Easy ways to enjoy nature with your children
Spring is here as far as the calendar is concerned, but it is still quite chilly and brown in Vermont. It is what we call “mud season”, when the snow melts and everything is brown and mucky as the earth thaws and comes to life once again. This is the time of spring peepers--frogs with a beautiful chirp that can be heard near ponds and vernal pools at sunset. It warms the heart to hear this sound on an April night because it means spring is here. This is also the time of green buds on trees, ramps growing in the woods, fiddlehead ferns unfurling on the forest floor, and trout lilies revealing their spots amidst brown leaves leftover from fall (learn more about safely wild-harvesting spring edibles here).
Now that I am spending a lot more time with my kids as we shelter-in-place, we are thoroughly enjoying our outdoor time in the woods around us, watching spring come alive. We are also testing out some new projects we wanted to share that combine nature and art. One thing I love about plants is their wide-ranging qualities and uses. Echinacea, for example, can be appreciated as a gorgeous flower in a summer garden, harvested for its powerful medicine in fall (or for its seeds) or permitted to winter-over so the petals fall away and a beautiful dried cone is left that can be used as a paint brush!
In the past few weeks we have had fun examining not only the tiny spring buds around us, but also finding all the beauty that winter left behind--dried sensitive ferns, echinacea, asters, milkweed pods, etc., and using these natural items for art projects. Below I discuss three different simple spring projects that let you enjoy nature with your kids.
NATURE’S PAINT BRUSHES
Things you’ll need:
- Natural materials to use as paint brushes
- Paper or birch bark
- Mud or any other type of paint
This is a very easy project with so many different variations. Get your kids geared up for a ramble--my kids and I took a hike near my community garden plot. We first visited the plot and collected some dried bee balm and echinacea stalks. These work perfectly as paint brushes because the stalks are quite thick. From the woods and surrounding fields, we collected a variety of other things: dried goldenrod stalks, sensitive ferns (these also have a thick stalk), some different pine/evergreen branches, and milkweed pods and stalks.
There are many ways to do this project and I think flexibility is key when working with kids. We took some of the materials that had softer/weaker stems and used an awl to make a hole in the top of a stick then inserted a bit of the stem into the hole to turn the plant into an actual paint brush with a handle, but you don’t have to get so fancy, especially if your plants have stalks that are pretty thick.
It’s quite simple after you have all your materials together; get your kids set up in area with paper (or bark) and paint (or mud) and let them test out all the different plants to see what sort of textures they create. You may need more paint than you would normally use on a paint brush. Some of the materials will work better for brushing (fir needles/ ferns) while others will yield better results if you load them up with paint and press them down like a stamp.
Have fun creating patterns and scenes and experimenting with how to use the plant material. We wound up cutting into some of our plants, using roots and choosing some bright colors for paint. When you are finished you can even arrange the paint-splattered materials that still have stems into a small bouquet.
This project is similar to the nature’s paintbrushes in that you take a nature walk and collect plant materials. Please remember to always harvest in a sustainable way, to only take what you need, and to be sure you have permission.
For inspiration for plant mandalas I look to the following artists: Day Schildkret, Michelle Wallace, Kathy Klein, and Ana Castilho. These artists all create incredible works from natural materials, full of color, beauty, and impermanence. Andy Goldsworthy is another master of natural art whose work is truly inspirational. What I love about this art is that it is subject to change, in fact it should change and evolve, be blown away, moved by other humans or animals. The beauty is fleeting, but that in itself is beautiful; this is also a wonderful lesson to teach children.
We used many of the same plants we did for our paint brushes for our mandala. You can make mandalas throughout the year, and the color palette will change. It will also be unique depending on what part of the country/world you are in and what plants are available to you! Spring in Vermont means lots of browns, greens and a splash of yellow and purple. Ours included pine cones, evergreen needles, dried echinacea and milkweed pods/seeds, dried sensitive ferns, a few dandelions and johnny-jump-ups.
The practice is simple: collect materials, clear a spot (preferably one where other folks will happen upon your creation and find delight in it), and create your mandala. Mandalas are geometrical and in many spiritual traditions they are used for creating a sacred space for meditation. This is a really great way to slow down and enjoy the nature around you while also examining it closely.
Work with your kids to create a shape and teach them about symmetry and patterns. It’s also a nice method for a bit of scientific examination of the plants you are using. How is a milkweed pod similar to and different from a pine cone? Why do the plants turn brown in the winter? You can even turn it into a writing project and ask the kids to write a poem about their creation!
This last foraged project is a very easy and satisfying little recipe that is quite fun for kids because it is also a bit of a science experiment, plus it has a beautiful color pop. If you have ever made unicorn noodles, it’s a similar concept.
Traditionally violets have been used medicinally for lymphatic support.* They have also been traditionally used in a compress or poultice to help with irritated skin as they are cooling and soothing. Edible wild violets are a beautiful decorative addition to salads, pizzas, cakes and cupcakes.
Here we use violets to make a delicious and refreshing lemonade. Your kids will get to watch the liquid turn from deep purple blue to bright pink when the lemon juice is added.
Things you need:
- ¾ - 1 cup sustainably harvested purple violet petals (be sure to use just the petals and as little green plant matter as possible)
- 1.5 cups water
- Juice from 3-4 lemons
- Honey or sugar to taste (7-9 tablespoons for a sweet lemonade)
- Fresh lemon slices and violet flowers for garnish + a fun straw
Boil water in a non-reactive pot on the stove and let stand for one minute. Pour into a mason jar, stir in the violet petals and let it steep for 5 minutes. Stir in your sweetener of choice and mix until dissolved (remember you will be adding the lemon juice, so adjust accordingly—you can always add more or dilute later), then let the mixture sit until it cools to room temperature. You will have a bluish / green hued liquid. Juice the lemons while you wait.
Once cool, pour the lemon juice in. The mixture will turn a reddish purple or bright pink. You now have a syrup that you will dilute with ice or water. The syrup can be used right away or stored in the fridge for up to three days. The longer you leave the plant matter in, the more intense the color will be.
When you are ready to serve, strain out the flowers with a fine sieve or cheesecloth and pour over ice. Taste for sweetness and add a bit of water or more sweetener, depending on your preference. Garnish with lemon slices and fresh violets. Makes 3-4 servings.
This tasty and quick beverage also has a lingering floral flavor which is just delightful. It is perfect for a fairy garden party when served with little tea cakes or scones!