Archive for ‘Home Connections’

February 25, 2015

Home Connections: Paper Sculptures

by Melissa Harding


As this stretch of wintry weather continues across the country, many schools are closing their doors in face of extreme cold temperatures and high amounts of snowfall and ice. While playing outside in the snow is a fun way to spend the afternoon, being outside in negative temperatures is not very safe and many parents prefer that their children spend their time inside on days like today. If you are a parent who finds yourself in a similar situation, we have a fun craft that we think will help your kids spend the hours occupied and entertained: paper sculptures! This fun craft is a great way to reuse newspapers, junk mail, magazines or other kinds of old paper and a good excuse to raid your recycling bins. Combining repurposed materials with a healthy dose of messiness, paper sculptures are a great winter day project.

At Phipps, we make our paper sculptures out of newspaper, craft glue and water. You will also need a large bucket or container in which to create your mixture and a base on which to create it. We often repurpose shallow, plastic containers for this purpose, but anything that has a shallow lip will work.

1. Shred your newspaper into small strips; the smaller the strips, the faster they will start to disintegrate into a usable pulpy mixture.
2. Put your shredded strips into the bucket and add water until you cover them. Let this mixture soak for at least an hour to become soft.
3. Once your paper is soft and feels pulpy to the touch, squeeze out the excess water and remove it from the bucket.
4. Mix in craft glue until the mixture is a gloppy consistency and will hold a shape if squeezed. (You can also use a flour/water paste if you are out of craft glue; just add your paste until the mixture resembles paper mache.)

Now you are ready to model! Be sure to work with your paper pulp on a covered surface and keep it on the base. It will drip some water as it dries, so keep an eye out for that as well. If you want to add some flair to your pulp, using colorful paper or magazine pages will do the job. You can also try adding paint to your mixture for optimal mess and color!


Not sure what to sculpt and looking for some inspiration? Check out some field guides or nature picture books to find a plant or animal to create or research some famous sculptures. You can also look out the window and see what inspires you or take a short walk. Anything can be an inspiration for art, so use this time to encourage your child to explore some of his or her favorite subjects – dinosaurs, alligators or even robots – for ideas. Happy crafting!

Interested in repurposed crafts? Learn more about how we repurpose cardboard, plastic, and glass.

Check out this post to learn how art can foster a connection with nature.

The above photos were taken by Science Education staff.

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 16, 2015

Home Connections: Flower Pigment Art

by Melissa Harding


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

Have some extra Valentine’s Day flowers laying around? We have the perfect use for them! 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 recently 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.


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


January 23, 2015

Home Connections: Beat the Indoor Blues with Some Crafty Fun!

by Melissa Harding


It is very cold in Pittsburgh right now and more winter weather is on the way for the foreseeable future. If you are living in a place that is also experiencing cold temperatures and icy streets, going outside may be the last thing on your mind. In fact, you may be wanting to get inside as fast as possible!  It can be hard to feel connected to nature when you don’t want to be out in it. While it’s fun to curl up on the couch every once in a while, night after night of sitting inside can make you go a little crazy. Add to that the pressure of closed schools and bored kids and you may be looking at a seemingly interminable prison sentence: Indoor Confinement!

We have put together a little survival guide of activities to keep you and your family happy and engaged while you wait out the big freeze. Based on our Home Connections series, here are some ways to connect to nature and make some cool projects at the same time. Each link has easy to follow steps and tons of modifications to suit both younger and older children. Pull out your crayons and markers, folks, because it is time to get crafty and have some fun!


1. Plant a few terrariums: Create miniature gardens out of clipping from house plants, seeds or anything else you have stashed away in the basement. Decorate them and set them all over your windows – it’s hard to feel blue when you are looking at so much green!


2. Create a seed mosaic: The humble seed is such a versatile craft supply! Use seeds from your garage or dried beans from soup mix and create beautiful mosaic pictures.


3. Turn your old T-shirts in a jump rope: Do you have a pile of old T-shirts just waiting to go to Goodwill or be turned into rags? Try this fun idea for making them into a jump rope instead.


4. Turn your recycle bin into art: It can take lots of energy to recycle those soda cans and paperboard boxes. Turn them into fun art instead – everything from picture frames to lava lamps and everything in between. Check out how we repurpose cardboard, plastic and glass at Phipps for ideas.

Phipps Science Education Playdough (2)

5. Make some dough: Homemade dough is fun for all ages! Try colorful rainbow play dough, spiced salt dough or any other of many ideas to keep your kids entertained for hours. Build sculptures, make ornaments or just play – the sky is the limit.DSC_3087

6. Create a nature weaving: If you can brave the outdoors for a bit, grab some winter nature to turn into a beautiful weaving to hang on your wall or your door. Don’t want to go outside? Use colorful bits and bobs that you find in your junk drawer and maybe even a few flowers out of the vase.

Hopefully, these nature- and conservation-based crafts and activities will keep you and your family busily creating and connecting with the natural world, all within the warm comfort of your home! Enjoy!

Once it gets a little warmer, check out our Backyard Connections series for ideas to connect with nature outdoors.

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

January 6, 2015

Home Connections: Bringing the Forest Inside with Terrariums

by Melissa Harding


The winter is a hard time to be a plant person, especially a gardener. No one wants to putter around in the yard when the wind chill is below zero and, no matter how beautiful a fresh snowfall is, it is hard to plant flowers in a frozen ground. One way to cure the winter blues and feel more connected to nature is through the use of houseplants. Houseplants are beautiful and make a house feel homey; additionally, caring for houseplants can reduce stress and the plants themselves earn their keep by cleaning toxins out of the ambient air. Houseplants are a real winner and the winter is a great time to invest in some new ones! One of the ways that we get our students excited about houseplants in the winter is by planting terrariums. Children love to take home plants; planting a beautiful terrarium garden is a great way to combine the fun of taking home a plant with learning about tropical ecosystems, the water cycle and clean air plants.

Terrariums are not only on trend, but are a great way to give kids the experience of having their own greenhouses. Typically a terrarium is a closed ecosystem, with the water recycling itself over and over again. However, not every terrarium has to have a lid; in fact, sometimes it is better to leave the lid off if you are planting anything that would easily die from overwatering.  Plant selection is important in this regard. Some of our favorite plants to put in a terrarium with children are: mosses, spider plants, Pothos, and Philodendron. Make sure that the plants you choose are short enough to fit in your container, as it will look a little silly if it is not all the way inside the glass. Remember that after you add soil, there is significantly less space for your plant. If you want to mix it up, try some succulent plants in a lid-less “desert” terrarium.

Any clear glass container will make a great terrarium; finding jars that are uniquely shaped or particularly beautiful is fun, but a spaghetti sauce jar works just fine as well. This is also a chance to repurpose a recyclable item and give it new life, rather than purchasing something new. The same goes for plants; try taking a cutting or two from your favorite houseplants and propagating them within the terrarium, as the moist environment is great for root growth. Pothos and Philodendron are especially great plants for propagation.

To make your own terrarium, you will need:
Glass jar (lid optional)
Activated charcoal (available in pet stores near the aquarium section)
Potting soil
Small stones or gravel
Other decorative objects (optional).

1. Fill an inch of the bottom of a clean jar with charcoal.
2. Layer some small stones over the charcoal, followed by a layer of potting soil; this is necessary to assure proper drainage.
3. Plant your plants.
4. Give them a small drink of water. (Remember, the water that you add will remain in the terrarium until you open the lid, so just add a little.)
5. Add any decorative objects you wish and close the lid.

This is a great time to get creative – anything that will not decay in a wet environment is perfect for adding to a terrarium; plastic animals are a favorite of ours. You can also get creative by decorating the lid or the jar itself, taking care not to block too much of the light.

Terrariums are easy to make from materials that you already have. No activated charcoal, no problem! Feel free to improvise and have fun with your project. The goal is to have some fun with plants and create something that will inspire you and make you feel connected to nature for the cold months to come!

To read more about how nature, including plants, can make us happier, check out this post.

If you are interested in creating a fancy terrarium, check out Terrarium Ideas and Inspiration at By Stephanie Lynn. Very pretty!

Photos by Science Education and Research staff.

December 17, 2014

Kids and Cats: How Caring for Pets Can Increase Our Environmental Stewardship

by Melissa Harding


“Until one has loved an animal,  a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.” – Anatole France

Many of us have pets at home; whether it is a cat, dog, gerbil or fish, these critters play an important role in our lives. In fact, about two-thirds of American homes have at least one pet.  We often think of our pets as our companions. We dote on them, play with them, and try to get them to behave. While we know that our pets can make us smile, they are also giving us many unseen benefits. They are a good source of social and emotional support, increasing overall well-being. Research shows that pet owners fare better than non-pet owners in the areas of self-esteem and physical fitness. They are also found to be less lonely, less fearful, more extroverted and more conscientious than non-pet owners. In children, the effects are even greater; caring for a pet teaches empathy, kindness, and responsibility. However, there is one more benefit pets can give us that has only recently begun to be studied: greater connection to nature. Caring for pets has been shown to increase our ability to care for nature in general and to increase our feelings to connectedness to the natural world. After all, we only care about (and for) the things we love.

When we talk about nature, we don’t often think of the animal companions that we interact with every day. However, human interaction with domesticated animals goes back many generations. The earliest known domesticated animal was not a cow or a pig, but a dog. We have been domesticating animals for companionship longer than for food, that much is clear. Maybe that’s because humans naturally want to connect with animals. E.O. Wilson hypothesized this connection to animals in his theory of biophilia, which says that humans are innately drawn to the natural world. By seeking relationships with animals, especially with pets, we are able to connect with nature. It has been suggested that owning a pet symbolizes a unity with nature and acts to satisfy part of this human need for a connection to the natural world. Humans love being with animals, both wild and domesticated. After all, we are all part of nature, our pets included.

There is also research showing that attachment to animals correlates with a positive orientation towards the environment and vice versa. In other words, it seems that your love for your pet makes you more likely to feel connected to nature and that if you feel connected to nature, you are more likely to feel a bond with animals. So how does connecting to nature through our pets get us to be better environmental stewards? To answer this, we need to get into some environmental psychology. There are three psychological components to a person’s connection with nature: a sense of connection, a caring response and commitment to action. In a scenario in which there is a connection to the natural world, that connection leads to caring for nature and then to taking actions on its behalf; in a scenario in which a connection to nature is absent, that lack leads to caring for oneself and then taking actions to protect oneself above all else. If we are feeling more connected to nature through our pets, then we will be more likely to take actions that protect the natural world that we care so much about.

IMG_1402However, you probably don’t need a psychologist to tell you what you can already observe in your children and yourself; there is ample research showing that children learn nurturing skills by bonding with and caring for pets. Many naturalist educators, including David Sobel, advocate for cultivating children’s relationships with animals from a very young age as a way of increasing their empathy for nature. The bond that forms between children and animals has been shown to increase social competence and sense of well-being. As a child cares for and nurtures an animal, he or she develops a sense of empathy, which in turn promotes pro-social behaviors towards other people and the natural world. This is not only a predictor of a successful adult, but also a predictor of a future naturalist.  Its clear that the attitude of stewardship taught through walking a dog carries through into the rest of life.

A Henry Ward Beecher once said, “The dog was created especially for children. He is the God of frolic.” Dogs and other pets are great companions for children and wild animals can be excellent examples as well. Here are some ways that you can use help your child bond with the natural world through animals:

1.  Give responsibility: The best way to promote caring for animals is to actually care for them. Give your child responsibility towards the pets in your home, making sure that the assigned tasks are developmentally appropriate for your child’s age level and abilities. Support your child in this work, helping them to remember that they take care of their pets not because it is a chore, but because their pet needs them. Encourage your child’s teacher to consider a classroom pet; check out this website for convincing reasons why.
2. Go for a walk: Beyond pets, also search for wild animals on your walks. Children always enjoy seeing animals in their journeys; point out birds, squirrels, and other pets. It doesn’t matter if they are common, children will be excited to spot them.
3. Go to the zoo or aquarium: Seeing wild animals is very exciting for children of all ages (adults as well).  Many zoos have programs that allow visitors to help feed and care for the animals, as well as petting areas for children. Point out staff taking care of the animals you see.
3. Look for examples: Animals play a central role in many children’s books and media (up 90% of counting and language-learning books); this can be a great way to expose children to animals from other parts of the world or situations they are unlikely to experience themselves. Use the examples of human/animal interaction to talk with your child about proper behavior towards animals. Ask your child to view the situation from the animal’s perspective. Also have a discussion about the animal’s role in the world, whether it is in a neighborhood, a home, or a wild habitat.
4. Recognize undesirable behavior: Mistreatment of animals can be a warning sign of developing aggressive behavior. Deliberately harmful or frightening actions towards animals should be discouraged. While very young children are often not developmentally able to understand proper behavior towards animals, older children may need parental intervention if negative behavior persists. The Human Society has a helpful guide in dealing with negative behavior towards animals.

To learn more about how interaction with the natural world can increase empathy in children, check out this post.

The above photos were taken by Jeff Harding.




Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 200 other followers

%d bloggers like this: