Friday, November 30, 2012

Go on a Raccoon Hunt

One evening after dinner, my two and a half year-old niece (nickname Doodah) said to her parents, "Let's go on a raccoon  hunt!" My sister and brother-in-law allowed Doodah to guide them. Without any direction from her parents, Doodah led them up the hill to the park near their apartment in San Francisco. As they approached the park, Doodah informed them they would see raccoons in a particular area of the park. She led them directly there and sure enough, a family of five raccoons was digging around for food.

My sister isn't sure what prompted Doodah to suggest going on a raccoon hunt. They had been watching raccoons walk along the fence-line outside their window.  Around this time, one of Doodah's favorite books to read was We're Going on  Lion Hunt by Margery Cuyler. My sister thinks Doodah may have combined her real life experiences with the imaginary story to create her own kind of hunt.

When they visited us in October, Doodah told me about their raccoon hunts. I later interviewed her via Skype to see if there's anything she would want me to share with my blog readers. She told me they "go out in the night after dinner" but they didn't need to take a flashlight because it's bright enough in the city. When I asked her why she likes going on raccoon hunts she said, "Because they're fun!"

During our interview, Doodah and her mom also told me about the family of five raccoons they watched sneak in their neighbor's window. One stayed out on the fire escape while the other 4 went inside. Doodah told me, "We could hear them talking." (My sister clarified it was like chattering to each other). Doodah also told me "they were eating the food. Cat food." This is a detail they can't verify, but they know the neighbors have a cat so they inferred that the raccoons were eating from the cat's dish.

I just love this investigation driven by my niece's interests. I love that my sister agreed and impulsively went out after dinner. For kids who live in the city, finding a connection to nature can be a challenge, but as this demonstrates, it's not impossible. In fact, the next time Doodah lead a raccoon hunt, she brought her younger cousin- my 2 year old niece who lives in another part of San Francisco. They didn't see any raccoons that night, but my youngest niece ran all around the park enjoying the darkness. City kids don't experience nighttime the way suburban or rural kids do because of all the lights.

For those of you who live in cold areas, raccoon activity has dropped off significantly lately as they enter deep sleep for long periods (though they don't truly hibernate). When the weather is milder, however, they will still venture out in search of food. So cold-weather dwellers, wait for a warmer evening and see if you can find raccoons. Those of you who live in milder places such as San Francisco can continue to watch raccoons all year round. In fact, this time of year might be a good time for little ones since it gets dark earlier in the evening.

After you go on your raccoon hunt, you can read Raccoons by J. Angelique Johnson.

School connections: Children in grade K or 1 often study nocturnal animals, so this may dovetail with lessons happening in your child's classroom. Upper elementary students tend to study animal adaptations and traits that offspring inherit from their parents (genetics) so older children may wish to do more involved observations focused those details.

Have you seen raccoons in your area? Or are there other nocturnal animals you might search for after dinner?

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Travel Tuesdays: Top 10 Reasons Why You (Yes, YOU!) Should Go on a Retreat

Today features children's book author and freelance writer, Julie Hedlund

For years I have taken at least a few days to myself – all by myself – to rest, rejuvenate, and rekindle my spirit. I started before my kids were born, and I continue the tradition to this day.


If I am always with others, I find it difficult to prevent myself from experiencing and interacting with the world solely through their eyes.  When I am alone, I can ask, "What do I see in this moment?  What is in my heart?  What am I meant to give to the world?  Where is my power?"

Second, I guarantee I am a much better mother as a result of the time away.  I am teaching my children that part of loving and respecting yourself requires being with yourself. Kids need to learn the importance of self-nurture before they reach adulthood.  Also, I think it's a good thing for kids (or spouses, partners, friends) to understand that we all have inner lives that, while connected to theirs, are also separate and deserving of respect.  


I just pick the time, the place and make it happen. Simple as that. You don’t have to go to an ashram in India or hike the Appalachian Trail. Maybe a weekend in a cabin or a single night a local B & B will do the trick. Just get away from your routine, your environment, your responsibilities and yes, your family.

Here are my Top Ten reasons why:

  1. Time for yourself is not a luxury; it is a necessity. If we don't take care, respect and nurture ourselves, how do we expect to do so day and in day out for others?
  2. As I said, you will be a better wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend, or whatever other labels you go by, if you give yourself the gift of time.
  3. Life is short. What are the things you really want to do or the places you want to go just for yourself? Nobody is going to “give” you the time, so you’ll have to take it.
  4. You will get stronger. It is difficult to challenge yourself in your safe, tucked-away world at home. We are often plagued by self-doubt. Taking risks by traveling alone will quickly eradicate any conceptions you might have that you “cannot do it alone.”
  5. Discover what silence sounds like.
  6. In that silence, learn to listen to yourself.
  7. Be the star of your own life. This is your time to be a diva. Want chocolate for breakfast? Want to sleep in the afternoon and stay awake all night? Want to have your cards read and then go dancing? This is your adventure. You choose.
  8. Meet new people. Yes, you are alone, but that will not prevent you from meeting people – people you probably wouldn’t have met if you were traveling with others. Pretend each person you meet is carrying an important message for you, because s/he probably is.
  9. Expand your horizons. Always wanted to be a writer a painter, or a photographer? Want to take up yoga or explore meditation? Want to do a rim to rim hike in the Grand Canyon? Try a themed retreat – one aimed at making those dreams become reality.
  10. Return home refreshed, renewed, and ready to help others. How sweet your family, friends and home will be after you have spent some time away!

Julie Hedlund is a Picture Book author and Freelance Writer. She is so passionate about the need for women to take retreats, she’s fulfilling a lifelong dream by running one of her own – the first annual Writer’s Renaissance retreat in Florence, Italy in April, 2013.

Julie’s book, A TROOP IS A GROUP OF MONKEYS, will be released as an interactive storybook app for the iPad in January, 2013 by Little Bahalia Publishing. Julie is the founder and host of the 12 x 12 in 2012 picture book writing challenge, and a monthly contributor on Katie Davis’ Brain Burps About Books podcast on children’s literature. Her blog, website, and all social media coordinates can be found at

Friday, November 23, 2012

Thanksgiving Hiatus

I'm enjoying time with family this weekend. I hope you are, too. If you can, try to get out in nature together.

I'll be back with new content on "Travel Tuesday" when children's author Julie Hedlund will be my guest blogger. I hope you'll hop back to see what she has to share.

Until Tuesday...

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Moon Baths and Sea Turtles

Today features Guest blogger Kelly Kittel.

"We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children."
~Native American Proverb

One of the 99 reasons we moved to Costa Rica  was so our children could experience the wildlife there before it’s gone. Sadly, most of the critters are, indeed, endangered and could disappear in their lifetime. I know this firsthand because in 1987, my husband and I traveled to Costa Rica where we beat the bush at Monteverde until we found the Golden Toad—a fluorescent orange beauty endemic only to that cloud forest.  Since that year, it has never been seen again. When I learned of its fate some years later, I felt I’d lost a friend.  I believe you will not miss what you have not known, so we took our kids to begin their love affairs with the likes of monkeys, scarlet macaws, and sea turtles.  

We were lucky to live near a prime nesting beach for olive ridley and black turtles with an occasional leatherback.  Many nights after dinner we checked the tide chart, strapped on our headlamps, and drove our quads through the jungle to the deserted beach with any combination of our four children who didn’t have homework.  On our playa there were one or two guards hired by the developer who owned the property and sometimes Ticos (Costa Ricans) camping under the trees, but typically we were alone with the waves and the stars. 

We’d kick off our flip-flops and head for the tide line, strolling along the warm water’s edge and sending cascades of phosphorescent creatures sparkling their bioluminescent light show before our happy feet. Whenever we spotted turtle tracks heading up the beach, we'd followed them with excitement, hoping to find a female digging her nest. 

Once we found a turtle, we’d quietly set up camp nearby.  I’d pull a cool, cotton sheet from our backpack and spread it out on the still-warm sand, then offer up some bug spray and snacks.  We’d lie on our backs and have a moon bath, picking out all the constellations we knew for up to an hour while the turtle worked, using her powerful back flippers to dig a perfect hole and rocking her shell back and forth to scoop up every last bit of sand she could reach, flinging it far and wide.  You haven’t lived until a sea turtle has flung sand in your hair.  

Once the digging was done, she'd sigh and rest for a moment.  Then we’d move in quietly behind her to watch her deposit her clutch of about 100 ping-pong ball-like eggs.  
We’d retreat to our sheet while she quickly filled in her hole, flipping sand all around her to camouflage her nest.  Unfortunately, many Ticos and animals love to eat turtle eggs and while she makes a valiant effort to hide her babies, it is impossible for her to cover the wide tracks made by her shell and flippers as she heaves herself back down the sand to her saltwater home.  

We'd usually followed her to the water’s edge, amazed by her speed and agility once she was back in the sea.

In the 8 months we lived in Costa Rica, my kids watched so many sea turtles lay their eggs, they could all give guided tours, including Bella, who was four.  I hope some day they’ll be able to bring their own kids to our beach, spread out a cool, cotton sheet under the night sky, and remember the familiar whoosh of warm waves gently kissing the sand while a mother sea turtle sighs nearby, her salty tears flowing from the effort of ensuring the survival of her species. 

Do your children love a particular natural place so much they'll miss it if it's gone? How could you deepen their connection to it?

KellyKittel currently lives on an island in Rhode Island with her husband and the two youngest of their five children where she walks or swims the beach daily but sees no sea turtles.  She was recently published in Getting Out: Your Guide to Leaving America, which she does as often as possible, and Moose on the Loose, a travel humor anthology.  She is currently writing a travel memoir about living in Costa Rica and writes a blog, "Where in the World are the Kittels?”

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Friday, November 16, 2012

Moon Observations

No matter where you live, you and your child/children can observe the moon's phases (If you live in a city surrounded by tall buildings, or deep in a wooded area, you may have to search for it between buildings or trees). It's one of the easiest ways to stay connected to nature's rhythms. And now that the sun sets earlier here in the Northern hemisphere, you don't need to keep your kids up late to have a darkened night sky.

I've done this activity with lots of people from young children to adult graduate students. And guess what? Every single person has learned from this investigation.

My experience is that, while the moon is ever present in or lives, few people pay close enough attention to learn it's patterns. For example... have you ever seen the moon in the morning or afternoon? All of our nursery rhymes and children's stories show the moon at night. Why is it sometimes visible during the day? What are the phases of the moon?

Here are some simple directions.
blank calendar or journal (depending upon age of child(ren)
optional- paints, brushes, colored pencils etc. for artistic representations


  1. Go outside with your child every night. Try to go at about the same time- perhaps just before bedtime- and stand in exactly the same place. (You could also look out from the same window each night if the moon is visible form there).
  2. Have your child (you too!) draw a simple picture of what they see. If using a blank calendar with young children, just draw the shape of the moon in that day's square. Is it a full circle? A crescent? Which way is the crescent facing? If it's cloudy, and the moon isn't visible, they can draw clouds. If it's a clear night but you don't see the moon, leave it blank.
  3. For those who are so inclined, use artistic media to explore the moon. Paint with watercolors, take photographs, write a poem. The options are endless.
  4. As the days progress, talk with your kids about what they see. What changes do they notice? Why might they be seeing those changes. Can you discern a pattern?
  5. Here's the hard part... I strongly discourage you from doing research to learn about what you're observing until you've really spent some time looking and thinking and puzzling on your own. As soon as you and your child learn from experts, you'll start to notice less on your own or maybe lose interest. Why keep looking? You'll already know the answer. Instead, struggle to figure it out together. And resist telling your child what you know (or think you know). Ask questions to get them thinking. If you and your child start to feel frustrated, however, seek expert information. 
I encourage you to commit to this project for 28 days- the amount of time it takes the moon to go through a full cycle.

Here are a few books you might try in addition to internet searches:
The Moon Book by Gail Gibbons
The Moon by Melanie Chrismer

How the Earth Works by John Farndon (You may need to get this one from the library. It includes models you can create to help children understand what they're seeing in the night sky).

Have you been paying attention to the moon's phases? What phase is the moon in right now? Why not jump in and start observing tonight?

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Travel Tuesdays: Be a Tourist in Your Home Region

Not everyone can afford to travel or wishes to travel when they have some time off. But traveling in your hometown with the eyes of a tourist can be a transformative learning experience just like traveling further afar.

I first blogged about being a traveler in your hometown last February. In that post I focused on the benefits of exploring natural places in your own area. Today I'd like to encourage a wider view.

Try to think about your area as someone who's never been there before. What would you want to see? Or, pretend you need to advise some tourists- where would you send them?

If I very quickly run down the list of places I would recommend within roughly one hour of my house,  here's what I would say.

New Bedford, MA (20 minute drive)
Providence, Rhode Island (45 minute drive)
Cape Cod, MA (25 minutes to be on the Cape- one hour more to reach the end at Provincetown.)

Plymouth, MA (30 minutes)
Boston, MA (1 hour by car or commuter rail)
This list represents what I was able to write down in less than 5 minutes (putting in all of the links took far longer!) I've visited many of these places. But there are many others that I've never experienced such as a Duck Tour in Boston.

So what's special about your area? What museums have you been meaning to visit? Or maybe you haven't been in years and would like to take your kids there now. What touristy attractions like a Duck Tour might give you a fresh view of your own city? Try to think of free attractions as well as ones you must pay for. For example, admission to the Mayflower II in Plymouth is rather expensive but everyone can see its exterior for free just by walking along the waterfront. (Or go for  "free Fridays").

And don't forget your local library... most in our state offer free or reduced passes to local museums. You just need to reserve them in advance. Be sure to ask at your library. What a great deal!

Brainstorm a list of ideas with your family and make a plan to visit them when you have time. Most students have a break at the end of December until after the new year. If you make a list now, perhaps you could visit some of these places during the quiet time at the end of December.

Have you done this with your kids? Where might you go?

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Friday, November 9, 2012

Seeking Reader Input

A pic from my very first blog post
Every once in a while I like to check in with you, my readers, to see which kinds of posts are most useful or interesting to you. I pay attention to which posts receive the most comments. I also monitor Google Analytics to see which posts get the most page views. I use that information to try to craft posts that provide what you're looking for.

Today I'm looking for direct input from you. What brings you to my blog? Which posts are your favorite? Are there some that you'd prefer I eliminate?

For the past year or so my schedule has been to post "Travel Tuesdays" and "Wordless Wednesdays." I leave Friday open for whatever catches my fancy that week. Sometimes a Friday post will suggest ideas for getting out in nature with your kids or give a recipe to try, or perhaps offer a suggestion for a book to read with your children.

Do you enjoy this format? Are there particular topics you'd like me to dig into more deeply? Would you rather I retire Travel Tuesdays or Wordless Wednesdays? If I did that, what would you like to see in it's place?

Please share your thoughts in the comments, on my Facebook page, or via email at michelle(at)michellecusolito(dot)com.

And, finally, in case you're not aware, I have a Pinterest account (mcusolito). I'll be adding more boards and pins over time. For now, you can find boards of my Favorite Recipes, Favorite Nature Photos, Favorite Adult Books, Popular Nature Related Blog Posts, and Favorite Illustrators. Over time I plan to create more boards, such as ones that include the information on the Suggested Books page from this blog. (I think the visual nature of Pinterest will make those lists more user friendly). If you have suggestions for Pinterest Boards, I welcome that input, as well.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Travel Tuesdays: Writing and Reflecting

I've been working this post around my mind for weeks now, trying to find the right way to express what I want to express that would also be useful for you, my readers.

I've blogged about the value of keeping a journal of your travel experiences, but I wanted this post to be about something more, about reflecting on and writing about your experience once you return home.

Lately, I've been working on an essay about my family's experience traveling to India. I've been reading old blog posts and my journal, and revisiting the place in my mind, trying to synthesize the most significant insights and learning from that experience. All this digging around in my own story has indeed led to some new insights on my part, and I wanted to encourage you, my readers, to consider writing about your travel experiences once you return home-maybe even months or years later. By extension, I also wanted to suggest you encourage your children (or students) to do the same.

But, I realize I'm a writer, and not all of you are writers. The thought of writing might be scary to you or just not sound like much fun. Yet, there's a different kind of insight that comes from looking back on your experiences and writing about them. To quote Robin Hemley, "There's always some place you're going in your writing, some destination of which you had no idea when you started. Writing is transformative in the same way that travel is."(A Field Guide for Immersion Writing: Memoir, Journalism, and Travel, p. 108).

Joseph Dispenza, in The Way of the Traveler, provides specific actions you can take to make your travel more meaningful. He also encourages travelers to keep a travel journal and to write about their journey reflectively once they've returned home. "Now you may want to write something entirely different: the story of your trip as you lived it – not from the inside, as it were, but from the outside, as if you were the major character in your drama."  (p. 99)

My daughter journaling in Italy
So, as I sat here at my computer, trying to compose this blogpost in a way that will convey my message without turning off those of you who don't like to write, an amazing thing happened. My first grade daughter has a playmate here playing with her this morning and she ran in to tell me that she has been reading her Italy journal with her friend. She was recounting her trip to Italy. She was telling about her favorite parts and what she had learned during our trip. The cool thing is.. I had NO part in this. I have not discussed my current writing projects or this blogpost with my kids. We haven't even talked about her journal in months. Yet, my daughter is still working through her own travel experiences in her own way.

While my daughter likes to write, she is only a first grader, so recounting her travel tale is more of an oral exercise. The girls read every page of my daughter's journal. My daughter even added an additional page that she felt she had neglected when she completed her journal back in July. My daughter and her friend demonstrated to me, in real time, why keeping a travel journal can be so important and why later sharing the story of your trip is equally important to your understanding of what happened during your trip.

And so, I encourage you to write your travel stories and to encourage your children to do the same. You never have to show them to anyone. It's entirely up to you. If you have young children, let them tell their stories- maybe even record them using a digital recorder. 

Whether your travels take you across town or across the world, every trip can be transformative if you just take the time to reflect on it.

How might you work this idea into your life? How about into your children's lives?

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Friday, November 2, 2012

What NOT to say to Transracial Families

My post on adoption insensitivity continues to draw 10-50 hits a week despite being more than 10 months old. This is clearly an important topic that strikes a chord for many people.

Today, please watch this brief video. It's only 3 minutes long. In case you don't get sarcasm... note that the point is NOT to say these things. 

Perhaps you recognize yourself in some of these comments. Maybe you've never said some of the blatantly callous things but perhaps you've said something seemingly complimentary like, "Ethiopian babies are so beautiful." 

How might you alter your questions and comments in the future? More importantly, how will you educate your own children so they don't say hurtful things to friends or classmates?

Do you want to learn more?
Try these blogs:
They're all my Own, by my friend Alison Noyce

Rage Against the Mini Van and this other post from Rage Against the Mini Van, by Kristen Howerton, one of the co-creators of this video

Jillian Lauren, video co-creator (Please be sure to read the comments to this post. They clarify some points).