Friday, April 27, 2012

Humans Need Nature

If you're a regular reader, my title seems kind of obvious, doesn't it? Perhaps you're thinking, "We know that already. Tell us something new!"

The thing is, I firmly believe we all need to get outside, but even I need to force myself out sometimes. I mean literally talk myself into it- "Stop working. Get up out of your chair. Take a hike."

Yesterday was one of those days. I was on a roll, sitting at my computer, working hard. Many hours later, when I finally stopped for lunch, I realized my body was mad at me. I was stiff and achy and needed to move. I almost took a quick walk along the road but geared myself up for a woodland hike instead. (I procrastinated at least half an hour first, though. Why did I do that?)

Then I stepped into the woods and saw this:

I had to lie down beneath this Beech and look up at the lovely baby leaves.
The trees are just coming into their full glory. Some trees still have tiny leaves, while others are more fully leafed out. But all of them have that fresh, lime green color only seen in spring.

I love the woods and I love these trees. I'll bet you have natural places you love, too. Perhaps it's the desert as the sun rises over the dunes or the view from a mountaintop or the the rich, deep green of a rain forest. I hope you'll make time to get out and enjoy those places you love. 

On a related note, if you'd like to be a guest blogger here at Polliwog, drop me an email. michelle(at)michellecusolito(dot)com 

I hope you'll share favorite natural places or travel stories. If you're not a long-time reader, please familiarize yourself with my focus and style before contacting me. Your post will need fit with the blog's tagline: Muck about. Meet the Locals. Expand your world. I look forward to hearing from you.

What are your favorite natural places?

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Travel Tuesdays: Professional Conferences

This past weekend, I attended the NE-SCBWI (New England- Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) annual conference in Springfield, MA. For those who don't know, this regional gathering is one of the largest gatherings of children's book writers and illustrators in the world. I heard there were 600 plus KidLit folks there! Authors and Illustrators such as Harry Bliss, Jane Yolen, Kate Messner, and Sarah Zarr gave speeches. Many others such as Elizabeth Partridge and Tanya Lee Stone served on panels, while still others such as Dan Yaccarino, Anne Broyles, Laya Steinberg and Sarah Lamstein facilitated workshops. To be in a place with so many "rock stars" of the KidLit world was inspiring indeed.

But what does that have to do with this blog, you ask?  I came away from the weekend so excited that I wanted to write about it but I was left wondering how I would remain true to the tagline of my blog: Muck About. Meet the locals. Expand your World. I try hard to stick to my stated mission here at Polliwog. There are often times when something interesting occurs to me but I don't blog about it if it's not related to my stated mission.

Monday, as I reflected on the conference, however, the connection became evident. I wasn't riding a city bus talking to locals, but I did connect with many people this weekend (some from the Springfield area) and I definitely expanded my world in many ways. I also met some folks in real life for the first time who I've talked to in the comments here on my blog or on my Michelle Cusolito, Writer page on Facebook.

I made an effort to talk to people I met, whether a woman behind me in the line for the ladies room or a man sitting next to me in a workshop. Not every exchange was deep -sometimes it was a simple, "Good morning" as we boarded the elevator. But it seems everyone else at the conference was doing the same as me- saying hello and smiling. Each exchange made my day a little brighter. And some interactions were downright amazing.

I confess, by Sunday morning, I was little tired after two intensive days of workshops and I wasn't feeling terribly talkative. (Yes, I do have times of not feeling talkative, rare though they are! And yes, they do usually occur in the morning). But, I pushed myself to be sociable. As I chatted with my friend K and another woman to my left, my friend S was chatting with 2 women to my right. Eventually, S got my attentions and told me I HAD to talk to the woman to my right because we have so much in common. He mentioned my blog and told me I should share the URL with her. As time went on, I learned she had written "A little non-fiction book." I asked what it was and Emily Goodman reached into her bag to show me Plant Secrets.

And I'm not even kidding, not only is it a book I own, my daughter took it out on a hike last weekend so she could "do research." I had nothing to do with my daughter's choice to even dig the book out, never mind to bring it on our hike. Even better, I had this photo of her referring to it as we walked:
Photo taken 14 April 2012

So, my message is one you've heard here before, but it's one even I need to be reminded of sometimes. Take a little risk. Push through your apprehension, shyness, or tiredness and say hello to the person next to you. You never know who you might meet! And, by modeling that behavior for your children, you'll teach them to be open to new people and new experiences. (Of course, part of your modeling should include teaching children the usual guidelines for interacting with strangers).

Have you ever made an effort to talk to someone even when you didn't feel like it and had a surprising or interesting result?

Related Posts:
Travel Tuesdays: Pushing Outside Your Comfort Zone
Travel Tuesdays: Take the City Bus, Not the Tour Bus

Friday, April 20, 2012

KidLit for Japan Meets Story Walk

Long time readers of my blog may remember that I participated in the KidLit for Japan fundraiser last spring following the devastating earthquake. I donated a field class  for up to 25 students. On Monday, I finally facilitated that class for the Sandwich Partnerships for Families. We negotiated a change in the original plan and I facilitated a Story Walk instead of the more open-ended class I had originally envisioned.

The StoryWalk® Project was created by Anne Ferguson of Montpelier, VT and developed in collaboration with the Vermont Bicycle & Pedestrian Coalition and the Kellogg Hubbard Library. The basic idea was to combine stories and walking.

To set one up, you purchase two copies of a book. You disassemble the books, mount the pages on posterboard and laminate them. Then you mount them to stakes/ signs and set them out along a predetermined trail or path. While the original StoryWalk idea didn't necessarily connect the story to the environment in which it would be read, I chose to read a book that would be enriched by our location.

I facilitated this walk on Monday afternoon with Early Childhood Specialist Christina Hallas. It was the first day of school vacation week here in Massachusetts and a hot sunny one at that. Sandwich Partnerships for Families had advertised the event well, so we had a big turn out.

I had chosen Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature written by Joyce Sidman and illustrated by Beth Krommes as our book. Springtime brings lots of spiraling new growth and the program was to be run in a seaside town where children can easily find swirly seashells, so this book seemed a perfect match. The short, poetic form was also perfect for the young (aged 2-5) participants.

The youngest children enjoyed walking ahead along the trail in Shawme-Crowell State Forest to find the next posted pages of the book while older children helped us locate spirals along the way- young plants poking out of the ground, beech leaves unfurling, spiraling log homes, swirly pinecones, and orb spider webs.
Photos by Christina Hallas
Once the walk was completed, we gathered for a snack and then children used crayons and markers to make their own spiraling artwork. As they worked, we shared examples of other spirals they might find in their town such as a bird nest, a butterfly proboscis, a moon snail shell and whelk shells. We also shared a giant nautilus shell (a highlight in the art on one page) and a basket to demonstrate how humans use items in nature as models for items they design.

Even though the organized event is over, the signs will remain along the trail for a week unless terrible weather is predicted- that way families can enjoy the story at their leisure if they weren't able to attend on Monday. One mother even said she planned to come back so she and her children could read it again and enjoy it without the crowd.

As a naturalist, educator, and writer, I think StoryWalks are a great idea! They combine so many things that I love. I've already been in touch with my local library about facilitating a StoryWalk in my home town.

Have you ever participated in or facilitated a StoryWalk? Please share.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Travel Tuesdays: Armchair Travel

Not everyone can travel as often as he or she would like. But armchair travel- reading a good book set in another place- can fill a desire to learn more about another country or culture.

Today, I thought I'd share a few of my favorite travel books (and books set in other places) and open this post up to hear some of yours. I'll compile the list and move your suggestions into the body of the post to make finding other people's suggestions easier.

As you can see from my sidebar, "Books I've been Reading" I read lots of books. Since I've been an adult, I've been a pretty big reader. Now that I'm also a writer, I read even more. (Reading great books is one of the best ways to improve your own writing).

Needless to say, choosing only a few books to suggest was hard for me. I decided to share the first books that popped into my to mind once I chose the focus for today's post.

Adult Novel:
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese Since two of my favorite boys were born in Ethiopia, it makes sense that I would choose to read a novel set there (Part is also set in the US). It's a compelling story that also taught me more about Ethiopia. Truthfully, I would have chosen to read it even if Mikias and Jemberu weren't in my life, but it may have sat in my "To Be Read" pile a bit longer.

Adult Travel: Female Nomad and Friends: Tales of Breaking Free and Breaking Bread Around the World Edited by Rita Golden Gelman is a collection of essays written by female travelers. I didn't love every essay but I love the variety of perspectives I was able to glean from reading one book.
You Can Never Find a Rickshaw When It Monsoons: The world on One Cartoon a Day by Mo Willems.  This book just cracked me up.  I  found it in a used book store and read it long before I read his brilliant Knuffle Bunny or the Pigeon series. With one cartoon per page, you can dip in and read it whenever you have a free minute. 

Young Adult:
Bamboo People by Mitali Perkins The story of two boys on opposing sides of the conflict in Burma (Myanmar). I couldn't put this one down. I was invested in learning the fate of the two boys but also loved how much I learned about the conflict by reading it. With the current events in Burma, now is the perfect time to read it with your older kids.

Middle Grade Novel

A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park: Based on a True Story.  Two stories, told in alternating sections, about a girl in Sudan in 2008 and a boy in Sudan in 1985. I read it in one sitting. A devastating story that is also filled with hope.

Picture Book:
A New Year's Reunion by Yu Li-Qiong- the touching story of a Dad's once a year homecoming for the Chinese New Year's celebration. I stumbled upon this one at my library in February and loved it.

What travel books (or books set in other countries) have you and/or your kids enjoyed lately? Please share them in the comments. Be sure to indicate if it's an adult novel or a kids' book. I'll add them to this post. I may also add them to my "Suggested Books" page once I read them.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Free Play and Birthday Parties

My son turned ten a couple of weeks ago. For several years now, his idea of a great birthday party has been to ask his friends to bring their bikes so they can ride and play together. As they got older, they added simple ramps to their riding to make things even more fun.

When I asked him what he wanted to do for his party this year, I expected the same plan. Instead he replied, "I'm not sure, yet." I told him to think about  it and let me know. When I asked him a few days later if he had decided, he asked, "Can we build a fort in the woods?" I'm sure you know my response... "Of course!"

His invitation simply told kids to be prepared for "fort building in the woods and cake on the porch. Rainy day plan is LEGO's inside." The invitation also said the party would go from 1-3:30 if it rained and 1-4:30 if it were nice.

I'm sure many of you are feeling concerned about hosting a birthday party for a ten-year-old at your house. More and more parties in our area are held in venues that specialize in hosting birthday parties. Places such as arcades, bowling allies, and gymnasiums all offer highly structured programs that include some form of activity followed by pizza and drinks followed by cake and ice cream (or something similar). I understand the draw- the venue handles all of the planning and execution of the party. And, you don't have to clean up afterwards!

But here's what I've found. Planning a party like my son's takes almost no planning on my part. That's the best part- he gets his friends here and they decide what to do together.

On the day of his party it was raining, so we moved the furniture back in our living room to create an open area for LEGO building. Then we brought his bin of LEGOs downstairs. We laid out everything to serve the cake and ice cream and that was it. That was the entire preparation for the party. (My son no longer wants to hang decorations, so that was left off the usual "to do" list).

Including my two kids, we had a total of ten children here. My son only invited his closest school friends and some special family friends. I know it's hard to resist the now common practice of inviting your child's whole class, but that really isn't necessary.

So the day started with ten kids in our living room building with LEGOS. As the rain let up to a light mist, my son asked if they could go outside. He was just busting to build that fort with his friends! Most of the rest of the party was spent building "Fort Awesome" which was later renamed to "Fort Not-Awesome" when it collapsed. But the boys weren't even remotely discouraged- they were smiling, happy, and excited about their "work" together! I don't know exactly what they did or how they worked because we grown-ups just stayed out of it. My husband and one other dad checked in on them a couple of times, but we left them to do what they wanted. I later heard of one 10 year old praising the 5 year old and 6 year old for their "Awesome job" dragging logs closer to the fort. The team work was apparently amazing and we (the grown ups, that is) had nothing to do with it!

Once the fort building found a natural ending point, they had cake and ice cream (inside since it was too cold on the porch). Then my son opened his gifts and they went back to playing with LEGOs for the last half hour or so.

It was a wonderful day. My son had a blast. The adults were relaxed. And clean up was easy.

If you're still skeptical about planning this sort of party for your children, I hope you'll read these earlier posts to see my planning suggestions.

Loose Parts Play Introduces the idea of this kind of party and provides resources for sharing nature with children.
Loose Parts Play, Part 2  Includes my "Top 10 List" for party planning.
Loose Parts Play, Part 3 Offer specific advice for folks who don't have a yard or live in a small apartment.

Have you planned this kind of part or playdate for your children? How did it go? Do you have any suggestions to add to mine?

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Travel Tuesdays: Identify Your Family's Travel Needs

My husband and I are admittedly fly-by-the-seat-of-our pants kind of travelers. We don't generally go completely unscheduled, but we do leave lots of unplanned time. For example, on our trip to Morocco, the beginning of our trip was scheduled but we left time at the end to just "wing it" and  see where our journey took us. For our trip to Italy, we knew where we were sleeping, but had no other plans- not even a  rental car. We relied entirely on public transportation that we figured out once we arrived.

We are especially good at procrastinating when it comes to planning a trip in the first place. That trip to Morocco was booked less than a month in advance. We only decided we would take a trip about 6 weeks beforehand and spent a few weeks figuring it all out with our traveling companions. You'd think we'd get more organized once we had kids but our trip to India was even more last minute. We didn't decide to go until five weeks before the wedding. Our kids needed vaccinations and we all needed visas. I'm certainly not suggesting this is an ideal way to travel. That's just kind of how we roll around here. And that's my point... figure out what you, your partner/spouse, kids, traveling companions, etc. need before you start planning.

I have one relative (who shall remain nameless) who literally packs his suitcases two months in advance- you know, to make sure everything fits. We, on the other hand, might casually toss things into suitcases  during the week before a trip, but we're frequently still shoving a last few things into a suitcase hours before leaving. Neither way is the right way. The key is to figure out what works for you and do all you can to make sure your needs are met. If you're anxious about traveling without having accommodations booked in advance, be sure you book them. If you're comfortable finding a youth hostel once you arrive, do that. If there are multiple people in your party, be sure to discuss all of this up front.

One shift that happens once you have kids is that you really need to stop and think about what your kids need. We know our kids need a schedule- that is, a clear and consistent time to eat and go to bed at night. So once we're on local time, we do our best to stick to a reasonable schedule. We also carry more snacks than we would at home in case we are delayed or find ourselves somewhere without food.

It's not that we never veer off the usual schedule, but we are thoughtful about when and why we choose to alter it. And, if our kids go to bed late one night, you can be sure they'll be going to bed on time (or even early) the next night. If not, we ALL pay the price. I can't very well get upset with my kids for misbehavior if they've been up late for several nights in a row or are melting down because they're hungry. Its my job as a parent to make sure their needs are met.

So while we are kind of loosey goosey in trip planning, once we reach our destination, we do our best to work within our kids' needs. That's the system we've found that works for us.

How about you? Have you thought about how different members in your family can get their needs met while traveling? What's your system?

Related Posts:
Travel Tuesdays: Pushing Outside Your Comfort Zone
Travel Tuesdays: Take the City Bus, Not the Tour Bus
Travel Tuesdays: Top 10 Tips for Traveling With Children
Travel Tuesdays: Pack Your Sense of Humor

Friday, April 6, 2012

Spring Gardening

We had summer-like weather here in Southeastern Massachusetts a few weeks ago. In Mid-March, we had a week of daytime temperatures in the seventies and several close to eighty degrees Fahrenheit. Everyone had the springtime bug. Many people around here dug out their shorts, tank tops and flip flops.

My kids and I also got the bug- the gardening bug, that is. We cleaned out the vegetable beds, turned the soil, and removed the rocks that seem to pop up every year. We knew it was early, and maybe even a bit risky, but we decided to plant pea pods. We figured there was as slight risk of a hard frost that would kill them but we didn't care. We'd just replant, if needed.

Here's a little photographic essay to show the process and results:
18 March. We placed the seeds in a zig zag pattern below the support wires.

We poked them in up to our second knuckles- the perfect depth.

31 March. The first little sprouts appeared.

5 April. Nearly all of the seeds have sprouted.

5 April. More leaves appear on each sprout.
Here in the northeast, now is the perfect time to plant cold weather crops like pea pods, arugula, and kale. These hardy vegetables can handle a light frost. A hard frost could kill your plants, but that seems unlikely at this point since we barely had a hard frost all winter.

Have you started planting outside, yet? What are you growing?

For more vegetable gardening tips, check out these posts:
Planting Time (Includes more details about planting pea pods)
Gardening Without a Yard (includes suggested books)
Early Growth in the Garden (includes a recipe)

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

(Almost) Wordless Wednesday: Vultures

Yesterday, I realized I didn't have a photo planned for today. I grabbed my camera and stepped outside seeking a good shot. As my feet hit the front lawn, the sun "went out." What caused it, you ask? 
Take a look:

There were 3 but I only caught these two on film at a time.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Travel Tuesdays: Music and Travel

Not a night we saw Image Band, but friends and location are the same
This weekend, as I was driving my son to a birthday party, the song "Tenderness" by General Public came on the radio. I know I'm dating myself, but I heard the opening lick of that song and I was no longer driving down route 195 in Westport, MA. I was sitting in the lounge in Cebu Plaza hotel with my friends in Cebu, Philippines. The song had gotten popular in the US the year before I left to be an exchange student in the Philippines. By the time I arrived, our favorite local band, "The Image Band" was covering that song regularly at Cebu Plaza. When I hear the song, I'm instantly 16 again- I experience all of the feelings and body sensations I experienced back then- the excitement, the angst, the freedom, the fear, the anticipation- all of the intense emotions teenagers feel.

I'm sure you know what I mean. Many people have similar experiences. There are many songs that have the same effect for me- I can usually name the year they were popular and what I was doing during that time.

There's something about travel, too, that can freeze a song in your mind. Tenderness is one from my year in the Philippines. That same year, Shout by Tears for Fears, Crazy for You by Madonna, and Smooth Operator by Sade were also popular. Then there are the Filipino performers like Gary Valenciano and Apo Hiking Society. These songs/ groups forever take me to Cebu.

Other songs or bands conjure up other trips. For our trip to Peru, bands like Inca Sun forever bring me to Machu Picchu. There's a particular song we called "The Hankie Dance" while in Niger that will always remind me of our first night in country dancing with the locals. And, as I've mentioned here before, Marrakesh Express, Midnight at the Oasis, and Riders on the Storm will always remind me of our camel trek in Morocco- not because those songs were popular in 2001, rather, they were part of our personal "soundtrack" for the trip.

All of this got me reflecting on music and travel. A quick google search lead me to this blogpost over at Rolf Pott's Vagabonding.  It was interesting to read others' thoughts about the role music plays in their travels.

Which lead me to yet another thought... I've been toying around with the idea of using my experiences as an exchange student in the Philippines to write a book for young people. I'm not sure where this seed of an idea will take me, but my first step will be creating a playlist of every song I can remember that was popular or important to me at that time. I'll be able to get into my teenaged emotional brain in no time flat.

How about you? Do you have a soundtrack for your travels? Is it always the same or does it vary with your location?

Related Posts
Travel Tuesdays: Pack Your Sense of Humor
Travel Tuesdays: Exchange Students
Travel Tuesdays: The Philippines: "Growing Up"