Natural Playscapes

Dirt, water, a few stumps and boards, some old pots and pans and spoons. It doesn’t take much to spark hours of wonderful nature play. 

To be sure, this will look very different depending on where you live or work and what space is available. 

Maybe you’ve got a nearby woods to play in. There, children will discover the seasons – snow and ice for building, branches and sticks for fort making, trees for climbing and hills for sliding, mud and leaves as loose parts. You might bring along a child-sized shovel, some pieces of rope or twine for fastening, a tarp or sled for moving materials – there are countless ways to provision for children’s various interests and projects. 

But what if your outdoor play space is an empty lot, a corner of the playground, or a small grassy yard? 

Add a mound of dirt or sand, a rain barrel or water spigot, some stumps and boards and other loose parts like sticks, tree cookies, big rocks, cones, etc. Then watch as the children’s imaginations take off!

Two milk crates, a board, some pots and pans and spoons, a spray bottle, plus snow or a bucket of dirt, and you’ve got a simple snow/mud kitchen that will inspire plenty of play no matter where you are.

With regular time outside, youngsters will become more and more confident and creative in their unstructured play, and the adult role then is to stand back, watch, listen, and connect with the children’s curiosity and wonder.   

Mud Faces, Raindrop Races, Garden Spaces: Ideas for Families Exploring Nearby Nature Together in Spring

Happy spring! March 20th, the spring equinox, marked the official first day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere. Looking for outdoor activity ideas this spring? Four Winds has created a guide with play prompts, materials to have on hand, recommended gear, and non-fiction and fiction books. What will you try?!

Backyard Birds

Here is the perspective of Becca Holbrook, a teacher of young children at the Addison County Parent Child Center:

As the snow continues to melt in early March, multiple children have taken interest in finding worms, centipedes, spiders, chipmunks and birds in their environment. We teachers decided to encourage their curiosity by creating a lesson to continue to grow children’s interest in observing different types of birds.

To begin, teachers read ”The Little Book of Woodland Bird Songs” by Andrea Pinnington and Caz Buckingham to encourage mindfulness both inside and outside of the classroom. Teachers talked with children about how their bodies felt when listening and concentrating on each individual bird sound.

Quickly it was discovered through conversations that the majority of children observe birds high in the sky. When we wondered how to get them to be closer so we could observe them better, the youngsters had many ideas. The kids decided that using binoculars and building a bird feeder would help our observations. Teachers gathered birdseed, plastic bags, pinecones from a Fall adventure, sun butter, butter knives, string. It was a joyful mess! And when we were done, we hung the feeders on a tree across from the playground so we could see them.

 In addition to children making connections to the natural world, this project also provided lots of opportunity to focus on their  social emotional development. 

The children engaged in conflict resolution, problem solving, taking turns, safety awareness, and impulse control. The activity required a lot of children’s planning and sequencing, both in the broad plan and in the individual activity. 

Many interesting conversations and other activities grew from this particular subject – with kids spending hours engaged in imaginative dramatic play, being curious about the habitats of other animals, and drawing spiders and other bugs. 

Tuning Into the First Songs of Spring

Migratory birds are returning and it’s time to tune into their first songs of spring! Try putting on “Deer Ears” – cupping your hands behind your ears to listen to the sounds in front of you and cupping your hands in front of your ears to listen to sounds behind you. Do you notice a difference? 

Pay attention for three of our earliest bird songs, listed below. When do you hear them first this year? Keep a record to compare what you observe year to year and to compare to other local phenology projects, for example Burlington City Nature Clock.

Conk-la-REE! sings the Red-winged Blackbird.

Maids, maids, maids, put on your tea kettle-ettle-ettle-ettle-ettle sings the Song Sparrow.

Readle-eak! sings the Common Grackle.

Magentas of Early Spring

Magentas mark early spring. Be on the lookout for these brief bright bursts before spring has painted the full palette. 

After the Tamarack, or American Larch, has spent the winter needle-less, look for flares of magenta among their unfurling needles – the developing female cones. On the same trees, look for the male cones – round clumps of pollen sacs nestled in paper scales.

Look closely for the tiny magenta eruption of the beaked hazelnut female flowers with their dangling male flowers below.

One of the earliest flowering plants to emerge, Skunk Cabbage creates its own heat. Even on below freezing nights, the magenta-streaked spathe surrounding the flower is able to maintain a temperature of 68°F. This warm shelter is thought to provide “heat stops” for emerging honeybee and fly pollinators.

Getting to Know Trees in Winter

Have you ever looked at bare deciduous trees in winter and wondered how to identify them without leaves? In schools around the region this winter, many Nature Program students explored the buds and bark of trees, and practiced keying out species. 

Buds with their distinctive size, shape, color, texture and orientation can help us solve the mystery of which tree is which. Bark color and pattern, as well as other special features like the presence of thorns or retaining some dry leaves in winter (oak, beech), also give us important clues. Grayson, a fourth grader at Barstow Memorial School in Chittenden shared her experience: “We had a certain branch, and we found the tree that it went to. I think mine might have been hawthorn…wait no it didn’t have thorns. The tree didn’t have leaves [like young beech], so it must have been birch.” Grayson went on to say, “We get to learn science in the middle of the day, and it’s really fun. We learn things we didn’t know about nature. I want to learn how to identify leaves in the springtime!” 

Students model the life cycle of a beech twig, from bud in spring to falling leaf in autumn.

Despite appearances of being dead in winter, deciduous trees are very much alive. Their buds will turn into new leaves, flowers, and shoots as the increasing sunshine and warmth of spring induces them to open. In the meantime, they serve as a nutritious food source for animals in winter. Deer, moose, rabbits and hares subsist on winter twigs; porcupines, squirrels, and grouse eat buds as part of their diets as well. Keep an eye out for signs of browsing as you try to identify trees! 

The ragged twig-ends of deer-browse

Arthropods in Winter Bingo

Walking, flying, catapulting, or perhaps snug in a cocoon, a gall, eggs, or even your home, arthropods are all around us in winter. Arthropods are animals whose bodies are covered with a tough outer shell, an exoskeleton. This exoskeleton is divided into segments that allow the critter to move. Arthropods include not only insects, but also centipedes, crustaceans (e.g. crayfish, sowbugs, fairy shrimp), and arachnids (e.g. spiders, ticks, and mites).

Be on the lookout for arthropods this winter with a game of bingo! Download the bingo board here and look below for a description of the arthropods on the board. Check out other arthropods on the snow in the iNaturalist project and explore other bingo boards here.

Green spider 

The Green Long-jawed Orbweaver are also known as “stretch spiders” – they can straighten themselves into a thin line with four legs in front and four legs in back. 

Male spider with enlarged pedipalps

Male spiders have punching glove-like bulbous pedipalps (small projections from mouth) they use to transfer sperm.

Flying Arthropod

Male winter crane flies form bouncy swarms when it is above freezing.


Cecropia caterpillars overwinter in a silken three-inch long tan cocoon that they attach lengthwise to a branch or stem.  


The flightless female rusty tussock moth lays up to several hundred eggs on top of her empty cocoon.

Snow Fleas

Snow fleas are a type of springtail and can catapult themselves 100 times their body length. These 1/16-of-an-inch long creatures look like pepper on snow on warm days and are active year-round in the leaf litter.


Goldenrod Ball Gall Fly larvae spend the winter in ball-shaped galls (abnormal plant growths that house and provide food for a variety of insects).

Arthropod inside

Asian Lady Beetles congregate in warm spots inside during the winter. They can be red to orange and have 0-22 black spots. 

Silk and leaf shelter

The larva of the Pine Tube Moth use silk and several pine needles to form their tubular home. They feed on the tips of the tube’s needles and overwinter as a pupa inside the tube.

Natural History Mystery

Today is the halfway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox – Imbolc – the Gaelic traditional festival that marks the beginning of spring. Here’s an early sign of spring to look for now: marks of red and yellow liquid against the snow. Elongated oval tracks with fine claw marks nearby give a clue to who left the marks. What is the story?

Coyotes are now in the peak of their breeding season. The red mark is the female coyote’s urine tinged with blood – a sign that she is coming into estrus. A female coyote is in estrus for only two to five days in a year, but courtship often begins two to three months prior. The yellow mark is likely a male scent marking with urine. Usually the female initiates the scent-marking, and the male will smell her urine and add his own. At this time of year, also keep an ear out for duet coyote howling!

Larry Lamsa, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Reminiscing on 27 years of volunteering

Here is the perspective of David Rodgers, Nature Program volunteer for 27 years at Lakeview Elementary School in Greensboro, VT: 

“I vaguely recall joining this nature study program around 1995, at the same time I started other volunteer activities at the Lakeview Elementary School in Greensboro, Vermont. Susan Sawyer was our excellent teacher and four towns were covered (Greensboro, Walden, Craftsbury, and Woodbury). 

I have enjoyed connecting kids to the endlessly amazing world of nature here in Vermont, and have simultaneously expanded my own personal knowledge greatly. The hands-on approach and getting children outside is very effective, as the more of our senses are used, the better we remember. To see and encourage the curiosity and enthusiasm of students to learn about plants and animals as well as the energetic forces all around us is a constant delight and hopefully will be formative experiences for their later lives. Teaching the scientific way of observing, experimenting and thinking is particularly important in developing the kind of critical intelligence and ability to question everything necessary to becoming a responsible citizen in a functioning democracy and a well informed problem solver.”