Cambridge Outdoors

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

Animals Unleashed at Magazine Beach

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Image © Bimal Nepal, BimalPhoto.com.

Several animal celebrities of the Cambridge Wildlife Puppetry Project (CWPP), whose activities are supported by the Cambridge Arts Council and the Massachusetts Cultural Council this year, visited picnicking families and others at Magazine Beach Park Friday for a Walk/Ride Day celebration. Stay tuned for the CWPP’s four-day Fly, Buzz, and Honk! wildlife festival, August 7–10, 2017, every day from 10:00 to 12:00 in Riverside Press Park. Art and games and performances at the festival highlight the species that live in our city.


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Cambridge’s Baird Creates “Human Nature Dictionary”

Cambridge Resident Freedom Baird’s open-source participatory project, the Human Nature Dictionary, is part of an exhibit running through August 8th at the Massachusetts College of Art.

Shocked that the Oxford Junior Dictionary had removed basic vocabulary words related to nature, the artist devised the Human Nature Dictionary as a form of protest. She saw the publisher’s pruning as a codification and endorsement of humankind’s divorce from nature, particularly as its locus was children’s access to language. It was an act needing correction.

field desk

Field Desk, Human Nature Dictionary

Baird’s “dictionary” invites the public (including children) to invent, share, and restore  an English lexicon that conveys or reflects human perceptions, uses, and other relationships with the natural world. According to the main page for the online Human Nature Dictionary, it

“proposes not simply to reintroduce words about nature, but to create new language that shows that humans and nature are part of the same pan-natural system, and that our fates are inextricably merged.”

Examples of publicly-sourced Human Nature Dictionary entries include “Disney’s Law of Evolution,” the process by which animals found cute by humans experience population growth and habitat protection; “root-kilter,” a slab of sidewalk forced out of place by a growing tree root; and “april dregs,” garbage left behind after snow melt.

320px-Root-kilter

Root-kilter. Photo by Freedom Baird.

Visit the Human Nature Dictionary online here.


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:


Snowfall in the City

When children wake up with the outdoor world coated with even an inch or two of snow, the transformation of their world isn’t partial, as it is for the jaded among the rest of us, who’ve seen hundreds of snowfalls come and go. We have turned into the shovelers, the drivers, the schleppers, the planning-ahead experts.

Illustration from Under the Snow, by Melissa Stewart, illustrated by  Constance R. Bergum

Illustration from Under the Snow, by Melissa Stewart, illustrated by Constance R. Bergum

A snowfall is a complete transformation, for kids. And so it is for the animals with whom young children are apt to identify. To follow and learn from children’s newness to snow, and extend their own scientific curiosity, have a look at Melissa Stewart’s book Under the Snow. It’s recommended for ages 4–8, but teaches and parents should consider it for twos and threes. The book takes us on a walk through different habitats—wetland, pond, forest, and others—and shows how different processes unfold under the snow in those different settings. Along the way, meet a vole, a newt, a chipmunk, and a carp.

The advantage of not thinking ahead to when the snow will melt, nor applying sand or “Sno-Melt,” means the very youngest children are open to the in-the-moment experience—to the eye-popping, swirling, tactile weirdness of snow.

Author Melissa Stewart (left) and I thumb through her book about animal adaptation in winter, Under the Snow (illustrated by Constance R. Bergum), at the Massachusetts Environmental Education Society conference, Spring 2014.

Author Melissa Stewart (left) and I thumb through her book about animal adaptation in winter, Under the Snow (illustrated by Constance R. Bergum), at the Massachusetts Environmental Education Society conference, Spring 2014.

There’s a nice “reader’s theater” script that goes with Under the Snow:

Narrator: Under the snow in a pond…A bluegill circles slowly through the chilly water.

Bluegill: Glug! Glug! I sure wish I had enough energy to catch that little bug.

Narrator: The waterboatman swimming nearby has a different point of view.

Water boatman: Thank goodness that big fish can’t chase me down!

Taking an animal’s point of view is a terrific way for kids to learn about the world.

Snow is a great open-ended toy, too; its rarity and serendipity makes it all the more so.

Postscript: I was lucky to meet Melissa Stewart last spring at the Massachusetts Environmental Education Society conference.IMG_7637 I’m enthralled with all her work. Feathers: Not Just for Flying is a recent one that hits that difficult sweet spot in nature education picture books.There are always  terrific authors at the MEES conference. This year it will be on March 5, 2015. Here are a few more folks I admire who were at last year’s conference:

Author and Illustrator Gordon Morrison with two of his works, at MEES Conference, Spring 2014.

Author and Illustrator Gordon Morrison with two of his works, at MEES Conference, Spring 2014.

Loree Griffin Burns, with her book Handle with Care: An Unusual Butterfly Journey, at MEES conference, Spring 2014

Loree Griffin Burns, with her book Handle with Care: An Unusual Butterfly Journey, at MEES conference, Spring 2014


Participatory Budgeting

The City of Cambridge has launched a Participatory Budgeting Project earmarking $500,000 for citizen-proposed public works. A number of the proposals that have emerged from the process are playground additions or improvements; quite a few suggest traffic-calming and pro-biking infrastructure improvements. I’ve suggested that maximum benefit to the greatest number of children would be the creation of free play areas that are green, utilize existing or demarcate new open space, and provide some urban wildlife and “discovery” opportunities for kids. Such green free play areas needn’t be separate proposals, but could result from further elaboration of several existing proposals.

Exposure to nature has freestanding, positive effects on mental health, independent of the physical activity that is also often enabled by parks. Research increasingly supports this benefit, one which most Cambridge children do not enjoy.

Most of  our city’s green space—of any significance, habitat-wise—is highly concentrated at one end of the city (Alewife Reservation, Fresh Pond Reservation, Danehy Park, and Mount Auburn Cemetery), as I’ve written previously here.

CDD_OpenSPACE_Map These four large open space areas are, for a host of reasons and with many exceptions, not generally used for unstructured recreation (also known as “playing outdoors”) by the vast majority of the children and youth who live in Cambridge. Some may dispute this assertion, especially with regard to Danehy Park. The devil is in the details.

Showing Donnelly Park (not very well, I'm afraid) just south of Cambridge Street, outside Inman Square, with  higher population densities marked in darker tones.

Showing Donnelly Park (not very well, I’m afraid) just south of Cambridge Street, outside Inman Square, with less public open space in keyed to population density.

Here’s a link to a proposal for a park near Hampshire Street in Cambridge, where I’ve commented about making such a tweak to increase the breadth of kids’ chances to “play outdoors” in a larger sense. Here’s a proposal for a partial transformation of Donnelly Field, to which I’ve appended a similar suggestion (Donnelly Field on Google Maps).

The days of old-fashioned playgrounds are over. Children’s brains are starving for imaginative play, and play in natural settings, involving the whole mind as well as the body. The full sensory impact of plants, trees, birds, water; digging and creating tiny villages in dirt and sand; climbing, balancing, playing hide-and-seek around, and jumping on and off logs and boulders; even picking (yes, picking!) wildflowers—these are the play opportunities that have been lost to city kids, and what we must restore to them.


Honk! for Cambridge Wildlife

Fresh Pond Creatures at the Honk! Parade 2014

Coneflower Headgear for Honk!

A purple coneflower. One of our new meadow flower costumes this year for Fresh Pond Creatures at Honk!

Join our Fresh Pond Creatures contingent on Sunday, October 12th. This informal Cambridge community group will march in the 9th annual Honk! Parade, a festival of brass bands from all over the United States.

All Cambridge families and individuals are welcome to join Fresh Pond Creatures. Help celebrate the ecosystem at Fresh Pond Reservation. You may use scooters or bicycles or may choose to walk. Strollers are welcome too!

You can be any plant or animal that calls Fresh Pond its home (no bears or dragons, please). We have costumes and masks to lend to you during the parade, or you can help hold one of our banners.

This year we’ll be marching in the parade dressed as: Giant Great Blue Herons (birds), a Peregrine Falcon, Sunflowers,    Purple Coneflowers, Bluegill (fish), Rabbits, and Red-winged Blackbirds.

Come to the corner of Herbert and Day Streets, Somerville (Davis Square), at the gathering time of 11:00 a.m. on Sunday, October 12th, and look for “Fresh Pond Creatures.”

Contact freshpondwildlife@comcast.net with questions


Slow Reading

child_reading_wikimedia_commons“Slow reading,” what used to be called just “reading”— does it defeat the purpose of “ambient intelligence?” Is ambient intelligence itself a desirable phase of technology? It’s a moot point, because it’s nigh. I might be spreading the word about screen-free time as a buoyant, pearly treasure in daily life  (not just for children). Time in nature is one flavor of that treasure (even if it’s just feeding your chickens). Is Slow Reading reading slowly—languidly, even? Is it re-reading passages; turning the paper pages back and forward to find, or stumble, on passages you missed; is it browsing a book back-to-front, spread by spread (my habit of reading backwards annoys my teenager, yet I’ve seen her do it). Is the carrying about of the book from place to place in case you’ve a spare moment part of the reading experience?
Since I’m too busy tweeting (from two of my five accounts) while listening to the radio, while I have 12 windows on my browser open as well as my iPhone positioned within a cozy 12 inches from my eyes, I’ll leave you with that hanging question—Is Slow Reading Incompatible with Ambient Intelligence?—and this list of resources. They won’t give you an answer, but more questions that will uncurl like ferns.books_disconnect_edit

  1.  Robin Young’s recent radio interview with the cognitive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolfe.
  2. A blog post by Satya Nadella, Chief Executive Officer at Microsoft, about what is moving us toward, in his words, “a world in which our devices, services and environments truly anticipate and understand our needs.”
  3. A “doodle” illustrating Nadella’s point (see #2 above) about the relationships between the Web, Big Data, human insights, and intelligent machines, among other things.
  4. And for good measure, a post by clinical psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair, author of The Big Disconnect, a result of her research on kids and youth and how today’s online/digital device-laden culture is affecting families and growing up. I was able to hear Dr. Steine-Adair talk about her research in Cambridge in March 2014. I am looking forward—albeit dreading—reading The Big Disconnect. A shorter piece on Dr. Adair’s recent work is here in the New York Times.