Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Seeing the The Forest Of Early Literacy

Melanie Grue and I had the good fortune to attend and present at the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s Annual Conference in Orlando this November (thanks Marty & Jason!).  Our own presentation was very well received, and attended, despite the fact that we were scheduled at 8 am in the very farthest flung room in the 2 mile long Convention Center.  People really had to want to get there, and they did.

Well, participating in a conference can be a little crazy-making (and I don't know about you, but Orlando makes me appreciate the natural beauty of Minnesota) but fortunately we walk away with new connections and a few “aha moments.”  I don't know about you, but I need a little quiet time to think, and the older I get, the more I like late autumn, as it engenders rumination.  I’m speaking of the quiet time, after the “noise” of fall color and activity.  After the rush to enjoy the sights of the season, after we bring in the harvest, celebrate the bounty and generally live it up, there is a still moment or two to breath.  Before the holidays and the snow, and more snow, the woods are bony and bare.  Leaves have leached their color.  Deer are easier to spot.  Everything is reduced to its essential elements, no distractions.

As I admire the quiet, monochromatic beauty of this spare season, I recall a NAEYC session we attended right before we jetted back to Minnesota.  “One of the Hundred Languages of Children,” was a literacy presentation given by Lella Gandini and Amelia Gambetti of Reggio Emilia fame.  These Italian educators shared footage of children drawing and writing at a table, talking and being silly together. They argued about letters, in Italian:  “That is not an “L.”  An “L” is a leg.  Like this.  Here!”  The indignant child, across the table, was seeing his friend's letter upside down, thinking it was all wrong, which was funny (even funnier in Italian), but what was more interesting, was his connection between something physical—a leg—and a symbol.  A symbol is a metaphor, a stand in for meaning.  I recall a little Dodge kid running to an orienteering post in the woods and exclaiming to a friend, “K!  K starts with Kendall!”  I corrected my student's word order:  “Kendall starts with ‘K’.”  But, in the child’s experience, ‘K,’ the understanding of the symbol “K,” starts with herself.  Kids take a concrete experience and then create a metaphor for the experience to create language.  Experience gives kids language.  It occurs to me that we educators and parents sometimes “can’t see the forest for the trees,” when we consider literacy.  We ask, “Where is literacy in the preschool classroom?”  We think about little Johnny sitting down to trace letters in quiet consternation.  Is this how he acquires language?  Is this even developmentally appropriate?  Something much more basic and elemental drives little Johnny and his friends to acquire language:  the community of the classroom.  All the buddies together, with their teachers, a forest of children, growing together—this is what grows literacy.

As young children seek the companionship of peers, as they strive to make friends, they must learn to communicate.  This drive to know others, and to be known, to communicate, is what fuels the need, and desire to acquire language, and language skills.  How do children begin to do this?  Where do we see literacy emerging?  Why, in collaborative play, of course!  Children play House, chatter on pretend phones, ask for and share items, take turns talking, express themselves non verbally in drawings, scribbles and “secret messages.”  They work to sign a painting, seek and make eye contact, ask for hugs, shout or express frustration or tell a teacher they need to use the bathroom.   They work so hard to make themselves and their needs known in the community of the classroom. 

Where is literacy?  Everywhere!  It is even in the climbing, running, jumping, dancing, skipping and general mucking about that they do with their bodies; physical play is building motor dexterity and shaping a brain that can put pen to paper, form letters and begin to make language from left, to right, for the rest of their lives.  Literacy is in the fundamental, bare bones child work of play.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

What Is Emergent Learning?

Learning is rich and complicated.  Discovery does not happen in discreet, neat, 
one-dimensional episodes or compartments. 

Skills, information and experience are acquired in many layers, simultaneously.  Sometimes an “aha moment” takes center stage-- learning to write a letter, for instance-- but in the shadows, behind that major acquisition, are lots of other meaningful experiences, all adding up to growth for a child.  
Here at Dodge, we often share stories of experience in order to illustrate what experiential, hands-on, emergent learning really looks like, and why it is important.  We often tell these stories in an e-mail, at the end of the day.  
On a recent Thursday morning, I shared the following story with Spruce Room families and friends.  Luckily, I had documented some of the story with photos too.  A picture is often worth more than words...

My hiking group was an all girl group (on purpose), and I have to say that one of the beauties of the small group hike is that it affords children the opportunity to get to know each other better.  Lot's of social and emotional learning occurs in small groups.  Ostensibly, these hikes are a great way to get kids to look deeper at things, to see and experience more.

Today was a great example of the cognitive benefits of a small hike.  We looked closely at coyote scat (which contained apples) and the girls made the logical leap that the animal had been eating apples in the orchard.

Later, we found whole apples among the moss, deep in the woods.  After some shared detective work, the girls located wild apples growing way high up in the crown of an old tree.  

The girls found ants crawling on a rotten apple, and the kids surmised that the insects were eating the apple and they urged each other to "just let them eat--don't squish them." 

All of this constitutes cognitive learning along a path of truly emergent curriculum-- apples being the "theme"-- but so much more was going on.  
The children were communicating, making eye contact, posing questions to each other, problem solving as a team, calling each other by name and enjoying the give and take of conversation.

By the end of the day, they had learned a lot about apples, and each other.  
Now they have a firmer footing in social relations when we return to the classroom.  
All a wonderful part of growing up.

Friday, September 30, 2011

The Wind Beneath Their Wings

Almost Ready
Okay, so referencing Bette Midler and the movie, Beaches, really dates me, but I just couldn't resist.  You see, the homing pigeons of Dodge are about to get a new landmark, thereby helping them find their way home.  While the price tag for your average pigeon is about five smackers, this new landmark was a little more pricey, with a value closer to that of the best racing pigeon of all time.  The new landmark, a 21st century hallmark of going green, is none other than a 120 foot wind turbine, or wind mill.  The turbine is going up right now, and as it does, Dodge is setting an example for our community by adopting a great sustainable practice.  To quote our Executive Director, Jason Sanders:

"In the long-term, Dodge’s 20-kw wind turbine will actually save general operating expenses by producing wind power that will reduce the power Dodge needs to purchase.  To put this into perspective, an average home uses 10,655 kilowatts of power each year.  A 20-kw wind turbine yields 15,000 kilowatts of power each year.  The estimated cost-savings from a 20-kw wind turbine is $14,484 per year – that’s almost $15,000 that Dodge can take off its bottom line and put toward restoring the prairie, feeding the animals, or conducting more programs!"

The vision of usefulness for the turbine is three fold:
-To be a leader in sustainable practice in our community
-To provide a powerful teaching tool for students and visitors at Dodge
-To offset energy costs and use a renewable resource

Now, "providing a terrific landmark for pigeons who are learning to home," was not part of the fundraising campaign around this turbine, but it is a nice benefit, if you are a pigeon, or Farmer Don, who trains the Dodge Pigeons (I feel another blog coming on...).

The preschoolers have enjoyed watching the construction of the turbine.  
Digging the Turbine Footings

It is big abstraction for them right now.  When we visit the northeast pasture, the site of the turbine, they see sheep running around workmen and a long lattice of metal.  We point to the old farm windmill and say, "Like that.  See?  A windmill."  One child peered up at the blades of the old mill creaking in the breeze and then cast his gaze out at the behemoth in the pasture.  "Well," he said, "it's really going to cool us off."  Easy to see why concrete experience is so important for young children!  It's also why Dodge will be conducting wind energy classes for school-age kids.  In these programs, kids will experiment with a kid-sized version of the real thing.  

Old Farm Windmill, Not a Giant Fan
At a recent retreat, thanks to naturalist Teresa Root, Dodge staff got to fiddle around with the mini turbines; grown-ups had great fun measuring their energy output and competing for wattage. 

We are aware that some large scale wind energy programs have sparked debate about avian flight, but here at Dodge, we see our project as a win-win-win-win:  great for kids, great for the community, great for the earth, and great for lost pigeons.

Did you know that pigeons are now replacing e-mail in South Africa?  Did you know that the Preschool has a pet chicken named, Pidge?  Have you ever been invited to a Pigeon Party?  No?  Well, stay tuned to this blog... Thanks to Jason, Jenny, Joey and Don for their blog inspiration, and thanks to all the generous supporters of the Dodge Wind Energy Project.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Before the Snow Flies

Now is the time to visit the prairie!

I know we are all super busy with hectic back to school schedules, but take a half an hour and go now, before the snow blows; you won't regret it.  The grasses have seeded out and yellowed, bending under their loads in the breeze.   Towering Big Bluestem prairie grass is turning an amazing purplish/red, exhibiting its "turkey foot" seed head.  Purple and white asters are in bloom with bees frantically gathering the last of the nectar and pollen.  Migratory birds are gathering and wheeling overhead.  Everything about the prairie speaks of the change to come and lavishly shows off the fruition of amazing summer growth.  It's time to harvest the sight of the fall prairie before nature's blanket insulates it for the long haul.

The Dodge prairies are a nice little slice of mesic, mixed height prairie, giving us an idea of what much of the state of Minnesota once looked like.  Keep in mind that our Lily Property, just south of 110 presents an extended prairie ramble--170 acres of savannah--while the prairie just off the Nature Center on Marie provides an opportunity to casually stroll a few loops, including a new path that circles the southern perimeter, taking you along the edge of the woods, where turkey and deer like to congregate (see the Trail and Ground Maps button on the main page of our website).

On preschool hikes, we've seen lots of interesting critters in the prairie,
including:  snapping turtles, frogs, deer, turkey, grasshoppers, bees, coyotes, leaf hoppers and snakes.  This time of year, the prairie is just plain fun.  Preschoolers especially enjoy doing belly flops in the increadibly tall grass, tickling with seed heads, playing hide and go seek, rolling down hill, resting on a prairie hilltop or simply running.  Bring a snack or a little picnic and enjoy!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Mindfulness: A Tiny Little Vacation

What do a vacation in Ecuador, a stressed-out kid and Dodge have in common?

Well, I just returned from my first ever trip to a developing country.  (If you've never been to a developing country, I suggest you visit as soon as you can.  It is really, really mind-blowing, and humbling, to see how people thrive in places that are not America and I really wish that I had gone many moons ago, but before I digress...just go if you can).  I also have a highly contentious nine-year-old who tends to loose her marbles when she encounters multiplication home work.  And then there is lovely, lovely Dodge Nature Center, where I work every day.

Okay, so while in Ecuador, I noticed that I was living entirely in-the-moment.  I was not thinking about tomorrow (except perhaps to stop and try to coordinate transportation through the next frightening mountain pass), or making dinner, doing laundry or going back to school, or home work.  I was just really soaking it all up minute by minute (it was kind of like being a kid).  As I flew back to home, I began to think about the future, and about how I wanted to try to live more in the moment when I returned to Minnesota.  Now, I know that vacation is vacation, and one cannot go about your daily business without contemplating dinner and laundry, but I got to thinking about how our family can become consumed and preoccupied by the very idea of work, homework, mortgage, tornadoes etc, etc.  Plus, we generally have an embarrassment of riches here in the US, and it is embarrassing how much we manage to stress and worry about things that don't really matter at the end of the day.  Too much worry, and too much stuff, and too much worry about stuff.  Less worry, and less stuff.

Stress Reduction in Ecuador, or, Sleeping-In-the -Moment
So I vowed to take concrete steps to deal with daily stress, improve my coping skills and try to simplify by simply enjoying life a little more.  I finally enrolled myself in that yoga class that I've been putting off forever, I tried to organize my house a bit, I made my kids organize their rooms (or at least look under their beds), I made a list of meals to shop for and cook in the coming weeks (I said, "I made a list," which is not the same as actually cooking said meals) and I also checked some books out of the library.  One publication really struck a cord with me:  Parenting Your Stressed Child:  10 Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Practices to Help Your Child Manage Stress and Build Essential Life Skills by Michelle L. Bailey.  Bailey plots out how to practice mindfulness with your child in order to help you and your child cope.  Think of it as being able to take a mini-vacation every day (maybe we should call it mind-less-ness?).  This concise primer presents very easy and common sense practices that are not too daunting to consider implementing.  And guess what?  One of the best ways to combat stress and practice mindfulness is to go for a walk outside, IN NATURE.  You see where I'm going with this, right?

Well, I have to tell you, I was both thrilled and mortified to realize that I spend most of my life in a job that is really, really good for managing stress.  Thrilled to know I'm in the right place, kind of mortified to realize that I still have trouble managing stress, although I'm in the perfect "therapeutic" setting.  But the take away for all of you is that the benefits of Dodge are available to our entire community.  Yes, our students get a daily dose of mindfulness as they walk and observe the world around them (countless studies show that this alone is a huge factor in reducing stress and promoting health; remember the study that proved invalids recover faster in a room with a window on nature?), but all of our visitors can walk and breath in relative solitude on Dodge trails.  You know,  just about every week, someone walks through the front doors of the Preschool (mistakenly thinking it is the Nature Center headquarters), wondering if we have a map and asking if they can hike.  Yes!  Yes!  "You can do that," we say.  And you know what?  You, really, really should enjoy our trails, with or without a map, whenever you can.

Mindo Community Preschool in the Ecuadorian Cloud Forest

An Easy Mindfulness Walk:

First turn off your cell phone.  Walk on any trail at Dodge.  Notice your breathing.  Try to find the quiet spot between the inhale and the exhale as you walk.  Think about your body.  Notice where it might feel tense and focus on relaxing into that muscle as you walk.  Look around you.  Smell.  Touch grasses or leaves.  Keep walking and let your mind wander (I've read that it's good to think of your thoughts as clouds:  watch them blow by, name their shapes if you like, but try not to judge them, don't feel that you have to act on them, right at that moment,  just let them be clouds).  Try to give yourself at least a half an hour of this unhurried, easy-breathing, strolling.  A tiny little vacation.

Mindfulness Walk for Kids:

Tell your young wanderer that you are going on a Treasure Walk.  First run, and be silly, and loud, if you like.  Then try walking silently, and fairly slowly, for 5 minutes, looking and smelling and touching, but not talking.  Find a place to sit down and close your eyes.  Breath in through your nose and out through your mouth for a couple cycles, then try to remember 3 things you noticed on your walk.  The things that you remember are your treasures.  See if you can find more on your next walk.

Treasure I Found on a Walk in Ecuador

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Pound of Flesh

Every morning when I drive to work at Dodge, I pass by the Calvary Baptist Church with it's Highway 110 marquee.  While I wait for the light (no pun initially intended) at Delaware, I get to contemplate the daily platitude, which usually gently admonishes passerby to be a little less egocentric and a little more selfless.  Not too long ago, the message of the day was something like, "When others leave you, do they leave with more or less?"  Well, that's one that sticks with me, because I can be a glass-is-half-empty gal sometimes (witness my recent post, Tornado Alley).  My long ago writing mentor, the late, great, Richard Elman was eulogized in the New York Times Review of Books as a "sad sack."  I found the term very insulting, but the Times had a point which they could have made a bit more elegantly:  Richard had a great capacity for empathy.  When one shares in the deeper mysteries, and miseries, of the world, one tends to wear his heart on his sleeve-- I think of those little amulets of hearts, hands, and legs you see in churches in the southwest or Mexico.  I've always liked those amulets, they seem to be talismans of what it means to be human, a little piece of us.  Well, when I read that church marquee, through the haze of my not-caffeinated-enough, almost-pre-dawn brain, I first thought of literal subtraction-- taking a finger, an arm, a leg, some "pound of flesh" from a friend.  What every good empathizer or sad sack knows, though, is that we often think (wrongly) that everyone "gets" something by sharing an experience with us, by commiserating.  News flash to sad sacks:  they are not always getting something from us, sometimes we are actually exacting a fee from their souls, draining their proverbial cup, exacting our "pound of flesh."

Well, all of this is to say that some really marvelous things happen here at Dodge, and some really marvelous people make them happen.  Later this month, Dodge will honor a Volunteer of the Year, and, No, I won't tell you who it is (even though I know!).  This year's award goes to a really deserving person, but there are a number of people around here who seem to make it their business to to give more than they might get.  Mr. John Burgy seems to be one of those givers.  I don't know John very well yet, but what I do know of him seems to fall in line with those who know him very well.  John has a reputation as a Dodge volunteer of prodigious talent, great generosity and major kindness.

Last summer, I happened upon John in the Community Garden.  My students were very curious to find out what he was doing.  Turns out, John was picking more than a hundred grape leaves to make dolmades (a Greek delicacy of pickled grape leaves wrapped around savory rice) for his family.  Well, we often run into John, in his spiffy workshop, or while he's driving his truck around on one errand or another, and he always takes time to chat with students.  This summer, during one of our serendipitous chats, I asked John if the voracious Japanese beetles (talk about your "pound of flesh") had ruined his chances of making dolmades this year.  "No," he smiled, "I got 'em done early.  I beat 'em to it."  I said I'd like that recipe one of these days and, wouldn't you know, John showed up here at the Preschool bright and early the very next morning with a package of dolmades!  He wouldn't hand over the recipe until he heard the word that they were palatable (they are in fact delicious).  He's just plain nice, a really nice human being.  But you know, we sad sacks (aka Japanese beetles) did exact our "pound of flesh" from another giver anyway:  while John was here delivering the goods, he somehow agreed to build the Preschool a shed!

Please look for John's Dolmades Recipe in the Kitchen Catalyst section of this blog.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Big Kid Camp

Kudos to the ever-creative, ever-knowledgable Dodge naturalists that make all of the exciting "big kid" summer camps happen.  My preschoolers have heard through the Japanese beetle eaten grapevine about the mysteries of "Harry Potter" and "Gross" camp and are eager to attain "big kid" camp age.  My own "big kids" have spread the word amongst their smaller bretheren, proslytizing about the wonders of camp with such luminaries as Pam, Pete, Julie and that rascal, Nick.

Holly and JJ have completed a second summer of Dodge camps and they have bragged to their neighbors, friends, dentists, doctors, family and anyone who will listen about their exploits.  Here is a list of highlights from their lips to your ears (eyes?):

-Worm cookies, and tricking Dad into eating them
-Making a fire without a match
-Constellation Class, with that really cool blow-up outer space thing
-Eating bee larvae
-Butter beer
-Making a wand
-Herbology and Potions
-Making clay scat-- mine was the best coyote scat, Pete said so, he knows his scat
-Learning how to swing a golf club-- Dave says I'm going to be on the varsity team in high school
-Going in the pond up to my neck
-Finding stuff in the woods to eat
-Donkey poo paper-- don't worry, it's like bleached
-Challenge Hill & the Castle Wall
-Gettting extra Sander House points from that headmaster Dude...I think his name is Mr. Sanders?

*My mother in-law is not so thrilled about this accomplishment

If you want to make big kids happy, send them to a Dodge Summer Camp.  Wouldn't it be great if kids were this excited about school?  Don't tell them, but in a week of Dodge Camp, a kid might learn more than they did all year at school...  Here's a tip:  sign-up for Dodgewarts early.  Keep an eye on the website for a list of summer camps like Dodgewarts, Utterly Gross Nature, Survival Skills, Mystery Camp and Sports in the Outdoors  or call the Nature Center.  Summer may be nearly over, but there are big kid camps on offer year-round.

Many thanks to all the Dodge naturalists for working so hard to enthrall and educate our kids.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Tornado Alley

A couple of days ago, a kid in our "big kid class" of campers, one of the five and six-year-olds said, "I know a place!  Tornado Alley!  I know Tornado Alley!"  Turns out that this class of ours loves geography and so we embarked on a rather wide-ranging and existential class discussion of "places we know."  "Heaven," "Zanzibar," "Outer Space," and "Duluth" also made "The List."  But it is Tornado Alley that sticks with me.

Here at the Preschool, we spend a lot of time and energy thinking about and talking about coping skills like resilience, flexibility and patience.  We teachers pretty much agree that Nature (with a capital "N"), is a very good life skills coach.  Change of any kind usually presents a learning opportunity for young children, often challenging them to call upon new coping skills.  For young people, change often looks like a transition:  coming to school for the first time, separating from a care taker (if only for a few hours), putting on shoes or simply stopping what one is doing and going to the bathroom (preferably in a toilet).

Nature is full of transitions too.  Out on the trail, children not only observe change all around them-- a tree falls, an animal dies, an apple grows-- they must also cope with shifting terrain, obstacles and surprises.  At Dodge, kids learn to scramble over the fallen tree, to dig a grave for a classroom pet or to reach for a ripe apple.  Nature provides curriculum and we teachers simply help implement that curriculum.

Most of the time, challenges in Nature are manageable, but teachers do often think about how to avoid the toughest realities presented by the world around us.  We realize that our curriculum should be challenging, and also age-appropriate.  By and large, we agree that the hard reality of harvesting animals for food is best left as an abstraction when children are young:  "hamburgers come from cows."  That's Dodge Nature Preschool culture.  Now, young Inuit children might be happy to find the head of a narwhal on their kitchen floor, and certainly other rural Americans also have a closer relationship to their food.  My husband grew up slaughtering chickens.  At Dodge, we walk a finer line with our youngest charges, leaving it to families to sort out the hardest questions as they see fit.  Generally though, we adults and teachers feel that we can sort of control these kinds of questions or challenges.  But what happens when we feel like we can't control challenges?

Teachers try to keep at the front of our minds the notion that our students are developing and changing every day.  We accept change as a definition of childhood and actually celebrate it.  Sometimes life presents us with change that is unwelcome, and not so positive:  illness, dissolution or disaster.  Sometimes just a glancing blow from any of these vagaries brings home the notion that we are not in control.  A window opens on the human condition and we see the world through different eyes.   Days ago, my family's summer property was damaged by a tornado.  While severe weather is no stranger to us in Minnesota, the storm and its wreckage still came as a surprise, if not a shock.  I felt a little like I did when my little brother was diagnosed with a lifetime disease; I felt really vulnerable, like I could sympathize with that ant on the sidewalk, the one we urge preschoolers not to step on.

After spending a weekend collecting and moving debris, calling insurance people and trying, in vain, to get a tarp on a roof, we returned to our home in Lakeville to find that a dear, giant, old willow had succumbed to a second round of storms; the tremendous tree lay uprooted and smashed across two back yards.  I am not proud to relate my reaction to this new development:  a torrent of unpleasant vocabulary threatened to "blue" the air, but my wise husband appeared at my elbow.  "Be careful," he warned, "we're teaching them how to cope with change."  He was speaking of our nine-year-old twins who were indeed all eyes and ears.  Days later, when our car broke down in the extreme heat  (after surveying tornado damage with insurance assessors!), I still wanted to scream, throw my hands in the air or run and hide from forces beyond my control, but I recalled my husband's advice and literally bit my tongue.  While we may not be able to stop bad things from happening, we can try to control our response to them.  I can't blame my parents for my low coping skills, but I really do believe that it is in our best interest, as care takers, to try to teach the next generation to face adversity with patience, and flexibility.

I do not feel that it is age-appropriate to discuss the vagaries of climate change with young children, but I think that helping them develop coping skills now will give them the ability to tackle what may be the biggest challenge in their collective future.  It takes resilience to solve the problems and mitigate the results of rising temperatures, increasingly severe weather, loss of habitat and threatened air and water quality.  Behind all of our fabulous adventures here at Dodge Nature Center, is a love of the world we share and a conviction to promote stewardship and respect for the planet.  The next time you see a kid try to say, "good-bye," to pee on the potty, to leap the widest part of the stream, to lift the heaviest rock, battle thorns for the best berry or struggle to climb even higher, think,  "I'm seeing the future."

Saturday, May 21, 2011

In Our Nature

 "...the splendid things of life are few, after all, and so very easy to miss."

These words are from, "The Song of the Lark."  They are Willa Cather's words in a book that may be the best of all American writing about a really American story:  the making of something out of almost nothing; the making of an artist.  Cather's heroine is Thea Kronborg, daughter of a Swedish minister in late 1880's fictional Moonstone, Nebraska.  Thea's people are pioneers in a frontier town built up out of the dust at the foot of the great Nebraska sand hills.  Moonstone exists, tenuously, because the railroad exists.  But the shining hills of sand, the moon and the arid plain have a much longer claim on existence, one that Cather is constantly reminding the reader of.  Indeed, when Thea boards the train for Chicago, off to make make her way in the world of music, she does not cry until she watches the sand hills disappear from her sight.  The shimmering hills are hard to miss.

Ever notice how much of our best art is directly inspired by nature?  How literature, painting, sculpture, architecture, books and music are so much about what the naysayers call "atmospherics?"  Even in the great cities, as artists make their way, they have been inspired by the nature of the city.  When O'Keefe came in off the Texas plains to New York, she painted the new skyscrapers against the night sky.  The skyscrapers themselves don't exist without that sky. Falling Water is considered Frank Lloyd Wright's greatest achievement and what is it but a human interpretation of an element?  Brancusi's most beautiful polished metal and wood sculptures combine and then transcend their medium to evoke the exultant mystery of birds in flight.  In her own writings about her writing, Cather has said that the title of her book is not really an allusion to the sound of a lark (a forgivable assumption, seeing how the book charts the rise of an opera star), but rather "The Song of the Lark," is a reference to Jules Breton's painting of the same name.  In his work, a young peasant woman, sickle in hand, walks through a field at dusk, her face and posture registering the sudden sound of the bird she surprises.  I think that what Cather meant is that her book is about the mystery of creativity and creation in general.  It takes people, and perhaps more than people, place to create the artist Thea Kronborg.  It is her memory and love of the place where she grew up that sustains her, and propels her forward.  Such an American idea!  Manifest Destiny, really.

What does this have to do with a nature preschool and children?  Well, I'll tell you.  I had to read my favorite book again to understand this:

"the splendid things of life are few, after all, and so very easy to miss." 

We spend our days here at Dodge trying to get kids to "stop and smell the roses."  Our whole enterprise is about connecting with the world around us, realizing, if only for a moment, that we are part of a bigger system.  Cather, like her heroine, was created by her environment.  And so are these kids we spend our days with on the trail.  The preschoolers leave Dodge at such a tender age, and most, if not all, will not actively remember their time here in the way that we adults like to think of the past.  But their bodies were there in the woods, looking, listening, touching, smelling, tasting and as they did so, their brains were actually growing, their grey matter forming new kinks of intelligence.  Today, for these children, the worms are wriggling in their palms and the apple blossoms are tickling their noses.  This afternoon, or tomorrow, or next week, all the kids that visit Dodge, will leave Dodge.  They'll be on the bus, graduating to kindergarten or leaving camp.  But somewhere, back there, in their nature, is the wriggling worm, the tiny green apple, the stinky barn, the shimmering pond and the sound of the wind in the trees.

Don't blink.

More to Explore:

The Song of the Lark Cather
O Pioneers! Cather
Pioneers, O Pioneers!  Whitman
My Name is Georgia by Jeanette Winter (great kid's book about O'Keefe)
The Divide by Michael Bedard and Emily Arnold McCully (terrific children's book about Cather)

Wednesday, April 27, 2011


I've heard that morel mushrooms grow somewhere here at Dodge.  Somebody says he knows where to find them, but he won't tell. Perhaps bribery would work..

Ever notice that the best meals often feel "stolen?"

Perhaps you nicked some time for a special late night snack with your spouse.  Maybe that snack happened to be a handful of fresh morel mushrooms, suddenly sauteed.  And maybe you had just enough stale bread in the cupboard to make some surprisingly good toast points.  And just maybe you had a bottle of zinfandel on the counter that married the mushrooms and buttery bread like a wise old match-maker.  That happened to me.  Maybe you were standing on a street corner in a tiny town and somebody handed you an extra taco, which turned out to be the best taco of your life.  Happened to me.  Maybe you canoed to a tiny island in Penobscot Bay and dove into the clearest, coldest water to pluck blue-black muscles from the stony sea floor.  Maybe you happened to have a book of matches and made a tiny fire with driftwood and roasted those muscles in their own shells.  And maybe, while you watched a seal bob around your canoe, you decided then and there that those muscles, bathed in their own salty liqueur, were the best meal you ever had, or would ever eat.  That also happened to me.

So many good memories around food.  We can all remember the special yummy things we've enjoyed around holidays and special occasions.  And many of these memories are attached to our childhoods, but think about the stolen or unexpected moments when good food wasn't planned, when it just happened.  I would argue that a lot of these serendipitous moments occur in the spring, or summer time.  A lot of these moments are connected to fresh food, and food that is eaten, as the foodies say, "out of hand."  That taco was delicious because it was loaded with fresh greens and the handmade soft tortilla was warm and salty, redolent with the smoke and burn of a hot grill.  The morels were an unexpected gift from a thoughtful student and, in the rush of the day I forgot them, until at last the dishes were done, the children tucked in bed, the newspaper finally unfurled.  When I remembered the mushrooms, which had been picked that morning, I couldn't bare the thought of letting them grow a moment older.  The effort of  putting down the paper and rising from the chair, was worth it.  Those mushrooms tasted like spring.  Gifts from the sea, eaten at the seaside-- well, there really are no words for that particular delight.  And now spring is here, our yards and woods and fields are waking up.  Things smell good, and look good again.  Old hungers are awakened.  I crave the fresh and unexpected.

Diego Velasquez
Old Woman Poaching Eggs

While thinking about how to talk about springtime eating, I kept coming back to poached eggs.  I recently learned how to poach eggs and I've become rather addicted to the process.  A well poached egg is delicate and ephemeral, a fluffy and yet solid white pouch holding a vibrant pool of yellow.  You have to eat it fast and parsley is a necessity.  A sprinkle of salt, and, if you are feeling decadent, the redundancy of freshly made hollandaise sauce is very springtime-in-Paris.  Free ranging chickens start laying again as day length increases.  Spring.  Barnyard chickens are happy chickens and it is nice to eat the egg of a happy chicken (I think it tastes better too), even if it feels as though you are "poaching" that hen's egg.

Now bear with me.  The word "poach," as in poaching an egg by cooking it in simmering water, comes to us from the Old French word, "poche," meaning "bag."  Remember the yolk held in its own little bag of white, almost like a soft little purse?  And the word, "poach," as in to take something that doesn't belong to you, comes from the Middle German word, "poken."  "Poken" means to trespass, to poke into a place where you don't belong.  Historians believe that somewhere along the line the two words crossed paths.  Poachers carry bags for their quarry and all kinds of little "bags" are created by poking into things (pits, pocks, pockets etc-- "pick pockets" are poachers who poke).

I digress.

Why on earth do we find such joy in feeling like trespassers in the Garden of Eden come spring and summer?  It feels good to feel wild, to find our food in the field and enjoy it not too far from the field.  We no longer need to forage for necessity, but it sure feels luxurious to enjoy fresh finds.  Maybe that's just it:  we are now modern, sophisticated people.  We know how to process food and fiddle with it to the nth degree.  The juxtaposition of standing in our high tech kitchen and eating a raw thing from the woods is delightful, like camping is, in theory.  Eating fresh is to rusticate, to have options, but to choose the wild option.  When I was a kid, the best apples were those we stole from the neighbor's orchard, never mind that they were green and wormy.  The loveliest meal I ever had with my parents was picked in my own suburban front yard during a spring rain.  My dad noticed that mushrooms had sprung up in the green grass--marasimus oreades--fairy ring mushrooms.  He announced that he was going to pick them and we were going to eat them.  I wrung my hands about it.  Was he sure they were really edible?  How did he know?  "Trust me, Marlais."  What could I do but trust my father?  And so my dad and my mom and I picked them and sauteed them in butter and ate them right out of the pan with a bottle of pinot noir at my kitchen table while the rain fell softly, relentlessly into the grass.

Post your own "poaching story."

For fairy ring mushroom info:  http://www.wildmanstevebrill.com/Mushrooms.Folder/Fairy%20Ring%20Mushroom.html

For morel mushroom info:

For egg poaching, see Julia Child's recipe, the Fanny Farmer cookbook and my own rudimentary instructions on the food page of this blog.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Necessity is a Mother

I've heard it said that, "necessity is the mother of invention."  Actually, Plato said, in The Republic, "Necessity, who is the mother of Invention."  The idea being that if you need to do something, you learn how to do it, fast.  Last week, while I was cooking supper, my daughter ran up the basement stairs and announced, "There's some water down there."  My husband happened to be out of town, so I was the one who learned some things pretty quickly.  I learned:

-that one does not necessarily handle small sudden emergencies very well
-that a drain tile system does not work if the sump pump is not functioning
-that it is really good to have a contractor (and his helpful wife) for a neighbor, even if the contractor happens to be on vacation in Las Vegas 
-that the filter on an industrial wet/dry vac must be removed before one tries to suck up water with it
-that cell phones are good because they enable one to talk long-distance to Las Vegas while one is staring at a wet/dry vac
-that if the filter on a wet/dry vac is not first removed AND the reservoir is not first cleared of sheet rock junk, the machine begins to spew something akin to Portland cement
-that "Portland cement" is contractor talk for "stucco"
-that if Portland cement is poured down a laundry sink, that sink will clog
-that if a sink is clogged it overflows
-that a coat hanger will not clear a stucco clog
-that a toilet plunger can almost clear a stucco clog
-that leaving toys and laundry on the basement floor is a very bad thing
-that toys and laundry get heavier heavy when wet, especially when combined with Portland cement
-that barbie clothes shrink in the dryer
-that a cold beverage is very welcome when one learns many things in a small amount of time

What does this have to do with Dodge and nature, you ask?  Well, not so long ago, people didn't have grocery stores.  Prior to grocery stores, people had to learn how to cultivate food.  And before cultivation, people had to learn how to find food.  The people who migrated over the land we now call Dodge, knew how to forage-- hunger necessitated knowledge (which was likely acquired through some trial and error initially).  Fortunately, most of the guesswork has been taken out of spring foraging at Dodge, which is great because people like Pete Cleary, one of our naturalists, take lots of kids out into the woods to eat, and, well, a mistake could have serious repercussions.  I urge you to take a hungry walk in the forest this spring & summer and look for snacks.  Here is a short list of wild edibles and some resources for "going wild":

-dandelion greens (enjoy in a salad or deep-fried, as we do at Dodge)
-young burdock root (steam & mash like potato; salt liberally)
-morel mushrooms (these are perhaps the tastiest, and easiest mushrooms to id)
-stinging nettle (harvested young, with gloves on; when boiled or sauted it loses its sting)
-ramps (also called "wild leek" and found stream side)
-watercress (found in stream side)
-fiddle head ferns (the brand new shoots of wild fern, shaped like a fiddle's head)
-wild grapes or the new vine tendrils
-wild plums


Edible & Medicinal Wild Plants of Minnesota & Wisconsin
The Forager's Harvest
A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants

Let us know how the foraging goes!

Sunday, March 27, 2011


I recently concluded a much anticipated escape from our lingering Minnesota winter.  I was pleasantly shocked to step off a plane in Key West and into relentless sunshine and 80 degree air.  For the first time ever, I left my kids and husband behind to stay with my mom and dad for a whole week.  I gladly let my folks shepherd me around like a 40-year-old child.  I had to answer only two questions a day:  "Which beach do you want to go to?"  and "What do you want to eat?"  I quickly acclimated to this life of lassitude and ocean side oblivion.  I discovered that you can meditate with your eyes open.  Most of the time, my mind was as blank as the blue sky, but there was a little steamer of guilt chugging away on the far horizon. I knew that somewhere out there, beyond my line of vision, war and disaster still raged and plagued other people.

How do the survivors of war and disaster move forward?  How do they put one foot in front of the other after annihilation?  I'm sure I don't know.  My own kids recently completed a third grade Guidance unit on Resilience.  Their counselor sent home a sheet of tips for parents with ideas for how to make kids more resilient.  The basic gist was:  Don't freak out so much when bad things happen.  Suggestions included smiling and laughing more, yelling less, taking deep breaths and counting to ten, or so.  Coping skills.  All good suggestions, to be sure, but they sort of failed to address the bigger elephants in the room:  illness, death, disaster.  There may be no real way to successfully cope with the bigger tragedies we will all encounter sooner or later, but it got me thinking about the best ways to prepare children for life.  I started thinking about Dodge.

Mother Nature is a pretty good teacher.  Every day, out on the trail with kids, we encounter lessons in resilience.  The act of trekking itself builds physical stamina and resilience in kids.  We go out every day, regardless of the weather, teaching us that we can cope with the elements.  And on our rambles we see countless examples of how the world changes, but persists.  We often see parts of animals that have been eaten by other animals and, instead of being alarmed or grossed out, the kids are curious, full of questions and ultimately accepting of the fact of that this is the way things work.  A tree falls and rots and becoming food for bugs who become food for birds.  Logs turn into dirt and feed other young trees. Buds form on the trees, swell and finally bloom each spring.  Sap runs every year, without fail.  The snow melts and feeds the pond.  Grass greens only to blanch and fade again in the fall.  Anticipating new life and subsequent death is implicit in all that we do out there in the field with the kids.  There is joy in the new lambs of spring and of course sorrow when a little one just doesn't make it.  But we don't shy away from the sorrow, and why should we?

A newly-minted 5-year-old recently shared some of her zen wisdom with me.  Keep in mind that this child happens to be one of the most optimistic people I've ever met.  I was walking with her, and another 5-year-old friend, on our way to check sap buckets, when she turned to her pal and said, "Do you ever get a funny feeling in your body that bad things happen?"

The other little girl (who happens to be more of a glass-is-half-empty type; it takes one to know one!) turned to her and said, rather ironically, "I don't know what you're talking about."

"You know.  You write a story in your journal.  You write something bad happening.  It gives you a funny feeling, but you still write about the bad thing.  My mom says sometimes bad things happen.  We talked about it in the car."

The pair continued on in silence.  I couldn't help myself and butted in.  "But sometimes good things happen too, right?  Your dog could give you a kiss.  Flowers bloom in the spring."

The young sage spun on her heel and looked me up and down.  "Yes, it's true.  But, Marlais, dogs poop and flowers die."

You could have knocked me over with a feather.  She was so matter-of-fact, her observation so perfectly parallel.

When an older friend of mine, a true mentor to me, died after a terrible reckoning with lung cancer he was cremated.  His ashes were spread in his favorite place.  The marker that stands as a tribute to his life is inscribed with his own lines of poetry, "Let love / un / balance all."  It took me a long time to understand the inscription.  For all joy, there is sorrow, but it is how we address the balance, how we tip the scales, that matters.  Maybe that is resilience.

Readings On or Around Resilience, A Very Incomplete List
(maybe you would like to post your own readings too)

Strange, sometimes scary, confounding and ultimately engaging:
Totch, A Life in the Everglades by Loren G. "Totch" Brown

Surviving disaster (a bit grisly, not for the faint of heart):
In the Heart of the Sea, The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick
The Wreck of the Whaleship Essex by Owen Chase

A look at resilience and adaptation through fascinating species study:
The Whale:  In Search of the Giants of the Sea by Philip Hoare
The Wild Trees by Richard Preston
The Song of the Dodo by David Quammen

Personal privations:
Pioneer Women:  The Lives of Women on the Frontier by Linda Peavy and Ursula Smith
Coming Home Crazy by Bill Holm
The Heart Can be Filled Anywhere on Earth by Bill Holm

Adult fiction of resilience:
O Pioneers! by Willa Cather
Giants in the Earth by OE Rolvaag
The All True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton:  A Novel by Jane Smiley
Map of the World by Jane Hamilton
The Quiet Girl by Peter Hoeg

Young adult fiction:
The Harry Potter series by JK Rowling
The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall
The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare

Great for kids and adults:
Zen Shorts by Jon J. Muth
Amos & Boris by William Steig
The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf
Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney
To Hell With Dying by Alice Walker
Emily by Michael Bedard and Barbara Cooney

Friday, February 25, 2011

Wrestling Rules Rule

Okay, I don't know about you, but during our most recent "Weather Event," I thought I might lose my mind.

We could see grass.  The ice dams had cleared.  My kids thought they could "smell spring."  And I just wasn't paying close enough attention.  "Is it supposed to snow tomorrow?"  And when I went to the grocery store, on the eve of the Event,  people were arm wrestling over the last loaf of bread in the bakery.  All the donuts were gone.  The lines were monstrous snakes of human anxiety and the check out girl was surly and sweating.  "Yeah, it's supposed to snow tomorrow.  A lot."

I know I'm not only boring you with the details, I'm torturing you.  But on day two of said Event, more than 24 hours in, at about 3:30 or so, I looked out the window.  "When is this supposed to stop?"  "Noon," said by husband.  Yet, it was still snowing, with a vengeance.

The kids went out into the Event, then they came in, then they went out again.  Finally they stayed in.  Inside, they yelled, and chased each other and fought and I proposed, gently, but with a hint of anxiety in my voice, "Maybe you should go back outside."

They yelled, chased each other, fought some more.  I went back at it, "Hey, why don't you guys go out and do that."  But the snow hurts," said Holly.  "Yeah, it stings," confirmed JJ.  I sympathized with a frown.  Wind driven beebies of icy pain could be heard assaulting the windows as I spoke, and still I suggested more firmly, "I think you should go outside now."  My pain was more important.  The children ignored me and began to bicker instead.  That's when I shouted.  It wasn't my finest moment, but everyone has their limits.  My limit is apparently the fourth month of winter.  "Get out!" I demanded, like a good despot.

It was clear when my cherubs turned to me with Cheshire grins that, rather than being the Genghis Khan of the house, as I had hoped, I was now considered the Hosni Mubarek of our family.  "Maybe you should go for a walk, Mom."  Faced with open revolt and revolution, I reached for the last trick in my bag.  "1!  2! 3!  Wrestle!"  I yelled.

And so they did.  They wrestled with a vengeance, with a keen desire to go crazy, to exert pent up puppy energy and flame the fires of cabin fever.  But they wrestled with rules.  And no one got hurt.  And I have Dodge to thank for saving my sanity in the last hours of the Weather Event that would not stop.

Here is how to wrestle, with rules, Dodge-style.  It just might save you too:

Pick Your Partner
Extend an invitation, "Do you want to wrestle?"  Both parties must agree, verbally, if possible.  Eye contact must be established, and maintained.  I do not advocate more than 2 wrestling partners.  3 kids wrestling is problematic and under no circumstances should excited onlookers just jump into the fray.  Grown-ups can wrestle with kids too; you can pair siblings as well, just stick to the rules.

Find a Good Place
Start on your knees, facing each other in a softer, rock free zone.  Sand, prairie, exercise mat, carpet, snow-- all are excellent places to wrestle, just use your noggin when selecting a spot.  Have someone count, "1, 2, 3, Wrestle!"  Partners can count down together too, if they have the ability to wrestle autonomously.

No Nos
Dodge wrestling looks like happy, frenzied bear-hugging.  Aggression is not tolerated and has no place in this wrestling.  Here at the Nos:
-no punching
-no hitting
-no biting or scratching
-no grabbing the head or neck with hands, arms, legs or feet

Crying Uncle
Know when to stop.  Maintain eye contact if possible & listening ears always.  If somebody looks worried, sounds distressed, says, "Stop!" or even whispers, "stop," stop you must.  Winning the wrestling match is hardly the point.  This is process-oriented wrestling and usually kids are not sticklers for pinning etc.  While this may not be the late Paul Wellstone's brand of academic wrestling, I think he would approve.  This is wrestling for peace, and maybe subsequent quiet.

Special thanks to my colleagues here at the Preschool who taught me to embrace a child's need to wrestle.  Their common sense approach and willingness to wrestle with kids themselves has served me very well.
Our sibling  Highland Whites kick up their heels.

*A Wrestling Postscript:
Two of my dearest young friends, brother and sister, returned to school today with big news:  they now have a new baby sister.  My colleagues and I made a big deal about their new status, but the looks on their faces made it clear that they were still on the fence about the new addition to their family.  As the afternoon progressed, one sibling announced that she, "just wanted to butt things."  The other reported that he would like to "whack a stick."  "Just whack and whack and whack," he added for clarification.  I proposed a wrestling match, and the very idea brought a smile to each truly sweet face.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

10 Ways Chase the Winter Blues

Remember sun?  The color green?

I don't know about you, but I've kind of had enough of winter.

Anyway, recently, I was hiking with a small group of students near the Nature Center when suddenly we heard a tremendous popping noise.  My reaction was involuntary, "Hey, what was that?!"  We heard laughter-- lot's of people laughing in fact-- and then Pete, Dodge Naturalist Extraordinaire, poked his head around the corner of the building.  Pete smiled innocently, "We were just exploding dry ice."

Naturalists get their kicks in interesting ways.  Turns out the Nature Center staff was amusing themselves by blowing up the dry ice that comes in every shipment of rats for the raptors.  Pete explained it all very matter-of-factly and I got the distinct impression it wasn't the first time the staff has enjoyed a late afternoon explosion.

So, "cabin fever" has set in a bit early this year.  Maybe it's the fact that we've had snow since Halloween, or was it August?  Maybe it's the bitter cold.  Or the lack of vitamin D.  Whatever the case may be, we are all getting creative about how we amuse ourselves mid-winter here at Dodge.  Here are...

10 Ways to Chase the Winter Blues, Dodge Style:

1. Snow Bonfire
Make a fire in the snow.  Easy to do in your back yard (if your neighborhood allows).  Make snow seats.  Find some sticks and roast a bagel or two (pre-butter bagels and simply poke the stick through the convenient hole).  Parents can enjoy "refreshments" without worrying about melting ice.  This may seem like it requires extra effort, but once you get over the psychological hump of putting snow pants on and assembling fire stuff, you'll be happy.  The keys to a successful snow fire are warm clothes and snacks.  Very magical at night.  Check-out Birgitta Ralston's great book, "Snow Play."  My colleague, Joey, received the book as a gift and it has been a real inspiration.

2. Build a Quinzhee
"Quinzhee" is an Athabaskan word for snow cave.  Grab a shovel and heap up some snow.  Let the snow sit for a few days and compress.  Then use your shovel or your feet to scoop/kick out a door and "room."  These can be as big or as small as you like.  Decorate with sticks, evergreen boughs or colored ice.  See below.  You can build a couple of quinzhees around your snow fire for extra snow village fun.  Please don't climb on top once they are built.

3. Ice is Nice
Grab ice cube trays, jello molds, bowls or cake pans.  Fill and freeze with colored water (diluted liquid watercolor or food coloring work well).  You can decorate your quinzhee with pretty ice jewels.  Get tricky and freeze string or ribbon into your ice and hang ice ornaments in trees.

4. Learn How to Make Dumplings
Celebrate Chinese New Year--it's the Year of the Rabbit--with food.  Learn how to make Lin's terrific dumplings.  Lin and her mom, Marin, showed us how to cook these easy, delicious and addictive little packet of yumminess.  Veggie or Pork?  The choice is yours.  The whole family can get in on the act of cooking.  See recipe page, "Lin's New Year Dumplings," under "Kitchen Catalyst" below. 
5. Have a Parade
Keep the Chinese New Year theme going.  Bang on a drum by your snow fire.  Grab whatever makes a ruckus and traipse through your house, making as much noise as possible.  This is a great way to chase away bad luck and make room for good fortune.  You can also clean your house for the New Year, but that's not quite as fun.

6. Paint it Red
Days have been monochromatic, with lowering, peevish skies.  Chase away all that grey with a burst of red.  Make paper lanterns and hang them about the house (or in your yard).  Acquire red construction paper.  Fold in half lengthwise.  Cut into the fold, moving down the spine of the crease.  Turn paper horizontal and form a tube.  Punch holes in the top for yarn to string.  Hang.  Repeat.  Lanterns + Dumplings=Party.

7. Zen Snow Spiral
Need some exercise?  Here is another idea we pilfered from Brigitta Ralston:  the snow maze or spiral.  Find a nice big expanse of blank snow.  Start tromping in a big circle, but before you close it, start spiralling in.  Tighter and tighter your spiral gets until your right in the middle. The only way out is back the way you came, so consider the size of your spiral before you start.  Young children can become surprisingly committed to this time-consuming activity; a zen sense of peace might be achieved by sending everyone out to make a spiral while you enjoy a quiet cup of tea.

8. Spark
The Scandinavians call kick sledding, "sparking."  Well, that's what I'm told, but I'm not sure it sounds the same in Norwegian.  Some Scandinavians commute to work and school with kick sleds.  We have some kick sleds here at Dodge that the Preschoolers and visiting school agers use, but you can try out this great cardio activity too.  Dodge hosts events like Frosty Fun, when the general public can have at our kick sleds, but some local parks also provide kick sleds for your pleasure.  Visit Lebanon Hills Regional Park in Eagan and glide over a frozen lake or plan a longer route and pack a snow picnic.  Mountain Boy company makes a home grown version and the Hearth Song and Magic Cabin retailers sell kick sleds too.

9. Snowshoe
Come on, are you really a Minnesotan if you haven't snowshoed?  If preschoolers can snowshoe, so can you.  Stop by Dodge, our Executive Director, Jason Sanders, will be happy to give you a snowshoe tour of the place.  Snowshoeing is another great cardio workout and you'll feel so woodsy.  You don't have to be a mountain woman to snowshoe.  I can get them at Lakeville at City Hall whenever I want.  Lebanon Hills has 'em. Most state parks, including nearby Afton, have them too.  I recommend going off trail, otherwise, what's the point?

10. Paint the Blues
In our room, we decided to embrace the winter blues by painting them (see "Get In Line" posting for more serious details).  Kids mixed winter hues and just painted away.  Teachers found the activity soothing and fun too.  You might just try it at home on your own, or with your kids.  Watercolors or cheap tempera will work just fine.  Watercolor crayons are another great choice if you don't have a lot of space for mess; the crayons can be dipped in a cup of water and you can "paint" in a notebook on your lap, at a counter or the kitchen table.