Notes from the Naturalist Week 35: Nature Preschool at HCMA


Growth and change are inevitable. We bear witness to our children’s growth, may it be daily, monthly or within the course of a year. It is undeniable; they grow, they change and they move forward. And so it is that the school year is coming to a close but yet set before us is an incredible amount of growth. Look deep within nature at this very moment and you will see a beautiful sight. Look closer at the Hemlock trees, notice the brighter green at the very tips of the branch: growth! Look at the maple saplings, do you see that new bud: growth! Now look at your child, do you see how they use their words to problem solve, their eyes in observing a tiny flower on the forest floor, or their ears to hear that bird in the far tree: growth!

What a year it was for the wondrous Oak Tree! It certainly was a boom year for the crop – which means you can bet that the Squirrel and Chipmunk population may grow just a little bit in the next several months! During one of our muddy spring days we noticed how an acorn had sprouted out and were taking up roots to grow. Teacher Deanna, a curious gardener that she is, took home a handful and planted them with her family. So you see, that oak sapling your child brought home was a lovely gift form the generous and caring hands of a very special Teacher! Plant your tree with care, it will need lots of room to grow and it fully enjoys sun!

“Like many trees, oaks have irregular cycles of boom and bust. Boom times, called “mast years,” occur every 2-5 years, with few acorns in between. But the why and how of these cycles are still one of the great mysteries of science. Scientific research can tell us what a mast year is not. A mast year is not a predictor of a severe winter. Unfortunately, plants and animals are no better at predicting the future than we are.”

“Strangely, mast years are not simply resource-driven. Sure, a wet, cool spring can affect pollination and a hot, dry summer can affect acorn maturation. But annual rainfall and temperature fluctuations are much smaller in magnitude than acorn crop sizes. In other words, weather variables cannot account for the excessive, over-the-top, nutty production of acorns in a mast year. So what does trigger a mast year? Scientists have proposed a range of explanations—from environmental triggers to chemical signaling to pollen availability—but our understanding is hazy and the fact is that we simply don’t know yet.”

“Boom and bust cycles of acorn production do have an evolutionary benefit for oak trees through “predator satiation.” The idea goes like this: in a mast year, predators (chipmunks, squirrels, turkeys, blue jays, deer, bear, etc.) can’t eat all the acorns, leaving some nuts for growing into future oak trees. Years of lean acorn production keep predator populations low, so there are fewer animals to eat all the seeds in a mast year. Ultimately, a higher proportion of nuts overall escape the jaws of hungry animals.”

“Whatever the reasons and mechanisms behind acorn cycles, mast years do have ecological consequences for years to come. More acorns, for example, may mean more deer and mice. Unhappily, more deer and mice may mean more ticks and, possibly, more incidences of Lyme disease. Many animals depend upon the highly-nutritious acorn for survival. Oak trees, meanwhile, depend upon boom and bust cycles, and a few uneaten acorns, for theirs.” -

Before I sign off for the summer, my departing words to you are this: Take your kids outside, even in the rain! Let them be muddy and wet. Challenge them to try new things. Take them off trail, have them balance on logs, and rocks. Throw rocks into the river! Hike up and down! Read maps, listen to birds and sit under the stars. We grow through experiences and memories guide us through the best and worst of times. Don’t fret about the academics, it will come! Nature is a great classroom that inspires us all! I urge you to let nature help your child further develop their core strength, their endurance to keep up and go the distance and let it surprise you. The growth in all areas will come, but please, let nature help your child grow!


Notes from the Naturalist Week 32:The Nature Preschool at HCMA

Can you imagine the surprise on my face this morning when I pulled up to the Slim Baker parking lot and was greeted by a log truck and a large excavator! Oh my! We quickly pulled together our “Plan B” and back down to HCMA I went. But before I left, as I waited for the last few families to arrive and instruct them on our new plan, I was serenaded by the lovely songs of birds (with the excavator humming away in the background!). In comparison to last week, it is quite evident that many more birds have arrived from their long journey from afar.

I am not sure if it’s the new subject of study or just the sweet presence of birds, but the children were so excited to dive into this new unit. Several children kept talking and asking about different birds….oh how my heart burst with excitement to hear their EXCITEMENT. We talked about “Birding” and using a pair of binoculars to seek out the birds we hear. We read a cute book on “word phrases” that we as humans interpret from that what we hear in a bird’s song or call. And we talked about the different types of songs, calls and nests.

As the birds migrate north they are in search of the perfect nesting habitat while also in search of areas with an abundance of insects and plants. Once the season changes and food drops off, they will once again migrate south to warmer climates. “Migrating birds can cover thousands of miles in their annual travels, often traveling the same course year after year with little deviation. First-year birds often make their very first migration on their own. Somehow they can find their winter home despite never having seen it before, and return the following spring to where they were born.”

“The secrets of their amazing navigational skills aren’t fully understood, partly because birds combine several different types of senses when they navigate. Birds can get compass information from the sun, the stars, and by sensing the earth’s magnetic field. They also get information from the position of the setting sun and from landmarks seen during the day. There’s even evidence that sense of smell plays a role, at least for homing pigeons.” –

Before heading back down to HCMA, I recorded a short video on the birds that I heard. In the clip you can hear a Yellow Warbler and an Oven Bird. Many more were singing their hearts out but with the hum of the excavator it was hard to decipher who was out there. For many of us as we learn to recognize the birds around us, we first learn their song, followed by physical identification. I taught myself by listening to Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs CD set. My personal favorite bird guide is The Sibley Guide to Bird Identification but you could use any book that you feel works best for you and your family. There are also many great apps out there as well and Audubon has one that is fantastic. The app will give you an instant opportunity to dial in what and who you are hearing.

The silly book we read today is titled “Bird Talk” by Ann Jonas. She writes, “based on words used by the people who study birds to help us hear and remember birds songs, the words they use are called Memory Phrases”. Remember I told you I heard an Oven Bird and a Yellow Warbler. The memory phrase for Oven Bird is: Teacher-Teacher-Teacher (rising in pitch each time). And the memory phrase for Yellow Wrabler is: sweet, sweet, sweet, little more sweet. For more information on birds and to listen to bird songs and calls visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at: I must warn you that you may become addicted to birding, it’s a fun activity to do in the woods!


Little Pioneers Nature Playgroup - Friday June 2nd and June 9th


Little Pioneers Nature Playgroup offers parents, caregivers, and children ages 18 months to age 5, an opportunity to play outside and discover the sights, sounds, and sensations of the forest and fields at the Slim Baker Area.  Engaging with nature's seasonal offerings stimulates curiosity and a sense of wonder while fostering self confidence and empathy for all living things.  Join us for 1.5 hours of spontaneous play, exploration, and discovery.

A spring, pilot, schedule will run on Friday June 2nd and June 9th.  It is our hope to continue these nature immersion playgroups next fall.

Meet at the meeting area by the fire pit at 9:30.  Come dressed to explore!


Notes from the Naturalist: Week 31 Nature Preschool at HCMA

Mud, mud, mud, glorious mud! We found it, rolled in it, kicked it around and just could not walk away from it! Let me be very clear: we are never disappointed by what we find up here on Little Round Top. The mud today brought a chorus of singing from happy children. Some rowed their boats while sitting in the mud, some kicked it around and others just stomped in it. And you all know what we did today by the bags of dirty clothing that came home. We wouldn’t change that play for a minute. Yes, its work, its dirty but it fulfills each child in a different way that other play cannot replace.

“Scientists have now confirmed something that children have always instinctively known; playing in mud is a joyful experience. Recent research has shown that dirt contains microscopic bacteria called Mycobacterium Vaccae which stimulates the immune system and increases the levels of serotonin in our brains, an endorphin that soothes, calms, and helps us to relax. Scientists say regular exposure to the bacteria may help reduce a child’s vulnerability to depression. In short, playing in mud makes you happier!”

“Mud play is inclusive of all children. It allows children to play at their own developmental level. Mud is an open ended material that meets the diverse needs and interests of different children. Younger or less skilled children might focus on the sensory experience whereas older children may have more specific goals in mind for their mud play. Some children may thoroughly enjoy the sensation of mud between their toes while others are only comfortable poking a finger into the mud. Allow children to explore the mud at their own comfort level. With mud, there is something for everyone and there are no wrong answers.” -

We also did a little “collecting” today. I will refrain from the details (Mother’s Day is coming….)! Watching each child take to the task at hand was very interesting. Some children raced through the activity to move on to play while others were completely absorbed in the activity. One child spent over thirty minutes inspecting and gathering. This child was full on in concentration mode and would not be budged to play. Can you imagine the level of engagement this child felt?

After our collecting we took a walk down to the gathering area. All around us we could see Canada May Flower (Maianthemum canadense). It is close to blooming and will soon have several white flowers branching off from its stock. One of the first spring flowers we will see but soon many more will be popping up. We also noticed Starry False Solomon’s Seal (Smilacina stellate) just starting to come up. The wildflower search in New England can be so much fun! But if you really want to know where to find a certain species in our area, get your hands on a copy of the NH Soil Survey for Grafton County. Once you know the soil type, you can then start your search for that hard to find flower – like Dutchman’s Breeches! For more information on New Hampshire Wildflowers check out this link:


Notes from the Naturalist Week 30: Nature Preschool at HCMA

It is always hard to come back after vacation. In recognition of easing back into the work of the child, we made a special treat. Bread! Homemade bread, by hand or by machine is the quintessential welcoming of comfort and love. Who does not love the smell of a fresh baked loaf wafting through the air as you open the door? And on top of a rainy, damp day….bread…warm and welcoming!

Each child took turns as we looked over our Maple and Oat recipe. We may not be lucky enough to have a working kitchen stove, but let’s face it, a bread machine will do just fine. So with each ingredient measured out, one by one the children helped to create their very first loaf of bread at Nature Preschool. Remember how we talk so much about Place-Based Learning? Within Place-Based Learning is also the importance of our connections to the land, the idea, the teachings that surround us as we learn about the land, its history and culture from which it is based. And so, in baking bread, we made a special connection, a memory, that ties each and every one of us to this place perched on the side of Little Round Top Mountain.

“Bread, in all its various forms, is the most widely consumed food in the world. Not only is it an important source of carbohydrates, it’s also portable and compact, which helps to explain why it has been an integral part of our diet for thousands of years. In fact, recent scholarship suggests humans started baking bread at least 30,000 years ago.”

“Prehistoric man had already been making gruel from water and grains, so it was a small jump to starting cooking this mixture into a solid by frying it on stones. A 2010 study by the National Academy of Sciences discovered traces of starch (likely from the roots of cattails and ferns) in prehistoric mortar and pestle-like rocks. The roots would have been peeled and dried before they were ground into flour and mixed with water. Finally, the paste would be cooked on heated rocks.” -

While our bread baked away, tucked inside its warm little machine, we took to exploring as we do each day at Nature Preschool. The children played just inside an immature “Hemlock Grove” as we called it and discovered water coming from under the ground. They ground the dirt beneath their feet until they had made a nice little well of mud and then took turns stepping in it. Oh for the love of dirt! I am sure they would never grow old of mushing their muddy boots deeper into that puddle. We are still discovering new things each time we explore. And with each day that passes, we too notice how time really never stays still. And with that, I will leave you with this question: Have you notice in this new season, this season of spring, how very much your children have grown and started to change once more?