Cambridge Outdoors

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

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 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.


Name that handhold!

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Here’s a preview of my annual Greater Boston guessing game for kids during Screen-Free Week. Yes, you’re looking at a screen right now. But consider printing it or, if you’re on your smartphone to “scavenge” these secret places, think of all the adventures without a screen these clues will lead you to!

Each of these images is of a “handhold”  (something you can grab) on a piece of playground equipment (or other climbable object) in Cambridge, Mass., in an “open space.” Most, but not all, are from parks and playgrounds. Ready to play?

20140418-111104.jpg Name that handhold! (Let’s call this one Mystery Park Number One). Need a hint? Click here to see a natural object and something made by a human in the same location. Did that help?



Now name that one. this is Mystery Park Number Two. Need a hint? Click here to see a natural object and something made by a human in the same location.











Below is the handhold clue in Mystery Park Number Three. Remember, all of these are in Cambridge, Massachusetts!












Need a hint to figure out where Mystery Park Number Three is? Click here for a hint! 


And here is Number Four! How are you doing so far?

IMG_8047Here are some more clues to help you figure out which park in Cambridge is Mystery Park Number Four.





Country Mouse, City Mouse: Re-Naturing Childhood Captured on Film

Greater Boston parents, grandparents, community organizations, teachers and outdoors enthusiasts are called out here to see the peculiar state of affairs of children and nature. Project Wild Thing documents how one lone British father  took matters into his own hands to re-balance the equation. I’ll be writing more in this space in the near future about the film and the people behind it—so don’t change that dial.

Airport Owls, Hooting Toddlers: A Feathered Friend in Cambridge

Owls visited our fair city last weekend and kids were there in droves to see them.

Licensed wildlife rehab maven and Massachusetts resident Patricia Bade (given the punchy name “Owl Woman” by her Penobscot elders before she could say “boo”) brought her un-releasable saw-whet owl and screech owl to Maynard Ecology Center for a family program on Sunday, February 9, 2014. The venerable Friends of Fresh Pond Reservation and the Cambridge Water Department sponsored the visit. Much hootin’ (the three- to seven-year-olds) and hollerin’ (the babes in arms) resounded through the halls of the center, housed in the basement of Neville Place, an assisted living community within spitting distance of Fresh Pond.

Compared to the snowy owl, these species are diminutive. Bade spread her arms to illustrate a snowy’s wingspan—five feet. She’d gotten up close and personal to an injured snowy owl brought to her recently, though it had expired upon arriving her doorstep. “She was magnificent,” reports Bade, who examined the owl afterward.

Snowy owls such as the one Bade examined have appeared in large numbers this year in Greater Boston.

The first consideration in an upswing sightings of any predator (such as the foxes seen in residential areas of North and West Cambridge earlier in the fall) must be the status of their prey population. There are multiple factors, however,  behind the snapshot of  what’s plentiful and what’s not in a “food web” (think food chains, intersecting) at any given time.

The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology reported that by late November 2013,

the first wave of owls was making headlines (literally: see this article in the NYT and this article) in even the greatest metropolitan areas of the Northeast. Numerous visuals show the distribution of these movements, and one project has sought to take advantage of this unique opportunity to track the movements of these birds (check out Project SNOWStorm). It appears that a combination of factors may be responsible for this season’s invasion, but the jury is still out as to what is causing this influx. Are these movements the results of an overabundance of rodent prey items in portions of eastern Canada yielding a bumper crop of young Snowy Owls that are dispersing en masse?

Climate is also the elephant in the room.

The Cornell Lab continues,

Or is the movement we are seeing part of a much larger set of changes occurring in the Arctic related to rapidly changing climate?

via Cornell Lab of Ornithology: Brief Notes on Some Late 2013 and Early 2014 Movements.

Whether the elephant is merely in the room examining its cuticles rather than causing tremors we may not know. Science doesn’t allow for leapfrogging, but it does allow for educated guesses, labelled as such.

In her response to an adult asking why so many snowys showed up at Logan Airport this winter, Bade said the landscape there resembled their home turf—the tundra. There’s a little more to the story, however. These tundra mammal-predators, during the period December through April, apparently travel to openings in the Arctic sea-ice to feed on waterfowl, who are in turn using that type of environment because they can feed there. The 2013-2014 “irruption” of Hedwig and her crew at places like Logan, Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark airports may represent a signal departure from that practice, perhaps by necessity rather than by choice.

Put yourself in Hedwig’s shoes, and wonder whether, like the itinerant snowy owls, increasing numbers of humans will need to seek something that “looks like home.” Wonder whether humans will need to take refuge from our coastal cities or our failed fields of plenty. Wonder whether, in the coming decades, human migration by necessity rather than by choice, will be on the upswing. Even if that possibility seems like something you can’t swallow—dystopia doesn’t, admittedly, go down well—keep those snows in the mind’s eye. That complexity, incorporating vast flocks of many species, the worldwide bird migration patterns interdependent on food webs; the operation of those food webs in cities, towns, rural areas—whether in airport, marshland, watershed, or suburb, it behooves adults to try to grasp a piece of this puzzle, and to get our children hootin’ and hollerin’ like owls and coyotes and slithering like snakes in the meantime.

Adult Pro-Environment Behaviors Shaped by…Harvesting?

David Sobel’s piece “Look, Don’t Touch” in Orion Magazine has shaken up the small world of my little nature club and the big world of the Get Outdoors movement. I’ve just discovered Living On Earth‘s interview with Sobel, here.

If you haven’t had a chance to read the Orion essay, here’s the kernel of Sobel’s argument: “rule-bound” environmental education, in which kids are prohibited from picking, touching, messing about, disrupts the natural mechanisms that connect young children with nature for life and lead to strong environmental values in adulthood. He goes so far as to say, in the aforementioned radio interview, that berry-picking and mushrooming with parents, i.e., natural resource consumption as a focal point of nature experiences, has shown to have the most power. Much food for thought, there.