May 042017
 

Take a moment to envision the most meaningful place of your childhood. There’s a good chance that it was somewhere outdoors. Ours, however, may be the last generation to remember what it’s like to deeply connect with nature. Why? Because children around the world today spend as much as 90% of their time indoors. On average, seven hours of this time is spent in front of a glowing screen. And, for the first time ever, most live in urban areas, often far from green space. This trend has serious implications for children’s healthy development – and for the health of the natural environment itself.

To address this growing lack of nature connection, more than 900 educators, public health advocates, urban planners and researchers from 22 countries gathered in Vancouver in mid-April for the 2017 Children & Nature Network International Conference. The gathering brought together people who are seeking to create a planet in which all children benefit from nature in their daily lives.

Along with Jacob Rodenburg, executive director of Camp Kawartha, I had the pleasure of attending the conference and presenting an outdoor workshop based on activities from “The Big Book of Nature Activities”, which we co-authored. There were also forums and workshops on topics such as forest kindergartens (a preschool held almost exclusively outdoors), naturalizing schoolyards, risky play, the health benefits of nature, honoring indigenous knowledge, designing natural playgrounds and supporting culturally relevant leaders. The keynote speakers included Richard Louv, co- founder of the Children & Nature Network (C&NN) and author of the best-selling book, “Last Child in the Woods”.

Jacob Rodenburg and I led activities from our “Big Book of Nature Activities” at the C&NN conference in Vancouver – Drew Monkman

Children’s Health

Children today are more likely to report symptoms of attention disorder and depression and are often medicated for these problems. Mental health issues, childhood obesity and even myopia appear to be exacerbated by a lack of time spent playing outdoors in nature. However, “Science increasingly tells us that time in nature has the power to make children healthier, happier and smarter,” says Sarah Milligan-Toffler, the executive director of C&NN.

Thirty years ago, there were no more than a handful of studies on the restorative effects of natural environments on children. Today, more than 500 studies have been done and their conclusions are well-aligned. The research consistently shows restorative effects when children have improved access to nature. Depending on the child’s age, this may be the backyard, a municipal park or a wilderness area. In a pilot program in Portland, Oregon, doctors have begun writing “spend time in nature” prescriptions to their patients as part of a longitudinal study on mental health. It’s no wonder. Humans are genetically wired to be in nature, which is where our species evolved.

While it’s not practical for most families to adopt a rural life of unsupervised child-rearing, many parents and grandparents are taking steps to ensure their kids get that potentially healing contact with nearby nature through unstructured outdoor play time. The positive effects are especially strong when they are out with other kids. “We have to do this consciously, because it doesn’t happen on its own very often,” says Richard Louv. In one response to this need, the Canadian Wildlife Federation, a co-sponsor of the Vancouver conference, has created WILD Family Nature Clubs, a loose network of families that organize group hikes and other outdoor experiences.

The conference began with an address by Gil Penalosa, who advises decision makers on how to create vibrant green cities for everyone, regardless of age, gender and social, economic, or ethnic background. His talk focused on how to create connections to nature in an urbanizing world. More than half the world’s population now lives in cities. The majority of these people do not have a park or greenspace within walking distance. Sadly, the proximity of green space decreases as income decreases. However, this can be overcome by establishing everything from naturalized schoolyards and playgrounds to vastly increasing the urban tree canopy and even closing streets to traffic once a week.
Nature connection

One of the most inspiring presentations was by Scott Sampson, CEO of Vancouver’s Science World and creator of the popular PBS show, “Dinosaur Train”. Sampson explained that achieving nature connection can be encompassed in the acronym “NEW”. The N stands for “notice”. If we, as adults, explicitly notice nature, kids will notice it, too. When you step outside in the morning, take time to smell the air, listen to the bird song and point out what’s happening in the trees and gardens. Most children won’t make a habit of noticing nature unless we do.

The E is for “engage”. Nature connection, in Sampson’s words, is a “full contact sport” involving all the senses. Kids need opportunities to get down and dirty – dig in the mud, climb trees, play with sticks, catch wild creatures and even get scraped and bruised from time to time. We therefore need to rethink the notion of risk, and ask ourselves “What’s the risk of NOT letting a child engage in nature play?” If kids don’t deal with risks when they’re young, they may not be able to deal with them when they’re teenagers – a time when drugs, alcohol, cars and other potential dangers enter their world.

The final letter, W, stands for “wonder”. Adults need to be conveyors of wonder and awaken children’s eyes to how amazing the natural world actually is. In addition to expressing wonder yourself – “Wow! Look at all the pollen on this bee!” – ask questions and encourage kids to do the same. Let’s say you come across a bird or insect that catches a child’s attention. Rather than simply saying what it is (if you know), take time to observe it: What do YOU think it is? What do you think it’s doing? Why do you think it might be that colour or behave in that way? Later, you can sit down together to check a book or website for answers. Questions are powerful and almost always lead to rich learning. Encourage children to tell the story of their nature experiences to other people, too.

What Sampson is describing here is the importance of “mentoring”. This doesn’t mean you have to be a nature expert. Rather, a mentor’s job is to be a role model, to encourage and guide questions and to share experiences. Be sure to tell stories of nature experiences from when you were a child, too. Stories are a powerful way to engage young minds and deepen nature connection.

A vision

An essential part of this “New Nature Movement” is providing an inspiring vision to young people. We need this vision to counter the apocalyptic view of the future that inhabits so many of us these days. Many young people think the world will be a far worse place when they reach old age.

The vision needs to be much more than just a sustainable planet. As one speaker said, “Would you just want a sustainable marriage?” It must embrace the idea that people need nature and nature needs people. We can’t thrive without it, and in a world moving towards 10 billion people, nature can’t thrive without us. We need to go beyond simply saying that spending too much time indoors is bad for you, and connecting to nature has all kinds of health benefits. An uplifting vision must include the idea of “relationship”. When we look at nature, we need to see ourselves as deeply embedded within it. A forest is not simply a collection of resources or a pleasant location for jogging or playing. We need to recognize and feel the intrinsic value of other species and of entire ecosystems. When we are in nature, we are in the presence of plants and animals with which we co-evolved. We share most of the same genes. Their stories are every bit as intriguing and imbued with mystery as the story of Homo sapiens. If you need a reminder of how we co-evolved with other species, just remember that at least half the trillions of cells in our bodies are non-human. They are bacteria (over 500 species in our gut alone), viruses, mites and so on. They keep us healthy, and without them we would not survive. In other words, we need to shift to biocentric thinking – an ethic that extends inherent value to all living things.

The vision must celebrate who we are as humans and where we came from. Variously called the Universe Story, Big History or the Epic of Evolution, it is the staggeringly beautiful account of our deep time origins. The story starts with the Big Bang and extends right to us – and every other living thing. Completely anchored in science, it paints the picture of a creative cosmos in which stardust has literally become living things. When children know this story, they will be inspired to shape where the narrative goes from here. Learn the story yourself, and tell it to the children in your life. Google “big history project”. Pick up a copy of Sampson’s “How to Raise a Wild Child” too. It’s full of great mentoring ideas and includes the Big History story.

When we think of the most important issues of our time, climate change, habitat destruction and species extinction all come to mind. However, unless we connect young people – and ourselves! – to nature, a long-term solution to these problems is probably impossible. If voters and decision makers have no emotional connection to the natural world, we can’t expect them to vote or make decisions in its favour. Simply stated, we will not fight to save what we do not know or love.

Apr 202017
 

One of the greatest gifts you can give a child is a sense of wonder in the natural world and how everything in nature can be explained by science and critical thinking. And nowhere is there a better example of the power of critical thinking than when it comes to evolution. Even though a full understanding of the mechanisms of evolution requires an understanding of genetics, children can usually grasp the essential components by age seven or eight. These components are variation (individuals in a population of the same species can vary somewhat in their traits), inheritance (traits are inherited from parents and passed on to offspring), natural selection (life forms with traits that help them to survive and reproduce are most likely to pass on these traits to the next generation) and time (major change usually takes thousands of generations or more).

Effective questioning 

Thoughtful questioning not only serves to clarify the components of evolution but also helps elicit a sense of wonder, curiosity and deeper appreciation of nature itself. Start by encouraging children to look in detail at the organism or behavior in question. Ask them to describe what they see and why they think the plant or animal looks or behaves that way. Always use the language of beauty and awe: “Isn’t a woodpecker amazing! Imagine yourself making a living this way!” Ask open-ended questions starting with “Why?” or “What do you think?” Encourage the kids to do the same. If they don’t know the answer, help them come up with a reasonable hypothesis — an educated guess. Model this yourself. Later, follow up with an Internet search. Remember that it’s perfectly fine to say “I don’t know” or “Scientists don’t have an answer yet.”

Pileated Woodpecker – Jeff Keller

Time activities

One of the hardest things for kids and adults alike to grasp is the concept of evolutionary time and numbers like a million or a billion. Counting can be helpful here. Ask a child to count to a 100. This might take 30 seconds if they count quickly. At that rate, counting to a 1,000 takes about 5 minutes, to 100,000 takes a day’s work (10 hours), to a million takes two weeks work, to 100 million takes five years work, and to a billion takes a whole working life. Imagine how long a billion years is!

Toilet Paper Timeline: This is a fun way to help children visualize the massive amount of time that life on Earth has had to evolve. You’ll need a roll of toilet paper of 450 sheets (tear off 50 from a roll of 500), sticky notes and a long hall or open area outdoors. Explain that the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old and that life first emerged about 3.5 billion years ago. You might add that we don’t yet fully understand how life began, but scientists are getting closer and closer to the answer.

Toilet paper roll

If you are going outside, choose a calm day. Unroll the entire roll of toilet paper. Each square of toilet paper represents about ten million years. Write down each stage (see below) on a sticky note. Attach the sticky notes to the squares indicated. Take the kids on a walk along the timeline and discuss as you go. Be enthusiastic and use the language of wonder! Note: BYA = billion years ago; MYA = million years ago 4.5 BYA: Earth is formed, along with the other planets (square 1), 3.7 BYA: Earth’s crust solidifies (square 80), 3.5 BYA: first life appears in oceans (square 100), 3.25 BYA: photosynthesis begins in oceans (square 125), 2.4 BYA: oceans contain significant amounts of oxygen (square 260), 1.9 BYA: first cells with nuclei appear in oceans (square 310),  650 MYA: first multicellular organisms appear (square 385), 500 MYA: first land life (square 400 ), 250 MYA: massive volcanic eruption kills mass extinction of 96 percent of all life (square 425), 245 MYA: Age of Dinosaurs begins (square 426), 200 MYA: the first mammals appear (square 430), 150 MYA: supercontinent breaks up and continents drift apart (square 435),  65 MYA: Asteroid impact ends Age of Dinosaurs and kills 70 percent of all life  (square 444),  3.5 MYA: first early humans appear in Africa (last square, 3.6 cm from the end),  100,000 years ago: first Homo sapiens, our species, appears (last square, 1 mm from end),  10,000 years ago: recorded human history begins (last square, 0.1 mm from end)

More activities

1.  See your DNA: Believe it or not, it’s easy to see your own DNA, the recipe that makes you. Mix a half-quart (500 ml) of drinking water with 1 tbsp (45 g) of salt and stir until salt is dissolved. Transfer 3 tbsp (14 ml) of salt water into a clear glass. Swirl the salt water around in your mouth for 1 minute. Spit the water back into the glass. Cheek cells will be suspended in the salt water. Gently stir the salt water with one drop of clear dish soap. (Note: Soap breaks down the cell membranes, releasing the DNA.) In a separate glass, mix 7 tbsp (105 g) of isopropyl alcohol and 3 drops of food coloring. Tilt the salt-water cup and gently pour the alcohol–food color mixture so that it forms a layer on top (about 1 in. /2 cm thick). 8. Wait 2 ½ minutes. You should see small white clumps and strings forming. That’s your DNA!

2.  Camouflaged Eggs: The eggs of birds that nest on the ground (e.g., killdeer, ruffed grouse) are highly camouflaged, not just in colour but in pattern, too. These birds will also choose ground (e.g., dark sand instead of light sand) that offers the best match to the egg color and pattern. In other words, birds and their eggs have evolved to maximize camouflage. Species that nest in cavities often lay all-white eggs, since camouflage is not a concern. For this activity, you’ll need hard-boiled eggs and different colored markers or tempera paint.

Show the children pictures of real eggs from ground-nesting birds. Discuss the most effective colours and patterns. Visit a natural area where the eggs will be hidden. Ask the children to think about how to best camouflage their eggs. Each child then takes two to three eggs and uses paint or markers to colour and mark them. Have them hide their eggs in a designated area. Hide a few unpainted white eggs as well for comparison. Excluding their own eggs, how many can they then find in two minutes? Which were the best camouflaged?

Cedar Waxwing nest with eggs – Wikimedia

3. Adaptations Scavenger Hunt: For many plants and animals, spring is a time of mating and reproduction. Over millions of years, special adaptations have evolved to make this process possible. These include adaptations for attracting a mate, defending a breeding site and, in the case of plants, evolving ways to have their genes spread by the wind or by animal pollinator.

Make up a list of common adaptations to look for and give each child a copy. Briefly discuss the purpose of each adaptation. Here are a some ideas: 1. brightly colored flowers (attract pollinators), 2. flowers with a strong scent (attract pollinators), 3. flowers with lines or spots on petals (guide pollinator to nectar), 4. a “catkin” flower (e.g., poplar) hanging like a caterpillar from the twig (easily jostled by wind, thereby spreading the pollen), 5. a bird chasing another away (defending nest or territory) 6. brightly colored male birds like a mallard or cardinal (attract a mate), 7. a dull-coloured female bird (camouflage on nest), 8. male birds singing (attract a mate, defend territory)

Visit an area where the kids are likely to find the flowers and birds in the list. They may want to use a camera to take pictures of the adaptations. Encourage them to add other probable adaptations that they see. Share and discuss.

4. Meet the Beast Within You:  In this activity, kids will learn about our remnant body parts and behaviors that link us to our distant past. Our ancestors needed these “vestiges” in order to survive. Our bodies still carry dozens of reminders of how we used to be millions years ago. However, humans are very different now. We no longer walk on all fours and don’t wear a thick coat of fur. Over time, we have evolved into the bare-skinned and big-brained creatures we are today.

Ask the kids to try the following: 1. Feel their coccyx at the bottom of their backbone. It is the remnant of a lost tail. 2. Using a mirror, look at their canine teeth. They were very useful to early humans for tearing tough flesh. Compare to those of a dog (show picture). 3. Using a mirror, have them make a big, toothy smile. Smiles were a way for early humans to scare away an enemy. Their meaning has changed! 4. Ask if anyone can wiggle their ears? Early humans could do this to help in hearing, just like dogs today. Because of a genetic mutation, only some people can do it now. 5. Have them put their arm in cold water until goose bumps appear. These bumps were the body’s way to erect the thick fur we once had. This made us look larger and more ferocious. Show a picture of a dog with its back hair raised. Ask why our hairy coats may have disappeared?

Coccyx (in red) (Photo by DBCLS)

Earth Day should be about more than picking up litter. Make it a celebration of our planet’s amazing biodiversity and the process behind life’s myriad forms – evolution.

 

 

 

 

 

Apr 132017
 

Kids make great amateur scientists. They love to ask “why” questions. “Why is the monarch butterfly so colourful? Why does it start life as a caterpillar? Why does it migrate? Thanks to Charles Darwin, we now understand that questions such as these are entitled to an evidence-based answer – and it is the theory of evolution that provides the answer. To quote evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky: “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” Rather than taking away from the wonder of nature, understanding evolution only adds to it. There are so many mysteries in nature that we’ve not yet solved.

Children merit a truthful and passionate introduction to the natural world around them, especially if we are to harness their innate curiosity. Once children get a sense of how evolution works – and eventually link it to themselves – their eyes light up with wonder. I remember one little girl in grade 4 saying, “You mean we’re animals!” Without a basic understanding of evolution, nature study – and much of biology – risks becoming the memorization of species names and facts.

Students watching Monarch emerge from chrysalis (Photo: Drew Monkman)

Unfortunately, there’s a perception among many parents and teachers that evolution is hard to explain, or that they’ll get something wrong. It’s really not that difficult at all. Conversations about evolution should be done in context. Allow the children to think the process through themselves. A discussion might go something like this. “Look at that animal over there. What is it? (a squirrel). Is a squirrel a bird, an insect or a mammal? (mammal). How do you know? (It has hair). Okay, well if we lived at the North Pole and we saw a squirrel, do you think it would have more or less hair? (more) Why? (to help it stay warm). So, if the weather here was to get colder and colder every year, what do you think would happen with the squirrels? (develop more hair). Well, you’re right, because there’s always a chance that when baby squirrels are born, some may have more hair than others. This will help these lucky ones to survive, find a mate and have babies. They don’t “try” to have more hair; it just happens by chance. Eventually, all of the squirrels may end up with more hair, since they might be the only ones to survive the colder weather.”

In a nutshell, evolution can be explained to children like this: 1. All creatures struggle to survive and have babies, but many fail. 2. Creatures born with a helpful trait (e.g., a longer bill) are more likely to survive and have babies. 3. Parents pass on the useful trait(s) to their young. 4. Over time, these new traits can lead to a new species – one that can only have babies with its own kind.

Human origins

Eventually, the question of human origin will come up. You might say something like this: “In Africa, there were once primates (e.g., monkeys, lemurs and apes) that were similar to modern day chimpanzees. They became separated into two groups. One continued to live in forests, spent a lot of time in trees and usually walked and climbed on all fours. The other group moved into more open fields and had to spend more time on the ground. Over time, the second group started acting differently like walking upright, which is better for seeing long distances above the grass. Over about seven million years (it takes about three days to count to a million, non-stop) the differences between the groups increased, until the second group became more or less like we are today, and the first group became chimpanzees. That’s what evolution is: if living things find themselves in a new environment- let’s say living in fields instead of forests – they change over time in order to survive. As for humans, we evolved to have big, smart brains in order to “think” our way to meeting our needs. For example, we began to build tools and to develop language. Scientists have found fossils of many of our human ancestors.” A great video to watch with children eight or older can be found by Googling “Khan academy + human evolution overview”.

Model of Homo erectus, an early species of human – Wikimedia

If kids ask about explanations that don’t align with evolution, tell them not to accept what others say – even Mom and Dad – but to focus on evidence. This includes fossils, the amazing similarities in the fetuses and bodies of humans and all other vertebrates and the similarities in the genes, which you can explain as the recipes for making plants and animals. Tell them that when scientists look at chimpanzee genes, they are practically identical to those of human genes. We even share more than half our genes with bananas! Kids are great critical thinkers if you give them a chance.

Activities

1. Small changes: This activity shows how small changes over time make a big difference. Draw a simple bug on the first page of a stack of paper. Then pass the paper on to another person and have them draw the bug as exactly as they can. They should move the original to the bottom of the stack. Have them pass their copy onto the next person who will try to reproduce the bug. Don’t forget to hide the previous version under the stack. Do this at least ten times. Compare the original to the “evolved” bug. Was there much of a difference? All it takes is a small change (mutation) in each generation to create huge change over time. Think of how birds evolved from dinosaurs!

2. What’s bugging you? Here’s an interactive story about bugs, which can help young children understand the concept of evolution. “Let’s say I release 100 bugs onto a green lawn. Fifty are green and 50 are brown. Now, which bugs do you think will best be able to hide from enemies like bug-eating birds? (Most kids will say green ones.) So, if I go back in a few years, would I find more green or more brown bugs? (green again). And, what color will the babies of the green bugs be? (green). That’s right. Just as your mom or dad passed on a certain trait like your blue eyes, the parent green bugs will pass on the green color to their babies. (Now comes the tricky part.) Let’s say some green bugs that usually live on green lawns get blown in a storm to an island where there is mostly brown sand. Life will be hard. However, once in a rare while, a pair of these green bugs might produce a brown baby. This is because little mistakes sometimes happen in how an animal’s body makes a baby. Do you think those rare brown babies would escape enemies more easily? (yes). And, if the rare brown bugs live a little longer because they can hide better, do you think they may have more babies than the green bugs? (Most kids will agree.) What color would most of the babies be? (brown.)

As the years go by, brown bugs will become more and more common. Color isn’t the only thing that might change, however. Because a sandy habitat offers fewer places to hide, the babies that are born with other good traits for hiding — once again because of a mistake in how the parents’ body makes a baby — would end up surviving more easily. Such a trait might be bigger, stronger front legs that are good for digging hiding spots in the sand. Now, let’s say that hundreds of years later, there is another huge storm. Some of the brown bugs get blown off the island and end up on the grassy lawns where their ancestors came from. Would they have trouble surviving? (Kids should say, yes.) Well, that’s not the only problem they would have. Other than eating, what else do all animals do? (Prompt someone to say, “have babies.”) Well, imagine a male brown sand bug meets a female green lawn bug (or vice versa). She might just chase him away or completely ignore him. She won’t want to make babies with him because, being brown and having huge front legs, he looks so different. At this point, we can say that the green lawn bugs and the brown sand bugs have evolved into two different species. Just like horses and zebras!)

Kids are fascinated by living things and why they look and behave as they do (Photo: Drew Monkman)

3. Paper circles game: This is a hands-on version of part of the story above. It shows how nature “decides” (natural selection) who survives and has babies. Using a whole punch, make 50 sand-brown and 50 grass-green paper circles. You might want to use paint sample cards. Sprinkle 20 of each colour on a green lawn. Give the children maybe 30 seconds to remove as many of the little circles as they can (but only one at a time). Then, count the number of circles of each colour that were picked up. For every circle that remains on the grass (20 minus number picked up), add 3 or so of the same colour. This represents reproduction. Repeat the activity for a couple of more “generations”. The children will see how the “population” on the lawn shifts towards the colours that are hardest to see. You can then try the same activity on sand.

Next week, I’ll provide more activities and thoughts on teaching evolution. What better way to celebrate Earth Day than helping kids understand the reason for our Earth’s huge diversity of life!

 

Nov 202014
 

“Take one child. Place outdoors in nearby green spaces. Leave for several hours at a time. Repeat daily. Sprinkle in a dash of adventure. Fold in a generous portion of exploration and discovery. Top with wonder and awe. Let rise…”

Not long ago, my friend Jacob and I took a group of children out for a hike to a nearby wetland. Along the way, we came across some Northern Leopard Frogs. “Let’s catch ‘em,” some of the boys yelled out, ready to pounce. “No,” we suggested, “let’s watch instead.” So we did. We hunkered down and stayed as still as we could. We observed how one frog hopped slowly against a backdrop of sedges and wildflowers, its spotted, wet skin glistening in the sun. We watched, too, how its pink tongue snapped out and grabbed an unsuspecting grasshopper. “Did you see that?” the kids exclaimed. “That was awesome!” And it most certainly was.
In an increasingly urbanized world, children (and many adults) experience far less contact with the natural world. Our children are far more likely to watch the flickering screen of a video game or hear the sounds of traffic than see tadpoles in a woodland pond or hear the rhythmic chorus of frogs in spring. They are also more likely to recognize hundreds of corporate logos or cartoon characters than be able to identify more than a handful of local plant and animal species.

Students watching Monarch emerge from chrysalis -Sept. 2007 Drew-Monkman

Students watching Monarch emerge from chrysalis -Sept. 2007 Drew-Monkman

As I have mentioned in several previous columns, I am working on a nature activity guide with Jacob Rodenburg, Executive Director of Camp Kawartha. The book calls on all of us to reclaim the natural world as an integral part of the human sphere. It also asks that we encourage our children to value nature-based experiences – the kinds of experiences in which we hear birds, feel the mud between our toes and stare in wonder at the night sky.
Just as family, friends, neighbours and colleagues form a very real community in our lives, there is also a very tangible sense of belonging and connection that arises from being immersed in nature. More than ever, children need opportunities to learn and feel that they are part of this larger community, too. And, like any relationship, this requires commitment, time and effort.
We want parents, grandparents and educators alike to think about how to raise caring, responsible and engaged citizens who recognize that their community includes both the living and the abiotic (e.g., air, water, soil) systems that support and nurture us all. While it is true that we enjoy a world of amazing technological tools from smartphones to apps of all kinds, we’d like people to think about selecting technologies that enhance outdoor learning – rather than getting in the way of it. We all need to help kids – and, increasingly, ourselves – to see the value of connecting to nature, not just to addictive screens.
In 1980, Thomas Tanner, an environmental education researcher, interviewed close to 200 professionals from around the world, who were involved in the conservation movement. He wanted to know what childhood experiences these people had had in common, which inspired them to want to protect the environment. Not surprisingly, almost all the respondents described rich encounters with nature while they were growing up. They lived on farms, they tramped through marshes, they visited cottages, they hiked, they canoed and they discovered. In short, they engaged with their natural surroundings. However, today, many of us are asking where tomorrow’s environmentalists will come from? Who will advocate for shrinking habitat and the containment of urban sprawl? Who will speak for threatened and endangered species and for our own green spaces, when the very formative experiences that make for caring environmental stewards are removed from childhood?
As a society, we pay a huge price for our disconnection from nature. The rate of childhood obesity in North America has almost tripled over the past twenty years, partly because children are spending less far less time outside and are therefore not participating in regular exercise. Research has found that children who explore and play in natural environments tend to be less competitive and more co-operative than those who play in areas dominated by asphalt and play structures. Playing in nature also enhances creative thought, stimulates imaginative play and improves a child’s ability to concentrate during school.
But nowhere is the cost of our disconnection from nature greater than when it comes to climate change. Now, more than ever, we need to be paying attention to the myriad changes – many of which are subtle – that are occurring all around us. Yes, climate change is partly about wrenching disasters, but it’s also about numerous “canary in the coal mine” events: the early arrival of migratory birds, the early blossoming of wildflowers, the increased frequency of unseasonal weather events, etc. Noticing these small changes and understanding that they represent a kind of climatic early warning system requires a critical mass of “citizen naturalists” that have first-hand, detailed knowledge of local nature and care deeply.

Student working in her nature journal - Drew Monkman

Student working in her nature journal – Drew Monkman

Overview of book
Tentatively entitled “Nature Activities through the Seasons – a guide for families, educators and youth leaders,” our book will be a collection of things to do outside over the course of an entire year. Part of the inspiration came from my 2002 book “Nature’s Year in the Kawarthas” and a desire to provide activities to accompany the many events in nature described within. Although the activities are geared mostly to children and adolescents, many will also be of interest to adults – including seniors – and to families looking for ways to enjoy nature together.
The book will be divided into four sections, which include an introduction, basic nature skills, core concepts (e.g., evolution, phenology, climate change, why we have seasons) and activities specific to each season. They include fun activities (e.g., games, arts and crafts, nature collections, scavenger hunts) as well as more serious activities such as species identification, nature photography, journaling and ways to enhance sensory awareness. The book will also strive to help children and adults alike develop a deeper understanding and appreciation for evolution in everyday plants and animals. Each season also includes activities based on “Big Ideas” that are key to acquiring nature literacy. For example, in the Fall chapter we look at the Big Idea of metamorphosis and how it can be seen and understood by raising Monarch butterflies.
Readers will also find hints on how to raise a naturalist, how to be an effective mentor to children and how to get kids outside – even in an age of busy schedules and heightened concerns for safety. The extensive skills section will provide an introduction to year-long activities such as birding, insect-watching, botanizing, reading animal tracks, geocaching for naturalists, sketching, photography, Citizen Science projects and connecting with nature in a digital age. Informative side-bars cover topics such as common misconceptions about nature, species to learn to identify each season, nature-viewing from a car, what to sketch or photograph and ideas for what to focus on during a neighbourhood walk. There is also an “At-a-glance” chart of what to look and listen for each season.
The book is being published by New Society Publishers and should be available in the spring of 2016.

Student sketching in Edmison Heights Habitat Area - Drew Monkman

Student sketching in Edmison Heights Habitat Area – Drew Monkman

Break from column
In order to devote myself more fully to this project, I have decided to take a break from this column until early next fall. I have arranged, however, for a number of very knowledgeable local naturalists and educators to fill in for me during my absence. They are:
Martin and Kathy Parker – Martin is the president of the Peterborough Field Naturalists and, together with his wife Kathy, was a long-time nature columnist for the North Bay Nugget
Rick Stankiewicz – past president of the Peterborough Astronomical Association and award-winning photographer
Tim Dyson – naturalist with special expertise in moths and birds of prey
Paul Elliott – professor in the School of Education at Trent University with a special interest in environmental education as well as bat ecology and conservation
Jim Schaefer – professor of biology at Trent University whose lab focuses on the population ecology and conservation of northern mammals, especially Woodland Caribou. Jim has been a regular contributor to the Examiner for many years.
Lisa Nisbet – assistant professor of psychology at Trent University whose research focuses on connectedness with nature and the links with health, well-being (happiness), and environmentally sustainable behaviour.

Sep 182014
 

Over the past few years, I’ve become increasingly interested in how to make people more aware of evolution and how it manifests itself in even the most common backyard species. The evolutionary “story” of the Monarch is every bit as compelling as that of the whale. Understanding how the pressures of the environment have shaped the behaviour and appearance of plants and animals – through the process of evolution – adds a great deal to our enjoyment of nature. Little by little, all of the life that surrounds us becomes far more interesting and wondrous.
A focus on the wonder of evolution will be a big part of the up-coming nature activity book that I’m writing with Jacob Rodenburg of Camp Kawartha. This week, I would like to share a few examples from the book that deal with this important theme.

The imaginary Deeg (Wikimedia)

The imaginary Deeg (Wikimedia)

Can you Deeg it?
Here is a story to help kids better understand how evolution works. We’ll see how small mutations (mistakes or errors in the genes) can lead to big changes – so big that one species can even split into two. How? Let’s imagine a species of deer-like animals that live in a grassy valley. We will call them Deegs. Male and female Deegs can breed (have babies together) because they are members of the same species and find each other attractive.
However, let’s see what happens when some of the Deegs are forced to move into a nearby, but isolated, valley. Imagine, too, that instead of tender grasses to eat, there are only trees with tough, leathery leaves. An ability to eat and digest grasses is essential for survival in the original valley but being able to reach up, then chew, and digest tough tree leaves is necessary in the second.
Slowly, over many generations, differences would start to appear in the Tree Valley Deegs, because of mutations. Natural selection – “nature” deciding who will survive – would favour any Deegs that are born with bigger and tougher teeth and mouths as well as longer necks. In other words, Deegs with these characteristics would have a better chance of surviving and passing on their genes.
Now imagine that once every few generations a Deeg from one valley wanders into the other valley and wants to mate. For many years, mating would be possible because they would still be the same species. However, as the generations go by and differences in the genes continue to build up, it would become harder and harder for the Deegs from the two valleys to produce healthy babies together. For example, female Deegs from one valley may no longer find the males from the other valley attractive and refuse to mate. When it becomes virtually impossible for the Deegs from one valley to breed with the Deegs from the other valley, they would have evolved into two distinct species.

Leaves = evolution!
September is a month when our attention is drawn to the beautiful colour display of leaves. For much of the year, however, leaves can easily be taken for granted. To help children appreciate just how amazing these structures really are, ask them to look closely at a tree leaf, to feel it and to describe it. Then, ask some of the following questions:
• Why does a tree have leaves? (to capture sunlight and take in carbon dioxide and in order to use photosynthesis to make the food it needs to grow)
• Why are leaves green for most the year? (green is the colour of chlorophyll, the pigment or molecule that absorbs the sunlight used in photosynthesis)
• Why do leaves change colour? (as summer ends, the chlorophyll in the leaf decomposes and other pigments – e.g., yellow, orange, brown – that were previously hidden become visible)
• What are some of the challenges or problems a leaf faces? (getting eaten, drying out, over-heating from exposure to the sun, etc.)
• Why do you think these pine leaves (needles) might be so hard and waxy? (conserve water, deter insects)
• Why do you think some leaves are so fuzzy or leathery? (conserve water, deter insects)
• Why do leaves come in different sizes? (small leaves conserve water better and don’t heat up so much in the sun; large leaves gather more light and therefore necessary in shady areas or low down in a tree)
• Why do leaves come in different shapes and have different edges? (complex edges and lobes allow leaves to get rid of absorbed heat more quickly; smooth edges are more common in shade-loving plants since heat absorption is less a problem)

Oak leaves - Evolution has made them deeply lobed and leathery. (Drew Monkman)

Oak leaves – Evolution has made them deeply lobed and leathery. (Drew Monkman)

Viceroys and monarchs
The next time you think you’ve see a Monarch butterfly, be careful that you are not actually looking at its look-alike cousin, the Viceroy. These two species have evolved near-identical wing colours and patterns. However, they are only distantly related. The reason they look so similar is because of mimicry, which is the ability of a species to imitate something other than what it really is. Why would mimicry have evolved? In the case of the Viceroy, the purpose is to trick predators into thinking that it is an inedible species. Predators quickly learn that Monarchs are distasteful and eating them causes vomiting. They therefore learn to avoid them. Viceroys therefore find protection by closely resembling their distant cousins. However, there is also some newer research showing that the Viceroy itself may actually be poisonous and that both the Viceroy and Monarch mimic each other. Now, isn’t evolution amazing!

Monarch (left) and Viceroy Comparison - Can you see the difference on the lower (hind) wing? Wikipedia

Monarch (left) and Viceroy Comparison – Can you see the difference on the lower (hind) wing? Wikipedia

BIG IDEA: Metamorphosis
The Monarchs that we see flying south in September have just recently completed an amazing transformation known as metamorphosis. This is the process by which an animal continues to develop and change its body structure and behaviour, even after hatching out of the egg. Some animals that undergo metamorphosis include amphibians, insects, molluscs and crustaceans. In insects, metamorphosis can be incomplete or partial (egg, nymph, adult) or complete (egg, larva, pupa, adult).
In incomplete metamorphosis, the immature stages are called nymphs. Nymphs closely resemble adults but are smaller and lack wings. Some common insects that go through this kind of metamorphosis include grasshoppers and dragonflies. This type of metamorphosis evolved first and is therefore much more ancient than complete metamorphosis.
In complete metamorphosis, the immature stages are called larva. Depending on the insect group, other terms such as caterpillar, grub, maggot, etc. are also used. Unlike nymphs, larvae look very different from adults. Larvae eventually enter an inactive or resting state known as a pupa. In the case of butterflies and moths, we often use the terms ‘chrysalis’ and ‘cocoon.’ During pupation, adult body structures replace the larval structures. The adult emerges from the pupal stage.
Metamorphosis has long been a cause of misunderstanding and mysticism. One early scientist even thought that metamorphosis in butterflies began by the accidental mating of two different species: one, an earth-bound crawler and the other, an airborne flitter! Scientists now use the theory of evolution to explain how a larval and pupal stage came to be. They believe that the larval stage is actually a walking form of the embryo that was developing in the egg. Rather than continue to develop in the egg, natural selection found it to be more advantageous to the animal to get out of the egg as soon as possible and simply to continue to develop while on the move. Scientists think of the pupa as very similar to the nymph stage in incomplete metamorphosis. The difference, however, is that the pupa goes through all of the nymph stages while resting and being completely immobile.

Monarch caterpillar (larva) - Drew Monkman

Monarch caterpillar (larva) – Drew Monkman

CLIMATE CHANGE RALLY
A Climate Change Rally will take place at Millennium Park on Sunday, September 21, from 1:30 to 2:30 PM. The goal of the Rally is two-fold: to explain the impacts climate change is already having right here in the Kawarthas and to encourage local, provincial and federal politicians to take decisive action to mitigate the problem. The event is being organized by the Peterborough chapter of For Our Grandparents and is part of the Purple Onion Festival.

 

Sep 112014
 

“From dewy lanes at morning
The grapes’ sweet odors rise;
At noon the roads all flutter
With yellow butterflies
By all these lovely tokens
September days are here,
With summer’s best of weather,
And autumn’s best of cheer”
– Helen Hunt Jackson

This week, I would like to propose some activities for people of all ages to more fully enjoy the wonderful month of September. They are part of an up-coming book on seasons-based nature activities that I am writing with Jacob Rodenburg, Executive Director of Camp Kawartha.

Watch day-to-day colour change in the same tree like this White Ash  (Drew Monkman)

Watch day-to-day colour change in the same tree like this White Ash (Drew Monkman)

A September walk
We’ve known for a long time how beneficial walking is to our physical health. Now, we are becoming increasingly aware of huge benefits to our mental health, as well. Daily walking enhances concentration, creativity, mood and general psychological well-being. Here are some ideas to add a dose of nature to your daily walk.
1. Watch how a specific tree changes colour over the course of this month and next.
2. Collect leaves of different shapes and colours and try to identify them when you get home.
3. Take note of the health of the trees. Do you see dead crowns, diseased leaves, “tar spot” fungus on maple leaves, fall webworm “nests” on the branches, etc.?
4. Pay attention to the amount of fruit – seeds, berries, acorns, keys, and the like – on trees and shrubs. It varies considerably from one year to the next.
5. Listen to the steady background of the insect chorus. How many different voices can you hear?
6. Take note of the absence of bird song. Listen, however, for the calls of Blue Jays and crows.
7. Pay attention to smells such as sun-heated vegetation and fallen pine needles.
8. Keep an eye out for squirrels digging holes in the lawn to store food items.
9. Watch for flocks of birds. By September, even robins are usually in flocks.
10. On hot, muggy days, watch for swarms of mating ants milling about on the sidewalk and flying overhead.

A typical orb spider web  (Chen-Pan Liao)

A typical orb spider web (Chen-Pan Liao)

“Pish” in birds
If you’d like to see birds close up, try this activity. When you hear chickadees calling, stop and make loud “pishing” noises for a minute or two. Pishing consists of making the sound “shhhh” but adding a “p” in front. You will be amazed as chickadees and nuthatches often approach to within one or two metres of you. Don’t stop then, however, because migrating vireos and warblers are probably also present but are usually just a little slower to approach. Although some of the warblers are sporting their dull fall plumage, others look surprisingly like they did in the spring and are therefore easy to identify. Look for distinctive markings such as eye rings, splashes of colour and stripes. Don’t expect to identify everything. You can see and hear pishing in action by going to YouTube and searching “pshing!”

Curious Red-eyed Vireo responding to pishing (Drew Monkman)

Curious Red-eyed Vireo responding to pishing (Drew Monkman)

It’s feeder time
If you want a close-up look at some of the migrant sparrows passing through in early fall, September is the time to set up your feeders. Be sure to also scatter some niger seed or finch mix in small piles on the grass under your feeder and around the edge of shrubs and conifers. These will attract Dark-eyed Juncos, along with both White-throated and White-crowned sparrows. You can also scatter sunflower seeds about if you don’t mind losing some to the squirrels! Many of the sparrows will be juveniles making their first migration south. Use your field guide to learn the differences between adult and juvenile birds.

Salamander sleuthing
Hunting for salamanders is great fun. They are most commonly found in low-lying wooded areas or around country homes and cottages. Look under fallen logs, old boards, and flat rocks and even in old piles of firewood. Carefully lift up the rock or piece of wood and peak underneath. The most common species are the Spotted, Blue-spotted and Red-backed. If you find a salamander, observe the counter shading (darker on top and lighter underneath). Notice, too, how stream-lined they are – slim and flat – for fitting into tight nooks and crannies. Red-backed salamanders can resemble earthworms, so be sure to look carefully. After you’ve examined them and maybe taken a picture or two, carefully put the rock, board or log back just the way you found it. Please be careful not to crush the animal.

Red-backed Salamander -Drew Monkman

Red-backed Salamander -Drew Monkman

Close-up with insects
Take time this month to see how many different insects and other invertebrates you can find in a patch of goldenrod. Don’t worry if you can’t identify them all; just focus on the diversity. Pay special attention to the bees. You should be able to see the large, yellow pollen baskets on their hind legs. Watch, too, for insects that haven’t moved for a long time, because they may still be in the clutches of a well-camouflaged predator like an ambush bug or a crab spider. To be comfortable, you might also want to bring a lawn chair. Don’t forget your camera, either, because you should be able to get some great pictures, especially by taking advantage of the macro settings. If you are worried about allergies, remember that ragweed pollen is the allergen to be concerned about. Goldenrod pollen is not spread through the air, being far too heavy. Rather, it is spread by insects. Don’t worry about getting stung, either. You can get right into an insect’s face with your camera with almost no danger of being bitten. BugGuide.net is an excellent on-line resource. You can even post pictures for identification purposes.

Tri-colored Bumble Bee on goldenrod - Drew  Monkman

Tri-colored Bumble Bee on goldenrod – Drew Monkman

Catch a spider web
Locate an easy-to-access web. Apply a spray adhesive to a piece of black construction paper or cardstock. With the black paper behind the web, slowly bring the paper towards you until it touches the web. Then, with the web on the paper, carefully cut the guy-lines holding the web in place. On the back of the paper, you can make a note of the date, location, type of web and the species of spider that made it.

A rainbow hike
This activity will help you to see and appreciate the multitude of leaf colours produced by different trees, shrubs and other plants in autumn. Try to obtain some paint chip samples (e.g., yellows, reds, oranges, greens, browns, rusts, etc.) from a hardware store. Provide each member of the group with an assortment of different coloured chips. As you are walking, try to find a leaf that matches as many of the chips as possible. You may wish to collect the leaf, photograph it or simply show it to the other members of the group.

Measure your shadow
On a sunny day close to the fall equinox, go outside at noon with a measuring tape or metre stick. Stand up straight on a flat surface (e.g., lawn, asphalt) with your back to the sun. Have a friend measure the length of your shadow. Record the length in your nature journal. Don’t forget to do it again at the winter solstice, spring equinox and summer solstice. You’ll be amazed at how much your shadow length changes!

Celebrate!
Organize an “Equinox Experience.” Since night (black) and day (white) are of equal duration, black and white can be the theme of a party. Just use your imagination. You might, for example, want to serve sandwiches with one slice of pumpernickel and one slice of white bread, make a cake that is half-chocolate and half-vanilla, dress half in white and half in black and maybe even decorate with black and white balloons. For a table centrepiece, use dark objects (e.g., bark) and bright objects (e.g., goldenrod blossoms) along with black and white candles. Have a countdown in the last minute leading up to the Equinox. This year, it is at 10:29 PM on September 22.

 

Nov 072013
 

Note: In the original version of this article, as published in the Examiner on Nov. 7, several large blocks of text were accidentally omitted. The article is to be reprinted in the next day or two.

 

“Jackson Park…Amazing, Fun…Listening, Discovering, Watching… Bike Rides, Water Falls…Running, Sitting, Staring…Peaceful, Colourful…Nature”

 Catherine and Isabel, grade 4, Roger Neilson Public School

 

Last week, I had the pleasure of spending a day in Jackson Park with Helen Bested’s grade four class from Roger Neilson Public School. From the moment they stormed off the bus until their reluctant departure, the students had the time of their lives. The innate love of nature that all children possess immediately kicked into gear and they clearly couldn’t get enough of the place. Seeing their unbridled energy and enthusiasm for all that Jackson Park has to offer, I couldn’t help but think how sad it is that so many kids these days are missing out on the pure joy of connection with the natural world.

Isabel Hicks (left) and Megan Rivet make the acquaintance of a tree in Jackson Park

Isabel Hicks (left) and Megan Rivet make the acquaintance of a tree in Jackson Park

Within minutes of arriving, the children stood in rapt attention as they observed a Great Blue Heron catching and eventually swallowing a large fish. They also watched and listened with keen amusement as I was able to use pishing (a bird attraction technique) to bring several chickadees, jays and nuthatches to within several metres of the group. Over the course of the day, they tested seed dispersal by launching maple keys into the air off the old concrete bridge; learned how to identify the Park’s iconic trees such as the White Pine; wore blindfolds to explore trees simply through their sense of touch; held handfuls of fallen leaves to their noses to fully appreciate the spicy fragrance; and used their wonderfully-sensitive ears to hear the gentle calls of tree-top birds and the murmuring of the creek – the buffer zone of trees surrounding the park reducing traffic noises to a far-off hum.  As we walked along, the  kids led me to what they were sure was a fox den, pointed out squirrels high in the trees and, when they stopped long enough to catch their breath, asked me why in the world adults would want to put a bridge through this wonderful place.

Their enthusiasm shouldn’t come as a surprise, however. Think about the impact that playing in woods, fields and other natural areas had in your own life. I would be willing to guess that they are among your strongest childhood memories. They are certainly are for me. These experiences allowed all of us to develop independence and confidence in an environment away from adult supervision, to solve problems on our own, but yet usually be close enough to home to feel safe. We built forts, caught frogs and turtles, got “soakers” but usually came home with the sense of having lived an adventure. Today, childhood play and exercise is all about highly structured and adult-supervised activities in gyms, arenas, swimming pools, play parks and on sports fields. In the process, nature is becoming increasingly alien and our children’s physical and mental health are paying the price.

When Helen’s students returned to class, she asked them to write about their day at Jackson Park and to reflect on the impact of a possible bridge and extended Parkway. Here are some excerpts of letters they wrote to Mayor Bennett. “Our class spent a full day at Jackson Park and we had a blast! We played helicopter with the maple seeds and learned how to pish to attract birds. We love Jackson Park so please don’t take away everyone’s joy and laughter. It is a place that is peaceful and quiet. Please keep Jackson Park as it is for kids like me to enjoy and for future generations.” (Elaina)

Students from a grade 4 class at Roger Neilson Public School form a line to demonstrate the width and location of a proposed bridge across Jackson Park.

Students from a grade 4 class at Roger Neilson Public School form a line to demonstrate the width and location of a proposed bridge across Jackson Park.

“If the bridge goes in, the people won’t come a lot. It would be much noisier because of all the cars. I need a place to relax and listen to birds. I go there a lot with my family. We don’t need a Parkway because we already have lots of roads. We only have one Jackson Park. It was given to the city to be maintained as a park and never use it for anything else.” (Nolan and Cameron)

“We love Jackson Park. We need a quiet place to run, climb, listen and watch. We like to run around the forest, playing, watching birds, learning the types of leaves, lying on our backs and looking up at the trees like worms. We are really glad to have Jackson Park…” (Hailee and Megan)

 

Medical Drive – already lost

Clearly, we should be taking the needs of children into account as we move forward with transportation planning in Peterborough.  Their needs should receive as much priority as the needs of people of other ages and the requirements of business.  In a recent document entitled “Child and Youth-friendly Land-use and Transport Planning Guidelines for Ontario” by Richard Gilbert and Catherine O’Brien, the authors explain that the needs of children and youth require the implementation of  “softer,” less intrusive and more inclusive transport systems. Paving over kid-friendly green space to put in a disruptive, noisy and polluting new road that runs close to five schools is the opposite of the direction we should be moving in.

A day at Jackson Park with Examiner columnist Drew Monkman was more interesting than sitting behind their classroom desks for this grade 4 class from Roger Neilson Public School (Helen Bested photo)

A day at Jackson Park with Examiner columnist Drew Monkman was more interesting than sitting behind their classroom desks for this grade 4 class from Roger Neilson Public School (Helen Bested photo)

Children growing up in the vicinity of Medical Drive between Parkhill and Sherbrooke have already lost their green space. What was once a beautiful green corridor is now an ugly walled road. When we lived on Westbrook Drive, our kids could literally step out the backdoor, cross the fence, enter the green space and feel – at least in their eight-year-old minds – as if they were in the country. This is where they played, and they still talk about it. This kind of opportunity is still possible for children living close to Jackson Park or along the Parkway Trail. As Peterborough resident Colleen Whitehouse said in a presentation to Council, “is it not the height of irresponsibility to destroy green space and with it take all the rich experiences it has to offer so freely to our children? Is this really how you want to be remembered?”

 

Health-giving benefits

Over the past 9 months, a Canadian team of social and natural scientists has conducted a literature review that looked at the benefits of nature to our health and well-being. The document “Connecting Canadians with Nature: An investment in the health and well being of our citizens” will published in early 2014.

The findings, all of which are grounded in evidence, are clear – nature is good for us. It is good for our economy, our health our spirit and identity, our personal development and our environment. A preview of the report states that “contact with nature has been found to lower blood pressure, strengthen the immune system, help mitigate disease, and reduce stress levels… nature plays a pivotal role in nurturing relationships by bringing people together. Many studies have demonstrated that nature makes us happy and more generous. Urban residents living near natural environments tend to know more neighbours and feel a stronger sense of belonging to the community … nature provides an escape – a nurturing therapeutic environment. Contact with nature is essential for the development of positive environmental attitudes and values and a lifelong relationship with the natural world.” Peterborough’s abundant, easy-to-access green space and trails is clearly one of the main reasons people choose to move, work, raise families and even come to retire here.  “We chose Peterborough, not Ajax,” is something I hear time and time again.

As responsible, informed citizens, we need to ask Council to direct staff to pursue non-Parkway options. There are alternatives that compare well for transportation, won’t create massive debt and taxes, and will save our valued green space and trails. At the very least – and especially in light of the referendum results from 2003 -Council should follow democracy and fair process. This means not making a Parkway decision until all studies are released, the public’s views on the city’s future (Official Plan Review) are implemented, and priority transportation improvements are completed. We want a future that is unique to Peterborough – not cookie-cutter, non-innovative versions of what has always been done everywhere else.