Archive for July, 2014

July 30, 2014

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.

July 25, 2014

Summer Camp Recap: Groovin’ in the Garden

by Melissa Harding


Summer Camp Recap is our 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!

Groovin’ in the Garden teaches about nature through movement. Through simple breathing exercises, pantomime and dance, campers learned about plant life cycles, birds, amphibians, insects, mammals, weather and rainbows. They made bird masks, bug antennas and butterfly wings to wear as they danced. They also made bird feeders and decorated T-shirts with animal tracks. Throughout the week, campers learned about pollination, plant life cycles, weather and composting. They loved dancing with scarves and hunting for insects all week long!

Check out the slideshow below for more images from our week!

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For more pictures from Summer Camp, check out our Facebook page!

The above photos were taken Science Education and Research staff.

July 24, 2014

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.

July 23, 2014

In With the Interns: Week Four

by Melissa Harding


In with the Interns is our new segment featuring the 2014 high school interns; this segment will explore what they do, learn and experience this summer. Written by Kate Borger, this segment will also feature original words and artwork from the interns.

This week, we were especially grateful for the unseasonably pleasant temperatures which made all our outdoor ventures that much more delightful, from a street tour with Matt Erb, arborist from Tree Pittsburgh, to weeding the Tree Pittsburgh nursery and the gardens at Phipps Garden Center. The week ended on a scrumptious note as we cooked with Rosemarie Perla from Slow Food Pittsburgh. And in between: work with the horticulture staff and an introduction to fracking and renewable energy sources.

Here are some of the interns own words about this week and what they learned:

 “This past week has been as entertaining and enlightening as those before it. We began our week by splitting into groups and helping out Phipps horticulture staff. In the morning my group potted and staked plants that will be incorporated into the fall show, while in the afternoon we spread mulch in the Palm court. On Tuesday we visited Tree Pittsburgh and toured around the streets of north Point Breeze, identifying trees and learning about the process of planting trees in the city.  On Wednesday my group worked in the Fruit and Spice room. We finished our week, once again, by working at the Phipps Garden Center, where we made lunch and did a bit of tree identification.”
-Ahmir Allen

“My highlight this week was our cooking experience! We cooked amazing parmesan cheese noodles with a side of multi-grain bread and salad. It was amazing. I feel like we  as a group bonded making this meal. This was by far the best cooking experience so far in the program.”
– Alexis Smith

“I enjoyed learning about renewable energy, which was this week’s theme. The new information I acquired about fracking offered me a view of a world I wasn’t that familiar with and showed me another way I could help the environment. On top of that, my favorite activity this week was the field trip to Tree Pittsburgh. Personally, I would do tree identification all day. It just connects me more to nature, knowing specifically what’s around me, and it makes me enjoy it more. Oh and let’s not forget about cooking Thursday; the pasta and zucchini sauce was very delicious!”
– Larissa Koumaka

“Week three was a really fun week. We had the chance to go to Tree Pittsburgh, learn more about how Phipps chose Tropical Forest India, a little bit about India and Africa, and we also had the chance to work with the horticulture staff again. The most fun thing about this week was learning about India and Africa from a staff member. His job is to go to other countries and see how it can improve on the decoration at Phipps. That was really interesting to hear stories of how they choose the Tropical Forest.”
– Ephraim St. Cyr

“This week was full of some new work experiences with the horticulture staff, in which I worked around the Tropical Forest doing exhibit cosmetic work, along with staking plants in the production greenhouses. During the week I learned more about fracking and some of its down sides. I am looking forward to learning about environmental issues that can affect Pittsburgh in the final two weeks.”
– Aaron Sledge

“My favorite part of the week was probably helping Mike in the Edible Garden with Ephraim. It’s the physical labor in the morning that I really love doing here at Phipps, especially when I get to plant or harvest crops. We also discussed fracking a lot, which I really enjoyed. We also watched the movie Gasland, which is an amazing documentary on fracking. Overall, this was a really interesting, informative and fun week.”
-Dani Einloth

“My favorite part of this week was when Ben came in and talked with us about how he designs the Tropical Forest. He travels to places like Africa or India, taking pictures there. He recreates his memories in the Conservatory to share with the public. I also learned about specific plants in that room, things I never knew before. For example, this one plant is the main ingredient in Chanel No.5 perfume.”
Anna Steeley

“The date is Tuesday, July 15th, the setting features Tree Pittsburgh’s nursery. Amongst all of it, Phipps 8 interns, including myself. Not only did we help with weeding their nursery, but we were given a tree identification walk around the neighborhood. This was extremely interesting as well as practical because I see these trees everywhere I go and now I can  identify their type.”
-Will Grimm

Another full week comes to a close with minds and taste buds open to new experiences!

The above photo was taken by Kate Borger.


July 22, 2014

Home Connections: Flower Pigment Art

by Melissa Harding


“The earth laughs in flowers.”  – Ralph Waldo Emerson

There are many different crafts that we make with flowers – gluing them to crowns, making flower petal butterflies, or using them as paint brushes. In fact, flowers are a wonderful part of just about any nature craft; they add pops of color to nature weavings, mobiles and nature journals. One of the new ways that we have been using them this summer is for their pigments. The most common plant pigment is chlorophyll, which is used primarily for photosynthesis. Other colors found in leaves, like reds and yellows, are secondary colors that also help absorb light energy. Flower pigments, the colors in the petals and sepals, are used to attract pollinators. Plant pigments are made out of a variety of molecules, including anthocyanins and carotenoids. While the biology of plant pigments is fascinating, it is also really easy to get them out of the plants themselves. So easy, in fact, that kids do it all the time (think grass stains). All you need to do is rub the plant against some fabric or paper and the pigments come right off onto the surface. With this in mind, we have being creating some fun crafts that use flower pigments as color.

Flower Pounding
A really fun way to get the pigments onto paper or fabric is by pounding. This can be accomplished in any manner of ways, but we like to use small stones. While a wooden mallet or small hammer will do the best job of evenly flattening the flowers, small stones are more kid-friendly. Specifically, we use flat, decorative driveway stones that are about 3 inches square or less in size. There is no need to hit the flowers hard; a gently tap will do it. Lay your flowers flat on the surface of your choice and place a small piece of white paper or fabric over the flower, then gently tap the flower all over with the flat of the stone. Remove the cover and peel off the flower; you should see the flower’s shape echoed in the pigment print.

The best paper to use for this project is watercolor paper. Unlike office or drawing paper, watercolor paper is thick and has dimples that will readily hold on to the flower pigments. We like to make bookmarks and picture frames out of our flower pounding projects, but the sky is the limit. If using fabric, unbleached linens and muslins will work best. Ideas for fabric include lavender sachets, cloth napkins and table runners. You will want to start with a white or cream base, as the pigments will not always be dark enough to show up on colored fabric or paper.

Flower Rubbing
Pounding is a technique that can sometimes be difficult for younger children. In lieu of pounding with a small stone, flowers can be rubbed across the surface to produce a color. In this case, it is much more difficult to recreate the shape of your plant on the base. Rather, you will end up with smears of color. However, the sensory experience of rubbing flowers to produce colored pigment is a wonderful activity for small children. The scent, color and texture of a variety of flowers will be a worthwhile nature exploration activity, even if the results are not as polished.

Not all flower are pigmented equally…
While all flowers have some pigment in them, not all of them work equally well in this activity. Some petals are too watery or too thin and will not produce a good image. Test all your flowers on scrap material or paper before you put them on your finished product. We recommend pansies, chrysanthemums, goldenrod, colored daisies, and marigolds to start out. Additionally, leaves will add a lovely pop of green to your project. Like with flowers, stay away from thick, watery leaves. Explore your yard and local green-spaces to find a variety of colors and textures from your project. Or simply buy a bouquet of grocery store flowers – any flower and leaf has the potential to make beautiful art!

Other crafts using plant pigments from around the web:
Nature Colors by Fakin’ It
“A Day with No Crayons” Flower Pounding Craft by The Crafty Crow
Flower Pounding Prints by Rhythm of the Home

The above photos were taken by Science Education staff.


July 21, 2014

Help Scientists to Find Lost Ladybugs

by Melissa Harding

Phipps Science Education 69

If there is one sight that gardeners love to see in the summer, it is a ladybug. Spotting a ladybug on a branch near the garden is always a good sign. These little red beetles are truly garden friends; instead of snacking on plants, like many other insects, ladybugs would rather eat those culprits responsible for the most damage – aphids. Aphids are soft-bodied insects that suck the juices out of tender, young plants and new growth; aphids target the sick and weak, making quick work of them as they feed in large groups. Ladybugs charge in like the cavalry and help to remove these pesky critters from the garden. Unfortunately, all is not right in the world of ladybugs. Species distribution across North America has been changing; over the past twenty years, several species of native ladybugs that used to be quite common have become very rare. This is partly because non-native ladybugs have been taking over their habitats and making it harder for them to compete for resources. Scientists are studying this phenomenon because the effect that these new populations will have on plants is unknown. They are trying to determine the impact that these changes will have on the control of plant pests both in the wild and at home.

This is where you come in; The Lost Ladybug Project, run out of Cornell University, is a citizen science program designed to help scientists gather data about ladybug distribution.  Citizen science programs, in which regular people collect data about the plants and animals in their communities, help scientists to have eyes and ears all over the country. These particular programs are not only important for data collection, but are also a great way to spend some time outside with your family and practice your observation skills.  In the case of the Lost Ladybug Project, entomologists at Cornell are really good at identifying ladybug species, but are unable to sample in enough places to find the really rare ones. They need you to be their legs, eyes and cameras! Send them in pictures of the ladybugs that you find and they can learn more about  the area where you live. Participating in this program is especially fun, since it involves catching and studying your specimens.

Here is how the Lost Ladybug Project works:
1. Go out into your backyard, local park or other natural area and look for ladybugs. Collect them in a jar.
2. Photograph each insect
3. Upload your photos to the project website, along with information on where and when you found them.

Sounds easy, right? You can choose to participate every day, or just one time; every data point is useful! The project website includes helpful hints for catching, collecting and photographing your finds.

Need convincing? Check out this wonderful video from PBS NewsHour about the Lost Ladybug Project; this work is a really effective way to engage children in science:

This is both an exciting project for your family this summer and a way to help scientists at the same time. It is also great fun for church groups, scouts or even adults. Head outside and give it a try today!

The above picture was taken by Julia Petruska.

July 18, 2014

Summer Camp Recap: My Five Senses

by Melissa Harding

Day 4 065

Summer Camp Recap is our 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!

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 learned about their sense of sight and why it is important to look closely; they learned to use binoculars and magnifying glasses to look far away and up close. Next, they went on a “worm” hunt around the Conservatory, looking for colorful yarn amongst the plants, and playing an “I Spy” game in the South Conservatory train exhibit.

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, peach, pear and even a potato. They also took a walk to the Tropical Forest to hunt for smelly spices. Campers smelled cinnamon, black pepper and other fragrant plants. Back in the classroom, they planted a scented geranium to take home; campers can practice their observation skills all year long!

Day 4 038

Day three focused on touch. Campers decorated T-shirts with handprints, feeling the cool paint on their hands. Next, they touched a variety of natural objects, feeling things that are smooth, rough, hard and soft. The lesson focused on touching different leaves and flowers; campers took a walk around the green roof looking for different textures and trying to match leaves to their plants using their sense of touch. Campers also learned about worms and explored their new wiggly friends with their hands.

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.

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, My Favorite Fruits, is offered both October 17 from 9:30-10:30 and 11-noon. Contact 412-441-4442 ext. 3925 or see the website to register!

For more pictures from Summer Camp, check out our Facebook page!

The above photos were taken by Science Education Staff.


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