Archive for August, 2014

August 28, 2014

Our New Field Trip Brochure is Here!

by Melissa Harding


Our new field trip brochure is hot off the presses. We are so excited to share our new programs with you!

Highlights for this year include our new tropical rainforest-themed program “Tropical Pursuit”, in which students play as pieces in a life-size board game as they learn about products that come from the rainforest. Additionally, we are offering a younger version of our popular “Habitats” program, in which students learn why plants are such important parts of a habitat. And, of course, we are offering many old favorites with new twists for the upcoming school year, such as “Stupendous Seeds” and “Worms: Our Composting Friends”.

Check out the brochure below to learn more. Click on the picture to enlarge and image.

Field Trip 2014-2015 Back

The above photo was taken by Phipps Science Education and Research staff.


August 27, 2014

Home Connections: Sensory Play for Young Children

by Melissa Harding


Our senses are how we learn about the world. When we talk about “observation skills“, we are really talking about using our senses to understand what is going on around us. In fact, observation is the foundation of all science; it causes us to ask questions and seek answers through experimentation. Observation skills are important. That is why we work so hard to make sure that our students are spending their time observing the natural world and why we care so much about promoting observation skills in this space. One of our favorite ways to help young children learn to use their senses is through the use of sensory bins. Sensory bins are common in any early childhood settings, from pre-schools to nature centers, and provide children with a tactile way to learn about color, shapes, plants and animals.

We have developed a variety of sensory bins for different age groups, based on what is appropriate and safe for children in different stages of development. Here are a few of our most successful bins:

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Little Sprouts (ages 2 and older)
Children ages 2-3 are still learning many gross and fine motor skills. They are not yet able to articulate well with their hands, grasp objects with care or perform detailed actions. With this mind, sensory bins for this age group are meant to stimulate the senses and give children practice stacking, building, drawing and molding shapes, and just generally manipulating objects. Adding fresh scents, bright colors and pleasing textures makes these bins fun for older children as well.

Day 4 003Cloud Dough: Cloud dough is a great way to add texture and scent to your sensory bins. Made with a base of flour and vegetable oil, the resulting “dough” is both crumbly and holds a shape, rather like wet sand. Try adding cookie cutters or shaped ice cube trays to the bin.

To make cloud dough, you will need: 7 cups any type of flour and 1 cup vegetable oil. Mix it all together until the oil is evenly dispersed throughout the flour. Use your hands.

Tracing Salt: Tracing salt is made with ordinary table salt and essential oils. A thin layer of this scented salt is put in a shallow bin for manipulation; this bin is great for promoting literacy and creativity, as children can trace letters, numbers or pictures into the salt and then erase it and start again. It’s a fun tool to use when practicing letters, shapes, or numbers. We like to add feathers and paint brushes to give our students something to make shapes with besides their fingers, but anything soft and stiff would work.

To make tracing salt, you will need: 3 cups iodized salt and 5-7 drops essential oil. Place one cup salt in a bag and add 2-3 drops essential oil. Close bag and massage the contents to mix. Add essential oil to achieve the scent you desire; remember, less is often more with strong oils. Follow these steps until all salt has been scented. Add drops of food coloring to the salt for optional color if desired.

Salt Dough: Salt dough is a great go-to staple. All children love to play with salt dough or other play dough. Salt dough is made with flour, salt and water; the resulting dough is moldable and will even dry into permanent shapes if left out for a few days. However, this dough is able to last for up to a month in a sealed sensory bin. Try adding herbs, spices, food coloring, grains and even glitter to create extra-special dough.

To make salt dough, you will need: 2 cups flour, 1 cup salt and 1 cup water. Mix salt and flour, gradually stirring in water until it forms a dough-like consistency. Form a ball with your dough and knead it for at least 5 minutes with your hands, adding flour as needed to create a smooth texture.

Dance Scarves: Dance scarves are perfect for sensory play: they come in a rainbow of colors, they are soft and floaty, and they can be made into a costume. They are fun to twirl with, to throw up into the air like fall leaves, and to pile up and lay on. Children will pull them all out of the bin and play with them for hours.


Seedling Scientists (ages 4 and older)
Children ages 4-5 are learning more fine motor skills, spatial skills, independence, and the ability to self-regulate. They need to practice manipulating small objects, whether pouring things from one container to another or nesting differently sized objects into each other. These bins are not appropriate for younger children, as the objects in these bins can cause a choking hazard to young children who like to put things in their mouth during play.

IMG_0010Seeds: Seeds of all shapes and sizes fill the seeds bin; some seeds, like corn, are recognizable and others, like lotus seeds, are odd and interesting to children. This bin gives children a chance to observe and identify a variety of seeds, as well as fun material to fill up containers and serve as tea. Children like to run their fingers through the pleasant texture of the seeds and pick out seeds of different size and shape. Add some measuring cups, funnels, wide tubes and other containers in odd shapes to help children manipulate the seeds.

Caps: While a bin full of empty bottle caps seems like an odd choice, this repurposed material is perfect for early learners. Caps of all shapes, sizes and colors fill our bin. Children love to stack them into towers, fit them inside each other, and use them for pretend play.

Colored Rice: Rice is another material that feels silky against the skin and makes a pleasing sound when poured from cup to cup. Color your rice with vinegar and food coloring, or use spices and botanical dyes, to create a rainbow of beautiful colors. Rice also makes a great base for small world play, whether you are hiding plastic bugs in green rice, pretending your blue rice is an ocean, or using yellow rice to simulate the desert.

To make colored rice, you will need: 1 cup of rice, 1 tsp of white vinegar, and several drops of food coloring. In a bag or bowl, mix rice, vinegar and food coloring and shake/stir to combine. Place colored rice on a piece of aluminum foil to dry before use.

Dirt: What kid doesn’t love to play in the dirt? Potting soil is a safe, clean way to play with dirt. Add kid-sized shovels and rakes, buckets, and plastic bugs to make this bin into a mini garden patch. Be sure to use sterile dirt, rather than dirt from your yard, as soil from outside may contain insects, fungus or bacteria that could be potentially harmful.

Adding scents: Adding essential oils is a natural and safe way to add a variety of scents to your bins. Additionally, many essential oils are naturally antibacterial and can keep your bins both clean and sweet-smelling. Consider using lavender as a calming scent, mint for stimulation, or citrus for a fresh scent. As a fun alternative, try adding herbs like fresh lavender blossoms or rosemary leaves for added texture and scent.

About choking hazards: For children under the age of 3, choking can be a danger when dealing with small objects. Any object smaller in size than a toilet paper tube can be hazardous if ingested and cause children to choke. For this reason, always supervise your children when they are interacting with sensory bins and choose materials that are appropriate for their age and level of development.

Remember, these are just a few sensory bins suggestions. There are many objects that you have in your home already that would create wonderful sensory experiences for your child. Shaving crème, water and bubbles, mud, and play sand are items that would make some delightfully messy sensory bins as well.

For more sensory bin ideas, check out these great websites:

The Imagination Tree
Teaching Preschool
Happy Hooligans

To learn more about the importance of observation, check out this post!

The above photos were taken by Cory Doman. 

August 26, 2014

Increasing Scientific Literacy Through Museum Research

by Melissa Harding


Every day, scientific research is being done on any number of topics. A quick browse through PLOS One, a peer-reviewed, open-access online journal for scientific papers of all kinds, reveals topics such as: molecular threading, NaOH debittering, and elevated levels of carbon monoxide in mouse exhalations. While these are surely important topics to medicine, agriculture and other fields of study, they don’t mean very much to the average person. In fact, much of the research that goes on in science often does not make it into the popular culture; sometimes this work is very specialized, sometimes it is perceived as irrelevant, or sometimes it is difficult to understand. This results in a poor understanding of what a scientist is and does. Luckily, there are many researchers who realize this and are trying to break down the barriers between scientists and the public. The Living Laboratory, an educational, on-site research program developed at the Museum of Science, Boston, is one such organization.

In the Living Lab model, scientists in the fields of child developmental and psychological research conduct their studies at local museums, recruiting study participants from museum visitors. These researchers then work with museum educators to communicate  their work to visitors through innovative activities and one-on-one interactions with the researchers themselves. These studies occur on the museum floor, in plain view of visitors, allowing them to be drawn in to the process. 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.  Studies on the effectiveness of this approach have found that watching children participate in research studies increases adult awareness of child development as a science and that one-on-one conversations between adults and scientists increase adult understanding of the scientific process and their overall scientific literacy.

TIMG_0157he Living Laboratory has been so successful that it has spawned the National Living Lab Initiative. This program has created “hubs” in regions across the country to connect museums and researchers together. In addition to The Museum of Science, Boston, the Maryland Science Center, the Madison Children’s Museum and the Oregon Museum of Science & Industry act as hub leaders, helping other museums to adopt a similar model.

At Phipps, we are working with researchers from Carnegie Mellon University’s Cognitive Development Lab to provide a museum setting for their work.  CMU’s Cognitive Development Lab is interested in gaining a better understanding of “how children generalize knowledge they have to new situations, how children acquire language, what role language plays in knowledge generalization, how children maintain focused attention, and what role focused attention plays in acquisition of new knowledge.” They do this playing games with their subjects that are designed to take show researchers how children think and how their thinking changes with development.

Two of the games that they are currently playing with our visitors are the “Help Zippo” game and the “Perceptual Similarity” game. The first, Help Zippo, investigates how children organize plants and animals based on the relationships between them. Children are given cards with black and white pictures of plants and animals and asked to sort them onto a game board four different times. Each time, researchers are looking to see how they are grouped and whether children can group the pictures in multiple ways. The Perceptual Similarity game tests the degree to which children can use their knowledge of how objects are categorized in a situation in which they are presented with conflicting information. Children are shown a set of three pictures, two of which are similar and one of which is close, but slight different (e.g. a lemon, a lemon wedge and a yellow tennis ball). Children are told that the similar objects go together and asked to pick which two match based on physical similarity. Both of these games test category-based reasoning, but the Cognitive Development Lab also tests other topics, such as the development of focused attention during pre-school years and the effect of classroom visual environment on allocating attention and learning.

IMG_0147The games that the Cognitive Development Lab plays with children are different each time, based on the different studies that are being run. Phipps is not the only source of study participants, so the study is conducted in a secluded, quiet spot where variables like noise and stimulation can be controlled. While they watch their child participate, parents are given information on the study itself to help them understand more about the research question being investigated. This is a wonderful way for parents and children to engage with the research and, as the research questions often change quickly, there are many eager return customers.

Having researchers working in public settings, like museums and libraries, is a great way to involve families in the scientific process. Through participation in studies and interaction with scientists, visitors, researchers and museums can all benefit!

If you are a museum professional and would like to learn more about a Living Lab hub near you, check out the National Living Lab Initiative.

To learn more about the research being conducted by CMU’s Child Development Lab, check out their great website; there is also information for parents if you are local to Pittsburgh and would like to participate.

The above photos of the CMU Cognitive Development Lab team were taken by our photography intern, Cory Doman.

August 22, 2014

Summer Camp Recap: We Like Dirt!

by Melissa Harding

10-Dirt Day 4 024

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!

We Like Dirt is our last camp for the summer. A fitting end, since it is one of our favorites! This week, campers learned what dirt is, where is comes from and who lives in it. They spent the week exploring the ecosystem under the ground, playing games, singing songs and crafting with mud. Campers created mud pies, dug for bugs, and even decorated T-shirts with “muddy” animal footprints. They loved making friends with worms and learning all about how they turn plants into soil.

Check out the slide show below for more images from the 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.

August 18, 2014

Summer Camp Recap: Art Outside

by Melissa Harding

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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!

Art Outside turns traditional art camps on their heads by focusing on the plants and materials that make the art, rather than the art itself. Campers learned why using recycled materials in art projects is important, how the plants they pick for their projects grow and why storytelling is a great way to share what you learn. Throughout the week, campers made potato puppets, nature weavings and tie-dyed T-shirts. They created art journals and used them to sketch plants in the Conservatory and complete observation and drawing exercises.  Campers loved putting on puppet shows and gathering flowers in the gardens.

Check out the slide show below for more images from the 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.

August 16, 2014

Home Connections: Creating Curiosity Through Observation Skills

by Melissa Harding


While we are born with curiosity and wonder and our early years full of the adventure they bring, I know such inherent joys are often lost. I also know that, being deep within us, their latent glow can be fanned to flame again by awareness and an open mind.
Sigurd Olson

Observation is how people learn; it involves using the senses to gain a deeper understanding of the world and to start asking questions about it. While this is a necessary skill for all successful adults, from scientists to artists, it is important for children as well.  Active observation sparks curiosity and a sense of wonder to ask more deeply probing questions. This is a natural way to begin to understand the scientific process, by asking observation-based questions and seeking answers through simple experimentation. One question often leads to another and soon children find themselves connected to their world with a deep sense of place. The end result is a child that approaches the world with an open mind and a curious heart. Sigurd F. Olson, renowned environmentalist and writer, believed that approaching nature with love and curiosity is the only way to truly create a lasting environmental ethic, and thus to create civically engaged citizens. “What civilization needs today,” he wrote, “is a culture of sensitivity and tolerance and an abiding love of all creatures including mankind.” It may sound simple, but it all starts with learning to effectively observe the world.

At Phipps, while we often call it “being a plant scientists” or “solving a nature mystery”, but what we really mean is using observation skills. There are many ways that we encourage the growth of these skills; often, we create “tools” that allow us to turn learning a skill into a game. We make these tools out of repurposed materials, so they are both sustainable and easy to create at home. We encourage parents to duplicate these items and use them to work on observation skills at home with their child.

Here are some of the ways that we use these tools in our programs:

View Finders
Using a view finder is a way to narrow and focus your eyes on a particular thing. Often used in teaching art or photography, looking through a view finder teaches students to look closely at a small area. View finders provide a frame and give children a defined space to observe. We make view finders out of repurposed cardboard; there couldn’t be anything simpler – just cut a 3″ square out of cardboard and then cut a 1″ square out of the middle and you have a view finder. We challenge our students to use view finders to observe and draw small squares of nature or to take “mental photographs” of what they see. Students can share their favorite “photographs” with the group and then use them to draw pictures, write stories or create art.


Our version of binoculars is really more of a fun view finder for toddlers. The same principles are true – narrowed and focused field of vision – but the idea is simpler; using binoculars is a way to encourage small children to use their senses with awareness. Very small children are natural observers, as this is a large part of development, but using a tool like binoculars is a way to teach the idea that we use our senses with purpose to observe. Even without any real context, they are fun tools; kids feel like explorers and love pretending they are on a safari. We make our binoculars out of repurposed toilet paper tubes and yarn. To begin, punch a hole in one end of each tube; glue the two tube together side-by-side, keeping the ends with the holes facing up; cut a piece of yarn to fit over your child’s head and tie one end into each of the holes; go play.


Color Matchers
Color matchers turn observation exercises into a game; our students carry a color matcher through the Conservatory, trying to match the colors of the plants they see to those in the tool. We make our color matchers out of paint chips – simply gather the colors that you want and then punch a hole in the corner of each, attaching with a ring clip. We make version for younger and older children; for our youngest, we use chips of a single color and create a rainbow and for our oldest we create a rich palate of different nature colors for them to choose from. We also have some with brighter colors for matching with flowers instead of foliage. These are a fun companion to take on nature walks or even just into backyard.


Colored worms
We use colored “worms”, pieces of yarn or string, to teach about observation and adaptations. Worms can be made out of anything; we use donated yarn in various colors, but pipe cleaners, ribbon or string would also make great worms. We scatter our worms in the outdoor flower gardens and have children find them. To make this more fun, we have the children pretend to be mother birds who need to find worms to feed their babies in a “nest” that is carried by an instructor. Our oldest children even get clothespin “beaks” to make the task harder. Some worms are harder to find than others, based on how they blend into the garden, and this teaches an easy lesson about camouflage. For our toddlers, we scatter lots of bright colored worms and just have them find as many as they can. You can make this activity difficult or easy, based on your child, and can use it in the context of a lesson or just for fun. Any way that you use them, colored worms can help children learn to look closely and improve their observation skills.

Un-natural nature trail
An un-natural nature trail is an old nature center game that works well with older children. This take some preparation time, but can really be done anywhere outside – a yard or a trail both work. Gather a number of man-made items, from big to small, and scatter them around a prescribed area. Anything will work as long as it is obviously man-made; choose smaller items to increase the difficulty of the challenge. Tell children that they will be looking for things that don’t belong and have them spend a significant amount of time observing the site to find all the objects. This can be done numerous ways; children can count as many objects as possible, pick them up as they find them, or only look for a period of time and have to remember. This is a fun activity for a large group and could be a great party game as well.

Using tools is a helpful way to increase your child’s observation skills, but they are also pretty fun to use! Playing and learning together outside with your child is a great way to connect both of you to nature and to each other. To quote Olson, “Awareness is becoming acquainted with the environments, no matter where one happens to be.” Use your own sense of wonder and curiosity and spend some time outside with your child; it will have a lasting impact on your family and you world.

To read more about the importance of observation, check out our blog post.

Learn more about how we repurpose cardboard, plastic, and glass.

The above photos were taken by Cory Doman and Christie Lawry.

August 15, 2014

From the Ground Up: Final Project Video

by Melissa Harding

Community Feast 028

As part of the Museums Connect program, made possible by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and administered by the American Alliance of Museums, Phipps partnered with the Gidan Makama Museums in Kano, Nigeria to provide an immersive experience for 15 local high school students in each city. Participating students learned about nutrition, cooking and cultural food traditions by following local food from farm to table and communicated with students at their partner institutions. This project lasted September to June 2014, resulting in the creation of a community cookbook that was designed and created by participating students. Students also met each month for a Saturday workshop involving activities designed to get them thinking critically about their food system and food culture. Calling themselves the Global Chefs, this group of students learned more about what food means in their lives.

Our final video summarizing the From the Ground Up program is finally here! This short movie shows the love of learning and the spirit of collaboration that infused this project. We are so proud of the work that our students have done throughout the entire program and grateful for the opportunity to have such a wonderful cultural exchange.

To read about the entire project, check out our From the Ground Up posts.

The above video was a collaboration project of Phipps staff, interns and volunteers.


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