Exploration Walks

I like exploration walks. One night a few months ago while walking my dog, I overheard a young family just a couple yards in front of me having a much different experience on their walk. Where I saw a pothole filled with water, the little girl magically leapt across a lake. Where I saw a lizard escaping into the brush, the little boy discovered a rare miniature dinosaur species. The family even had a magnifying glass to examine leaves, I mean fossils, they found on their journey. It was dusk so flashlights were at the ready to add to the excitement. I catalogued this exploration walk because I loved the use of their imaginations.

A similar occurrence took place just a couple of days ago while at work. My office is located above a restaurant in a public building where visitors often roam the corridors. On my way to the restroom I passed a boy wandering the hallways with his mother in tow. It was clear he was leading this expedition when he said, “What’s down those stairs?” as he pointed toward a dark hallway with stairs at the opposite end. What I liked about this particular experience was the questioning by the young child, and I was immediately reminded of the exploration walk that I overheard months prior.

So what is an exploration walk? I define it as a sensory experience that engages the child’s imagination and inspires questions. This blog post describes it in the following terms, “This walk should be a meandering one, one that follows the child’s mission, not the adult’s.” It is important to encourage questioning and hypothesizing based on observations during the walk. This might be questioning what could have created the curious round shapes in the dirt or how the bee on the sidewalk died.

Did the ants create the path that extends from the ant hole?

So what tools do you need for your exploration walk? Keep in mind that the following list is only a suggestion and your tools will be contingent upon the time of day, season, and duration of your walk, not to mention a consideration for who will be carrying the supplies.

  • a magnifying glass for a closer look
  • a flashlight for those after-dinner adventures
  • a small notepad & pencil for recording questions and clues

What did you discover on your walk?

5 Ways to Use Dried Pasta

I like dried pasta, not as much as cooked pasta with arrabbiata and fresh veggies, but you can’t exactly do lessons and crafts with cooked pasta. Did you know it is not necessary to add oil to cooking pasta because high quality pasta should not stick together? It is also erroneous to throw a noodle on the wall to test whether it is cooked. There goes all the fun in cooking it! Try these ideas instead.

1. Life Cycle – Explore the butterfly life cycle. You will need a bead-like type of pasta to represent the egg, ziti for the larva or caterpillar, shells for the pupa or chrysalis, and farfalle for the adult butterfly. Use a paper plate divided into fourths. Label each stage in the life cycle and attach the appropriate pasta. Follow up the activity with a visit to a butterfly garden, found in many botanical gardens, where you can search for the different stages. Bring your chart for reference.

2. Sorting – Gather a variety of pasta shapes and mix them together in one bag or plastic container. Have your little learner(s) scoop out a handful and spread them on a cookie sheet. The child can then sort the pasta by shape and count them. You can create index cards with numerals to match to the sorted piles.

3. Patterns – Experiment with repeated designs of different shape, size, or color. You can color your own pasta or use vegetable pasta like spinach and tomato. Keep it simple with basic repeating patterns or make it challenging with growing patterns. Check out my repetition post for patterns in nature.

4. Graphs – Use pasta to create a pictograph. First, survey family and friends on their favorite variety of pasta. Then, create a pictograph revealing the results. What else can you graph?

5. Sound – Make maracas or shakers using paper plates. Decorate two small paper plates first. Then add a single type of pasta to a small paper plate, and place a second paper plate on top. Staple or tape around the sides. Create another shaker using a different type of pasta. Compare the sounds.

Too-big Shoes & Crafty Costumes

I like dressing up, though I don’t remember doing it much as a child. Like any kid, my imagination was big enough to include multiple wardrobes for all my role-playing adventures. However, dressing up did add a level of glamour and excitement. Most kids’ first experience with dressing up is to put on a pair of too big shoes and clip-clap around in them like their favorite adult! Read below to discover where you can dress-up in southern California and explore some crafty activities for your own home.

Maritime Museum of San Diego
This fleet of vessels includes the historic Star of India built in 1863. Families can dress up as emigrants as they explore the close living quarters.

Pacific Asia Museum, Pasadena
The museum’s interactive exhibit titled Journeys: The Silk Road features a number of interactive elements including dressing as a camel handler or other traveling merchants.

Skirball Cultural Center, Los Angeles
As I mentioned in a previous post on books, the Skirball Cultural Center had a temporary exhibition in 2010 titled Monsters & Miracles: A Journey through Jewish Picture Books. This interactive exhibition included an exhibit to create your own monster with materials that could be used in a variety of ways depending on where your imagination took you.

Creating a Monster at the Skirball

Disneyland, Anaheim
Sure there are plenty of dressed-up characters to meet, but have you ever visited the hat shop? It’s almost as much fun as riding the rides, but define buying parameters before entering so you don’t walk away with unwanted purchases or unhappy kids. All you really need is a camera to capture the transformation of your family into classic Disney characters or other animated favorites.

Comic-Con International, San Diego
Dressing up is not a requirement for this comic convention, but it provides a good excuse. It may be the largest spectacle of costumes outside of Halloween, though not all are family-appropriate. Sunday’s line-up tends to include a number of kid-friendly activities.

Try This:
1. Create your own costume or hat out of brown paper bags from the grocery store. Grab some markers, paint, colored paper, glitter, scissors and glue to create your very own fancy outfit or funky hat for your next pretend playtime adventure. This is a great way to design your own costumes for a family play or talent show. There are plenty of websites that offer directions for these silly creations. Just type in “brown paper bag hats/costumes.”

2. Mirror Mirror on the Wall…buy an inexpensive armoire mirror and hang it on a door or wall at kids’ height. Using wet or dry-erase markers (depending on how long you want the image to last), allow your child to draw a costume reflection on their mirror image. Who will you see the next time you look in the mirror – a king, witch, cowboy or pirate?

3. Design your own Barbie or doll clothes. Are you crafty enough to sew a miniature dress for a Barbie? Have your kids help by creating the design in a sketchpad and then picking out the fabric. Barbie won’t care if the seams aren’t straight!

4. After visiting a historical site where the family can dress up or at least the staff is dressed up, have your family compare and contrast past and present lifestyles. Kids can draw or write diary entries about their life in the historical time period of the cultural site you visited.

Dressing up on the Star of India

Exploring Literacy with Mad Libs

I like Mad Libs – that silly word game where you fill in the blanks, completely out of context, for hilarious results! This game is over 50 years old and comes in a variety of themes such as holidays, sports, Presidents, Star Wars and Fear Factor. I loved this game as a kid, but did not recognized the educational value until I was a teacher. Second grade education standards include identifying parts of speech, which is exactly what players do in this game. So, before reading any further (no cheating), think of an adjective, verb and noun; you’ll need them in a just a bit.

When I taught second grade, I collected one story from each student’s writing portfolio. I typed them up and left out a selection of nouns, verbs and adjectives throughout the story. I compiled them, made copies, spiral bound each one, and gave them as a holiday gift. We tried a couple in class and the kids loved hearing their “reworked” story. Another great idea would have been to laminate them for future students to use. Give it a try. It is easy and can be done with sentences (see below) rather than full stories.

Okay, let’s see how you did. Fill in the blanks below, and share any good ones in a comment to the post or on Facebook.

The _____(adjective)______ birds ______(verb)______ every morning outside of my ______(noun)_____ .

Try This:
For some imaginative art time, write a sentence or story (with blanks) on a piece of paper (or type and print). Ask your child for the parts of speech that will complete the sentence. Fill in the blanks with their answers and have your child illustrate with a funny picture. You can even have him or her complete a second copy of the sentence with more appropriate words and draw that too. Then, compare the two side by side or create a book of “spontaneous improvisations.”

You can create a number of these silly stories or sentences and laminate them. Include space for drawing and grab some colorful dry-erase markers for goofy entertainment on your next road trip.

Explore Math, Photography and Observation Skills at your Local Botanic Garden


I like botanic gardens.
With assorted plant species, winding paths, infinite colors, and interesting creatures, botanic gardens can easily meet the expectations of everyone in your family. Gardens can be mysterious places to explore, quiet spaces to reflect and relax, a photographer’s playground, a laboratory for learning and much more.

Here are a few botanic gardens I have visited:

  • San Diego Botanic Garden
    In addition to 2 children’s gardens, there are 37 acres and 4 miles of trails to explore at this Encinitas attraction. For my ideas on visiting the Hamilton Children’s Garden, check out my playgrounds post.

    Balboa Park Botanical Building

  • Balboa Park Botanical Building
    This building is one of the largest lath structures in the world. Together with the Lily Pond that lies directly in front of it, this area is the most photographed in the park.
  • The Huntington
    San Marino, California
    In addition to a library, art galleries and tea room, there are more than a dozen themed gardens spanning 120 acres at The Huntington.
    For more ideas on visiting The Huntington, check out my repetition and playgrounds posts.
  • Santa Barbara Botanic Garden
    This garden is a great place to explore on a hot day, and dogs are permitted too. Ask for a mystery scavenger hunt especially for kids.
  • Lotusland, Santa Barbara
    Exploration of this garden is by tour only, but groups are kept small and families are grouped together to provide the most enjoyable experience.

    Conservatory of Flowers

  • Conservatory of Flowers
    San Francisco
    Located in Golden Gate Park, this iconic piece of architecture is the oldest wood and glass conservatory in North America.


Try This:
1. Grab a camera for macro photography practice. This is a great activity for children and adults alike. Each season offers different subjects, so visit often and compare photos throughout the year.

2. Enhance observation skills with a scavenger hunt or I Spy. How many shades of green can you find? What shapes do you see in the cacti? What is the most unusual plant name you read?

3. Pick up a garden map and have the kids plan the visit. Will you start at the desert or topiary garden? How will you get there? Introduce or reinforce the concept of cardinal directions.

4. Draw a visual representation of your visit. Use a ruler to measure from the entrance of the botanic garden to your first stop of the visit. Hint, if the path isn’t straight, try a string or piece of yarn to measure the distance against a ruler. Record, then measure the distance to the next stop of the visit. Create a scale for the map or write about your visit using these measurements.

5. Explore patterns by designing a dream garden. Create a blueprint for your garden. Instead of a tissue paper Christmas wreath, use those same materials (colored tissue paper, glue, pencil with eraser and paper plate) to create a pattern of tissue paper flowers for your garden. First, cut the tissue paper into various sized squares. Next, wrap and twist one piece of tissue paper around the eraser end of a pencil. Then, dip the flat side into the glue and tap the paper plate where you want to place the tissue paper. Finally, release the paper and remove the pencil. Repeat until the entire plate is covered.

Check out this great blog for 10 children’s books about gardening.