Archive for August, 2013

August 30, 2013

Weekend Nature Challenge: Grasshopper and Cricket Hunting

by Melissa Harding
Molly Steinwald Photography (3)Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
– Mary Oliver
Summer is at its peak now, with fall not far behind. This is the time for grasshoppers and crickets. Just like in the beloved fable, these late summer creatures are singing and playing all day long in the high grasses, enjoying the sun. August and September are the best times to catch them; the trick is to sneak up on your prey very quietly and listen for their song, keeping your eyes open for movement. Of course, they aren’t really singing – rather, they are trying to attract mates and declare their territories. Crickets make sounds by rubbing a row of pegs along the inside of their hind leg against their thickened forewing, causing a vibration. Grasshoppers make sounds far less frequently; they quickly snap their hindwings as they fly, making a crackling sound, which means that you may not hear them until they are already on the move. Follow their sounds and keep your eyes open for these cleverly camouflaged critters; you may be looking right at one and not even know it!
This weekend, we challenge you and your family to go grasshopper and cricket hunting. Look for them in thick grass or meadows. Use a net or your bare hands to catch them; once you find one, handle it gently and observe it. Note its coloration, the rasps on the legs and its crazy jaws. Feel its hard exoskeleton and its antennae. When you are done, gently place it back where you found it and try to catch another. Try to catch one of each and observe the differences between them.

Take the next few days to explore the grassy areas in your neighborhood and search for grasshoppers and crickets. What did you notice about the insects that your found? Did you find any other cool critters? Tell us in the comments below.

The above photo is copyrighted to Molly Steinwald.

August 27, 2013

Small Children in Museums: Early Learning in Informal Learning Institutions

by Melissa Harding

IMG_0271Museums do not immediately seem like a great place for young children. After all, amid exhibits of dinosaur bones, famous paintings and priceless statues, a small child is often considered more likely to topple a vase than to appreciate it. However, young children truly benefit from their time in these informal learning institutions. The Institute for Museum and Library Sciences, the primary source of federal support for the nation’s 12,3000 libraries and 1,7500 museums, along with the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, have recently put out a new report tackling the issue of early learning in museums. According to the report, Growing Young Minds, libraries and museums are “… welcoming places where children make discoveries, deepen common interests, expand words and knowledge, and connect their natural curiosity to the wider world.” Neuroscientists have found that the self-directed, experiential and content-rich learning that children experience in museums are important building blocks to a successful future.

Museums and libraries of all types – art, history, science, nature centers and gardens, zoos, aquaria and children’s museums – come together to form a network of learning. As part of this network, informal institutions play an important role in the community. They are anchors, providing safe spaces for public discourse, learning, and cultural and civic engagement; this is especially important for those who are vulnerable, such as those who are under-served, children, and the elderly. Museums and libraries also act as bridges to connect multiple generations, differing cultural or religious groups, and families together in the pursuit of education. They are teachers, offering exciting spaces for learning, engaging public programs and meaningful outreach. They are also the keepers of our collective culture, from the scientific to the historical and everything in between; not only do they act as stewards of culture, but they make it accessible to all.

These institutions are especially important in early childhood development. The more immersive the environment, the better able young children are to engage with it; what is more immersive than a museum? The repetition of visiting museums and libraries over and over again creates a strong engagement with the collections over time. Early learners are able to create familiar connections with their own lives, such as connecting the flowers in a botanical garden with those near their homes. Museums and libraries are also places where children can be lovingly introduced to objects that adults think are special, helping them to make personal and social connections to the plants, animals, and artifacts that are meaningful to their families. Additionally, learning behaviors exhibited by young children as they engage with these institutions – this includes everything from increased observation skills to the successful manipulation of objects –  provide evidence that the museum environment is an effective learning tool.

While the development of early cognitive skills – those that contribute to school-readiness like reading and writing skills – is wonderfully apparent, museums and libraries also help to boost non-cognitive skills, such an emotional regulation and focus. A 2004 report from the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child  shows that emotional regulation skills, cognitive, motor, and social skills develop together through environmental interaction. Called executive function, the non-cognitive area of development is boosted at the same time as cognitive skills; this gives early learning a two-fold importance, as early emotional development lays the foundation for academic success and vice versa. Together, these developmental skills help children to become motivated and excited learners.


Museums contribute to this important stage in a child’s life by engaging children in learning. Libraries and museums all over the country are trying to prepare young minds for a successful future through interactive exhibits, games, and outreach programs that specifically target early learners. Educational staff at these institutions are creating content-rich, play-based programming that utilizes some of the best early learning practices and matches them with unique collections. These same programs also engage adults and prompt them to make their own connections and ask their own questions; this in turn helps to instill a love of learning in children, as well as give them an example after which to model their own curiosity.

Simply put, museums and libraries are not just great place for early learning, but they are centers of developmental importance. Many of these institutions have education and outreach in their missions and strive to engage the whole family at either free or subsidized costs.

Here are some ways to make the most of your local informal learning institutions:

1. Visit the library: Libraries have more than just books to offer (although free books are their own kind of treasure); many libraries offer story time programs, storytelling, parent-child interactive programming, outreach programs in the park and more.
2. Look for deals: Many institutions have several days a year where admission is free or discounted. Look also for online coupons for memberships or visitor passes. Check the websites of your local museums and see when these days are being offered.
3. Look for your favorite institutions out and about: Many of these places set up tables with engaging displays and activities at local festivals and fairs – sometimes they also have coupons for admission or other fun deals to offer. Some institutions also have a traveling science bus or Bookmobile that you can visit in a local park or near your school. They may even be offering free programs or story readings in your neighborhood. Keep your eyes on the website to find out where they will be next.
4. Purchase a membership: If possible, purchase a membership at your favorite museum; this is especially great in cold or nasty weather, when the museum provides a fun place to get out of the house for both kids and adults. Returning to the same museum or library over and again will really allow your child to become immersed in the collections and develop a sense of place.
5. Support your local library system and museums: Many of these organizations are considered to be non-profit institutions and require community support. Even a small donation may help them with anything from upkeep to staffing – it may even help local schools or under-served children gain admission.

“A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert.”
– Andrew Carnegie

To learn more about museums and early learning, check out the full IMLS Report, Growing Young Minds.

To learn more about early learning and child development, check out the great resources available through the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.

The above photos were taken by Cory Doman.

August 26, 2013

Backyard Connections: Conducting a Feather Study

by Melissa Harding


Late summer is an important time for birds. Fledglings are finally off on their own and the strenuous nesting period is over; for many birds, this is the ideal time to molt their feathers. Molting is the process by which birds replace their current feathers with new ones. Feathers are not alive; they are made of keratin, the same as human fingernails or hair, and therefore are completely replaced rather than healed when they are damaged.  Molting serves many purposes: to replace worn out feathers that have become too old, to revert from flamboyant breeding plumage back to dull-colored “basic” plumage, and replace juvenile feathers with mature ones. This is a very energy-intensive process, so it makes sense for it to occur during more restful times of the year.

Different birds molt at different times, some once a year and some more often. This is based on the age, sex and even habitat of the bird in question. Some birds can acquire adult plumage in one year, where others take years to reach sexual maturity. Of course, no bird can molt all of its feathers at one time – it would be bald and flightless! Rather, birds molt some or all of their feathers gradually over time. Since so many birds are shedding their old feathers, now is the perfect time to conduct a feather study on your backyard bird friends.

Many common feeder birds, such a goldfinches and sparrows, will be dropping their feathers in your yard. Since feathers typically comprise about 15-20% of a bird’s weight, you can be sure that they have a lot to lose! Collect those that you find on the ground and use them to learn more about feathers and flight with your child. Strive for a mix of downy and more structured feathers if you can find them.  Don’t have a yard or can’t find any feathers? Purchase some at the craft store; even though they are dyed, they are still real bird feathers and will work for this study.

IMG_0126For this study, you will need: flight feather, contour feather, down feather, ruler, binoculars (optional) and magnifying glass.

1. Feather observation: Lay out your feathers on a table and do a thorough initial observation. How are these different types of feathers similar? How are they different? Measure each one with a ruler – which is bigger and which is smaller? Use each to fan your face and observe how it feels – which ones move the air? What is the color and shape of each feather? Is it damaged? If so, what do you think happened to it?

2. Flight feathers: Flight feathers are perhaps the ones that we most commonly see on the ground. This feather has a hollow, central tube called a “shaft”; it runs down the length of the feather. There is also a broad, flat bit of feather along each side of the shaft that is called a “vane”. How does this feather look to you? Run your finger from the bottom of the vane to the top, noting how smooth it feels. This vane is composed of little individual barbs that resemble skinny hairs coming off of the shaft. Each of these barbs has tiny hooks along its length that zip together to form the vane. Run your finger from the top of the feather to the bottom, breaking apart the smooth vane and exposing the barbs to view. Using a magnifying glass, look for the hooks along the barbs. Now smooth the barbs back together by running your fingers up the feather. This action is similar to the act of preening, in which birds smooth out their feathers and groom them.

3. Down feathers: Down feathers look like what you would find inside of a pillow. They are small and fluffy. Feel the feather. Can you preen it with your fingers into a single vane? Why or why not? The barbs on these feathers lack hooks, making them fluffy rather than structured. Down feathers are used for insulating the bird; the fluff created by each feather creates an air pocket against the bird’s body, which keeps in heat and allows the bird to maintain a comfortable body temperature.

IMG_01304. Contour feathers: Contour feathers look like a cross between a down and a flight feather. This feather is smooth at the top, made of a small vane with barbs that form a triangle-like shape. The bottom of the feather is fluffy, called “pennaceous”. Feel both parts of the feather. What use to do you think it had for the bird? These make up the majority of a bird’s feathers; they provide most of the bird’s patterning and coloration, as well as cover the bird to protect its sensitive skin and give it an aerodynamic shape. Contour feathers overlap each other on a bird’s body like shingles.

5. Bird watching: If you have binoculars, watch some birds out your window and notice the feathers on their bodies. Notice how they are attached in patterns. Can you see the shingle pattern of the contour feather on their bodies? Do you see how the flight feathers are arranged on the wings? Do you see any birds that look like they are fluffing out their feathers? They are pushing air into the spaces between their down. What else do you notice about the birds that you are watching? Look for interesting behaviors; watch them eat and interact with each other.

A feather study is a fun way to get your child interested in birds and how they fly. If you want to watch the birds in your yard more regularly, consider putting up a bird feeder close to your window and investing in a pair of binoculars. Bird watching is a rewarding hobby for many people, even children, and a great way to connect them to the nature in your backyard. Birds are visible, beautiful and often very funny – they the best backyard critter with which to make a real connection. Consider making bird watching a family activity!

To learn more about birds and bird behavior, check out the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Check out this article to read more about molting.

To read more about connecting with backyard critters, check out our post “Who Lives in Your Yard“.

To learn more about feathers in general, check out the excellent book, Bird Feathers by S. David Scott and Casey MacFarland.

The above photos were taken by Cory Doman, photography intern.

August 23, 2013

We are hiring! Science Education & Research Administrative Assistant

by Melissa Harding

Do you know someone with strong administrative assistant skills, who is passionate about the environment and education, who would be interested in joining our growing and dedicated team? We are seeking someone to fill the new position of full-time Administrative Assistant for our Science Education and Research Department.

Phipps Science Education & Research department Steinwald

Essential duties and responsibilities will include:

• Answering and directing phone calls, mail and email
• Scheduling school, scout and other group field trip classes and tours, and scheduling rooms and tour docents; preparing confirmation letters and informational packets; maintaining program registration and financial records and databases
• Taking photographs of programs; overseeing participant health and photo release forms; organizing lunch deliveries for field trip lunch programs
• Creating and managing purchase orders, work orders and financial reports; filing invoices; coding credit card charges; coordinating supply orders
• Recording and preparing minutes of department staff meetings and participating in department activities
• Updating departmental web pages, conducting online academic and research publication searches and maintaining a related database.
• Assisting in compiling materials for grant applications.

Strong Microsoft Office and Internet skills are required. Two-year business school degree with office experience is preferred, along with a sincere interest in sustainability, science education and working around children and youth. Please include a cover letter, resume and salary history when responding.

Qualified candidates should send their resume and cover letter via email to or mail to Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, Human Resources Department, 1059 Shady Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15232. Or, request an application by filling out this contact form.

Phipps is an equal opportunity employer.

(Note: Phipps is regularly looking for dedicated people with a passion for the green world. All new opportunities are posted on Phipps’ employment opportunities page, so check it often!)

The above photo was taken by a very nice waitress whose name we don’t know.

August 23, 2013

Summer Camp Recap: My Five Senses

by Melissa Harding


Summer Camp Recap is our Friday seasonal segment featuring our summer camp programs. This is the place for camp parents to find pictures of their campers in action and see all the fun things we did all week. It’s also a great place for educators to pick up craft, story and lesson ideas for their own early childhood programs!

Some camps are so nice that you have to run them twice. Our Little Sprout programs have been so popular that we actually extended our typical camp season for an extra week just to add more Sprouts! Little Sprouts: My Five Senses is based on touching, smelling, hearing, seeing and even tasting. Campers learned what their five senses are and used them to explore the natural world. They spent the week smelling herbs, feeling plants and listening for nature sounds.

Day one focused on sight. Campers made a pair of binoculars out of recycled toilet paper rolls and decorated name tags. They learned about their sense of sight and why it is important to look closely. Next, they went on a walk around the Conservatory, using their binoculars to observe and practicing their skills by looking at plants with magnifying glasses. They saw lots of colorful flowers and even a few bugs!


Day two focused on smell. Campers used smelly Kool-Aid paint to color in pictures of fruit, matching the picture to the smell. Next, they smelled different fruits and veggies – citrus fruits, strawberries, nectarines, pears and even onions. They also took a walk to the Edible Garden to hunt for smelly herbs. Campers smelled different herbs, flowers and leaves as they toured around the Conservatory.

Day three focused on touch. Campers decorated T-shirts with fingerprint daisies, feeling the cool paint on their hands. Next, they made their own salt dough, with help from their grown-up. Campers felt salt, flour, water and mixed it all up with their hands; they also added silky soft leaves and hard seeds to make a sculpture. The lesson focused on touching different leaves and flowers; campers took a walk around the Conservatory looking for different textures.


Day four focused on hearing. Campers made seed shakers from repurposed materials.  They then learned about their ears and hearing, singing songs about their senses and reading a story with silly sounds. They took a walk in the Conservatory to find different “shakers”, each one filled with different seeds, along the way. Campers listened to the sound of each shakers and tried to guess what size and shape the seeds were. They even planted a scented geranium to take home; they can practice their observation skills all year long!

Want to talk to your Little Sprout about his five senses? Here are some of the books that we read this week at camp:
Here Are My Hands Bill Martin
My Five Senses Aliki
Listen to the Rain Bill Martin and John Archambault
Nosy Rosie Holly Keller
Meow Said the Cow Emma Dodd
Who Says That? Arnold Shapiro
Growing Colors Bruce McMillan
You Smell Mary Murphy
Can You Growl Like A Bear? John Butler

Check out the slideshow below!

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While our summer Little Sprouts camps are full, we are offering even more programs this fall! Our first, We Heart Trees, is offered both September 19 and 20 from 10:30-noon. Contact 412-441-4442 ext. 3925 or see the website to register!

For more pictures, check out the Flickr page as well.

The above photos were taken by Science Education Staff.

August 21, 2013

Amanda Goes to the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research!

by Melissa Harding


This summer, science educator Amanda Joy took some time off from teaching camp to attend an intensive professional development workshop at the Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI) for Plant Research, located on the campus of Cornell University. Selected as 1 of 10 educators from around the country, Amanda participated in this one-week workshop focused on curriculum development in plant biology–a subject that we often teach at Phipps. This workshop not only taught participants how to create curricula around recent advances in science teaching, plant biology and the National Science Education Standards, but more effective ways to teach botany in classroom and lab settings.

The workshop itself consisted of hands-on laboratory investigations, lectures, and plant seminars with educators and current botanical researchers. Participants were also required to complete nightly homework assignments and use their new content knowledge to create standards-based curricula for their schools and institutions. Participants made connections with both current plant researchers and each other, creating a network of well-informed educators. They also had a chance to tour the BTI greenhouses, labs, and grounds, which are where much of the institute’s plant research takes place. In addition to the workshop itself, participants were given a vast number of resources on current cutting edge plant research topics, such as bio-energy, plant breeding, plant pathology and more. Amanda is very excited to integrate her new knowledge into our programs at Phipps!

To learn more about the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research, check out their Center for Plant Science Teaching and Learning.

The above photo was taken by Cory Doman, photography intern.

August 20, 2013

Celebrating National Poetry Month: Using Poetry to Connect Children and Nature

by Melissa Harding

Summer Reruns: Just like your favorite television shows go on hiatus for the summer, so does the blog. We will be running eighteen summer camps in eight weeks, so we will be a little busy! In place of original posts, Tuesdays will now feature some of the blog’s most popular posts from the last year. Fridays will feature that week’s camps, with pictures, crafts and lesson ideas for parents and educators.

cherry blossoms 2

Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood. – T.S. Eliot

April is National Poetry Month, a celebration of the richness that poetry gives to our lives. Though some may think that poetry is becoming irrelevant in our modern world, there are many more who can tell you the impact that writing or reading poetry has on their lives. In fact, poetry is an important touchstone to reality in the digital era in which we live. A poem is a powerful thing – some poems can target your soul and never let go; the same poem can give one person a feeling of peace and yet stir the passions of another. To quote Plato, “Poetry is nearer to vital truth than history.” It truly does deserve its own month of celebration.

As part of a special series focusing on modern poetry, National Public Radio offered its listeners a chance to write and submit their own poems celebrating Washington, D.C’s famous cherry blossoms in bloom. After receiving hundred of submissions, twenty of the best were selected for reprint; the three best poems were used as the inspiration for several short films.

Here are several winning entries, in no particular order:

cherry blossom 2park bench take-away
the sky and cherry blossoms
in a cup of tea
— Paul Conneally

the petals fall from
an evening cherry blossom
she kisses him first
— Jenni L. Backs

Settled on a bench
In the lilting fragrance
of cherry blossoms
— Ric Cochran

Wet April morning–
Windshield wiper blades
heavy with cherry blossoms.
— Joel Dias-Porter

streetlamps in the haze …
this morning the stone lions
catch cherry blossoms
— Judy Totts


Just as anyone who observes the world around them is a naturalist, so too is anyone who writes a poem a poet. Writing poetry is a wonderful way to connect to nature. While it may be difficult to go outside and draw a bird that you observe, it is very easy to write a short poem about it. If you or your child are feeling intimidated by the idea of nature journaling, try writing short poems about your time outside. Don’t worry about sounding like Walt Whitman, a poem doesn’t have to be an ode to a tree. It can anything, even humorous! Poems don’t have to rhyme and can be short or long; they can be about a bird or the gum on your shoe. Children in particular may enjoy writing poems about things that are gross, weird or funny. A poem describing the wonders of rabbit poop in the yard may seem silly, but writing it requires important time spent observing.

Poetry can help to express how nature makes you feel, what you experience with your senses and what you think about your time outside; it can clarify your experience in a unique way. In fact, writing poetry about nature can be a gateway to expressing other ideas as well; poetry can be a great way for children to express things that are difficult or scary. It can be a tool to help you understand your child’s feelings as well as a way for him or her to share openly with you. Additionally, poetry is a great introduction to reading for young children and may be useful in converting reluctant readers into avid ones. The poems of Shel Silverstein are silly and fun – perfect for a child who thinks reading is boring. Finally, poems make lovely gifts; tuck one in a library book before you return it or mail one in a card. This is a great way for your child to practice random acts of kindness towards others; it is really enjoyable to sneak poems into odd places with the hope of making someone else’s day.

In short, poetry is a great tool to keep in your nature journaling toolbox as well as in your life. Be open to the idea that a poem can be anything and anywhere; the sky is the limit when writing a poem. Remember, “You will find poetry nowhere unless you bring some of it with you.” (Joseph Joubert)

If you want to get started, try some of these easy tips for writing poems with your child:
1. Exaggeration Poem: Write a crazy poem that exaggerates the attributes of an object to great lengths.
2. List Poem: Make your poem a list of all the neat things that you see, attributes of a subject, or thing you feel.
3. Stretchy Metaphor: Find five verbs and five nouns from one subject area, like nature, and use them to write about another subject, like school.
4. Point of View Poem: Write a poem from the point of view of another object, like a plant or a bird.
5. Haiku: A haiku is a three line poem with 5 syllables on the first line, 7 on the second, and 5 on the last.
6. Weather Poem: Start each line of your poem with the same phrase, like “When it rains” or “When it’s cold outside”.

To read more cherry blossom haikus and watch the accompanying videos, check out NPR’s article.

If you are looking for other ways to celebrate National Poetry Month or incorporate more poetry into your life, check out these ideas from The Academy of American Poets. Try writing a poem on the pavement or giving a poem to someone you love!

The above photos of cherry blossoms in Washington, D.C.  are courtesy of NPR.


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