Manzanita Trees

dgThis week, I hiked at St. Josph’s Hill County Park, a hidden gem nestled between Novitiate Park and Lexington Reservoir County Park. During my hike, I was surprised by not only the spectacular views of the reservoir and the surrounding mountains but also the diverse array of plants in the park. While I was there, I saw everything from monkeyflowers to daisies to even silktassels. However, what struck me the most were the manzanita trees next to the trails.

Manzanita trees are interesting because unlike most trees, their bark is smooth and red instead of lumpy and brown. I wanted to find out more about this phenomenon, so I did some research, and I discovered that tannins are largely responsible for the trees’ reddish color. Tannins are molecules found in many plants, including corn plants, grape vines, and even grass. They’re the astringent molecules that cause your mouth pucker when you eat. Although they are not particularly toxic to humans in low concentrations, they are particularly toxic to many herbivores and microorganisms, so many plants, including manzanita trees, use these as a defense against herbivore.

However, although the tannins are responsible for trees’ bark color, they do not play a role in the bark’s texture. Although scientists don’t all agree on one reason for the manzanita trees’ texture, they generally agree that in the past, smooth bark offered better protection against herbivores and other invaders; for example, mountain pine beetles have a harder time climbing on smooth bark.

I never expected a hike to inspire my interest in manzanita trees, but that just goes to show that hiking is not only a great way to exercise but also a great way to fuel your curiosity! 

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History Comes Alive

A few weeks ago, I hiked at Almaden Quicksilver County Park which is nestled in San Jose’s rolling hills. During my visit, I not only enjoyed stunning vihgfhgews of the Sierra Azul and Diablo Mountain ranges but I also learned a lot about the history of the area.

I started on Mine Hill Trail, a relatively wide trail that leads up the ridge. Immediately, to my left, I saw an entrance placard introducing the park’s history and its significance not only to Gold rush miners but also to the Ohlone Indians—historically, they used cinnabar, a form of mercury, as a decorative pigment and as a trade item. Although, at first, I viewed the red ore on the sides of the hill simply as rock, as I learned more about its history, I began to appreciate its value, and I could almost see the miners sifting through the ore and the Indians bartering for animals. As I progressed on Mine Hill Trail, I saw the Reduction Works to my left, a massive yard that holds many mining artifacts, including a large pump that juts out. Initially, I wasn’t sure what the pump was for, so I took a quick detour to Deep Gulich Trail, and I learned that the pump was used to carry water out of the mines. It was interesting to look around the old structures and absorb what it must have felt to be a miner back then. As I finished my tour of the Reduction Works, I hiked back on Mine Hill Trail and passed by the old tramway, which was used to transport ore down from the mountain. Even though the cart itself is now long gone, the rocky hillside is still there—along with its essence. As I stood in front of the hillside, I felt more like a part of history rather than a bystander, and I wanted to learn more about the tramway.

In school, we often view history as a thing of the past—a thing so static that nothing can be done to change it—and we sometimes lose sight of the connection between the past and the present. Thus, history can seem dry and insignificant. However, by learning through the senses, history comes alive, and what happened in the past holds more meaning in the present.



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Weather Wisdom

photo 5 (10)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.

We spent the second half of Week 3 of Summer Camp with Mom, exploring weather and its wise use for humans.  Included were some brief YouTube videos including the origin of wind and weather systems and a gorgeous time-lapse movie of the life cycle of a sunflower.  The kids did not struggle to discuss what the “Green” movement was about, and what it meant to be “Eco Friendly,” and on the tips of their tongues were ways to use nature to power the human world, or ways to reduce waste.

photo 1 (13)After exploring the origin of wind and weather in one of our movies and through a brief discussion, we made kites (and for those who had made them during Week 2, we added tails and refined their designs).  After lunch, we headed to Shoreline Park’s Kite Flying Field to take them to air.  I described in Week 2 how wonderful this was.  The Fearless Flyer pre-cut Tyvek kits are definitely worth their $4 cost, for reducing anxiety during kite construction, and virtually guaranteeing successful flight later.  We had fun coloring, assembling, and even doing some run-testing in the backyard before doing some very successful flying in Mountain View alongside a couple of other kite fliers.

Back at home, we applied the concept of wind to art.  Another favorite from my childhood was discovering in art that you can design with no intention or vision, looking to a creation after it has been initiated, to decide what it will be, later.  At staff training a couple of weeks later, my principal used the same approach, to encourage us as teachers to help kids just begin, to take risks, and move away from the high expectations that often come with them to the classroom, from themselves, parents, cultural or societal beliefs, and more.  photo 3 (12)In a fun little book called “The Dot,” by Peter H. Reynolds, it is conveyed that the hardest thing to do is begin and commit to work.  And sometimes it’s best to simply let go and let others decide what impact and meaning might be.  If that is far too abstract, imagine how kids took my description of Blow Painting.  I told them that they need not do more than pick a color, then make a big, water-rich dot of watercolor on their paper.  Step two was to simply blow, and see what developed.  My kids who had been with me for Week 2 of Summer Camp with Mom, furrowed their brows, wondering how they could paint trucks with this new technique.  My response: “No – decide what you are painting after you have seen what shapes emerge.”  They were confused.  “Can’t we just paint like normal?”  Confusion turned to amazement as I demonstrated.  I made a big, wet spot of brown on a paper, picked up a straw, and blew air onto the spot.  The paint whipped away from its origin, some parts smoothly, some parts erratically.  “Oh!  It looks like a tree!”  “It looks like a firework.”  “It looks like a hand.”  “I think it’s a road.”  “Is that water?”  They eagerly tried it themselves.  I decided I had made a tree, then grabbed a fine brush to draw cherry blossoms on it.  Holly added leaves.  Just as kite flying had been, the kids were transfixed with the process, and while some left blow painting to do some more conventional watercolor painting (Holly retrieving her “Frozen” watercolor book), I think I was successful at introducing them to the notion of making a first mark to start, even when you have no long-term plan.  That’s a tough thing to do.

We finished the day by starting some tie-dye shirts.  I found some decade-old club t-shirts, cleaning up from school the other day, and saw this as an opportunity to meet some personal goals: to tie-dye (which I have never done on a shirt before) and cut t-shirts (because all were too large for the kids, anyhow).  Tie-dying proved to be pretty labor intensive and messy, so if you copy this lesson plan, be sure to have some extra adult help.  Lessons learned: (a) Cover the kids with aprons or use old shirts, to keep them clean.  Despite warnings, 4- and 8-year-olds are not terribly mindful about rogue dye. (b) It takes a lot of dye to get all of those nooks and crannies, but the kids are eager to have their turn.  Have an extra adult or two manage each color of dye.  (c) Label each child’s shirt tag with a permanent marker before you start – it was hard to tell whose creation was whose, the day later (shirts have to rest for at least 12 hours before rinsing, with conventional no-boil kits you can buy).  (d) Plan for about 15 minutes of thorough rinsing per shirt.  I spent about 2 hours working on all of our shirts, the next morning.  (e) Plan to hang your shirts to dry over a lawn or something you don’t mind dying with rogue dye that didn’t rinse out, due to your impatience.  It can take all day for the shirts to dry.

The next day, we hung the shirts to dry, and the kids stood, awestruck, learning that despite the amount of dye craziness the day before, there were still white regions on their shirts.  We negotiated whose shirt was what, and I showed some images of cut shirts, to see if folks wanted to cut their shirts.  Cutting t-shirts is a pretty fashionable thing.  Strips can be cut to add shape and volume to a shirt, or simply take fabric away, turning a tee into a dress or tanktop.  All of the shirts we had were adult sizes, so as soon as the shirts were dry, I trimmed and sewed them to be smaller, aiming to remove the emblem from the GEMS Club from which they had originated.  Holly has a cute tank top dress, now, and I have a fringed “hippie” tank top, as my husband calls it.  Ryan and Max have simple-looking boys shirts, and I’ve reserved the cut strips of tie-dyed fabric to make something fun like pot holders.  Samuel and Shira weren’t able to join us for the shirt cutting day, so they have the full –size shirts they made.

photo 4 (14)After customizing our shirts, we headed out to Kimm’s Art Gallery in Sunnyvale.  Kimm’s is a local business, right on the busy El Camino Real just a few steps from the city center.  Despite its bustling location, it’s calm and has some down-home, creative vibes.  I had contacted Kimm’s a few weeks before our visit, and Mr. Kimm told me that everyone is welcome always – no worries about our 4-to-8 year olds.  When we visited, there were locals tapping away on their computers or sketching in journals, sipping on coffee or eating scones from their café, in true Silicon Valley style.  I went over the rules for our visit in the parking lot in front of one of Kimm’s colorful, larger-than-life murals outside their buildings.  I’d made up a scavenger hunt for the kids of color and emotions, and they had diligently added color to my black-and-white printout, prior to our visit.  In the parking lot, they succeeded in seeing almost everything on their lists.  Once inside, there was so much more than the few remaining colors and emotions they had not yet seen.  Ryan was impressed to see a portrait of a nude person.  Max was taken aback by a portrait of a sad, but wise-looking old lady.  Holly was thrilled to see so many flowers to smell (but thankfully not touch – she was following directions), then butterflies, immortalized in oil on canvas.  The boys marveled at some amazing bubble and tessellation paintings that appeared to be smoothly and precisely printed on metal sheets.  I was enchanted by some cartoony commentaries on local politics including those about education and parenting.  “Hey look, Mom, there’s nothing here on this wall.”  Max found space for more art, but where was it?  “Well, you know, these are all local people showing their work.”  Max: “Oh, maybe I could put some art on these walls.”  Ryan: “Or maybe all of it was sold.  Look at this one.  $4000 for a painting of a waterfall.”  Max: “Wow!”  Quickly the discussion turned to how much money some of the paintings cost, and which each person liked the most.  The kids looked at the art now not only for color, style, topic, and emotions evoked, but as a source of income and business.  It was a neat lesson.

photo 2 (16)We escaped to Las Palmas Park for a picnic and some climbing play just as the “don’t touch anything” rule became forgotten by Holly, and stomachs started rumbling.  Las Palmas has a new pair of playgrounds and central structures, so if you haven’t visited this central city park in Sunnyvale for a while, it’s worth a visit.

Our final day of weather applications had us building solar cookers.  I have long been impressed with simple designs that can harness nature’s power and serve human needs.  The concepts behind solar cooking are really simple, so I listed them on a dry erase board: (a) Reflect light and focus it on the cooking surface.  Keep it shiny!  (b) See if you can trap heat.  Black stays hot.  Think about where in your world heat gets trapped.  That’s really about it, but when I asked the kids if they wanted to cheat and see some designs, they concurred, and I showed them the first 20 results of a Google Image Search for “Solar Cooker.”  Max and Ryan teamed up, and Holly and I teamed up.  Max and Ryan wanted to make a huge sort-of pinhole camera-meets solar cooker, lining a box with foil and closing the lid to limit how much light came in.  Max explained that the light would come in and not be able to exit.  He was meeting both criteria.  Ryan pushed him to allow in more light, so the hole got bigger.  photo 2 (15)They added a layer of coconut oil to the foil on the inside to make it extra shiny.  Holly and I lined a large bowl with foil, then added a black base (a construction paper “plate”) and covered that with an upside down clear pie dish.  We removed our lid temporarily and brushed olive oil onto the foil, to make it extra shiny.  Holly and my design also met the two requirements.  We placed a few pre-cooked hot dogs, poked with temperature probes, in each cooker, then put them in a sunny spot.  We took data about the temperature of each cooker when we started, then collected more data every hour or so.

We also took quite a bit of time to research the temperature and wind speed in Sunnyvale over a day. gave us predictions of both for every hour, and we made tables in each of our journals.  I then taught them to plot each point over time, using two different labels for the y-axis of our graphs compared to time (x).  The 8-year-olds showed me that they knew how to plot histograms, but drawing points without lines leading up to them was a new idea.  This was their first time drawing scatterplots.  I was impressed to see how proud they were to plot these changes over time in a new way.  Their graphs were rough, but they could easily draw conclusions and make predictions from them, the whole point of the graphing exercise., oddly enough, omitted data for 3 PM, which was an awesome teachable moment.  We had connected the dots on our scatterplots, so I asked the kids if they could predict how warm it was going to be and how gusty, at 3 PM.  Throughout the day, from thereon, they were eager for 3 PM to arrive, so they could see if they were right.

photo 3 (16)We left our cookers to cook, and headed to the Palo Alto Junior Nature Museum.  This free museum has extensive hands-on displays for kids on “green” energy, including solar, hydro-, and wind power.  When kids are through trying out the displays, there are plenty of bugs to look at (both preserved and live samples), a very active bee hive to peer through plexiglass at, and then a pretty full zoo of a wide range of animals.  It’s a small, family-friendly place to visit, and is well known in the area, so it was bustling when we visited.  We donated a handful of dollar bills upon entering, and the older kids quickly dashed off to find a tennis ball to test one of their many kinetic sculptures.  Outside, we quickly found our favorite animals, then picked new favorites, as we explored more and more small displays.  The slow and massive tortoise made an appearance, the cougar happily sauntered to the back for lunch, and we marveled at the birds darting around their interesting enclosure with cubbies for kids.  Holly excitedly pointed out every creature she saw, which was happily just about every creature that was there.

photo 1 (17)After lunch at home, we set out to do some crafts having to do with “green” in one way or another.  We made pinwheels powered by wind, an elegant craft with just paper, a pin, and a straw.  We strung beads to make UV-sensitive keychains (beads change color in the sunlight, the kids were amazed to see), and finally to play with clay.  There is something truly enrapturing about clay.  Rolling it and shaping it turned out to be Ryan’s favorite thing that day.  I invited the kids to pick any small leaves or flowers they found in our gardens, to press into the clay, and make an ornament or coaster.  As before, they were a little incredulous about what this meant, but after seeing me demonstrate, Holly eagerly grabbed the scissors to trim away at the lavender bush, and the boys each picked rosemary and wild violet.  Max even grabbed an extra handful of clay and shaped it into a model airplane.

We left our goodies to dry over a long weekend, and finished the day with a fictional story of a lot of invention and creation (including fire) by watching “The Croods.”  I finished the clay crafts by coating them with Mod Podge the next week.

- Debbie (Founder, Stroller Hikes)

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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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