Monday, August 31, 2009

Time to Take Play Seriously: A Little Perspective

I note the calendar (it says 'September') and watch the sun set (earlier each day), yet I refuse to acknowledge what we know to be true: summer's end is fast approaching. For me, summer represents the best of childhood: long days without schedules, mostly playing outside. So, while school may be back in session, let's hope administrators understand what we know: outdoor play time is critical for healthy childhood development.

Why? For the vast majority of our history, formal education didn't exist. We were hunters and gatherers and childhood was about acquiring the skills and instincts we'd need to be successful adults. Fail in our development tasks and we'd be incapable of feeding ourselves and extending our lineage.

So, here we are 10,000 years into our time as farmers and 200 years as industrialists. Our ability to track game and identify foodstuffs, roots and fungi have all but vanished. Times have changed, as have the instincts needed to survive, but the best way for children to learn remains the same: play.

Children are wired to acquire new skills and knowledge and they do it best without fear and consequence. Said another way, play for it's own sake, self-chosen and self-directed, comes with the benefit of learning as a by-product.

Consider learning a foreign language, how to dance or even how to hit a ball. Without concerns about achievement our minds and bodies instinctively pick up the basics. With repetition, our skills improve. As adults, with structure and pressure, our bodies and minds freeze up. We're inhibited. Adults are able to deal with stress better than children, but children are wired to learn. Compare the way a child picks up new technology versus an adult. Too often, as adults, in our desire to raise Einsteins, we make children act like adults and hamper their development. Remember, Einstein never used flash cards.

So, how do we allow kids enough time to be kids if they're sitting in a classroom most of the day? Be cognizant of their needs and, no matter how they spend their time at school, there are still enough waking hours for playtime. For more, head to the website.

See you outside,

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Cap-and-Trade. For Adults Only!

Cap-and-Trade Bill: Perspective and Opinion
On June 26th, the US House of Representatives narrowly passed The Waxman-Markey Energy Bill. The Bill now moves to the Senate where it’s future is far from decided.

What is Cap-and-Trade?
Under the Bill’s cap-and-trade system, the government starts with a total amount of carbon dioxide, “the cap”, businesses can emit. Initially, companies buy pollution credits at auction from the government.

If a company reduces their emissions faster than required, they sell or “trade” their excess emission credits to a company unable to meet the requirements. Over forty years, the cap is cranked down to reduce total carbon emissions by up to 80%.

Ideally, by creating a market for carbon dioxide, a gas released by fossil fuel consumption, we’ll reduce the amount of heat trapping gas we emit. If we make the polluter pay for their waste, the logic goes, we’ll pollute less or figure ways to obtain power from cleaner sources.

Big Deal?
Since most of us rely on carbon from fossil fuels for everything from turning on the faucet (electricity to pump water) to eating a meal (growing, harvesting, transporting, preparing) to typing on this computer, this impacts us all.

Proponents claim a future of green jobs, e.g. developing new technologies, insulating buildings and installing solar panels, while critics argue a fossil fuel energy tax will drive us deeper into recession as business passes on their costs to consumers.

Has anything like this been done before?
There are plenty of precedents for cap-and-trade, including in the US.
During the 1980’s, sulfur dioxide from coal-fired power plants created acid rain and ravaged forests, lake and streams of the Northeast. Despite millions of dollars by the coal lobby, The Clean Air Amendment of 1990 included a cap-and-trade provision to reduce coal plant's sulfur dioxide emissions. (it did nothing to limit other emissions, like toxic pollutants).

Nearly twenty years later, even it’s most ardent critics agree it has been an unqualified success. Emissions were reduced at a fraction of the cost the skeptics had argued it would cost. Additionally, the investment meant billions in health cost savings and increases in crop revenue.

For the first time, coal operators and plant managers had an incentive to reduce waste and pollution. Coal plant technology has changed little since the 19th century. In fact, the pet food industry spends more on R&D than does the entire utility industry.

Unfortunately, a comprehensive carbon cap-and-trade is a great deal more complicated than installing scrubbers on smoke stacks and finding cleaner burning coal for about two hundred coal plants.

European Carbon Cap-and-Trade:
Europe instituted a carbon cap-and-trade a few years ago and the results have been less than encouraging. Their biggest mistake, allocating (for free) more pollution credits than was necessary, caused the price of pollution credits to plummet. At the same time, utilities pocketed windfall profits at the expense of consumers.

Supporters of The Waxman-Markey Bill counter they’ve learned their lessons from Europe’s flaws. Yet, in order to win support from manufacturing, coal and industrial agriculture states, they watered down the bill on every front and agreed to give away, rather than auction, the vast majority (75%+ of the initial credits. There goes most of the revenue!) It also provides wiggle room and exceptions for polluters with clout (read: loopholes and subsides). Note: the bill grew from a two-page outline a few months ago to more than 1,000 pages.

Additionally, while the link between sulfur dioxide’s acid rain killing forests is readily comprehendible, most layman don’t make the connection between our fossil fuel waste and resulting costs, e.g. military expenditures, soil erosion, soaring healthcare costs, etc.

• Vast regulatory machine to set-up and administer
• The majority of credits are given away upfront
• Too little too soon: virtually nothing ‘til 2012, and little ‘til 2016

• Revenue collected aimed at provisions to beef up energy efficiency (to save money) and to require large utilities to obtain electricity from renewable sources.
• Regulations in place to beef up the bill and reduce carbon emissions over time.

Carbon Tax: a better option?
Advocates for a simpler plan, with fewer regulatory costs, propose a straight pollution tax, i.e. a carbon tax. Upon closer inspection, it’s not as easy as proponents argue.

Yes, Waxman-Markey chose the cap-and-trade because polluters find it more palatable, but also because the goal is to reduce emissions a specific amount annually and, for this, the cap-and-trade is a better instrument.

Why do we need to reduce carbon dioxide, again?
I’ll agree with the vast majority of climate scientists: our emissions of carbon into the atmosphere cause climate change. I’ll also argue it’s OK to support a tax on carbon even if you don’t agree.

Two hundred years ago, there were fewer than one billion people roaming the land (mostly poor farmers). Today, we’re at seven billion (on our way to nine billion-plus) and more than one billion can’t find work. What changed: the use of fossil fuels.

In the 19th century, when we were short labor and long natural resources it made sense to subsidize the use of natural resources because it contributed to a rise in the standard of living. Times have changed, yet those companies that pollute and externalize their costs, wield more power than ever.

We’ll benefit from eliminating the billions of annual direct subsidies to coal, oil, gas, industrial agriculture and mining industries. Make the oil companies pay the US Naval costs for patrolling Middle East waters. Force coal to pay the clean-up costs of mountaintop removal mining. Demand logging companies pay to cut timber on government owned lands (and pay for the roads to get there). Stop the madness of giving billions to agricultural giants who grow corn with fossil fuel inputs to fatten cattle and fatten kids, read: high-fructose corn syrup.

So what do we do?
Our goal ought to be to increase quality of life, not increase GDP for the sake of increasing GDP. Economic growth, defined by GDP, in the US no longer equates to an increase in the standard of living. Our “happiness” index in the US peaked more than 30 years ago.

What to do about it: Shift subsidies and taxes to fuel a new revolution.

Altering taxes and subsides will affect change. People act on information the market gives them. If we want companies to use less of something, e.g. fossil fuels, eliminate subsidies and begin to tax. If we want to stimulate consumption, e.g. companies hiring workers, remove the taxes.

Reducing waste is good business- just ask some of the companies who aren’t waiting for public policy to change and reaping huge financial benefits from improving design, companies like Interface Global, Dow and Patagonia. Global consultant McKinsey and Company has published extensive reports highlighting the impressive ROIs to be had just by investing in efficiency.

As the Senate debates the cap-and-trade bill, we ought to
1. Work to remove subsidies given to the coal, oil, gas and natural resources industries
2. To encourage creativity and innovation, and reduce our addiction to limited resources, institute a cap-and-trade with teeth.
3. To encourage employment, lower taxes on labor.

Take the time to call your US Senators (and House Rep) and demand they work for you and our futures.

This is a historic time. We have a huge opportunity to move past the 19th century’s Industrial Revolution to smarter ways of producing energy. Now, more than ever, it’s vital our elected officials are working for us and our children, not corporations.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Better Education

Last week I mentioned one of my heros, David Orr. He runs the Environmental Studies Program at Oberlin College in Ohio and is responsible for the creation of their high performance building, The AJ Lewis Center.

What makes the building different?
It derived it's materials locally, cycles it's nutrients and runs on current solar power—producing more energy than it consumes. Yes, the upfront costs were greater and it took time to plan, but consider the total costs (annual operating costs, externalized costs, i.e. pollution, and hidden subsidies not used) and the building is a fraction the cost of a typical building.

More importantly, the building is more comfortable to be in, e.g. toxin-free. Most importantly, Oberlin uses the building as a teaching tool for it's students, from science to math, to history and economics.

What does it have to do with nature? It's modeled on how nature works.

The only thing crazy about the story is ten years after the building has been completed, there are not more buildings like this.

More on Orr:
David Orr argues for radical reform to our education. While nothing radical with that, Orr doesn't argue for change to better prepare a labor force for the global economy or to promote maximum upward mobility. Rather, Orr argues we've got to move past the Industrial Revolution and prepare students to create an economy that works on a planet with finite resources. In his words:

"The generation now being educated will have to do what we, the present generation, have been unable or unwilling to do: stabilize a world population which is growing at the rate of a quarter of a million each day; stabilize and then reduce the emission of greenhouse gases, which threaten to change the climate; protect biological diversity, now declining at an estimated rate of one hundred to two hundred species per day; reverse the destruction of rain forests, now being lost at the rate of one hundred and sixteen square miles or more each day; and conserve soils, now being eroded at the rate of sixty-five million tons per day. Those who follow us must learn how to use energy and materials with great efficiency. They must learn how to utilize solar energy in all its forms. They must rebuild the economy in order to eliminate waste and pollution. They must learn how to manage renewable resources for the long term. They must begin the great work of repairing, as much as possible, the damage done to the earth in the past two hundred years of industrialization. And they must do all of this while addressing worsening social and racial inequities. No generation has ever faced a more daunting agenda."*

*from "Environmental Literacy: Education as if the Earth Mattered."

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Last week I headed east for a wedding in Long Island. Needing an excuse to spend more time in NY, I scheduled a few school visits. While the schools were neat and the wedding a fantastic party, the highlight may have been a stop en route- Oberlin College in Ohio.

Not only did I get to see one of my heros, educator David Orr, and tour one of the highest performing buildings ever built, I was treated to the best damn asparagus of my life.

Just off Oberlin College's campus lies a 175-acre former commodity crop farm recently given new life. A few years ago, when housing developers nearly turned the depleted farmland into a cookie-cutter subdivision, Oberlin College stepped in and saved the day. The result: The New Agrarian Center at The George Jones Memorial Farm, a restored prairie and wetland with a small farm that grows real food.

The land had been a soybean and corn farm reliant on large doses of fossil fuels to make it go- from the production to the manufacturing to the distribution of processed foods. In the process, wildlife and jobs were eliminated, soil eroded and the air and water polluted.

Today, the land provides animal habitat, cleans local water, sequesters carbon and, in only a couple of acres, grows $60,000 worth of vegetables a year (by comparison, the same amount of land will yield less than $1,500 worth of corn). Just as importantly, it's a teaching tool. College kids intern on the farm and Cleveland elementary kids arrive by the busload to get their hands dirty. They learn about farming and ecology hands-on and are treated to some things kids don't get much of these days—real, local food, and knowledge of where it comes from.

I learned most of this from Director Brad (who pointed out the blue herons) and Educational Programmer Evelyn (who didn't mind me eating two asparagus for every one I picked)....Thank you!

P.S. I'll be back with the high-tech's closer to a living tree than it is to a traditional building.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Growing Green Minds: The Benefits of the Great Outdoors
Published in

Children benefit from time in nature outdoors. I spend as much time as possible with kids and see the results firsthand. Even if it’s just exploring in the backyard or at the park down the street, the outdoors provide an opportunity to engage all the senses -- see, hear, touch, taste and feel -- in a way electronics can’t. Kids exposed to nature early and often usually are more aware, have higher energy levels and increased levels of self-confidence. The evidence of needing nature for healthy childhood development is far more than just anecdotal.

Sample research findings:

Unstructured outdoor play provides excellent opportunities for cognitive, social, and emotional development in children (Burdette & Whitaker, 2005).
In a study of 400 youths, a majority reported that wilderness challenge programs had major positive impacts on their physical, emotional, and intellectual development and well-being (Keller & Derr, 1998).
Participation in green outdoor activities such as fishing was associated with reduced Attention-Deficit Disorder symptoms in a sample of children from the Midwest (Faber Taylor, Kuo & Sullivan, 2001).
Henry David Thoreau said: "...the more slowly trees grow at first, the sounder they are at the core, and I think the same is true for human beings." In other words, let kids be kids -- get them outside in unstructured activities so they can develop their affinity to bond with the natural world. Wander with toddlers while their imaginations soar and pay attention as elementary schoolers explore their expanding worlds.

Consider efforts to get your children hooked on nature to be an investment in your family’s health. Turn off the blackberry, put away the wallet and get outside! Getting involved is not as difficult as you might imagine. For ideas, visit:

The Chicago Wilderness' "Leave No Child Inside" program
The Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum
Chicago Botanic Garden is a North Shore gem and packed full of opportunities.
Make 2009 the year of connecting your kids to nature.

For our youth, nature and environmental education shouldn’t be about melting ice caps and disappearing rainforests. Contemporary environmentalist and place-based educator David Sobel sums it up: "If we want children to flourish, to become truly empowered, then let us allow them to love the Earth before we ask them to save it." For older children inspired to make a difference, consider our local Jane Goodall's Roots & Shoots organization.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Go Green, Ditch the Screens

In honor of Earth Week, last week millions of people around the world decided to put down their remote controls, shut off their laptops and make their way outside.

Today is the final day of Turn-off Week 2009, a worldwide event which lasted from April 20-26 and encouraged people to eliminate screen time in favor of a more rewarding, active life. Championed by the Center for Screen-Time Awareness (CSTA) and supported by national organizations like the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Education Association, Turn-off Week attracted about 5 million participants in the USA alone last year, and now, even though the official week has come to an end, you can (and should) join the movement.

Too much screen-time is physically and mentally unhealthy, but in the United States and many other industrialized countries we keep watching more and more television. The statistics are alarming. According to the CSTA Web site, the average American household has 2.55 people and 2.73 televisions, making us a nation of more television screens than people.

photo by Aaron Escobar

Here are some more interesting facts that may surprise you.

•Number of 30-second commercials seen in a year by an average child: 20,000
•Number of minutes per week that parents spend in meaningful conversation with their children: 38.5
•Number of minutes per week that the average child watches television: 1,680
•Percentage of children ages 6-17 who have TV's in their bedrooms: 50
•Percentage of day care centers that use TV during a typical day: 70
•Hours per year the average American youth spends in school: 900 hours
•Hours per year the average American youth watches television: 1500
•Percentage of Americans that regularly watch television while eating dinner: 66

As a nation, we need to find some balance in our lives. By simply switching off the screens for a bit, we have more time to read, see friends and exercise. You’ll probably find yourself feeling more energetic and more productive.

Why not give it a try? Extend your celebration of Earth Week by making it an every day commitment to appreciate more green with less screens.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Goodness of Green: When a little dirt and sunshine is just what the doctor ordered

After months of studying parenting magazines and agonizing over the perfect name, months of wondering what color her hair will be or if she'll have dimples, of daydreaming ahead to her enrollment at an ivy-league school or reception of the Nobel Peace Prize, when the big day comes and our baby finally makes her entrance into the world we are thrilled with the utterly simple: ten fingers, ten toes, and the realization that all that ever really mattered to us was holding a healthy, healthy child.

Holidays & Occasions
All parents want what's best for their kids, and after getting over the excitement of ten fingers and ten toes, most do everything in their power to give their children the right resources to learn and grow. Traditionally this has meant setting proper sleep schedules, providing nutritious meals or reading bedtime stories. But for the new, technology-savvy parents of Generation Y, the moms and dads who grew up in the internet-age of constant information, the right resources has come to mean interactive learning tools like Baby Einstein--a line of multimedia products for 3-month-olds to 3-year-olds that were designed to boost cognitive development. Hoping for the happiest, healthiest and brightest children, these parents put their trust in technology.

Babys hand on computer mouse

. .

Yet despite the marketing successes of Baby Einstein and other interactive products, studies overwhelmingly indicate that a new approach is needed. To be clear, the time has come to trade in the screens for a little bit of green.

In the early 1980s, Harvard University biologist Edward Wilson developed a theory of "biophilia," the idea that people have an innate affinity for the natural world. Removed from our natural environment, we face innate feelings of restlessness and alienation which may be detrimental to physical and mental health, and the same holds true for children.

Most of us have probably heard about these studies, about the results which confirm that unstructured outdoor play can improve children's psychological and bodily health by reducing stress, improving concentration and encouraging physical fitness. But did you know that nature actually has viable HEALING powers as well?

During the 1980s and 1990s, a number of studies showed that the mere act of looking at the outdoors can have direct benefits for hospital patients, office workers, prison inmates and car commuters. Indeed, a view of nature was found to help reduce blood pressure, headaches and illnesses, while also leading to greater job satisfaction among workers and quicker recovery rates for post-operative patients. It's not surprising, then, that doctors are increasingly issuing "green prescriptions," advising patients to battle their ailments with some exercise and time outside.

By looking at life through nature, or leaving our apartments and entering into life via nature, we gain a little bit of life ourselves. Just imagine how our kids might benefit.

So put away the Baby Einstein toys, turn off the television and go take your children outside. Enjoying nature can be as easy as walking out your front door and finding some chalk to play hopscotch, or encouraging a game of tag in the backyard. Take a look at some of these other fun activities for ideas.

Girl Playing with Grandmother

When it comes to helping our kids love nature, the options are endless and the need is real. Indeed, if you're looking to give them all the resources to grow and learn--to ensure the health you came to love years ago when you first counted those ten fingers and ten toes--a little dirt and sunshine is just be what the doctor ordered.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Just Write It Down

Today's Did You Know fact is a real doozie: There are 851 species of plants native to the Illinois plains. For those of you who thought that prairies were all boring swathes of dun-colored grass, think again: in springtime, the prairies are a veritable riot of color.

The smooth blue aster is but one of the many flowers that covers Illinois' prairies when spring arrives.

Your Miss is reminded of this fact because I keep somewhat of a loose illustrative journal, and in winter, it dies down to a big fat pile of words, whereas, in spring, summer, and fall, it is, on some pages, just a mess of ink and noise. I paste things in, draw macro illustrations of leaves and flowers, or just of funny patterns that I see on rocks or in the sky. I'm particularly fond of drawing in maps of where I am.

I am not skilled in the least, nor can I work in anything but pencil or pen, since I find carrying around a big clutch of writing utensils to be just too much for my rudimentary skills, but still--I jot it down.

A few of the Miss' past journals.

In short, I do everything I can to mark the scene. I'm fully aware that I can't duplicate everything I see, or even come close to it, but it's as if, in the very act of taking time to jot down a rough illustration of the things I've seen, I'm making that much more of an impression on my memory.

And it's true--these journals above are the ones in which I know where everything is. I can tell you that the one on the right, with the life cycle of a butterfly and the curiously tall drawing of a house, also has pasted into it a particularly charming photo of a dog. He's the oldest dog I know to have been adopted from an shelter, and his name is Charlie. (He has four teeth left.) I can tell you that the journal on the right has some really bad attempted illustrations of the Andes and some Amazonian plants from a trip I took to Ecuador.

I'm a writer by trade, so I can do this with some of the other journals I have, which are "illustrated" only with words, but the ones in which I've drawn are the ones that really matter as the materials that reference where, when, I was at a certain point in time. They add such a rich dimension to my memories.

The point is, of course, that, with 851 plants in the Illinois prairie system, and goodness knows how many across our United States--this is a great way to get your family deep into the stuff that makes up your surroundings. Drawing something leads to questions, a conversation, even, and remember, your drawings don't have to be terrific. (Don't be intimidated by gorgeous journals created by professional artists. They are amazing works of art, but every illustrated journal started somewhere, and your kids'--and yours--will have their own unique merits.)

This journal, from graphic designer Gay Kraeger, is something your Miss aspires to on a regular basis, but alas, she cannot draw birds. Or work in watercolor. Or do pretty lettering. Oh, well. (Journal copyright Gay Kraeger.)

Don't pluck anything out of the ground with the intention of pasting it into your book because you're frustrated that you can't reproduce it exactly on your page. When flowers and leaves dry, they don't look anything like they did when they were green and thriving, and anyway, your sketches will help you to remember what they looked like. (This advice comes from the heart. When I was much younger, I plucked things out and pasted them in with impunity, and all I'm left with is some loose scotch tape and some faint plant imprints.)

Do, however, encourage rubbings. Lay a page of your book over a rock or a leaf, or anything with texture, and use the flat side of a pencil or a crayon to rub over the page. You'll have a nice, unique memory of the way something looks like it feels--and that's just as nice, if not better than, having pebbles pasted into a book.

A leaf rubbing. When you're done, have your kids put the leaf back so that someone else can enjoy it.

You can get fairly inexpensive, recycled-stock bound books at any stationer or art store. Get something with a hard back, so you can hold it in your hand and doodle whatever you see in front of you. I like the Moleskine books, which are in the middle price range (although not of recycled stock) and come in a selection of sizes and styles. Invest in some good pencils and some nice erasers, find something pretty to look at, and draw away. Just a quick sketch will imprint the scene in your brain, at least until you see something else to draw--but then you will have something to look back on: Just turn back a page.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Say "Tata" to gas-guzzlers?

It's News Monday again, and we must confess to being a little slow on the uptake. However, your Miss has an excuse. She's been wrestling with just how to handle this wee little bit of news (and it is wee). In fact, it's so wee that you could probably fit all of it into a Mini Cooper.
Yes, we're talking cars here on the Green Sugar 'Blog today. Specifically, we're talking about the Tata Nano, a 30-horsepower, 52 miles-per-gallon critter that is only available in India and which only costs the equivalent of $3200. It's a sweet little beast that performs best where the traffic is slow and the streets are perpetually crowded. Still, it's got us thinking about the way we travel. The Nano only goes up to 45 miles per hour, which is great for city streets, but wouldn't do so well on our superhighways.

It's cute! It's orange! It's...a car?!

Although I'm already smitten with the Nano's friendly shape and, okay, yes, the idea of a car that uses such a small amount of gasoline and is still large enough to lug around a weeks' worth of groceries, there is something else that is stopping me from fully appreciating the net worth of this addition to the automotive world: It's an addition to the automotive world.
Look, I'm not knocking the Nano itself. I'm really more frustrated with the idea that there are so many people out there who think it's OK to drive the mile to the grocery store. (Your Miss grew up in Southern California. She knows from too much driving.)

The area covered by this map, which covers the Miss' home town of Claremont, CA, is maybe 10 square miles. That's a lot of car dealerships!

The thing is, millions of people in almost every major American city get by without cars. They either walk to the grocery store, pulling along a cart for the food haul if it's going to be a big one, or they get on that most wonderful of creations, the bicycle, for their short-haul trips to the many destinations that make up our lives: the post office, a visit to a friend, picking up something at the drug store.
I'm fully aware that many of us don't live in areas that allow for safe bicycle riding, or safe walking, even. And for those of us with kids, well, it often can feel like an added annoyance to bundle your child into his own bicycle, or, if the kid's young enough, to strap them into the Baby Bjorn, adding another 25 pounds to your own weight, before you head to the grocery store to ballast yourself with 15 pounds of groceries.
But the payoffs are multiple: You get a little exercise. Your child gets outside. Maybe you get to see part of the neighborhood you never discovered before, and from street-level, instead of SUV-level. Perhaps you'll even find it in you to lobby your local representative for better infrastructure all around, so that when your kids are old enough, they can safely hop on their own bikes, help you with the groceries.
The world doesn't need another car. Our immediate world, these United States, needs a better way for folks to get around. The incentives are already there.
Your Miss has one more confession to make before she leaves you until Did You Know? Thursday. I'm missing my own commuter bike, a sweet little mountain bike that's been with me to New York, California and Colorado, terribly. It was poached from our house by someone who I hope will use it to cut down on their own driving. Mmmhmmm. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A Little Raccoon Story

This week, for Did You Know? Thursday, we'll be exploring a little something called the raccoon.

We've all seen them: those incredibly intelligent-looking eyes; the very human habit of washing their food before they eat it; and those curiously adept paws. Almost no one I know can look at a raccoon picture without making an "Awwwww!" noise so enthralled, you'd think the raccoon came with a laugh track.
But we're not here to make you make noises. We're here to shed a little light on nature. Today's Did You Know? fact is on etymology: The raccoon's name comes from the Algonquin name for raccons, ahrah-koon-em. It means, literally, the one who rubs, scrubs, and scratches with his hands.
This makes sense, after all. Raccoons do almost everything with their front paws. And when you see them "washing" their food in the water? Well, it's been posited that that's another way for the raccoon to "see" its food, get a better sense of what shape it is, what kind of texture it is, much as a dog feels with his mouth, or we humans feel with our own hands.
Those dexterous paws! [Photo courtesy of alasam's flickr stream.]

So. Yes, we're happy we got to post cute photos, but what's the point? Well, all animals sense things in their own ways. You might think that we humans appreciate nature primarily by sight, but now that things are blooming and so much is happening around us, it's a good idea to exercise your other senses.
Your sense of smell is the strongest of all of your senses, believe it or not. Think about it: Don't you have great memories built entirely around smells from when you were a kid? Now's a great chance to give your child some memories that go way beyond what he or she sees.
One great way to do this is to take your child on a night-time walk in a park, or on a walk in the woods.
Pick a night with a full moon, stick to well-marked, clear paths, and enjoy the show. Keep it short, so no one gets scared--but turn out the flashlights, let everyone's night vision adjust, and just see what you can hear, sense, experience. No pun intended.
You'll find that there's a lot more to nature than you might have thought.
The last time your Miss did this, she spotted a raccoon sitting in the lower branches of a tree, looking right back at her.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Eating Our Way Through News Monday

Today, I'd like to dedicate the Monday news 'blog to the all-important subject of eating.

Consider it: This week alone your Miss found articles on the First Lady, writers, kids, and farmers, and they were all linked by one big subject: Food, and the way we consume it. Everyone from the White House down is concerned with what we're putting in our mouths, and that's a good thing. But then I found an article titled, "Eating Food That's Better for You, Organic or Not." (Link is below.) It was long, and it took me the better part of a cup of coffee to work through.

The article discusses the shortcomings of the organic label in the United States, and how confusing it can be to try and remedy that confusion while still letting "organic" mean something to the general consumer. It tackles the fact that organic food is still out of the price range of many supermarket shoppers, and it made the very important point that organic doesn't necessarily mean "good for you." And, then, finally, at long, long last, it talked about the concept of local food, but only then to make the point that "organic" doesn't mean "local."

I thought, geez, if it takes one adult human fifteen minutes to read through an article that basically only presents that problems with organic, kids must be totally frustrated.

Here's a solution: Go local first, organic second. In the first place, if we're all about getting back to food the way it's meant to be grown and consumed, doesn't it make sense to also consider what's natural for the land, and growing cycles? And in the second place, kids can learn about the very nebulous idea of organic in a super-tangible way: by looking at what grows best in their own backyard.

I speak figuratively, of course: In my household, we order from a CSA group. CSA stands for "community-supported agriculture," and while it's nice to know that we're supporting local businesses by buying from farms nearby, it's also wonderful that we're getting food that wants to be grown near us, as opposed to being force-grown, in a greenhouse, or in a different state, or country. I like the idea that I'm getting, for instance, root vegetables and dark, leafy greens in the winter, as opposed to delicate romaine lettuces that have no business surviving a hard winter, and endive that had to be shipped in from Mexico.

These are vegetables that belong in winter.

These are vegetables that don't.

Eating organic is something to aspire to, and something every kid should know about at some point, for sure. But this is a great opportunity to teach them about their immediate surroundings, and teach them what belongs there--naturally. (Your Miss is reminded of the unfortunate day she found out that her assistant, who'd grown up in New York City, had no idea what a chickadee looks like. New York City, of course, is a major birding mecca.)

This is a Chickadee. Now you know, too.

Find out what the folks who lived here so long ago, before there were trucking lines and airplanes, lived on. Take a look at our history, learn from it. And, this winter, when the ground is hard and frost covers your window, cook up a parsnip. And when it's hot and sticky in the summer, find an eggplant, saute it with some cherry tomatoes. Your kids will find out right fast: It was meant to grow in the season you're buying it, it'll taste miles better, and it won't have traveled miles to get to you.

Read the article I did at the New York Times.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

I Know Why the Migratory Bird Sings

...with apologies to Miss Toni Morrissey, I find non-caged birds to be ever so much more interesting than caged birds.
Today's 'blog post marks our first-ever Did You Know Thursday, and we'll learn something astonishing about some pretty impressive winged beasties.
When your Miss started work at Audubon magazine, years and years ago, she thought "birders" were little old ladies who stood outside staring up at trees. More likely than not, I thought, they used binoculars because they just couldn't see without them.
But then I started work there. And I realized that birding, as it was called, was a darned fine activity. You got outside; you got to learn something about the world around you, and if you were really cool, like an acquaintance of ours named Kenn Kaufman, you could do really cool, slightly sexy party tricks, like naming a bird from just one note of its song, without even blinking an eye or even looking at it.
Anyway, here's your fact of the day:
Purple martins, a species of bird, have been known to fly an average of 358 miles per day over 13 days during spring migration from Brazil to Pennsylvania.
I think about this bird particularly because it's an early migrater, and, here in Chicago, we sit smack in the middle of the Mississippi Migratory Flyway (below).

Now, while the purple martin does not specifically follow our migratory flyway, some other very impressive birds do: The American Golden Plover, for instance, flies over 50 hours straight--that's no sleep!--over 3000 miles, to get to where it needs to go. And the Eastern Kingfisher, a feisty little critter, summers in our area, starting its migration from South American in mid-April. (In fact, the Eastern Kingfisher is such a cranky bird that its scientific name is tyrannus tyrannus.)

Eastern Kingfisher. Cranky-pants.

So now that we've given you a sampling of some of the great birds you can find out there--and the amazing things they can do--feel free to share some of the knowledge with some young people. I don't think an entire generation of kids who think that birding's, well, for the birds would do anyone any good.
Here are some great birding resources to get you started:

Audubon's Great Backyard Bird Count
Cornell University's All About Birds

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Pillows and Sheets Will Do Just Fine, Thanks.

Hi everyone!
It's Monday, and it's also Green Sugar Press' blog's day for news.
We start off this week on an intriguing note: in my old haunts of northern Manhattan island in New York City, there lies a best-kept secret: Inwood Hill Park, home to Manhattan's only remaining old-growth forest. It's a special place where eagles have been reared, and it's rumored to be the spot where the Dutch purchased Manhattan Island from the local Indians. It was also one of your Miss' favorite places to run, there among the lush greenery and the old lamp posts and ghosts of history past.
This weekend, though, seventeen trees were cut down by either axe or machete. It's a terrifically sad story, but part of me just can't get past one line in a brief New York Times story this Sunday: the trees may have been cut down by kids looking to find wood to build forts with, or people looking to improve the views from their condos to the Hudson River.

This is the view from Inwood Hill Park. Didn't think you were still in New York, did you?

This makes your Miss very, very sad. First, since when are trees a lousy view? And second, well, second...well, I only ever built forts out of chairs and pillows.
This might because I grew up in the suburbs. But I think it's more because I grew up very, very lucky, with great people around me who knew the value of a good romp in the woods.
When I was in first grade, for instance, I had an extraordinary teacher. We did a lot with nature. We made leaf rubbings, and earrings out of fallen pine cones for our mothers. We took walks through the woods behind our school, and learned about the way that plants turn carbon dioxide into oxygen. The thing is, though, I don't recall these small forays into the outdoors as being classtime. I just remember them as being flat-out fun, except for the day I got my first bee sting, and even then I couldn't stop marveling at the way a small creature to make me feel such agony.
From that year on, I never could see nature as anything other than a living, breathing entity.
The New York City Parks Department is especially diligent about Inwood Hill Park, for obvious reasons. They work really hard to replant trees that have fallen due to natural or unnatural causes. This March, they have their work cut out for them.
Our work, too, is cut out for us. It's our job to take the next generation outside, let them see nature as a playmate, something to be treasured.
This week is going to be the warmest of the year for those of us living in Chicago. It's going to hit the mid-60s, and it's a perfect time a peek out of the windows, to watch things growing and breathing.
Whatever you do, be sure to tell someone else about it. Maybe they'll be able to see trees as more than raw material for a fort, or, oh, OH--maybe they'll get to see forest AND the trees.

Thursday, March 12, 2009


Hi everyone!
This is the blog of Green Sugar Press. You can find us online at, but keep an eye out here for news and updates, and to find out what's on our minds.
Our most regular posters are Miss Midwesterly, Green Sugar's resident writer, and Green Sugar himself, Tim Magner, the founder of our company and all-around green guy.
We publish great books on nature for kids, but we also love keeping in close touch with you here. So be sure to check in with us frequently.
Over the next few days we'll be rolling out some transplants from our old 'blog and some fun features here. So keep your eyes peeled...we're happy to see you!

The Green Sugar Team

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Recess getting some respect!

Colombia, Mud
The opening line from Tara Parker-Pope's article says it all: "The best way to improve children’s performance in the classroom may be to take them out of it."

Not only can kids perform better with more breaks (unstructured time outdoors), but they learn while playing.

If I had only kept track of all the parents, teachers and administrators that have given me excuses as to why there isn't more it here:

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Al Gore and Global Warming

Colombia, Mud
Last night, in Chicago, Al Gore gave another one of his slide shows. This time it was to an enormous crowd of scientists (and at least one person who struggled with high school chemistry). The pictures and graphs painted a gloomy scenario—unless we change our ways and change them fast. Al did ask each and every member of the audience to get involved in policy, but didn't take questions....

Despite a small percentage of fringe "scientists" who still sow doubts in the media, the debate is over—the climate is changing. The "scientists" in doubt are of the same lineage of scientists who in the 16th century clung to the idea the earth was flat and the sun revolved around us.

We're all busy, and to make matters worse the economy is in a tailspin. Do we have to become 'sustainable' too? There is already to much on my to-do list? Can we put off making another sacrifice?

Our solution lies in NATURE. GDP may take a hit in the short-term, but we can improve quality of life in the near-term and over the long-haul.

1.We adults need time away from the grind. Take a break and get outside with the kids.

2.Children need unstructured outdoor activity for healthy childhood development. Just like they need food and water, they need time to wander, wonder and explore with the world they're connected with. It's in our genes and part of who we are. Plenty of research says it also leads to happier and smarter kids.

A fantastic resource:

3.Nature will show us a better way. I'm not talking about going back to nature, but, rather, the end of the industrial revolution into a smarter way to live. Waste and pollution may have been OK 200 years ago when we were short labor and long natural resource, but if we want innovation and job growth we'll cut taxes on labor and put a price on pollution. Our consumption economy faces a dead-end future unless we redesign what we consume. Imagine a world without landfills and as the children of the world redesign this future, save money by becoming more efficient

Over and Out,
Green Sugar :)

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Making the world a better place, and having fun doing it.

Colombia, Mud
A beautiful poem and worth thinking about
when living your life— or influencing children.
And chances are, you're influencing children
more than you realize.

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;

If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with wornout tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: 'Hold on!'

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings - nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run -
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man my son!

Rudyard Kipling

Monday, February 2, 2009

Dirt is good for you!

Colombia, Mud
After becoming mildly depressed reading of continued corporate welfare in the Wall Street Journal, I checked the NY Times for something good. I hit gold in the Personal Health section with an article on dirt! While it stops short of advocating adding dirt to the dinner table, the author points out there are as many negatives associated with being too clean as there are with being too dirty. In sum: letting kids explore is necessary for healthy childhood development!

HEALTH | January 27, 2009
Personal Health: Babies Know: A Little Dirt Is Good for You

Since all instinctive behaviors have an evolutionary advantage or they would not have been retained for millions of years, chances are that this one too has helped us survive as a species. And, indeed, accumulating evidence strongly suggests that eating dirt is good for you.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Winter Fun...

Colombia, Mud
My long underwear haven't got this much use since I lived in Colorado and skied for a living. Unfortunately, I no longer live in the mountains and when it snows I shovel.....

We haven't seen temperatures above freezing for far too long and a lot of parents are asking—what do we do with kids when it's cold outside?

Set aside some time, bundle up and get outside! (note: wear layers)

Stay warm with plenty of moving:
*sledding (and running back up the hill)
*set up an obstacle course and have races or activities like seeing who can jump the farthest in the snow.

If you have a quiet woods to walk through:
*observe and make note of the differences between summer and winter.
*which local animals are active during winter? follow tracks. can you find animal homes?
*if you're warm enough, consider hunkering down, listening to the sounds and sketching what you see and writing about the experience, i.e. what you see, smell, hear, touch etc.

Just outside your back door:
*make peanut butter and seed covered pine cone bird feeders and hang within viewing distance
*is there enough snow to make snow forts? or to tunnel under the snow?

Mix it up with outdoor activities at the local park district or places like the local botanic garden or zoo. A simple online search might keep you busy for weeks. Or partner up with other families that might have other ideas or places to visit.

Through it all, remember, while it may seem like a hassle (we're busy, the kids are comfy on the couch, it's tiring, etc) make the commitment. If we need time away from "the modern world," developing kids need it more! So, for stronger minds, stronger bodies and great sleep—get outside!

Don't try, do it,
Tim :)

P.S. I'll admit it—I need a new picture. This one is nearly a year ago, taken during a trip in a mud bath at the top of a volcano in Colombia last February...