November 25, 2014

Cultivating Attitudes of Gratitude: Teaching Thankfulness Through Nature

by Melissa Harding

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How often do you stop and count your blessings? Gratitude may seem to be all the rage right now, with bloggers and magazines talking about the importance of  having an attitude of gratitude, but there is some real research supporting this trend. Studies have shown that people who cultivate gratefulness are happier, more optimistic, more energetic and nicer than those who don’t. Not only that, but they are physically healthier as well. In fact, gratitude is even becoming commonly used as a tool in therapeutic interventions; it can function as a kind of “social support”, which is what psychologists call the perception that people have of being care about and for by others. Many believe that cultivating attitudes of gratitude can help people to build the psychological capital which is beneficial in difficult situations, such as the death of a loved one or a job loss. In short, being grateful is pretty great!

So what is gratitude? Robert Emmons, perhaps one of the foremost experts on gratitude research, has this definition of gratitude: “[Gratitude is] an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received. We recognize that the sources of this goodness are outside of ourselves … We acknowledge that other people—or even higher powers, if you’re of a spiritual mindset—gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.” There is also a social dimension to gratitude, which is that it is a relationship-strengthening emotion, because it requires acknowledging the social support in our lives.

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Research has found this to be a positive attitude in children as well as adults. It seems that materialist youth tend to do poorly, while youth that demonstrate pro-social behavior, such as gratitude, flourish. In fact, this same study found that higher levels of gratitude can uniquely predict outcomes like higher grade-point average, life satisfaction, and social integration, as well as lower levels of depression and envy. In contrast, higher levels of materialism predict the opposite outcomes. Research shows that as children internalize materialistic values, their well-being and self-worth actually decreases. Mental health also decreases, since many of their perceived needs are not met. Gratitude, however, seems to have an opposite effect, in part because it helps people fulfill their basic psychological needs of competence, autonomy, and relatedness.

DSC_1465Children who cultivate grateful attitudes are more successful, exhibit more pro-social behaviors, and generally have higher overall well-being. Additionally, grateful children develop intrinsic goals, such as helping the community and connecting with others, rather than materialist goals, like fame and wealth. This may seem like common sense, and to an extent it really is. We all like to be around people who are kind and positive and we like to help those people to achieve success. On the other hand, materialism erodes friendships and creates attitudes of envy; those people experience less success for the same reasons that their grateful peers succeed. Having grateful attitudes set children up for success as adults in the same way that being kind and empathetic does.

However, this is much easier said than done. We live in a culture that values materialism as a measure of success and this can be difficult to avoid for adults, let alone children. As they develop, children naturally internalize attitudes and values from society and those societal concerns have a real effect on their worldview. One sure way to increase gratitude in both your child and yourself is to go outside. Being outside has a host of benefits outside of increasing gratitude and interacting in a sensory way with nature is shown to increase appreciation for both the natural world and for life itself. Explore your backyard or local green space and observe the trees, flowers, dirt, and critters that live there. Use magnifying glasses to observe bugs and snowflakes, dig your hands in the dirt, and smell the roses (literally). If you’re feeling brave, maybe taste a dandelion or some clean snow. The more time you spend outside with your child, the more they will love and appreciate the natural world. For some ideas to help you make the most of your time outside, check out this post.

Nature is not the only way to cultivate gratitude; here are some other ways to help your child develop a grateful heart:

1. Keep a gratitude journal: Recording 3-5 things per day that you are grateful for is shown to increase gratitude. This can be done as a family on a communal board, during dinner as part of conversation, or in an actual journal (virtual or otherwise). A great start is to ask your child to share “three good things” that happened to him or her that day. Remember to share your own list as well, making it a family activity rather than a daily quiz for your child. You are a great role model for gratitude and your own attitude will go a long way in influencing your child.
2. Write a gratitude letter: This is not just a thank-you note for a birthday gift, but a real, heart-felt expression of gratitude for someone else. Help your child write a short note of gratitude to a family member, friend, or teacher; adding pictures or a small, homemade present is even better. It can be anything, a homemade card or just a note, but the goal is to get your child to articulate how others help him and to give him the experience of thanking those people with sincerity.
3. Practice mindfully receiving gifts: Help your child to consider that someone mindfully intended to give him a gift or help him, even at a small cost to themselves. Research shows that this in particular is a helpful practice.
4. Say grace: Whether or not your family subscribes to a particular religion, recognizing the work that went into a meal is a good thing. This can take a more traditional or religious tone if desired. If not, say a small blessing on the farmers who grew the food and those hands that prepared it.
5. Help others: Volunteer as a family to help those less fortunate. Whether it is a shift at the soup kitchen or donating toys to charity, helping other helps us appreciate our own blessings even more.

To learn more about the ever-growing science of gratitude, check out this article by The Greater Good or this one on the benefits of appreciation. Or read the full article cited above.

To learn about the benefits of nature on pro-social behavior, check out this blog post.

The above photos are taken by Science Education staff.

November 21, 2014

Little Sprouts Have a Desert Adventure!

by Melissa Harding

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Even though it is cold outside, our Little Sprouts spent a day in the desert at Phipps! During our latest Little Sprouts, Our Desert Adventure, campers learned that deserts are hot, dry and full of special plants and animals that love to live there. They explored succulent plants and even planted one of their own to take home. Of course, they also sang songs, met a puppet, and got up close and personal with some plants in the Conservatory.

To begin, campers played in our sand and dirt sensory bins. Young children love to put their hands in the interesting textures and practice their motor skills by filling containers and using funnels and sieves.

After singing out welcome song together, the campers explored their mystery boxes. Inside they found sand, stones, succulent leaves and a picture of a jackrabbit. Campers used magnifying glasses to investigate the sand and rocks and squeezed the water out of leaves from our burrow’s tail plant. They also met our friend Bunny, who introduced them to his desert cousin, the jackrabbit. Campers practiced hopping like jackrabbits and even sang a song about hopping as they did so.

Next, campers and their caretakers worked together to plant jade plugs, gently tucking them into the soil and watering them to take home. After planting, campers ate a healthy snack of apples and bananas while Miss Hanna read a story about different animals that live in the desert. Finally, Miss Hanna introduced the campers to the day’s special plant, a jade, and led an adventure to the desert room to find our plant friend in the garden.

We had so much fun and can’t wait for our next Little Sprouts program in the new year!

To see more images from camp, check out the slideshow below:

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Join us for our next Little Sprouts adventure in 2015! We will be learning all about bugs and why they are so important to plants and people in Our Bug Friends, January 16, 9:30-10:30 am and 11:00 am-noon. Please call Sarah Bertovich to register at 412-422-4441 ext. 3925 or visit our website.

The above photos were taken by Science Education staff and volunteers.

 

November 20, 2014

Dr. Emily Kalnicky Attends National Living Lab Meeting in Baltimore!

by Melissa Harding

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photo 3Last weekend, Dr. Emily Kalnicky traveled to the Maryland Science Center for a National Living Lab introductory meeting. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Living Laboratory is nationally-recognized model for research that takes place inside museums and other informal learning institutions. These researchers then work with museum educators to communicate the questions and methods of their work to visitors through innovative activities and one-on-one interactions with the researchers themselves. Participants and viewers alike learn how science is applicable to their own lives, how research is conducted, what scientists look and act like and how to answer tough questions using the scientific method.

Dr. Kalnicky is attending the meeting with other academics and museum educators to learn more about opportunities to highlight children’s learning and development in museum settings through the Living Laboratory model.  The first day of this event provided an overview of Living Laboratory and other models of collaboration in which museums host active child development research and researchers in their halls.  The second day engaged participants in learning about how to create and utilize “research toys” for educator-led museum activities that engage caregivers in learning about child development. Dr. Kalnicky also had time to share about our current collaboration with Carnegie Mellon University’s Discovery Process Lab and gather more information about how to make our program even better!

To learn more about our current research collaborations with Carnegie Mellon University, check out this blog post.

To learn more about the importance of museums in early learning, check out this post.

The above photos were taken by Becki Kipling and Emily Kalnicky.

 

November 19, 2014

Home Connections: Make Moldable Dough from Stale Bread

by Melissa Harding

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One of our favorite crafts to make during camp is dough. Moldable dough is easy and fun to make with small children; it’s not a scientific recipe, but rather an imprecise collection of ingredient stirred together by little hands. It makes just enough of a mess to keep everyone happy and can turn into some seriously cute crafts. We’ve talked about dough in this space before, but this is an update on a new dough that we are loving that is made with a not-so-secret ingredient: stale bread!

Moldable Stale Bread Dough

You will need: stale white bread, white glue, dishwashing detergent

1. Cut the crust off 7 slices of bread.
2. Break the bread into tiny pieces and put them in a medium-sized bowl.
3. Add 7 teaspoons of white glue and mix thoroughly.
4. Add 1/2 teaspoon of water and 1/2 teaspoon dish washing detergent.
5. Knead your mixture until you get a nice clay consistency. If your mixture is too dry, add a bit more water.

Air drying usually takes about 24 hours.

As always, this is non-toxic, but we do not recommend eating this dough.

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Imaginative play with dough

Dough gives children plenty of opportunities for imaginative play. It can be sculpted into many different shapes; our campers especially love to use cookie cutters to create animal shapes. It can also be put into silicon candy molds and shaped ice-cube trays. It is best to use silicon molds, as they can be folded inside out to remove dough. Campers also enjoy using the dough to sculpt “food” and serve it as cookies, cakes and other tea party or kitchen items.

Decorative items like seeds, glitter and plant material can be added to dough to give these sculptures additional life. For example, seeds make great eyes for a snake or beautiful patterns on a decorate stone or pot. The only limit in the imagination!

Here are a few more examples of fun dough recipes and play ideas:

Snowdough, The Imagination Tree
Moldable Sand, The Imagination Tree
Gold Cloud Dough, The Imagination Tree
The A-Z of Playdough Recipes and Activities, The Imagination Tree
Beaded Salt Dough Ornaments, Mommy-Labs
Gingerbread Salt Dough, Gemma Garner
39 Ways to Play and Learn with Playdough, The Artful Parent

To learn how we make playdough and salt dough, check out this post.

The above photos were taken by Science Education staff and volunteers.

November 18, 2014

Tune In: “You Unplugged” Essay Winners on the Radio this Saturday!

by Melissa Harding

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Saturday, November 22nd at 10:05 am, The Saturday Light Brigade family radio station will feature a 25-min interview with the You Unplugged middle school essay winners from the Fairchild Challenge at Phipps competition. Over 1,250 area students wrote reflective essays in response to the challenge of entirely giving up technology for one day. Hear from the winners about the challenge and what they learned from it!

The Saturday Light Brigade can be heard every Saturday morning on WRCT 88.3 FM. It also streams live at slbradio.org where the interview will be archived under Neighborhood Voices.

Read more about the You Unplugged challenge and the Fairchild Challenge competition at the previous blog post!

The above picture was taken by Science Education staff and volunteers.

November 17, 2014

Evening Ed-Ventures: Art Party!

by Melissa Harding

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As Henry David Thoreau once said, “This world is but a canvas to our imaginations.” During last weekend’s Evening Ed-Ventures: Art Party, our campers used their imaginations and the natural world to find inspiration to create works of art. Campers created sculptures and healthy snacks, learning about nature through art.

To begin, campers were given a blank inspiration mural. They were asked to draw or write about the things that most inspire them. Campers drew everything from baseballs to butterflies, explaining the different things in each of their lives that make them happy and give them inspiration. They then introduced themselves and their favorite kind of art.

After all this talk of inspiration, it was time to get down to business and start prepping their materials. As always, our art projects were made from repurposed items and natural materials. Campers spent time crumbling bread  and adding it to glue, dish soap and water to make bread clay. While their clay was getting nice and gooey, they went into the Conservatory to check out the sculptures that make their home among the plants. They learned about Dale Chihuly and how he makes his glass sculptures, guessing what things from nature were the inspiration for each piece. They also found the inspiration from plants in the Serpentine Room and Palm Court, jotting down their favorite ones in their journals.

All of this inspiration made everyone feel pretty hungry, so it was time for a snack. Sticking with the theme of art, campers created “snulptures” – part snack, part sculpture – out of blue corn chips, cheese and fruit. What a delicious project! After creating their edible sculptures, campers went back down to the classroom to create some no-edible ones out of their bread clay. They added natural materials like leaves, pine cones and sticks to add an autumnal feeling to their art. It was such a fun night – truly an art party!

Check out the slideshow below to see more images from camp:

 

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If program sounds fun, check out Evening Ed-Venture: Fun with Food on February 13, 6:30-9:30 pm. To register, contact Sarah Bertovich at 412/441-4442 etx. 3925.

The above photos were taken by Phipps Conservatory Staff.

November 14, 2014

Interview with a Scientist: BIA Fellow Chelsie Romulo

by Melissa Harding

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If there is one segment of society that is often misunderstood, it is people who work in science fields. Public perception of scientists tends to lean towards lab coats, crazy hair and beakers full of chemicals, especially in the eyes of children.  In reality, most scientists are just regular people who want to make the world a better place through scientific discovery. The best way to dispel the myth that scientists are boring or crazy is to get to know them; the purpose of this segment is to talk with real scientists to ask them what they love about their jobs and why they think their work is fun and important.

It’s a new year with new scientists! For our next installment in this series, we sat down with BIA Fellow Chelsie Romulo. The Botany in Action Fellowship program at Phipps fosters the development of the next generation of plant-based scientists who are committed, first, to excellent research, and second, to educational outreach. The BIA program provides Fellows with funding for use towards field research in the US or abroad and a trip to Phipps, to engage in science outreach training and opportunities to share his or her research to public audiences. Chelsie is in her first year as a BIA Fellow, researching the aguaje palm in the Amazon rainforest.

We interviewed Chelsie about her childhood playing outside, her love of bees, and the time that she climbed up a palm tree:

Introduce yourself and your work in 5 sentences or less. 

My name is Chelsie Romulo and I am a doctoral candidate in the Environmental Science and Policy Department at George Mason University. I study the economy and ecology of a palm called aguaje that grows in the Amazon rainforest. This species is found in peatlands that can store large amounts of carbon and it produces a fruit that is a very important food source for many animals. I am interested in how the fruit market affects the distribution and ecology of the tree, especially since people cut down the tree to harvest the fruit. My research tries to understand how people who harvest, buy, sell, and eat the fruit make decisions and how their choices affect management of the species.

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Why did you become a scientist? 

As a child my favorite activities consisted of mucking about in creek beds and overturning rocks and logs, and then bringing home critters that I had found. They would then be placed in tanks all over the house, as well as my mother’s potted plants and eventually released where they had been found. Over the years I watched with fascination as many tadpoles and caterpillars transformed into frogs and butterflies. My mother has always been an avid gardener and encouraged us to dig in the dirt and admire living things with her. I’ve always been fascinated with nature and watching things grow and spending as much time outside as possible. Though I’ve never wanted to do anything else except be a scientist, I was surprised at the diversity of options within the field of life sciences. I never would have guessed that I would be studying the economics of an Amazonian fruit but I love being where I am today.

What part do plants play in your research? 

My research focus is on the aguaje palm tree (Mauritia flexuosa) that grows in the Amazon Rainforest. The trees produce a fruit that is an important food for animals and is also eaten whole, or processed into ice cream and juice, by people in the Peruvian Amazon. This tree also grows in peatlands that have the potential to store a lot of carbon dioxide.

What is the most exciting thing you have ever done at work?

During the summer of 2013, while working with a colleague setting camera traps in the forest, we had the chance to climb an aguaje tree. We used a harness developed by a group of local people who were committed to find a more sustainable harvest method. It was much scarier and dirtier than I had ever imagined. You have one strap around your waist and your foot in another loop, hanging dozens of feet up in the air! Having that experience really helps my perspective when talking to harvesters about their decision to cut or climb a tree. Here is a picture:

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What skills do you use in your job? 

People skills are very important. I depend on a lot of people to get my research done, both in the United States and abroad. I have to be able to communicate effectively to a variety of different people, and sometimes in Spanish! Spanish language would be another skill as well, since I need to communicate with my colleagues and field technicians in Peru. It also helps to stay fit throughout the year because tromping through heavily forested swamps can tire you out quickly.

What is your favorite part of your job? 

I love meeting new people whose research is similar to mine and sharing new information with each other. Part of being a scientist is spending your life learning and sharing new things.

If you weren’t a scientist, what job would you choose? 

I think if I wasn’t a scientist I would want to be a beekeeper. Actually, I am already a beekeeper, but I just have a few hives as a hobby. I could watch them for hours and hours. Actually, I would probably just be another type of scientist. I can’t imagine not being a scientist.

Why is science education important?

Science is the way that we explain and describe our world, so science education is very important. Science education is needed to help people understand how we got to where we are and why scientists say one thing or another. It is also important because all people need to be thinking critically about how we interpret observations and reach our own conclusions. I think that some people are intimated by science and scientists and this causes a barrier to communication and understanding. It is part of our job as scientists to help people understand and enjoy science, and contribute to science education. For my project specifically I am working with people who harvest, buy and sell aguaje fruit in the Amazon rainforest. Many of these people are less than a high school education, so it is up to me to help them understand what my research means for them and the future of their business in the fruit trade.

Chelsie is a great example of someone who turned a childhood love of nature into an adult career. Research shows that children who spend significant time in nature are more likely to develop positive environmental attitudes as adults. To learn more about the power of nature on child development, check out this blog post.

Follow Chelsie’s adventures in research at her blog!

The above photos are used courtesy of Chelsie Romulo.

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