Hands-On Science: Raising Tadpoles

Life science takes on a whole new meaning when you’re raising tadpoles from tiny eggs to hopping frogs.

Life science takes on a whole new meaning when you’re raising tadpoles from tiny eggs to hopping frogs.

For young children, the best science curriculum is simple acts of exploration and observation. Be open to new discoveries and seize opportunities to involve yourself in the unfolding of natural processes whether by sitting and watching, spending more time in nature, or being intentional about answering your questions. How does that happen? How does that work? Why? When? What?

A few years ago, my husband seized an opportunity for my boys when he took my youngest son (then 2 years old) to a park, and together they found hundreds of tiny black tadpoles in a pool of water in the shoals of a stream. With a cup from the car, my husband scooped up a few of the tadpoles, and my two-year-old proudly and carefully carried the cup back to the car. Imagine my eldest son’s surprise when he and I returned home, and his brother told us we were going to raise tadpoles. Could we do that without hurting them? I wondered. Raising tadpoles was much easier than I thought it would be. We used an old container box—the kind that can slide under a bed—and put it on the front porch. We filled it with water and some big rocks, and my husband used the water conditioner that we use for our fish aquarium to get the chlorine out. Later, we returned to the stream where we found the tadpoles and collected water from it because there are microorganisms in it that the tadpoles could feed on. (If you raise tadpoles, you might want to start with water from the source where you find your tadpoles, if you don’t already have a habitat set up.)

My husband also purchased a cheap water filter from the pet store, but we didn’t use it to filter the water. Instead, we let it gently circulate the water and make bubbles—this put oxygen in the water. Tadpoles have gills like fish and breath by passing oxygenated water through their gills. However, we have seen tadpoles living quite comfortably in puddles or stagnant water, so a filter may not be necessary.

Next we wondered what to feed our tadpoles. Luckily we found some frog/tadpole food at the pet store, but we also put frozen spinach leaves into the box—the tadpoles loved it! And as I said, we gave them water from the stream so they could eat any microorganisms from it.

When we weren’t keeping vigil over our tadpoles, we kept a piece of old window screen on top of the box to keep out mosquitoes or any predators that might come up on our porch. We felt it was important to keep the tadpoles outside so that they would experience the same temperatures they would have at the stream.

After the habitat was set up, all we needed to do was watch them grow. And they grew fast! As it turned out, our little frogs were fowler toads, which we recognized as soon as they started to get their spots because fowler toads like to live around our house too. Other frogs might have taken much longer to transform into adults, but since I had two little boys watching the whole process, I was grateful for the quick transition. Every morning we would run outside to see our tadpoles, and we could see a difference in them. They got bigger and bigger, they sprouted back legs, front legs, and their coloring changed. Oh the excitement!

During this process, I learned from my herpetologist friend that whenever we find tadpoles around here (in north Georgia) that are solid black, they are definitely toads. Other tadpoles, such as those from tree or chorus frogs, are clear, and if viewed from the bottom, you can see an orange-colored circle, which is their intestines.

We learned on the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory’s (SREL) website that female fowler toads lay eggs in strings with clutches of up to 25,000 eggs in spring or summer after a heavy rain, and that tadpoles go through metamorphosis within two months. But we only had our little tadpoles from June 15 to July 4.

Two out of three of the toadlets lost their tails within a day and were sitting up on the rocks in the habitat. Since they were no longer tadpoles, we no longer knew what to feed them, so on July 4th—a very fitting day—we decided to release them back near the stream where we found them. The third one, which had always developed about one day behind the others, was still in the water and had a tail, so we found a shallow part of the stream to put him in with plenty of leaf cover for him to hide under.

It was a wonderful experience for me, let alone for my children, who delighted in the whole process. I am happy that my husband took that opportunity to do something special with his boys, and I’m glad we gave those three little tadpoles a safe place to grow and reach the next stage of their lives. 


Tadpole Notes:

If you want to raise tadpoles, you should first check your state’s regulations about collecting them from the wild. Some states prohibit this. Furthermore, if you buy tadpoles online, make sure you find a species that can be released into your area (if you plan to release them). is a reputable resource for schools, and many of their products can be used in the home as well. (This is the company that we purchased butterfly larvae from. You can read about that in the summer 2014 issue of home / school / life.) They will state on their website, if you live in a state where a live specimen cannot be shipped.

This column was originally published in the spring 2015 issue of HSL.

Citizen Science Project #8: Bugs In Our Backyard

Shelli's homeschool citizen science adventures with a backyard bug project

This month I focused on the citizen science project Bugs In Our Backyard, which, you can probably guess, is about finding bugs in your own backyard. Seems easy, right? Bugs are everywhere! (Except when you are trying to find them.)

I gotta tell you, this was a little more time consuming than my previous citizen science projects. In the end, it turned out not to be hard, so I don’t want to discourage anyone from trying it, but there are more steps to take.

For a busy homeschooling mom who would like to do things quick, quick, quick, I got a little hung up on the paperwork and the fact that one way to look for bugs is to find a tree or plant and then describe all the bugs on it and around it. You see, I went outside, found a tree, and I couldn’t find any bugs. Then I found another tree, and I found some bugs, but they were mostly ants, and I couldn’t identify the ant species. (They offer a field guide on their website for the most common bugs you might find, but, of course, I wasn’t finding any of those.) You also need to describe, measure and identify the tree or plant and take photos of everything.

I took photos of those first bugs I found, but then I put off filling out the paperwork. This probably had more to do with how busy I was at the time, but the form to fill out asked for my latitude and longitude, and sigh, I didn’t feel like trying to figure that out on top of everything else. So, I put this project off a month.

Fast forward, and I felt refreshed and determined to complete this project. I sat down and read all the fine print (which is 3 pages long), and I realized that I could just go outside and look for bugs that weren’t attached to any plant, but if I did that, I would have to fill out a separate form for each bug on their website. Well, okay, if I must. 

They do have some pretty cool activities on their website for students, and if you have a child who’s interested in bugs, you’ll probably love this project and their teaching modules. I printed out some Bingo scavenger hunt pages for my boys, and they went outside looking for the items on their sheets while also helping me look for bugs. They had fun.

We found some cool bugs, but only one of them was on a tree. I took photos, and later at my computer, it was pretty easy for me to identify them by googling their descriptions. And I also found out it’s easy to find out one’s latitude/longitude with a quick google search too. So, ahem, I was just being lazy before.

I decided to report only three bugs because you do have to fill in separate forms for each. I found a large cicada, a Largus and a Saddleback caterpillar. It didn’t take long to fill out the forms and upload my photos.

Like with any citizen science project, when you do it once, you realize it’s not hard, and it would be easy to continue to help the project by continuing to find and report. I think Bugs in Our Backyard could be made easier by letting participants fill out one form per site (like a yard instead of just a tree), but I understand that there’s a reason the researchers need their data reported this way too. It’s a worthy project, especially if you have children who like looking for bugs.

Let me know, if you try out any of these citizen science projects, and tell me what your experience was like.

Interview & Free Book Giveaway: Nature and Weather Studies

Win a copy of the groovy weather studies book from the Mud Puddles to Meteors duo


Dawn Smith has been a friend of home/school/life since its inception, and we’ve been a big fan of her and Annie Riechmann’s nature blog, Mud Puddles to Meteors for a long time. So we feel very good telling you about Dawn and Annie’s new book, Whatever the Weather, which would be a perfect addition to any homeschooler’s bookshelf.

Whatever the Weather is all about sparking wonder and excitement about the weather through art and science. It is filled with simple science experiments and art projects, and a section called “Science Behind the Scenes” accompanies each activity. This section provides families with the science related to the weather phenomena they are playing with in the activity. Dawn told me they did this because they wanted families to have easily accessible scientific facts about the weather phenomena so they would grow in their understanding of how the weather works. 

I have my own copy of Whatever the Weather, and I have been having a great time reading through it and planning activities to do with my two boys. But I had to wonder: How does Dawn do it all? She’s a homeschooling mom, she writes books, leads nature walks, facilitates a nature lab, and is now working hard to promote her new book. I wanted to interview her about her book, writing life, homeschooling and more, and I thought readers of home/school/life would enjoy getting to know about this cool nature-homeschool mama too. So please enjoy the interview below, and then leave a comment so that you can get a chance to win a free copy of Whatever the Weather, compliments of Roost Books.

In addition, be sure to look for an article Dawn is writing for us about weather studies in our upcoming Fall 2016 issue.

What made you and Annie decide to write a book about the weather?

Well, Annie and I are fascinated with the weather. We both grew up on the West coast and moved to the east where there are different weather patterns and much more extreme winters (with the wild mix of weather that goes along with winter weather). This new weather made us realize what a big role weather plays in our lives, especially with kids. The weather had become a topic of study with our own children and it all just grew from there. 


How did the journey of writing the book begin?

Annie and I had met while contributing to a nature blog that some friends had started, and we clicked. Once that blog started to wind down, we stayed connected and talked often. 

One morning I got an email from Annie that said, “We should write a book!”  I laugh just thinking about it. It seemed like such a natural next step. 

I had quite a few half-started book projects already, and Annie had been creating Alphabet Glue for some time, so we tossed around some of those projects and came up with the idea to write a family guide to nature. We basically wanted to write the book we wished we had had for our own families when we first started exploring nature with our kids. 

In a long and rather fun process a chapter of that book, about the weather, became an e-book on our blog, Mud Puddles to Meteors

In the process of pitching our original book idea, editor Jennifer Urban-Brown at Roost Books, saw the e-book posted on our blog and wanted to see it. She had been thinking of a book about weather, and after seeing the e-book, asked us to write it. 


I know you lead nature walks and also facilitate an online nature lab. Please tell us about those and how you got started in teaching nature studies.

I really got started with sharing nature studies by simply sharing our own discoveries with others online.  When we first moved to Nova Scotia from California we did not have a car, or a friend network, so I relied on fostering online friendships with other homeschool families, and many of those families happened to also be involved with nature study. We shared and learned a lot from each other. 

I started a “nature” version of my personal blog and things have grown from there. 

The nature walks started because my local friend and I decided to do what I can best describe as a mini co-op. I took her older kids for a nature walk and taught them nature study once a week (while she did story time and activities with her younger children) and I dropped my kids at her house on another day for art lessons (while I went to the library for writing time). It worked out so well she encouraged me to start doing nature walks for our homeschool group. Now I do a Forest Friday program for our local group and it is wonderful. 

The nature lab is an extension of that desire to share nature and nature study with other families. It grew out of a Fall Outside program I had done in the fall to encourage families to get outside for 30 days in November. So many people loved having a daily nature prompt show up in their inbox they asked me to continue. Now I offer the Mud Puddles Nature Lab and it is growing into a wonderful community of families (many of them homeschoolers). 


You are a homeschooling mom, you write books, lead nature walks, facilitate a nature lab, and also co-author the blog, Mud Puddles to Meteors and help promote it! Whew! (Did I miss anything?!) How do you find the time to do all this? What is your routine like?

Whew! I am tired just reading all of that! Ha! 

To be quite honest, I don’t find time for it all. There is an ebb and flow, just like with anything. Sometimes the blog sits for quite some time without a post, I am not always writing a book (although there are more books on the horizon), and the great thing about the nature walks is that we would be doing that anyway – we just get to take a group of families along with us, which is great! 

Having so many things on the go could not be possible if it was not a family effort. 

My husband works really hard for our family and cleans the bathroom (because it is my least favorite thing to clean). My kids pitch in around the house with their chores and are becoming more and more self-directed daily. I certainly could not do it all without the support of my family. 

My son went to school this year for the first time (grade 4) so I only have my daughter at home now. That has certainly lightened the homeschool preparations and time. She is almost 13 years old and is very independent in her studies and projects. We spend time together each morning on lessons and project work and she works on her own for the rest of the school day until her brother gets home. 

Most mornings I get up around 4 a.m. to write when the house is quiet. I don’t allow myself to go on social media during that time because I have to be really efficient with those quiet hours and I get the bulk of my writing done during that time. It is easier to catch up with the groups I have online, edit photos, and other tasks when the household is awake but for writing, I need to have quiet. 


What does your style of homeschooling look like? What made you realize homeschooling was a good fit for your daughter? 

We are fairly eclectic in our homeschool but mainly rely on project-based homeschooling. It is a really good fit for my daughter because when she has an interest in a topic she becomes consumed with it. She is an amazing researcher (I am sure because we have laid the foundation for her to be an independent life-long learner from the beginning) and loves to delve into even the most obscure aspects of a topic. Our librarians always know when she is on to something new because she puts every book the library owns on that topic on hold (thank goodness Halifax has an amazing library system). 


What inspires you? 

Other mamas inspire me the most. 

While there are some really inspiring people out there who are making a big difference in the world on a larger scale, for everyday inspiration I look toward my little tribe of mama friends, people online who I have fostered relationships with over the years, and those mamas sharing the everyday life stuff on Instagram or Facebook. They are the ones I call when I am in tears because sometimes life is just too much, they are the ones cheering me on when I think things are too hard, and they are the ones who are right in the thick if it alongside me. It is such an inspiration to see everyday life play out in beautiful ways each day, even in the midst of piles of laundry, dinners being made, and crying kiddos. 

I am also inspired by little details. Take one look at my Instagram feed and it would not take someone long to see I really like to tune into the tiny things that make the world go round. 

It is inspiring when I see something small and think about how all of those little details make up the world. It makes me think of what is possible and realize that when things seem big and overwhelming tuning into small details can make life more manageable, in the same way that each letter makes a word, each word a sentence, and before you know it you have written a book. 


Are you working on a new project now that the book is published?

There always seems to be at least one project, or more, in the works.  

Right now my focus is on the Mud Puddles Nature Lab and reaching out to families who want extra support in getting out the door or to simply join a tribe of families moving in the same direction. It is in its infancy and is really becoming a lovely community. 

I am also working on thematic, nature inspired activity guides that will include natural history, language arts, math, science, art and more. I am really excited about those too!

And, there are more books in the works. That is a very long process but hopefully there will be another book to share with you sooner rather than later.  


Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I would just like to add that I really appreciate the homeschool community as a whole. It is amazing how even when we take different approaches to teaching our children and have different points of view on other matters, we can connect over our desire to homeschool our children, find the middle ground, and support each other. I feel very fortunate to be a part of this wonderful community. 


Now here’s your chance to win a free copy of Whatever the Weather. Leave a comment here on the blog and tell us why you’d like a copy of the book, and we’ll randomly select a winner from the entries. We’ll choose a winner on TUESDAY, AUGUST 2, so please check back then to see if you won. Good luck!

Creating a Nature Kit for Outdoor Adventures

Tips for creating a nature kit for outdoor adventure #homeschool

For many families, “homeschool” is a misnomer—so much of our learning happens outside of the home. With the right materials, your family can make every trip out a chance to deepen learning, develop existing interests, and discover new ones. Some families fill a bag, and others fill the whole trunk. But when you lock the door behind you, what exactly do you bring?

It goes without saying that your family’s interests and the adventure ahead of you determine what you pack. The buckets and spades you take to a day at the beach may not be what you take to your local natural history museum. Nevertheless, there will be some items that you’ll want to take everywhere, and if you have them assembled and ready, you’re more likely to take them.

Some basics can make or break a trip. Spare clothes for children, if they are likely to get wet, waterproofs in the wet season, small bottles of sunscreen, and insect repellent and bite/sting cream during the drier months. You’ll need water and plenty of sustaining snacks. It helps to have a backpack to put it all in (children can share the load, appropriate to their size and age), but I know one family who takes it all in a basket on the hip, and another who pulls everything along in a wheeled trolley.

It’s a great idea to take some basic art supplies to record what you find and foster creativity on the go. Katie Pybus, who home educates her three children in the South of England, and has been blogging about it every day for the past four years, says that she never leaves home without a sketchbook for her youngest child, a keen drawer. If you’re not lucky enough to live near an art supply outlet like Katie, you could make sketchbooks by folding copier paper in half and stapling the fold. Bring along a pencil case filled with pencils, a sharpener, mini-ruler, crayons, markers, a glue stick, small scissors, and small roll of tape. If your children like to paint, a travel watercolor set makes the perfect pocket-sized paint palette, accompanied by waterbrushes (paintbrushes with a water reservoir in the handle). Having all of these small items assembled in one zipper-case has saved my bacon on more than one occasion when I’ve had to bolt out of the house at a moment’s notice.

It helps to have a backpack to put it all in, but I know one family who takes it all in a basket on the hip, and another who pulls everything along in a wheeled trolley.

If you’ll be spending the day outdoors, in addition to the right gear for the weather (and replacement gear for when socks get wet!), consider taking along a few light items to take your family’s learning even deeper. Very young children sometimes struggle to use binoculars, but a monocular is a lot easier to use and often cheaper and lighter to carry. A field guide for your area will help you identify flora and fauna, and you can keep a record of what you find with a camera or camera-phone. If you think you’ll be sitting down for a while, consider bringing a foldable sit-mat, but if you have a big family, an old shower-curtain makes the perfect water- and dirt-proof outdoor learning space. 

Dawn Suzette Smith, of the Mud Puddles to Meteors blog, and co-author of Whatever the Weather, recommends carrying a small tin container for collecting specimens—leaves, insects, lichen, feathers—whatever treasures your child finds can be popped into the tin for examination later. Luckily, even if you forget your tin, any secure container or baggie does the job. I’ve taken to collecting plastic hummus containers and juice bottles for my son’s collections. For a collector, anything will do. 

For the older child who loves the outdoors, a pocketknife and a length of rope can give great pleasure. Various kinds of pocketknives are on the market, from round-ended blades to clasp-less knives in leather sheathes. Once they know how to use a pocketknife safely, many children love to whittle and fashion walking sticks from twigs, and in an emergency, the tweezers are really handy for extracting thorns or splinters from little fingers. With a length of rope, you can make a tightrope between two trees to test your balance, play limbo, throw the rope over a sturdy branch to make a make-shift rope swing, or use it as a harness for a little tree-climbing. Or take a trip down memory lane and teach your children your childhood skipping songs and watch their eyebrows lift higher and higher as you demonstrate your skipping prowess.

Getting out of the house might be a great way of getting kids away from the TV or tablet, but don’t forget that those electronic devices can make excellent recording instruments. Most contain voice-recording software, so if your child can’t write yet, or is reluctant to, she can still take verbal notes on what your family is up to. The video footage and photographs your child takes can be brought home and spliced together to make a video of your trip out. For the naturalist, a photograph facilitates the identification and recording of species. Finally, photos can be printed and glued into a scrapbook—rather than only having snapshots of family vacations or holidays, you’ll have a priceless record of your day-to-day life as well. 

Speaking of scrapbooks, Dawn’s family has a neat idea for a homemade scrapbook kit for longer trips. She says,“Before leaving we create a small scrapbook that is held together with rings to easily add things we collect along the way. We keep our book in a bag filled with extra paper, a hole punch, glue dots, tape, markers, colored pencils and other supplies used to build our scrapbook as we go. After each stop we punch holes to add things like postcards or brochures to the book, we tape things like business cards and receipts to the pages, decorate borders and write a little something about the location.”

Dawn’s rustled-up kit is a fantastic way to create a really unique souvenir of a family trip, and one idea I’ll definitely be using this summer.

There are two things I never leave the house without: a small journal with a pen. Jotting down what we see and do, along with my children’s questions and observations, has been invaluable in helping me to bring their outdoor learning back to our homeschool. As their mentor, I don’t want to miss an opportunity to remind them of what we did, encourage detail in their narrations for daddy later, and help them remember the questions they asked. We once spent an entire afternoon trying to figure out the difference between crickets and grasshoppers after a previous day’s walk when the chirruping creatures had been leaping around us at our every step. 

Whatever you take, the right materials for your family’s outing can help you dive beneath the surface and immerse yourselves in your not-at-home school.  


This article was originally published in the spring 2015 issue of home | school | life as part of our big nature study feature. We’re reprinting it on the blog because (1) summer is a great time to have an outdoor kit handy, and (2) we really like it.

Exploring Nature with Children: A Hands-On Nature Study Curriculum for Homeschoolers

This hands-on nature study curriculum is perfect for Charlotte Mason homeschoolers or anyone who wants to add a little nature study to the curriculum. #homeschool

Spring has sprung. My young sons wake up earlier now, anxious to get outside for great big adventures. This time of year dandelion hunting, playtime in the mud, bike riding, and tree climbing fill our days. I am in awe of all of the learning opportunities nature conjures up for us.

The chance to accommodate and encourage our children’s love of nature is one of the many perks of homeschooling. Nature books are a much loved keystone on many homeschoolers bookshelves, and so I’m pleased to have stumbled upon Lynn Seddon’s treasure Exploring Nature with Children. 

Exploring Nature with Children is a curriculum chock-full of ideas to take thoughtful learners through a full year of nature studies. Well organized and comprehensive, Seddon’s program takes the work out of lesson planning, ensuring that families have time to get outdoors and play in the dirt. 

Seddon opens with tips for making nature studies a homeschooling focal point. Making and maintaining nature journals and keeping a nature display table indoors are two rewarding activities kids (and grownup) of all ages can enjoy. Seddon provides helpful ideas to make these ideas come to life. 

Exploring Nature with Children provides 48 weeks of themed and guided nature study. Seddon’s program will help to develop your family’s appreciation of nature a well as to provide a scientific context for your child’s observations. 

The chance to accommodate and encourage our children’s love of nature is one of the many perks of homeschooling.

Although Exploring Nature with Children is designed to work well as a stand-alone resource, Seddon encourages using it in conjunction with one of my all-time favorites, Anna Botsford Comstack’s Handbook of Nature Study. This would be a particularly worthwhile choice for those using the curriculum with older children. 

Each section of Exploring Nature with Children is designed to take students through one week of nature study. Seddon opens each section with a theme. Our family worked through a March unit on birds. The section opens with an informative paragraph about the behavior of nesting birds in early springtime. 

Next up is a guided nature walk. Here Seddon suggests details to be on the lookout for during a walk in the wild. My sons and I loved the challenge of watching for birds at work building nests. We also kept an eye open for nesting materials. To find nests off the beaten path, Seddon suggests looking at tree tops with binoculars, carefully examining the woodland floor, and observing holes in the trunks of trees. Seddon encourages readers to spend time afterwards sketching and jotting down observations in their nature journal.

For those wishing to learn more, Seddon suggests readings in The Handbook of Nature Study as well as correlating page numbers to provide more in-depth information about the week’s theme. A themed book list also accompanies each weekly lesson. Whether you choose to use these books or not is optional. Recommended non-fiction, fiction, and biography titles are provided for a range of ages. Even in my rural library, most of the recommended titles were easy to locate. My family enjoyed starting out the day reading books from this list. 

A poem and a piece of art relating to the theme of the week are included in each unit as well. Families can incorporate these features into a learning plan however they like. Keep in mind that the suggested artwork itself is not included in Seddon’s book. Rather, she provides the name of the artist and of the painting. A simple internet search will provide prints of all of these works.  

Innovative extension activities to help delve deeper into the week’s theme follow next. As my family worked through March activities we enjoyed gifting the birds with small piles of nest-making materials such as twigs and grass. We left these near our bird feeders. Using a field guide we located local birds and researched their nesting patterns. Seddon also suggests creating a map of the nests in your area to put inside of nature journals. The extension activities throughout the book are wonderfully varied, original, hands-on, and substantive. 

Living waaaaay up north means we need to tweak the book’s calendar schedule for our uses. In April, for instance, we worked through the March sections of the book. It may take readers a little time to sync up with the author’s schedule; however, once this adjustment is made there should not be any difficulty. 

Exploring Nature with Children will work best for those living in regions with somewhat dramatic seasonal changes. Also, the author assumes readers have access to landscapes that provide opportunities to observe, touch, and interact with nature.

Exploring Nature With Children is only available as a PDF. The PDF download costs $15 and can be purchased from the author’s website.

Nature is the perfect classroom. Kids of all ages can find inspiration, information, joy, and satisfaction from time spent learning outdoors. Happy spring! 

Unit Study Inspiration: Birds

Love this roundup of books and resources for the Great Backyard Bird Hunt (in Feb.). This could be a stand-alone homeschool unit study on birds, too.

The Great Backyard Bird Count starts on Friday. Gear up to flex your citizen scientist muscle with these birding resources.

Read This

By Carl Hiaasen

The Burgess Bird Book For Children by Thornton W. Burgess introduces kids to birds through Peter Rabbit stories, making it as fun to read as it is informative.

Hoot by Carl Hiaasen, tells the story of a boy’s efforts to save the habitat of a family of burrowing owls from an encroaching pancake restaurant.

Bright Wings, edited by Billy Collins, is a collection of poetry about birds.


Birds, Nests, and Eggs by Mel Boring, is just the thing for beginning birders. The book covers fifteen common birds, including their appearance, nesting habits, and ideas for bird-themed nature activities.

The Complete Birder: A Guide to Better Birding by Jack Connor is the perfect next step when you’ve mastered the basics of birding and want to sharpen your skills.


Watch This

Winged Migration
Starring Philippe Labro, Jacques Perrin

The Life of Birds, from the BBC collection and narrated by David Attenborough, is a seven-part documentary just packed with avian information.

Winged Migration uses fabulous cinematography to capture birds in flight.


Do This

Dissect an owl pellet. If you’re not up for the real thing, use the KidWings Virtual Owl Pellet Dissection.

Play birdsong bingo. Practice identifying bird sounds by playing a bingo style identification game with a birdsong CD. (We like Know Your Bird Sounds, Volume 1: Yard, Garden, and City Birds andKnow Your Bird Sounds, Volume 2: Birds of the Countryside.)

Audubon’s Birds of America Coloring Book, part of the excellent Dover coloring book series, lets your student birders put their observation skills to the test coloring in copies of Audubon’s bird illustrations.


This article was originally published in the spring 2015 issue of home/school/life.

How to Make a Simple Thanksgiving Wreath

How to make a simple Thanksgiving wreath with materials you find on your next nature walk

A few years ago, my eldest son and I made what we call a Thanksgiving wreath. To me, it also celebrates the changing of the seasons because we got all our materials from nature.

All you need to do is wander around outside and pick up whatever you think might look pretty on your wreath. What a great excuse to get the kids out into nature! You can wander around your yard, a park, or multiple places.

As you can see from ours, we used raw cotton that we got at a nearby homestead, acorns, pinecones, leaves, twigs and sweet gum balls. I bet you can find all sorts of other things in your backyard as well.

To make it, I cut out the shape of a wreath in a piece of heavy cardboard for our backing, and then I helped my son glue his decorations wherever he wanted them to go. You’ll need to use a strong glue such as a hot glue gun or tacky glue.

I think even my non-crafty crew could pull off this simple Thanksgiving wreath — love that it incorporates nature walk findings.

If you make a Thanksgiving wreath, please share a link to a photo of it. I’d love to see what you come up with!

Easy Nature Scavenger Hunts

Love this idea for spring homeschooling: Nature scavenger hunts! #homeschool

The weather in fall is pretty much perfect, so why not add a little nature study to your routine with one of these fun outdoor scavenger hunt ideas?


Children love treasure. Consider the whole outdoors your treasure chest, and turn them into little naturalists for the afternoon. Maybe they’ll even find something more interesting than what’s on the list.

  • Try this: Make a list of ten things you know your child can find around the house and yard. Give her the list and a little bag or container, and let her go on a hunt. Your list might be: a little seed, a flower, pinecone, big seed, red crayon, string, little ball, something purple, something blue, and a bug... a bug? Well, it depends on what kind of child you have.


The Number Game

Have lots of leaves and rocks in the yard? Use them to teach math. This game is great for kids who are learning their numbers.

  • Try this: Write the numbers 1 to 10 in chalk on the sidewalk. Put dots under the numbers to represent each amount—one dot under the number one, two dots under number two, and so forth. Now look for things around the yardand house to put on top of the dots: one toy car, two flowers, three leaves, four twigs, etc.


Venn Diagram

Sneak in more math with a Venn diagram. A Venn diagram is a visual way of sorting and comparing a group of things. Draw two or more circles and overlap them. Label each circle with one characteristic. If an object has that characteristic, it will go into the labeled circle. If it has two characteristics, it goes in the area where those two circles overlap. If it doesn’t have any of the characteristics, it goes outside the Venn diagram.

  • Try this: Draw three or four big, overlapping circles with chalk on the pavement and label them things like “brown,” “hard,” “curved,” etc. Let children search the yard for items with those characteristics, such as rocks, acorns, leaves, flowers, and twigs, and show them how they can be sorted. Bring a few small toys and items from inside the house to add even more fun.


This article was originally published in the summer 2014 issue of home/school/life.

Raising a Young Naturalist

Really like this essay about how to encourage kids to explore nature in your homeschool.

Like most homeschooling moms, I had a lot of fears when we first started homeschooling. My four-year-old was cautious. He was quiet in big groups, and he didn’t want to participate in group games. He preferred to explore a pile of woodchips by himself on park day. He hated story hour at the library. Now I laugh at myself. He was only four.

Luckily we live within a reasonable driving distance to a nature center, where they were offering a class for 3- to 5-year-olds that would introduce them to nature. My family loves nature, so it seemed like a good class to try.

At first my son was very timid in the class, but soon I started to witness something remarkable. He blossomed. And it wasn’t just a little kid coming out of his shell. It was a little kid finding a passion.

My son leapt out of his skin every time the facilitator brought out live animals. Snakes were his favorite, and three years later, he still says he wants to be a scientist who studies snakes when he grows up.

At first I thought to myself that every kid likes nature, right? Maybe my child would have blossomed in any class I had taken him to at that age. But then the facilitator told me one day that she could tell my son had a true passion for nature. She said other kids might say, “That’s cool,” but then they would walk away. My son stayed by her side, wanting to see more. He loved helping her turn over logs on the trails.

Shelli Bond Pabis

Shelli Bond Pabis

Ever since that first class, I have continued to foster his love of nature and science. As a family, we love hiking, so that’s not hard to do. But my husband and I have also done a few other things to support him:

  • We continue to go to classes at the nature center. I call it our second home.
  • We bought our son a small camera so that he can record the natural discoveries he makes.
  • I bought my son a big notebook, and we call it his nature journal. He likes to paste his photos in there, and I label them for him. I’ve encouraged him to draw what he sees, but he prefers photography. That’s okay with me.
  • I have supported his desire to collect items from nature: We bought a medium-sized wooden box at a craft supply store, and we call it my son’s “treasure box.” He has a bird’s nest, nuts, rocks, and even a squashed baby snake in it. (We seal items like that in plastic bags!)
  • His nature collection is too big for the box, so we’ve dedicated some shelves in his room for other items. He has shells, shark teeth, ammonite fossils, small dinosaur bones, a beaver chew, a bison bone, a geode, and lots of rocks on his shelves.
  • We consider our yard a laboratory, and we continuously observe the wildlife in it. We have containers on our front porch containing pupas and cocoons, and we are eagerly waiting for them to emerge.
  • My son is participating in our state parks’ Junior Ranger program.
  • Together our whole family watches nature documentaries daily.
  • We visit natural history and science museums, attend rock and gem shows, and take advantage of any other opportunity to explore nature and science.
  • As project-based homeschoolers, we make time for our son’s own interests and projects, many of which have to do with science.
I have rid myself of the “ick reaction” to the slimy and oozy parts of nature because I see something in my child that I don’t want to lose.

Oceanographer Sylvia Earle said in an interview: “A critter person. Children generally start out that way, given a chance to explore even in their own back yard. So often, the adults around them will say, oh, don’t touch that beetle or, ugh, an earthworm, or caterpillars, yuck. My parents were different….”

All children are born scientists. They explore their world, ask questions, and test their limits. I have rid myself of the “ick reaction” to the slimy and oozy parts of nature because I see something in my child that I don’t want to lose. I know from listening to other interviews with scientists that their love of exploration, nature and inquiry started at a very young age.

Ultimately, I do not know if he will chose to become a naturalist or a scientist as a career, but I do know that a love of nature can sustain him through many of life’s obstacles, and an appreciation for the Earth is something everyone should maintain. My job as his parent is to observe, listen, and foster this inquisitive mind. So here I am, exploring the world with my son. 

This column from our very first issue launched Shelli's Hands-On Science series. We're reprinting it here as part of our big web relaunch. To get Shelli's thoughtful, practical resources for everyday nature and science study in every issue of home/school/life, subscribe.

Finding Out: Curiosity as a Way of Learning

Love this: Why curiosity is the ultimate homeschool resource

In the Northern Hemisphere, it’s caterpillar season. The leaves are bursting forth from the trees, grasses are growing taller, birds are building nests, bats are waking up and they’re looking for food for their young. My youngest child’s insect project is ramping up and we are spending more time with our hands in hedges than sitting down and holding a pencil.

When we first started home educating, I kept a mental checklist for most tasks we’d do. Running around in the park? That counts as PE or recess. Baking a cake? I’m sure that counts as math. Making bracelets? Definitely good for fine motor skills. Looking for caterpillars in hedgerows? That must be science. It felt good to think that every aspect of our lives could “count as school.”

If my five-year-old son was in school, his teachers would be helping him work on his pencil grip, form letters and understand phonics and the basics of mathematics. At home, my son only holds a pencil or pen for about 15 minutes every day. Maybe I should worry. Maybe he will never learn to write his name!

That skill—the ability to find out is the key, for me, to being a successful learner.

But I don’t worry. I don’t worry at all about his writing. The reason is not that I’m ultra-confident. I’ve got all sorts of worries about my children. But when I watch my son gently lift a caterpillar from a leaf and hold it with precisely the correct amount of pressure and grip to keep that caterpillar safe from harm in his hand, I know my son has all the fine motor skills he needs to write his name. When he pulls out one of his nature books, turns to the index and asks me to look up that caterpillar’s food plant or when he opens the tablet and pulls up a document about caterpillars, I can see that he understands about letters and language and what they are intended for. He knows where to go to find out what he wants to learn. In short, he knows what he needs to do to find out. That skill—the ability to find out is the key, for me, to being a successful learner. The thing is, he knows what he wants to learn and he knows how to find out. Gradually he will arm himself with the skills to find out, perhaps by asking me for help or by figuring it out himself.

He will eventually learn to write, because he wants to find out.

He will learn to read, because he wants to find out.

He will become numerate, because he wants to find out.

I am here to mentor him, to help him learn the skills he needs, to encourage and support him when it’s hard. I want to nourish his curiosity and support him while newer and more exciting doors open to him.

I used to box-tick and think about whether what we were doing “counted as school.” Now I hardly think about school. I simply wonder what he’ll be finding out next.

Family Time: A Few of Our Favorite Documentaries

Family Time: A Few of Our Favorite Documentaries

Ever since my boys were babies, we have had a lunchtime ritual of watching documentaries with them. Since our boys are still young, they enjoy nature documentaries the most, but we have veered off into some science and cultural documentaries too. As they get older, we will probably add more history and social documentaries to our list.

When they were smaller, I was hesitant to watch T.V. during mealtimes. (Isn’t that some kind of parental sin?) But I don’t believe the hype that T.V. is bad for kids. I believe some kinds of programming and how it is administered is bad for kids, but watching together as a family is different.

I dare say I think my boys learn more from our daily dose of documentaries than from my formal lessons with them. And I think it rivals my son’s projects in educational value. Because when we watch documentaries, we are all engaged and learning together. We comment on it, create more questions to answer, refer to our globe, and delight at what we see and learn. It has fostered a desire to explore, learn and appreciate our world. The programming has informed my son’s projects and given him more ideas to pursue too.

As I said, we do it together. We always look forward to where “we are going” that day. Sri Lanka? The Galapagos Islands? A raccoon’s den? These programs have opened up the world up to my sons. They understand much better than I did at their age that we live in one small place on a very large planet. It may not be the same as actually traveling there, but at this age, it’s just about perfect.

Another important note to share is that, yes, some of the programming is hard to watch. Watching animals eat each other or battle the elements is not always easy. By watching together from the time they were little, my sons have learned, as one documentarian noted, that “Life depends on death.” This hasn’t made them insensitive. I think my sons cherish nature and their own lives more. My eight-year-old has even told me he wants to be a conservationist when he grows up.

We love David Attenborough so much we wrote him a letter—and he wrote back1 Photo by Shelli Bond Pabis

We love David Attenborough so much we wrote him a letter—and he wrote back1 Photo by Shelli Bond Pabis

We have watched countless documentaries, and I can’t list them all. I try to keep a list on Pinterest, but sometimes I forget to post what we watch there. I can give you a list of documentaries that stand out in my mind as some of our favorites. Before I do that, though, I’ll tell you what we don’t like:

Every documentary maker has to somehow weave narrative and cinematography into a form that will hold our (the viewer’s) interest. So all documentaries use suspense or splice different frames together to tell a story. We have had good conversations with our sons about how sometimes that lion isn’t stalking that gazelle. It’s two different moments put together, but certainly lions do stalk gazelles, so it’s depicting something that is real. Or how the music and script make things seem more suspenseful. We explain how the photographers probably spent months tracking animals just to get one shot. Sometimes the script will give animals human-like qualities and emotions, which isn’t always fair. These are all things to be aware of.

There are some documentaries, however, that can get a little annoying when they dramatize things too much or repeat the same sequence over and over again, holding onto the outcome until the end of the show, to add to the suspense. We’ve noticed that the Discovery channel documentaries lean in this direction, so we usually avoid those. (Not to say that we haven’t seen some excellent Discovery documentaries too.) Once in a while, my husband will hear facts that are contrary to some science article he just read. It’s always good to let your children know that we can’t rely on a documentary (especially older ones) just like we can’t rely on everything we read. If you are interested in a subject, you should do more research on it.

That being said, here’s a list of a few favorites that we have watched over the years. It’s really hard to pick just a few. (We watched these on Netflix or PBS. Unfortunately, some of them are no longer available, but some of them you can find online or through Amazon.)


The Life of Birds :: Anything by the BBC and narrated by David Attenborough tops our lists of favorites. This series about birds was especially wonderful.


PBS Nature :: We have never seen a Nature documentary that we didn’t love, but these stand out in my memory: My Life as a Turkey, Fabulous Frogs (probably because it’s narrated by David Attenborough + I just love frogs), River of No Return, An Original DUCKumentary, Honey Badgers: Master of Mayhem, Birds of the Gods


Disneynature Wings Of Life
Starring Meryl Streep

Wings of Life by DisneyNature :: This has got to be the most beautiful documentary ever made. If you are studying plants or pollinators, you must watch it.


NOVA’s Making Stuff by PBS :: My eight-year-old has watched this series about the science of materials several times. Every time I watch, I learn something new. It really is a favorite of the whole family.


Dogs with Jobs Season 1
Starring John Ralston

Dogs with Jobs :: This is a series of short episodes we found on Netflix, and this show was excellent on so many levels. If you love dogs, you have to see it. Even if you don’t love dogs, this show will introduce young children to people with disabilities, workers with dangerous jobs, and how we rely on this incredible animal to help us with incredibly important tasks. Dogs are amazing. (Preview first, if you have sensitive viewers.)


Saving the Ocean :: This is also a series of short episodes. Incredibly interesting, and I love how Carl Safina focuses not just on the problems hurting our oceans, but on the solutions and good things many people are doing to correct them. You can find several full episodes online.


When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions by Discovery :: This is one of those exceptions for Discovery documentaries. It was excellent! My kids learned so much about U.S. history as this documentary took us through all the NASA missions. I highly recommend it, especially if you have a kid who loves rockets!


What are your family’s favorite documentaries?

Teaching children about the natural world...