Phylogenies for Four-Year-Olds

photo 2 (18)This summer marks a second year of trying our own version of summer camp at home, rather than spend hundreds of dollars each week for our kids to attend theme camps.  Each day is filled with fun, low-cost or free adventures, hands-on projects, and learning about science, history, and art.  We intersperse each day with plenty of free play and add an hour of “relaxation time” after lunch so I get a break too!  A lot of Stroller Hikers have asked for more information on what we’re doing, so we’ll post about them and link them to the curriculum page of Stroller Hikes.

One of the hardest things to teach in my AP Biology Classes (college-level biology for advanced high school students) is the construction, interpretation, and controversy of the phylogeny.  Phylogenies have to do with human judgment about how we classify things, typically living organisms in biology, but classification certainly has applications to non-living fields as well, more currently in taxonomy design in computer science (a Silicon Valley favorite).  Students struggle with the ever-creative way of classifying, battling their natural tendency to want to know the single right answer.  It comes back to what I know is hard for all of my students: taking creative risks with logical bases.

photo 1 (18)At the foundational level, a phylogeny can be like a family tree.  So we began by playing “One of these is not like the other,” starting with a classic Sesame Street episode with characters Susan and Kermit the Frog.  I told the kids they would watch and it should be fun and easy, so they really enjoyed our little walk down (my) memory lane.  After the show, I pulled out some harder examples for them, which included a series of stuffed critters from Holly’s room, and some jewelry from my collection of homemade goodies from my kids.  I was really impressed with what a super job the kids did telling me which of my set of 5 items did not belong and why.  Because classification is so controversial, it was a treat to watch the kids realize why this was the case, without having me overtly teach them this.  For a group of 4 bears and a horse, one kid chose the horse as not belonging, but another chose a smooth blue bear because everyone else was fuzzy and brown, and another chose the puppet as being different, as all other critters were whole stuffed animals.

It was ever so easy to then jump to the next level and construct a phylogeny.  We all agreed on one thing that was different – say, the horse – then we began our “family tree” – horse on one branch, and bears on the other.  Then we picked the puppet as being different from the other bears, and split the bear branch in two – puppets on one branch, non-puppets on the other.  We continued, pulling out the smooth bear from the remaining 2 fuzzies.  Then finally we separated the last two over one of their physical features.  Our first phylogeny was complete.

I was amazed how simple the kids took this process to be.  My high school students never found this to be so clear.  Alas, the relaxing summer provides time for insight.  Still, could my little 4- and 8-year-old students apply their knowledge to new contexts?  I told them to collect 5 items, each, and build their phylogenies, coming up with yes/no questions (e.g. “Is it fuzzy?”) to split each branch.

Eager as ever, the kids teamed up and ran about, secretly planning their phylogenies (it helps that I was offering prizes for the most detail-oriented, easiest-to-create, and trickiest).  Fifteen minutes later, the kids were back with piles of stuff and sly grins.  They felt clever and wanted to see if others could complete the phylogenies that had prepared in secret, when presented with their items.  One group won for most detail-oriented, building a phylogeny of LEGO pieces.  Another built a phylogeny of kitchen utensils.  There was a phylogeny of hair accessories.  And finally, for trickiest, there was a phylogeny of furniture.  Free time was well deserved and I made a mental note to write down how I had taught this – success could be had by my AP Biology students, too!  I plan to try this also in my Introductory Computer Science classes this year, as well, when I teach about inheritance, a feature of Java Language.

photo 3 (17)My main motivation for having the kids explore phylogenies and classification was to have them do some biological sampling, noticing differences between organisms just like a biologist would.  Our object of collection and observation would be pill bugs (roly polies or isopods).  We watched a Carolina Biological YouTube video about them, before we left, so the kids would get some exposure to the critters and what they liked to live in.  Pill bugs are abundant, particularly where it is slightly damp and dark, as in leaf litter and rotting wood.  We hiked to Serra Park to collect pill bugs.  Immediately upon arriving, I gathered the kids around, then showed them how to lift up the grass along the edge of the lawn and scoop up the leaf litter and loose soil, to look for the little silver balls.  We immediately found several dozen pill bugs.  The older kids, in their excitement, could not wait to find more, unfortunately shaking each of their bug boxes so as to lose two before gaining one more.  By lunch, I had 5 in my bug box, a couple of other kids had 2 or 3, but others had none (they kept losing anything they found).  We picnicked, then looked around the creek in the park (dry this summer, but full of shady spots), for more bugs.  Eerily, we found none.  Wandering back to the oak-tree-shaded part of the park, there were plenty wherever I looked, but beneath the part of the park shaded by redwoods, there were none to be seen.  I recalled to the kids that termites and carpenter ants don’t like redwood, so perhaps pill bugs had the same aversion.  Redwood continues to be a prized building material, for just this reason – while most other woods are easily riddled with tracks and rot in older homes, redwood panels often go untouched.  It was a neat observation, and one that Max and I may come back to later, when we’re thinking about Science Fair projects for the Spring.

After finding many more pill bugs in the oak grove, we headed home.  The kids were delighted to lose less bugs on the return hike home, and hopefully their little bug boxes and inhabitants were well received at home.

photo 4 (17)To end that day, we made wind socks, an easy draw, cut, and sew project to precede our visit to the gusty beach the next day.  One boy made three and was thrilled to be able to sew the last one by himself, after my coaching during the first two, on my sewing machine.

Santa Cruz is a fantastic city, and while we visit several times per year, we have yet to go to the Beach Boardwalk.  Having half of a dozen kids with me made the boardwalk even less appealing, so we drove to our favorite place – Seabright Beach.  Every time we arrive at Seabright, the Natural History Museum across the street is closed, but this time I made a point of arriving later in the morning.  Not only could we avoid some of the common summer fog, but we could check out this little gem.  The Santa Cruz Natural History Museum has a whole lot going for it.  We’d scrambled up, across, and down the whale sculpture in front of it plenty of times.  But now, we could venture indoors as well.  The museum has a lot of little half-rooms, each with their own theme and interactive display.  There were archeology specimens in a big sand table with brushes and spades, to tempt the budding archeologist.  Stuffed formerly-alive animals beneath glass and a beneath-plexiglass bee hive was exciting for little naturalists.  And the beachside museum even had a small touch tank with anemones, kelp, and sea stars.  A favorite corner for the kids was one devoted to Native American crafts, including a simple game that the kids immediately partook in, adopting another boy whose family was also visiting the museum.  I highly recommend this stop, which is just across the street from the museum, so is an easy addendum to a beach trip.  Added to all of the kid-friendly fun inside was the bonus that admission for all of the kids is free; I was the only one who had to pay, and even that admission was inexpensive.

photo 1 (19)After playing at the museum, we crossed the street with all of our beach gear (each kid carrying a bundle), and set up next to an abandoned pit in the sand, and several yards from the surf.  I brought picnic goodies for everyone, but the boys quickly became so enraptured in sand play, that the sandwiches, carrots, and grapes became overlooked.  Another boy joined our group (a half dozen boys are magnetic), adding a yellow excavator to the cavalcade of construction equipment.  We finished our beach stay by collecting “precious” stones, shells, beach glass, and kelp from the beach.  It was interesting to see what the kids thought was precious, but whenever I offered up something I found pretty, they bounded over to get something for their little baggies.

On our way out of town, we visited Marianne’s Ice Cream, a local favorite.  Marianne’s even accommodated our no-dairy kid, and easily became a favorite feature of the day.

photo 5 (12)Back home later that afternoon, and early the next day, the kids placed their finds from the beach along the borders of wooden picture frames.  My kids have partaken in this activity more times than I remember, and it was neat to see they were so excited to partake, now that new people were doing this common craft.  I ordered photos to be printed at the local drugstore, to fill those frames; photos of each kid having fun during our impromptu summer camp.  When the pictures were not yet ready, we stopped over at the local carwash to wash all of the sand and dirt off of the car, from our summer of adventures.  I was pleased to watch the kids getting along better than ever, perhaps realizing that the end to their summer adventures was near.  They happily took turns riding a 1960s-era mechanical horse at 1 cent per ride, before my car emerged, shiny and new looking.

- Debbie (Founder, StrollerHikes)

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Music and Meaning

photo 2 (11)This summer marks a second year of trying our own version of summer camp at home, rather than spend hundreds of dollars each week for our kids to attend theme camps.  Each day is filled with fun, low-cost or free adventures, hands-on projects, and learning about science, history, and art.  We intersperse each day with plenty of free play and add an hour of “relaxation time” after lunch so I get a break too!  A lot of Stroller Hikers have asked for more information on what we’re doing, so we’ll post about them and link them to the curriculum page of Stroller Hikes.

One of the weakest skills in my high school students today is creative application, including problem solving.  In this age of immediate access to almost anything, and the concurrent race to abundant “right” answers, students feel that a simple Google search is a decent replacement for creativity.  I love making opportunities for my kids to “think outside the box,” innovating and experimenting.  It’s within these creative forays that I feel that intuitive learning, commitment to ideas, and risk taking happens, and all three are important life skills, particularly for future developers, inventers, and self-sufficient people.  This, by the way, is one motivating force behind the Common Core Movement, so I am not alone in my thinking.

Music is something people have done for eons, and the context is an easy way to introduce kids to creative problem solving and design.  I spread my music lesson across two days, modeling for the 4-to-8 year olds some simple instrument design and application of music.  Music tells stories, evokes emotions, and embraces plenty of physics and mathematics, and is so easily accessible these days.  I started the two-day stint showing just how pervasive music is in our worlds, by giving the kids a scavenger hunt for music-related things.  I included plenty of applications (“This music wakes me up,” “…tells me someone is at the door,” “…announces that food is ready”), aesthetics and popularity (“…is a popular group of musicians,” “…announces a San Francisco concert,” “…is a national anthem,”), widely recognized instruments (“guitar,” “drum,” “piano”), and lesser recognized instruments using nature (“…the wind makes my song,” “…I make you want to pee,”).  The kids had fun running around the house looking for appliances, concert posters and records, conventional instruments, and taking the time in silence to listen for our wind chimes and fountain. 

After reviewing that music could really come from anywhere and stir the senses and emotions, I gave each a big sheet or paper on a clipboard, and we began drawing to music.  This was one of my very favorite things to do as a kid.  We didn’t get many channels of television, but faithfully would watch the Boston Pops Orchestra on PBS each weekend, with our big pieces of construction paper and sets of pens, pencils, or crayons.  Staccato notes got brief, pointed shapes and dots.  Flowing medleys of instruments matched my long, sweeping lines and swirls of color, intertwined as were the different tones of a cello with a violin.  For some kids, this was their first time trying this, and for others, they were seasoned pros.  We listened to a range of different music pieces, thanks to their ease of accessibility on YouTube.  First it was a ragtime song, then a symphony (“Flight of the Bumblebee”), then a jazz rendition of a Radiohead song.  In preparation, Holly and I sat and listened to a couple other songs, and she was immediately turned off to “Night on Bald Mountain,” because it was too “dark and scary.”  I was really impressed that my 4-year-old grasped that – the clear intention of the composer over a hundred years ago.  It’s a stormy, torrentuous piece, and I decided not to play it for my young crew, based on her reaction.

After some free play and a smoothie break, we headed up through traffic to San Mateo’s kinetic sculpture garden, which includes some interesting installments that work with sound.  The sculptures at Ryder Park/Seal Point were in disrepair when we visited, but we made the way up to the top of the point, above the dog park and windsurfing launch.  The kids had fun trying to see through the mounted binoculars there, then enjoyed playing with a tennis ball between two concave discs.  I’ve visited this park many times with many different Stroller Hikers, but with the older boys, it took them a little more time to slow down and realize how this sculpture changed sound.  The concave discs face each other, concentrating sound waves at a central point in the sculpture.  You can stand in the middle of it, then slowly move to its edges to experience sound change, so for the younger kids who can slow down and take in the world like a sponge, the discovery of how the sculpture worked was almost instantaneous.  About 30 feet away, a group of pipes looking not so different from those on a pipe organ, can be activated to help kids realize that changes in tube length change the tone of sound perceived.  This sculpture used to have shoes hanging from it – a sturdy flip-flop makes an excellent mallet to generate waves of sound to vibrate up the length of each tube.  Far less impressive with my stiff Tevas, the kids understood the lesson, nonetheless.

photo 4 (9)Back at home, after more free play and a little lunch, we set out to play with sound closer to home.  Together, we made kazoos (waxed paper wrapped around combs), plastic egg rattles, tambourines (paper plates with paper-clip-mounted bells along the edge), a wrench xylophone (propping different-sized metal wrenches on an egg carton), and a simple rubber band guitar (rubber bands across a clipboard).  We played a song together, then I challenged the kids to design their own instruments in their journals, using any or all of the things they had worked with that day.  Some kids drew pictures, and others listed out features.  Some kids used the concept of focusing sound by including a partially closed box, some used rubber bands to generate vibrations, others used metal or loose small things, like the bells or beans (from our rattles).  All ideas were creative and did not mirror entirely something conventional.  Hoorah- creativity!

photo 5 (7)When the kids resumed camp the next day, the first item of the day was to build their creations.  I offered prizes for several categories, to keep everyone motivated, of course.  Ryan’s invention reminded me of old Bob Dylan photos: as soon as he had one sound-generating piece working, he added another sound-generating piece.  A wrench was hit by a butter knife, and not only did we hear ringing, but the beans below a chamber shook, and when he strummed a rubber band, bells shook while the body of his instrument warmly hummed.  Max’s approach was to generate a wide range of notes, in order, so he created a strumming box with notes ranging low to high.  Shira and Samuel copied each other, something cool to see siblings do.  As soon as Samuel settled on needing a big plastic bin, so did Shira (but a different-shaped bin of course).  As soon as Shira had hung bells from vibrating bands, Samuel opted to do the same.  They were parallel collaborators, for sure.  Shira practiced her playing of “Row Your Boat” while Samuel went to add more bells.  Holly made a drum out of a huge oatmeal container, and played with putting holes in the head of her drum, to change the tone of it, as well as putting a layer of lentils atop the vibrating head.  I made a wind chime-meets-tambourine instrument, with hanging rattles of different tones and types.  After we all won our respective awards, we relished in our little prizes (bouncy balls and bubbles), and I embarked on the long cleanup spilled lentil beans affords.

photo 5 (8)We had done one of my favorite music things the day before – drawing to music – so after free play, we were on to another favorite from my childhood.  I still have the record from the late 60s that we listened to, complete with the same skip in it.  I put on Leonard Bernstein’s rendition of “Peter and the Wolf,” and all of the kids found a pillow to relax on, to cover almost every nook and cranny of our tiny living room.  If you have never heard or seen it, it is a fantastic introduction to the personification a tone can provide.  In the story, the bird is a flute, young and spritely Peter a clarinet.  I’ll let you use your creativity to guess at what the wolf would be.  It’s a fun story with morals that hold true to this day.

- Debbie (Founder, Stroller Hikes)

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Sushi Rolls and the Seashore

image (4)This summer marks a second year of trying our own version of summer camp at home, rather than spend hundreds of dollars each week for our kids to attend theme camps.  Each day is filled with fun, low-cost or free adventures, hands-on projects, and learning about science, history, and art.  We intersperse each day with plenty of free play and add an hour of “relaxation time” after lunch so I get a break too!  A lot of Stroller Hikers have asked for more information on what we’re doing, so we’ll post about them and link them to the curriculum page of Stroller Hikes.

Summer Camp with Mom 1: Ocean Foods

image (2)With very low tides on the first Monday of Summer Camp with Mom, we ventured to Fitzgerald Marine Reserve to start the day.  We established rules about safety before we left, then I passed out a scavenger hunt paper for things found at the tide pools to each child.  We had fun scrambling around the newly exposed kelp beds, atop rocks, and digging in the sand.  We saw everything on the scavenger hunt, but had to talk to the local ranger to know where sea stars and purple urchins were.  The daring kids dared to have their fingers kissed by sea anemones.

We were at the beach in the morning, and after snack, jumped back in the car to ride home, so we’d be home in time for lunch.  Since our theme was ocean foods, I wanted the kids to think about what we get from the sea.  While I prepped food, they brainstormed as many things as they could think of, drawing pictures or making lists in their journals.  The top list got a prize.  I was impressed to see all of the kids include seaweed, fish, and salt on their lists.  We would make sushi today and taste salt tomorrow.

We had tuna melts and grilled cheeses, with sides of strawberries (strawberries love growing on the bluffs above the beach, as they do in Watsonville).  The kids each picked their quiet  rooms (one kid to a room) and books for an hour of relaxation time.  While they rested, I started some sushi rice cooking in the rice cooker, and sliced matchsticks of cucumber and carrot.  I also put out avocado and pickled ginger, and cooked up an omelet that I then cut into matchsticks.

After nap, we made waist aprons.  I had sewed a ribbon onto a rectangular piece of ivory fabric for each child.  I’m a crafter, so I collect fabric ribbon from gifts, and had quite a lot to choose from.  I also had some old upholstery fabric leftover from a sofa project years before.  If you’re not a crafter, this project is made easier using napkins or dish cloths; just sew on a ribbon so the apron can be tied on.  You can also buy premade aprons ready for decoration at your local craft store like Michael’s.  We colored our aprons with fabric markers.

Clad in our aprons, we were ready to cook!  We added sugar, rice vinegar, and salt to the cooked rice, then stirred it.  It’s great when the number of ingredients and steps equal the number of kids participating; to a little bowl, Jack measured and added the sugar, Pranav measured and added the vinegar, Max measured and added the salt, and then Holly mixed up the contents of the little bowl and added it to the rice. 

Our recipe for Seasoned Sushi Rice:

Cook 2 cups of raw sushi or short-grain rice according to package directions.

In a small bowl, stir together:

2 Tablespoons each of rice vinegar and sugar

1 Tablespoon kosher salt

Once dissolved, stir seasoned blend into rice.

 HumanSushiRollAfter the rice was made, we sat down to plan out what would go in our dream sushi rolls.  The kids each drew pictures in their journals, and the older ones added written labels and named their rolls.  Some kids already had their favorites from the neighborhood sushi bar, with cucumber and salmon.  Others had never eaten sushi, so benefited from some descriptions and drawings from other kids.  Others made wild rolls with cotton candy inside.  A new ingredient emerged as a result of this planning: cream cheese.

The issue with sushi rolls is that they must be super tight, so to teach this concept, what better than to make some human sushi rolls?  I have a bamboo picnic/beach mat, so each kid took a turn being the filling.  They each laid down, then we pulled the mat up on one end, patted it down all over, then kept rolling.  Giggles all around, but by the time we got to making our rolls, the training had paid off.  At each of their own little bamboo mats, on top of dried nori sheets, kids patted on thin layers of sticky sushi rice with rubber spatulas, then laid on just a few toppings.  They rolled the first inch of their rolls, then patted everything in place.  Tight, tight, tight!

SushiI took care of cutting the rolls while the kids escaped to free play in the backyard.  When all rolls were cut up, we had fun eating our creations, and when parents came to pick up their kids, they got to take a few rolls home to have with dinner.  We finished the day by watching part of Ratatouille – “Anyone can Cook!”

- Debbie (Founder, Stroller Hikes), Max (8), Holly (4), and Andrew

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Fostering Independence

IMG_0734For the first time in his three years of public schooling, my 8-year-old son waited cheerfully and excitedly at the door for the moment it was time to leave for school. While not every morning has been a full-blown battle, he has perfected surly feet-dragging and spiteful last-minute fumbling for his backpack. He and his teachers have always reported that he liked school, did well there, and seemed happy once he arrived, but getting out the door has been a struggle. But on this momentous day, my son was at the ready a full 15 minutes before he needed to be, asking me, “Can I just go now? Please?”

Stroller Hikers, I’ll share the magic parenting strategy that produced this minor family miracle. The only thing that made this morning different from other mornings is that my son was riding his bike to school by himself for the first time. Having ridden the route over 300 times with his dad, he was confident in his ability to navigate the distance, to follow biking rules, to stay alert, and to be extra cautious at the one tricky intersection. Given the opportunity for independence and autonomy, he bloomed and couldn’t wait to get going. Watching him pedal away (5 minutes earlier than he needed to), I felt how empowering a little trust can be. My son was thrilled to be his own person, to demonstrate his responsibility, and to make his own decisions. When handed the torch, he ran (or pedaled) with it proudly.

When I met him after school, I wanted to hear all about his first solo commute. But he was cool as could be: “It was fine, Mom.” No exciting adventures or reports of a proud triumph. But his increased confidence was evident, the kind that comes from accomplishing something tangible.

Stroller Hikes has provided a perfect opportunity for my children to practice this empowering independence. Kids in the outdoors can run ahead, choose which trails to take, and find fun places to climb and explore. Perhaps even on his earliest hikes 8 years ago, from the safety of the Kelty carrier, my son was looking forward to the day when he would self-propel himself through the next hike, to his second grade classroom, and on through the rest of his life.

- Amy B


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Bay Beauty

image (16)This summer marks a second year of trying our own version of summer camp at home, rather than spend hundreds of dollars each week for our kids to attend theme camps.  Each day is filled with fun, low-cost or free adventures, hands-on projects, and learning about science, history, and art.  We intersperse each day with plenty of free play and add an hour of “relaxation time” after lunch so I get a break too!  A lot of Stroller Hikers have asked for more information on what we’re doing, so we’ll post about them and link them to the curriculum page of Stroller Hikes.

Summer Camp with Mom 6: Bay Beauty

Week 2 of Summer Camp with Mom centered on the topic of the Bay Area.  We started the week by drawing out a huge poster on butcher paper with what we expected to see at the Baylands in Palo Alto, our field trip for the day.  We headed out, parking near the duck pond, a historic salt water swimming pool that had once been used by bathing beauties from Palo Alto, and is now a sanctuary for geese, ducks, coots, egrets, herons, pelicans, and more.  We made quick work hiking all around the pond and to the observatory at the Baylands (sadly, closed on Monday), then settled down to paint with some watercolors. 

I have seen artists at Palo Alto Baylands many times, and today was no exception.  But today, the artists included three young kids, drawing rally trucks, forest landscapes, rainbows, and fireworks.  I was the only one drawing the local landscape, but it was a treat to see that these kids are never lacking for creativity.  Some had never painted with watercolors before, so it was fun to offer them this new experience.  Everyone enjoyed blending colors and trying to draw things they could imagine or see.

We headed home and added to our poster what we had seen that we had not drawn before – a lot more birds, flies, and bugs.  I brought home a small sample of muddy water from one of the estuary regions of Palo Alto Baylands, so we enjoyed watching a water boatman bug zip to and fro, and watching little protists shake about and squiggle, amongst nematode worms.  As before, when we had looked at yeast for making bread, there were no creepy-crawly responses, and the kids were impressed and amazed at what they could see through a microscope lens.

image (15)After a taco lunch, the kids relaxed.  I cued up movies summarizing the natural beauty and diversity of the Bay Estuary (there is an exemplary, award-winning series titled “Discover the Bay” on YouTube), then we delved into Native American history of the region.  There was some nice review about the flora and fauna of the area, including some ocean foods like we had discussed or tasted the week before.  We watched as a Native American built a canoe out of reeds, and checked out the homes and dress of natives in the area centuries before.  While the natives lived in thatch and mud structures, we opted to build something a bit less messy – Tepees out of tyvek and balsa dowels.  The opportunity for design and experimentation with construction was just what the kids needed – something that initially took 15 minutes to complete lasted for 90 minutes, as the kids made their structures stronger, more complex, and prettier.  Holly even grabbed some blankets and cuddled beneath hers for a (5)

The day ended well with some bike riding around the block.

-          Debbie (Founder), Max (8), and Holly (4)

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