Bronx Zoo Nature Club Spring Celebration

Bronx Zoo Nature Club Spring Celebration

Tarrytown Nature Club has partnered with the Bronx Zoo since 2014, helping run the free, grant-funded Bronx Zoo Nature Club. Folks from the zoo’s education department host monthly club meetings where families learn about nature and explore outdoors. As the community partners for BZ Nature Club, TNC and Kids Unplugged lead excursions throughout the year. This year we hiked through the woods on Van Cortlandt Park’s John Muir Nature Trail, sledded and climbed trees at Sleepy Hollow’s Rockwood Hall Recreation area, and scooped up water critters at Van Cortlandt Lake. The Spring Celebration, held at the Mitsubishi Riverwalk, was a chance for the nature club families to show the community what they’ve learned. Everyone pitched in to tend stations like bird watching and nature art, and the public was invited to explore and play. A nature-themed puppet show by Jilly Puppets added to the fun. Check out the slideshow to see some highlights from the day.

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5 Gift Ideas for Nature-Loving Mamas

5 Gift Ideas for Nature-Loving Mamas


Tarrytown Nature Club’s Katie Karpenstein and her kiddos on a Mother’s Day hike

Hey dads and partners- planning to make a mad dash to the big box craft store Saturday morning after soccer practice so you can have the kids whip up a Mother’s Day present? Skip that awful scene and check out our nature-inspired gift ideas instead.

1) Gift her a membership. There’s a lovely new movement encouraging people to gift experiences rather than things, and science even backs up that this makes us happier. A membership to a botanical garden, museum, or nature preserve will give mom a whole year’s worth of experiences- she can go with you guys, with a friend, or even for a date night (so you kind of win too). There are also more general memberships, such as Parks and Trails New York, which gives access to great hiking info and discounts at a host of accommodations and activities. An Empire Passport gives her a year’s free admission to New York State Parks. Or go national with an America the Beautiful pass.

picnic2) Plan a picnic. Mom is often the “planner” in the family, so one of the nicest gifts you can give her is to let her sit back and relax while you take care of every detail. Sit down with the kids one night (maybe take them to a coffee shop so you can keep everything secret!), choose a location (making sure that picnicking is allowed), and plan a menu. Make a checklist of everything you’ll need to bring, from the picnic blanket to utensils to that supermarket banana cream pie she loves. Shop with the kids for supplies, or make plans to take them out to do that Sunday morning and set mom up at home with coffee. Have the kids make cards and a special invitation to the picnic. Pack everything beautifully, with a cloth tablecloth and a hand-picked wildflower bouquet in a little mason jar. Bring some balls and frisbees for the kids. Then pick up mom, bring her to your chosen spot, and let her enjoy the scenery while all of you set up the picnic you’ve made for her. It’s the effort you all put in to it that will touch her heart, not the money you spend, so take the time to make it feel special.

3) Plan a weekend excursion. Maybe you’re doing brunch out on Mother’s Day, or you’re visiting relatives. You can still give mom that “ahhh, I didn’t have to plan it” feeling by arranging a little trip for her. If she likes camping, you can book a site anywhere in the country through Reserve America. LL Bean and Orvis offer affordable trips and classes in fly fishing, kayaking, and other outdoorsy skills. Whatever you choose, don’t just book it- take care of everything else that needs to be done to make the trip happen, from arranging babysitting to making packing lists.

pineconehorse4) Make a nature craft. You don’t have to go to those soul-sucking mega stores to find stuff to make something naturey and nice for mama. Your local hardware store probably has pots, earth, and seeds- have the kids paint the pot (acrylic, so it doesn’t wash off) and plant some flower seeds. Or, you can use just the flower pot saucer to make a moss garden. The kids can gather pebbles to line the bottom, then add a little dirt, some gathered moss, and a “weed” tree seedling from your yard or local forest. Instant zen! There are a bazillion nature craft ideas on the web, and this book has some great ones too. (Reserve it at the library, or see what other craft books they have.)

5) Buy her some sweet gear. So you’ve got your heart set on having a physical, wrapped present for mom. That’s cool. But instead of jewelry or clothes, get her something that can open a door to more nature experiences for her and the whole family. This cute little stove packs in a day pack and can make a hot mug of tea in a jiffy. The right pair of hiking boots could make her next trek a little more comfy. Or let her take a mini-vacation any time with a soft hammock set up under a tree. (This one is less comfy but cheaper, and packs light for camping.)

It’s not too late to find a meaningful gift for the nature-loving mama in your life. Good luck, enjoy the day, and don’t forget that pie.

Bringing Nature Inside: The Tale of Princess Luna

Bringing Nature Inside: The Tale of Princess Luna

One afternoon in late August, our family was on our way to lunch in Mt. Kisco, a town to the north of where we live. My kids (Jamie aged 9, and Rose aged 6) noticed some commotion on the sidewalk outside a Chinese restaurant and stopped to investigate. The cook’s kids had found a huge caterpillar. It was three or four inches in length, and bright green with little orange spots along its sides. We watched as it kept trying to climb up the brick wall and falling back to the sidewalk.


The caterpillar outside the restaurant

At lunch, I couldn’t stop thinking about our nature sighting. It was probably the caterpillar form of the luna moth, a gorgeous, pale-green, fairy-like creature. It would be amazing to take it home and see it transform. But I don’t make decisions like this lightly; it’s a heavy responsibility to take a creature out of nature. Instead, we could bring it to some nearby woods and thereby rescue it without removing it from its natural habitat. But it can be a magical thing for kids to see and touch something wild, to observe it every day and watch it change. If we leave it on the sidewalk, it’s just going to get squished anyway, I thought. So when Jamie asked, “Can we take home the caterpillar?” I said, “Yes.”

We snagged a disposable iced coffee cup from the restaurant. When we got back to the spot, the kids from the restaurant were huddled protectively around the caterpillar, which had now moved to the middle of the sidewalk. They were making sure no one stepped on it. I showed them our cup. “We’re going to take it home so it can make its cocoon somewhere safe,” I told them. They didn’t respond but looked sad. They’d been taking such good care of it. I googled Luna Moth on my phone, and held up the picture for them. “Look, this is what your caterpillar is going to turn into!” Their dad came out to look too, wiping his hands on his white apron and peering at the image of the delicate green moth. Everyone gets excited when nature unexpectedly drops into their lives. When everyone had said their goodbyes, we scooped up the caterpillar and snapped the lid onto the cup.


Luna’s cocoon inside the leaf

On the way home in the car, Jamie and Rose took turns carrying the caterpillar. Rose named her Princess Luna, which I found so touching. Such a regal name for a bug that many girls might think scary or gross.They noticed that the caterpillar was moving its head back and forth on the inside of the cup, leaving shiny zig-zags of silk in its wake. “She’s making a cocoon in the cup!” Jamie said. The poor thing seemed desperate, as though her transformation were overdue.  At home, we quickly prepared a space for the Princess. We took a butterfly house (an old birthday gift from the kids’ grandmother) and outfitted it with fresh leaves and a few sticks. Once inside, Princess Luna immediately set to work. She chose a large maple leaf and began to roll herself up inside it. “She’s making a taco!” said Rose. Peering in, we could see her using her silk to draw the leaf tightly around herself. Soon, it closed up like a purse, and we couldn’t see inside. But we could hear her. If we were very quiet and put our ears next to the butterfly house’s soft mesh side, we could hear a rhythmic chewing sound. It sounded like a bug nibbling a leaf, but we knew it was the sound of Luna spinning and weaving her silk, around and around.


Rose peers inside the leaf taco

After a day or so, the chewing sound stopped. “We can take the leaf out, guys, just once, and look inside,” I said. When I lifted the leaf and placed it into Rose’s hand, Luna thrashed around a bit. Our butterfly book had noted, “The pupa is active in its cocoon,” but it was startling. We took turns peering into the leaf taco, and inside we could see a white cottony lump. “It’s only half as long as the caterpillar,” said Jamie. “Maybe she folded herself in half in there.” We put her carefully back into the butterfly house, where she wriggled a few more times and fell quiet.

We talked about a radio science show I’d once heard. The hosts said that people tend to think that inside cocoons, caterpillars shed extra legs and sprout wings and antennae and become butterflies that way. But in fact, they dissolve into a formless goo that completely reforms into a new body. They described an experiment in which some caterpillars were shown a flashing light before receiving food, and some weren’t. After they pupated and became butterflies, the ones who’d seen the flashing light as caterpillars reacted to it, expecting food. Their brain cells retained memories from their old lives, surviving that total dissolution and coming with them into their new existence as winged creatures. “Will she remember being in the cup?” wondered Rose. “Or the kids from the restaurant?” added Jamie. We imagined her as goo, as liquid possibility, full of potential.

The book said that luna moths have two broods- one early in summer, one later. If Luna were a first brood caterpillar, she’d emerge from her cocoon after about two weeks. If she were a second brood gal, she’d remain in pupa form for the winter, and come out in the spring. It was late August, but I had my fingers crossed for Luna to hatch in a few weeks. I wasn’t sure if the conditions would be right for her to over winter with us. But three weeks came and went without any signs of hatching. I moved the butterfly house to the basement, where it would at least be dark and cool. I got busy with other things, and mostly forgot about her down there.

Rose didn’t forget. In February, she announced, “It’s going to be spring soon. We have to bring Luna upstairs so we can see her hatch!” I was worried. Luna had stopped moving, and the leaf that housed her cocoon was dry and crackly. It’s too dry and warm in the basement, I thought. She probably dried up and died back in September. What’s going to happen to Rose when Luna doesn’t hatch? Putting away laundry, I’d look at the butterfly house on Rose’s dresser and feel a wave of guilt. We should have released her in the woods, I thought. At Thanksgiving, Rose’s teacher had the children make place mats with pictures of their families. Rose’s family portrait depicted Nissim, me, Jamie, our cat Bodhi, our fish Pebbles, and Princess Luna as a beautiful green moth. I sighed. How elaborate is the moth funeral going to have to be?

One morning in March I was making breakfast and heard an excited shout from Rose’s room. I thought I heard the word “Luna.”

“What is it?” I called upstairs.

Rose burst from her room and called downstairs, “Princess Luna hatched! She’s out! Come see!”



The lovely and ethereal Princess Luna

I ran upstairs, and Jamie came too. Clinging to the inside of the top of the butterfly house was an enormous moth, almost the size of my palm. Its wings were still wrinkled at the edges, and its antennae hadn’t yet unfurled. I couldn’t believe it. From that dry, crumpled leaf taco that had languished in our basement all winter, this alien creature had somehow survived and emerged. I looked for the swooping green tails that are the hallmark of the luna moth, but they weren’t there. This moth was brown. We decided to bring the house downstairs to get a better look, and when we put it down on the kitchen counter the moth fell from her perch and spread her wings on the floor of the cage. “She has pink on her wings, look at that!” said Rose. Her wings were mostly brown, but with subtle stripes of pink, red, and purple. There were translucent window spots on her upper and lower wings, and two huge blue eye spots on the lower. Her body was covered in plush brown fur. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. Her very existence seemed an impossibility.Rose said, “I feel like this is a dream.” Princess Luna was gorgeous. And she was not a luna moth. Jamie ran to the computer to try to look her up, and Rose got the butterfly book.



A positive identification

Rose ended up identifying her from our book before Jamie could find anything online. Score one for books! Princess Luna was a polyphemus moth, a member of the giant silk moth family. (Luna moths are in that family too, so my caterpillar ID wasn’t that far off.) Jamie helped us find more pictures online, and from those we determined that she was indeed a girl. You can tell by the shape of the antennae. This sentence from the book caught my attention: “You can obtain specimens and study mating, egg laying, and growth by placing a newly emerged female in an out-of-doors cage and waiting for the males to reach the cage.” I looked up how to do this. You put the female outside at night in a “mating cage,” (heh heh) and the males can reach through the screen and mate with her while she remains contained. She’d lay her eggs there, and we could see the whole cycle begin again. It was tempting. I decided to discuss it with the kids and let this one be more of a group decision.

We talked about it a lot. We could try to make a mating cage, but that seemed overly complicated and kind of mean. We could gently lift her out of the butterfly house and watch her fly away. Or there was an in-between option: We could prop open the top of the house and let her either attract a male and lay her eggs there, or fly away if she chose. “She’s only going to live for about seven days,” I said. “These guys only eat as caterpillars. As moths, they can’t eat or drink anything. They just mate, lay eggs and die. That’s the end of their life cycle. I feel bad keeping her in a cage when she only has seven days to fly free.” The kids agreed, and decided on the third option. We would let Luna choose whether to stay or go. Rose was optimistic about the possibility of her staying. We’d read that females tend to stay put, while the males fly around following the trail of pheromones. “Maybe she likes it with us,” Rose said.


Getting ready to open the cage

Jamie and Rose were so excited to show the moth to Nissim when he got home that night. It was Friday and warm out, so we decided to walk to town to have dinner. Before we left, we brought Luna’s cage to the backyard and opened the top. A breeze blew through, and this seemed to excite her. She flapped her wings and fell awkwardly back to the cage floor. “Is she okay?” asked Rose. “I think so,” I said. “She’s just trying to learn how to fly. She’ll get it.”

The whole way to dinner, Rose wondered about Luna. “Maybe she’ll fly out into the forest and meet her Prince Luna, and then she’ll tell him Hey, I have this nice place down there, it has leaves and sticks and I was there all winter and it’s nice and safe. Lets have our babies there! And they’ll come back together.” When we got home, it was dark. I turned on my phone’s flashlight and shone it at the cage. It was empty. “She flew away,” I said. “Are you sure?” asked Rose, searching carefully. We looked on the table, and the sides of the house, and the nearby trees, but saw no sign of her. “Goodbye, Luna,” Rose called into the night. “I love you.”

When I tucked Rose in that night, her eyes filled with tears. “I know it’s sad,” I said, “But she needed to be free.”

“I know,” said Rose, her voice catching. “I didn’t want to keep her in the cage. But I just wish we watched her fly away.”

“Yeah,” I said. “That would have been nice. But she was very shy, remember how she didn’t like it when we moved her cage? Maybe she needed privacy to fly away and find her Prince. And I think she’ll always remember you. You saved her, you know. If you hadn’t brought her cage up from the basement and checked it every morning, she might have hatched down there without us knowing. And then she would have died in the cage and never flown free. Now she can be free in the forest, and have babies. And it’s all because of you. I’m so proud of you. You never gave up on her.”


Luna’s cocoon after her emergence

Rose cried for a while and I hugged her. I felt weepy too. I was awed by the transformation we’d been so lucky to witness. And more than that, I was humbled by my daughter’s faith. I’d been cynical and pessimistic about Luna’s fate, but to Rose, there was never a question of whether Luna was still alive inside her dry, brown leaf. She took care of her all winter and was there to see her emergence, and could then share that tiny miracle with the rest of us. Luna helped me see my daughter in a new light- her strength, her courage, her kind and unselfish heart. When we bring nature into our lives, we open the door to experiences that can transform us forever.

Kids in Nature: Five Tips for Avoiding the Tunnel Effect

Kids in Nature: Five Tips for Avoiding the Tunnel Effect

If your kids stay on the trail, are they really in nature?

If your kids stay on the trail, are they really in nature?

Have you ever been to an aquarium that had an ocean tunnel? You walk through a clear tube, surrounded on all sides by colorful tropical fish, gently waving corals, and perhaps the ominous shadow of a shark passing overhead. It’s beautiful, and it gives you a small taste of what it must be like to walk on the bottom of the sea. But you’re not really in the ocean. You’re comfortable and dry, you’re surrounded by tourists snapping pictures, and in a moment you’ll walk on through to the next exhibit.

Sometimes when we go for a walk with our kids in nature, we are experiencing it much like a visitor to one of those aquarium tunnels. We stay on the mulched or paved path, either because the park doesn’t allow off-trail exploration or because we are afraid. We can see nature all around us, and it’s relaxing and lovely. We can hear birdsong, smell the rotting leaves, and see chipmunks darting across the path and disappearing into the forest. For many of us — especially adults — this is enough. For kids, though, this aquarium-tunnel-type experience of nature is not satisfying. Much as babies experience the world by putting everything into their mouths, kids experience the world by touching and doing. Ever taken your kids on a nature walk, only to have them drag their feet and quickly declare, “I’m BORED!” Listen to what they’re saying. They don’t want to march along on the path, passively looking at nature as it passes by. They want to climb a tree, balance on a log, pull up swatches of moss for a fairy house, throw rocks into the water, poke mushrooms with sticks. Our job as parents is to stand back and let them do this, as much as the current surroundings allow.

Here are some tips for avoiding The Tunnel Effect for your next nature excursion.

1) Find a place for off-path walks. Some parks have explicit rules about off-path walking. This may be to protect the area’s plants and animals, or because the officials are worried visitors will sue if they fall off a rock and get hurt. If you can, find a place where your kids can feel free to roam off path. If it doesn’t have signs saying you can’t go off path, it’s probably fine. And when choosing the site for your outing, remember that your kids will be happier in a scrubby patch of woods where they can climb and dig than at a stately botanical garden filled with signs saying “Don’t Touch” and “Be Quiet.”


2) Be patient, and let them lead. You may have brought your kids to a trail that leads up a mountain, and you’re excited to get to the top. Try not to be in a hurry about it. Let the kids stop, climb logs, look under rocks for salamanders. Bring a book if you find you really have trouble waiting while they explore. (But don’t get out your phone, as media and screens can break the spell of being in the forest and pull the kids away from what they’re doing.) When your child asks where to go next, tell her, “It’s up to you! You’re the leader!” and follow her at her own pace. If you have more than one kid with you, let them take turns being the leader. You’ll be amazed how their enthusiasm and confidence grow. And if you’re really itching to do that fast, goal-oriented adult-type hiking, see if you can schedule time to do that with your partner or a friend.

3) Be aware of how much meddling a given spot can support. When I take my kids to a botanical garden, they know they can’t touch or pick anything. At a state park, it’s pretty much the same thing, although there they might gather nuts or break sticks — things that are plentiful and renewable. In a wild spot that isn’t frequented too much by people, like if we’ve walked off a biking trail into a random patch of nearby woods, that’s when I might let them gather moss and pick grass. In a field of wildflowers, I’ll say yes to making a bouquet of the abundant clover, but might gently stop my daughter from picking the solitary ladyslipper growing near the path. “Let’s leave that there for everybody to see.” It takes practice, but you can develop your own (and your kids’) judgement about when to pick and when to leave it be. For more on the pros and cons of letting kids make their mark on nature, take a look at this excellent article, “Let Kids Run Wild in the Woods.”


4) Curb your fears. One of the biggest barriers to off-trail exploration is parental fear. One way to lesson your fears, and then avoid passing them on to your kids, is to educate yourself. Learn what (if any) potentially dangerous animals are in the area and how to identify them. There’s no need to jump in fear away from a snake if you know it’s a harmless garter. It’s pretty easy to identify poison ivy, and there’s no need to panic if you see some- just walk around it and don’t touch. Terrified of spiders? (That’s my Achilles’ heel!) At the very least, try not to freak when you see one.Your kids are watching you. If you want them to be comfortable in nature, try to model that comfort yourself (even if you have to fake it).

5) Be careful when you say, “Be careful.”  Please try to avoid saying that much-loved parent phrase: “Be careful.” When your kid is climbing a rock or balancing on a log, he is already doing his best not to fall. When you say “Be careful,” the message you’re sending him is, “I don’t trust your judgement or your coordination. You can’t do this. You’re going to get hurt.” Your kids may get hurt sometimes- that’s part of the learning process. If you see them doing something life-threatening like balancing on the edge of a high cliff, definitely do what you gotta do. But before you say, “Be careful,” think for a moment. What’s the risk if she falls? Is that risk worth my chipping away at her self confidence at this moment? If the answer is no, give your child the gift of your confidence in her abilities by remaining silent. And notice when he’s done something cool. “You climbed all the way to the top- how did you do it? Tell me all about it!”


I hope these tips can help you avoid the dreaded “I’m bored” the next time you go exploring with your family. (And if you see a big spider, please don’t send me a picture.)

A Classroom Without Walls

A Classroom Without Walls

Today I went to the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Peabody Preserve Outdoor Classroom, and wow, I was blown away by the work people have done to get this project off the ground. PPOC is an outdoor learning center owned and operated by the Public Schools of the Tarrytowns. The land that this center uses — 40 acres of gorgeous woodland and wetland — was once largely unused except for a few athletic fields. A few years ago, during an intense community debate about what to do with this school-owned property, Tracy Brown, Katie Scully, and Sonia Crawley conceived of a plan to turn it into a natural space for learning. Since then, volunteers and community partners have created a network of trails that make it possible for groups of school kids to come in and do everything from science experiments to hiking and art projects. We even came across an on-site experiment being done by a high school forensics class: They cordoned-off some road-kill animals with a milk crate and are studying their decomposition. Gnarly! There’s no end to the kind of discoveries that students can make using this natural space as their classroom. None of this would have been possible without huge support from the school system, including our Superintendent Clouet.

As I listed to students describe the work they’ve done in this new classroom without walls, and as I walked the trails with the people who worked so hard to preserve this space, I was filled with pride in our community. It’s also exciting to think about all the possibilities for tandem projects with PPOC and TNC; we have so many values in common when it comes to what the children of our community need to thrive. I am so looking forward to bringing my Friday after school group here for nature play. They’re going to love the enormous rocks and the quiet pond. Huge, huge thanks to everyone who made this space a reality. I truly appreciate the contribution to our community. I think this is only the beginning of something that will continue to take root and blossom.

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Muir Inspiration

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Tarrytown Nature Club has recently partnered with the Bronx Zoo to help create a nature club there, as part of a new grant-funded program. The folks from the zoo are running monthly nature sessions for the participating local families, helping them become more comfortable with exploring nature through fun games and activities. I’ve been helping in an advisory role. TNC (together with Kids Unplugged, a local adventure travel blog) will also lead monthly excursions for the families into natural areas near the zoo.

The idea for these Bronx Zoo Nature Club excursions is to get the kids into the woods, fields, and wetlands that are all around their neighborhoods, and to let them explore and play. It’s not a nature hike like adults take, where the goal is to get as far or as high as possible. It’s mucking around, finding salamanders, climbing trees, getting muddy — experiences that kids desperately need and yet often don’t get enough of in today’s high-tech world.

Today I explored a new area that I think will be perfect for our first nature excursion- the John Muir Nature Trail in the Bronx’s Van Cortlandt Park. It’s sandwiched in-between two major roads, but once you step onto the trail you could be in any northeastern forest. There are logs to clamber over, birds and squirrels rustling in the leaves, and mossy hollows to nestle into. I can’t wait to bring the kids here on November first.