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We are feeling in a lazy, summer mood this week, so we're going to do some cloud watching. Grab a blanket, find a quiet place in the shade outside and look up at the clouds.

clouds

The weather has been in the news a lot lately. With practice, you can tell something about what the weather is going to do by checking the clouds. Most of us recognize there are different types of clouds, some puffy, some wispy and some that seem to cover the sky in an endless blanket. If you and your children get interested in learning the types, there are many good books with pictures and even cloud chart posters available to help you learn their names.

Are any of the clouds darker than others? Those probably contain a lot of water. Puffy clouds that begin to tower up, raising high into the sky might indicate a thunderstorm is building. Drab gray clouds that cover the sky suggest a gentle rain that is going to settle in all day.

If your child is ready, you can discuss what a cloud is made of and how the water cycle works. Ask them how they think rain forms. We once made simple stick puppets of a mountain stream, an ocean, trees and water with wavy lines representing evaporation, clouds, and funny rain drops with cat and dog faces on them ("raining cats and dogs"). Then we did stories incorporating ideas of the water cycle, but in a way that was gently humorous, such as the rain drops didn't want to leave the clouds, and the clouds had to shake them out. We still have the puppets, and do the show every once in awhile. Repetition is good for learning, and the children don't even know they are learning when something is fun.

What are clouds made of? Clouds are made up of more than water. In addition to bits of dust, micro-critters such as bacteria, fungi and algae get caught up in clouds.

But hey, it's a lazy summer day, so don't work too hard. Hum, that cloud looks just like a mattress, and mattresses are for sleeping. ZZZZZZZ....

For a little change of pace this week, we thought we would let you be an insect detective.

mystery insect

Here is our bug of the week. Look closely. This insect has fooled a great many people, including authors of college textbooks. Do you know what it is? Let us know. Next week, we’ll reveal the answer.

Have you ever thought much about soil? If you went on the critter crawl several weekends ago, you might have dug around in soil looking for soil creatures. Did you pay attention to the soil? Soil is a wonderful thing, which deserves further study.

Take your children out to a place they can examine some soil. Start by simply sitting on a patch of soil. Ask your children what they think soil is. Is it alive? (Yes, components of soil are alive.) What does it consist of? Are all soils alike? Smell your patch of soil, what do you smell? Touch the soil. What does it feel like? Is it wet or dry?

If you have time, bring a small bag of sand and a bit of clay with you. Have the children look at the sand, clay and a small sample of your soil. How are they similar? How are they different?

Soil is made up of a lot of different things. The most obvious will be the particles of rocks and minerals. The particles will be of different sizes. Soil scientists name the particles according to their size. The largest particles are sand grains, the middle-sized are called silt and the very finest particles make up clay.

Another important component of the soil is water. As you might guess, water moves through the different-sized particles at different rates. An easy demonstration is to fill three plastic cups, one with dry sand, one with dry potting soil and one with clay. Have the children pour in some water and watch what happens. Older children can time how long the water takes to reach the bottom of the cup with a stopwatch. Usually the water goes through the sand rapidly, and sometimes does not move through densely packed clay at all.

With a group of children, or even children and adults, you can make this even clearer. Tie a bit of blue cloth to one child volunteer, who will represent the water. The rest of children (or children and adults) can be soil particles. First have the soil particles hold out their arms and form a cluster. They are now big sand grains taking up big space. Let the water child try to move through. It should be easy. Then have the soil particles put their hands on their hips and move closer together. Now they are middle-sized silt particles. The water child should still be able to move through, but it will be more difficult. Finally, have the children put their arms tight to their sides and pack together. They are now clay particles. The water child will have a lot of trouble getting through now. If she or he does manage to get in, point out that it is hard to get out again too. Clay holds water tightly once it gets in.

Brainstorm about what else is in soil. Be a soil detective and carefully pick apart a soil sample. You should find some bits of twigs, leaves, plant roots, and other decaying plant parts. This is what is called the organic or humus part. In this case organic does not mean the same as in the grocery store. Organic here means coming from living things, containing carbon.

Another part of soil is air. We often forget that plants need air in the soil as well as water to grow properly.

Did you find any soil critters? Many organisms are found in the soil, such as earthworms, mites, nematodes, fungi and bacteria. They have big roles helping break down the plant matter, adding oxygen to the soil and sometimes increasing the nutrient content, depending on the type.

Time to run out and check out the soil. And when you get back inside, you might want to wash your hands and celebrate by making a dirt cake as a snack. Enjoy!

And if you have time, read some books about life in the soil.

Alvin and Virginia Silverstein have written quite a number of nonfiction and science books. All that we have read have been full of well-researched and interesting information. Life in a Bucket of Soil is another fine example.