Nature Table for April

Nature Table for April

Every month, Hilltown Families features 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.

With April – and true spring – comes annually the final tug of the landscapes cozy winter blanket. This year, despite the mild winter, the earth has fought its inevitable awakening like a child refusing to rise after a fitful night of sleep. March presented a constant struggle for spring’s arrival: like parent and child tugging blankets and flicking lights on and off, the earth fought its own tilt towards the sun, countering each stretch of warm, sunny days with a return to gray skies and bitter winds. The recent snowstorm, blanketing much of the state with the thickest snow coating since last year, stands as the final showdown in the earth’s reluctant spring awakening: the tired child stomped itself out of bed, flicked off the light switch, and buried itself deep, deep in its cozy blanket nest, knowing full well that such a snuggle would be short lived. 

So with the stripping of the blankets comes our springtime, revealing a landscape filled with treasures of all kinds. This time of year, the things that we find are largely leftovers: leaves that have browned and crisped in an appealing way, shells and caps from last fall’s acorn and chestnut harvest, delicious-looking sumac gone untouched by feathered friends.

We’ve discovered that some of our classroom treasures, much like their outdoor counterparts, have transitioned during their period of over-wintering in our miniature nature museum! The idea of change over time is not foreign to my resident youth naturalists, but we’re more familiar with the change in color that chestnuts experience when stored in jars, or the eventual mold that will develop on specimens contained in air-tight vessels before they’re dry. The change that we did not expect was the shift from dead to living – specifically, in the form of hatching. Our most mysterious, guilt-producing, and fascinating treasure currently is a praying mantis gall, found by a student in October, identified by a classroom visitor, and thought to have been from the season before (and therefore thought to be empty). We were fascinated with the gall’s silvery-brown color, its ridged texture, and its ability to so seamlessly become a part of its surroundings. We placed it in a magnifying box to study its texture and to be sure that it stayed safe. When winter came, though, we began to change over our nature table and the gall made its way to the drawer marked “Insects, Bugs, Etc.” And there it stayed, without a second thought, until recently, when mention of bugs in a book sparked exploration of the bug drawer – a project that revealed us to be unintentionally murderous. Much to our disbelief, the cracked gall had hatched in the dark, in a drawer, in a box. You can imagine what happened to the newly-hatched mantises.

From this unfortunate mishap, we’ve all learned an important lesson: sometimes even the most well-informed decisions have undesired consequences. We’ve grieved the loss of these mantises, but we’ve also learned a lot about insect breeding habits. By imagining what other factors could’ve eliminated our gall from the local ecosystem lead us to recognize that insects lay tens or hundreds of eggs at a time for a reason: their young are incredibly susceptible to being crushed, eaten, frozen, drowned, smothered, or collected and neglected in an elementary school classroom. Having hundreds of children is a survival tactic, and while unintentionally killing a hundred or so of them is certainly not great, it’s not the end of the praying mantis world, either – a fact that we’re slowly coming to terms with.

Our gall and mantises are the current highlight of our nature collection. Other objects revealed by winter’s exit include:

  • – deer vertebrae and leg bones
  • – lichen samples
  • – sumac berries
  • – various evergreen seeds
  • – acorn shells (squirrel sign)
  • – a daffodil

Useful spring texts include:

Robin Morgan Huntley, Community-Based Education Correspondent

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 and teaches 5th grade in the Hilltowns of Western MA and serves on the Mary Lyon Foundation Board of Directors.


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