Archive for ‘Backyard Connections’

March 9, 2015

Asking Good Questions in Nature

by Melissa Harding


“Your questions are more important than your answers.”
– Fred Rogers

Science is more than a collection of facts and figures, but is a way of looking at the world and investigating what makes it work. The practice of science requires inquiry skills and the ability to understand and carry out the scientific process. Problem solving in this way, using a set of keen observational skills to gain a better understanding of the world, requires asking good questions. In fact, most scientific investigations begin with a question generated from experience.  We may take it for granted that children will be able to easily ask the right questions to get the answers they need, but this is a skill that requires some cultivating. Question posing, a technique often used by classroom teachers, is essential to the process of scientific inquiry. This is such an important part of teaching that helping students learn to create good questions is required by the National Science Education Standards. Students need this skill, as it helps them to better understand the central role of questions in science, as well as to become better inquirers. Questions promote curiosity and a good question can generate many more. Helping children to ask good questions not only requires them to look more closely at the world around them, but gets them excited about finding the answers.

So what is a good question? A good question is one that can be investigated. It’s not a closed-ended question with a “yes” or “no” answer, but rather one that requires an explanation. A good question also needs to be narrow enough that it is answerable. While asking broad questions is a great way to generate excitement for a topic, narrowing the focus is helpful. Finally, good questions are related to natural phenomena; in fact, the best questions come after experiencing something interesting – a lightening strike, a chemical reaction, a flower blooming.

There are three types of good questions: definition, experimental and observational. Definition questions are questions with pre-determined answers, such as “what is a flower?” or “what is lightening?”. These answers have definitions associated with them and can be looked up in a resource. However, these are common questions that children ask and can serve to build up a child’s knowledge base about a topic. These type of questions often lead to the other types, as learning more often only serves to generate more questions. Experimental questions explore how things relate to each other and usually are answerable through experimentation. Observational questions do just that – use observation as a way to answer them. These types of questions help children to understand patterns in nature, animal behavior, phase changes, etc. All of these types of questions are in invitation to inquiry, helping children to develop a richer understanding of the world around them.


The ability to use and interpret knowledge critically and thoughtfully is important both in the classroom and in life. A good foundation of observation skills and the ability to ask the right questions will serve children both in science and in other subjects, such as language arts. After all, critical thinking is just as relevant to literature as it is to science and problem solving is not the sole purview of math. These skills may also spark a passion for life-long learning, creating future astronomers or gardeners. As a parent, teaching these skills to your child is important. However, it may seem daunting to think about teaching science skills, especially if you don’t have a strong science background yourself. Not to worry, it is much easier than it sounds! In fact, one of the best ways to work on the skill of asking good questions is simply spending time outside. Nature has so many changing elements and moving parts that it is sure to get any child excited about observing and asking questions. Whether it is the backyard or local green space, spending time outside will engage your family in the natural world.

However, while a nature hike is a fine way to get outside, it can sometimes feel like a forced march to kids, especially when they are not used to that activity. Being outside can also make children uncomfortable if it is rainy or cold, which makes them pretty unlikely to enjoy themselves or to learn very much. If this is new to your family, playing games, gardening, and walking the dog are just as effective to get everyone outside as intentionally planning time to practice science. Eventually a bird or some oddly-shaped clouds will catch someone’s eye and organically lead to observation and asking questions. If it is too cold to go outside, nature can be found indoors as well; making observations out the window or even just watching some seeds grow are simple activities that will have a big impact. Simply put, research shows  that just being outside with your children will cause their cognitive abilities to bloom.


While nature is pretty engaging by itself, there are strategies that you can use to get your children excited about being outside and asking great questions. Even better, these strategies go to work in minutes!

1. Encourage observation: Observation is how people learn. It involves using the senses to gain a deeper understanding of the world; start sniffing, feeling and looking closely at everything around you. Pick things up and see what noises they make. Taste if you think its appropriate. As long as you use some common sense about safety, you will have a great time observing your way through your yard.
2. Be mad scientists: Help your child answer questions by taking the next step in the scientific process – an experiment! Experiments don’t have to take place in a lab; they can happen on your sidewalk or in your kitchen. If you child asks a question that can be answered by simple science modeling, go for it! See what happens when you crack an egg on the sidewalk or put out some crackers for the ants. These easy experiments are often so fun that you just might get excited about them, too!
3. Ask open-ended questions to encourage observation: Open-ended questions are wonderful tools that promote creative thought and spark curiosity. While a question like, “What color is this leaf” evokes a one-word answer, “Tell me about this leaf” encourages a child to observe and describe. There is no right or wrong answer and can often give parents a window into what their child is thinking. You will be amazed about how excited your child will get when you ask for their opinions and ideas.
4. Model good behavior: Your child will be much more inclined to get on the ground and look through his magnifying lens if you are doing the same. Older children in particular will take note if you ask them to do things that you have no interest in, so get dirty with your kids! While it may start off as modeling, you may soon find yourself pretty excited about what you find.

Remember, it’s the process not the product, so just have some fun outside and see what happens. You will be growing scientific minds right before your eyes!

To learn more about how we teach observation skills through nature at Phipps, check out this post.

Read more about the importance of observation here.

The above photos were taken by Cory Doman.

February 23, 2015

Creating a Rich Environment: The Role of the Adult in Children’s Play

by Melissa Harding


“It is a happy talent to know how to play.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Do you remember the games that you used to play as a child? Pretending to be princesses, cowboys, explorers with your friends; turning a pile of blocks into a city or using a stick as a sword; making up ridiculous rules for pretend games. Many of us have fond memories of playing with friends and family, as well as alone – it doesn’t take much effort to think back to those fun times we all had as children. There is a reason for that; playing is one of the most important developmental tasks of early childhood. It turns out that all the time you spent pretending to be a monster is key to who you are today. Long, uninterrupted blocks of time spent playing – by yourself and with your peers – are what allowed you to develop into a successful adult and are what will help your children do the same.

Play is a purposeful experience for children and very gratifying, something that they love to do and find endlessly absorbing. Children employ themselves very seriously in the act of play. At the same time, play is a bit of a paradox; it is both serious and silly, real and pretend, apparently purposeless yet absolutely essential. So what is play? One of the commonly accepted definitions of play is something that is: intrinsically motivated, controlled by the players, about process rather than product, non literal, free of any externally imposed rules, and  actively engages the players. To ask a child, it means the absence of adults and the presence of peer or friends.


There are many forms of play that develop at different rates in different children. Most very young children start off with sensory or exploratory play – touching, mouthing, feeding themselves – and add other forms of play as they develop. In fact, playing itself helps children to build upon their skills and develop into new kinds of play. Learning is integrated in play and largely unseen to most adults. Play has an intrinsic value because this learning is child-directed and takes place without direct teaching. It develops the foundation of intellectual, social, physical, and emotional skills necessary for success. Building with blocks can lay the foundation for mathematical and scientific thinking; rough-housing develops social and emotional self-regulation; pretend play creates communication and conversation skills. As they develop skills in play, children begin to have greater creativity and flexibility in thinking. Play has even been cited as having  a positive influence on literacy. Learning and development go hand-in-hand with play, each an inseparable dimension of the other. Clearly, play is powerful stuff.

IMG_0371Children are quite happy to play on their own and to play with anything handy. However, there is a great deal that parents can do to support play:

1. Create a culture of play: Play needs time and space; give your child ample time to play on their own and with friends. A long, uninterrupted period of 45-60 minutes is the recommended minimum amount of time to support free-play.
2. Provide a variety of materials for play: “Loose parts” encourage children to manipulate the environment around them. These can be things found in nature, such as sticks and acorns, or build materials like blocks and clay. A mix of both kinds is best. Other useful items are dress-up clothes, art supplies, construction toys and balls for motor play.
3. Create a playful environment: Adults can help to set the stage, creating and maintaining an environment conducive to play. This can be something like providing a great location (going to the park, building a tree house or a fort) or as simple as great materials.
4. Allow some calculated risk-taking: Some risks (i.e. climbing trees or walking on logs) are appropriate and some are not; this is for you to judge as a parent. However, challenge and risk-taking is important to the developing confidence and gross-motor skills. Consider allowing your child to take some calculated risks.
5. Be OK with a mess: Play can be messy, muddy and a little rough. Accept the mess; your kids will love it.
6. Take an interest: Attentive adults can help redirect play when children get frustrated and result in longer, more complex episodes of play. Be a responsive watcher on occasion and become a co-player and role model, not a director.

There is also an emerging body of evidence that supports the power of outdoor play. Nature play is sensory, diverse and challenging. It provides the ideal setting and materials for any game and it’s a great place to make a mess. Full of loose parts, nature is full of elements that can be combined, adapted and manipulated. The rough, uneven surfaces are great for developing physical strength and building confidence. It is also a rich source for fantasy play. If nothing else, let your child play outside. With or without an adult presence, though preferably a little bit of both, outdoor play is a wonderful activity for children.

“Supporting children’s play is more active than simply saying you believe it is important. When children’s play culture is taken seriously, the conditions which make it flourish are carefully created. Children’s play culture does not just happen naturally. Play needs time and space. It needs mental and material simulation to be offered in abundance. Creating a rich play environment means creating good learning environments for children.”  – Marjatta Kalliala, author of Play Culture in a Changing World.

Winter is actually a great time to be outside. There are snowballs to throw, snowmen to create and icicles to collect. Outside is an endless playground – head outside today and help your child create memories to last a lifetime!

To learn more about the power of play and delve deeper into the supporting research, check out Dr. Par Jane Hewes’ excellent article Let the Children Play: Nature’s Answer to Early Learning.

Also, check out The Importance of Play and get practical ideas for creating play-positive environments over at The Imagination Tree.

The above photos were taken by Cory Doman.

February 13, 2015

Give Nature a Valentine!

by Melissa Harding

Bleeding Hearts (4)

Valentine’s Day is not just for people; nature also wants to get in to the act. As well it should! After all, think about how much nature shows us its love every day – from the air we breathe to the food to we eat, plants and the natural world are responsible for our survival every day. While we are thinking about love in all of its various forms, lets show a little to our plant and animal friends while we’re at it.

Here are some easy ways that your family can spare some caring on Valentine’s Day (and everyday) for your natural neighbors:

1. Feed the birds: Tuppence a bag! Your feathered friends will appreciate the treat and reward you with regular visits to your yard.

Pine Cone Birds: The Blueberry Junkies
Winter Bird Feeders: The Crafty Crow

2. Plants some seeds: Help plants grow by planting some seeds. You can add beauty and life to your home or spread that love to someone else and give them away!

Seed Packet Valentines: Spread seeds and help beautify someone’s home or garden. One Crafty Place

3. Reduce, reuse and recycle: While Valentine’s Day can mean buying gifts, try repurposing and reusing instead today. You will make less waste, which the Earth certainly appreciates, and have fun doing it!

Newspaper Hearts: Recycled materials are a valentine for the whole Earth! You are my fave
Heart Garland: Give your house some love, too! Maya * Made
Coffee Filter Hearts: Fun and compostable! The Artful Parent

4. Make some nature art: Nature is already beautiful, but you can help her out by adding your own artwork to the world.

Winter land art and snow painting: The Chocolate Muffin Tree
Ice Art and Other Ice Crafts: Willow Day and Craftberry Bush
Winter Love Jars: Marghanita Hughes

You and your family will really adore these fun craft and activity ideas. Spread the goodwill around to everyone (and every plant) that you love!

 Have a love-ly Valentine’s Day from all of us!

Photo © Paul g. Wiegman


February 6, 2015

Backyard Connections: Exploring Nature in Winter

by Melissa Harding


“In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.” -William Blake.

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 January, 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.


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 JunkieS
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 send them outside and 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 by Science Education staff and volunteers.

January 30, 2015

Backyard Connections: Help Scientists by Joining The Great Backyard Bird Count

by Melissa Harding

Are you ready for some science? It’s been a whole month since the most recent citizen science challenge posted here and it’s time for another one! The Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC), sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Audubon Society, is another chance to help scientists gain a better understanding of overall bird health around the world. Taking place February 13-16, 2014, the GBBC is an annual four-day event that asks bird lovers to create real-time “snapshots” of where birds are. Birders count the number of birds that they see in their backyard, area park, or local green space and submit this information to scientists, who combine it with data from the Christmas Bird Count and other sources to get a more complete picture of what is happening to bird populations.

Why have two bird counts so close together in time? Bird populations are dynamic and constantly in a state of flux. Birds are always moving from place to place in search of food and shelter, especially during the winter months. Scientists need citizen help because no single team of scientists could ever completely document the complex distribution and movement of so many birds. The longer and more frequently bird populations are documented, the more useful the data becomes, especially as scientists begin to assess trends over time. Having so much data also helps scientists to ask more difficult questions, such as why bird diseases affect different regions or why the phenology of migration patterns changes from year to year. Even better, the February GBBC used to only take place in the United States and Canada, but now that it is a global count, birds are counted in all seasons. This gives scientists even more useful data!

The GBBC is such a great program because it is accessible to everyone, even beginning birders and families. Anyone can participate for as little as 15 minutes or as long as each day of the event. It’s easy to get started – simply create a free GBBC account to submit your checklist. Once you have an account, tally the number of individual bird species that you see during the count period and then enter those numbers on the GBBC website. If you decide to count on multiple days or in multiple locations, just be sure to submit a separate checklist for each day and/or location. You can also send in photos of your backyard birds, the best of which will be posted on their website as part of a photo gallery.

To learn how to participate in the GBBC, visit the Cornell Lab website. Get comprehensive instructions here, as well as answers to frequently asked questions.

New to bird watching, check out Cornell’s excellent resources for identifying difficult birds, using binoculars, and more!

Learn more about citizen science projects to do with your family on the blog!

The above video is used courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

January 20, 2015

We Are Getting SO Excited About Summer Camp!

by Melissa Harding


We’re so excited and we just can’t hide it! Summer is almost here and we have just finalized our offerings for the upcoming camp season. We are so pumped to offer a new selection of summer camps to help your child connect with nature. Highlighting ecology, conservation, healthy living and art concepts through hands-on activities, each camp offers a fun and unique Phipps experience. This year we are expanding our age groups to include older campers, as well as continuing to offer the popular programs that families love. We have a great line-up of immersive experiences designed to increase your kid’s enthusiasm for the natural world, with something to offer for every child, no matter what their interests:
Do you have a child who loves BUGS? A camper who likes to make homes for all the insect friends she finds in the yard and who knows all about dragonflies? Then check out our bug camps for campers ages 4-7: Bugs in the Burgh and A Bug’s World! Your camper will have fun hunting for bugs all over the Conservatory, inside and out, and learning what makes bugs so important.

Check out this post to learn how to trap bugs at home, just like we do at camp!

Do you have a camper who loves to dance and perform? A child who pretends to be a cat under the table or a dinosaur at bedtime? Then Dancing with the Plants, for campers ages 4-5, is just right for him. Your camper will learn about plants and animals through dance and movement exercises!

Not sure that your child will love dance-based camp? Check out these fun photos from last summer – a great choice for boys AND girls!

Phipps Science Education (3)ghghghgh
If you have a child who loves to draw, paint, sculpt, or tell stories, then our art camps are right up her alley. We are offering nature-based art camps for children ages 4-5 and 10-11: Backyard Art and EcoArtist. Your camper will use nature as her inspiration to create beautiful and unique projects.

Can’t wait to start making nature art? Prepare for spring by making seed balls at home!


Do you have an older child who loves exploring nature and learning new facts about plants and animals? A camper who pours over books about his favorite animals and wants to be park ranger or a scientist when he grows up? Check out our new camp for children ages 8-9: Nature Explorers!

Want to practice observation skills at home? Check out this post for ideas!

DSC_2906Does your child have a passion for environmentalism? Does she love to learn about different places in the world? If your 12-13 year old camper is a budding steward of the plants and animals of the planet, then Climate Defenders is the right camp for her! Campers will learn all about world biomes while experiencing them right here at Phipps, as well as how their actions can have a positive effect on the world around them.

Learn how spending time in nature helps all children to become better stewards of the Earth!


These are just a few of the camps that we are offering this summer. Check out our website to see our entire line-up, including Little Sprouts, cooking, fairytale, bug, dance, and ecology camps. Our summer camps are both educational and super fun – at Phipps, we LOVE camp!

If you would like to register your child for summer camp, contact Sarah Bertovich at  412|441-4442 ext. 3925.

We hope to see you there!

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

January 9, 2015

Backyard Connections: Going on a Snowflake Hunt

by Melissa Harding

This activity was inspired by Science Friday; check out their great video on snowflakes to learn more about how they form and the scientists that study them.

Today is a very snowy day at Phipps and it has got us thinking about some of our favorite snowy day activities. While it may not be fun to shovel, it sure is fun to play in. Snowball fights, building snowmen, and sled riding are just a few of the fun activities that you can do as a family in the snow. However, if you are looking for a more low-key snow activity, try this idea: Take your family on a snowflake hunt!

Snowflakes are the most basic parts of snow, after all, and each one is unique. A snowflake is formed around a tiny bit of dust in the atmosphere that builds up into slightly larger bits of ice called crystals; when these crystals start to stick together, they form snowflakes. A snowflake can be made of as many as 200 crystals! Although we may all draw snowflakes the same way in art class, they actually come in many different shapes – from the classic pointy star to round plates and square cubes. Taking a closer look at an individual snowflake is pretty amazing; while the best way to see a single snowflake is under a microscope, you can still observe quite a bit with a magnifying glass.

To go on a snowflake hunt, you will need the following things: a snowy day, a piece of dark construction paper, a magnifying glass and journaling supplies:

1. Put your paper in the freezer or leave it in a cold, dry place so that it can get nicely chilled.
2. Holding the paper by its edges, go outside and catch some snowflakes on the paper.
3. Use your magnifying glass to look at the snowflakes on your paper (cover your nose and mouth with a scarf so that you don’t melt your snowflakes!)
4. Draw your favorite snowflakes in your journal, nothing overall shape, number of points (if any) and anything else of note. Which is the most popular shape of snowflake? Which one was the weirdest?
5. Try to look for as many different kinds of snowflakes as possible

This activity is a great way to practice observation skills while enjoying the winter weather. You can spend 5 minutes or 50 working on this project – it can be fun for even your littlest of kids! Have a cold day but no snow? Try using your trusty magnifying glass to examine frosty windowpanes. The crystal patterns of the frost are just as neat as snowflakes and can be observed from inside!

For more fun snowy day ideas, read this blog post on exploring nature in winter!

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

The above video is used courtesy of Science Friday.





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