Cambridge Outdoors

playing, learning, and being outdoors in Cambridge, Mass.


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Secret Lives of Flowers: Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) and Milkweed

Purple Coneflowers are one of our beloved species of meadow flowers in Cambridge. A common garden plant, coneflowers are found at Fresh Pond Reservation and elsewhere—including in the Honk! parade.

These flowers are cross-pollinated by long-tongued bees, bee flies, Halictid bees, butterflies, and skippers. Among long-tongued bees, are such visitors as honeybees, bumblebees, digger bees (Melissodes spp.), and leaf-cutting bees (Megachile spp.). Butterfly visitors include Monarchs, Fritillaries, Painted Ladies, Swallowtails, Sulfurs, and Whites. The caterpillars of the butterfly Chlosyne nycteis (Silvery Checkerspot) feed on the foliage, while the caterpillars of several moths feed on the flowerheads. These latter species include Chlorochlamys chloroleucaria (Blackberry Looper), Eupithecia miserulata (Common Eupithecia), Synchlora aerata (Wavy-Lined Emerald), and Homoeosoma electella (Sunflower Moth). A small songbird, the Eastern Goldfinch, occasionally eats the seeds during the summer and early fall.

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Purple coneflower hats are part of the Cambridge Wildlife costumes at the Honk! parade every year.

Source: Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea).

Milkweed is an important host plant as well, with a specific relationship with Monarch caterpillars eating only milkweed species. Check out the red milkweed beetles on this plant, next time you are in a meadow!

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Call for Volunteers: Monarch Butterfly Release Parade

Adult/teen volunteers are needed for a fun nature event at Fresh Pond Reservation—a parade to celebrate the release of reservation-raised monarchs back into the wild!  At this writing (July 18) four of the creatures at the Water Department building have turned into chrysalises, with more to follow. The parade —open to all , costumes and noisemakers

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Multiple kids wear a monarch caterpillar puppet at the wildlife parade at Fresh Pond Day 2015.

encouraged—will begin at the Water Treatment Facility at 250 Fresh Pond Parkway, proceeding along the path to Lusitania Meadow. There, the butterflies raised by the Water Department will be sent  off into the meadow flowers.  

The parade will take place on Saturday, August 6, 2 to 3:30 pm (Rain Date Sunday, August 7).

To volunteer, contact Martine at (617)-349-6489 or fpr@cambridgema.gov.

 More information about the Water Department’s Monarch Release Project is here.


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Cambridge Outdoors has launched!


I’ve recently overhauled this site to be a resource for families, kids, teachers, and residents interested in exploring the natural world in our small city (or anywhere). The blog portion of the site will continue. Bear with me while additional information about places, flowers, critters, and seasonal changes is being added.

IMG_7874Along with the re-engineered purpose comes a new name—Cambridge Outdoors. There is currently no other single organization or resource where you can find events, information, activities, and news about the habitats (and plants and animals) that exist in the city of Cambridge.  My hope is that Cambridge Outdoors will fill that gap.

Whether it’s outdoor learning or outdoor play that most interests you; whether you need resources for informal learning or for classroom- or OST-based learning; whether you’re a completely newbie to the natural world or a semi-pro at birding, or anatomy, or environmental sciences, I hope you can find something here that’s useful. I’m open to suggestions about content that would be helpful to have on this site. Email me.

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Nature as a Recharge System for Attention

Andrea Faber Taylor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has launched a study of the effects of nature on learning. In this controlled study in three schools, children who spend 100 minutes or more outside every day will be compared to others who spend much less time outside.

Research is mounting that green space is not just an accessory. It’s actually a necessity, an important component of healthy living.*

“Directed attention requires effort. We use it to tune out distractions, stay focused on a task and direct our thoughts. But when it fatigues, we become impulsive and irritable and we make bad choices. We also have this other capacity called involuntary attention, which helps restore focus and allows room in our mind for reflective thinking. It doesn’t require effort. Nature has a lot of characteristics that seem to draw on involuntary attention.”*

The research participants in the two-year study  kindergartners in northern Ontario. A high proportion of Simcoe County’s school district, which has 85 elementary schools, now have outdoor classrooms. Faber Taylor:

“While we intuitively know green space is good, it doesn’t get priority when push comes to shove in terms of time and money. Research is mounting that green space is not just an accessory. It’s actually a necessity, an important component of healthy living. But policy-makers always look for quantitative evidence to make those decisions.”

But is “greening” playground space enough? Is exposure to a grass playing field the same as a walk in the woods? Is replacing a concrete playground with plastic or metal structures with a “green” playground of wood chips and “natural”-looking logs enough, under all circumstances?

The multiple factors present in nature that may lead engage the restorative “involuntary attention”  are still very much under study. Marc Berman, a psychologist at the University of Chicago, is digging into this question:

“Berman and his colleagues have zeroed in on the “low-level” visual characteristics that distinguish natural from built environments. To do this, they broke down images into their visual components: the proportion of straight to curved edges, the hue and saturation of the colors, the entropy (a statistical measure of randomness in pixel intensity), and so on.”**IMG_9510

…softly fascinating stimulation.**

Whether the strongest positive attentional effects come from natural objects  and animals seen and experienced in nature, or from the activities into which children naturally fall (collecting, climbing, hiding, etc.) when in a real habitat, the jury’s still out. The two aren’t after all, mutually exclusive.

We must consider children in ecological planning for they have no voice of their own.***

Urban planners, recreation departments, school principals, social-emotional learning educators, and public health departments would do well to bushwhack through the paperwork and lines of command to collaborate to meet the needs of children with open space planning. They must collaborate also with children,  youth, and parents to respond to the increasing evidence of the positive effects of natural settings on learning, health, and mental health, for as Roger A. Hart said, more than thirty years ago, “We must consider children in ecological planning for they have no voice of their own.”

Further Reading:

Female cankerworm moth (tentative identificiation), Fresh Pond Reservation, 2012.


Crawling Out from the Leaf Litter

I’m cleaning out one laptop computer in order to switch to a new one, reaching back into my digital leaf litter. What I found amongst hundreds of emails to delete was a two-sentence response from local entomology expert Tom Murray, kindly offering me a tentative identification of an insect photographed on my hand in December 2012.

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Female cankerworm moth (tentative identification), Fresh Pond Reservation, 2012.

Alsophila pometaria, or the Fall Canker Worm Moth, was his best guess. They live in the leaf litter at the base of trees. The females have no apparent wings.

It’s not so important to give Kindergartners the burden of taxonomy, to distract them with multisyllabic Latin labels. But with Maria Montessori in mind, I don’t shy away from it either. Words have power, and the minds of even our smallest humans have more power than we think.

A moth without wings? That’s a game changer.

I can’t bring myself to delete the photo—though, indeed, it may be of limited use in our field studies program. Sometimes leaf litter is a gold mine.

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