Snow Days Outdoors, Of Course!

In New England, today’s another snow day for kids and parents, thanks to the third nor’easter in two weeks! Let your kids slump into a little TV fog or sleep in–it’s fine for a couple of hours. But you know they’ll get grumpy at some point and that means they need to get outdoors.

In my childhood, we children were expected to play outside and entertain themselves for hours. If you got cold or your mittens were wet, you could go inside and change, but then you went back outside. This expectation remained impervious to whining, moaning, and complaining.

That’s when I discovered the wonder of experiencing a storm from under an umbrella on our modest front steps. Not thunder and lightning, of course, but good downpours and snowstorms.

I learned the direction of the wind by turning my face into it. I detected the earthy smell of spring rainstorms and the closed-in, dampened sound of my neighborhood during a snowstorm. Over time, I knew the difference between dry snow and wet snow and which made better snow balls. This small type of experience, repeated over time, cemented part of my understanding of the world and love of science.

Children and adults of all ages learn by experience, especially hands-on experience. That means direct, physical, and sensory experience with objects and environments. Think snowballs, snow angels, snow-men and -women, building igloos, catching snowflakes, or just plumping around in the snow.

All the senses are engaged outdoors. The body breathes in fresh air. The brain is stimulated by fun and play. No one is too old for that, are they?

I urge you to try this today. Get your kids outdoors and see what (device-free!) fun they have.

Stargazing, Jupiter, Parents and Kids

Gazing at the night sky is one of the pleasures of summer. The best place to view it is somewhere away from city lights or the yellow-y glow from shopping centers. The darker and clearer the sky, the better.

Toward the end of this month, you’ll see five planets in the sky, including Jupiter, where the exploratory spacecraft Juno, after its five-year journey, is gathering information we’ve never had before.  Here’s a video from NASA that explains Juno and Jupiter:

It’s difficult for most of us to comprehend Juno’s 540,000,000 mile trip to Juniper, or even a five-year journey in a vehicle. Our journey to explore the universe is a marvel of humankind’s collective curiosity and imagination.

The important thing to do, though, is to revel in the wonder of space, to let your imagination tumble around ideas and questions. When you talk with your child about big ideas, no answers are right or wrong. It’s the open exchange of ideas–and growing closer–that matters.







Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity

When I teach science, I look for opportunities to integrate the arts because the arts are means of expression for everyone. To me, it doesn’t matter if you know much about classical music. It’s more important to use music and help others to enjoy it by making direct connections with other disciplines.

You can do this, too.

For example, The Planets, composed in 1914-1915 by British composer Gustav Holst, is a suite of pieces inspired by his understanding of astronomy and astrology. My favorite piece is “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” because its musical themes are recognizable to many.

After learning about the solar system, I’ve asked children to listen to “Jupiter,” had them evaluate what they hear in the piece, and then determine if it expands or deepens their understanding of the planet. This is quite sophisticated for children of any age, but I’ve been astonished at the insights of even young students.

You can follow the lead by listening to the great Leonard Bernstein speak about The Planets. “Jupiter” begins at about 24:58.

Cool Science: Why Are Trees So Pushy?

  • Enjoy this updated post from October, 2012.

Elementary science projects are not just for kids. Good ones  have something for everyone aged infant to one hundred! In autumn, your nearest deciduous tree has a lot to teach.

A Milford, NH, tree in all its glory.
A Milford, NH, tree in all its glory.

Make that tree into a cool science project. In fall, it’s experiencing the “Get-Off-Me Season.”

That’s what botanist Peter Raven calls it.  In this 2009 NPR story, he explains how trees push off their leaves when no longer needed.

To learn this science in nature, try the following:

  1. Listen to the 4-minute NPR story (transcript and pictures are below it).
  2. Take children outside for a walk. Observe trees in different stages of “pushing.”  Talk during the walk.
  3. Collect and display fallen leaves.  Include a branch with some leaves still attached.
  4. Ask children to write a story using what they learned about science in nature.
Ready, set, push! All that action at the end of a leaf stem–in a tree near you.

Science ideas like this one show how science in nature is available for all, both at home and in school.  This topic teaches listening,

Elementary Science Every Day

Maybe there isn’t a lot of science in your child’s school, or science materials, or time to teach science.

Looking east at 6:15 p.m. on Martha’s Vineyard (9/17/15).

The solution? Stop and look at the sky. It’s elementary science – on the ground, out the window, or in a car.

Identify clouds by name, as well as colors, shapes, wind direction, and the horizon. Have your child look up what they don’t know.  Play the what-do-you-see-in-the-clouds game to build the imagination.

The western sky, about 35 minutes later.
The western sky, same day, about 35 minutes later.

What time of day is this and how do you know?  What do the colors and shapes tell you?  Where do you see evidence of patterns and why?  If this were a scene in a movie, what do you imagine would be happening?

These are simple but profound concepts.  A lesson on a shoestring?  Not quite. In a brief conversation, you’ve taught a child to use facts, research skills, curiosity, imagination, reasoning, math, and science to explain their world.

That’s how we turn elementary science into nature’s poetry.

Grandparents and Kellogg’s Corn Flakes

Your two granddaughters come to visit while their mother copes with a new baby. Every morning, you pour mountainous bowls of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes for each one before they come downstairs.

Did you know Kellogg's Corn Flakes has been around for over 100 years? (K.Nollet, 2015)
Did you know Kellogg’s Corn Flakes has been around for over 100 years? (K.Nollet, 2015)

You set out spoons and the yellow milk pitcher. You have firm ideas about the propriety of leaving the cereal box on the table, so you put it back in the cabinet.

Years ago, I was one of those little girls and severely disappointed.  Why?

Because I’d been deprived of one of life’s pleasures–reading the cereal box while eating.

Have you noticed how we all read cereal boxes over and over? It’s entertainment and learning, something today’s grandparents love to provide.

Lots of preschoolers can read plenty on the box because they recognize the logo, colors, shapes, and easy words. Older grandchild will notice the kayaking and Kellogg’s free cruise contest. Why not help them enter?

Do your grandkids know Corny the rooster? (K.Nollet, 2015)
Do your grandkids know Corny the rooster? (K.Nollet, 2015)

The nutrition information alone is full of math and science possibilities—percentages, measurement, minerals, vitamins—and you can practice Spanish and English at the same time.

On the back of the box, there’s a message just for you. “Discover the possibilities” the next time you serve a bowl of corn flakes.

From Zymurgy to Zyzzyvas

Photo by K.Nollet, 2015

Are you a dictionary lover? If so, you enjoy holding the book in your hands while browsing through its pages. You relish the distraction of looking up a word, because you see lots of other cool words along the way.

I never mind when students do that; in fact, I encourage it.  At their age, I’d visit my grandmother’s and tuck away in a corner with her 1937 version of Merriam’s Collegiate Dictionary, Fifth Edition. It was an adventure and I loved the last word in it, zymurgy (p. 1174):

Photo by K.Nollet, 2015


Image from

Today I click on Merriam Webster online and get to the point without distractions, a real loss. Also, I need to know the word for which I’m searching, which takes the fun out of it. The last word in today’s unabridged version (you pay for it) is zyzzyvas, a genus of South American weevils. Notice the amazing snout of one in the photo.

There’s value in having physical dictionaries in classrooms and homes.  It’s not just about finding the word.  It’s about the pleasure of finding a word that’s your very own discovery, as you hold a book in your hands.








Ultramarine Utopia

There’s nothing like the blues of the ocean for clearing the head, lifting the spirit, and finding utopia.

The Merrimack River where it meets the Atlantic, as seen looking north from Plum Island toward Salisbury, MA  (K.Nollet, 2015)
The Merrimack River where it meets the Atlantic, as seen looking north from Plum Island toward Salisbury, MA (K.Nollet, 2015)

Every season at the beach has its unique beauty and tone.  One teacher colleague of mine believed this was essential science for children. She took her class on an annual field trip to her Maine beach house, to teach them about the ecology of the winter beach.

Spring beach trips in New England are chilly and unpredictable.  Last weekend I went to Plum Island in Newburyport, Massachusetts, and the infinite shades of ultramarine blues in the sea restored my creative spirit.


Teddy the Terrier

IMG_3688What’s blue and tan and smart all over? Meet my nine-year-old Yorkie, Teddy.

Don’t assume what you read about Yorkshire terriers to be true, like making good lap dogs. For Teddy, this is 10%. He cuddles when he feels like it and if the conditions are right. (Is the crook of your knee available? Will you stroke him? Is there a soft blanket in the sun?)

The remaining 90% of Teddy’s time is spent working an independent agenda, true to his breed’s curiosity and roots as a ratter. Open doors intrigue him. No hole remains unexamined, no rocky crevice unexplored, no object unaudited.

A blur of Teddy checks out a hole.
A blur of Teddy checks out a hole.

From his post atop a Victorian wicker settee, he evaluates neighborhood intruders: people with dogs, motorcyclists, bicyclists, walkers who lag.

Although highly motivated by food, Teddy loves another kind of reward: sitting in a parked car. Harnessed into his car seat. In the garage. Teddy stares at me when he decides it’s time for this; if I’m busy and don’t notice, he barks.

 Zen and the art of carsitting-in-garage.
Zen and the art of carsitting-in-garage.

As an educator, I don’t compare children to dogs. But life with Teddy has reinforced why I never make assumptions about students. Assumptions can limit a teacher’s expectations and even form invisible barriers to growth. It’s our job to find out what’s unique about a child and to help each one thrive.