Monday, May 31, 2010

Family Connections

Connections are important to me. Connections between people. Connections between people and nature. If we had more of both, I believe we'd have a lot fewer problems in the world. While this blog focuses on connections between kids from different cultures and kids and nature, I'd like to take a little side trip today. It may seem disconnected to you, but stick with me. I hope my comments will help you understand.

How connected are your children or students to their relatives, both dead and living? I ask this question because I believe fully understanding your family's values and beliefs enables you to make choices about continuing or rejecting those beliefs.

I am fortunate to come from a solid foundation. I grew up with my relatives nearby. When I was young, four generations lived on our farm, so I had a sense of family history.  I felt loved by my great-grandfather and great grandmother right on down to my aunts and uncles. I learned to live close to the land as I helped feed the animals, bring in the hay, and work the vegetable gardens. I learned independence romping in the woods and fields alone or building forts with my friends. I'm certain I am a naturalist because of this early beginning.

Only later, as a pre-teen, did I start to question the opinions expressed by certain relatives. I heard racial and ethnic slurs uttered on many occasions by some extended relatives. One grandfather thought women should stay home and have babies. He told my parents, "You do not waste money educating women." I didn't always like my extended family or the prejudice that existed. My questioning of that prejudice, and my parents' recognition of it, gave me the courage to grow and reach for something better. Being firmly rooted to my nuclear family and my home gave me the courage to spread my wings and fly half way around the world as an exchange student when I was just 16 years old, even when my grandfather said I belonged at home.

My parents did not want us to repeat my family's history of racism, sexism, antisemitism, etc. (you name an "-ism," it was present in my extended family). They worked hard and raised their daughters to be strong and independent. They pushed us to aim high. Each of us has studied abroad and earned Master's degrees- the first women in our family to do either.  Each of us is a strong independent woman because of our parents. Each of us views the world in a more global way than was the norm in our small home town. I am certain I am passionate about race relations and interactions between people because of the blatant prejudices I experienced as a child and my parents' critical responses to it.

The other day, as I walked in my yard photographing my beautiful flowers, all of these ideas flooded my mind. What made that happen you might ask? My strong roots, that's what. I live in the house my maternal grandparents lived in when I was a child. My parents live in my paternal grandparent's house. All around me I see evidence of my grandparents. This home is certainly ours now- we've lived here more than 15 years and made many changes to make it our own. One thing that hasn't changed is some of the gardens and plants. As I walk through my gardens, I see the flowers my grandmother planted all those years ago still blooming. Her snowdrops, crocuses, and daffodils still push up through the snow every spring. Each time I see them I think of her and smile. My front garden is a riot of color right now- some of it my grandmother's plants, some of it plants dug from friends' and relatives' gardens over the years. Gardening goes way back in my family. As I walked and photographed each of those flowers yesterday, I thought of the person who gave them to me. And there's the seed of this whole post: connections between the people in my life (some living, some dead) and nature, in the form of the plants they gave me.

For your viewing pleasure... here is a sampling of those flowers and who they're from:

My deceased grandmother's clematis. This is the first time it has bloomed for me.

My grandmother's iris. Yellow was her favorite color.

Peony dug from my uncle's garden. That ant is doing it's job--soon a full bloom!

Lupine my mom grew from seed.
Geranium dug from my great aunt's garden 10 years ago.

Iris from the original plant my mom dug from her grandmother's garden back in the 60's.

I maintain strong connections to the family that nurtures me. I embrace my family’s legacy of living close to the earth- of growing food and flowers and animals-but I reject the legacy of prejudice. I can only choose to embrace or reject something once I have recognized it, considered it, and acted in response to it.

How about you? What is your family legacy? What makes you proud? What do you want to change for your children? How will you make that happen?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Gifts for Babies

There have been lots of babies in my life lately. My children have a new cousin, with another on the way, and three of their teachers have had babies. For shower gifts, many people love to buy cute baby clothes. Others prefer "fun" gifts like toys, while still others are more inclined to help the family out by purchasing essentials such as diapers or strollers. Most of the time, I go for items that I consider both fun and necessary: books and music.

As a writer and teacher, books are near and dear to me. They can transport us to another world, inspire us, challenge us, teach us, and entertain us. In the case of this book, they can also celebrate us and the earth we inhabit. If I am going to give a newborn only one book, it will be On the Day You Were Born by Debra Frasier. 

It starts:
"On the eve of your birth
word of your coming passed
from animal to animal.

The reindeer told the Arctic terns,
who told the humpback whales,
who told the Pacific salmon..."

This lovely tale continues with news of the child's birth traveling all around the globe while the sun continues to shine, the wind blows, and the moon pulls the ocean's tides. It ends with people welcoming the newborn saying, "We are so glad you've come!" Orignally published in 1991, this book will never go out of style. 
Music is another favorite shower gift. When I was pregnant with our first child, I began looking for world music, particularly lullabies, to play for him. African Lullaby is one of the first CDs I found and it quickly became our favorite. My son listened to it often while falling asleep. When our daughter was born, he passed it along to her. Four and a half years later, she still listens to it, almost every night. Produced by Ellipsis Arts, this compilation CD is part of a lullaby series that focuses on lullabies from different parts of the world. This CD includes music from around the African continent and notes about the artists and style of music played. I'll certainly blog about music again, and include more scholarly reasons for exposing your children and students to music from around the world, but for today, I hope you'll check out this CD for no other reason than the music is wonderful.

What are your favorite examples of world music for children or books that celebrate nature? Do you have a book or CD that you give to the newborns in your life?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Mystery Rash

One winter, when I was in the 5th grade, I came down with a mysterious rash on my face. It was blotchy, blistery, and itchy. My mom, a trained nurse, couldn't figure out what it was, nor by extension, how to help me. She theorized that maybe I had sat too close to the wood stove and burned my face (I do love a hot fire in the winter months). She wondered if I'd had an allergic reaction to the laundry detergent or perhaps the soap I used to wash my face. She applied cool compresses. She tried various itch creams. Nothing helped. Finally, she took me to the doctor who eventually determined I had poison ivy. In the dead of winter. How could that happen? No-one knew until a couple of weeks later when I brought home a school project.

We were studying the native people from our area- Wampanoags- and I had built a scale model of what we then called a wigwam, though I now know the proper term is wetu. And what, you ask, did I use to lash the poles together? You guessed it- poison ivy vines. Who knew you could get poison ivy from those? Who even knew what they looked like? That day, I vowed to learn what poison ivy looked like in every season so I wouldn't catch it again. Sadly, I have caught poison ivy since, even as an adult, (sometimes I swear I get it just by looking at it, I'm that allergic) but I do know exactly what it looks like, no matter the season.

Today, I offer these photos to help my New England readers avoid poison ivy. These were all taken in the last week, so this is what poison ivy looks like now. I'll be sure to post some photos during the fall and winter to help you avoid my itchy mistake!

Notice the differences in the color and size of the leaves. Poison Ivy can look very different even in the same area.  All of these photos were taken within roughly 1/4 mile of my house.

One thing that is consistent is the presence of three leaves in a cluster. Usually those leaves are shiny. Sometimes those leaves are mostly green.

Other times the leaves are more red. (Especially when they are first coming out in the spring).
Sometimes it grows low to the ground like in the photos above. Other times it climbs up posts, signs, and trees as in these photos:

This one is about 3 feet tall.
This one climbs about 20 feet into the tree.

These last two photos are NOT poison ivy. This vine is sometimes confused with Poison ivy because it climbs the same way and has similar shaped leaves.
But look closely... there are 5 leaves in each cluster and the leaves are more jagged.

One final tip: poison ivy thrives along the edges. That is, in the area where one ecosystem transitions to another. For example, some of these photos were taken along the edge of a field where it transitions into forest (in partial to full sun), others along the edge of a brook (in partial sun), still others along the edge of a road (in full shade). Also watch for it along the edges of parks, paths, or trails.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Nature Photography With Kids

I've been getting more and more into taking photos of nature- especially close-ups of flowers and insects. To help me in my quest for great photos, my husband recently got me a fancy new camera with a zoom lens. The next day, I set out  in our yard to try it out.
Here are some of my photos:
 Bleeding heart

Fiddleheads (ferns as they emerge from the ground)

Our "non-lawn" with our house in the background
One benefit I hadn't considered was how a new camera might impact my kids. When I picked up my new camera, my daughter asked if she could use our old camera to take pictures (a digitial "point and shoot" model). I had previously let her take a photo here or there, but I confess I hadn't really encouraged her to go out on a photo shoot of her own. Usually I was the one with the camera in hand trying to get that great shot.

Here she is working:

The fun thing about this is that her interests are different from mine, so she took different kinds of photos. Sure, she shadowed me a bit and took some photos similar to mine, like this one:
But, not surprisingly, she also took lots of photos of little things, or things on the ground that I might ignore. (She is a lot closer to it than I am, after all).

Hosta in my garden

Weed in my garden- I think it's beautful in her photo.
Violet in my garden

And here's something adults would almost never photograph-- her shadow in the grass. Yet, kids her age are fascinated by their shadows.

And the final one I'll share. Any guesses as to what this is?
Ok, that was a bit of a trick question because it's not a nature photo. It's my car's headlight. I never would have photographed any part of my car, yet I find this photo very appealing. How about you?

Have you ever given your child control of the camera? What were the results? If you've never tried this, will you? What benefits can you see from an activity like this?

Friday, May 7, 2010

100 Best Blogs for Parenting Advice

Nurse Practioner Schools recently recognized this blog as among the "100 Best Blogs for Parenting Advice." Thank you to the person who found me and felt I deserved to be on the list. I'm listed under "Activities to Do With Kids."

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Loose Parts Play, Part 3

A few weeks ago, I blogged about the value of having open-ended or "loose parts" birthday parties instead of highly orchestrated ones. Then I offered practical tips for how to plan such an outside party. Today, I'll focus on what to do in times of inclement weather.

You loved the idea of loose parts parties, right? But, you say, "I live in a two bedroom walk-up" (or other small space). Or, "I can't possibly fit all of those kids in my house." Or, "What will I do if it rains (or snows, or...)?" The key is planning. Even if you plan well for an outside party, things happen to make it move indoors. If you’ve planned well for an outside party, however, only a few adjustments on the day of the party will be necessary.

Here are my top 5 tips for planning an indoor "loose parts" party.
1. The most important one. (You'll remember this from my last post). Keep the guest list short.
2. Locate places to host your party. Reserve them in advance, if needed. If the weather is good, you can skip the reservation (just give a courtesy call to let folks know you’re not coming). Here are some places you may not have considered:
• your garage
• your unfinished (relatively clean) basement
• the community room at your local library (usually it's free and all you need to do is sign up in advance)
• the community room at your local church, synagogue, or mosque
• the gymnasium or other open classroom in your child's school (Public schools generally let community members lease space for a couple of hours. There may be a small fee attached, but as long as it falls outside of school hours and during hours when the custodial staff is working, you should be able to reserve a space.)
• The community room at your local YMCA, Boys and Girls Club, etc. Again, a fee may be
involved, but it's still cheaper than paying for an organized party at a typical party location.
• A gazebo in a state park (often requires reservations)
3. Still provide those healthy snacks mentioned Loose Parts, part 2.
4. Provide lots of loose parts. Some examples:
• Random empty boxes from cereal/ shoes/ crackers, paper tubes, egg cartons, large appliance boxes (try appliance stores for these)
• Adhesives such as glue, tape (scotch, double-sided, masking, duct)
• String, elastics
• Balloons (Be careful of latex allergies).
• Markers, crayons, pens, pencils
• Paint and brushes - if you’re adventurous! Use old T-shirts as smocks.
• Scissors
• Old CD’s (they make cool wheels!)
• In a pinch, you could also put out a bucket/bin of random building toys such as legos, K’nex, Lincoln logs, etc.
• Or, in the original invitation, you could tell parents that in case of rain you’ll be having a
“Dress-up Party” and ask them to bring items for dress-up. (This tends to work better for young children ages 3-5 or older girls). Some families have special “dress-up” clothes; others may choose to bring items from their own closets. Sharing makes it fun.
5. Set the kids up and let them go! Stay nearby and keep your eyes on them in case you’re needed, but don’t get involved in the play- they’ll usually be more creative. Have fun! And maybe write down some of the funny conversations that are bound to come up.

Have you planned a "loose parts" party for your child? What did you do? Do you have any suggestions?

Monday, May 3, 2010

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year...

Ok, I may have overstated a bit, but harvesting the first bit of asparagus each year is exciting for us. After a winter of dark, gray days, plucking those first green stalks from the earth feels good. Eating them feels even better!

I know, I know, you don't have an asparagus patch down the street, at your parent's house, like I do. So what's a person to do? Mosey on down to your local farmer's market and look for some! Believe it or not, those of you who live in the city may have a better chance of finding a great farmer's market nearby then those of us in the country because farmers like to go where they'll get the most business. Be sure to take your kids with you and encourage them to interact with the farmers. Most farmers love to talk to their customers (especially kids) about what they do. Many will offer tips for growing your own veggies or suggest recipes using the ones they grow. A few years ago, I learned my favorite kale recipe from our local farmer. She had recipes printed up to encourage us to buy Russian Kale- a variety of kale new to me at the time.

By now, you know I encourage families to grow at least a few veggies and herbs, but I also know most families cannot plant more than a small plot or a few pots. Supporting your local farmer is the next best thing to growing your own. By buying local, seasonal vegetables, you help support your local economy and get the freshest, most nutrient-rich produce around. You'll also help prevent global warming by limiting fossil fuels used to ship produce across the country and beyond. In addition, even those farmers who have not been certified as "organic" tend to use less (if any) pesticides and herbicides on their crops. By asking a few questions you can learn how your food was grown.

To find farmer's market near you, a quick google search with the words "farmer's markets" and your city (or state) will likely reveal what you need. For my Massachusetts readers, go here

Here's my favorite asparagus recipe, taken from Global Feast Cookbook: Recipes from Around the World Edited by Annice Estes

Asparagus Chung Tung
1 1/2 pounds asparagus
1 1/2 quarts water
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon sesame oil (look in Asian/ International food aisle)

  1. Cut asparagus diagonally into 1/4 inch pieces.
  2. Bring water to a boil in large sauce pan. Add asparagus. Cook for 1 1/2 minutes (NO LONGER). Drain and immerse in ice cold water to cool quickly and stop the cooking. Drain well.
  3. Meanwhile, mix the salt, sugar, and oil in a small bowl.
  4. Place asparagus in a bowl. Pour salt, sugar, and oil mixture over asparagus. Toss to coat.
  5. Enjoy!
What's your favorite asparagus recipe?