Invitations to Nature-Based Play: Gobble Gobble Gourds

By-Laura Grunze Franz


This week we brought home a few gourds from the market, and my son and I were joking about how they looked like birds. Thus was born the idea of turning our gourds into turkeys.

To set up this nature-based invitation, we collected maple leaves, oak leaves, gingko leaves, and maple tree “helicopter” seeds. I added small pinecones and whole cloves to the mix.

First we painted the helicopter seeds red to be used as waddles. gourd7

Next, I thought we could push the cloves into the gourds to make the eyes. I was so very wrong. Nothing can penetrate those gourds, although I did not try a drill. So the boys decided they would like to use googly eyes instead. This was a good, cute choice but the sticky backs wouldn’t adhere to the gourds.


Finally, we decided that the boys would loosely tape their materials (eyes, waddles and feathers) to their gourd turkeys and then I would use the hot glue gun to secure it all when they were finished.

It can be a good learning opportunity to be part of a project that hits roadblocks; it allows for creative problem solving. This bumpy, but creative, process ended in some very cute birds and two very happy boys.

Happy Nature Crafting!

Invitation to Nature-Based Play: Mud Kitchen

mudkitch5 If you know children who, like my boys, love to help out in the kitchen and love playing in the mud, this nature play invitation is a slam dunk!

I know it looks involved, but the preparation was not complicated. The kitchen is made of cinder blocks that were lying next to our shed, a particle board “cook top” that was collecting dust in the basement, and stones from the garden. The dishes and utensils were old ones from our basement and the pots are from the kids’ play kitchen.

mudkitch2 mudkitch1

I went around the yard and cut off flower heads and leaves for them to use as they wished. We dug a small hole in the ground for them to access the dirt and kept the hose nearby for water access. And then I let them at it!


They got to work making all sorts of mud concoctions. Mud cake. Mud pie. Mud soup. Mud muffins. Mud ice. They were in Mud Heaven. I was delighted to hear all of the vocabulary they were using, all the new tools they were trying out, all the imaginative play they were engaging in, and all the time they were spending together getting along.


When the play was done, I turned on the sprinkler and they rinsed each and every dish and spoon until everything was clean. The clean up was actually just as fun. These boys love water! Then I sprayed down the “cook top” and the mud kitchen was ready for the next day.


I know it’s messy, but it’s sooooooo fun!

Happy Outdoor, Imaginative Playing!

This “Invitation” was contributed by: Laura Grunze Franz

Simple Wooden Birdfeeder Plans: An Engaging Project for the Whole Family!

-Essay By Janimarie Lester DeRose, Birdfeeder Designs and Plans by: Dean Lester

Finished birdfeederI have brought my daughters to swing in their grandparents’ backyard. It is spring and their apple and cherry trees bathe the new fresh green yard in soft light and a sweet nostalgic scent. We all three sit on a large wooden porch swing, dangling our legs, listening. My girls’ usual chatter is silenced by the cacophony of bird song. Everywhere you look are bird feeders, mostly built by my Dad years ago, brimming with seed.

My parents, Dean and De Ann Lester have created an oasis in their urban yard for song birds, humming birds, at times owls and even hawks. Many children comment on the “forest” as they pass by. They have maintained hundred year old trees and replaced them as the yard changed with time, planting thick ground covers and open spaces of bark chips (instead of lawn), creating a lush, protective habitat for birds. While many traditional gardeners trim heavily, they intentionally leave many plants’ seed pods through winter, to help sustain the birds diet. Some beds are planned for the humming birds and butterflies hosting brilliant native penstimon, while other area’s are for scent and edible herbs for the birds’ human counterparts to enjoy!

feeding station bird bath

Throughout their yard, they have placed different types of bird feeders. Some styles feed the birds with a smaller Niger seed, while most host the larger Black Oil Sunflower seed (a favorite) or a more generic mixed seed. They also at times have dishes of jam for Tanagers, Humming bird feeders, and an occasional suet feeder. They also host a bird bath, heated in the winter, to create a small bit of open water in Northern Utah’s frigid or dry months.

No matter the time of year I visit, I find their yard brimming with avian life, inspiring wonder in my children. This article is on how to build your own bird feeder, to help foster a little bit of nature in your own urban landscape.

roofMy father Dean Lester wrote up the blue prints and step by step building instructions, and my five year old daughter and husband Justin were the lucky Nature Nuts to get to help build it!  This is a great project to do with your Family Nature Club!!!


Steps in Building Bird Feeder


  • Step 1-Purchase Wood

saftey protection

  • Step 2-Done safety gear- then Cut Wood to length

Pop Pop and Saw

  • Assemble the seed box
    • Hint: Water proof glue and screws will lengthen life rather than nails

Wood glue

  • Assemble the top frame with roof support upright
  • Connect the Seed Box to the top frame using the 2×2 uprights

staple gun with Justin

  • Put the tongue and groove roof panels together

top view

  • Nail or screw the roof tie bars to the assembled tongue and groove roof panels

Silvia Screwdriver

  • Attach the completed roof panels to the roof support upright and upper frame side bars using nails or screws

Nail gun with Pop Pop

  • Screw the roof cap to the roof support upright with 3” screws
  • Attach eye screws to the roof cap for hanging

feeder  fly through feeder

Congrats-you have now built an awesome feeder as a family!  Now find a tree in your yard to hang it and enjoy observing wildlife in your yard all winter long!!!  Let us know how this project turns out for you-please send us pictures of your feeder hanging in your yard and we will share it on our website.  Send pictures to

Note: This lesson is recommended for children 8 years and up (with a grandparent preferably!)

Empowering Ourselves to Empower Others-Let’s Get Our Kids OUTSIDE!

-An Essay by Olivia Griset

char lonesome lakeI have long been fascinated with nature education and placed-based learning both in traditional classrooms and also in informal settings; but not until becoming a mother myself and seeing how little our modern child plays outside (new estimates are less than 30 min. a day on average!), have I become dedicated specifically to working on empowering parents and families to become more comfortable spending time outside playing, learning, adventuring, and exploring TOGETHER.  If we raise a generation of kids who never play outside-what possibly could our future hold?  To me, this epidemic of the modern indoor, plugged-in, over-scheduled child, is not an environmental issue it is actually a public health and social justice issue.  As parents are we moderating technology and scheduling unstructured playtime?  Are we getting our kids OUTSIDE?

girls mnt top blueberriesIt is so interesting to me that the place in which we have the power to have the deepest and most enduring impact on children has very little formal attention drawn to it–childrearing. This seems to be a current element of our culture– raising our children, our most difficult, intimidating, and important job, is the thing in which we are least formally educated. Thinking back on the day I brought my first daughter home from the hospital– I would like to say I was totally excited and calm–the truth was–I was terrified. I spent nine months of my pregnancy focused on the process of giving birth (which granted was pretty difficult) but in the end only lasted a few days.  I had not, however, spent one moment reading about or really thinking about what to do with my baby after she actually arrived. The wonderful and kind nurses at the hospital showed us how to bathe her, change her diaper, feed her, and then we were sent on our way-out into this crazy world . We held a new little human that we were now suppose to raise (not screw up) and help meet her full potential so that she would ultimately thrive–Umm-no pressure—right?!! No wonder our first months of parenthood were racked with anxiety! I find it ironic that I spent years being formally trained to teach and care for other people’s children but had no idea really how to care for my own. Luckily, unconditional love is a powerful and forgiving force in families.

Lucy, caleb and knowlton hugsIn our culture caring for our children seems to be something we are seemingly suppose to know how to “do” and when in doubt to just “go with our gut”. All too often however I find my “gut” is perhaps a snap reaction, or a default response based upon past experiences from my childhood. I am not proud to admit it, but not all of these “go with my gut” choices have been good or appropriate reactions. So here is where I question this common practice. I KNOW I can be a better parent then I currently am. I KNOW I can read information, coming from a different background then how I was raised, perhaps more steeped in research and best practice-and that implementing these practices could make me a better Mom. I KNOW I could use clearer language with my children so I could communicate with them in a more age-appropriate manner. I KNOW there are things I need to accept and change about myself before I can really be a great mother.

I want to be a great Mom, it is really important to me, but I KNOW I am not always a great Mom and sometimes I don’t even know how to be a better mother. That is where the learning comes in. As a teacher, I adapted my methods constantly based upon professional development and training opportunities and watching experienced teachers teach-this was how I “honed my craft”. I find that in childrearing there is a HUGE lack of these “professional development” opportunities. For example, if you were not raised going outside, working in a garden, exploring the woods, learning about insects, plants, weather, animals…how can society expect you to not only recognize that outside time is healthy and then feel comfortable enough to take your own children outside? This is a hard ask without community help, education, and support.

juju hikingMy call to action is simple and is this- If you are lucky enough to feel comfortable being an outdoor parent-kindly share that comfort with others who are not. Offer to take kids and families for a hike, or perhaps suggest and then lead a community paddling, biking, or camping trip. Your skills as an outdoor family (that you might take for granted) can offer a transformative nature experience to other families who do not feel so comfortable going outdoors alone. If you have stories of times when this has worked in your community please share them with us! We would love to share your ideas on how to get more families in our own communities outside, feeling more comfortable playing and adventuring TOGETHER! Thanks!

lucy desert jump olivier sunsetlaying in sand

Remembering Why…

Essay by Kyle Koyle

todd biking girlsSometimes I need to remember why I do things. I’m talking about the basics here: eating, breathing, sleeping. Now this isn’t going to be a reminiscent article about the struggles of life. This is an article about its depth. For example, think about the WHY of eating. We all perform this action because at some point during the day we become hungry. Our bodies require food to live. In short, we eat to stay alive. But why? Now this is where my opinion comes in, heavily. I say we eat to enable us the opportunity of what comes next. To keep us going for other less obvious necessities of life: laughter, work, wonder, friendship. From the standpoint of a parent, reasoning the WHY into any situation is parallel with the amount of effort required to make that situation successful.

Recently, my husband and I endeavored to take our three children on the scenic bike path that follows I-70 from Dotserro to Glenn Wood Springs [Colorado]. It’s about 16 miles right along the river and quite literally underneath I-70. This part of the interstate is highly scenic with narrow canyons, white water rapids and towering mountain tops. Now, let me preface the trip with the fact that my eldest child is 8 and a decent bike rider but hasn’t mastered the art of stopping your bike before getting off first, my 2nd child is terrified of riding a bike, and my 3rd child loves doing “tricks” on the back of our bike tag-along trailer — which may or may not involve adding a significant amount of instability to both parent and tag-alonger. In the weeks leading up to our esteemed weekend trip, I estimated 8 skinned knees, 4 skinned elbows, at least 20 random shin bruises, 12 complete melt downs, 3 out of control bike accidents that ended with at least one child in a ditch, about a bazillion inhaled gnats, 1 run in with a group of horses, and last but not least, hearing the phrase “I’m not getting back on!” 15 times. Needless to say, I asked myself more than once, WHY?

My husband and I have nothing to prove to any other family. We don’t seek out painful, impractical situations to put our children through. We thought this bike trip sounded, wait for it…… Now playing video games is fun, having a picnic is fun, swimming is fun, reading is fun, the list can go on and on. Why did we pick biking 16 miles down a winding somewhat precarious bike path? It was not one of life’s basic necessities. Here is the humdinger. How could we get to the other necessities of life without it? Laughter, work, wonder, friendship. Eating doesn’t create the next moment anymore than breathing ensures you’ll get a chance to meet up with an old friend or laugh at joke. If we hadn’t created, with our own blood, sweat and tears, a chance to live, countless moments of living would have been lost.

girls river  char on bog bridge

We live in a society of fear. So many fears. If we only take care of our basic necessities, which I realize is a definite first-world privilege, will we eventually forget to ask the other “why”? Why push yourself, why pull others along, why explore, why learn, why try?

John Muir, the Scottish naturalist, father of the Sierra Club and world renown environmentalist put it very well, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to the body and soul alike.”

Now is your moment to remember why…

char climbing


Children’s Nature Book Review: Flashlight

Review by: Linda Spence


Flashlight (2014)–written and illustrated by Lizi Boyd

In this wordless picture book, a young boy leaves his tent and begins to explore. The beam of his flashlight illuminates the inhabitants of the forest including owls, raccoons, deer, and mice. The tables are turned when he drops the flashlight and the animals turn the light on him. Throughout the book, the colors revealed by the flashlight’s beam are in bright contrast to the grays and blacks of the surrounding night. This book would be a great starting point for talking about what happens in the forest at night and can be fun for ALL ages even your youngest learners!

Find this book at your local library or link to it here on Amazon!  Flashlight


Children’s Nature Book Review: Call Me Tree: Llámame árbol


Review by: Linda Spence

Call Me Tree: Llámame árbol (2014)

Written and illustrated by Maya Christina Gonzalez

Written in both English and Spanish, the child in this book grows as tall and strong as a tree. Deliberately gender neutral, the brief text captures the sense of belonging that all children desire. Like humans, each tree is unique, yet “All trees have roots. All trees belong.” A beautiful ode to the joy and connectedness found in nature.

You can try to find this book at your local library or click here to link to this book on Amazon.  Call Me Tree

Nature Explorations: Life Under Logs…Discovering Decomposers!


Are you looking for a simple and fun activity to get your kids out into the local forest or even the back yard this summer?  Thinking about the living organisms that rely on a simple log can be a great way to learn about decomposition and the soil cycle as well as an excuse to get your hands dirty and get out and explore your forest.  We tried this activity with our family nature club and it was a blast!  This is a GREAT exploration for kids of any age!

Rotten Log Puppet Show:


The Rotten Log Real Estate Puppet Show!

Rather than just going out to roll logs and see what is underneath we started our activity with a puppet show. A butterfly was a real estate agent and many animals (ants, worms, etc) came looking for a new home (an old wrapping paper roll made the perfect “log”). The log was the ideal place to provide food and shelter for a wide variety of animals. We talked about how the log is a home and the importance of putting logs back after we turn them over.

Children’s Literature Connection:

Next we read A Logs Life by Wendy Pfeffer. This book shows the process of a tree to soil with wonderful illustrations. Through this book we introduced the word decomposition.


Outdoor Activity:

Before heading outside each child got a sheet of paper with pictures of the animals they might find under a log. We talked about what each animal would eat and determined which were decomposers. As we entered the woods we listened for other animal sounds. When we got to the log, children were asked to feel if it was hard or soft, wet or dry, and use other senses before looking under the log. This helps focus children so the log turning isn’t as much chaos. We turned over one big log together and looked; then children were free to explore on their own.

FullSizeRender(9)Art and Nature Connection:

At the end, children could draw their favorite living organisms they observed in their nature journals.

Have fun rolling logs with your friends and family and discovering decomposers everywhere!!!!


Activity Written and Created by: Carey Truebe

Tips for Exploring Local Wild Spaces: Ponding with Children


Heading to the pond!

Do you need a simple outdoor idea for a great activity you can do right in your local town or forested area this summer?  Find a small pond near home and your kids will spend hours of enjoyment outside with a net and a bucket exploring the world of wildlife that exists beneath the surface of a small pond.  The summer is a perfect time to get adventurous and give ponding a try!

Ponding Tips:

All you really need for ponding is a net (fishnets work great) and a bucket.  But speaking from experience teaching many science lessons catching and looking at aquatic invertebrates I can provide some tips for making the experience a little more successful.

1.  Using a white bucket is very helpful for seeing what you have caught!  The perfect ponding bucket is actually a  white dishpan.

2.  Catching technique:  Encourage the kids to swish their net above the surface of the bottom of the pond back and forth quickly three or four times and then pick up their net and look for movement in the net.  Pick out the insects and put them in the white bucket rather than dumping the net with all the leaves etc into the bucket.  This allows you to see what you catch easier.

3.  Bring along a field guide to pond life or your phone or camera so you can snap photos of what you catch and look them up later!  You might be surprised how interesting the larval stage of many common insects appear.  Dragonflys, Damselflys, and beetle larvae are all very common and fun to observe (to name just a few!)


Larval Dragonfly, Dobsonfly, and salamander sorted in a deviled egg dish from the local dollar store…a white paper underneath the dish helps you see the organisms.

4.  After you catch into a big bucket get an white ice cube tray or deviled egg tray and use spoons to sort and count the types of animals you catch.

5.  Art and Nature Connection: Encourage your kids to use their scientific observation skills and to draw their favorite pond animal after you catch-remind them in scientific drawing to be as accurate as possible!


After sorting the organisms you can draw your favorite animal!

Science and Inquiry Connections:

1.  For a deeper exploration try ponding in the same place week after week (or every few weeks) as the spring turns to summer and through the summer.  Encourage them to record their findings.  It is a very cool experience to see how the pond life changes as the summer progresses.  Encourage them to predict how they think the pond might change through the season in diversity and total numbers etc.  Have them test their hypothesis by collecting data throughout the season and recording their observations in a nature journal. 

2.  Also studying larval pond life gives you a perfect chance to learn about metamorphosis…show the kids pictures of the larval and then adult stages of the same insects or animals and discuss how they are similar and different and explore the term “life cycle”.

Remember to remind your children to be respectful and careful with the living creatures they catch and to put them back when they are finished!  Have fun exploring the pond this summer in your town or neighborhood!

Children’s Nature Book Review: Up in the Garden, Down in the Dirt


Book Review: Susan Olcott

A great new book just came out…Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt, by Kate Messner with art by Christopher Silas Neal.  If you have not seen this book yet we highly recommend it!

Topics – Gardening, spring, seasons, insects

Summary – Following on the theme of Over and Under the Snow, one of my favorite winter books, the same illustrator/author pair have written a lovely book about the secret happenings under the dirt as spring emerges.  I love the idea of what you see and what you don’t see and encouraging kids to use their imagination to think of the busy world that exists underground filled with bugs and worms that all make the vibrance above possible.  Reading this after planting our spring garden was perfect in encouraging patience in waiting for seeds to sprout and wondering what is happening to make them grow.  Spring continues into the fall when things become quiet and dormant again and the natural world prepares for winter’s rest, which gives the book a nice seasonal progression.  At the end, there is a great section at the end of the book that gives extra information on the animals that are part of the story.

As a little girl and her nana plant, tend, and harvest their vegetable garden, they discover that the world in the dirt is just as busy as the world above. While they water the garden, eat fresh green beans, and read under the sunflowers, down beneath the leaves, pill bugs chew, a tomato hornworm rests, and skunks work the night shift gobbling cutworms. This nonfiction title ends with information about the various animals found in gardens.

Complimentary Outdoor Activities: 

-Plant a garden and watch and wait for seedlings to emerge.

-Have a sprouting race by planting the same seeds indoors and out and seeing which ones emerge first – you might be surprised!

-Dig in the dirt outside and see what bugs you find.

For more activities related to this book check out this blog…Chronicle books blog

Suggested Ages:  This is a wonderful book for all ages due to the great illustrations-it has very few words per page so a great book to use with preschoolers on up!

Nature Families rates this book 5 out of 5 Acorns!  Check it out of your local library or add it to your own library–click here to purchase from Amazon-Up in the Garden Down in the Dirt!

lucy garden