Screen Wise Cambridge’s Snow Day Challenge: February 2, 2015

Make something using these items only:

  • 5-7 cylindrical household objects like cardboard tubes or water bottles
  • 5-7 rubber bands (hair bands are ok), and
  • 5-7 crayons or pencils.
photo of snow day challenge materials
Materials you can use for the Screen Wise Cambridge Snow Day Challenge.

Your creation can be a building, a human or animal figure, an abstract sculpture, a machine, a tool, a poem or story, in fact anything at all! Use the above items only. You can use scissors or other tools as long as you don’t add any additional items. i.e., no tape, no glue! (If you absolutely can’t resist using tape or glue, don’t give up—we’re still interested in what you make, but do try the real challenge first).

Post the photos of your finished creations (and a caption or description) to the Screen Wise Cambridge Facebook page or post them as a comment below. (Be sure to say if you have used tape or glue)

Also post your questions here if you have any. Multigenerational teams are welcome to participate, whether parent-child or not. There are no age restrictions.

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.

Of Petals and Stems

Sunflower hats under construction

Helianthus strumosus. Have you seen these tall flowers,  yellow at center and yellow on the petals?  They’re not the Yellow Coneflowers that feature brown centers and yellow petals.IMG_6801 These sunflowers are abundant at Fresh Pond Reservation.  Thin-Leaved Sunflower (Helianthus strumosus) is our best working guess as to what they are. We’ll have some good headgear to loan out to plucky Cambridge citizens and kids who want to represent this meadow flower in the Honk! Parade on October 12th….sewing machines and giant doll needles are being deployed as we speak. photoSpeaking of coneflowers, we are working on Echinacea purpurea hats as well. In previous years, we’ve created two giant Great Blue Heron puppets, a fish, and dragonfly and damselfly wings. If you’re interested in Fresh Pond Creatures at the Honk! Parade,  contact Ranger Jean at or 508 562-7605.honk2 2013

Name that handhold!

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.





August Update: Nature Programs &Etc in Cambridge



Dave Brown Wildlife Walk

1-3 p.m. Join Tracker-naturalist David Brown, who conducted a pair of wildlife surveys in the park a decade ago,on a wildlife walk on the North trail of the Alewife Reservation.  No Cost, All Ages welcome.

Getting Ready to Honk!

3–5 p.m. Join Ranger Jean Rogers and Julie Croston at Fresh Pond Reservation to make dragonfly (Wandering Glider) and damselfly (Blue Fronted Dancer) wings, or an algae hand-puppet, to wear in the Fresh Pond Creatures Contingent at the Honk! Parade on October 13th. For families with ages 5-11; rain or shine. Meet at Fresh Pond Reservation Ranger Station. Offered by Friends of Fresh Pond Reservation and Tobin Friends of Fresh Pond.



Cambridge Residents: Appeal to City Council for Silver Maple Forest funds

6 p.m.  Join Friends of Alewife Reservation’s Quinton Zondervan at Cambridge City Hall, Sullivan Chamber to support this appeal for funds from the Community Preservation Act.



Telling Your Natural Story: A Storytelling Workshop

1–3:30 p.m. Come take a short walk with Ranger Jean to learn the stories of nature at Fresh Pond, and then, over tea and cookies, storyteller Amy Tighe will show you how to create and share your own stories. Register at



A Fresh Pond Reservation Walkabourt

6–7:30 p.m.  Take a walking tour of recently restored areas at Fresh Pond Reservation and learn about both ongoing and future restoration projects. Watershed Manager Chip Norton will answer your questions about the past, present, and future of landscape management at Fresh Pond. Meet at Purification Facility front door, FPR.



Anne Marie Lambert Little RIver Nature Poetry Walk

3-5 p.m.  Join Belmont Citizen Forum guide Anne Marie Lambert, who has been leading groups since last year and enjoys sharing perspectives, history and wildlife information.




Botany Walk on Grasses and Sedges of Alewife Reservation with Walter Kittredge 

Meet at 1:00 p.m. at the lot on Acorn Park Drive, Cambridge., Mass., for this walk. Walter is Senior Curatorial Assistant at the Harvard University Herbaria, a worldwide research collection of over 5 million dried plant specimens. Walter is also the Assistant Curator of the New England Botanical Club Herbarium. Walter has 35 years experience as a botanist and 25 years experience as a Wetlands Delineator consultant. Walter is co-author with Bryan Hamlin of Changes in the Flora of the Middlesex Fells Reservation. Walter leads educational hikes on plant identification and ecology, and created a nature trail for the Dark Hollow Pond Trail which is now called Bear Hill Habitats, Current research focuses on documenting the largest trees of the Fells using the Eastern Native Tree Society methodology. Walter has participated in Biodiversity Days at various DCR properties, and conducts floristic inventories of conservation areas throughout eastern Massachusetts.

Cancelled in the event of rain. For more information please email



Online Class on Urban Agriculture through UMass

UMass is offering a 6-week online class called Urban Agriculture: Innovative Farming Systems for the 21st Century, beginning Monday, July 8.  This class earns 3 college credits and may count toward the Sustainable Food and Farming Online Certificate.  The instructor, Helena Farrell, has a Masters in Landscape Architecture from the University of Massachusetts and her course is well-grounded in permaculture principles.   The cost is $371/credit.  For more information, see: will learn about innovative production methods and critical social, economic, and environmental dimensions of modern day urban agriculture.  Multi-media presentations by the instructor, articles and videos online, and a custom, library research guide provide a strong foundation for students to investigate important topics and evaluate the performance of real life urban farm systems. The course will consist of readings, videos, quizzes, and research assignments in which students critically assess major strengths, weaknesses and issues of 21st century urban farm systems.



SUMMER BIRD WALK at Fresh Pond Reservation

7:30 to 9:30 am. Early morning is the best time to look for birds because they are most active when the air is cool and they are hungry for breakfast. We may find adults feeding babies in the nest and fledglings that are following their parents and begging for food.  As always, beginning birders are welcome.  We have binoculars to lend and will show you how to use them. You must register for parking and meeting place information E-mail or call 617-349-7712 and leave your name and phone number to register.


July 14


1 to 3 pm. Water Purification Facility parking lot, Fresh Pond Reservation, at the Volunteer Trailer
250 Fresh Pond Parkway
Join us as we start removing seed pods from this year’s crop of Fresh Pond’s most invasive vine. We’ll work along the Pond fence digging it up where we can, and picking pods where we can’t dig. Tools and training provided. To join us, e-mail Katie at or call
617-349-7712. Co-sponsored by Cambridge Pod Patrol, a public education campaign to spread the word (not the weed) about black swallowwort in Cambridge.


July 15

UPPER WATERSHED NATURE WALK (transport to and from Cambridge provided)

6 to 7:30 pm
Water Purification Facility front door
250 Fresh Pond Parkway
Landscape architects at Bioengineering Group will introduce you to the unique habitats found on Cambridge-owned land in the Upper Watershed.  Find out where your water comes from and discover new places to explore.  Transportation provided to registered participants; call 617-349-7712 or email

Saturday and Sunday

JULY 20/21

First Outdoors Family Camping Weekend, at Otter River State Forest, Baldwinville, Mass.

These weekend experiences are designed for families who are new to camping and families of all kinds are welcome! Depending on the location, activities may include: Camping Fundamentals, Nature Walks & Plant Identification, Fishing, Archery, Nature Center Exploration, Live Animal Program, Outdoor Cooking and an Evening Campfire Program.  Registration information is here on the  Department of Conservation and Recreation. Registration preference will be for those families who are new to this program.  Additional dates for this program are below:

July 27 & 28 — Harold Parker State Forest, Andover


July 29

WATER QUALITY MONITORING at Fresh Pond Reservation

6 to 7:30 pm
Water Purification Facility front door
250 Fresh Pond Parkway
Learn about the Cambridge Watershed system and the Water Quality Monitoring Program with Watershed Supervisor David Kaplan.  Find out about the parameters measured and what they tell us about the water quality.  Check out some of the tools and techniques used for sampling water collected from reservoirs and tributaries for laboratory analysis.

August 3 & 4 — Nickerson State Park, Brewster

August 10 & 11 — Tolland State Forest, Otis



image descriptionDaylight Moonlight: Nature Storytime with Children’s Author and Artist, Matt Patterson


Join the Harvard Museum of Natural History in Cambridge, Mass.,  for a special Nature Storytime with children’s author and artist, Matt Patterson, who will read from his newest book, Daylight Moonlight. This beautifully illustrated book provides a fun way for children to learn about the animals that populate different habitats by day and by night. Matt has painted 22 scenes of the forest, desert, underwater, seashore, wetlands, grasslands, mountains, public parks, and even his own backyard. (Copies of Matt’s book will be available for purchase in the Museum gift shop.)

The museum has many other good programs going on this summer.


Easier to “Get Kids Outside” in Spring? Think Again

My daughter seemed  interested in coming outside with me this morning to check out the neighborhood owl. It has a regular shift at the entry to its nest, but that happens to coincide with the chaos of getting to school (not) on time. “But mommy,” she said, “I need a new bike helmet.” While this might in fact seem like a Stuff (capital S)-obsessed response to an invitation to an encounter with an animal thriving in its habitat, she has, in fact, outgrown her bicycle helmet, and biking would be a reasonable and pleasant way to take this outing.

Photo Copyright by Harry Powers
Photo Copyright by Harry Powers

The fact is, we could walk, but she vehemently opposed walking the half-mile or so to the Place of Owl. Despite this reluctance, she’s enthusiastic about the larger idea I proposed—that we visit the spot every week from now on, early on a Saturday morning. She even proposed writing an “owl schedule” on which we could record when we saw owl babies appear and other such milestones. What was striking, and what I want to comment on here, is the hard parameters that seemed to take root almost instantly around the concept of owl viewing.

Owl Observations= Bike with Mom


Owl Observations = Bike with Mom + New Bike Helmet

and since we didn’t have the bike helmet, and she wasn’t interested in changing the transport side of the equation, it became

Owl Observations=Null

Not only was I wishing, seemingly on her behalf, that the shock and awe of seeing a real live own would trump her antipathy to walking, but I was so trapped in my own script—as she was in hers—that we couldn’t resolve the problem. After all,  it was my problem; she had no stake in resolving it.

The concept of “scripts” in childhood, in play and in interactions, as far as I know, isn’t new. But media, i.e., the scripts of others, are more often than not designed to displace or distort an individual child’s own script, to provide solutions and plot lines, to hijack the child.

So often today it is as if children are being remote-controlled by the scripts of others [television, videos, electronic toys], instead of coming up with their own unique stories and problems to solve. [Remote-control childhood] is exactly the opposite of [a child’s] play, where he worked out a unique problem in a unique way, and learned how to have wonderful ideas that furthered both his development and the sense of satisfaction that can come from working things out on his own. Remote-control childhood] undermines children’s ability to come up with wonderful ideas of their own creation and, instead, promotes the rote learning that is a carbon copy of the script creators.

via Moving Beyond Remote-Controlled Teaching and Learning » Diane E. Levin.

I agree wholeheartedly with Diane Levin’s critique of the “script” but I think her critique deserves extension. She is barking up the Montessori tree, which by now, a hundred some years later, has created so many saplings and grafts and branches that there really is no excuse for disempowering children, even in such small matters as a bike ride in the neighborhood.

We hijack children, even our own, from piloting their own course of play. We’re constantly introducing new problems from the adult world into theirs. Sometimes this may be necessary; sometimes, convenient for us.  When we do this, are we modeling good brainstorming, adaptive thinking, critical thinking, and taking on diverse and uncomfortable points of view? When we conceive of a family project, create a plan, or fix a destination, are we enhancing—or instead circumventing— our kids’ ability to solve problems?

Mother Nature’s Child to Play in Somerville

Somerville Climate Action, Rep. Denise Provost and The Growing Center present a free film:


Mother Nature’s Child explores nature’s powerful role in children’s health and development through the experience of children of all ages.
The film marks a moment in time when a living generation can still recall a childhood of free play outdoors; this will not be true for most children growing up today. The effects of “nature deficit disorder” are now being noted across the country in epidemics of child obesity, attention disorders, and depression.

Discussion of how to keep city kids connected to nature will follow the film.

Weds. MARCH 27, 7-9pm


Fire Up Your Engines: Screen-Free Week Starts April 29th

Giant Bubbles for Health. Photo by Harald Bischoff
Giant Bubbles for Health. Photo by Harald Bischoff

Screen-Free Week (April 29–May 5, 2013) gets a lot of flak, not to mention wolf-crying from some parties. Is it a slippery slope towards the denial of digital citizenship if we suggest kids should spend less time on computers, tablets, and e-readers?

There are many good arguments for children to be educated in technology and that schools train kids to be good digital citizens. Technology, screens, media—it’s part of our landscape now, and equipping our kids for survival means giving them that skill set. However, “advergaming,” dopamine-induced calm, and using ipads to fill kids’ downtime doesn’t hold any benefit for them (perhaps, it does, though, to overstressed parents and caregivers). Daydreaming, running around, and real-life play has a developmentally functional role.

Turning off our phones, ipads, gaming devices, and televisions for a week—filling the downtime with uptime instead of screen time, is a way to model connectedness for kids. The other kind of connectedness.

Is Screen-Free week a haven for Luddites and anti-technology, granola-crunching, bread-baking, wooden-toy-pushers? Well, I may be a card-carrying member of the last three of those groups, but I’ve also been networked and tweeting for a good long while. I’m never going back, but I am vigilant about screen-time in my household.SFW-logo-with-2013-date-and-website

This TEDxRainer talk by Dr. Dimitri Christakis is a good introduction to research on how TV and video exposure affect the development of attention skills in children. His lab found that the more cognitive stimulation kids received by age 3 (reading, museum visits, singing to kids), the better their ability to pay attention at age 7. TV and video had a correspondingly negative effect on later attention skills. For every hour of TV watched per day before age 3, there was a 10 percent negative difference in attentional skills at age 7.

Need more reasons to consider going screen-free and talking your school, household, or significant other into joining you? Here’s an excerpt from the Institute of Medicine‘s Early Childhood Obesity Prevention Policy:

Major federal government initiatives have concluded that screen time is related to weight outcomes, and to adequacy of physical activity, but do not limit their definition of screen time to media that contains food advertising. The CDC’s Task Force on Community Preventive Services recommends behavioral interventions aimed at reducing screen time based on “sufficient evidence of effectiveness for reducing measured screen time and improving weight-related outcomes”. They define screen time as “time spent watching TV, videotapes, or DVDs; playing video or computer games; and surfing the internet.” In identifying research gaps, they point out that important research issues remain, including that “additional research is needed to identify how screen time affects health outcomes”. One of their research questions is “What is the mechanism for screen time being associated with weight-related outcomes?” (Community Guide, 2010).

Healthy People 2020 positions screen time as a direct competitor with adequate physical activity in children from birth to 12th grade. Key physical activity objectives recommended by Healthy People 2020 (HHS, 2010) include: increase the proportion of children aged 0 to 2 years who view no television or videos on an average week day; increase the proportion of children and adolescents aged 2 through 12th grade who view television, videos, or play video games for less than 2 hours a day; and increase the proportion of children and adolescents aged 2 years to 12th grade who use a computer or play computer games outside of school (or nonschool work) for less than 2 hours a day.

The AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics)(2001) recommends limiting children’s total media time to no more than 1 to 2 hours of quality programming per day and discouraging television viewing for children younger than 2 years of age. Yet, a recent study suggests that more than a third of health care providers fail to discuss television guidelines with parents (Spivack et al., 2010).

Although the committee thought it was reasonable to assume that the relationship between screen time and obesity found among 2 to 5 year olds is likely to be similar in the birth to 2 age group, there was insufficient evidence about this relationship for the committee to make an obesity prevention recommendation for the younger age group. The committee notes, however, that there is evidence unrelated to obesity (e.g., about cognitive development) that has led others to raise concerns about any screen time in this age group. Thus the committee believes that discouraging screen time in this age group may be important for other reasons, as noted by AAP (2001).

Full document here:

You can find a slew of suggestions for Screen-Free Week organizing and activities at Consider a granola-making party for your neighborhood gang of rascals (then tweet about it the following week).

Park[ing] Day

Enormous, lumpy, bright green spheres—walnuts sporting their whole husk—are littering the byways of Fresh Pond Reservation like a shell midden in the middle of nowhere. Asters are in full flush. A vole was so busy with fall it didn’t bother to hide itself, scuttling right in front of my feet across a wood chip path.

People are choosing their indoors existence right and left; even I am choosing my walled and locked and upholstered and gas-fueled exploits above just the wandering, lolling, and gazing that I could be doing. Every day. Or at least every week.

Park[ing] Day tests our indoors-burrowing, busifying, bustling outer shells. Park[ing] Day, now an annual event the world over, says What is open space, anyway? And is the line that designates a parking spot really etched in its rectangular purity, or should we, maybe, try to unthinkour privileging the presence of cars amongst our stalwart and tiniest pedestrians, our neighbors, our shopkeepers?

Kids from a local school not only making red-winged blackbird wings and beaks to wear, but just generally hanging out in the Play Outdoors! Parking Spot

At our Park[ing] Day spot, on Huron Avenue in Cambridge, Massachusetts, amongst the pine cones, chestnuts, birds nests, tracking guides, and diorama of Fresh Pond Reservation, I met a woman who said “I don’t want to be churlish.” What she then said wasn’t what I expected—perhaps that we aggravated traffic by our little park, or that our hasty signage was a blight. No, she related how she had played amongst the dirt and plants in Arizona as a child, that children today call out, above a floor littered with playthings, that they are bored.

The official co-sponsors of our spot were the Friends of Tobin (a local school organization) and Friends of Fresh Pond Reservation. Unofficially, let’s say the wild turkeys that have been crossing our streets, the gray squirrels mad with storage strategy, and the pines and chestnut trees that are giving kids in our neighborhood the best toys ever these days, are the real sponsors.

perpendicular sand

“All the extra sand here is called perpendicular.”

“The sand clumps are called parallels.”

“All that water is called deception.”

Children not only make meaning, but at a certain age they play with meaning.

And by the way, “what would happen if you froze sand and water?”

What I have here are land and water forms, whose evolution is narrated with giggling and earnestness on the original sensory playground.