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For recent weekend science fun posts we have had a couple of walks: a spring flower walk and a flowering tree walk. Now it is time for a change of pace and do a critter crawl.

Have you ever dug through a pile of leaf litter or looked under a log? How about sifted through a compost heap? Take some time to find a quiet, preferably moist, spot where pieces of dead plants are piled and spend a while getting to know the small, but important animals that live there. Prepare to be amazed at how many different tiny creatures dwell in this often-ignored part of our world.

Before you get started, you might want to gather up a few items:

  • A magnifying lens can help you see more details
  • Tweezers, forceps or a small stick to gently move leaves or bark
  • Small paintbrush to remove dirt and move tiny creatures
  • Paper and pencil to make drawings and record results
  • Gloves (optional but helpful)
  • Identification guides, or take a look at descriptions of compost critters like this one at the Junior Master Gardener website

Locate a compost heap, pile of leaves or logs where you have permission to explore. First survey the area. Make sure you and your family are familiar with common poisonous creatures such as snakes or scorpions that might also be found hiding under leaves, rocks or logs in your community. Bees and wasps sometimes nest in the ground too, so exercise caution.

Gently begin to turn over leaves or peel off loose bark. Pay close attention. What kinds of things might you see?

Expect:

  • Insects such as beetles, crickets, cockroaches, ants or earwigs
  • Snails, slugs
  • Spiders, mites
  • Millipedes, centipedes
  • Worms

If you are lucky you might find a few creatures that are children's favorites, the rolypolies or sowbugs (also called potato bugs, wood lice and various other names). Depending on the type, rolypolies and sowbugs are 1/4- to 1/2-inch-long, gray and relatively hard shelled.

If you find some, gently pick one up. How does it react to being picked up? Does it roll into a tight ball? If so, then it is a rolypoly.
rolypoly

Does it simply try to scamper away? Then it is likely to be a sowbug. Sowbugs look similar to rolypolies, but lack the ability to curl up tightly.

sowbug

The rolypolies and sowbugs belong to a group of animals called the Isopoda. "Iso" means same, and "poda" means foot. Carefully tip yours over and see if this name fits. Does all its feet look the same? How many legs does it have? Insects have six legs and spiders have eight legs, do you think it is either of those?

upside down rolypoly

Does the isopod have eyes? Does it have antennae? What are those small spikes sticking out from the rear part?

When scientists carefully examined isopods, and then compared the isopod appendages and other characteristics to those of other groups of animals, they figured out that isopods are closely related to crabs, shrimp and lobsters. They are crustaceans. Tiny crustaceans in your garden or compost heap, isn't that cool?

What happens when you set your isopod back down? Does it run towards the light or away from the light? Does it try to hide or does it curl up? Try thinking up some more questions to ask.

Keep looking through the litter. You will probably encounter a few things less familiar than the rolypolies, but no less interesting. Have a lot of fun while you observe and learn about this hidden world.

If you can't get outside this weekend, then pick up a few books, like the ones suggested below. After reading them, crawl around the house pretending to be earthworms, crickets and isopods.

Rolypolyology (Backyard Buddies)
by Michael Elsohn Ross, Published by Carolrhoda Books, Inc. Minneapolis, 1995. ISBN 0876149018 contains detailed information and ideas for experiment with isopods.

Compost Critters
by Bianca Lavies, Published by Dutton, 1993. ISBN 0525447636 has absolutely stunning photographs of the inhabitants of a compost heap. Amazing!

The cool, wet weather we have been having has brought out some mushrooms. Quick, are mushrooms plants or animals? If you say neither, then you know your stuff. Mushrooms were once thought to be plants, but mushrooms don't make their own food. Modern investigations have shown them to be more closely related to animals. For instance, mushrooms have the protein chitin, which is also found in insects. But mushrooms aren't exactly animals either. For example, as far as we know they don't run around like animals do. In fact mushrooms are so distinct, they are now given their own Kingdom, the Fungi.

What are fungi? Most people recognize that mushrooms are fungi. In addition, yeasts and truffles, molds, mildew and also disease-causing parasites of insects are fungi. Lichens, which grow on rocks in a variety of climates, are a mix of fungi and algae growing together.

Fungi range in size from microscopic to quite possibly the largest organism on earth. Scientists are making the case that a giant fungus found growing in the Malheur National Forest in Oregon could be the world's largest individual organism, because it covers some 2200 acres. Information is still being gathered, and because much of the fungus is hidden from view, it also could be made up of clusters of individuals.

The mushroom part of the fungus we see is the reproductive part, or using older analogies, the fruit of the fungus. The body of the fungus is made up of threads called mycelium, and they are often hard to see because they grow underground or in rotting wood. If you have ever broken open a rotting log and seen white hair-like strands, you have seen mycelium.

If the mushrooms are like fruit, then where are the seeds? It turns out that fungi grow from tiny particles called spores. If you have ever found a mature puffball and stepped on it, the smoky clouds that come out are the spores being released into the air. Here is a picture of a puffball, if you have never seen one. The spores produce new strands called hyphae and then mycelia to make new fungi.

Activities:

Fungi as Food
(Safety Note: Many wild mushrooms are poisonous. Beginners should stick to the grocery store varieties).
Explore edible mushrooms by visiting grocery stores to see all the different kinds that are available. We found shiitake, oysters, white, brown and portabellas. Discuss how they are similar and different. You might want to buy a few, and try the different flavors in your favorite recipes. You could also pick up some yeast and make bread with it. Show the yeast to your children and let them smell it. By the way, there is nothing better than white mushrooms sautéed in butter made into a sandwich between two slices of freshly made bread.

Make Spore Prints
If you don't want to eat the mushrooms, use a few different kinds of mushrooms from the grocery store to make spore prints. Try to find older mushrooms already producing the brown powdery spores. Young mushrooms with pink gills or button mushrooms aren't ready to make spores yet.

Place the mushroom with the frilly gill side against some white paper and then cover it with a glass or bowl. (You'll have to remove the stem first). Leave for a few hours or overnight. If the mushroom is producing spores, it should leave a print when you gently lift it away.

Scientists who study fungi, called mycologists, use spore prints to help figure out what species they have found.

Websites:

Check out an experiment that uses yeast to blow up a balloon.

Older children can visit here to learn more about fungi, starting with the attack of the killer fungus.

Finally, if you have the time, growing mushrooms from a kit can be a great experience for kids. Kits are available with different types of mushrooms, at varying sizes and costs. Check the Internet for sources.

A Few Mushroom and Fungi Books:

Mushroom in the Rain by Mirra Ginsburg. Macmillan Publishing Co, New York. 1974.
A fiction picture book with a cute story.

What Rot! Nature's Mighty Recycler by Elizabeth Ring. Millbrook Press, Brookfield Conn. 1996. (Nonfiction)

Fungi by Mary Kay Larson, Newbridge Educational Publishing, New York. 2003. (Nonfiction)

Plants That Never Bloom by Ruth Heller. (nonfiction). Note: This older book still classifies fungi as plants, but the other information and illustrations are still worthwhile.

What is a Fungus? By D.M. Souza. Franklin Watts, New York. 2002. (Nonfiction)

Who hasn't heard the whine of "I'm bored" from their children, particularly during the quiet summer months? Usually it is enough to say, "Go try..." but sometimes they may need a bit of help to get started on a new project. This often happens in the late afternoon when we're all tired, and the weather is keeping us confined to the house.

To combat the occasional summer blahs, I have been making what we call a "boredom bin" each spring. When I visit dollar stores or secondhand shops, I pick up inexpensive items like puzzles, games, books and art supplies, and throw them in a bin hidden in my closet. Once tedium reaches maximum levels, someone requests a trip to the boredom bin. I suspect just the anticipation of something new helps. Each child gets one item without seeing what else is in the bin. No matter what it is, off they run to play with it. It is a very happy tradition at our house.

This year I'm taking things a step further and making a science-themed boredom bin. Having recently heard a mother explain how she finally had saved up enough money to buy an expensive science kit for her children, I want to emphasize you can do a lot of science with things around the house that don't cost much at all. Here are some ideas:

Because our family is studying the physical sciences, the first list is a physical science theme.

1. Inexpensive kites (often available in grocery stores for just a dollar or two), or balsa, string, tape and paper to make kites
2. Straws to make into kazoos, atomizers, droppers, bridges, you name it
3. Paper towel tubes, file folders and boxes to make marble towers, houses, airplanes, etc.
4. Plastic bags, bits of yarn or string, and action figures to make parachutes
5. Balloons to make cars, hover craft, drums, etc.
6. Inexpensive magnet and electricity kits, available used or at discount stores that sell returned/discontinued items
7. Inexpensive kitchen scale (garage sales) or materials to make a homemade scale
8. Flashlights, thermometers, magnifying lenses, prisms (we got a very inexpensive crystal pendent that works), aluminum foil to study light and heat
9. Building blocks and wheels (like Legos, Knex or Megablocks) (garage sales)
10. Plastic bins, toy boats, clay, soap, foil etc. to study floating and sinking
11. A good book of science activities to get you started, often available used

A chemistry-themed bin might include:
1. A box or two of cornstarch, to mix with about equal parts water to make cornstarch goo. Kids of all ages love to revisit this messy activity again and again.
2. Bubble mix or try the bubble science experiment in this blog
3. Pennies, nails. Add lemon juice from the kitchen to clean the penny, and copper plate the nail. Lemons can also be used to make invisible ink and with cabbage juice to explore acids and bases (see color experiments in this blog)
4. Oil, food coloring and water to study oil and water separation
5. Vinegar and baking soda to make volcanoes and rockets. For an incredibly simple, yet effective volcano: Have your child make a volcano shaped heap in a sandbox or loose soil, if no sandbox is available. Make a hole in the top, about 1 1/2 inches deep, and pour in some baking soda. Then pour in about 1/2 cup vinegar and stand back for the eruption. The cone can be rebuilt again and again. Add red food coloring to the vinegar to simulate lava.
6. Yeast packet, sugar, balloon and a water bottle. Mix the yeast, sugar and water in the bottom of the water bottle and then cover the opening with the un-inflated balloon. Watch what happens as the yeast begins to grow.
7. Metal objects such as nails, washers, paper clips, etc. Place in jars with either plain water, water plus salt, or plain vinegar and see what happens.
8. A good book of science activities to get you started, often available used

If you want a biology-themed bin, consider adding:

1. Bug catching and viewing toys such as bug vacuums, jars and nets. Encourage your children to catch, observe and release.
2. Seeds to plant in recycled containers
3. Dried beans to soak and sprout
4. Simple kits to make bird houses, feeders. Get more ideas from the bird watching activity in this blog.
5. String, measuring tape, pencils and paper, crayons, camera to study a tree. Keep a nature journal to see how the tree changes from season to season and over the years. Use the string to measure around the trunk and the tape to figure the length. Record what animals visit the tree. Make bark rubbings and press a few leaves. Check the tree flower activity, too.
6. Consider constructing a worm bin to recycle food waste. Red wiggler worms are the special type used in worm bins.
7. Gather materials to start and study a compost heap.
8. Herb seeds and pots to start an herb container garden. Kids like herbs because of their wonderful odors and textures, plus many herbs are hardy to grow, giving children success.
9. Inexpensive tape recorder. Tape insects, birds, mammals and frogs making noises, singing and calling.
10. Find a good book of science activities to get you started, often available used

Please let me know if you want further instructions for any of these projects, or if you have additional items to add to the lists. Good luck and hope you have a happy summer filled with science fun.