Children are for the birds!

The spectacular beauty of winter is not always as obvious as it is after a fresh snowfall, or when the trees glisten with ice. But if you look closely, you will see muted splendor in the reds, browns, golds, and forest green of garden and roadside brush. 


On closer observation, you will see that winter vegetation is aflutter with wildlife. Squirrels frolic in the trees and scrabble about in search of hidden nuts; birds flock seeking nourishment. 


In order for the birds to survive through winter, they need a sufficient food supply to maintain their high body temperature. The scarcity of food causes a drop in body temperature, often leading a bird to freeze to death. 


Children love to observe nature, and setting up a feeding station in your back yard will provide a valuable service to the wildlife in your neighborhood, as well as a memorable learning experience for you and your children. Easy access to binoculars and a field guide for bird identification further enhance the experience.


During the winter, woodpeckers, nuthatches, and chickadees scavenge for hibernating insects in crevices and openings in trees. They benefit from the supplementation of suet (available in meat and pet supply departments of the grocery store). Finches, sparrows, blue jays, juncos, and grosbeaks munch on shrub berries, tree and weed seeds, and flock to seed feeders.


Children enjoy looking for tracks left behind by our feathered friends. You will notice that ground varieties of birds (pigeons, starlings, crows, pheasants) have alternating imprints while hopping or perching birds (sparrows, blue jays, finches, juncos) leave paired tracks in the snow. 


Make a trip to the library, and check out a field guide on birds to determine what kinds of seed attract which type of bird. 


Get your child involved by stringing popcorn and cranberries. Stale, unsalted popcorn is best. Cut an orange in half and remove the fruit. The remaining skin forms a cup ideal for holding birdseed. Hang the seed-filled “cup” from a tree and birds will be attracted to the bright color! String bits of a dried doughnut, bread, and pieces of fruit (orange, apple, raisins) to add to the variety and make interesting decorations for the shrubs on your property. Discarded Christmas trees may be relegated to the back yard for this purpose.


Before long your family will be identifying birds by bird. Even toddlers will no longer exclaim “look at the birdie”, but “look at the nuthatch!”, or “look at the junco!” The delight on little faces as they learn to recognize the different varieties of birds provides one of those “snapshots” we keep in our mind for years to come. My little friend Kyle was thrilled to observe, “That chickadee knows its name!” My eldest became such a nature enthusiast that he would save his allowance for weeks and then agonize over which field guide to buy next.


When feeding the birds, squirrels can be a tremendous annoyance as they pilfer the food you have intended for the birds. There are special feeders that make it difficult for them to raid seed set out for the birds. A left-over handful of holiday nuts, or wildlife food found in the birdseed section of stores, will help to distract the squirrels from your feeder. Observe how they communicate “through the grapevine” as these bushy-tailed critters scamper from all over the neighborhood within minutes of discovering these treats! 


If you decide to feed the birds, please remember! They will become accustomed to feeding in your yard and may starve if they are disappointed. If you plan to be away, get a neighbor to care for them in your absence. Also, the object is to keep the birds, and not the neighborhood cats, nourished and satisfied! Be sure to put a bell on your Kitty’s collar, and encourage your neighbors to do the same!




– RDW (2003, revised 2010)

Let It Snow Let It Snow Let It Snow

Year by year the complexities of this world grow more bewildering. We need all the more to seek peace and comfort in the joyful simplicities and to teach our children to do the same. For in so doing, we enable them to seek contentment within themselves rather than relying on electronic devices for their entertainment.   

Being from Maine, I’ve always liked it when winter really acts like winter, with lots of snow and subfreezing temperatures. If you are like me (and most kids!) and there is a rumor of a big snowstorm, you wake up every half hour all night long to see if it is still snowing and whoop with glee when school is canceled. Perhaps you are able to stay home as well. Make it your priority to create some wonderful memories with your children! 
Remember the joy of winter as a child, and reacquaint yourself with the luxury of that pleasure. Shovel snow together, but don’t be surprised if your kids want to shovel the yard and not the driveway. Create snow angels.; build a snowman; make a snow fort. Go sledding at Babcock Park Hill, or Stonybrook, or some other great place near your home. Chances are quite good you won’t have to go far.
Take a walk in the woods on snowshoes or cross country skis. Look for winter birds, and squirrels’ nests. Notice animal tracks and try to identify them. If you find any animals hibernating (bats, insects) do not disturb them, as they may die if they are awakened. Notice how tightly leaf buds are wrapped so they won’t freeze; observe what happens if we get a stretch of warm weather. Go to a frozen stream. Notice ice formations and water running underneath. (Stay onshore lest one goes through the ice!)
Make bird feeders using popcorn and cranberries; pine cones with peanut butter rolled in birdseed; seed cups using the peels of half oranges and lemons with string hangers. Decorate the trees with treats for the birds and animals.
Have a Neighborhood Winter Carnival. Snow sculpt a glorified snowman, dragon, Big Bird… Set up target games for hurling snowballs. Have a tug of war in the snow. Afterward, share in the warmth of a pot of cocoa made with real milk, or hot spiced cider and popcorn.
Even if housebound, having an expectation of time together as a family for a couple of hours without electronic devices affords the quiet companionship snow days and Sunday afternoons are perfect for. Playing cards or board games; sprawling around the living room, each with his or her own book, or reading a book aloud together as a family; making valentines for school and each other; writing letters to grandparents or journaling; working a jigsaw puzzle together; making tacos, or shaking it up with a dance party, lay a foundation for close ties between siblings 
This time of year, as the pace seems to slow somewhat, it is easier to find moments for quality time with the children. Sometimes when we are immersed in the trials of parenting and day to day living, it is hard to realize how truly fleeting this precious time with little ones is. Children have so much to teach us. Please take the opportunity to really enjoy this priceless gift of childhood. And take lots of pictures! You won’t regret it. (RDW 1-19-11)

Autumn: A Bountiful Season for Thanksgiving

As the children play about the neighborhood, I drink in the glory of autumn as though I am seeing it through their eyes. The day is fairly bursting with joy! The wind kicks up, tugging and coaxing the leaves to take the plunge from their perch above, and they skitter down the street blanketing the neighborhood in a wash of gold. The musty, earthy smell of the damp garden wafts though the house riffling the pages of my book. Melodic wind chimes on the porch work themselves into a frenzy of crashing crescendo. Just as suddenly, the only sounds are the chipping sparrow in the flaming bush outside my window, the rustling breeze, the sweet tinkle of chimes whispering, conversing in a way that seems to make perfect sense. A flock of kids swishes through the leaves in a gale of laughter, and the cats sit mesmerized in the window.
Experience the wonder of this magnificent season through the eyes of a child.
  • Rake leaves into a giant pile and dive into them! 
  • Take a nature walk.  Notice the seasonal changes: bird migrations, the critters getting ready for hibernation. Collect chestnuts, acorns, pine cones, beautiful leaves… Take note of the beauty even as the dismal weather sets in: flowers gone to seed, the many shades of brown and gold…
  • Describe the cycle of seasons as you put the garden to bed: divide and replant bulbs, tucking each in for its long winter nap. Pull out dead annuals, cut back perennials, mulch, etc. 
  • Get out the bird feeders. Remember to keep them filled through winter. Once the birds find your feeder, they count on you to keep them fed and will die if there is not another source of food nearby. Don’t forget to put a bell on your cat as a warning to these feathered friends. Keep a bird book nearby for identifying the visitors to your feeder
  • Distract the squirrels from your bird feeder with those acorns and chestnuts the kids have been collecting. Point out the squirrel you see burying a nut in the garden and wonder that it is able to find it even under a blanket of snow. Ask what happens to the nuts that are buried and not found. Search the treetops for squirrels nests.
  • Collect beautiful leaves to press
  •  Find an apple tree or farm market and get as many apples as you need to
  • Cut an apple in half horizontally and discover a surprise inside
  • Arrange apple slices around a dish of peanut butter “dip” for a healthy snack
  • Make applesauce, or freeze pies for the holidays. Children don’t always realize that the things we buy at the store come from somewhere else first
  • Peel an apple, carve facial features into it, allow it to dry out and create a puppet from the wizened head
In the years to come, you will reflect back on these days with joy as your growing children reminisce about the priceless gift of childhood you have given to them.  (RDW 10-19-12)

Ruminations of an eccentric gardener

     I’ve spent the last several evenings gardening in the front yard. This has come to be my favorite time of day. The neighborhood kids are all running around and they love to stop by for a chat (or a cooling spray as I water the flowers). Families are out for an after-dinner stroll. The mom across the street sits on her front step watching her children ride their bikes up and down the street. Another woman stops to tell me that she goes out of her way to pass by our house because my garden soothes her after the pandemonium of her day.
Courtesy of Suzanne Blackburn

      A pair of nesting finches admonishes me to leave the area so they can tend their nestlings in the wreath on our front door. A blue jay and crow across the street holler at one another, and the protective jay trills a warning to his mate.

      Some kids ride by on bikes without wearing helmets. I chide them for not doing what they need to do to stay safe. I have come to believe that we are responsible for the safety and well-being of all children in the absence of their own parents; for as my children have grown, I have dearly hoped that someone is keeping an eye out for them when they are away from me.
      I come across a gigantic spider and call to the kids on bikes to come have a look. We shudder and agree that while none of us wants a spider on us- especially that one- they are very cool to watch. And we wonder where mama spider is going to deposit the huge white egg sack she is hauling around behind her.
      After many years of cultivating perennials, it is time to thin the plants. I try to save as many as I can, and delight in watching the evolution of the neighborhood as it becomes awash with the color and fragrance of the beauties that have outgrown my garden. The little guy from next door shyly approaches to give me a blossom from his mother’s garden, and then helps her transplant some of my flowers into their yard. My neighbors and I have become partners in this venture, assisting one another as needed, sharing tricks of the trade and a cool drink on the front steps as we admire the fruits of our labors.
Courtesy of Suzanne Blackburn

      Gardening is synchronous to life: the flowers, the weeds, the web of life and its interconnectedness. We grow and blossom when the conditions are conducive to growth. We wilt and wither when we are not getting what we need. We cycle through seasons of productivity and dormancy. We live in chaos when the extraneous details become so blown out of proportion that we lose sight of our true purpose. We need other people, in the way that the garden needs its many organisms, to exist.

      Gardening with little ones is a wondrous experience. Preschoolers love to play in the dirt alongside us as we dig and observe the miracles of nature. But how bittersweet it is when they lose interest in things that once fascinated them, to become more enthusiastic about what is going on beyond the boundaries of family life. We are tempted to hang on for dear life to the way things used to be, but we must be brave and let go a little more each day. Children are doing what they need to do: developing their own interests, seeking independence, bonding with other members of society, learning to fly. Before we know it they are packing to leave the nest to go out into the world on their own. We can only hope that they are fully prepared for the intricacies of day-to-day life.
      I have become the eccentric lady in the garden down the street, keeping a protective watch over the children, as other neighbors have done before me and will continue to do in generations to come.
Friends from down the street stop by and we share news about our grown children, who are off making their own way in the world, as we watch the little ones scamper after the ice cream truck. – RDW (6-2-10)

Lessons from nature

     Childhood is such a gift.  Those of us with children have been given a second chance to experience that magic and wonder  of seeing life through the eyes of a child.  Things that we have come to take for granted, come alive.   Take for example the  wildlife on your property or in your neighborhood.   Taking the time to sit quietly or to wander daily around the back yard  with your little one can become a life altering experience. 

     In our garden there is pair of cardinals, numerous chickadees, flocks of finches  and sparrows, a blue jay or two, four or five squirrels, and a large toad.  The little hole between the tree and brick path is a chipmunk’s burrow.  The closer you look, the more you will see: the spider web next to the pond, the aphids sucking the life out of the honeysuckle, and the ladybugs munching on aphids!

     The birds have particular perching spots that they return to time and again:  the fence post, the bush next to the parking lot, the wisteria, the tree at the back of the property…  They seek food, squabble among themselves,  and cooperate!   
     Once we watched two sparrows collecting nesting material while a third kept watch for danger from the telephone wire; after a time, the sentinel flew down to assist in gathering while the other took a turn at sentry.  
     Different types of birds have different calls for different situations.  We usually hear a bird before we see it and  learning to recognize its song before we locate the bird is good practice for learning to read (and distinguishing between similar sounds helps to prepare a child in learning to discern between consonants when it comes to phonics).
     Children who are afraid of bugs (often reflecting their parent’s response to various situations) overcome their anxiety by studying insect behavior: watching a bee gather pollen;  a spider weave her web; a colony of ants collect bits of cracker dropped near the hedge.  Likewise, children whose parents enthusiastically go to a window or the porch during a thunderstorm to watch the clouds, lightening, and rain,  locating the direction of the storm, calculating the distance, are not afraid of thunder.   
     Count the different kinds of plants, insects, birds in your yard.   Lay in the grass and look up into a tree, watch the clouds, gaze at the stars.  
     Creating an intimacy with the natural world makes it impossible not to think about how the way we live affects this planet and all of life.  The teachable moments become innumerable as we see a blue jay pecking at a cigarette butt, a cat eating a bird, a plastic bag blowing against the fence. Asking your child questions will help them give their logic and reasoning centers a workout (e.g., “what would happen if an animal got stuck in that bag?”)  We start giving thought to the weed killer we consider putting on the lawn, or the bug spray we are tempted to use on those horrible aphids (One child observes, “but if that poisons the bugs, won’t it poison the other animals, and if we kill all the bugs, what will the birds and toads eat?”).
     Spending time in nature is so good on so many levels, particularly if you feel you don’t have time for that.  Have you noticed that when you are most pressed for time, the children become much more demanding?  I have always found that if I give them my undivided attention for a time, they will keep themselves occupied for more than enough time to compensate. 
     Being in nature has a way of calming everyone down..   Take the time this fall to build warm memories with your child, the kind that sustain through the rough times, the kind that your child will look back on with warm nostalgia.  
     As many of us know already, all too soon, the children grow in their struggle for independence, leaving us to pray that we have laid the ground work for him or her to lead a thoughtful, intentional and productive life.  – RDW 7-21-09