Friday, May 9, 2008

Homeschool Field Trip: Clarissa Explains It All

Friday was a lovely day. We enjoyed two worth-every-minute field trips. In the morning, we went to the library to attend a performance by the SEMYO (Southeastern Minnesota Youth Orchestra). The young musicians were very talented and poised. They practice daily at home and weekly as a group. Many of the students have been playing their instruments for years, but playing music with a group was a new experience for some of the musicians.

The first three pieces were peformed by the Wind Symphony group and included Rhythm Machine and a medley of songs from Phantom of the Opera. Next, we heard music from the string section of the orchestra, including a beautiful rendition of Canon in D. With humor and expression, the conductor explained how the violinists play "wooden boxes" with bows made of "horsetail hair" -- "Don't worry, it grows back," he assured us amidst a chorus of laughter-- that are coated with "dried maple syrup" to make them stick to the strings. I loved listening to the sweet music of the viola, violin, and the cello.

Music-loving Mitchell covered his ears for most of the hour because he prefers his music volume a little lower -- he would try to cover his ears just days after we brought him home from the hospital when his environment was too loud for his liking --but he giggled with glee when I helped him direct the orchestra as he sat on my lap.

Finally, both sections of the orchestra performed together before the students went back to school. We were looking forward to the "instrumental petting zoo" portion of the assembly, but there were no instruments available to try after the performance. We were joined by several families from our Peace Kids homeschool group, including Max's new friend Lauryn. Both Max and Mitchell want to learn to play the trombone.

We grabbed Subway sandwiches (I savored every bite of my veggie, cheese, and chipotle sauce sandwich on honey wheat bread) and headed west to Oxbow Park near Byron for our afternoon field trip. Admission to the park and zoo is free, although donations are welcomed. Max, Mitchell, and I arrived at the park about thirty minutes before the start of our scheduled classes, so we watched the colorful birds at the bird feeder, including this red-bellied woodpecker, as well as blue jays, sparrows, and the pocket gophers who were feasting on seeds that had spilled from the feeders (we learned today they have another nickname: thirteen-stripe gophers), and the boys' all-time favorite exhibit, the river otters.

The boys were curious onlookers while a naturalist cleaned the otters' 1500-gallon swimming tank and their pond. The otters tried repeatedly to slink into the water, and the naturalist had to shoo them away as he worked.

A glimpse of the main zoo area, with exhibits including a black bear, coyote, fox, cougar, and wolf. There is an area where visitors can view birds, owls, badgers, prairie dogs, goats, turkeys, bison, deer, and elk.

Our outing was organized by a member of our Christ Community Church Homeschool Co-op Field Trip Club. At the beginning of the school year, a handful of moms met over coffee to discuss a list of nearly a hundred potential destinations for field trips. Each member family in the club is asked to organize at least one field trip during the school year; some families have organized several fun and educational get-togethers. Despite some scattered clouds, the temperatures were perfect for a day of outdoor, hands-on learning. The cost of one dollar per child was perhaps the best field trip money we have ever spent.

We began our two-hour block of time with thirty minutes of free time to explore the zoo grounds. The river otters were a hit with many kids in addition to Max and Mitch.

The structured part of our field trip begain with a thirty-minute class called "Touch and Learn About Animals." Clarissa was our naturalist for the afternoon. She was phenomenal! Her instruction was laced with enthusiasm, information, and patience. She modeled respect and a love of learning, character traits that are at the top of our homeschooling priority list. I was impressed with how she captured the attention of all the children in our mixed-ages group. I know from experience that such a feat is challenging to accomplish in a traditional classroom in which most of the children are the same age. The big kids were good listeners and excellent role models for the youngest two, three, and four year-olds who were learning by their side.

Most of the children were so excited when Clarissa brought out a fox snake for them so see and touch. A few of the kids scooted back on the carpet or cuddled closer to their sibling. The snake showed a definite fondness for Eli as it slithered over to him time after time. Eli didn't mind one bit, but Clarissa decided at one point that it would be a safe idea to move the snake back to the center of the carpet. Mitchell was one of the students who didn't want to be near the snake; Little Max couldn't wait to get closer. The children discussed with Clarissa that snakes are reptiles: colded-blooded creatures with scaly skin. She told them how the non-venomous fox snake likes to disguise itself as a rattler by pretending to rattle its tale when approached by a potential predator. She also tried to point out how to tell the difference between a fox snake and a rattlesnake, warning them not to get to close in nature to an unfamiliar snake. I didn't pay close enough attention because I don't plan to get close enough to either kind of snake in the wild!

Mitchell quickly tucked his hands into a little hiding spot under Max's bottom when Clarissa walked around the carpet square with the snake and offered each child the chance to touch its scaly skin. He stayed close to Max until Clarissa returned the snake to its enclosure in an adjacent room. Max touched the snake with only a bit of hesitation.

Next, Clarissa attached a tether to her belt loop and took a saw-whet owl out of a small wooden cage. The children laughed when she explained that its name comes from its call, which sounds like a wet saw. This feathered friend was injured and unable to survive in the wild, as are all the creatures at Zollman Zoo. The owl had suffered brain damage after crashing into a window, becoming disoriented, and being attacked by crows.

The adults and children alike were fascinated to learn about the owl's large, powerful eyes, which could see well enough to read every word on a newspaper from one goalpost to another, across the length of a football field, lit only by a single candle at the fifty-yard line. If human eyes were as proportionately large as those of an owl, our faces would be graced with eyes the size of grapefruits. Most owls hunt at night because the light of day is too bright for their very sensitive eyes. We could have read a book at home about owls, but the infomation is much more powerful when you are sitting ten feet away from a living, breathing creature, hearing the words from a naturalist who is exciting about wildlife. The owls, snakes, and other creatures at Zollman Zoo eat the control mice donated from Mayo research.

Finally, we were introduced to a tiger salamander, an amphibian that is native to Minnesota. Clarissa only left him out of the water for a few minutes, explaining to the children that his skin needs to remain most in order to breathe. One child related the story of finding a dead, dried up salamander outside in the hot summer sun. That hands-on experience of watching a salamander crawl briefly around the carpet before needing to return to its water-filled home will help children remember that salamanders and other amphibious creatures need water to survive in a way that a textbook couldn't teach.

Max was eager to touch the salamander, and this time Mitchell hid behind Max, but this time he did not feel threatened or hide his hands under his big brother.

After the animals were safely back in their zoo homes, we headed outside to enjoy the beauty of the park with a scavenger hunt. Approximately fifty items were organized on the list according to our sense: sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste. The students readily spotted pieces of nature on our hike through the trees, including a spiderweb, a squirrel, a tunnel, moss, a whirly copter. They made their own selections to fit the description of "something beautiful" and "something perfectly straight." They were also encouraged to taste the air, smell crushed pine needles, and hear birds calling and running water.

The children examine a broken piece of park, and Clarissa notes the lines made in the bark that are actually tracks created by insects.

As we approached the river, Max was excited to discover some moss on a huge boulder. Clarissa took advantage of a perfect teachable moment, and the kids examined the moss while she taught them about lichen: two plants, algae and moss, working together as one. The algae and moss work together to produce chlorophyll, their green homemade food.

On our way back to the nature center, the kids raced Clarissa to the tree and back to burn off some energy. We learned about native Minnesota wildflowers, including the yellow swamp buttercups, the white rue anenomes, the speckled trout lillies which also have small hanging white flowers that can be difficult to notice, may apples, a tall weed-like plant called mullen, and everyone's favorite, the bluebells which were plentiful along the river. Clarissa also identified a member of the mint family called bedstraw, used in old-fashioned times to pleasantly scent the featherbeds. We learned that all members of the mint family have square-shaped stems.

Left, Fiona and Eli examine a bluebell stem that Clarissa picked for us from a large patch along the hiking path. Below, a perfect, golden buttercup.

Above, a rue anenome, one of the early-blooming wildflowers
Below, a bluebell with some artistic touches added

We observed the meandering river, shallow enough to be able to see the sandy bottom. Last summer, the river rose far above the banks, to the level in the above right picture, and a tree branch that was above my head had pieces of plants hanging from it that had washed away during the destructive flooding in southeastern Minnesota last August.

As we finished our scavenger hunt, we saw a harmless kind of fungus that grows on trees and a tree around which a twisted vine had grown, distorting the trunk.

Max asked Clarissa about this dried plant specimen. It is called mullen. We didn't learn the name of the weed pictured below, but I've also found it in our backyard.

We found a thistle patch that Eeyore would make Eeyore smile!

Following the structured part of our field trip, we explored the animal exhibits with our friends Fiona, Little Max, and mom Valerie. The four kids enjoyed feeding the goats, the only animals at the zoo that visitors are allowed to touch and feed. Big Max, Fiona, Little Max, and Mitchell offered the farm animals fresh green grass and dried, long stalks of grass, but the two goats loved the bright yellow dandelion tops enough to fight over the pieces. I had thought that Mitchell was too worn out to stay at the park any longer, but he made trip after trip after trip with the other kids to a nearby hillside that was dotted with yellow flowers.

Several times, the male goat stood on his hind legs, peering over the fence to see if the kids were bringing him more treats.

We learned the origin of the expression "getting your feathers all ruffled" when the kids teased the turkeys in the hopes of hearing them gobble. The parenting technique of distraction still works sometimes, even for eight year-olds, and we walked with the kids across the county road to explore the old cabin, watch the bison, elk, and deer, and play a spirited game of freeze tag.

Enjoy our last glimpses of Oxbow Park for the day!

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