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Dear Readers:

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Thank you for your support and see you at the new site.

Diane Schwartz


The Kids of Ski Club 2013: Spring can now officially begin


The Kids of Ski Club 2013: Spring can now official begin

What a great group of kids. They skied their hearts out for eight weeks and learned so much. Many thanks to the volunteers at Blackhawk Ski Club for the lessons and to Goodman Community Center for the kids, van and snack. I also want to thank those of you who donated funds to provide this program. We couldn’t have done it without you.

Spring can now officially begin.

Frogs in the Spring House & other Tales from Blue Mound State Park

The view from the picnic area at Blue Mound State Park.

The spring house at Blue Mound State Park is a pre-park relic. All that remains is the 8 x 10 x 4 foot concrete foundation, built by John Minix, the former landowner at the park. The spring once provided water for native people, farmers, and for the swimming pool, located just downstream.

This was a highlight of our adventure to Blue Mound State Park on November 21, 2009. The temperatures were in the 50s, the sun was shining, and the kids were great. We had ten kids in grades Kindergarten to third grade, one parent, and Doug, our Inner City Outings Leader from the Sierra Club. I love those kind of ratios.

When we got near the Spring House, the kids rushed to it and climbed on top. (I’m not sure why, but most kids want to run on the trails. I haven’t figured out how to slow them down. It’s as if they are programmed to run.) Others peered into an opening in the concrete. Of course, they all wanted to look in at the same time which called for a little group management.

I’m happy that these kids now have a pretty good knowledge about springs and ground water. Last month, we pumped water at Parfrey’s Glen and now we’re seeing the water come right out of the ground on its own. A sign nearby, which I wrote when I worked for Wisconsin State Parks, says that the spring is a perched water table. The kids weren’t too interested in that, but they were interested in knowing that the spring once fed the pool that many of them have swam in.

The mood shifted when Dave shouted, “I see a frog!”  “I do too,”  said Joe. Sure enough, there were three or four small frogs swimming around in the spring water at the bottom of the house. I didn’t know the species, but emailed Karl Heil, the park manager, to see if he knew.

After this discovery, all the kids rushed in to see the frogs and again through the opening and we had to do some kid management to ensure that everyone got a change to see them. This was very cool. We always see wildlife on these trips, but we never know what that wildlife will be. Frogs was an expected delight.

This trip also included a climb up the east observation tower and a hike on part of Indian Marker Tree trail. We also got to play under some enormous oak trees in the picnic area. The trees left huge piles of leaves that the kids buried themselves in. This was as much fun for them as it was for me. I love leaf piles, especially huge leave piles.

In close, there is very little I would do differently on the hike. This time, we allowed them to have walking sticks if they just used them for walking. I think this worked pretty well and they listened. Sticks are an ongoing challenge on these hikes. Kids want them so instead of saying no, I said yes to walking sticks.

The hardest part for me is getting back on time. I am notorious for not leaving the park with enough time to get back. This will stop for the next trip to Olbrich Park, hopefully for sledding!

Halloween Hike: Snapping Turtle & Garter Snake

cherokeemarshOctober 30, 2009 was warm, windy and wet–but not raining–perfect for an afternoon hike to Cherokee Marsh. Unlike our previous day trip to Hinchley’s Farm, we didn’t need mittens, hats or heavy coats. It’s important to grab these days, even if the day is little damp.  My co-teacher, Elizabeth, and I had 10 kids ranging in age from 5 to 9. Most had never been to the marsh and a few had never hiked.  While walking, five-year-old Joe asked, “What are we going to do here?” He seemed perplexed after I told him that we’re here to enjoy nature, look for animals and enjoy the leaves falling from the trees. An 8 year-old girl was a little scared, so she held my hand.  Hiking can be scary to kids, especially on a windy, overcast day, right before Halloween. However, both kids persevered and as leader of the pack, Joe became the best animal spotter.

I really wasn’t sure what we’d see today. Most birds had already flown south and the winds kept other bird from view. Perhaps we’d leave without seeing something, but that wasn’t the case.


As we walk closer to the water’s edge, Joe spotted a snapping turtle hunkered down in a ditch alongside the trail. The turtle was within 3 feet from us and when he saw us, he tried to hide. We backed up to give him some room. In a few minutes, he poked his head up so we all got a good look at his pointed nose and powerful jaw.

“We don’t want to get too close.” I said. Some of the kids were a little afraid, but this lessoned as they saw how afraid the turtle was too. Meanwhile, I kept my eye on Lizzie, who was standing right up to the water’s edge off to the left. She wasn’t interested in the turtle. She could easily dip her foot in the water, but in this case, I’d let her, just so she could get the consequence–wet feet!  Okay, back to the turtle. As we said goodbye to the turtle, Joe shouted, “A snake!”

gartersnakeRonnie screamed as did a few other girls. She started crying. She didn’t even see the snake, but was responding to Joe’s announcement. I told her and all the kids that garter snakes are not poisoness and are very gentle. I’m not sure that they believed me, though if I could have, I would have gently picked up the snake and showed them. Elizabeth shared that she used to capture garter snakes as a kid. Quickly, the girls calmed down and we kept walking.

By the time we got back to the van, the kids were ready to go back. At 30 minutes, this was short hike for me, but a long hike for them. I always have to remember this and be sure to let them set the pace. It was time to go.

The Wonder of a Water Pump


Water pump, stock photo

I never know what kids will discover while outside. On a recent trip to Parfrey’s Glen State Natural Area, the kids were fascinated by a hand water pump.

The kids liked pumping the handle and then seeing the water come out. They were mystified by how the water could keep coming out even after they stopped pumping. “Why does the water keep coming?” I explained something about the pressure in the pipe and that there was enough pressure left to bring the water to the surface.

Some kids thought there was a tank underground. When I told them that the water was stored between rocks deep in the earth they asked, “How does the water get there?”  “How is it cleaned?”  This led to a short explanation of how the rocks and soil act as a filter for pollution. My co-teacher mentioned that this is why we are careful about what we put on the ground.

I could see their little minds turning. Some of the kids were just five years old so I’m not sure they quite understood the whole concept. Heck, many adults don’t fully understand how ground water works.

I was thrilled that something as fun as a water pump brought up the topic. It’s learning at it’s best…hands-on and fun. It was tough getting them away from the pump. Of course, a call for lunch did the trick.

Where is Your Coat?

coldthermometerWe’ve had a cold October in Wisconsin. Last weekend it was about 40 degrees at the start of our hike to Parfrey’s Glen Natural Area. I was dressed in a wind breaker, a neck warmer, hat, gloves and hiking boots. So, when the first kids showed up without none of the above I had to ask, “Where’s your coat?”

“I’ll be okay,” Joan responded. “I don’t get cold,” her brother cheerfully replied. She had on a sweater. He came dressed in shorts and a light jacket.

I told them that they needed to get a coat and that it was colder than they think outside. While I couldn’t do anything about the shorts, his mom did have coats (with hoods) in the car. Other kids had a hat and mittens but no coat. Still others had a coat but no hat and mittens. Fortunately, we keep a stock of mittens and hats at the Center. After handing out some items, I stuffed a few extra pairs in my backpack, just in case the kids change their mind.

Dressing for the weather is a big part of learning to be in the outdoors. Truth is, most kids go from the car or bus to school and home and rarely spend any time outside at all. Recess is just 15 minutes and they don’t venture out on really cold days. Some kids simply don’t think it’s cool to wear hats and coats. Schools also have to be careful about cold because many kids do not have the proper attire. Schools now routinely close when temperatures are below a certain mark. They simply can’t risk having some child outside in bitter temperatures who isn’t dressed properly.

When we got to Parfrey’s Glen the winds were brisk and two kids asked for hats. A mom volunteer asked for mittens. I’m glad I had some extras, but then again, perhaps they would have learned more if they’re ears were a little cold. After all, it wasn’t below zero, it was a brisk 48 degrees.

If the other underdressed kids were cold they didn’t complain, though one boy took his arms out of this coat sleeves to preserve heat. I could tell he was cold, though.  I have yet to fully understand this undressing thing. Why would someone intentionally want to be cold?  I’m pretty sure the parents told them to put on more a warmer coat, but maybe not.

As we walked and got into the woods, the kids did warm up. The kids who had on more clothes, peeled off a few layers.  They learned that it’s better to have it and have to take it off, then not have it and freeze.

bundledupkidsI’m not sure how to instill the dress code for these outdoor adventures. When it’s really cold, we require that kids wear snow pants or we provide snow pants to those who don’t have them. For fall weather however, it’s a little trickier. The day started out sunny and it looked warm. I think that fooled parents and the kids into thinking that it was warmer outside.

Before the trip, I reminded parents to “dress for the weather.” Perhaps, I need to provide a list of specific things to wear before the trip. This may not guarantee compliance, but at least I’m doing more to ensure that no one gets cold. I will no longer assume that parents know what “dress for the weather” means. Just like math and English, dressing for outdoor fun needs to be taught if we want kids and parents to enjoy spending time outside.

Bugs & Slugs: Insect Adventure

What do you get when you cross 11 school age boys with insect exploration? Lots of high energy insect fun. Bugs and Slugs marked my second of two week-long adventure camps run from the Goodman Community Center this summer. Bike camp was in June and Bugs & Slugs was in August. As this was my first time teaching this camp, I learned a lot about kids and about teaching in the outdoors.

Kids love insects. Insects are fascinating, endlessly diverse, cool looking and perhaps most important, they are everywhere.  It takes so little to study insects, but the learning can be huge.  I used the 4-H insect curriculum for most of my lessons this week. I also talked with entomologists at UW-Madison and looked online for information. The week was divided up between outdoor insect exploration, outdoor play like swimming and games, and indoor insect exploration (microscopes, pinning, videos).  I really think it’s important to have a diversity of activities during the week, and not just insect related. This keeps the week moving and ensures that there is plenty of time for summer fun, in addition to learning about insects.

We started the week with a visit to the UW-entomology Department’s insect library.  There, the boys got to see a collection of insects from around the world. Giant beetles and walking sticks were among the coolest insects. They also got to see a live tarantula (not an insect) and a cockroach colony. One boy wasn’t sure about the tarantula and stayed in the hallway a bit before getting closer. Afterward, we stopped at Babcock Hall to get ice cream.

The next day, we went collecting and made pitfall traps. The kids filled their jars with grasshoppers and other insects. We talked about insect body parts and what makes an insect an insect. Most of the insects we let go, but the kids did keep the insects for observation for a few days, especially the ones that they couldn’t identify. I checked out Golden Guide insect guides from the library so we could identify some insects. However, the internet proved to be a better identification source since there are so many insects.

Later in the week, the kids did do some pinning of the insects they found. We started with Japanese Beetles because they were so abundant and we talked about the damage they do to plants. We popped them into the killing jar and waited for them to die. Then, the kids pinned and labeled their specimens.  Not all the kids pinned insects. I left it has an optional activity, since some kids did not feel comfortable with this. Insect, they wrote in their journals or worked on an art project. We also watched a movie called Ant Bully, which was a good insect movie. Most of the insects that the kids pinned had died on their own, so they didn’t have to use the killing jar. The kids that pinned insects did enjoy it and did a great job. They appreciated the scientific aspect of making a collection and worked hard at it.

We tried looking for aquatic insects, but that was the most disappointing aspect of the week. We went to Lake Wingra, but didn’t really find anything. The kids had a lot of fun playing in the water though and they did find tiny crustaceans. We used small vials to collect things and the kids enjoyed putting rocks, shells and water plants in the vials. One kids called them his potions. To better explore water insects, I need to find a wetland that has more insects that we can see. Lake Wingra wasn’t it. I’d also like to rent some paddle boats and take the kids out on Lake Wingra so that we could closer where the insects would be. There simply were few insects along the shore.

The pitfall traps proved to be a huge hit and very, very simple to make. The kids dug a whole and put a cup in the ground. Then, they put food in the cup. We left the traps alone and then went back to see what insects fell into the traps, hence the name pitfall trap. The results were fascinating. For the kids, it was kind of like Christmas everyday because you never knew what would be in the cup. We found spiders, ants, bees, beetles. The kids even created rain covers for their traps to keep the rain out, but the insects could still get to the food. I loved watching that.

The highlight of the week was a trip to the Spring Green Nature Preserve. The preserve is a dry prairie and is home to rare insects and usual plants like the prickly pear cactus. The place is magical and the kids really enjoyed it. Half the group immediately wanted to climb to the overlook. Forget about stopping to look at insects. The other half wanted to look for insects. We had plenty of adults to make this happen. Of course, we could only look and release any insects here. We found a gorgeous dragon fly, a huge orange ant, lots of little yellow ants and a variety of katydids and grasshoppers. We were fortunate to have an entomology student with us who helped with identification of insects. At the top of the bluff, the view was amazing. All together we hike about 3 miles, which is pretty good. These kids did it fast too. Not all groups are like that.  Afterward, we went to Culvers and had ice cream. They loved that.

We also went to see a honey farm, where they learned how honey is made. They liked putting on the bee keeper hat and gloves and looking at the equipment. Of course, they got to taste some honey too.

Overall, the week was a lot of fun. I would change the following: 1) Find a better place to look for aquatic insects or delete that part of the week. 2) Do more collecting and pinning of insects. 3) Purchase our own nets and microscopes. it’s difficult to borrow equipment and very time consuming. 4) Have more computers available in the room for insect identification and microscope work.

Building life long habits

How do you instill lifelong habits in kids? I believe this happens when they have a great time doing an activity and they gain confidence with the task. That was my goal with my first adventure camp: Spokes and Jokes.  I wanted kids to experience what I felt as a kid about biking and what I continue to feel about biking.

Biking has always been a source of great pleasure and accomplishment for me. I remember my first bike like it was yesterday. It was a gold two-wheeler and I have vague memories of learning how to ride it. I was about 6 years old and was living on University Avenue across the street from St. Bernards Church. My dad ran behind me on the sidewalk as I peddled. I’ll never forget the moment I got balance. It was so exciting. I was free and could move so fast on my own. I could go places.

My second bike was a blue one-speed coaster bike with a blue fender and a blue and white seat. It was a full sized bike and I was very proud of it.  It had tassels on the handlebars. I got it for Christmas the year after my dad died. I remember seeing it by the Christmas tree and feeling like I should be jumping up and down for joy. But I didn’t. I felt lonely and sad. It was a nice bike, but it was a sad Christmas. It was a bitter sweet gift.

My third bike was was a white three-speed bike with hand brakes. I put baskets on the back and used it hard to deliver newspapers during high school. I rode that bike all year long in all kinds of weather and I loved the feeling of not being cold while riding a bike. I had a face mask and really warm mittens. I felt invincible after riding on a snowy or really cold day.

With the money I earned from my paper route, I bought my first 10 speed.To me, this bike was a speed racer. I bought it at Middleton Cycle. It had racing handlebars and more speeds that I thought I could use. I could ride faster than ever on this bike. It was red and took pride in keeping it clean and shiny. I would use window cleaner to polish the chrome and apply touch-up paint whenever I got a nick.

By now, I was certainly hooked on biking though I didn’t have a name for it. I started riding longer distances and discovered touring. All I knew is that I couldn’t live without my bike. I took this red bike with me to college. During my first summer at the UW, I rode back and forth to campus on my bike. I worked at the A&W rootbeer stand on Allen Boulevard and commuted to my Henry Street Apt a few times a week. The ride was about 7 miles one way and again I loved how my body felt after a ride and how much freedom I felt about that.

I would have a series of bikes through college, each one a little bit newer. A few were stolen due my carelessness. In college, I discovered road biking and started riding longer distances. I had a few friends that like to tour and this added another dimension to riding. Now, it was all about exploration and less about function, though I still used my bike for transportation to and from campus.

Since then I have continued to enjoy biking. I bought a 15 speed Panasonic Touring bike in the early 1980s and used to travel all over the state.  I loved riding long distances with a top daily mileage of 115 miles. I worked in a Girl Scout Camp for a summer and led bike tours for kids just before returning to graduate school. I used biking throughout grad school to manage stress and keep fit. It worked.

I now own a Bianchi Volpe, and continue to ride between 25-50 miles a week. I ride my Fuji City bike to work. I’m lucky to have two bikes and all the gear to make biking really enjoyable such as helmut, lock and light. Because so many kids do not have even the basics, it will be important to provide kids with a bike, helmut and lock.

Then, all that is required is to provide activities that instill that feeling of freedom and joy. With any luck, a life-long habit will result.

Bike Camp Retrospective

I just finished a week of bike camp. There were 9 kids who participated in a week long camp designed to introduce and excite kids about the wonderful world of biking. We had a great time. 

I learned a lot about planning trips for kids. First, it’s a lot of work and a lot of worry. Will it rain? Do I have enough food ordered? Will the kids poop out? Will the rides be strenuous enough?  In the end, I learned that you just have to go with it and see what happens. It worked out. 

We had kids on the trip from all walks of life. Four kids were on scholarships and 6 were paid. This meant that some kids came to camp with bikes that were barely useable. We had spare bikes for them to ride. Other kids needed to get their bikes fixed to make them usable. A few kids were experienced bicyclists, but most were just regular kids out to have some fun. Overall, the kids got along well and did a great job. 

The best part was watching Joey blossom. In one week, he went from being self-conscious and embarrassed to outgoing and friendly. This was great to see because on the first day, he became so self-conscious about his helmut not fitting right that he couldn’t do the last ride. Then he felt even worse because he didn’t ride. Emotionally, he just was having a hard time. The next day, he turned it around and had a good day. He loved being with other kids and enjoyed himself.  On the last day, he brought balloons for everyone on the trip, a very sweet gesture. 

While the camp was a lot of work, it turned out to be worth it.