cockroach fact sheet.


Critter Catchers and Bug Houses

Exo Terra Glass Terrarium, 12 by 12 by 12-Inch

Amazon Price: $42.99 (as of 08/12/2012) Buy Now

Exo Terra Glass Turtle Terrarium

Amazon Price: $94.26 (as of 08/12/2012) Buy Now

Exo Terra High Glass Terrarium, 36 by 18 by 36-Inch

Amazon Price: $299.99 (as of 08/12/2012) Buy Now


Other Observation Activities

And what NOT to keep as pets…


There are some things that people insist on keeping, that I would discourage:Ants. Ant farms (either that you build or kits) rarely last, as there is not usually a queen. It is better to head outdoors and watch them on the playground than to try to build a colony in the classroom.Goldfish. These fish are easy to keep, and can grow to enormous size in a tank the size of a coffee cup. However, they foul the water more than many other kinds of fish. Unless you are willing to really keep an aquarium, leave these alone. If you want an aquarium, choose guppies for your tank — cleaner, and they make lots of babies.

Painted lady butterflies. There. I said it. Don’t raise painted ladies in your classroom. Why? Not because they aren’t pretty (they are). Not because butterflies don’t teach kids important scientific ideas (they do). But simply because they are ALWAYS RAISED IN CLASSROOMS! I am worrying that kids in the city think they are the only kind of butterfly that God created. I HAVE raised caterpillars with kids for many years — we find them outdoors, and find the food that they were eating. We identify them, then we watch them through their life cycle. For fun, find one of the giant silk moth caterpillars: Io moths, Luna moths, Cecropias, etc. These caterpillars are huge, and you must keep the cocoons in the refrigerator over the winter, until they emerge in June.

Birds, rabbits, and other large pets. I have had all of these, and they are delightful. But I also had to pack them up on the weekends when it was hot, on holidays, and over summer vacation. They became my household pets when they weren’t in the classroom. OR you have to entrust them to kids and their families for vacations. PLUS if you have an allergic or asthmatic child one year, you will need to get rid of your class pets (which happened to me one year — it was sad). If you really want them, go for it, but there are simpler ways to teach pet ownership to kids.

Click here for more ideas to practice the science process skill of observation.

For ideas on how nature study and observation can fit into a complete curriculum unit, see How to Teach Everything: Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo.


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Adopt-a-Plant: A Season-Long Observation Project

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Watching a plant or tree change over time

Here’s a twist on the “One Small Square” activity that can be done virtually anywhere, regardless of whether you live in the country, the suburbs or a high-rise apartment in Manhattan. All you need is one plant or tree that your child can observe once a week.


Step 1. Find a Plant

Your plant can be a tree in a sidewalk planter, a garden tomato plant, or a rogue grass seedling sprouting up in the crack of a parking lot. The activity will be just as rewarding in any of these cases. All you need to be able to do is get up close and personal with it on a weekly basis — you’ll need to be able to spend about 15 minutes sketching and writing, so your plant shouldn’t be right in the middle of foot traffic of other pedestrians.

Step 2. Start Recording Data

What data will you record? That depends on the interest of your child and his age and ability.

Sketches and paintings

Charlotte Mason advocating using a dry-brush watercolor painting technique and blank sketch pages for nature study with all ages of students. Her philosophy is that the act of sketching and painting forces the child to patiently take the time to closely observe the object they are studying. Ever look at paintings of little ones when you say, “Draw a flower?” These bold, simple drawings have their own delight, but do not really reflect close examination of a flower, which is the point of this activity. Check out one of her articles on the purpose of nature study.

For older children, this activity can branch into quite complex studies of anatomy and structure. Check out the work of Michelangelo and Ernest Haeckel for some breathtaking work that came out of close study of living things. Also check out this site which features photographs of fractals in nature — mathematically calculable, repeating patterns in the natural world. Simply astounding.

Stories, descriptions, labels and poems

As children get older, and begin to write words and stories to convey meaning, they will naturally begin adding these to their nature study notebooks. There are many downloadable journaling pages that provide space for drawing or sketching, and either primary or narrow ruled lines for written response work. I would allow these to be free writes — the idea behind this activity is to get the child to engage with the natural object that she is studying for a period of time, to gain greater awareness of it. Click here for my set of journaling pages that can be used with this activity.

Check out Spring Nature Study Ideas (by HarmonyArtMom) for a description of a Year-Long Tree Study that would be suitable for all ages, plus her original notebooking pages for download or purchase.


Numbers and Facts

While this article is about the science skill of observation, Recording and Working With Data is another science process skill that is important for children. For little ones, pictures ARE their data. As kids get older, we will want them to practice looking for patterns with other data, as part of their science numeracy thinking. [NOTE: Nature study fans, this goes away from Charlotte Mason’s more open way of observing into more analytical thinking.]

Here is a data form I created that can be used with an herbaceous plant, and another version that can be used with trees.

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One Small Square: Practice Looking Closely at the World

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One Small Square


“There is more to life than increasing its speed. — Mahatma Gandhi”

Practice looking closely at the world

Label your patch so you can find it the next time.Early in the spring, go outside with your child and find a 3′ x 3′ patch of ground. It could be in the woods, in your vegetable garden, in the lawn, or even around a crack in the sidewalk (you’d be surprised the special world that crops up around some of the smallest places). A good way to choose a random patch to observe is to toss a hula hoop out into the yard, then use plant tags or a colorful stick with a flag to mark your “little patch” for another day.

Now it’s time to observe like a scientist!

Take your nature journal, your colored pencils or paints, maybe a magnifying glass if you have one. Bring along a “bug house” or plastic butter tub along, just in case you find anything interesting you and your child would like to observe more closely. Spend about 15 minutes recording the world that you discover in your little patch of land.

As you sketch, write or paint, ask yourself some scientific questions:

–What living things do I see?
–Is anything moving? What is it doing? Why?
— Are any creatures interacting with one another? Why?
–What do you see that is surprising?

Go back and check out your patch at least once a month.

–How has your patch changed? What new things do you see?
–What do you think caused the changes in your patch?
–When you come back next month, what do you predict the patch will look like? Why?

Here are some journal pages you can download and use to draw and write about your little patch of land.

If you are working on taking data with your child, use this data collection tool.

Lists are a great way to keep track of observations. Download this recording form to begin yours.

New to notebooking? Check out the many Free Notebooking Pages at and get started today! Samples of nature study notebooking pages and much, much more!

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Biomes: Teaching With the ‘One Small Square’ Series

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I spent seven years of my teaching career as a third grade teacher in an urban school district. The elementary school where I taught was actually located at the edge of town, so we had a school full of kids from the city, attending school in the country. The children delighted in the horses that lived at the farm next door, and enjoyed just rolling in the grass and watching the butterflies in our nature garden.

While working on building nature activities to give the students experiences which they had not previously had, I stumbled upon the One Small Square Series of non-fiction children’s books, by Donald Silver.  Each 48-page book covers a different habitat, and guides kids through a close-up look at what you might find if you observed one small piece of that habitat.

  • Backyard
  • Cactus Desert
  • Cave
  • Night Sky
  • Pond
  • Swamp
  • Woods
  • African Savanna
  • Arctic Tundra
  • Coral Reef
  • Rainforest
  • Seashore

There are over a dozen titles in the One Small Square series, by Donald Silver. For the remainder of this post, I will focus only on Backyard, for the following reasons:

  1. While people reading the post might live in different parts of the country, and (hence) in different biomes, everyone has something that they can call a “backyard” – a patio, a planter, a parking lot, a school garden, a playground, or a park. The learning tasks in Backyard can be performed in any kind of outdoor area, including one of the other biomes.
  2. The Charlotte Mason Method of instruction recommends beginning nature studies with the child’s own surroundings, then moving to exotic locations. In all instruction, we do well to connect new information with what the learner already knows. See “Nature Study: Charlotte Mason’s Cure for Tired, Text-Taught Tots” for more on the Charlotte Method philosophy of outdoor education.
  3. Becoming familiar with the “One Small Square” method of nature study in one’s backyard makes the other studies easier.


One Small Square: Backyard, from $2.96 at Barnes & Noble. Click image for ordering information.

50 Helpful Links for Use With One Small Square: Backyard


These two links provide helpful reviews of the series, one by readers through Google Books, and another from a homeschooler:

Cornerstones of Science provides excellent reviews of many fiction and non-fiction books that can be used in your science instruction. Search by title, topic, author, grade and reading level.


Lesson and Unit Plans


This section includes a huge variety of types of web links, from .pdf versions of lesson plans to print out and put in your public school lesson plan books, to laid-back, Charlotte Mason-style homeschool nature studies using Backyard, to  unit studies compiled by the National Park Service. You will find plans for preschool through high school students in this list. I think the list is exciting! And all materials are free.

[NOTE: While I did select only links that were relevant (i.e., contained actual lesson plans, included appropriate learning tasks, used Backyard as a “spine” and addressed important educational goals), a site’s presence on the list does not mean that all linked lessons will align with state or national standards (although many provide this information for you). The teacher always has to consider the needs of her own students, as well as any school or state requirements, when choosing lessons and curriculum. ]


Many who used Backyard as a basis for their lessons tied it into studies of soils, life underground and worms. For older students, the “meter square” links introduce the idea of quadrat studies, in-depth, scientific investigations of the plants, animals, soil, light and weather of a specific area used in the field of ecology. See also the Creative Curriculum link (which describes a center-based learning approach to teaching with the book).

Learn more about observing in your backyard in “Science Skills: Making Observations and Asking Questions Like a Scientist” (Photo credit: (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2009)

Resource Lists


Some links did not specifically include a lesson plan, but had other interesting and important information that might be helpful to a classroom or homeschool teacher, such as schedules for using the book, the role of nature study in a balanced curriculum, lists of materials to include in a comprehensive outdoor study program, and general information on nature study. Think of these as a “shopping list” for a teacher intent on infusing science into classroom practice.

Learn how to “look closely” in “The Power of Observation: Life in a Tiny Ecosystem” (Photo credit: (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2009)

For More Information…


All these sites, and others, can be found on my Pinterest board, One Small Square. New sites will be added as I find them.

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Focus on… Observation

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What is observation? (Photo credit: (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2009)

What is Observation?

ob·serve :

  1.  to see, watch, perceive, or notice
  2. to regard with attention, especially so as to see or learn something
  3. to watch, view, or note for a scientific purpose
  4. to state, comment, or remark
  5. to note or inspect closely for a sign of future events.

 Adapted from, 2012

Observing is one of the basic science process skills, as listed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, along with inferring, measuring, communicating, classifying and predicting. To these six basic skills are added six integrated process skills: controlling variables, defining operationally, formulating hypotheses, interpreting data, experimenting, and formulating models.

Providing interesting science tools, such as this High Sierra Eco Explorer/Magnifier, draws students to engage in observation in different ways (Outdoor Explorer Series, HearthSong, $19.98. Click image for ordering information).

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Writing in Science: Observation & Elaboration

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The Writing Connection:

The Role of Scientific Observation in Writing Instruction

Elaborative Detail

Scientific observation and elaboration in narrative writing go hand in hand. In order to generate a strong image in the reader’s mind, an author must use vivid details based on their observations, so the reader can visualize the object being described. Likewise, scientists must accurately and carefully describe their scientific observations, so that other scientists can understand their findings, and even repeat their experiments on their own.

Students can practice elaboration by using their powers of observation to describe interesting natural objects in the writing center. In this way, you not only integrate language arts into your science studies, but students also see a real-world connection to their writing.

Using Your Senses

Photo credit: (c) 2010, Kim M. Bennett

To get students to think more deeply when recording their observations, make “cue cards” with these prompts on them. Laminate them, and place them in your writing center.

Place interesting natural objects in the center, for kids to write about and observe. Include hand lenses. Change the objects to observe weekly.


  • Fall Objects: lichens, moss-covered bark, leaves in fall color, seed pods
  • Winter Objects: branches in fruit, snow, icicles, budded twigs, bird’s nests
  • Spring Objects:  pussy willows, redbud and other early spring blooms, tadpoles, bird eggshells
  • Summer Objects: insects, wildflowers, old wasp’s nests


Make enough copies of the Observation Page (included in this newsletter) for each student; place in a basket in the writing center, along with pencils, erasers and other writing tools. Include a “Finished Work” basket, as well.

Select an object from the sidebar, and place it in the center, with magnifying glasses, tweezers, and other appropriate observation tools.  Provide print clues, as needed (write the stems on sentence strip, then laminate).

Use simple prompts to encourage children to think beyond the obvious. Photo credit: (c) 2010, Kim M. Bennett

I see __________.

I hear __________.

I taste __________.

I smell  __________.

I feel __________.

I think __________.

I wonder __________.

This reminds me of __________.

Here is an illustration of what I observed:


See “Simple Science Strategies: Using a Bubble Map” for complete lesson plans for this activity. See also  “The Nature Corner” for details on how to create a center for observation practice.

Safariology™ My Bug Box Exploration Kit with 4 Compartments. Includes one set of tweezers, one magnifier, and an idea booklet. $10.98, HearthSong.


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