Posts tagged ‘observation skills’

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.




November 12, 2014

Backyard Connections: Celebrate Urban Birds With Citizen Science!

by Melissa Harding


Even though Phipps is located in the heart of the city of Pittsburgh, our visitors and staff are always reporting interesting animal sightings – from deer standing on the hill to hawks swooping down into the fields around the Conservatory. Urban areas may not seem at first glance to be a hospitable home to wildlife, but in reality there are many animals that have adapted well to the built environment. More than just a haven for squirrels and pigeons, the city is home to a variety of beautiful birds, deer, foxes and many other animals that are more commonly associated with woodland areas. People who live in these areas may not know that they share their space with such a wealth of critters, which is where citizen science comes in. Celebrate Urban Birds (CUB) is a project developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology whose primary purpose is to reach urban audiences who do not already participate in science, as well as to collect data about birds living in these environments. Birds are a perfect animal to study; they are attractive, plentiful, and easily spotted in any place.

Fall is a great time to think about birds, specifically helping them find food and shelter during the winter, as well as to provide safe and nourishing stops for them during migration. The more you are conscious of the bird populations that live near you, the better able you are to protect them from threats and encourage their habitation of your backyard or neighborhood. Additionally, participating in citizen science programs gives bird researchers useful information that they can’t collect on their own.

Why track bird populations? 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 colder 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.

Celebrate Urban Birds is a great way to participate in citizen science; the project focuses on just a few focal species, many of which are commonly sighted birds, and can involve as much or as little commitment as you desire. All you need to do to get started is to sign up and purchase your CUB kit from Cornell, then you are all set to start observing the birds around you. Here’s how you record your data:

  • Beforehand, pick a date, time, and place for watching birds.
  • Watch an area about the size of half a basketball court for ten minutes.
  • Record which of the focal birds you see and don’t see in your birdwatching area.
  • Send your data to CUB either online or on your paper form

Easy peasy, and you have just helped both birds and the scientists who study them! In addition to just watching birds and collecting data, CUB also supports related community programming in the arts, neighborhood greening and  habitat restoration. They offer mini-grants to support community festivals and really want to help people connect the importance of birds and nature to all aspects of their lives.

This project is great for scout and youth groups, homeschoolers, school classes, or any other group, as well as for families. To get started, check out the Celebrate Urban Birds website – there are resources to help you learn good observation skills, identify focal species and more! Even if you are new to birding, CUB is an easy way to dip your toe into the water of citizen science. Check it out today!

To learn how to participate in bird-related citizen science, visit the Cornell Lab website. Learn more about the Celebrate Urban Birds program here!

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 photo is copyrighted to Maria Corcacas and used courtesy of Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

May 7, 2013

Backyard Connections: Who Lives in Your Yard?

by Melissa Harding


This new series, Backyard Connections, gives fun and easy tips for exploring the nature right outside your door.

Spring is one of the best times for nature observation; it has the benefits of winter, like bare trees and open ground, but is bustling with growing things and new life everywhere. These few weeks in the middle of spring are some of easiest times to really see what and who is living in your yard; even urban yards can be full of more life than you realize. This is important to understand; the animals that visit your yard make up a large part of your backyard community and are affected by any changes you may make to it. Sometimes the unsightly features that you wish to remove from your yard, like a brush pile in the back or a misshapen shrub, are really vital to critters that need them. In addition, it can be useful to understand who is nibbling off the tops of your pea plants or digging up your wildflower seeds; once you know who is doing the damage, you can take measures to gently redirect these backyard vandals to more desirable options. Finally and most importantly, backyard creatures like rabbits and birds are accessible to children; it can be fun to learn about animal life cycles through observation over time, such as watching a litter of baby squirrels grow up and raise their own young. Children grow invested in the lives of these critters and truly think of them as garden friends, all while growing in their observation and deduction skills.

How can you figure out who is living in your yard? Observation, of course. Keeping a journal of animal signs can help you and your child learn more about the critters in your yard over time. You can track feeding habits, nesting times, and more. Remember, it is never wise to poke at or get too close to any animal or its home. Observation from afar is the best way to learn about these creatures.

Look for the following signs of animal life in your yard:

rabbitWhere do I live?
Bare trees are the animal watcher’s best friend. By the end of April, most flowering trees are still sparsely covered and many large shade trees have only minimal leaves. In addition, many migrating bird species that spend their winters in the tropics are back for the summer. Backyard favorites like catbirds, hummingbirds, orioles, and a whole host of warblers are looking for places to nest, eat and sing! One way to know who is living in your yard is to look for nests; every bird species builds differently shaped nests in different kinds of locations. All of these can be found by scanning the bushes with your naked eye or a pair of binoculars. Another way that you can keep tabs on nesting birds is by providing bird houses for them; bluebirds, wrens and other small birds that are susceptible to nest predation appreciate this consideration and will often reward you by inhabiting these structures. If you look carefully, you may also find nests that have been abandoned by birds and co-opted by mice or chipmunks; ever opportunists, these small critters use old nests to raise young and stay warm in the winter.

Birds are not the only animals that build nests. Squirrels also build nests in trees, commonly called “dreys”. They often look like large, leafy clumps situated in the crook of several tree limbs; often located very high in trees, some dreys are so large that they can be seen from fairly far away. Since a typical grey squirrel can have up to three or four litters a year, this is an important place for them to raise their young.

There are also many animal homes to be found on the ground. Look under rocks and fallen logs for reptiles and amphibians; small invertebrates also like the constant temperature and moisture of life against the ground. A brush pile is a great place to find many small mammals and even some birds; low shrubs provide shelter and sometimes food. Your yard may also be home to larger animals that build dens underground, like rabbits, groundhogs or even foxes. Look for holes in the ground near shrubs, trees or other sources of cover.

What do I eat?Phipps Science Education 64
The easiest, and sometimes most frustrating, of animal signs to spot is evidence of eating. Whether this means shells around the bird feeder or a decimated garden, most backyard animals are not shy about making your yard their salad bar. Half eaten leaves and broken stems are a sure sign of animal feasting. If you find something unusual, like peanut shells buried in your garden beds, investigate further and figure out which backyard critter is responsible. This is a great way to hone your child’s deductive skills; make an educated guess and then set up an experiment to learn more. You’d be surprised how excited your child will be to check the same spot every day for updated activity.

You may also find evidence on a smaller scale, such as with caterpillars and other herbivorous invertebrates. Introducing lady bugs or other predator insects into your yard can be both effective and fun to do with your child. Another great way to help with insect issues is to provide a toad home, which can be as simple as an upside-down flower-pot nestled in the shade; a toad home is both wonderful for your garden and an easy way to learn about amphibians. You and your child can visit your garden friend by lifting up the pot on occasion and can even watch them raise young over the course of the summer. Toads will return to the same place every spring, so you will have a friend for life!

Phipps Science Education_parents (3)How do I move?
Many backyard critters show their presence through tracks. Especially in the spring, when the ground is soft and muddy, it can be easy to see exactly what your resident rabbit or raccoon has been up to based on where its tracks lead. Most of these animals leave fairly distinctive tracks, from the two hooves of a deer to the hand print of a possum. Look for tracks in newly dug garden beds, areas with sparse plant cover and muddy places. If you can’t make out a clean print, the overall pattern of the tracks can help you figure it out – clusters of four prints indicate a galloper, like a chipmunk, whereas a wider, heavier set of tracks indicates a more meandering animal, like a bear or raccoon.

Another kind of animal track is evidence left by their movement, like a spot of matted plants where an animal has been resting or a bare spot on a tree where an animal was rubbing. Look for signs in your garden beds and under trees where your backyard friends have been busy. While you are looking, keep your eye out for other signs like feathers, clumps of fur or snake skins. All of these signs can help you figure out which animals are using your yard as a home and even what parts they are relying on for food and shelter. Take a magnifying glass outside and go on a track hike, looking close to the ground for signs of life. Record your observations and see if track patterns change over time!


To make the most of watching animals in your yard and help them thrive:
1. Help your nest-making backyard friends by providing nest helpers  and bird and squirrel feeders out of natural materials (via The Crafty Crow)
Get involved in citizen science through Project Feeder Watch, NestWatch or Celebrate Urban Birds
3. Learn more about birdwatching from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s online resources; identify feathers using the US Fish and Wildlife’s Feather Atlas or try this great inquiry activity  (via Nature Skills).
4. Learn about specific animals tracks (via Minnesota DNR) or find a similar guide to match your particular region.
5. Provide a brush pile in the corner of your yard; many birds and small mammals will appreciate the shelter it creates; similarly, a rock pile in a sunny spot can provide a great home for garter snakes and other small reptiles.
6. Provide a water source near a protective shrub or tree; all the animals in your yard will appreciate this, especially as it gets hotter through the summer.
7.  Attract toads to your yard (via Bird and Blooms) and learn more about reptiles and amphibians in your area.

These are just a few of the things that you will find in your yard if you look for them; animals, including insects, leave many different signs – including themselves! As you and your child spend more time learning about the animals that live in your yard, you will come to be experts at spotting them. You may also come to appreciate them as an integral part of the ecosystem of your neighborhood. Remember, both you and your backyard are part of the same community of life!

Above photos were used courtesy of the Phipps Science Education staff and WikiMedia.

March 15, 2013

Home Connections: Color Observers

by Melissa Harding


It may not feel like it, but spring is almost here. Daffodils and tulips are shooting tentative leaves up above the ground and the small, nodding heads of snowdrops are becoming a common sight. Soon, the world will be awash in the bright colors and scents of early spring and winter will seem like a distant memory. This time of year is muddy, warm and just asking to explored! One way to make the most of this time and to promote increased attention to nature is by using a color observer. Color observers are easy to make and incredibly effective at encouraging children of all ages to stop and really look at the world around them.

A color observer is a simple device that children can use to compare the colors they see in the world around them. We make them out of paint chips from the home improvement store; we gather different shades of one or several colors, punch a large hole in each and then bind them together with a ring. Children hold the color observer up to leaves, tree bark, flowers, and even the sky, trying to match what they see through the hole with a colored paint chip. The more choices you put in your color observer, the more closely it will match something in nature. For older children, we use paint chips with multiple colors per chip and make sure there are plenty of options. For younger children, a simple of rainbow of colors can be enough. It is up to you how simple or complex you would like to make your observer.


Using this tool encourages children to look closely at objects in nature. They begin to notice not just colors, but nuances in shading and texture. This is a great technique to develop observation skills, which are important skills to have. Scientists are great at observing and so are artists; children are naturally curious and tools like color observers help them to see both the science and the art in nature. Closely observing the natural world (and the man-made one, too!) helps children to better appreciate and understand it. It also shows them the beauty of nature, which creates a sense of place. As Rachel Carson wrote in A Sense of Wonder, “If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which seeds must grow.”

Using a color observer is a fun activity to do together; make two and compare your guess with your child’s. You can also work together to create fun color-based art projects that use objects from nature. Find items that match all of the colors in your observer and then use them to make a nature weaving or a diorama. Create monochromatic display jars or match your paint chips to water colors and paint a nature picture. The options are endless!

For some more fun activities to do with paint chips, check out these links:
Paint Chip Matching GameInner Child Life (this is where we got the idea for our own color observers)
Fairy LoomsMoment to Moment
Paint Sample
Paint Chip GarlandChocolate Muffin Tree

The above pictures were taken by Christie Lawry.


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