Nature Table for February
Every month, Hilltown Families will feature a new nature table whose contents inspire learning along a common theme easily spotted in our surroundings that month. A tradition carried out by teachers, environmental educators, and nature-curious families, nature tables bring a little bit of the outdoors inside for inspection, dissection, identification, creative play, art projects, and lots of other educational activities. The idea behind a nature table is to help open up children’s eyes to the unique attributes of each season, and to help them learn how to see these things in nature for themselves. A nature table can include a variety of items, and is often accompanied by a set of books and/or field guides so that children can take part in further learning at their own will.
This month’s nature table was created for students at the school where I work, one whose natural surroundings include forest, field, and stream and offer an abundance of opportunities for learning and exploring. In fact, almost all of the table’s contents were collected right on the school grounds! Armed with a basket, I wandered in search of items that both were and were not the same. Most of the things that I gathered fit into a category together, even though it may not be obvious at first.
The assortment of berries, seed pods, mushrooms (albeit frozen and dry), twigs, and evergreen cones that I gathered are almost exclusively things that are eaten by our bird and small mammal friends who we share the schoolyard with. Mice, squirrels, rabbits, voles, and birds of all kinds munch on these foods – both foraged in the cold and stored from the fall – during February. Deer gnaw on the green inner bark of young trees, while birds perch in sturdy bushes to gnaw on icy berries and pick at seed pods. Squirrels and mice have distinct styles of acorn-ripping. And some of these creatures themselves serve as food for bigger birds or bigger mammals! It’s cyclical, and very interconnected.
In the classroom, I’ve also added a small wood-and-leather mouse to the display, alongside some evergreen bits. Kids usually aren’t too amazed by the presence of green during winter, but I place them there to challenge them to think about why it is that they’re green – yes, they’re different from leafy trees, but how? The mouse is, in this case, also sort of a trick. It doesn’t fit into quite the same category as nuts, seeds, berries, and bark, since these are all foods for herbivorous critters. However, Mr. Mouse would make a tasty meal for many a creature – owls in particular, who can be spotted in the nearby wooded hills.
The books that I’ve included are an assortment of fiction and nonfiction: identification guides for owls, trees, and constellations; a book about moon phases, for older students; classic winter tales – The Mitten and The Big Snow; and one funky, older, easy-to-read book, Happy Day. The fictional stories focus on the small animals that can be found in the wintry woods, and even a quick look at the pictures can inspire kids to wonder how they survive. The nonfiction books help students to learn about the specifics of species (and the subtle differences between them), and help to alert them to the biodiversity (and star-scape) that’s all around them.
In my classroom, the nature table is accompanied by a white board where students add their observations and questions. It might be useful to keep a small board, a sheet of paper, or a notebook nearby a home nature table, just to keep track of the things that you notice and learn.
Suggested titles for a February nature table:
- Peterson First Guide to Trees by George Petrides
- The Mitten by Alvin Tresselt (or Jan Brett)
- The Big Snow by Berta and Elmer Hader
- The Happy Day by Ruth Krauss
- Find the Constellations by H.A. Rey
- The Moon Book by Gail Gibbons
- The Book of North American Owls by Helen Roney Sattler
Robin Morgan Huntley, Intern
A native to Maine, Robin joined Hilltown Families in early 2011. She is a graduate of Antioch University with a masters in education. Her interests within the field of education include policy and all types of nontraditional education. For her undergraduate project at Hampshire College, Robin researched the importance of connecting public schools with their surrounding communities, especially in rural areas. Robin lives in Shelburne Falls, MA.