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Counting Blue Birds

Okay, so this isn’t only about counting blue birds.  It’s about counting all birds.

great backyard bird count

It’s the Great Backyard Bird Count, y’all!!

The Littles and I participate in this awesome study every year.  It’s a perfect way to kick off the year’s nature study program, and even now that they’re middle schoolers, we still do nature study.  Nature study is a great introduction to biology, geology, meteorology, astronomy, etymology… you get it.  But the main reason we do nature study is so the littles get a good grasp on ecology and the importance of leaving the smallest carbon footprint they can.

Counting the birds that come to our feeders for the weekend helps us remember the importance of allowing our flying friends the room to have their lives.  We live surrounded by forest, so we can look out the window and see nests in the trees, and a myriad number of birds flitting about every day.  We keep our feeders filled all winter so the winter birds don’t have to search too hard for food, and we keep them filled in summer just to have the chance to watch them.  I have a true fascination for bird feeders.  I can’t walk past them in any store without stopping to dream about which one I’ll buy next.  When we first moved to the farm, I spent hours watching out the big back windows for any kind of bird I could see.  It was so bad that my beautiful husband bought me a pair of binoculars so I could see them better.  He’s amazing like that.

If you go to the website, you’ll find a downloadable pdf with instructions on how to take part and a downloadable poster announcing the count.  I realize that as homeschoolers we might not feel the need to print out a poster, but it always gets my Littles in the spirit of things to see it hanging on the classroom wall for the weekend.  There’s also a data form for youBirds of Indiana to fill out in order to enter your findings, and a bird list and guide to recognizing birds.  As the teacher, all you have to do is print stuff out and you’re ready to go.

We have several bird books on hand, but our favorite is the Birds of Indiana Field Guide by Stan Tekiela.  The birds are separated by color and the pages are color-coded, so it’s easy and quick to find the bird you’re looking for.  The photos in it are clear and gorgeous, and it’s full of information about each bird, including migration patterns, diet, and nesting habits.  And, awesomely, if you go to Tekiela’s Amazon page, you can find a similar field guide for your state!  Yeah yeah.

The cool thing about this bird count is that you can count birds anywhere:  your backyard, the park, on your way to the grocery store.  This free count is connected to the Cornell Lab bird count I posted about a couple weeks ago and co-hosted by the National Audubon Society.  They recommend you spend at least 15 minutes on just one of the days of the Count, watching birds and counting the types you see and how many of each.  Then you simply create an online account at the webite and enter your data.  The account is free, and you can use the supplied data form to keep track.

If you want to do a further bird study with your littles, here’s a free download for researching just about anything and everything to do with birds.

bird report

If you don’t have a bird feeder at home, making one is easy.  A Pine Cone Feeder is as easy as smearing peanut butter over a pine cone, pouring seed onto a piece of wax paper, then rolling the peanut butter-covered pine cone in the seed.  Tie string or ribbon around the top of the cone, and hang it from the nearest tree.

pine cone bird feeder

An Orange Cup Feeder is simple, too.  You just halve an orange, scoop out the fruit and drop it into a bowl.  Then mix the fruit with about 1/2 cup of peanut butter and a cup of birdseed.  Spoon the mixture back into the halved peel, poke a kabob stick near the top of either side of the orange (gives the birds a perch), tie a string to either end of the stick, and boom.  Bird feeder.  If oranges every last long enough in our house to start to turn, they automatically become feeders.




Birding is so much fun!

Birding is so much fun!

Join the Great Backyard Bird Count.  Hopefully your littles will have as much fun as these amazing, wonderful goofballs.

Love wins,




Homeschool Is for the Birds

I don’t know about you, but one of our favorite pastimes in winter is bird watching.  We have feeders in the garden and we keep them full so the cardinasl, snowbirds (dark-eyed juncos), woodpeckers, and titmice have plenty to eat.  Plus, every once in a great while, and at least a couple times per winter, something rare shows up.  That’s the stuff.

Dark-eyed juncos--we call them snow birds

Dark-eyed juncos–we call them snow birds

Because it’s an activity we enjoy so much, I am constantly on the lookout for ways to enhance our experience.  Enter Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s  Project FeederWatch.  This is a winter-long survey FeederWatchKitthat can be joined at any time by people of any age and experience range.  This year, the cut-off date is April 8, so you have plenty of time.  Now, to sign up and get all the goods, there is a price.  I’m not trying to pretty this up.  But it’s only $18, and if you have multiple children, you can all work from one registration.  When you sign up, you’ll receive a FeederWatch Research Kit, which includes a welcome letter, the FeederWatch Handbook & Instructions (which contains bird feeding information and complete project instructions), a full color poster of common feeder birds with paintings by Larry McQueen, a subscription to their quarterly magazine, BirdScope, and a calendar to track your FeederWatch count days.  You’ll also get the year-end report, Winter Bird Highlights.  So it is definitely worth signing up.

But if you’re just interested in the learning experience and can do without the year-end report, there are lots of free resources on the site, as well.  For instance, there are mini pdf versions of the of poster of common feeder birds And a mini hummingbird poster.  And the handbook and instructions booklet.  You can’t enter your data to be counted by Cornell or get Winter Bird Highlights, but you have quite a bit of information to do your own bird watching project at home amongst yourselves.

The site also has an interactive list of 100 common feeder birds.  I mean, you could do a full-on bird lesson just with this website.  It is freaking awesome.  There’s even a section called Educational and Homeschool Resources that has  The Homeschooler’s Guide to Project FeederWatch as a free download.  The pdf has all kinds of cool stuff in it, like a bird diagram, ideas for researching birds, keeping nature journals, and graphing your bird count, types of bird feeders, and ideas for feeders your littles can make.

Rock much?

Why yes, yes it does.

Here’s the thing.  Bird watching is a great way to get in your nature study in the winter.  Registering for Project FeederWatch (go ahead, $18 isn’t much, is it?) means your littles are truly contributing to science and that may spark them more than anything else.  Plus, it really is important to help with the data.  For the birds.  Because we haven’t given up trying to right our wrongs and save our planet, have we?

pine cone bird feeder

In the meantime, make a pine cone bird feeder to get you started.  Easy peasy–just find a large pine cone, slather it in peanut butter, then roll it in birdseed.  Tie a string to the top to hang it and swing it from the nearest tree.  Your littles will get to see more birds and the birds will truly appreciate you.  We make them every year, because it’s a fun way to spend a winter morning, and we love feeding the birds.

Have fun!

Love wins,



Should’ve taken that left turn at Albuquerque

I have a confession.

You know how you make a homeschool plan, then a couple weeks into the school year you evaluate things and tweak and throw out what isn’t working and improve on what is?  You know how that happens pretty much every year?

booksNot this year.  Not for me.

Because school starts tomorrow and I realized over this past weekend that my plan is Not. Going. To work.

At All.

I’ve been a little concerned about how stressed I’ve been over the planning process this summer, a little confused as to why I couldn’t get it together and get the year Mostly Planned like I usually do.  My conclusion?  I am putting too much on myself.  (Some of the homeschooling mamas around here who know me–along with my bff–are cheering right now.  They’ve been telling me that for years.)

So we start school tomorrow.

classroom 1And I’m chucking the entire plan.

Okay, so maybe not the Whole Plan, but after the first 4 weeks, we are going to move from unit study to an entirely different type of learning with entirely different goals.

Is that okay?  Well, the downside of being a homeschool teacher is I don’t get paid for all this extra work.  The upside is I don’t have a boss or a government telling me Exactly how I have to school  my kids. So I have options.

What do you do when you realize the Entire School Plan has to be thrown out??

Remember the other day when I talked about my School Flash Drive and all the awesome ebooks and ideas we haven’t used?  Guess who’s going to be using them.  We’re going to go ahead and do that forensics class for Littlest.  We’re going to pull from our summer plans that got altered to include the video game course and do the Curiosity Files from The Old Schoolhouse.  We’ll do a lot more nature study than I had planned.  We’re still going to study the geography of Asia, Africa, and Oceania, but we’re going to cut ourselves a little slack. We’ll still be studying composers just like we planned. We’re going to change our reading list, which I feel a Whole Lot Better about.  I’ll spend the next week or two finding a good code-writing program for Middle, deciding which historical era we’ll study, and I’ll start over.  Sound fun?

Hey, everybody makes mistakes–even those of us who now consider ourselves veterans.  Today what I love about homeschooling is the flexibility it allows me.  When I mess up, I can fix it without too much stress.  In this case, a lot less stress.

classroom 2

And you know what?  Since I had this realization and stopped trying to convince myself that I Had To go through with my original plan, I’m looking a lot more forward to our homeschool year.

I’ll let you know what I come up with.  In the meantime, if you have any suggestions, let me know.  And keep breathing.  The alternative?  Not so good.

Love wins,


9 Engaging Ways to Make Homeschool Fun

One of the things we love about homeschool is the lack of rules.  We do not have to be like public school; we can learn any old way we please.  Even so, it is often easy to find ourselves falling back on the old standbys: textbooks and worksheets.  What is a homeschool mama to do when her homeschool becomes boring?  Here are a few ways to engage your littles and get your homeschool back to being fun.

Active Learning This can be as simple as reading a play aloud.  When we were studying American History we would sit in a circle on the floor and choose a play about our lesson from Scholastic’s ebook “Read Aloud Plays: Pioneers.”  The Littles loved doing this because they like acting.  So we would divide the characters among us and read.  Plays are a great tool because they teach the lesson without seeming to teach at all.  In fact, they’re downright fun.  Especially when you dress the part.


Native American costumes for Wild West study 2012

Native American costumes for Wild West study 2012


There are many other types of active learning, such as

Science Experiments You can teach science across the board without ever touching a textbook or putting pencil to paper.  You can find simple chemistry experiments all over the internet, as well as weather and earth science experiments.  Make a weather station.  We set one up right outside our classroom window and took notes from it every day.  The Littles couldn’t wait to get to class every morning that semester to see if their rain-measuring jar had caught any water, or their barometer had moved since the day before.  The weather vane we made was a source of endless fascination.  That was two years ago, and they can still tell me exactly what types of clouds are in the sky at a given time.  Engaged learning.  Long-lasting effects.  We once made a skeleton by gluing different types of pasta onto card stock.  Fun and engaging, and helps your littles understand anatomy a little better.  You can set up a detective game to teach a bit about forensic science.  I can’t even list the number of physics projects we’ve tried.  Balloon rocket cars.  What kid wouldn’t love that?!  Too many static electricity experiments to count.  Biology? Dissect frogs or owl pellets.  Do an animal study.  Your kids are learning and having fun and there’s nothing that says they can only study one kind of science a year.


Hot Air Balloon Constructed of Tissue Paper & Heated with Hair Dryer

Hot Air Balloon Constructed of Tissue Paper & Heated with Hair Dryer

Arts and crafts This does not have to be a separate class.  In fact, I most often include it in one lesson or another.  Kids love to make art, even if they’re never going to be another Van Gogh.  Getting their hands active will help them remember the lesson.  If you’re studying Greek history, make a Parthenon out of cardboard.  If you’re studying Asian geography, make a salt-dough Japan.  If you’re reading the Secret Garden, make tissue paper flowers.  We once did a study of Spanish words related to rainforests and created trees, vines, leaves, and animals to decorate our classroom with.  Every single day, add an art or craft project to one of your lessons.  It gets rid of the necessity of planning an art class, and Gets Your Littles More Engaged with whatever else they’re studying.

Eggshell-crusted Mayan Temple 2011

Eggshell-crusted Mayan Temple 2011

Get Out of the House This can be as simple as stepping into your backyard for a nature study or taking a walk around the block to check out how the sun is casting shadows as time passes.  It can be as complicated as driving for an hour to a great historical spot.  One of Littlest’s favorite field trips involved a 20-minute drive to a Civil War site that had nothing to offer by way of entertainment.  It contained a cannon, a plaque, and a log cabin.  The cabin was locked up tight, you couldn’t even see into it.  I printed out a brochure from their website that told the story of the battle and as we walked around the small site, I read it to them.  They were fascinated.  Littlest talks about it All the Time.  Sometimes they’re engaged even when we’re not.  Remember, we’re doing this for them, not ourselves.

aquarium Littlest

Play Music You may think that sounds strange, but research shows that our brains absorb information better when music is playing in the background.  I want my littles to grow up with a real appreciation for orchestral music, so I literally have a crate full of classical and contemporary orchestral music.  They choose if they want to listen to Mozart or Vivaldi or Strauss or even Celtic music.  And they love Gregorian chant, which we studied a couple years ago in a music theory class.  They take turns picking the CD of the day, we put it in and let it play quietly the whole time we’re in class.  I can always tell when we forget.  They are more easily distracted.  Interesting, huh?


Play Games Mad Libs are superb for grammar lessons.  Clue is great for critical thinking.  We are huge fans of trivia games like Trivial Pursuit and Scene It.  Cranium and Kid’s Cranium cover trivia, art, and P.E.  Scrabble helps with spelling And with foreign language.  Getting the picture?  Board games are not just a blast and a good way to bond–they teach your littles lots of good stuff.  Any time it’s appropriate (and even when it isn’t), add a board game to your school day.

Plan Shorter Lessons  If you plan shorter lessons, you allow more time for Rabbit Trails.   Sometimes kids just really want to discuss what they’re learning, and if we’ve got an hour-long lesson planned, it can feel like they are taking up too much time.  We end up not giving that little the one-on-one we planned when we decided to homeschool.  But if the planned lesson is only 1/2 an hour long, we can let our kids’ minds wander all over the place.  If they are talking about history or geography or math or science, even if you wander far off topic, they are actively engaged in the learning process.  Allow it.  It helps them soak it all in and may lead to a truly fascinating discussion.

Get Messy In any way possible.  Littles adore getting messy.  Fingerpaint.  Make Oobleck.  Build a volcano and use vinegar and baking soda to make it erupt.  Go to a creek and hunt for crawfish (or crawdads as we call them here).  Build a Great Wall out of mud bricks.  Let them littles get filthy.  They will love you for it and remember the lesson better because you will have made it into a great memory.


Read a Book  You knew I was going to say it.  See my 25 Days of Lit in Your Homeschool series for suggestions.

It really doesn’t take a lot of effort on your part to make every single day exciting for your little learners.  Practice these tips and you will find that you almost never hear, “Do we Have To do school today?”  I’ve only heard that a handful of times in 5 years, and it was usually during the summer.  By making learning fun for them, you are teaching them to love learning.  And isn’t that what we want to create?  Lifelong learners?

Love wins,