Archive for March, 2013

March 13, 2013

Little Sprouts: Our Tropical Adventure

by Melissa Harding


When it’s cold outside, there is no better place to be than in our Tropical Forest. It feels like being on vacation – warm, humid and wonderfully fragrant. Our Little Sprouts agree; in the latest Little Sprouts: Singles, Our Tropical Adventure, campers went on an expedition deep into the heart of our Tropical Forest to learn more about rainforests. Campers learned why rainforests are so wet and hot, as well what plants and animals live there.


To begin, campers made nametags shaped like sunglasses and “binoculars” to use during their impending exploration. They also splatter-painted rainforest frogs made out of recycled egg cartons. Campers put their frog bodies into a box to flick paint on them and then attached feet and eyes, creating colorful creatures to take home. They even had time to observe colorful rainforest fruits and play with books, puzzles and salt dough after they finished their crafts.

During the lesson, campers learned that the rainforest is really rainy and that plants love it there. They observed an immature banana plant, a coffee tree and a chocolate tree up close, as well as a pineapple plant; they also played a tropical fruit guessing game and had the chance to see the fruit and pods from the demonstration plants. Campers learned about animals that live in the jungle by playing a game of animal noises. They hopped like frogs, growled like jaguars and crowed like toucans!


After all this learning, campers were ready to explore. Using their binoculars, they looked for exciting rainforest plants. They used their ears to listen for animal noises and their noses to smell fragrant flowers. Upon their return, each camper planted a tropical plant to take home. Campers planted Philodendron, a common foliage plant that lives in the understory of the rainforest. These plants also help to clean the air, which is why they are such great houseplants!

If you want to learn about the rainforest with your own Little Sprout, here are some great story suggestions:
“Slowly, Slowly, Slowly” said the Sloth by Eric Carle,
The Umbrella by Jan Brett
Way Up High in a Tall Green Tree by Jan Peck and Valerie Petrone
The Rainforest Grew All Around by Susan Mitchell and Connie McLellan

Our next Little Sprouts Singles program, We Love Veggies, is scheduled for April 18, 10:30 am-noon. This camp is currently full, but if you would like to join our waiting list, please contact Sarah at (412)441-4442 ext. 3925.

For a complete list of all our Little Sprout offerings, including summer camp, please visit our website.

Check out the slideshow below for more pictures!

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The above pictures were all taken by our wonderful volunteer, Pam Russell.

March 12, 2013

The Secret Garden: Using Fiction to Increase Empathy in Children

by Melissa Harding

Phipps Science Education 25

“I am sure there is Magic in everything, only we have not sense enough to get hold of it and make it do things for us.”
–  The Secret Garden

The spring show at Phipps this season is themed after The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic children’s story of two hurting children and the garden that heals them both. Mary Lennox, a troubled orphan, and Colin Craven, a boy so weak that he can hardly walk, learn compassion and joy through tending a secret garden. While this is a children’s story, it is still a riveting tale of transformation. It speaks of loss and loneliness, as well as love and hope. This book is a work of fiction, but it easy to get lost in its pages as if they were really happening before you. This is called emotional transportation, when readers become emotionally involved in a story; it is a convergent process, where all the reader’s mental systems become focused on events occurring in the narrative. People lose track of time, not realizing that they have been reading for hours. A recent research paper from Erasmus University Rotterdam explores this theory of emotional transportation and whether fiction has other effects on the human mind. Specifically, it asks the question: Does reading fiction influence empathy? The answer, like all good works of fiction, is complicated.

In two separate studies, researchers looked at fiction versus nonfiction and whether readers had an increase in empathy after reading; those readers who became emotionally transported into the story showed such an an increase. There are many theories on why this is so. Transported readers identify with characters in the story and even experience it as if the events in the narrative were happening to them. Fiction provides a safe place for readers to experience these emotions; the reader can allow himself to freely become emotionally involved  without actually transferring these feelings to real life. This emotional involvement causes readers to sympathize with the characters, consequently practicing empathy.

Another theory is that fictional narratives provoke personal insights, perhaps because the simulation of real life experiences in fiction can be associated with the processes that people use to navigate their daily lives. Readers learn about human psychology and social norms through character interaction. They also learn to predict social responses, inferring how characters are thinking, feeling and what they are intending to do. Additionally, fiction helps people to “make sense of the senseless”, helping them to put a face on human tragedy, and offers the chance to interact with characters from times and places that readers may not know in real life. All of this ultimately helps readers to understand the perspectives of others, increasing their empathic abilities.

Phipps Science Education 27

This is one of the reasons that it is so important to engage children in reading. Fiction helps them to understand the world that they are growing into; besides increasing their ability to empathize with others, it also helps them to better navigate the social waters and their interactions with peers. Children with good empathic skills are more pro-social and are kinder to others; this is linked to success in the workplace, school and social groups. Pro-social children are more well-liked and show greater creativity and productivity than their less empathetic peers. It doesn’t matter what kind of fiction a child is reading, as long as the narrative is so good that he becomes lost in the story. That is when fiction begins to work its magic.

While some children devour books unprompted, many others are reluctant readers. Some may be reluctant because of difficulty reading, disinterest, peer pressure, or any number of issues. Others may be avid readers during the elementary years and then taper off as they grow older. Whatever the reason, here are some ways to help all young readers gain the advantages of fiction reading in their development.

1. Figure out the root of reluctance: Until you know the reason for a child’s dislike of reading, it can be difficult to address the root of the problem. It may be that your child needs specialized reading services or more individualized reading instruction; it also could be that he just need to find a book that he actually likes.
2. Provide interesting reading material: If traditional novels are not appealing, try graphic novels, magazines, fantasy, or science fiction.
3. Model reading at home: Children with parents who love and value reading are much more likely to become avid readers.
4. Make reading fun: For young children, reading with voices, acting out scenes together and just generally being enthusiastic make reading more fun.
5. Read more: Analyzing a text can take all of the enjoyment out of it; while this can be unavoidable with school reading, try to encourage you child to read at home just for himself.
6. Promote good books: Share your favorite books and why you love them so much. Leave them lying around for your child to find.
7. Read outside: Reading outside is soothing and can help children better imagine what they are reading.

Reading fiction not only increases your child’s empathic skills, it also takes him to new worlds. Much like the Secret Garden transports the children in the novel away from their troubles, so too can falling into a book. “The Secret Garden was what Mary called it when she was thinking of it. She liked the name, and she liked still more the feeling that when its beautiful old walls shut her in no one knew where she was. It seemed almost like being shut out of the world in some fairy place.” Encouraging fiction reading will help your child grow in wonderful ways; find a good book today and read it together. Even better, pick one up just for yourself as well.

For more strategies to increase your child’s love of reading, check out this article by Reading is Fundamental. To help engage your students, check out edrethink’s article on reading in the classroom.

To learn more about the effects of fiction on empathy, read the original article on PLOSone.

The above photos were taken by Christie Lawry.

March 8, 2013

The Bake Sale, Reinvented: Middle School Challenge #4 for the Fairchild Challenge at Phipps

by Melissa Harding


Third place entry from Moon Middle School, Cupcake Renaissance.

During the latest challenge of the Fairchild Challenge at Phipps, students were tasked with reinvented the traditional school bake sale. 215 middle school students from 15 schools took existing recipes for baked goods like cookies and cupcakes and transformed them into healthier versions. Recipes could include natural sweeteners only. Of course, they still had to be delicious; challengers brought their recipes in to their classmates for a taste test. Tasters rated these treats with a rubric that included overall appeal, mouth feel, texture and taste. Finally, every entry submitted was accompanied by a photo and an essay explaining the need for rethinking the traditional school bake sale and the ways in which their recipe was healthier than traditional sweets. As usual, area students rose to the challenge, creating entries that ranged from banana-cookie sandwiches to lemon biscotti.

The winning entry, Chocolate-Chip Banana Bites, was submitted by two students from Mellon Middle School. Adapted from an already existing recipe, these students used oat flour in place of processed white flour, coconut oil instead of vegetable oil, and raw German rock sugar instead of white sugar.  After baking, the students then made them into cookie sandwiches using frozen bananas in place of ice cream. The result is a healthier, but still delicious, version of an ice cream sandwich.  Their classmates gave these treats unanimously high marks!

The second place entry, Hubbard Squash Muffins, was submitted by a student from The Woodland Hills Academy. Using squash, whole wheat flour and organic sugar, this student created a treat that not only tastes great, but also provides antioxidants and healthy fats. This student also included the spice cardamom, which is credited with being rich in iron and manganese. This low calorie treat got great marks from its tasters; they liked it so much that they even left comments – “Yummy! Great!”.

The third place entry, Cupcake Renaissance, was submitted by a student from Moon Area Middle School. A regular cupcake can contain 600 calories and 20 grams of fat; this creative student replaced the butter with unsweetened applesauce and frosted her creations with berry compote instead of icing.  Using fresh strawberries and blueberries and natural cane sugar, this frosting substitute is not only healthier, but also provides antioxidants to boost immunity.

Earning Honorable Mention, Woodland Hills Jr. High School and Woodland Hills Academy submitted several recipes that they worked on as a class. In order to provide a healthier alternative at an upcoming bake sale for the school musical, the class took three traditional recipes and used a list of substitutions – agave nectar, oat flour, applesauce, egg whites, and coconut sugar – to improve them. They experimented with brownies, biscotti and muffins, trying to create the perfect bake sale treat. Throughout their experiments, they learned that it can be hard to change existing recipes, especially since many of the ingredients are necessary to the consistency of the product. They also learned that applesauce can easily take the place of oil and reducing the sugar doesn’t often affect the taste. As taste testers, the cast of the school play was happy to give all of these treats the thumbs-up!

While there can only be three winners in the competition, all the students who learned how to make their favorite treats healthier for everyone are winners! Students from all three winning schools will be interviewed on the Saturday Light Brigade this Saturday, March 9, at 10:05am. The Saturday Light Brigade can be heard every Saturday morning on WRCT 88.3 FM. It also streams live at where the interview will be archived under Neighborhood Voices.

If you would like to attempt the first and second place recipes, check them out on the Fairchild Challenge at Phipps blog!

The above photo is courtesy of  Moon Middle School.

March 5, 2013

Let’s Rock Down to Electric Avenue

by Melissa Harding


Pollination is essential to the life cycle of a flowering plant. Plants grow flowers in order to make seeds; this requires pollination, the process by which pollen is transferred either within a single flower or among many for the purpose of sexual reproduction. Pollination is a hard job for a plant to do by itself and many of them rely on external sources for help. While some flowers are pollinated by wind or water, most  are pollinated by critters. This most famously includes bees and butterflies, less famously also hummingbirds, fruit bats, native pollinating wasps and more. There are over 200,000 pollinating species in the world that pollinate 90% of all flowering plants. Suffice it to say that this is an important job, though many of these animals don’t even realize they are doing it.

Their ignorance is due to the fact that while some of these pollinators are actually after pollen, most others are looking for something else entirely. Flowers have spent centuries perfecting just the right incentives to attract just the right pollinators. Brightly colored petals and sepals, strong fragrances, delicious nectar, directive patterns and interesting shapes help plants draw in various pollinators to feed, breed or shelter themselves within a flower. It is often while pollinators are sucking down nectar or mating that pollen adheres to their body; after they leave to visit another flower, the pollen from the previous plant fertilizes the next plant and the next. According to Gregory Sutton at the University of Bristol in the U.K., this is just the beginning. He and his researchers have found that flowers use something totally unknown to humans before: electric fields.

Bumblebees are positively charged. As they fly, the friction of the air and the bee’s body parts together creates a positive charge. In response to this, flowers have a slight negative charge relative to the air around them; at least, they do when bees are near. In the seconds before a bee lands on a flower, there is “electrical activity” in the plant. The flower changes its potential when a bee is in proximity.  This is because when a positively charged bee lands on a flower, the negatively charged pollen grains naturally stick to it, helping along the pollination process. Once the bee leaves, the field stays changed for about 100 seconds as a warning to the next bee that there is no pollen to be found.

Another advantage of this electrical activity is that bees can sense this field and use it to find sweet flowers. Sutton and his researchers gave bees fake flowers filled with both sweet nectar and bitter quinine. Initially, the bees were random in their foraging and didn’t seem to learn which flowers held nectar. When Sutton put a charge on the flowers, the bees quickly learned to avoid the bitter ones; when turned back off, the bees resumed their random patterns. This “electric avenue” allows flowers to attract and keep repeat customers all summer long.

To learn more about Sutton and his research and to see pictures of a flower’s electric field, check out this article in NPR’s Science section. You can also read Sutton’s paper in Science magazine.

The above photo was taken by Julia Petruska.

March 1, 2013

Home Connections: Exploring Nature in Winter

by Melissa Harding

Kids snow 2 Molly Steinwald

We need the tonic of wilderness, to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and meadow-hen lurk, and to hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls its belly close to the ground…we can never have enough of nature.” – Henry David Thoreau

The cold of winter can be biting and forbidding, keeping us all huddled under blankets with cups of tea in our hands. This is especially true in February, when it seems like it has been cold for ages and spring is a lifetime away. However, the cold doesn’t have to keep you in the house; winter is a great time to explore nature and have fun outside! Bare trees provide a perfect view of birds and other critters and few green plants makes them easier to identify. Whether you are going to the park, to the forest or just staying in your backyard, there are lots of great things to explore and do in the winter.

Bundle up and be prepared
Before you go out, make sure to bundle up. Little bodies can get cold quickly, so making them as comfortable as possible will keep everyone outside longer. Gloves, hats, boots and warm coats are a must on winter days. Dress yourself and your child like an onion; layers are key to staying comfortable. Avoid cotton materials if possible, as it is less able to stay as warm and dry as wool or synthetic fabrics. This is especially important for items which will most likely get wet, like socks and gloves. Finally, take some snacks along. Little bellies are likely to get hungry as they expend energy playing in the cold and a bite to eat could turn a grumpy child into a happy one.

Take a hike!
The most obvious thing to do outside is to go for a walk. Whether it is down the sidewalk or through the woods, a walk outside is always fun. There is so much to see and do while walking. Encourage your child to observe their surroundings and look for things of interest. Remember to slow down and walk at your child’s pace; he or she may find so many interesting things that you don’t get very far, but it’s about the quality of your time outside, not how far you roam. In winter, bare trees make it easier to spot birds, squirrels, chipmunks, and other animals in their branches. Colorful birds like cardinals and blue jays are easy to spot amidst the brown branches, but there are many smaller, darker birds hopping around as well. While you are scanning the trees, look for nests, weirdly shaped branches and other interesting sights. Binoculars are a great tool to bring along to help you spot them.

Turning your eyes down, there are lots of things to observe on the ground. Winter is the best time of year for tracking, as the ground is either snowy or muddy; animals of all kinds leave tracks to identify and follow. There are many tracking guides, even some for children, available to help you understand who made the tracks you see. However, it can be even more fun to guess and make up stories about the track instead. As long as you are having fun, it doesn’t matter!

An additional way to enjoy a winter hike is to go on a scavenger hunt. Depending on the age of your child, it could be easy (find something red) or hard (find a cardinal). Either make a list at home of likely sights or improvise as you go along. A game of Eye-Spy is an equally fun way to encourage observation. Take a magnifying glass with you to look at snowflakes, pine needles or anything else you find.

Kids snow Molly Steinwald

Collect Treasures
Sometimes, just looking isn’t enough – Children love to collect treasures! It may just be a rock to you, but it is an amazing find to your child. Children will collect anything; one way to encourage this is to bring a container for collecting outside with you. You can let your child pick up whatever catches his eye or direct him to a certain items such as sticks, pine cones, acorns or rocks. Make sure to monitor what sorts of items he collects; avoid delicate, rotting or otherwise undesirable items. Children should also understand that while they may want to take all of something, nature needs to keep some things for itself. At home, many of these treasures can be displayed in your child’s room or a shared space; filling recycled jars with treasures or putting them in bowls or on shelves helps to validate this sensory method of nature exploration.

Nature Art

One way to collect treasures is with a future art project in mind. Icicles on plant stems, red rose hips, and bits of evergreen have a short shelf life, but can be used to make beautiful art projects. They can be arranged in shapes outside in the snow to create winter land art or used to stamp designs on paper; the only limit is your imagination.

Here are some fun nature art ideas from around the web:
Winter land art and snow painting: The Chocolate Muffin Tree
Ice Art and Other Ice Crafts: Willow Day and Craftberry Bush
Pine Cone Birds:The Blueberry Junkie
Winter Bird Feeders: The Crafty Crow
Winter Love Jars: Marghanita Hughes

Or, try giving your child a camera or nature journal during your time outside and see what they create!

Play and Explore
Sometimes, activities and crafts are not necessary; what a child really needs is the time to play and explore. Sled riding, building snow forts, stamping in icy puddles and generally running around connect children with nature just as well as anything you may use to guide their energies. Sometimes all you need to do is give them a pocketful of crackers and send them outside; they’ll do the rest themselves.

If you are interested in more nature activity ideas, check out Nature Rock’s Winter Activity Guide.

The above pictures were taken and copyrighted by Molly Steinwald.


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