There’s nothing like a nice nature walk to help you gather new ideas for future nature studies. We have had an unusually warm December, and took the opportunity to take a great, long walk with with the dog, to see what is happening in the world around us, to clear the indoor cobwebs from our heads, and to just enjoy the outside air. Here are the potential nature study topics that our walk generated:
All Kinds of Patterns
[by Kim M. Bennett]
1. Geologists learn about New England bedrock by studying the patterns of stone wall in the countryside. (c) Kim M. Bennett 2011
2. Popular belief says that moss and lichen grows more on the North sides of trees. Why not test the theory this winter? (c) Kim M. Bennett 2011
3. Have you studied fractals? Repeated branching patterns are fun to study and make. (c) Kim M. Bennett 2012
4. Get outside and walk! If you don’t see a lot to study, why not study how your body reacts to exercise? (c) Kim M. Bennett 2012
5. Not everything flowers when it’s warm — see this witchhazel? Start a calendar to note the patterns of weather and flowering times. (c) Kim M. Bennett 2012
6. Winter is a good time to start weather studies, when there is less to do outside. Begin with temperature and rain measurements. (c) Kim M. Bennett 2012
7. Combine science and math to study symmetry in natural objects, such as these shelf fungi. (c) Kim M. Bennett 2012
8. This poison ivy grew in perfect spirals around the fence posts. Study Fibonacci numbers to learn how to create the same patterns. (c) Kim M. Bennett 2011
9. The alternating wet and dry weather in early winter offers an opportunity to study cycles in fungi and slime molds. (c) Kim M. Bennett 2012
Here in New England, stone walls are as ubiquitous as sandy beaches are on the seashore. Geologists at the University of Connecticut study the patterns of stone walls in the Northeastern United States, because they teach us about the underlying bedrock upon which are towns and villages are built. Farmers of the early colonies could only move the glacial rubble so far, so the patterns of the rubble they could move tell about the patterns of the glaciers that formed the rubble.
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A few years back, we read Stone Wall Secrets, by Robert M. Thorson, a fictional account of a young boy, and the stories his father tells him about the natural history of his farm, as they sit upon the stone wall that surrounds it. I bought a teacher’s guide to accompany a study of the geology of Connecticut several years back.
Connections: Geology, mineral cycle, weathering, Ice Age
An Ecological study of moss and lichens
There is an old belief that moss grows more heavily on the north sides of trees. As we walked, my husband even quoted this little gem. I remember that some of my college companions conducted an ecological study of this, to determine if it was true or not. I can’t recall! But it would be a fun thing to study, and easy for the winter, since moss stays so green all winter, here.
Connections: Ecology, forest biomes, mosses & lichens, population studies
Fractals: the math of natural patterns
Have you ever doodled in your notebook, creating branching patterns that branch again, then branch at the branches, and so on, and so on, until you run out of paper? If so, you are experimenting with fractals.
The science of fractals has turned observation on its end. It was once believed that, the closer you looked at something, the simpler the design, and, if you could look closely enough, you would see the simple geometric building blocks of every design. What we have found, instead, is that closer looks reveal increasing complex designs that often look like miniature versions of the larger design (think about fern fronds, or the branches on the oak tree in the photo, above, to see what I mean).
We might have to visit our post on “The Mathematics of Nature: Fractals,” adding a study of the branching patterns of oaks in our back woods.
Connections: geometry, number series, drawing, botany
The Patterns of exercise and our bodies
It is easy to stay shut in during cold weather where we live. But getting outside and moving is good for body, mind and spirit. Plus, we can count it as physical education and health, when we homeschool!
There are tons of apps for smart phones that let you log in and measure how many footsteps you take when you walk, how far you hike, your heart rate, and other data. Kids love these apps (heck, I love them!), and graphing is an important part of both math and science instruction. (As an adult, I find it helps me keep on an exercise schedule, if I am monitoring these things).
I downloaded My Fitness Pal to my smart phone — many people I know find it to be the most fun and easiest to use. Maybe my son could graph his parents weight as a function of how many miles of hiking we do this winter? Hmmm…
Connections: health, fitness, exercise, anatomy, graphing
I saw this great little gardening journal template in Microsoft Word. It had places for notes, and photos, and lists (ooohhh… I love lists…). And a little section at the beginning of each month, where you record what plants are blooming.
What a great year-long idea for a child’s nature notebook!
We were very surprised to find the native witchhazel still in bloom (it peaks at the end of October here). At the end of January, some species crocus might bloom, if the weather is right. Then February can bring in some daffodils, plus the chamaecyparis. Before the peak bloom season, it might be a great time to start putting together a monthly bloom-time journal, to see patterns in when different types of plants bloom in your region.
[PS – Our seed catalogs started arriving last week. We’re very excited!]
Connections: gardening, diagrams, notebooking/journaling, botany
We have always had an assortment of weather-watching equipment at the ready: an outdoor thermometer that looks beautiful and makes my husband very happy; a little rain gauge/weather vane that we fastened onto the porch support; rain barrels and other assorted rain measuring devices. These were fascinating for all of us. When you plot temperature, air pressure, wind speed or rainfall, you usually see patterns that reflect your region.
One year, my eldest and I used a cloud chart to forecast the weather. It certainly isn’t the long-range forecast we get on the news, but it’s pretty accurate within 24 hours, and fun for kids (and adults). There’s a great cloud chart that can be used to predict the weather available at Weather Forecasting Cloud Chart.
Connections: graphing, prediction, meteorology
Symmetry in nature
In fourth grade geometry, my son is learning about symmetry. This abstract idea is much easier to convey when you use real-life items in the natural world, to demonstrate it.
Take photos of objects and guide your children to draw lines of symmetry on the photos, rather than using 2D line drawings of geometric figures, only.
Connections: geometry, art/drawing
1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55… can you complete the series? And do you know why these numbers are important?
These numbers are Fibonacci numbers, and the string of numbers is called a Fibonacci series. Natural objects are divided into parts represented by these numbers, and beautiful paintings can be divided into sections that represent this series. The number of needles in a bundle of pine needles, the winding of a vine around a pole, the number of scales on a pine cone … all contain Fibonacci numbers.
Read more about Fibonacci numbers, the Golden Proportion, and fractals in Math Wizardry for Kids (a favorite of my eldest son, a real math whiz).
Connections: mathematics, art, proportions
I was just commenting yesterday that we were in the middle of a huge dry season. I spoke too soon! It absolutely poured today. Even yesterday, our hiking was limited on the nature trail because of exceptionally soggy ground.
The woods behind our house has low-lying spots that are the vernal and autumnal nesting spots of spring peepers. We usually start hearing these little fellows around March, around the time when we start to see skunk cabbage poking through the slush and leaf litter. My eldest now serves on the town conservation commission, so he makes it his business to know all about our vernal pools.
All you need to measure rainfall is a flat pan, like a roasting pan or plastic shoebox, and a ruler. To convert between snow in the winter, and water, take the pan inside, let the frozen precipitation melt, and then measure (some people divide by 10, but this varies with the type of snow you get).
Connections: weather, measurement, observation
So What Will We Study?
Tough choices! Here’s what we decided:
- the patterns of temperature and precipitation (so we can do some graphing)
- using Fibonacci numbers to draw vines
- predicting the weather through cloud watching
Here’s to a great (and mathematical) winter!