Archive for the ‘Educator Resources’ Category

Wisconsin Teacher Brings Forest Classroom to Public School

Forest classrooms are more common in Europe, but lately there have been several popping up around the United States. Generally speaking though, these have been preschools run by nature centers or private schools.

Yet one teacher did his research and proposed a forest kindergarten to his public school board…and was given the green light to start one. As far as we know, this is the first one we have heard of that has been created at the kindergarten level and in a public school setting and this is really exciting news. Hopefully, this means that the idea of forest classrooms is gaining ground in the education world in the U.S. Maybe we’ll even see the concept at the upper elementary or middle school level someday?

It’s something to hope for at any rate. Well done Mr. Dargatz, and we hope that your passion and the model class you’ve created will serve as a role model to others hoping to do the same. 🙂


Woodside Elementary teacher shows students what the outdoors can teach them

A Woodside Elementary School teacher is using his love of the outdoors to teach students with a unique education style.

Peter Dargatz is in his third year teaching nature kindergarten to students. They spend time every day outdoors learning about various things such as types of animals and the seasons. It is an adaptation of what’s called nature kindergarten, a curriculum popular on the east and west coasts of the United States and in Europe.

The definition of nature kindergarten came about due to misconceptions surrounding it and other similar programs called forest kindergarten and forest preschool.

“Forest kindergarten is technically pre-kindergarten age, 3- and 4-year-olds that are outside essentially all day. Nature kindergarten is actual kindergarten age, 5 turning 6, and it doesn’t have to be outside from the beginning to the end,” Dargatz explained.

The idea to implement a similar type of program in his classroom stemmed from what he observed in one of his kindergarten students.

Inspiration for the program

Two years ago, he noticed that one of his students was excelling academically. But when he shifted his classroom activities back to a traditional kindergarten setting for the last week of school, he noticed something wasn’t right.

“I noticed that she could not problem solve when she was with a peer. I noticed that her fine motor skills were lacking. I noticed that she didn’t know how to initiate play,” Dargatz said. “She didn’t know how to do these things. I thought to myself, ‘Wow, I’m really focused on the wrong thing here. Like all my kids were doing awesome academically, but I’m not really preparing them for the next level. I’m not preparing the whole child.”

That, along with the birth of his first daughter, caused Dargatz to realize that he wouldn’t want his daughter in a classroom like his.

“I realized that I had to change things around,” Dargatz said.

Starting it up

That summer, Dargatz started doing research centered around the whole child approach. It also happened to be during that summer of 2014 that he started to volunteer on the Ice Age Trail, starting a “Tyke Hike” program.

It inspired him to try a similar program out in his classroom.

“My school has access to this beautiful parcel of land that nothing was going on in up to three years ago. It was just there,” Dargatz said,”We had just put in a garden five years ago, so I knew there was interest in outdoor learning opportunities.”

In August 2014, after several meetings with school and district administrators and studying Schlitz Audobon’s nature-based preschool, Dargatz was given the green light. He then built an approximately half-mile trail on the land with the help from his fellow Ice Age volunteers.

Side trails have also been created, and his students have helped restore the land by planting new trees and plants to replace invasive plants and grazing grass that took over the land, according to a member spotlight of Dargatz’s class on the North American Association for Environmental Education’s (NAAEE) website.

Program structure

Dargatz’s class spends some time outside every day. At the very least, students take a hike out to recess. Usually, they will complete at least one full lesson outside, with time built in for natural play. With nature days, the group reads a picture book on a topic building off the previous nature day. They then explore a part of the land in coordination with the day’s topic while finding new lessons.

Also part of the program is Dargatz’s emphasis on taking risks. He teaches basic lessons on boundaries, stick safety, spatial awareness, and the like. And although he is there to help students make safe choices, Dargatz said he is there to guide, not control, their decision-making.

“When given the chance and space to be independent in their decisions, they are motivated to safely learn, grow and achieve in our outdoor environment,” Dargatz said in the member spotlight.

Program growth, benefits

When the program started, Dargatz said, he learned a lot on the fly. It was just his classroom at first. Now, it is run in all five of the school’s kindergarten classrooms in some capacity and has a collaboration with the Retzer Nature Center in Waukesha. The school district is considering expanding the program into first grade. Parents, the school and community members have been very supportive of it, according to Dargatz.

Retzer Nature Center naturalist Larry Kascht has also noticed the program’s benefits, as well as with the partnership the center has with Dargatz’s class. The class alternates between visiting the center and hosting the center’s naturalists.

“It’s been a real fruitful partnership and a real fun model for all of us to pursue,” Kascht said.

Dargatz’s fellow kindergarten teacher Courtney Klein has seen the benefits of the program with her students as well. She noted that her students have become more independent, ask higher-level questions and think deeper on concepts.

“I think they’re more engaged because they want to be outside,” Klein said. “I think it’s natural for little kids to want to play, and I’m proud to be teaching in a district that appreciates that, that we’re not cutting recess minutes and getting rid of play time because it is so crucial to their development.”


How Do Birds Keep Warm in Winter?

It’s getting cold here in Michigan. With temperatures in the single digits, people are bundling up and staying indoors. But what about the animals outside? How does something as small as a chickadee, for example, stay warm?

For those hardy northern birds that stick it out here all winter long, there are several things they can do. Check out this article by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to find out exactly how they do it.

How do birds keep warm in the winter?

December 18, 2017

Frosty common raven. Photo courtesy of Keith Williams.
Frosty common raven. Photo courtesy of Keith Williams.

Have you ever wondered how birds can stay warm in the cold winter months? Common redpolls are a great example. These energetic foragers weigh less than 15 grams and can survive temperatures that plunge nearly 100 degrees below the freezing point! How do they do it? Birds of all shapes and sizes have special adaptations for living in cold climates. Here are just a few examples of tough birds and their tips for staying warm.


Black-capped chickadee. Photo courtesy of David Mitchell/Creative Commons.
Black-capped chickadee. Photo courtesy of David Mitchell/Creative Commons.

Just like people, birds shiver to stay warm. Birds have much higher metabolic rates and burn more energy to stay warm than we do. Black-capped chickadees weigh less than half an ounce and can maintain a body temperature of 100 degrees Fahrenheit – even when the air is 0 degrees! They do this by having great insulation, being very active and remembering where they store their food. A steady supply of food is essential, because chickadees eat more than 35 percent of their weight every day! Compared to many other birds, chickadees have a large hippocampus – the part of the brain that’s responsible for spatial memory. In the fall, this part of their brain gets even bigger!

Fluffing feathers

Short-eared owl fluffing its feathers to stay warm. Photo courtesy of Steve Gifford.
Short-eared owl fluffing its feathers to stay warm. Photo courtesy of Steve Gifford.

Whether fat, fur or feathers, insulation matters for most cold-weather animals. All cold climate birds pack on body weight in the late summer and fall in anticipation of the long, cold winter, but feathers also play an important role. All birds stay warm by trapping pockets of air around their bodies. The secret to maintaining these layers of air lies in having clean, dry and flexible feathers. The cleaning process, generally known as preening, depends on the species of bird. While all birds produce a special oil from a gland near the base of their tails, some cold-tolerant birds use this oil to weatherproof their feathers. Other birds like egrets, herons and mourning doves grow special feathers that disintegrate into a powder that they use to waterproof their feathers. Regardless of what weatherproofing method they use, preening helps birds keep a water resistant top layer and a toasty warm inner layer.

Roosting and cuddling

Tree swallows during spring snowstorm. Photo courtesy of Keith Williams/Creative Commons.
Tree swallows during spring snowstorm. Photo courtesy of Keith Williams/Creative Commons.

Similar to people who may cuddle for warmth, small birds like tree swallows crowd together in shrubs, vines and evergreen trees to share body heat. They can also slow down their metabolic rate to conserve energy. Cavity nesters like nuthatches, titmice and downy woodpeckers use tree cavities and nest boxes to stay warm. Cavities and boxes provide protection from the weather and help birds hide from predators. Larger birds like American crows and ring-billed gulls are also known to flock together for warmth.

Tucking feet and bills

Canada geese conserving heat in winter. Photo courtesy of Ted/Creative Commons.
Canada geese conserving heat in winter. Photo courtesy of Ted/Creative Commons.

Have you ever wondered how birds keep their legs warm? Waterfowl species circulate blood through a countercurrent heat exchange, isolating the blood that flows in their legs rather than circulating it throughout their entire bodies. This helps to keep their body temperatures higher. Birds also have specialized scales on their feet and legs that help minimize heat loss. Many ducks, geese, pelicans, gulls and swans further conserve body heat by standing on one leg or even sitting down. The Canada geese pictured here are tucking their bills under their back feathers, keeping their bills warm while also increasing breathing efficiency by utilizing warmer air.

How you can help

Downy woodpecker eating suet. Photo by Courtney Celley/USFWS.
Downy woodpecker eating suet. Photo by Courtney Celley/USFWS.

Want to help birds make it through the winter? Consider providing high energy foods like suet, peanuts and black oil sunflower seeds. Water is essential year round, so adding a heated bird bath can help keep birds hydrated – just remember to keep the water clean! You can provide shelter for many species by installing roosting boxes or leaving dead trees that may be suitable for birds that depend on tree cavities. Planting fruit-bearing trees and shrubs can help attract species like cedar waxwings – just remember to make sure you’re planting native species. If fruit-bearing trees aren’t for you, consider planting an evergreen!

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. We are both a leader and trusted partner in fish and wildlife conservation, known for our scientific excellence, stewardship of lands and natural resources, dedicated professionals and commitment to public service. For more information on our work and the people who make it happen, visit

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Tree Spotlight: Northern Catalpa

Catalpa is a tree you may not have heard of, but once you see one you won’t forget it. With showy spring flowers, bean-like pods, and bearing one of the largest leaves of any tree in the northern hemisphere, it is a beautiful sight. Let’s join the Arbor Day Foundation in shining the spotlight on one of the most unique Michigan trees.

And if you want to see a truly magnificent one, the Michigan State Record lives on the lawn of the Capitol in Lansing.

Northern Catalpa: Rarely Unnoticed

By James R. Fazio | November 7, 2017


Catalpa speciosa

Catalpa is a hard tree to overlook. Trumpet-shaped flowers herald its awakening for the summer and are soon followed by some of the largest leaves in the northern hemisphere. Elephant ears would not be too far off the mark for their description. Finally come the seed pods — bean-like in shape draping the tree like green tinsel.

There are two key species of catalpa in the United States — southern and northern catalpa. Originally, southern catalpa was more widespread, but when the pioneers discovered the northern species in a very limited area of the Midwest, it didn’t take long to realize that this one grew larger and could tolerate colder winters better. Thanks to its fast growth and rot-resistant wood — and a promotional campaign by Nebraska governor Robert W. Furnas, a contemporary of J. Sterling Morton — farmers began planting it for fence posts and to sell as railroad ties. Today, as a shade tree, it is widely distributed in parks and yards throughout the country.

Catalpa is not a tidy tree. Maintenance people complain about cleaning up after it when the flower petals, leaves, and seed pods drop. But that may be a small price to pay for this tree’s tolerance to a wide range of growing conditions, its dense shade, and the interest it adds to the landscape. Guy Sternberg, author of Native Trees for North American Landscapes, has said that the old trees of this species, “become rustic and picturesque, their weathered crowns testifying to the passage of previous wind storms, and would look very much at home towering over Boot Hill on Halloween.”

Whether young and vigorous or old and stagnated, catalpa is a tree in the landscape that is difficult not to notice and enjoy.

What’s in a Name?

The common names for catalpa are many and colorful. Some of these include Johnny smoker tree, Linden log tree, cigar tree, stogie tree, bean tree, western catalpa, hardy catalpa, Catawba, caterpillar tree, and fish-bait tree.

The scientific name makes less sense. The genus is the same as the common name, Catalpa, and comes from the name that Cherokee Indians used for this tree, Catawba. The species name, speciosa, is from the Latin for — not surprisingly — species. The “osa” part is from osus, or “full of,” said to be in reference to its showy flowers.

In the Landscape

The catalpa tree is a tree that demands your attention. White, showy flowers, giant heart-shaped leaves and dangling bean-like seed pods make is a great ornamental tree. It reaches up to 60 feet in urban settings and grows well in a wide range of soils (hardiness zones 4-8).

While not ideal for every location, this unique and hardy tree is a fast grower that finds a home in parks and yards throughout the country.

Video: How Forests Make Lives Better

There’s nothing like a good video. They’re a fun way to pass the time. And if it’s educational, that’s just a bonus.

This is a great one we ran across by Walk in the Woods with Us. It visually shows a TON of things that trees give us, including many that we may not even realize we’re connected to.

The video image looks a little busy, but give it a chance. It goes through each part step-by-step in a really neat animation that pulls everything together.

So without further ado, sit back and enjoy the show!

How Forests Make Lives Better from Walk in the Woods with Us on Vimeo

13 Awesome Bat Facts

Happy Halloween!

We hope you are enjoying your spooky festivities. And speaking of spooky, let’s talk bats.

Bats are not nearly as scary as people think they are. The fact that they are associated with Halloween and only come out at night have made them the stuff of some people’s nightmares. Yet bats are really important.

Bats are the pollinators of over 300 different fruits. Eighty medicines come from plants that depend on bats. A single little brown bat can eat up to 1000 insects per hour!

So let’s learn a few cool facts about the world’s only flying mammal (sorry flying squirrel, but you’re actually a glider).

Called creepy, scary and spooky, bats often get a bad rap. They’re an important species that impact our daily lives in ways we might not even realize. From pollinating our favorite fruits to eating pesky insects to inspiring medical marvels, bats are heroes of the night.

Bat Week — held the last week in October — celebrates the role of bats in nature and all these amazing creatures do for us. Check out some interesting bat facts (and cool photos) below:

1. Did you know: There are over 1,300 species of bats worldwide. Bats can be found on nearly every part of the planet except in extreme deserts and polar regions. The difference in size and shape are equally impressive. Bats range in size from the Kitti’s hog-nosed bat (also called the Bumblebee Bat) that weighs less than a penny — making it the world’s smallest mammal — to the flying foxes, which can have a wingspan of up to 6 feet. The U.S. and Canada are home to about 45 species of bats and additional species are found in the U.S. territories in the Pacific and Caribbean.

A small, furry bat hangs from a cave ceiling with its eyes closed.
The little brown bat lives up to its name. It weighs only a 1/4-1/3 of an ounce, is about 2 inches long and has a 6-inch wingspan. Photo by Ann Froschauer, USFWS.


2. Not all bats hibernate. Even though bears and bats are the two most well-known hibernators, not all bats spend their winter in caves. Some bat species like the spotted bat survive by migrating in search of food to warmer areas when it gets chilly.

A long-eared bat opens its mouth to an array of sharp teeth.
The Northern long-eared bat spends winter hibernating in caves and mines. Photo by Andrew King, USFWS.


3. Bats have few natural predators — disease is one of the biggest threat. Owls, hawks and snakes eat bats, but that’s nothing compared to the millions of bats dying from White-Nose Syndrome. The disease — named for a white fungus on the muzzle and wings of bats — affects hibernating bats and has been detected in 31 states and five Canadian provinces. More than 6.5 million bats have died so far from White-Nose Syndrome. Scientists are working to understand the disease. You can help — avoid places where bats are hibernating, and if you do go underground, decontaminate your clothing, footwear and gear.

A small bat clinging to a cave wall has spots of white fungus on its nose and ears.
A tri-colored bat shows symptoms of white-nose syndrome. Photo by National Park Service.


4. Without bats, say goodbye to bananas, avocados and mangoes. Over 300 species of fruit depend on bats for pollination. Bats help spread seeds for nuts, figs and cacao — the main ingredient in chocolate. Without bats, we also wouldn’t have plants like agave or the iconic saguaro cactus.

A bat leans into a halved flower and uses its long tongue to lap up the nectar.
Just like a hummingbird, the lesser long-nosed bat can hover at flowers, using its 3-inch long tongue — equal to its body length — to feed on nectar in desert environments. Photo by Merlin D. Tuttle, Bat Conservation International.


5. Night insects have the most to fear from bats. Each night, bats can eat their body weight or more in insects, numbering in the thousands! And because bats eat so many insects — which have exoskeletons made of a shiny material called chitin — some bat poop sparkles (cool but weird fact, we know)! This insect-heavy diet helps foresters and farmers protect their crops from pests.

An orange ruler is held next to a cluster of dozens of tiny bats on a cave wall.
The endangered Indiana bat, which weighs about three pennies, consumes up to half its bulk every evening. Photo by Andrew King, USFWS.


6. Bats are the only flying mammal. While the flying squirrel can only glide for short distances, bats are true fliers. A bat’s wing resembles a modified human hand — imagine the skin between your fingers larger, thinner and stretched. This flexible skin membrane that extends between each long finger bone and many movable joints make bats agile fliers.

A large bat with ears twice the size of its face flies out of a cave.
California leaf-nosed bats exit a cave at Joshua Tree National Park. You can easily distinguish these bats by their leaf-like noses and large ears. Photo by Kristen Lalumiere, National Park Service.


7. Bats may be small, but they’re fast little creatures. How fast a bat flies depends on the species, but they can reach speeds over 100 miles per hour according to new research.

Hundreds of bats fly past the camera in a blur of movement.
Mexican free-tailed bats emerge from Texas’s Bracken Cave. Over 15 million bats live there, making it the largest known bat colony (and largest concentration of mammals) on Earth. Photo by Ann Froschauer, USFWS.


8. Conservation efforts are helping bat species recover. At least 13 types of U.S. bats are endangered, and more are threatened. These amazing animals face a multitude of threats including habitat loss and disease, but we’re working to change that. A unique international conservation partnership in the southwestern U.S. and Mexico has been working to help one species, the lesser long-nosed bat, recover to the point it can be removed from the Endangered Species list. In 1988, there were thought to be fewer than 1,000 bats at the 14 known roosts range wide. There are now an estimated 200,000 bats at 75 roosts!

A small brown, tan, and black bat is held comfortably in a person's hands.
The ancestors of the endangered Hawaiian Hoary Bat traveled over 3,600 kilometers from the Pacific Coast almost 10,000 years ago to become Hawaii’s state land mammal. Photo by Frank Bonaccorso, USGS.


9. The longest-living bat is 41 years old. It’s said that the smaller the animal, the shorter its lifespan, but bats break that rule of longevity. Although most bats live less than 20 years in the wild, scientists have documented six species that life more than 30 years. In 2006, a tiny bat from Siberia set the world record at 41 years.

A head shot of an open-mouthed bat with ears about three times as large as its head.
The Townsend’s big-eared bat’s average lifespan is 16 years. Photo by Ann Froschauer, USFWS.


10. Like cats, bats clean themselves. Far from being dirty, bats spend a lot of time grooming themselves. Some, like the Colonial bat, even groom each other. Besides having sleek fur, cleaning also helps control parasites.

A white and black bat hangs upside-down from a cave ceiling.
The spotted bat gets its name from its distinct appearance of black and white spotted fur. Another interesting fact about the spotted bat — it has the largest ears of any North American species. Photo by Paul Cryan, USGS.


11. Dogs aren’t the only ones with pups. Baby bats are called pups, and a group of bats is a colony. Like other mammals, mother bats feed their pups breastmilk, not insects. While bats only give birth to one baby per year, momma bats form nursery colonies in spring in caves, dead trees and rock crevices.

A cluster of dozens of identical brown bats.
Bats benefit from maintaining a close-knit roosting group because they increase reproductive success and it is important for rearing pups. Photo by Alan Cressler, USGS.


12. Bats are inspiring medical marvels. About 80 medicines come from plants that rely on bats for their survival. While bats are not blind, studying how bats use echolocation has helped scientists develop navigational aids for the blind. Research on bats has also led to advances in vaccines.

A purple, blue and black bat swoops down to eat fruit from a plant, all outlined by pure darkness.
The Mexican long-tongued bat is a vital pollinator in desert systems. They have a long, bristle-like tongue, allowing them to sip nectar from agave and cacti. Photo by USFWS.


13. Innies or Outies? Humans aren’t the only ones with belly buttons. With a few exceptions, nearly all mammals have navels because of mom’s umbilical cord, and bats are no different. Now the real question is: Innies or outies?

A black bat with large eyes hangs upside down.
Can you spot this Mariana Fruit bat’s belly button? Photo by Julia Boland, USFWS.


Bats need your help. You can help protect these amazing creatures by planting a bat garden or installing a bat house. Stay out of closed caves, especially ones with bats. If you’re visiting an open cave, make sure to prevent the spread of white-nose syndrome by following these guidelines.

Life In An Oak

Oak trees are found across the United States, and in much of the world in fact, but don’t let that make you think these trees are commonplace.

There are over 60 species of native oaks in North America, found in nearly every type of habitat. They are the United States’ most widespread hardwood, important both environmentally and historically. Oaks are a symbol of strength and endurance (most recently as a symbol in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey).

The life of an oak tree is connected to numerous other plants, animals, and organisms. Over 100 types of birds and mammals rely on acorns for food. For many of these species, acorns are their primary source of nutrition in the winter. Native American tribes were also known to create acorn flour to be made into acorn mush or bread. They are so important that they were named the United States’ National Tree in 2004.

So it’s fitting that such an important tree has been showcased in all its colorful glory in this poster by the Habitat Network. The poster features a handful of the many species that rely on oak trees from coast-to-coast and demonstrates the important role these trees play in our ecosystems.


Detailed information about all the plants and animals pictured in this striking poster can be found here:


The Habitat Network is a citizen science program launched by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in 2014. In 2016, this program became part of a partnership between the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and The Nature Conservancy, expanding it into the Nature Conservancy’s YardMap platform.

Art & Science, A Great Combination

A charter school in Washington, D.C is doing something few schools are: integrating the arts into science and language arts classes.

While the concept of cross-disciplinary teaching is not a new one, most are not school-wide practices. For Two Rivers Public Charter School, it’s at the heart of their mission.

Incorporating body movement, music, and fine arts into classroom lessons reinforces the concepts in new ways, ones that may stick with children long after the lesson is over. This is something that informal, environmental educators have been using for a long time. It has been well shown that you remember information better if you can associate it with more than one of your five senses. It’s great to see this school taking it to this level. Well done!

Check out their video to see their learning in action.

Want to learn more? Here’s how they’re doing this.