Knowing, Acknowledging, and Playing in Nature

Having confessed in my first post for Neighborhood Homeschool to being sort of an “inside girl,” it may seem strange for me now to write a post about nature. I should say, I’m an inside girl except when I’m not; I grew up in a state known for its outdoor activities (West Virginia), I’m an avid hiker, and I camped frequently as a child. As I’ve grown up, I’ve become a vegan and an environmentalist, with a strong love for animals, plants, and other wild things.

Still, one thing I mourn about modern life, and modern city life in particular, is the loss of an intimate experience with, and therefore knowledge of, nature: its seasons and its processes (though I totally agree with Tracy Born that one can take nature walks in the city!). Several years ago I took a walk with my father, who unassumingly identified different trees along our route, and I was amazed to discover this about him. It never came up when I was a child. But, of course, he lived on a farm until he was a young teenager and this knowledge is a part of him. (I think this also had to do with his generation; my family has recently been enjoying Jean Craighead George’s hilarious autobiographical book, The Tarantula in My Purse, in which she describes her kids growing up in the 1960s and having closer relationships with wild animals than I can imagine any family having these days.) I realized simultaneously that this was knowledge that my father never taught me, that was lost from his generation to mine. And now, living in the city, nature isn’t something I have to confront in my daily life; I can choose to completely ignore it for the most part. At the same time, it is here, just as present as the more demanding facets of city life. An uncultivated woods is just blocks from my home; an ecosystem is all around me.


As I have been homeschooling my son (now nearly six years old), one of my priorities has been for us to rediscover knowledge of nature together, in part because I long for it and in part because it feels necessary and crucial in a world where nature’s voice is so often drowned out by other louder, human priorities. When I say voice, I mean that literally. Though we have used several resources so far in our quest to learn more about nature, including classes at a local nature center which focus on things like identifying animals and plants, some of the best resources that I have discovered are the Kamana for Kids series and other books by the skilled tracker and formidable nature educator, Jon Young. Last winter, after my grandfather bought a bird feeder for my son, I brought Young’s book, What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World, home from our library. In this revelatory book, Young shares the truth, supported by research, that birds can communicate with each other, as well as with other animals, and that their communications are heavily influenced by their responses to the human world. Humans, Young points out, used to understand this language because it revealed information that contributed to hunting and gathering, and to avoiding predators; this is, again, knowledge that has been largely lost, but it can be rediscovered.


Learning bird language is a topic that is deep, but also fairly accessible and rewarding even for a beginner. In just a few months, my son and I came to know some 6-7 species that visited our feeder and the “baseline” sounds they made, enough so that we could begin to recognize when they were communicating something different—and, equally importantly, so that we could not interfere with them in our unconscious movements through the world, so that we could walk by them gently and acknowledge them, so as not to cause them to fly away in what Young calls a “bird plow.” Acknowledgement of nature, it turns out, is a natural offshoot of having knowledge about it—and Young argues that it can have a positive effect on keeping the animals around us safe from predators. Hawks apparently frequent trails popular with runners, so that they can take advantage of the birds fleeing from the humans.

My son seems to be drawn to nature as much as I am, though his investment is as much in playing in nature as in learning anything specific about it. The Kamana for Kids book series put out by Young’s organization is brilliant in its understanding of kids’ need to play in nature. (I recently heard that Young developed some of his ideas about nature education through his experiences with homeschoolers when he was involved with his mentor’s nature program in New Jersey!) The books are composed of magical stories, which teach kids about “nature awareness skills”: deer ears for listening, owl eyes for seeing, raccoon touch for feeling, and dog nose for smelling. While Young recommends that children and adults can learn a lot by staying still and observing one “secret spot” on a regular basis, his Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature emphasizes that for most kids, this skill is best learned through play—hiding under leaves, for instance, which emerges organically in many child-initiated games, is a great way to experience stillness and a chance to notice minute things about nature.

I was glad to remember this when my son and I recently visited the “secret spot” we chose in our urban woods. My son is the most active person I have ever met, and rarely sits still, so though I am drawn to the meditative aspects of Young’s ideas for nature learning, I wanted to be careful not to require this of him. I was happy when he developed his own game for using “deer ears,” a sort of blindfolded hide-and-seek where we took turns running away and seeing if the other could tell which direction we went with hearing alone. It was the most fun. (The other thing that my son wanted to do in the woods was take pictures—and I was intrigued to see what things he wanted to preserve and see again. He was especially interested in the interplay of light and shadow under the cover of the tall trees. All of the images in this post were taken by him!)


Though we haven’t visited the “secret spot” as often as Young recommends (he recommends going every day), I think learning about nature is going to be a big part of our learning together. In addition to feeding and watching the birds, we have a garden and my son loves picking things to plant. I am learning about natural medicine from Rosemary Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide. With all of my explorations, I am increasingly aware that nothing is truly wild and nothing civilized; we are deeply interconnected with the natural world and the interface between humans and nature is fraught with complications. In the end, I don’t know exactly what I’m planting by trying to learn about the natural world with my son; the past of humans’ relationship with nature has been, to a large degree, devastating and the future of our lives as humans in nature is uncertain. It is inevitable in the changing world in which we live that some of the old knowledge about nature will be lost; I’m hoping that some of it can be passed on and there is still room for a more respectful acknowledgment.–Anneimgp5381


Unexpected Lessons

One of my favorite things about homeschooling, especially in the city, is how many times we go out and happen upon learning experiences.  We are a pretty active family who likes to explore and always be on the go.  Even the most routine adventure can be turned into a lesson, which appeals to this worksheet hating mama.

My son’s bike needed minor repairs and had been out of commission all summer.  We were so busy city pool hopping though that it wasn’t really an issue.  Now that the weather has returned to sanity (goodbye 90° and up!) I figured it was time to take care of the bike.  Every parent with highly active children know the value– for the kids and any person around them– in making sure they are well exercised.

The bike was a gifted to my son, Xavier, from our friend Rocky, who volunteers in a beloved community bike shop.  The shop owner made a habit over the years of reconditioning bikes to give to less fortunate kids and families who may not be able to afford purchasing one themselves.  We happened to be one of those families at the time and I can’t express the amount of joy Xavier had receiving it.  Since I know nothing about servicing bikes, I messaged the man who built it.   Xave is really into fixing so I asked Rocky if he could be a part of servicing the bike, it was no problem.

We got to Kraynick’s Bike Shop in the Garfield community of Pittsburgh, unloaded the bikes (we brought the whole family’s) and went in to set up.


I wasn’t aware of it before, but the shop is actually set up as a workspace for the community.  Locals can come in and tune their own bikes, or have Mr. Kraynick or a volunteer fix it for them. Either way, people are encouraged (though not made) to take part in the process.   This was perfect!

Rocky mounted the bikes on the rack, one after the other, and proceeded to show Xavier the basics of how to oil the chains, test and adjust the gears on the adult bikes, fill the tires, and fix a slipped chain.  Xavier mentioned that he would like a hand brake, so Rocky went above and beyond and showed him how to install one as they worked on it together.  He even threw in a headlight for the night riding Xave so desperately wants to do (‘fraid not yet, my young son).

This morning Xavier is schooling me on how the brake works, how to put it on, and where the rear hand brake will go when he has mastered the front one.  There is nothing more satisfying to me than seeing my children learn practical life lessons.  We love book learning, that certainly has a place in our homeschool days, but seeing them learn how to actually take care of things themselves is priceless.  The added bonus yesterday was Xavier seeing community in action.  These two things combined– practical learning and community involvement– made a wonderful day of unexpected lessons.  And it was amazing.   ~Audrey

Urban Nature Walks: No Meadow Required! By Tracy Born


Nature walks and nature journaling have been an enjoyable part of our homeschool for years. My homeschooled sons are adults now, and have memories of neighborhood nature walks, and now, my ten year old daughter and I are carrying on the tradition.The key to keeping it enjoyable, and not stressful, for us, has been finding nature in our own backyard.
While we have enjoyed an occasional visit to a nature reserve, our nature walks are usually in the Brookline neighborhood of the City of Pittsburgh. No meadow, but a sidewalk. No field guide, but Google. Perhaps not quite as romantic, but practical, and fun! And, for us, more likely to happen than a weekly walk in a meadow.
The goal of our nature walks is pretty simple. To appreciate nature, to enhance our powers of observation, and to enjoy some fresh air together, out of doors. Not too lofty, but attainable, and definitely doable. Field guides can be wonderful, and we have owned a few, but with the leaf identification apps available today, and Google at my fingertips, honestly, the guides have taken a back seat. (As has my large telephone directory…Ha!)
On a recent walk around our neighborhood of Brookline, we found different types of Maple leaves, and upon returning home looked up maple leaf identification on Google. We did a few leaf rubbings in our nature notebooks (very basic sketchbooks we use only for nature journaling) and labeled them, and that was it. No fancy dry brushing techniques necessary, or Latin names for the trees…although I do enjoy adding the latter to mine! (Must be the science geek in me!)
We have learned to identify some native plants right here on our “not so country” street. There is an abundant amount of Pokeberry just two doors down, which, my daughter was interested to know, was used as fabric dye by Native Americans, and early settlers. We took time another day sketching lichen that adorned a tree near our home, and were pleased to learn that the more lichen a tree has, the better the air quality in that area. Our tree had a decent amount, not bad two blocks away from a busy city street!

Another plant we like to look for is Purslane, an edible succulent that can be found pretty easily around our neighborhood. We did take it for a “taste drive” one day, (in a spot we knew for sure had no pesticides and was not likely to have been tainted with car exhaust) and decided it was pretty good, but would taste better stir fried! (Did you know it’s quite high in Omega-3 fatty acids and probably lives in the sidewalk crack near your home?) All of this lovely nature, just four miles from Downtown Pittsburgh!
Although there is plenty of nature to be appreciated right out our back door, it is fun to venture out a bit, now and then, to a park, trail or nature reserve. Our favorites near the City of Pittsburgh include: Armstrong Park in Baldwin Township, Gillfillan Trail in Upper St. Clair, Beechwood Farms Nature Reserve in Fox Chapel, and surprisingly, Washington Cemetery! As a child, my mother would take my sister and I there, to collect pinecones for crafts, so my daughter and I thought we would give it a go as well! We had such an enjoyable day, discovering natural beauty in such an unlikely place, and made a memory to boot! (And brought home two grocery store bags FULL of pinecones!)
Nature study can take place ANYWHERE you are outdoors! Meadow or city street! Wether you bring a sketchbook, or just take home a memory, make it a point to get outside for a bit of your homeschool week. Go out with no agenda, but to observe and appreciate what you find. If the mood strikes you, draw something you encounter in your notebook, but if not…look, listen, breathe deeply, and enjoy the outdoors with your children. On that note, I think we’ll go outside now! Tracy Born

*****For more on nature journaling, I recommend “A Charlotte Mason Companion: Personal Reflections on the Gentle Art of Learning”, by Karen Andreola. Also very enjoyable and inspiring, “A Pocket Full of Pinecones”, by the same author. Very cozy Fall read!

Treasure Hunt

The homepage for this blog states that “Neighborhood Homeschool was born from a desire among parents to see the day-to-day stories of families homeschooling in urban settings.  Homeschooling changes a family’s relationship to its community and environment.  After all, every nook of our surroundings becomes a classroom.”  An experience in our homeschool this week embodies that description better than anything else I have written for the blog so far and I would love to share it with you.

We did a unit on maps and map reading this week.  As a capstone activity, I set up a treasure hunt of sorts for him in our neighborhood. We are lucky to live a block away from one of the longer business districts in the city.  We have three blocks full of independently owned businesses working together to make our community a fantastic place to live.  My husband and I are huge proponents of the shop local movement and make every effort we can to shop on “the boulevard” for everything we can. As a result, most of the owners of those small businesses know us and our son and were willing to be my accomplices in the treasure hunt.  It pays to know people!

There were a number of challenges including the fact that I had to get away from my son to set it up and my son can’t read yet.  My husband helped out with the first problem by distraction the little guy for a while so I could go plant the clues.  The second challenge was a bit trickier.  I decided to make the map largely with online clipart images which he could recognize as representing a business he is familiar with or the name of a street he knows.  In the image below, the stack of money is the bank and the coffee mug is the coffee shop. I was feeling particularly clever about the images for Castlegate Avenue!


He followed clues which led him up and down the business district until he ended up with his treasure of chocolate ice cream.  Each business owner along the way engaged him in a conversation about homeschool, about maps, about treasure hunts, or about puzzles before they gave him the envelope with his next clue and a puzzle piece.   Each clue had a short verse to indicate where we were going next and the image of the next location on the map on it.   He glued the puzzle pieces onto a piece of cardboard to reveal the final clue – an ice cream cone.


We both had a great time and so did everyone we talked to along the way. I was absolutely thrilled at how involved all of our friends in the neighborhood got.  It’s a good day when a five year old boy on a treasure hunt stops by and you can be part of the adventure.

So many things I love about urban homeschooling happened in this treasure hunt.  Not only did we get to use a map in a hands-on activity which got us out of the house, but we got to collaborate with our friends and neighbors and support our community in the process.  As stated in our blog description, our community became our classroom. What a treasure that is!  ~P.L.H.


Market Street

This blog began because a friend of mine and fellow homeschool mom said, “Hey, where are the urban homeschool blogs?”  She was right.  The story of urban homeschooling can be hard to find on the big internet.  The same can be true in children’s books.  Many stories written for children depict the quaint county side, the lively farmyard, or an odyssey through the wilderness.   Of course, the world of busy streets and brick row houses isn’t completely absent from children’s lit, but it seems more difficult to find than horses, log cabins, and woodland creatures.  I get excited when I find a great depiction of city life.

This week we are reading Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña (illustrated by Christian Robinson.)  This Newberry Winner depicts a tender relationship between a boy and his grandmother, a woman who “always found beautiful where he never even thought to look.”  The book takes a gentle look at poverty and gains its real meat from the themes of gratitude and perspective.  Along the way, messages of appreciation, beauty, and selflessness come through.

The illustrations are charming and meaningful in their own right, and the writing borders on poetry, making Last Stop on Market Street a delightful read-aloud selection.

In our homeschool, we used the story as a place to jump into some city artwork. I love that my kids ignored the restrictions of paper size (notice the pages taped together) and of time limits; at 3pm I quit teaching, but the kids were at the table much longer.  I call that a successful activity!  ~*~Erica