Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Foraging with Wildman Steve Brill

If you haven't heard of Wildman Steve Brill (many TV and radio appearances and he was written up in many publications), then you should know that signing up for a tour with this well-known naturalist is a wonderful way to use NYC as a classroom (for kids and grown-ups). It is such a fun educational nature hike with the "Wildman" who has over thirty years of experience. Steve's jokes and stories held the attention of my (recently turned) six-year-old easily. His anecdotes (with silly sound effects and animated gestures), as well as the hands-on experience for participants, made this an unforgettable field trip. The parents of the kids also learned so much about foraging safely (for edible and medicinal plants), wild vegan cooking and our environment. Below are some photos of our foraging trip in Prospect Park, we met at Grand Army Plaza, the actual foraging portion was a solid two hours (and not one whining word from my dear daughter who had a blast).

Steve encourages making observational art from nature (and showed us some of his sketches and paintings on his tablet, so we could compare how some plants look different each season). My daughter insisted on bringing a journal to this tour, since she has enjoyed drawing "interesting things" on our own hikes the last year.

My daughter can survive in the wilderness, it seems, because she (and so many of us in the group) didn't hesitate to taste whatever Steve Brill told us was safe to pluck and eat. She immediately tasted the garlic mustard raw (you can guess what the leaves taste like by the name), identification included small white flowers on the plant.

We also nibbled on lamb's quarters raw (which tasted like spinach). We found the leaves ourselves after Steve helped us identify them (teeth along the edges and it's white underneath). Lina said she could munch on these every day (many vitamins and minerals, too).

The tastiest of them all...was pokeweed. One needs to be very careful with pokeweed since it can be poisonous, causing extreme vomiting and diarrhea. Never eat pokeweed out of season. Never eat pokeweed raw. Never eat the toxic roots, berries or flowers. When the young leaves and stems are collected (only in the spring from pokeweed plants that are under 8 inches tall), as a few of our group members took home, and are cooked properly...they will be edible. Steve had cooked the pokeweed in three changes of boiling water, each time discarding the used water (do not drink it), then added garlic and tamari soy sauce etc. (He sells a wild vegan cookbook and I'm betting everything he cooks is super tasty.) Lina and I both agreed that this was yummy and since it's a dangerous gourmet vegetable (if picked or prepared improperly could lead to death)...I was happy to sample what an expert cooked for the group. Lina said it was the most delicious vegetable she ever ate (below photo, second helping).

We found, picked and ate raw chickweed (which tastes like corn). Leaves are small smooth-edged ovals growing in opposite pairs and there were tiny white flowers on the plant (5 petals, each deeply cut almost in half to look like 10 petals).

We took a break and while others were sitting down and eating lunch (we were planning to meet friends for lunch at a restaurant after the field trip)...we found an area with shade (it was a very warm day) and Lina went hunting for dandelions.

Blowing on a dandelion and making a wish...

Next up on the tour...common plantain. Which Steve had cooked like a kale chip...crispy. Lina liked this very much.

We saw common plantain growing. It can be tough and stringy, so it's not tasty to eat raw. Instead, they can be twisted, to release juice, and rubbed on the skin to cure it of a new mosquito bite...if reapplied for about 15 minutes. That is useful information. Lina will itch a mosquito bite to such an extent that her skin will begin to bleed and we do not like using chemicals on our sensitive skin to ward off bugs. Avoidance has been our strategy...but that limits time in nature to a few hours at a time (and running away from anything that might bite or sting) and one day we would like to go overnight camping. Anyway, I'm sure there are other medicinal plants that will help relieve skin irritations...and it's important to learn how to identify them...but common plantain helps heal mosquito bites and poison ivy rash...and it's an oval leaf, smooth-edged and ribbed...with visible parallel veins, that grows close to the ground and the leaves spread out in a circle from one point.

We continued the tasting adventure...moving on to raw goutweed. It tastes like parsley and freshens breath.

Then, yellow woodsorrel was discovered...raw it tastes a bit like lemonade. The plant can be identified by the yellow flowers and each three-parted leaf has leaflets that are heart-shaped (unlike a clover, which has oval-shaped leaflets), so we enjoyed looking at the shapes of leaves and picking the right ones.

We continued on...going deeper into an area where the kids could duck under thick branches and walk over sticks, they were much better at doing this quickly than the parents who were a bit behind. (I gave up, by the time I got was time to head out...and Lina had dropped what she was given by accident..and I didn't hear what the tree looked we didn't have a chance to find and study the leaves and root of the sassafrass sapling, or save some to make tea later, but folks said it smells like root beer.)

Though this was a homeschooling group that met for a tour, he has public tours (in Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, Long Island, Westchester, Connecticut, Pennsylvania etc.) on his calendar (anyone can register in advance) as well as private tours or presentations that can be arranged for school classes, scouts or birthday parties. Also, organizations can host tours so their members (chefs, nature lovers etc.) can learn about "a great diversity and abundance of common, renewable, seasonal edible and medicinal wild plants or mushrooms." 

So check out his web site, if you're interested:

Here's an old YouTube clip with Steve talking about some foraging safety issues:

He pointed out poison ivy in person to us during the tour. That was awesome, because most people walk through it or touch it without even realizing it and get a rash...that's why we were not wearing open-toed sandals during the hike through Prospect Park.  He also pointed out various plants no one should eat...whether they were poisonous (and explained what would happen if they were eaten) or they taste bad raw.

It was very entertaining for everyone to listen to Steve making music with his mouth during the tour. His web site states:

 "The brillophone is an instrument you make by cupping your hands and clapping them in front of your mouth. You form a small, circular opening with your lips, hold your breath, and open your throat as though you're going to swallow or yawn. Air from the hole above your thumbs forcefully enters your mouth and creates an echo. You create different notes and tones by changing the shape of your mouth and lips."

There's so much to learn in each park, each season, each's better to schedule tours regularly. I didn't even realize before this tour that opposite paired or alternate leaves, smooth-edged or teeth along the edges of leaves, were a couple of ways to identify plants.

Identifying so much in nature (plants, flowers, trees, rocks, bugs, birds etc.) using our senses, rather than sitting in a classroom with a book or movie in front of us, is a wonderful way to remain active and feel alive and connected to the world around us.


Earlier this month, we saw the quirky live theater show for kids called "Fluff - A Story of Lost Toys." Christine Johnston has an absolutely amazing voice, Lisa O'Neill has an expressive face and moves her body in a memorable manner and Peter Nelson is a master of the use of digital audio (and he played live trumpet as well). It's not often that we attend a live show for little kids that seamlessly integrates singing, movement, music, sound effects, (live!) audio sampling, projections on a screen and interactive audience participation. Fluff does it all in under an hour. They introduce the lost toys they collected to the children by holding up each toy that was found, they then show a video projection of a series of stills that highlight how that particular toy was lost (that was Lina's favorite part) and they assign a name, vocal sound, bit of music and body movement to each toy. Then while trying to tuck the toys into their individual beds, they ask the kids to recall the name of each toy. This beautifully illustrates how much easier it is for a human being to remember something they learn...when they have a visual + sound + motion associated with it. We will never forget Scary Cheeks, Joy, Disco Frog, Flatsy etc. Lina commented to me about the different genres of music used for the snippets.

What was completely unexpected was that Christine went out into the audience with a microphone and ran up to some of the children...and Peter captured the live audio on a tablet. Lina contributed a chicken sound. The music was then mixed and replayed by Peter (the sound engineer) using his keyboard. (If my memory serves me correctly!)

It all came together so nicely...but sadly this was held at the New Victory Theater in Times Square...any theater group that is into technology (or wants to be promoted by those attending the show) should not be performing at this theater. Could you imagine parents using social media to share the moment that their children's faces lit up and voices were compiled on-the-fly into this awesome sound that was played back for all of us...and that moment exponentially shared across the Internet as it was happening (also serving as a great memento to those who paid for tickets)? Wow, how many parents would buy tickets ASAP for the remaining shows before the theater group left NYC? NOPE. The New Victory Theater has a strict policy of no photos or recordings allowed, which is enforced by incredibly aggressive staff . I did not even bring a camera or any other recording device when I left my home to see this show...why? because I had witnessed a few months ago how they treat parents trying to take a picture of their child with performers bowing on the stage behind them (after that show had ended).

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Educating Lina, Kindergarten Year Almost Over...

Sadly if children sit for long lectures each day and they are filled up with knowledge (and later drilled and tested), as much as they can memorize...that's not really learning. At the private kindergarten program Lina was quite disappointing that her curiosity was not encouraged...because they just wanted to stick with what was on the curriculum, which was boring. Plus, they forced the kids to sit on a rug endlessly with their legs crossed, no matter how uncomfortable it was for them to do so, and insisted they sit quietly and not chat with their new little friends.

The Department of Education still allows parents to opt out of kindergarten in NYC, thankfully (though that wasn't made clear in some media reports, since politicians needed sound bites for the new regulations and "mandatory" sounds so much better than "parents have a choice") and that's what we did for 2013-2014. I am very passionate about advocating for developmentally appropriate education for children (and treating them like unique beings, not test numbers or dollar signs). There are many who believe that "Too Much, Too Soon" is not productive for our kids (even if it wins votes during elections)...and can be damaging it is eloquently stated on the University of Cambridge's web site:

Lina blossomed in terms of so many important areas that would not have been covered at the kindergarten program. She has created so many of her own songs, drawings, picture books, acted out her own stories, built structures and improvised dance movements. She has socialized with so many different individuals, easily making friends and playing wherever we go. And there have been many field trips and workshops.

And of course, she can be curious every day, it is totally welcome. Here's an example of 11 questions Lina came up 11 minutes....over breakfast one day last month at home. Every day she has questions about vocabulary, reading, writing, math, science, music, art, film, history etc. I'm happy that she can explore anything she is interested's so easy to do these days.

In terms of her cool academic and creative projects, her enthusiasm is so amazing to everyone. We're now focusing on deciding where we want to live permanently (whether we want to remain in NYC or not). It's an exciting time and there are many options...we're leaving doors make a final decision by August regarding first grade programs (public, private or learning collectives with group classes, one-on-one tutors etc.) since it depends on the location we will be living obviously and paperwork will be filed in the appropriate district. Some families have been roadschooling and that was covered by major publications, that's very interesting to us...documenting it all...but we may want to hold off on such a long trip until Lina is older and can remember more details.

I have been busy checking off to-dos in terms of routine appointments so we can have them out of the way (Lina did great at her wellness visit at her pediatrician's office, as always...then she visited her pediatric dentist, who she has been seeing since age 3 and she had no cavities again, same as last year, and her first set of x-rays this year turned out swell). Making sure everything is taken care of, no loose ends, before summer vacation. Cheers!

Friday, May 9, 2014

Timeless TinkerToys

TinkerToys (a century old last year!) provide open-ended, imaginative play. Lina received a box as a birthday gift from grandma and she has been constructing the coolest things. They snap together easily (and stay together) and there are bendable rods now, as well.

Here are photos of what she constructed (on her own, not following a manual) the very first day she played with her K'Nex TinkerToy set and her descriptions of the creations.

"A duck."

"A boat...the green part is used to give shade to the boat and makes bugs not go into it."

"I built a church!"

"I made someone's mouth and eyes and his cheeks...that really looks like a mask."

"I made a hammer! Even though there's only two things in it, it still looks amazing? A pen and a hammer! The blue part is the cap of the pen."

"An alligator's mouth! And the teeth."

"It's a ladybug!"

"Look I made a spider...the spider is sneaky."

"That's an X for pirate treasure."

"Spinning plane."
(The bottom and top parts actually spin when you give them a nudge with your hand.)

"A turtle."

"A music box!"

"A butterfly."

"Another Lina."

It looks like fun...and it was completely from her imagination for this set, without any assistance...but the creations will become more complex and older kids enjoy these sets too. I picked up the manual and followed the diagrams to create this...a man in a car (the wheels actually spin on the the vehicle moves on the floor when you push it...and kids can play with it).

UPDATE (6/21/14): Lina has now discovered the joy of the TinkerToy Building Manual. Here are a couple of Lina's new creations:

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Clay Sculptures: Lina, Monster, Frog, Snowman, Elf

Lina made a "Clay Lina" at the Children's Museum of the Arts. Clay cute...and thankfully brought home from downtown Manhattan in a CMA bag without getting smushed on the subway.

After Lina declared what she wanted to make...a Teaching Artist at CMA's Clay Bar made a similar one first (well, a cute pirate Lina with a black eye patch and an orange dress) to show her how to make her very own little clay person. The very nice (and super patient) talented young woman showed Lina how to shape a dress (using a clay tool and her fingers), how to shape a head and neck (using her hands), how to layer on sections of hair, how to make holes in the clay (using a pencil) to put in the eyes, hands and neck.

Lina chose the colors for her clay sculpture. Since they didn't have purple...she had to spend a bit of time mixing blue, green and white modeling clay to get the right shade. After that, she had fun shaping the clay and putting her own twist on it, in terms of details like the smile and hairstyle. The only thing she wasn't happy about was the shade of color for the hair...she wanted a "darker honey brown color to look more realistic." She is a bit of a perfectionist.

The modeling clay they use at CMA is perfect for freehand modeling, it's non-hardening, not too sticky but easily holds together...the brand is Sargent Art. We will use that type of clay in the fall for a claymation (stop motion animation) project that we will create at home.

Lina was so inspired that she wanted to continue making creatures with clay at home the next are a few of her favorites...

Monster (with teeth):

Frog (with hair, sitting on a lily pad that's on water):



The only thing I did for this art project was cut a few pieces of cardboard, so there would be platforms to place the clay creatures upon (since we are displaying them on a living room shelf)...and I cut a coffee stirrer and positioned it behind the elf, to keep that sculpture from falling over. Lina did the rest by herself, she chose the clay colors, used her imagination and molded her creations without any assistance...for about an hour.

Clay Lina says enjoy the beautiful spring weather folks...go outside and minimize the screen time.

UPDATE (6/21/14): Lina had a blast finishing up all the rest of her clay. Here are 4 new clay creations...


Sleeping Girl (in dress):

Genie (napping):