Friday, December 4, 2009

Carkeek Park Outing

During the fall months, many salmon return to local streams to spawn. In the old days, before European settlers citified this area, salmon used to be so thick in the streams, a person could walk across on their backs. Now, well, streams in the city are lucky if any salmon find their way up them at all. At Carkeek Park, in Seattle, school children participate in raising salmon eggs every year, and releasing them into Piper's Creek. Four to five years later, the salmon come back from their ocean journeys and miraculously smell their way back to the same creek they came from. They mate, lay eggs, and die, their carcasses littering the streams and providing precious nutrients to the ecosystem.

I wanted to get out of the house, and even though I still need to use a big walking boot to walk outside, I can drive with a regular shoe. The paths at Carkeek are level along the stream, and there is a little interpretive center to visit. We looked at some taxidermy specimens, and some bones they had on display, and compared the differences between some of the birds.

Annika and Gabriel check out a barred owl specimen.

A former colleague of mine, Brian, came downstairs to say hi to us, and showed us the tubes with salmon eggs at different stages of gestation. He even let us eat our lunch inside.

Brian shows the kids the different stages of salmon egg development.

The temps were in the upper 30s or low 40s, and it was dry when we began our little field trip, but it started raining when we got ready to go down to look at the stream. I had planned to walk along the length of Piper's Creek, looking for spawning salmon, and then take the kids up to the playground to play. But the rain started falling harder and harder, a drenching, cold rain that soaks through. The kids were not very interested in seeing fish, but we did spot two carcasses in the short section we observed. Apparently the cohort that was released four years ago was infected with a gill rot disease they had brought with them from the hatchery, and most didn't survive, so there was a very low return this year. Learning this information, I felt lucky that we had seen any at all.

The kids look over Piper's Creek.

Gabriel was interested in the solar panels at the learning center. On sunny days, they provide the power for the offices.

Despite the rain and the lack of spawning fish, I still think this was a successful outing. I know my kids are missing the forests, and they commented on how peaceful it was there. I hope we will be able to get out more soon, and that I can find some more wooded trails that I can go on until my ankle heals a bit more. (Sorry my pics are a little dark, it was a gloomy day today.)

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Art Walk

Artist Joan Archer demonstrates watercolor painting.

Every third Thursday evening a local town has an Art Walk, where the shops stay open late and art is displayed throughout the area. I have wanted to go for several years now, and this week we finally made it a priority. We bundled up and put on our boots to brave the blustery weather. It felt so good to get out of the house for something fun as a family!

We started out at a gallery, viewing interesting paintings by a variety of artists and snacking on cookies and cider. Gabriel was curious about talking with one of the artists, so we chatted with her a bit about her training and experiences. She was very encouraging to Gabriel. We went on to another gallery, where there was an artist doing a demonstration with watercolors. Gabriel was really interested in this, and we stayed to watch as long as she painted. Then it was next door to see a different artist using a completely different style of watercolor painting. She also took time to answer our questions and explain her philosophy of art. At a fourth gallery we looked at some sculptures and yet some more paintings. Somewhere here the word "surreal" was used, and Gabriel picked up on that and came home to do some "surreal" art of his own. I think we're going to have to do some research about different styles of art so he (and I) knows exactly what that means.

The kids observe Autumn Kegley painting at Autumn Leaves Gallery.

I was touched by how intensely interested Gabriel was. I wasn't sure how the evening would turn out with both the kids along, but Gabriel was definitely inspired by the art he saw. I also appreciated the way everyone took time to talk to us, genuinely sharing their interests and techniques, treating Gabriel as a student and not just a little kid. Why haven't I gone to this before??? There were a bunch of other stores we didn't even have the time or energy to see. I think this is going to be a regular gig for us in the future.

This little one, however, was plumb tuckered out.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Owl Pellets and Book Review of The Barn Owls

I remember watching the owl. It was twilight, almost dark, that summer evening. We waited at the living room window at my parents' home, eagerly scanning the yard and the tree. Suddenly, there it was, coming out of the tree, a ghostly white shape floating up into the air, past the window and out into the neighbor's field. Mom thought it was a barn owl. They had kept track of when it came out every night; just after sunset.

The next day we went out and poked around under the owl tree. I found two owl pellets, which I picked up and kept safe until the kids were old enough to appreciate the activity. This week it was time: time to get them out and see what was inside. What had this owl eaten? Gabriel already knew what an owl pellet was, but we needed to explain to Annika that an owl can't digest the fur and bones of its prey, so it regurgitates those pieces in oval-shaped packets, or pellets. We can pick those pellets apart and look at the bones to see what the owl's meal was.

Preparation. The kids thought they wanted to use latex gloves to do the dissection, but the gloves were too unwieldy.

We found two skulls among the bug droppings.

One of our pellets had been discovered by bugs who had eaten all the fur and left only bones covered in bug droppings. That actually made it easier to dissect it. The one still covered in fur took quite awhile to pick apart. Both the kids were interested in this activity. Gabriel actually knew some of the bones, and we had a sheet we had gotten online that helped us identify most of what we found. We're not sure exactly what we had; we narrowed it down to some kind of rodent. There were two skulls and lots of tiny bones between the two pellets. Now I'm wishing I had picked up more pellets for our research.

When we were done we had a pile of fur and a plate full of tiny bones.

Lower jaw bone, pelvic bone, and two vertebrae.

Tibia and fibula.

Rodent skull and teeth. Notice the large eye sockets.

Pile o' bones.

The owl did not appear last summer in the owl tree. We hope it will come back again, but if it doesn't we have fond memories of waiting for it on a summer evening and figuring out what it ate.

We paired this activity with a lovely book called The Barn Owls by Tony Johnston, illustrated by Deborah Kogan Ray. It is written in poem form, sometimes rhyming, sometimes rhythmic, but either way fun to read. My favorite page goes:

"Where owls hunted,
spiders spun
to hold the barn
to earth.

Where owls hunted,
long snakes sunned
and split their skins
like chaff
and left.

And bees hummed
their hymn
of wheat."

The illustrations are done in watercolor and watercolor pencil. The colors are saturated and mellow, golden and deep. The whole book makes me wish we lived next to a field with a hundred-year-old barn that is home to barn owls. But at least we can have a thin thread of connection to one through our owl pellet findings.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Window Art

The sun was miraculously shining through the windows today, so I thought it would be a good time to try one of the projects in our new book, Great American Artists for Kids by MaryAnn Kohl and Kim Solga. I had the supplies for a project imitating Frank Lloyd Wright's windows. The kids learned that he was a famous architect and artist, and that he designed a play house for the children of one of his clients. The windows in this play house are considered some of his best work. The book suggested taping contact paper to the windows and adhering tissue paper circles and squares to it in the manner of the playhouse windows.

Both of my children really enjoyed this activity, and spent much time working on their art pieces. Gabriel admired the original Wright windows, and was careful to imitate the style. Annika took a more free-form approach. Gabriel was able to cut out his shapes by himself, and I let him use a Sharpie marker (!!) to draw the black lines. Annika needed help cutting shapes, which I was happy to do, and tried to keep up with her speed of work. I was annoyed that I didn't have as much tissue paper as I thought I did, but the kids didn't mind the limited palette. (Unfortunately, they cut shapes out of the middle of almost every piece, so now I need more tissue for wrapping gifts. And I never knew just how difficult it is to cut tissue paper cleanly.) I still need to put the outer layer of contact paper on, and make a black frame for them, but here are the products so far:

Annika's piece, untitled

Gabriel's piece, titled "Uga," signed by the artist. He even tried to write the title backwards so it could be read from the outside of the window. He was thoughtful enough to put a price on it, $1,000,000. I think it's priceless!

One of the things that struck me was the children's mood - they were on edge and cranky, bickering with each other before we started. But while they were working, there were definite calm and peaceful, thoughtful and intentional feelings in the room. Gabriel remarked toward the end of our session, "I love my art!" Those good feelings lasted for a few hours before the bickering started again. It reiterated to me the importance we should place on art in our lives.

I highly recommend this activity, and we look forward to trying more from the book. Pop on over to The Artful Parent to read a wonderful interview with MaryAnn Kohl about her book and her life work.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Photo Safari

Big-leaf Maple Leaves Cover the Ground

One of the worst things about having foot and ankle surgery is not being able to go for walks in nature. I feel like I have missed the best part of the autumn this year - the colorful leaves are mostly fallen and soggy, and the warm weather is gone until next spring. Snow covers our favorite hiking trails in the mountains. Grey clouds and breezy skies dominate the weather forecasts as far as the eye can see. The house starts to feel confining and stale.

Yesterday the sun was out, brightening the windows and causing the birds to be active all around the yard. I was desperate to get myself and the children out into nature, if only for a few minutes. Surprisingly, Gabriel fought me on this. He usually is the one begging to go out. But after I told him he could bring the little camera, he calmed down and grumpily put on his coat and boots. Annika was easier to convince, so off we went for a 20 minute walk, (me using my trusty knee scooter) into the greenbelt down the path, and back out to the sidewalk, up to our house just in time for our friends to arrive and join us for lunch.

Following are some of the photos I took yesterday.

The sensitive artist composes a shot

Shaggy mushrooms in the woods

The weak November sun filters down to the leaf-strewn path

Annika enjoyed collecting maple leaves and stepping in puddles

Another shaggy mushroom

Juniper berries on a neighbor's tree

Back home, autumn cyclamen in our front yard

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Children's Book Review

I have been thinking about starting a new feature on this blog - reviews of children's books we use for our schooling. There are some amazing books out there for children, and we check out so many from the library. I haven't decided yet if I will stick with nature education books, or expand the reviews to include anything I want. I don't plan to do this on a fixed schedule; rather when we find something good to share. So here is my first offering:

Wind-Wild Dog by Barbara Joosse, illustrated by Kate Kiesler.


This book follows a husky pup as she is chosen by a man to join his dogsled team. The prose is tender toward the dog, yet really sets an atmosphere of wildness in the natural world. The first line of this book is "The night Ziva was born, the wind held its breath." There are many other poetic phrases throughout this book, which makes it a joy to read out loud, and satisfying to this literary-minded parent. There are lots of juicy verbs, such as smacked, lapped, slunk, pricked, and thrilled. I picked this book out when we were reading books about wolves, and found it an interesting companion to the more scientific wolf books.

The illustrations in this book are warm and exciting, and really bring out the relationship between the man and Ziva, the beauty and wildness of the Alaskan wilderness, and the personality of the dogs. Children could follow the threads introduced in the story to learn more about Alaska, sled-dog culture, wolves, or dogs. I highly recommend searching this book out at your local library. And please post a comment to let me know how you enjoyed this book. Happy reading!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Catching Up

We have been laying low lately since my surgery. We spent a week at my parents', staying for Halloween; this week we were home again. "School" has been very relaxed. Lots of library books, Science Channel and PBS. Gabriel has been doing some interesting artwork, including weaving on a cardboard loom I made him and playing with Sculpey clay with his dad. Legos are a prominent part of the day, too.

Gabriel also spent several hours playing with a snap circuit electronics kit my parents have. We paired this with a Magic School Bus book about electricity.

Grandma and Papa helped the kids carve pumpkins.

Gabriel's has an eye and part of its mouth sewn shut. Annika's is happy.

For Halloween we were still with my parents, and spent most of the day with my brother and his family.
Here is a rare photo of me. I've got my foot up while watching the soccer game.

We watched my niece play soccer, had pizza, and went back to their place to chill. A party and Trick-or-Treating were later in the day.
My niece is a doctor, my nephew is a fire fighter. Gabriel is a mummy/zombie, and Annika is a princess.

The kids got way too much candy, and now I'm sorry I didn't come up with a creative way to get them to trade it in for something else.

We got a new book in the mail today that I am so excited to try out. It's Great American Artists for Kids by MaryAnn Kohl and Kim Solga. There is a nice little piece about the book on The Artful Parent. The book gives a bit of information about important artists, and then activities for young children to do imitating that style. Besides the obvious art implications, I could see this tying into geography and American history. I'll let you know how it goes!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Love of Libraries, whaledreamers, and Meaningful Stories

One of the best things about homeschooling is that we get to go to the library and check out all kinds of books about whatever we are interested in. While we were browsing among the whale section, I cam across a video that looked intriguing. It is called whaledreamers, and was produced by Julian Lennon. It talks about the connection between a tribal culture in Australia and the whales they had a special relationship with. It follows this tribe as they host a gathering of other indigenous tribes from around the world and share their stories of their connections with whales. The respect and closeness they developed between cultures was inspiring. The video also brought up issues of genocide and forced migration from ancient tribal lands. These topics were explained well, but would be best for older children. This video was over the head of my two children, and parts were more intense than I would like them to see, but the video and its message made an impact on me.

I started thinking again about the power of story. I have put my writing on hold for awhile after Aaron's cancer and job loss and beginning homeschooling and having surgery. But I started getting that "itch" again, remembering why I write and how meaningful writing can be. I thought also about the power of stories in our own home, on a more personal level. We begin our days with story time - snuggles, warm and cuddly, the two children sleepy on my lap, letting them gently wake up to begin the day. Stories later in the morning when we all need a break. Stories before nap to get Annika ready for sleep. Stories at bedtime, snuggling again with a child on either side, warm pajamas and blankets. Books for one of them when emotions overflow, helping them to calm down and become grounded again. Children loving reading and learning, asking questions and soaking up all kinds of information without even trying. Children hearing stories from all kinds of cultures and genres, looking at pictures and illustrations from wonderful photographers and talented artists, as well as creating images in their own heads with their imaginations.

What would we do without stories and books? Have you had any experiences with the power of story or books? I'd love to hear them!

Monday, October 19, 2009


I have spent the last week in quiet luxury. Well, sort of. I had surgery on my ankle and foot, and have been spending all day, every day, in my special chair (except when I am napping). My parents took the kids for a whole week, and they spent two days with hubby's sister and her husband. I had the whole week to recover in peace and quiet, waited on hand and foot by my dear hubby. I worked on some knitting projects, spent a lot of time on the internet finding all kinds of cool stuff, and watched tons of TV. I worked on my website a bit, took naps whenever I wanted. Heaven, I tell you! I got so spoiled. But I did miss my kids. They came back yesterday, and today we tried to catch up on cuddles and stories.

One of the things I knit was a toe hat to keep my toes warm with my cast on.

I've also been working on Christmas gifts for people. I got some mittens made for the kids.

I have some other projects I've done, too, but don't want to post them because they are going to people who read this blog. I love knitting. I think I have 6 or 7 projects going on now. I am trying to finish a few of them before starting new ones. I don't want to have to buy new, duplicate needles.

A few days before my surgery I took the kids to the Aquarium. It was so wonderful to go when there weren't very many other visitors. There were mostly tourists and a few moms with toddlers. We got unfettered access to all the interpreters, and didn't have to get pushed around by the exhibits.
The kids fed sea urchins, observed the octopus, watched the otters and seals, and checked out the coral reef exhibit. My favorite part was that Gabriel got to put some water from the Sound under a powerful microscope.

It showed up on a TV so everyone could see it. The interpreter told us what we were looking at. He spent several minutes with Gabriel answering questions and showing him how the microscope worked. It was so nice to have that much attention. The kids loved having this outing and I was glad to spend that much fun time with them before my surgery.

I've been discovering all kinds of cool stuff on the internet to use for our homeschooling, but I'll save that for another post.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Big Helpers

The kids have been involved in some projects around the house in the past week. We are making a wood shed in the back yard. I should say, my husband and Dad are making the shed, I am supervising. We have lived here for over 6 years and are finally going to have a winter without blue tarps in the back yard. Yay!!!

Gabriel and Annika both helped move part of a load of gravel to the construction area, and then spread the remaining rocks in the driveway.

Happily, we will also have a winter without mud from the driveway getting tracked into the house. Wow, I feel so grown up. Today Dad came up with some panels he had put together this week for us, and a friend joined the men to help start raising the walls. Gabriel was out there with them for a bit, learning how to use the level to make sure the foundation blocks were level and true. We talked about the process at the dinner table this evening, filling in the blanks of understanding for him.

That's one of the coolest things about homeschooling for me. I love the conversations we have, just by living life. I have some more ideas about how to build some math lessons into this project, too. Math is one of the harder subjects for me to figure out how to teach my son. He is decidedly not a worksheet type of person, but I want to make sure he gets a good foundation in math so he can be successful in science or engineering or architecture or whatever he decides to pursue in life. It's also really good to see my boy out there working hard along the men. He needs that!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Chillin' With the Children

With the advent of homeschooling Gabriel, Annika has wanted to be involved in everything we do. Gabriel has been wanting to learn cursive, and Annika wants to learn too, but she hasn't learned her letters yet. I bought her some workbooks to work on tracing and mazes, and she ate them up. So we've begun printing out worksheets from the internet and letting her go at them. She loves doing worksheets! I have trouble printing them out fast enough. I found some simple kids' Sudoku puzzles off the internet, too. Gabriel liked them and asked for harder ones. I had to stop printing them out after several pages. I think this will be a good way to work on math logic for him. It amazes me how quickly he picks up on stuff.

Gabriel has also been working on making some paper airplanes out of The World Record Airplane Book. We thought he should do a contest with the planes he makes, and see which ones fly the farthest. I think that will be on the schedule for tomorrow. Then at dinner he said we should put up a notice on the internet and let people all over the world participate in the contest. So if anyone out there still reads this blog, and you want to participate in a flying airplane experiment, shoot me an email and we'll work something out.

Today Aaron took Gabriel out for a special guys' outing to a movie. So Annika and I had some girl time. We made playdough and played with it. She was thrilled that I would actually play with her with the playdough.

Then after lunch we watched a movie of her choice before nap time. So sweet to have time with my sweet girl.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A Dragonfly in the Hand

Yesterday we went on a short safari to a small lake a few blocks away. I am embarrassed that I have never explored this little area. I think I have been reluctant because I wasn't sure what kind of people would be hiding in the bushes, but it really is a sweet little pond in the middle of the city. It is a peat bog, one of the last in the area, and thus swampy and humid. We've had such a dry summer, though, that the trails were fine to walk, and we were able to walk the paths all the way around. There is a section that has some boardwalk over the lake, and we spent several minutes there, trying to find the frogs among the grasses, watching the ducks and dragonflies, and enjoying the sunshine.

My goal for the outing was to collect some pond water to take home and see what was in it (if anything), but the kids really weren't interested in that, so I nixed the idea. But the trip wasn't a waste, because we found a dead dragonfly in the middle of the trail, just before we got back to the car. We took the thing home, and today we spent some time drawing it.

The brilliant colors were already starting to fade, and it was pretty fragile, but I was surprised how long both the kids spent working on their illustrations. We also watched a video on YouTube about the dragonfly life cycle - it has some great footage. From there we watched other videos about different insects, all of them from the same producers.

Otherwise, we have been trying to figure out a schedule and routines for our new way of life. I am encountering some resistance from my free-spirited son, but I know he needs some structure and there are just some things (like math) a kid's gotta learn in life, whatever schooling method he chooses. I am praying he will relax into accepting my authority, and keep in mind that he has more freedom than some of his friends.

I do like how he chooses to spend his free time. He has been busy this week with a new book from Grandma and Papa, building paper airplanes and flying them.

He has also been building forts with Annika, reading books, and building with Lego and K'Nex. I hope I can relax some more and enjoy this time, and try to keep in mind what's important.