Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Right to Bear Neck Warmers

Here at Dodge, we sometimes take things for granted.  Like our great, wonderful parent volunteers... our laundress extraordinaire, Faith... bakery treats from Jim... a fresh pot of coffee... our super boss, she's so kind and supportive...and here's another thing:  going outside every day.

Everybody who works at Dodge goes outside every day, even administrative staff hike the trails, hoof it between spots on "campus," or step out to feed the birds.  Not everybody in the world gets to do what we do.  We forget that.  Life can get so busy, there just isn't time.  And not everybody takes the bus, or commutes by bike, or walks to work or school.  Garages are attached to houses.  Cars are cozy.  Kids need dinner.  Homework.  Bed.  Repeat.  You know the drill.  Is it really little wonder then that we aren't quite prepared for outdoor fun in winter?  So here is a little primer on having fun outside, in Minnesota, in winter.

Short version:  Wear warm clothes.

Long Version:  Sounds silly, right?  Everybody knows the old adage about "there is no bad weather, just bad clothing," but really, there IS bad weather.  Really icky, cold weather.  Pellets of ice in the face, bone chilling cold.  Now, I do not advocate torturing yourself for too long with ice in the face and relentless subzero windchills, but a little preparedness goes a long way.  Dress for winter success and then you can push the envelope.  Adults and children alike should wear the following gear to enjoy time outside (if you have a teenager, I'm sorry.  I see them at the bus stop.  I know you bought them a coat.  And they left it at home.  On the floor of their closet.  Under a pile of dirty laundry.)

1.  Snow pants.  Even adults need snow pants.  Bibs are warmest, and very nice:  when you slide and roll, you don't get snow in your drawers.  Make sure snow pants pull down over boots.

2.  Wool socks.  I sound like a granny, but really, wool socks, or at least wool blend are the way to go.  Wool is so fashionable now, you can find cheaper knock-offs of the fancier ones at places like Fleet Farm (I have a feeling Fleet Farm has always offered wool socks, though).  Wool socks are easy to find for kids too; no excuses.  As a teacher, I can tell you nothing is worth less in winter than a tiny little thin excuse of a cotton anklet on a child's foot.  Those Old Navy socks are not for winter feet.  Those things get soggy and they wriggle right off the foot and wind up in the toe of the boot, like a damp little uncomfortable marble.  If your boot liners are dry and your socks are wool, you should never has cause for complaint.

3.  Nicely insulated, waterproof boots.  Boots need to be warm.  Think of the classic 1964 Sorel.  Think pac boot.  Think snowmobiling.  Don't think cute or pretty.  Big boots are "in."  Boots need to stay zipped or laced and should not allow for the intrusion of snow or anything else. Velcro is not so good on kid boots.  Get something they stomp their foot into, something with a hefty liner.

4.  Insulated coat.  Make sure the coat zips.  A hood is a good addition, as an extra layer over your hat.  If the zipper is busted, snaps aren't going to cut it, not to keep the cold out.  Zipping and snapping is really good.  Your coat should not ride up over your belly button when you raise your arms.  You're not dressing for the beach.  And you should be able to move your arms.  If you can't play in your coat, you won't have fun outside.

5.  Hat.  Again, wool is really the best.  Wool lined with fleece is awesome.  This hat of yours should pull down over your ears.  Think that looks stupid?  It might (especially if you wear glasses, like me), but you'll be warm, what do you care?  Funk out on the hat, go crazy.  Get a really BIG hat.  Mad bombers are mad cute on kids.  Get a hat that says something like, "This hat is soooooo warm!"

6.  Neck Warmer.  Here at the Preschool, we are non-denominational, except for...the Religion of the Neck Warmer.  That's right.  The Neck Warmer is the Holy Grail of winter apparel.  Di rigeur at the Preschool.  In my opinion, every single Minnesotan should own a terrific neck warmer.  At least I could lobby "the powers that be" to issue every last Dodge kid a neck warmer upon enrollment.   If you pull a neck warmer down, over your hat, you can either pull it up over your nose, or push it down under your chin, depending on the weather.  A Neck warmer means FREEDOM!  Freedom to go and do whatever you want in MN in winter.  Freedom from cold.  You won't get frost nip, or even get chafed.  You'll just be protected.  Get one.  I like fleece.  The all-in-one, neck warmer-cum-hat, for that total yeti look, killing 2 birds with 1 stone, is great for kids (adults may be mistaken for circa 1970 bank robbers).  At the Preschool, we learn to id kids by eyes only, because that's all we see all winter outside.

7.  Mittens.  Did I say, "gloves?"  I did not.  I said, "mittens."  M-I-T-T-E-N-S.  Insulated, waterproof mittens.  Young children have no business trying to put on gloves.  This is not an age-appropriate skill to cultivate.  Gloves are not warm.  Mittens only.  Period.  Wait.  Attention parents:  test drive mittens on children.  All mittens are not created equal.  Some look great, but they do not perform well.  If the mitten does not grip the child's wrist, or go up to the elbow, don't buy it.  The child should test the mittens while wearing their winter coat, and flapping their arms, vigorously.  If the mittens fly, creep or slide off the kid, walk away.  Kids don't have enough muscle tone to keep mittens on by sheer will.  Clips help, but they do not solve this problem.  And make sure mittens dry thoroughly.  Some super-insulated mittens can harbor sweat that then freezes around a kids' fingers.  Owie!

8.  Tissues.  Bring them, otherwise your sleeves will be adorned with a not-so-fashionable accessory.  Cold weather thins mucous, I think. Why else would my nose run like that?

Now you're ready for the Dodge FROSTY FUN FESTIVAL this weekend!!!

Next post:  Frost Nip vs. Frost Bite...there's a big difference.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Twelve Days of Owls, And Trees

The "Penny Tree" near the Lab
Happy New Year to All.

The busiest part of the season is behind me (and perhaps behind you). I've had a little time to read, and I'm enjoying two great books, one on trees, the other about owls-- two things we have an abundance of here in Minnesota, and at Dodge too.

My good friend and Spruce Room colleague, Kristenza, who has a knack for knowing just what somebody desires, gave me the very lovely, "Twelve Owls," by Laura Erickson, illustrations by Betsy Bowen.  This book is for adults and older kids, but the illustrations and the words can certainly be shared with our younger friends.  Some of the vignettes that Erickson tells about the twelve owls native to Minnesota are quite poignant and interesting, and could be read aloud to preschoolers before bedtime.

Dissecting Owl Pellets
We are lucky to count artist Betsy Bowen among Minnesota's native daughters-- her illustrations of all kinds of native wild animals are full of detail and charisma.  Betsy's work is always popping up (this month's Conservation Volunteer excerpts "Twelve Owls"), and you'll see some of her prints and books in our classrooms at the Preschool too-- they've really become classics.  We have an afternoon class in the Spruce Room that is officially obsessed with owls.  We've had a good time repeatedly acting out the story of "Owl Babies," (another preschool classic) by Martin Wadell.  Most children in the room know the words by heart and this activity has really cemented things for this crew socially.  Right before our holiday, the children were taking turns at different roles and trying their hands at "directing" too.  All the owl mania, led us to have an owl-centric class party with grown-ups.  Together, we hiked out to meet Dodge's own Shakespeare the Barred Owl with naturalist and mom, Julie Allen.  Shakespeare is blind in one eye and so calls the Dodge Raptor Mews home permanently.

You too can visit the Dodge raptors-- Bald Eagle, Red-tailed Hawk, Kestrel and Barred Owl--any day of the week.  The Mews, which is right next to the Main Building at the Nature Center, is always open, just have nice manners when you visit (no yelling, jumping, climbing or throwing things).  These birds are all too injured to return to the wild.

Most Minnesota owls rely on trees, excepting perhaps the Burrowing Owl and the Short-eared Owl, and winter is a great time to get to know trees.  "The Meaning of Trees," was another gift, from my sister-in-law, and this one covers most of the major species (or families?) of trees on Earth.  Tree, by tree, botany, history, lore and mythology are presented to the reader.  The history of trees, and their "migrations" to different spots on earth is particularly fascinating.  The Horse Chestnut did not reach Europe until the 16th century, when a Flemish Ambassador saw the Turks feeding the nuts to their horses.  Because some trees, like chestnuts, have heavier fruit, the wind cannot blow the species farther afield, and animals don't carry them too far, so they take longer to spread.  Some tree species never leave deep ravines-- never, that is, until humans get involved.

Removing Buckthorn with Spruce Teacher Joey
Humans have gotten involved with trees throughout MN history too.  Unfortunately, we made the mistake of importing common buckthorn, Rhamnus Cathartica, from Europe in the 19th century, and we are paying for this mistake.

Buckthorn is invasive and crowds out indigenous plants (see the DNR fact sheet at:  www.dnr.state.mn.us/invasives/terrestrialplants/woody/buckthorn/index.html ).  We are fighting the good fight here at Dodge, with a massive Buckthorn eradication program (if you'd like to join in, stop by the Nature Center and ask for a weed wrench-- somebody will be happy to point you in the right direction).

Heather and Spruce Room friends work the weed wrench...
Got it!

Grandma & Grandpa help out too.
Much of our Buckthorn is now labelled with little bits of blue tape so we can see our target in the winter woods.  Walk in the woods here at Dodge and look around, most of what you see in the underbrush is Buckthorn.  Another Spruce Room class of preschoolers so enjoyed pulling Buckthorn with their teachers, that they decided to host a Buckthorn party with grown-ups.

We pulled lost of 'thorn and got to roast marshmallows at a snowy campfire too.

Marshmallow reward for pulling 'thorn.

I can't resist sharing a few more nuggets from, "The Meaning of Trees":  The "apple" that Eve offered Adam was more likely a quince.  Wild apples have thorns and all cultivated apples, if left to go wild, will eventually start to grow thorns again.  There was a brisk trade in the wood of the Myrrh tree long before Jesus, and Mary gets her name from the Hebrew, Myryam, after the Sumerian Marienna which was their word for the Myrrh tree.  The Myrrh tree was the Mother Earth symbol for this culture prior to the arrival of Mary; so Mary is named after the Tree of Life.  While these details are interesting for tree geeks (my kids are named after trees), kids will certainly enjoy the mythological stories shared in the compendium, like the one about why sugar maple trees turn red in autumn.

According to the Iroquois legend of "The Hunting of the Great Bear," four brothers chased a really big bear and eventually ate it for dinner.  But, as they digested, they found that they had ascended to the heavens, where the bear's bones reassembled and the hunters got up and continued their pursuit, in perpetuity.  They all of course make the constellation of the Great Bear and every autumn the hunters finally catch up with the bear and his blood rains down to earth, turning the leaves scarlet (is the constellation closest to the Iroquois' Northern Hemisphere then, I wonder?).  Turns out maple sap contains balanced sugars, potassium, calcium, magnesium, manganese, vitamins A, B2, B5, B6, as well as folic acid, niacin, biotin and proteins.  No wonder kids like maple syrup so much!  Another reason to attend the Pancake Breakfast at Dodge's Frosty Fun Festival.

So, it's still a great time of year to get outside.  Listen for the hoots of nesting owls, particularly Great Horned Owls, and look for interesting sleeping trees-- the bark of dormant deciduous trees is particularly apparent this time of year, and you can see who's been eating, scraping and pecking them (rabbits, squirrels, owls, woodpeckers, deer etc).  My favorites are Silver and Paper birches in winter (there are a few here and there at Dodge).  See if you can find the giant poplar trees along the western edge of the Nature Center property, right along the east side of Mrs. Dodge's pond (ponds with fountains on the map).  Some of the mighty have fallen  (kids love to climb the giant trunks), but I heard a rumor that someone from the U came out and found a live tree that he thinks might set an age record in MN...shh.  Even the youngest preschoolers can hike it out to those sleeping giants, why not you too?