Thursday, June 20, 2013

Elementary Science: The Art of Observation

***I wrote this post a couple weeks ago and have been waiting on recovering video files from a hard drive to publish it... so here it is, completed at last!***

As an elementary student, my science schoolwork consisted mostly of reading about concepts related to earth and physical science from a textbook.  It was dry and certainly didn't stick.  I truly cannot remember a thing I learned in science before at least middle school.  I don't think my elementary science education ever consisted of even looking at a real plant or observing real insects.  It was all about facts in a text.

As nothing stuck with me from the years of my earliest science education, I decided I wanted to do it differently with my own children.  I want it to be hands-on and, well, REAL.  When I read about nature study, done in the Charlotte Mason style, it resonated with me.  I liked the idea of taking children outside to become intimately acquainted with local plants, animals, and waterways.  They have filled pages of nature journals with sketches of things they have seen outside. 

Sometimes I have doubted this method.  Are we doing enough?  Are they missing out on other areas of science in favor of focusing on nature study?  Is this too narrow of a field?  Is there any benefit to drawing random flowers or bugs or birds?  Do I need an actual science curriculum?

A friend of mine, also a homeschooler, said something to me the other day.  She commented that in the elementary years, science is about laying a foundation of observation.  So these years can be spent paying attention to details in the natural world around them so that they will be ready to make comparisons and classify things later.  In making observations, they actually begin to compare and classify things mentally.

In addition to this comment about observing, we have had some things going on around here that have led to some real, hands-on science learning.  This is the part of homeschooling I love best: the seamless incorporation of everyday living as a part of our learning at home.  The past week or two has reaffirmed our course of study regarding science and given me confidence.  It is this way with many things: we are sure of a course we are on, then we begin to doubt, and something comes along to remind us why we are doing things as we are.  Or else, we make some modifications and tweak things to work better for us.  In my case, I have been reminded that I need to continue to make the time for science observations, and that when I gently encourage them through my own interest, my own sketches, my own delighted interest in the things around us in the living world, then they are more attentive and eager and make their own observations and discoveries.

So, what's been going on around here in our learning at home about the natural world?  Two things: birds and trees.

First, the trees.  We had a pine tree blow over in a storm a few months ago - mostly on our neighbor's yard.  Just the root ball was on our side, then the trunk crushed our fence and the rest of the tree was in their yard.  So, we decided to do something about the other pines in our yard.  We'd had three removed two years ago, but we still had seven more, some of them pretty big.  We wanted to lessen the chances of them blowing over but also keep as many as was reasonable, because we didn't want our backyard to be completely bare of trees... the pine trees attract birds to our yard, and that is what we like!  I want our yard to be conducive to our nature observations!

So, our tree guy offered to take down the trees that were the biggest threat and to just trim lots of the bigger limbs off the other three so that we could keep them, but they would be less likely to catch the wind and be blown down.  He left more limbs than I had pictured initially, which I am glad of - again, more birds if there are more branches!

Initially I pictured a tall skinny trunk with a little sprig of branches at the very top, ha ha!  This tree actually had lots of huge, long branches lower down the trunk.

Of course, the girls were quite thrilled to get to watch the action with a chainsaw, bucket truck, dump truck, and Bobcat in the backyard!  It provided great entertainment to the younger two while Caroline and I worked on other schoolwork!

Lucy was especially impressed with all the trucks.  How many 20 month olds do you know who can say "bucket truck?"

Once the trees were down, but there were still some limbs left in the yard to be cleared when he came back the next week, the girls were able to observe the ends of pine tree branches up close.  The trees were taken down on the Friday before Memorial Day, so we had a few days for them to observe the branches out in the yard before they were cleared.  I had them sketch a branch to include the older, longer needles, the shorter, newer growth at the tips, and to also show the different cone sizes: tiny green cones near the tips, bigger brown cones further down the branch.  They could really see the new growth this way.

Here are pages from their nature notebooks

This was after the cones had turned brown... it was a stray branch I found in the yard several days later.

Caroline and I have been reading about various trees in a book called Trees Every Child Should Know that we got as a free download - it is an old book in the public domain.  Ironically, we had just finished reading the section on evergreens and had learned about a few different pines.  Based on what we read, we guessed that these were short leaf pines (located in the Southeast; have needles two to a bundle).  We asked the tree guy, and he said yes, they were.  He also told us where we could go to see some nearby long leaf pines - those are the ones with needles 12-18 inches long and with huge cones.  We went to find them a few days later - pictures further down in this post!

The day after the tree work was mostly done, we made an exciting discovery outside - a baby bird!!  It was on the ground in our neighbor's yard, just over the fence, and it was not able to fly yet.  So, my first thought was that it was displaced from a nest that was up in one of the pine trees that was cut down.  It was a baby mockingbird, we could tell by the markings.  Knowing how aggressive the adult mockingbirds are, we assumed that the mother would be scolding us if she was around.  Cecilia approached the baby bird, and it let her come right up to it.  It finally hopped away across the neighbor's yard, and we followed it.  We stayed right by it and watched for about 15 minutes, and after no sign of an adult bird in that time, we thought maybe it was an orphan.  We helped it to hop into a box and took it into our yard, where Caroline fed it a worm!

Isn't it precious??

See how close we were able to get to it?

I think it was worn out from hopping across the yard!

Since it couldn't fly and we didn't see a parent bird, I was concerned that the neighborhood cats might get it.  My assumption was that if it couldn't fly, then it wouldn't leave its nest intentionally.  But after awhile, we saw an adult mockingbird fly past a few times with food in its beak.  We put the box outside our fence and sat far back to watch.  Well, the baby bird was not so helpless as we'd assumed, because it hopped out of the box on its own!  After a few minutes, the mother (or father) bird found it and brought it food.

I went inside and looked up information on mockingbirds and learned, to my relief, that it is normal for mockingbirds to leave the nest about a week before they are able to fly at all.  The parents still bring them food for three weeks after they leave the nest, and before the babies can fly, they hop around and can get up into low branches of bushes and shrubs.  The parents are generally very watchful, and I saw them scolding a neighbor's cat yesterday when she came too close to where some of the babies were in a bush.  I also read that mockingbirds typically nest in low trees and shrubs/bushes, so it is unlikely that their nests were in the pine trees that we had removed.  So I shared all this with Caroline and Cecilia as we observed the baby bird - and over the next week, we noticed many more baby mockingbirds all around our yard!

An adult mockingbird... don't know if it is a mother or a father, though.

The kids have observed the parents feeding their babies for over a week now.  We have seen them go from little fluffballs to bigger birds - nearly as big as the parents! - who can fly, albeit clumsily still.  We have watched their behaviors: the babies stay on the ground, in a bush, or in a tree, and they cheep for the parents to come.  They have a shrill, high-pitched cheep, and they do it all day long!  The parents are kept quite busy - I don't know where they find the time to eat for themselves!  From sunup to sunset, the babies are cheeping and the adults are bringing them food.  When the adult approaches the baby with something in its beak, the cheeps get very close together and frantic, then the baby opens its beak wide and gets fed.  Then it starts cheeping again as soon as the adult flies away!  We can now tell, from inside the house, that when we hear this pattern of cheeping, a baby bird is getting a bite to eat!

Here is one of the babies perched on our fence, cheeping for food!

They named the first baby bird that we caught "Mocking Max."  I think Cecilia's page says, "I want to keep the bird," and "Tried to feed a baby mockingbird."  The kids were a little disappointed when the mother appeared and fed it, but I reminded them that this was the best thing to happen for the bird, and that it might not have survived if we'd had to care for it instead!

I shot a few videos of the babies getting fed.  They are now able to fly well enough that they sometimes follow the parents!  Here are some highlights I edited together:

I also read that mockingbirds have 3-4 clutches of eggs per season.  While the first fledglings are learning to fly and become independent, the adults are beginning a new nest!  So, we shall see if there are more cycles of baby birds born over the coming weeks...

And, back to the trees...

We had gotten four trees removed in all.  Two of them were actually growing from the same spot and appeared to be sharing a trunk at the base, which then split into two separate trunks about three feet off the ground.  There was another larger pine growing less than ten feet away from these two, and we had to decide which ones to take down: the largest one which was leaning the most?  One of the two that were growing together, or both?  We knew we wanted to leave at least one of them there, to prevent the area from being totally bare as well as to have something to attach our clothesline to on one end!  My instinct was to take out the larger, leaning tree.  But our tree guy told us that because the one with two trunks was really two separate trees, they were weakened because their roots were so close together.  He suggested taking them both out and leaving the large one after trimming off lots of the larger limbs that were causing it to lean so much.  When he cut the stump down low when he came back the next week, this is what it looked like:

That's a big hole in the middle of the stump, where the two individual trees had not grown together completely.

He said this hole was full of water when he cut the stump down.  What would have eventually happened is that the trees would have rotted away here in the center of their shared trunk, and then one tree would have fallen one direction while the other fell in the other direction.  Yikes!  Glad they are gone now!!

The girls sketching the tree stump

Lucy shows off a wedge of tree trunk that she picked up from the ground.  There could even be some math-related science observed in tree removal... what angles are needed to make a tree fall a certain way?  How can you make a tree fall the direction you want it to?  In fact, Cecilia (who every now and then says something somewhat profound, making you realize that she notices so much more than you would guess) told me that "you have to cut the tree on the other side of it to make it fall that way."  She just observed this herself in watching one of the trees fall. 

So, who knew this could be an educational opportunity to learn more about trees?  And now we need to plant a few non-pine shade trees and hope they grow quickly!  We are also hoping our maple tree will grow out better since one of the pines that was removed was growing so close to it and getting mixed up in its branches!

 Caroline's sketchbook entries usually have words describing the details...

 Cecilia's entries are generally very detailed drawings.  She showed the process here from trees to logs to stump.

I also drew a sketch and wrote some notes... I have found that when I am able to do this, it sets the lead for the girls.  They see me enjoying drawing details and so they do it as well.  Unfortunately, I often don't have the time or hands to do this... I think Lucy was fussing at me from the other side of the fence by the time I was almost finished.  Babies and toddlers make it hard to sketch things in nature alongside the older kids. But whenever I can do it, I am glad that I did.  I loved to draw as a kid myself, and as an adult I just don't take the time to do it any more, so the nature notebook gives me a small opportunity to do it from time to time.

So, this week we went to look for the long leaf pines.  And we found them!  We met Daddy after work, after we'd looked for deer (above).  Both the pines and the deer are on the campus of a local college, and many more long leaf pines have been planted to restore the area since most of the larger ones are gone at this point.  But we did find some large long leaf pines as well.

Looking up, we could tell the difference between these two pines based on the needles... on the left, you can see that the needles are shorter than the one on the right.  A full-grown long leaf pine!

Here is a close-up of the long leaf pine branches.

When we looked around on the ground, Cecilia immediately noticed which ones came from the long leaf pines... see how much bigger they are?  It was pretty obvious when we saw them next to each other!  A sign along the trail said the other pines were loblolly pines, which we had also read about recently - they have shorter needles like the short leaf pines.

The girls chose three large cones to bring home for our nature shelf.

Here is an area where many long leaf pines have been planted... they are at varying stages of growth.  Some are only little fluffs on the ground, looking like a tuft of grass - with 12-18 inch blades, which are the needles.  I was surprised the needles were so long on even the "baby" trees!  We plucked a few off to bring home to compare to the needles on the branches we saved from our short leaf pines that were cut down.

On the shelf on the right, you can see our short leaf pine branches, and the girls are holding the long leaf pine needles... quite a difference!!!  We also put them alongside a ruler and found they were about 14 inches long!

And speaking of trees, here is our peach tree in the front yard!  It actually has peaches on it, and we just planted it last year!

Another unintended benefit of nature study is that it helps kids to be less inhibited or anxious about things like bugs, dirt, and exploring.  Caroline, as a one and two year old, would get very upset if her hands got dirty.  She didn't want to go far from me outside, and she was afraid to explore things like playground equipment.  Now, she will pick up bugs, tear worms in half to feed baby birds, make mud, and has more confidence in doing physical activities outside.  The tree guy commented about my kids, "Every time I'm over here, they're climbing on something!"  They got filthy climbing up the root ball of the tree that fell earlier this year.  And that is good!!  Especially after Caroline's more timid beginnings, this is what childhood should include - the opportunities to get dirty, climb, explore, all of their own initiative simply by being provided with lots of unstructured outdoor time!

So, this is an example (a very long one!) of what we do for our science learning.  There are some additional things we have done this year as well... Caroline has kept a nature calendar on which we have made notes of when the first leaves appear on trees, when certain flowers bloom, when the first leaves begin to fall.  Any event or new discovery outside can be noted on this calendar, and I remind Caroline often to use it.  We have done this for a year and already I have noticed that she has begun to look back to last year to check when the first blueberries and figs ripened.

They make frequent use of field guides... they like to look up what bird they saw or try to find a certain plant in their guides.  Sometimes we figure it out and sometimes we don't.  But they were very encouraged to look up birds when we kept track of them during the Great Backyard Bird Count, and we have also made use of an online webcam to watch red-tailed hawk eggs hatch and then to see the babies grow to fledglings!

They have observed and charted the weather: temperature, rainfall, and wind speed.  We used a book with a weather section this year to learn some basics, and we did things like looking at tornado maps, observing water going from liquid to solid, observed rainfall and where the water goes (downhill), made a thermometer and barometer...

We also try to incorporate living books on science topics.  Kindergarten for Caroline was full of these books on various natural topics.  We read animal stories in the Among the People books over the last two years, and last year we read the Burgess Bird Book for children.  This year, we read the Burgess Animal Book - all were well-loved.  We also read from the tree book this year, and both of the older children have been observing a particular tree as it changes throughout the seasons (although Daddy had to cut Cecilia's Bradford pear tree down :/ - but hey, you'd cut down a Bradford pear tree too, if it saved you $1500 for the tree guy to be able to get his trucks into your backyard rather than hauling everything out by hand!).  We visited a couple zoos to see some of the mammals we'd read about.  I still need to post photos from those!

So, is it enough?  Is this a good foundation in science for my children?  I still don't know for certain, but I do know that they are learning, they are growing outdoors in the fresh air, and that they enjoy noticing things in the natural world around them.  I think these things meet my unstated goals for science studies during the elementary years.


Melanie said...

Check out "Building Foundations of Scientific Understanding." Just a book of basic science experiments/experiences/discussions to make sure the bases are covered. I have a copy if you would like to borrow it eventually. I may use it with kindergarten this year too.

Erin said...

Thanks, I will check that book out!