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Entire family can help with an eco-journal project

Local Commentary

Posted: April 8, 2008 3:29 a.m.
Updated: June 9, 2008 5:01 a.m.

Making an eco-journal can be a great family project and a wonderful learning tool for kids. Any notebook will do. You don't need anything fancy - just an appreciation of the outdoors and a willingness to learn.

Below you will find lots of ideas of things you can do with your kids, and things you might want to include in your journal. And don't stop when your springtime journal is filled. There are plenty of things to watch for in the summer, fall, and winter too.

Take your kids on a hike. Get them outdoors, even if it's in your own backyard. Jot down things you see ... a caterpillar, a butterfly, a flower, or a wild plant. You can take photos or draw pictures of it all in your journal. Even when it's raining you can turn a potato into a natural painting tool, or dissect an apple and save the seeds to plant ... put it in your window and watch it sprout and grow.

As the season progresses, you can note the changes in your journal.

See how the plant flowers, wilts, and goes to seed. Watch the caterpillar become a chrysalis, and then miraculously turn into a butterfly. Learn which plants are edible, and experiment with them.

You can start with Miner's Lettuce by adding some to your salads!

Grind some buckwheat groats and make some natural pancakes! Then add some wild honey and some freshly churned butter to the top of those pancakes.

A trip to the grocery store can also turn into an opportunity for learning about our native, natural world. Have your child try to pick out the descendants of native foods. The only native foods you might find in the supermarket are strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, Jerusalem artichokes (a tuber from a sunflower), watercress, and buckwheat flour. Other native foods that you won't find in the grocery store would be cattails, dandelions, wild mint, horehound and acorns.

Collect some lichens off rocks, or draw pictures of them. Do you know what these strange-looking plants are? Lichens are a combination of two plants, a fungus and an alga. Sometimes a lichen can also be an alga and a bacteria. They break down rocks and are used as food by some animals. Some brightly-colored lichens have been used as dyes in the past. Although most of the lichens in our area are found in small clusters on rocks, in other areas they are large and stand up on the rocks, and even hang from trees.

Plant a tree on Arbor Day. Trees are an important addition to our eco-system. They provide the oxygen that we breathe and remove carbon dioxide from the air. Every tree we plant increases the health of our environment. Santa Clarita has a great Arbor Day program that you can get involved in annually, or you can plant a tree in your own backyard and watch it grow.

Teach your children about the local wildlife. We have black bear, bobcat, mountain lions, raccoons, opossums, rats, mice, rabbits, owls, raptors and songbirds. Then, just for fun, have your kids make up some kooky animals like a hawk-bear or a rab-coon, and have them draw pictures of their creations. It's fun to invent your own animals, and your kids will learn about wildlife in the process.

Look for plants that are parasitic. This means a plant that lives solely off of another plant. Examples that can easily be found in Santa Clarita are dodder (aka witch's hair), and mistletoe. Kids always find these plants fascinating. While the mistletoe usually doesn't kill its host, the dodder can be very aggressive. You can see the bright, thick orange strands strangling their hosts even as you drive by them on the freeway.

Other fun things you can do with the kids might be pressing flowers and leaves, using leaves and other materials to make paper, rubbings, prints, stencils, or just rake a pile of leaves together for the kids to jump into. And once they tire of jumping into those leaves, use the leaves to make compost. That compost will make a great addition to your garden next year, and it won't go into the landfills!

Have the kids help you gather some rose petals, lavender, and lemon verbena from your garden. Then add dried lemon peel, allspice, cinnamon, cloves and orris root to make a wonderful, natural potpourri. This fragrant mixture will scent your home naturally for months, and the kids will be amazed at how smart you are!

Along the roadsides, look for wild grains. You will find wheat, oats and barley growing wild. These are not native to our area, but were brought here by the Europeans and have naturalized. They love the disturbed areas and are usually prolific along roadsides. Pick a few sprigs and take them home. Show your child the grains, and then bake a loaf of bread and teach them where flour comes from. If you found oats, serve up a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast. Oatmeal doesn't start off in a box.

Look for rocks or dirt with colors, such as clay, lime, iron oxide or ochre. Mix these soft rocky residues with water and you've created ancient paints that your kids can use to paint pictures! Try having them copy cave paintings or making rough renditions of the animals they learned about, and they will have learned where modern-day paints originated.

On a warm day, lay down a blanket in your backyard, and watch the clouds. Have your child draw pictures of each cloud he sees, and then try to identify the clouds and see what may have created them. If you see puffy clouds that look like cotton balls, these are probably cumulus clouds. Nimbus are the dark rain clouds, stratus are the clouds that are all spread out, and cirrus are clouds that are wispy, like a lock of hair.

Did you know that you can create rain in your kitchen? Just boil some water in a pot or a teakettle on top of your stove and hold an icy cold cookie sheet above the steam. Soon, you will see rain drops!

(This is an experiment that you should do, and let your child just observe. Steam can cause burns if you're not careful).

On another outing, try to find the California state flower, bird, and tree. Our state flower is the California poppy. Our tree is the California redwood, and our bird is the California valley quail. The poppy and the quail will be easy to find in the Santa Clarita Valley.

Teach your child about poisonous plants like fungus and poison oak.

While they may eat mushrooms at home, teach them that many things that look like mushrooms in the wild may be poisonous. And that pretty plant may give them a terrible rash. A little bit of knowledge can keep them healthy and happy when they venture beyond the front door.

The miracles of nature are just a step away. Just take a look! If you would like to go on some guided hikes, contact the Community Hiking Club at or contact Dianne at for more information. All hikes are free, and arranging them is just an e-mail away.

Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel is a Santa Clarita Valley resident, volunteer, and leader of the SCV Community Hiking Club. Her column represents her own opinions, not necessarily those of The Signal.


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