Monday, April 30, 2012

Children in the Garden - Investigating Seeds

The beautiful weather we had last week left us all restless, and ready to plant something.  Sadly, we're still a couple of weeks from our planting season, or at least that's what I make of the snow mixed in with this morning's rain.

Still, I couldn't resist picking up a few packets of seeds, placed temptingly at the front of the grocery store.  It might be too early to plant them outside (as the grocer knows full well), but there's no reason we can't make something of them in the way of a rainy day science activity.

Especially, with our trusty handheld microscopes at the ready.

Viola Seed

Lavender Seed
Thyme Seed
Rosemary Seed
Oregano Seed
Sage Seed
Mystery Seed
Curious about the mystery seed?  Come back tomorrow, and I'll tell you all about it, and a couple more projects these seeds inspired, as well.

It's great to be a homeschooler.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Convergent Ladybug Cookies

For the last three or four years, we've celebrated the spotting our first spring ladybug, with a batch of ladybug cookies (from Gretchen Cooks).

We take a batch of sugar cookie dough and divide it into thirds.

We add red food coloring (it takes a lot if you want red, rather than pink) to two thirds of the dough, and a tablespoon of baker's chocolate with five or six drops of black food coloring to the remaining third.

Then, the children roll large (about 2 inch) balls of red dough for the bodies, and small (1 inch) balls of black dough for the heads.

This year, we decided to be slightly more scientific and add small heads in the front of the 1 inch balls, which aren't heads at all, but rather a protective shell, called the pronotum.

I used a sharp knife to split the wings, or really the elytra - the hard shell covering, that protects the wings.

The children added chocolate chips "spots" in a semetrical pattern to each elytra (ladybug spots are always semetrical - as far as I've read, and seen).

Since the first ladybug we saw this season was a convergent ladybug, we gave our cookie beetles 13 spots, with three mini chocolate chips...

...and three regular chocolate chips, on each side...

...and one right in middle (the number of spots for convergent ladybugs can vary, but 13 is typical).

After we baked our cookies (13 minutes at 350 degrees Fahrenheit), we used melted white chocolate chips to pipe a few additional, identifying details onto the pronotums...

...and heads of each beetle.

We should have made the elytra a little more elongated, into ovals instead of balls, and the lines we have on the ladybug's heads aren't quite right, but it's the two slanted lines on the pronotum, that are usually used to identify this variety of ladybug, anyway.

Convergent ladybugs are natives to North America, but according to Cornell University's Lost Ladybug Project, they are becoming rare in the eastern United States.

In the winter these ladybugs will aggregate, or swarm together, on mountain tops, making them easy pickings for bears, who don't mind their bitter taste, and commercial harvesters, who gather them from the wild to sell to garden centers across the country.

It's great to be a homeschooler.

Linked with Science Sunday at Adventure's in Mommydom.

Science Sunday

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Ladybug Checklist

We spotted our first ladybug of the season, in our yard, this week - a convergent ladybug, to be precise.

And, we do want to be precise, because this year we're making a ladybug checklist, to hang on the fridge.

Last fall, I presented the older children with pictures of all the different ladybugs we'd seen through the summer, and challenged the children to identify them.  The challenge went unanswered, as fall took off, and interests led us in different directions of study.

Now though, with the ladybugs returning (at least I hope this first one means more are about to follow), and right in front of us again, I thought I'd take a new approach.  I found a nice ladybug notepaper image to print and hang on the fridge.

So, as we spot, and photograph different types of ladybugs throughout the spring and summer, we can identify, and add them to our list, right away.

Not sure how to tell a convergent ladybug from say a nine spotted ladybug?  Come back tomorrow, and we'll share some tips Almost Unschool style - and, in case your wondering, that means we're making cookies.

It's great to be a homeschooler.

Friday, April 27, 2012

No-Egg, Candied Violas and Fresh Mint Tea and Scones

While searching for dandelion recipes to try out this spring, I came across a great "educational" game from  I put educational in quotes, because although the game does teach plant recognition and use in an introductory manner for children (wildcrafting refers to the practice of harvesting plants from the wild)...'s also a very fun, grown up version of a Chutes and Ladders type game, perfect for everyone in our family.  My 14 year old enjoys playing it every bit as much as my 5 year old, and we even got the grandparents to play a round or two during their visit, and they generally avoid board games.

Included with the game is a link to a go-along story from the Learning Herbs website, as well as a bonus downloadable dandelion e-book (great because we have more dandelion fun planned, ahead).  Registering on the website to access those items, also put us on their email list for updates and announcements, like the video preview series they've been sending out this week regarding a new Herbal Fairies book series Learning Herbs is about to release.

I'm generally lukewarm when it comes to fairies. Even as a child I sat silently by as Disney's Peter Pan implored children everywhere to say, "I do believe in fairies" in order to save Tinkerbell.  But, Herb Fairies promises to teach about the edible and medicinal herbs linked to each fairy, and I think that's a pretty clever idea.

The series won't be out until next week, but the author, Kimberly Gallagher, is stirring up interest by releasing a little information, and a fun activity each day to go along with the first book - featuring Viola.

The first video message (which you can access here, by registering your email address with the Herb Fairies site), for instance, accompanies a link to a printable Viola coloring sheet.  My youngest two (ages 5 and 7), who are not lukewarm about fairies, were thrilled to receive it.

The timing of the announcement, and coloring sheet was perfect for us too, as we just discovered the violas in our garden are in bloom.

The girls had already helped me pick a few, along with some mint leaves...

...and I was thinking that we should try candying them, when I checked my email, and discovered the next Herb Fairies video preview - this time with a link to a recipe card for candied violas!

It seems, that besides incorporating nature journaling, and herbal information, the fairy stories will also include recipes. I'm not sure if I'll like the stories or not - I'm still not crazy about fairies, but my interest has been piqued. Kudos to Learning Herbs for a brilliant bit of marketing.

The girls, and I looked over the recipe, which calls for using raw egg whites (which we try to avoid) and vodka (which we don't have), and opted to go in another direction. But, we did enjoy watching the video of Kathy Gallagher and her daughter turning their flowers into candy.  Instead of following their instructions, we washed...

...and dried our flowers...

...and then dipped them into vanilla sugar water I prepared for the girls, by dissolving 1 cup of sugar in 1/2 cup of water on the stove, then stirring in a teaspoon of vanilla extract for extra flavor.  We left the stems attached to the flowers, to use as handles for dipping...

...and removed them before eating the "candy".  Ideally, that would have been after the flowers had had time to dry on a sugar covered plate.

Not many lasted that long, though.  My youngest pretty well ate all of hers as soon as they were dipped in the sugar water (believe me, while she's hamming it up, she's not posing in the the picture below).

The few that we managed to save, were served (nearly dry) to the sibs, with blackberry mint scones (just like the dandelion scones, but with 2 tablespoons of chopped fresh mint added to sour cream scones, patted out and cut into circles with a glass, and topped with a pressed in dollop of blackberry jam, before baking), and fresh mint tea (hot water poured right over the mint leaves in the tea pot, with sugar to taste)... two very proud little hostesses.

It's great to be a homeschooler.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Great Horned Owls

The Man of the House and I made a quick library run last night after dinner.  There were a couple of birding books in our check out pile, and the librarian asked if we'd taken the children to see the owl, yet.

It turns out, a great horned owl is nesting in a tree in a school playground, in one of the towns down the road from ours.  Our sweet librarian produced a stack of gorgeous pictures, taken by her husband with a telephoto lens.

My camera is not nearly as fancy, and the light was waning by the time we got home, loaded up the children, and drove to the schoolyard, so no impressive pictures here...

...but the experience was quite amazing.

We were assured by several other groups of parents, also gawking at the owls (for the most part, all the children present, including my youngest, were more taken by a dusk trip to the playground, than by the raptors), that mother owl was very calm, and ignored children in the playground all day, and it was safe to get quite close.

I couldn't help but think, that just because she hasn't swooped down on anyone yet, doesn't mean she never will.

Still, staring up at the large owl, the nest, and the two bobbing babies was fascinating.

As were the bones and pellets under the tree (which even brought a few children back from the swings).  A rodent shoulder bone...

...and mandible?

I do have to say, after watching for a while, as another dad poked around in one of the pellets, I'm thinking...

...Jane Hammerslough picked the perfect title for her book.

We were amazed.  We were scientists.  And, we were grossed out!

It's great to be a homeschooler.