Friday, March 20, 2020

Another week at home with the kids? Try making a science journal

By Briana Bizier

Congratulations to all the parents and caregivers in Windham and Raymond who are just now finishing their first week without school. This has been a challenging week for many of us, and I’m sure I’m not the only parent who has a new-found admiration and respect for elementary school teachers!

Ian and Sage Bizier record their observations
If you’re looking for an activity that’s both education and will keep your children busy for the next week, why not start a science journal? At its heart, science is based on careful observations of the natural world and a willingness to challenge our assumptions. Practicing social distancing and managing children during a school closure are both challenging, but this time at home also offers us a rare chance to watch natural processes unfold without distractions from the larger world.

This week, my two little scientists began observing the vernal pools in the woods behind our house. Vernal pools form in New England woodlands when the snow and ice retreat, and they typically dry up by the end of summer. These pools are essential breeding grounds for frogs and salamanders. For years, I’ve wanted to watch the pools and determine when the frogs begin to lay their eggs, but we’ve always been too busy to trek into the woods every day.

Well, we are no longer busy. So, on Monday, my children’s first day without classes at Raymond Elementary School, the entire family headed into the woods with a measuring tape, a yardstick, and a few notebooks. Over the next few days, we watched two vernal pools shrink in the sunlight, grow in the rain, and ice over after particularly cold nights.

Before we go into the woods for our “science walks,” I ask my fourth grader and my kindergartner to make a hypothesis about what we’ll find. They record their hypothesis and the reasons behind it (the kindergartener draws a picture). Then, we test their hypotheses by observing the pools. By the end of the week, we plan to create graphs comparing the sizes of the two pools over the past five days. We haven’t found any frogs or salamanders yet, but we have at least another week of careful observation to go.

Those of us who live in Windham and Raymond are especially lucky to have access to such rich natural environments. However, even if you don’t have woods in your backyard, you could hike the same trail every day and record your observations.

Or, if you are staying at home, this is the perfect time of year to begin observing plant growth. Do you have daffodils sprouting in your yard? Why not measure them every morning, or have younger children draw pictures of them? These science journals could easily be incorporated into your annual vegetable garden, too.

“We are going to plant seeds and observe them germinate and grow,” Jeanine Skillings of Raymond told me.

Bird watching is another excellent subject for a nature notebook. This time of year, many birds are returning to their summer ranges in Maine, and it’s always exciting to spot a new species. Older children could chart the number or species of birds at a feeder over a week while younger children could draw pictures of the birds.

Creating a science journal has another benefit as well, and one that will help the parents and caregivers who have found themselves suddenly thrust into the unexpected role of teacher. At times when it seems like the world is coming apart, going into nature can be deeply reassuring. Our social calendars have been completely upended, but the daffodils are still coming up. The orioles will return. And the spring peepers will once again lay their eggs in the vernal pools tucked away in our woods and, someday very soon, they will begin to sing.

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