Hilltown Families


Why do birds vocalize simple chirps sometimes while at other times they emit elaborate, melodious songs? “Bird language” is a term referring to the combined chirps, songs, and behaviors which allow birds to communicate with each other. Humans can study the sounds and behaviors of birds in order to gain an understanding of what they are communicating.

In the sea of green that our surroundings have become, plants are nearly indistinguishable from one another. Leaves blend with needles blend with grass, and so our war on weeds begins. To young naturalists, however, weeds are a world unexplored. Use the diversity of common weeds to spark learning about plant life this month!

When spring rain makes the earth soggy but puts rivers and streams off-limits, sink your boots into the muck of a pond’s edge! This month’s nature table tadpole habitat lends itself to explorations of the multi-faceted pond habitats that serve as incubators for local amphibian species.

Feeling impatient for leaves and blossoms? Bring some branches inside and force buds to hasten your local leaf out. A nature table of forced buds is not only beautiful, but provides a fascinating look at the process of leaf and blossom growth.

It seems like maple is visible all over the place this time of year, but the trees themselves remain hidden to the untrained eye without their summer leaves. Learn to identifying sugar maples during the off-season for growing (but on-season for tapping) by looking closely at leaf buds and bark, and create your own March nature table filled with leaf buds of all kinds.

The New Year is often seen as a moment of reflection and intention-setting. While on your first hike, consider taking your journal with you. Nature can be inspiring and provides a place for contemplation and meditation. A few writing prompts to help you get started:

What is a new skill you would like to learn this year?
Describe one of your favorite memories from last year.
Make a list of the favorite places you visited in your community last year.
Make a list of places you would like to explore further this year.
What is a new skill that you learned last year?

This month, our nature table focuses on an element of the fall season that, despite its usefulness in preparing families for winter, has waned significantly in popularity over the course of the past two generations: deer hunting.

Centered around the shared environment of the natural world, “Once There Was a Tree” tells the story of a stump’s usefulness once a tree has died. A number of visitors utilize the stump as a resource and grow to think of it as their own – but who does it truly belong to? Explore the pages of the story while using resources offered in our literary guide in order to thinking critically about ownership in nature.

Focused on the search for patterns in nature, this month’s nature table encourages families to consider their place in the local landscape – and the universe. From twigs to entire watersheds, nature’s patterns share a common theme; by recognizing this pattern, families can place themselves within these patterns and gain a deeper awareness of the interconnectedness of the world.

Nature Table for July is crawling out of its skin! Found in and around the river, evidence of aquatic invertebrates is everywhere. From exoskeletons abandoned by suddenly-winged creatures to eggs disguised as bird droppings, this month’s collection speaks to the fascinating and tiny creatures that live at the bottom of the river.

In celebration of the Trustees of Reservations’ 125th anniversary, the organization is offering the Hike 125 challenge, setting local hikers to the task of hiking 125 miles of Trustees trails before the end of 2016. Along with the health benefits of hiking local trails comes opportunities to connect with the landscape and to learn about fascinating bits of history preserved on Trustees properties.

It’s not truly seasonal, but lichen makes a fascinating nature collection! Able to survive in outer space, go dormant in order to wait for favorable growing conditions, and support microscopic life, lichen is amazing. It’s even an indicator of air quality! Learn some local lichens and make your own lichen-y June nature table.

Camping is one of the most classic outdoor adventures of childhood, and thanks to the wealth of state parks and forests found locally, there are endless camping adventures to be had in western Massachusetts! From exposing young campers to sleeping outside to allowing children to experience all aspects of the local landscape, camping trips are full of meaningful experiences.

Elms College is throwing a Bioblitz this Saturday at Chicopee Memorial State Park. Teachers, students, parents and friends of all ages are invited to team up with scientists to identify as many of the park’s living creatures as possible in a single day. This is a wonderful opportunity to meet people working in scientific fields and ask them questions about science in general or about their careers specifically. Participation can get community members interested in the biodiversity of their local lands, and as a result make them more invested in conservation efforts. Documenting of local species can give scientists clues for further research. You never know what you’re going to find until you look! Register online.

Finally surrendering to the awakening brought on by spring, the local landscape is alive with once-buried treasure during the brief season of brown. Look closely to find what’s left behind after winter has gone!

Though the relationships between the two are generally predator-prey, studying the ways in which birds and insects depend on each other can offer insight into the inner workings of the local landscape. By learning to identify insects and birds, families can explore the who-eats-who of their surroundings!

Easily overlooked, the tracks and sign left by some of our landscape’s smallest creatures are fascinating, and speak volumes as to the habits of the many insect species found locally. Families can explore the miniature world of insects through a photography exhibit at the Westhampton Library!

Organized by Elms College, BioBlitz 2016 offers an important opportunity to engage in citizen science in Chicopee! Designed to identify and record as many species of living things as possible, the BioBlitz provides experiential learning opportunities for novice naturalists!

Service Learning can provide an inspiring context for nature exploration and the outdoors. In our Western Massachusetts communities, there are many ways at home and with local organizations that you can engage in service learning while spending time outside and learning more about our environment and the species with whom we share it.

As we near the end of winter (did it ever begin?), our creature neighbors start to emerge more and more frequently. Exploring the meaning of “hibernation” and the habits of local mammals can support a deeper understanding of these creatures’ winter habits!

Since we’re experiencing such a mild winter this year, birds are having a field day with the multitude of food sources that remain available. From feeders to berry bushes, feather friends are everywhere – and by learning what each creature’s favorite foods are, families can use a combination of feeding and close observation to learn about bird life in winter.

Fall is a time for seeds! As the landscape becomes more and more bare, seeds of all kinds begin to turn up all around us. Waiting for a wind to blow them away or known them to the ground, these seeds make perfect subjects to study.

This month, exploration of the landscape turns up some items not subject to seasonal change. In considering the impact that humans have on a landscape, we can use the changing seasons to spark environmentally responsible behaviors.

Using the best that the outdoors have to offer during fall, families can engage in easy and exciting hands-on science experiments. Requiring few materials and relying heavily on the power of observation, these experiments offer opportunities for informal science learning!

Phenology – the study of seasonal change in plants and animals – helps to illuminate the slow and subtle daily changes undergone in the living things around us. By combining leaf peeping with an awareness of phenology, families can learn about the science behind the colorful fall landscape.

With the start of school comes the making of a new community and the end of immersive nature-based learning. However, with the sharing of treasures and the sharing of stories, the glory of the natural world lives on and inspires new curiosity.

During the 2015-2016 school year, families of 4th graders can gain free access to all of the country’s fantastic national parks! Whether by exploring Massachusetts’ historic sites and national seashore or dreaming about mountainous parks out west, families can engage in both experiential and inspired learning about the treasures our park system has to offer.

This month’s nature table focuses not on a tangible collection of objects, but on the end result of the process of creating a collection of sensory experiences. Rather than searching for treasures, experience the landscape with all you’ve got!

Hilltown Families and Mass Appeal (a weekday, hour-long lifestyle program on NBC) have teamed up to offer a live monthly segment on WWLP 22News! Each month, Hilltown Families’ Founder & Executive Director, Sienna Wildfield, joins Mass Appeal hosts to talk about ways to engage in your community while supporting the interests and education of your children (and yourselves!).

This monthly segment continued on Friday, July 31, 2015, this time looking at community-based education through the lens of culture found in yearly agricultural fairs. Sienna and Seth talk about ways agricultural fairs offer families opportunities to participate in a community integrated tradition while offering a myriad of learning experiences!

Families can engage in community-based learning about plants and wildlife native to the Berkshires with Project Native during their upcoming event, Weekend With Wildlife! Special guests will bring live specimens of caterpillars and birds of prey, the Weekend With Wildlife can help visitors to understand the interconnectedness of all of the living things filling the local landscape.

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