fabulous autumn nature exchange


I spent every summer of my elementary school life attending Crystal Lake Nature Day Camp. We spent all day outside at a park, learning to swim, making crafts, playing games, and singing the usual camp songs. But my favorite part of the day was right after lunch – the Trading Post. You could bring cool nature stuff you had found to the Post and trade for something else. There wasn’t a strict economic system, but you had to pick something that was generally equivalent in awesomeness to your item. Like, you couldn’t trade a cool rock for a seashell – a prized rarity in landlocked central Illinois – you’d have to bring something like an arrowhead or a fossil if you wanted the shell. I loved the Trading Post so much that when I was 10 or 11, my friend Frances and I started our own trading post. It was awesome – after pooling our resources, we had the most amazing nature collection in camp and the power to deny or approve any trade. The only drawback came at the end of summer when it was time to divvy up our spoils. It nearly came to blows, but fortunately we were able to settle the custody of the shells, rocks, sticks, seeds, and stones with a good old-fashioned fingernail gouging catfight. (Don’t worry, we hugged it out later.)


So it is with that passion for collecting interesting natural items that I invite you to participate in The Fabulous Rainy Day Riot Autumn Nature Exchange! What is it? It’s a fun, pen pal-like exchange where you fill an egg carton with natural items from your local area, and mail them to someone far away, and then you get a carton of stuff from where they live in return! I first heard of this idea on the lovely and sadly defunct blog Rhythm of the Home. We participated in a nature exchange a couple of years ago, and we received so many cool things from a friend in northern California. Oak galls! Weird skinny California-style acorns! Palm tree seeds! My kids were so excited they seized everything out of the carton and ran off with it before I could even finish matching all the items with their identifying labels. Some were dissected and investigated, others preserved with care. The surviving items served as everything from fodder for our science table to a Thanksgiving centerpiece to characters in an elaborate storytelling game.


Picking up interesting ephemera to save for later is a universal impulse of childhood. Just the act of collecting itself is immensely pleasurable, both for children and adults. I often have to curb my children’s desire to bring home things from a state park or nature preserve to show Papa. And whenever we take walks around our neighborhood (or often even our own yard!), we come home with all pockets full.


The Rhythm of the Home blog post I mentioned above has some excellent tips for doing a nature exchange, such as the idea to wrap delicate items in tissue paper, don’t collect from protected areas, and be careful not to include any invasive species in your collection. I’d like to add a tip of my own for collecting: double down. Collect two of everything. Since it’s best to gather only things which are abundant in the environment, it’s usually not too hard to find another of each neat item you choose for your collection. Finding a second one of each treasure can also add a fun element of challenge to the endeavor. Best of all, you get to keep a set of all the neat things you found. It’s an especially good idea if your kids tend to get particularly attached to their finds, as mine do.


If you’d like to participate in the nature exchange, please email me at rainydayriotblog@gmail.com with your name and address by September 30, and I’ll pair you up with somebody from a different region. Let me know in your e-mail if you’d be interested in exchanging with someone outside the US! Please keep in mind the following guidelines:

1. Each collection should contain about a dozen items. An egg carton is a good reminder of the size/quantity the collection should be, as well as good packaging for protecting it on its postal journey.

2. Gather your collection from unrestricted locations (i.e. not state parks, nature preserves, or other protected areas).

3. Be careful not to send any invasive species, and please keep your exploration of the stuff you receive indoors, just in case. If you’re sending something that might harbor bugs or larvae, such as acorns or pinecones, you can prevent hitch-hikers by treating your items to a couple of hours in a 175-degree oven, as described in this post.

4. Collections should be mailed to your exchange-pal by October 31, 2014.

5. If you’re so inclined, please share photos of your collection, or the one you receive, to the nature exchange flickr group: The Rainy Day Riot Nature Exchange.

Happy hunting!


forest bathing in southeast vermont

woodsSo, summer’s hurtling to a close, kids are back in school, and I’m actually wearing a cardigan – A CARDIGAN, PEOPLE! – as I type this. We had so much fun exploring new places this summer that I have decided to make a weekly hike or nature walk part of our fall routine. Places we visited this summer are bound to look quite different and maybe even more beautiful come fall. I’m gonna let you in on a few of the hidden gems we have discovered here in the southeast Vermont/southwest New Hampshire/western Massachussetts area. If you’re within an hour’s drive of any of these spots, I highly recommend! There’s nothing like walking through the dappled forest light, smelling the piney fall air, and being forced by your young charges to stop and examine each and every weird mushroom along your path. Just make sure you bring your bug spray and your patience – a one-mile trail recently took us 3.5 hours to traverse, what with the snack stops, the flower-sniffing, acorn-scrutinizing pace, and the frequent detours to look for wildlife.

Speaking of wildlife, one of our most memorable summer hikes was at the wonderful Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary in Easthampton, MA.

Featuring five miles of trails, including the easy loop trail around this vernal pool, Arcadia is a great place to enjoy wildlife of both the flora
puffball mushroom

and fauna variety.collage

Plus it has this cool lookout tower treehouse thing!lookout tower

Our most local hiking spot – like, we can walk to it from our house local – is Mt. Wantastiquet, just across the river in Hinsdale, NH. If you go there after a heavy rain, the waterfall near the trail entrance is even prettier than it is here:DSC03349

Wantastiquet is also a good place to spot wildlife. Researching a little for this blog post I found out that apparently, Mt. Wantastiquet is also known as Rattlesnake Mountain. Pretty sure this cute little guy is not one, but perhaps best to keep one’s distance just in case.DSC03416

If you want to get up close and personal with Mother Nature, maybe try a tree instead.DSC03428

Or a mushroom.DSC03438

We found these weird little fungus-like plants, which I later learned are commonly known as Indian Pipe. They’re actually kind of rare plants that grow on a fungus that lives near beech trees, and live totally without chlorophyll. However my three year-old daughter insisted they were a species called “Cylene oxide.” World class science BS-er, that one.DSC03466


On the opposite side of Mt. Wantastiquet is the charming ruin known as the Madame Sherri Forest.9103893113_92098d7b21_k

Madame Sherri, the former owner of this once lavish estate, was a Parisian singer, a costume designer for Broadway, and a die-hard party girl. After her husband died, she bought this 513-acre parcel of land in Chesterfield NH and had a huge, castle-y mansion built. The woods are beautiful and full of wildflower plants like this mountain laurel.mountain laurelProbably won’t see much laurel blooming in the fall, but this is also supposed to be a terrific site for enjoying the autumn foliage.

My kiddos always love exploring aquatic habitats and there’s plenty to see here as the Anne Stokes Loop trail that goes to the castle ruin passes right by Indian Pond, where you can see frogs, dragonflies, and beaver dams, just for starters.9103889141_abcb615749_k

And it’s always fun exploring what’s left of the stone foundation.madame sherri castle

Apparently, Madame Sherri was somewhat notorious, not only for her wild parties full of *GASP* theater people, but also for her pet monkey and her habit of attiring herself in nothing but a fur coat. She’s pretty much the most flamboyant character to ever live in Brattleboro, and that’s saying a lot. That’s right, I said Brattleboro. By the 50s she had fallen on hard times, and ended up becoming a ward of the town and moving to a rest home in West Bratt. Several years later, her house in Chesterfield burned to the ground, except for the stone foundation and stairway. She died a pauper, with only six people attending her funeral. A biography of her came out a couple years ago, written by New Hampshire author Eric Stanway, and if this Keene Sentinel article is any indication, it is juicy as hey-all. Sounds like Grey Gardens meets Mae West, with a touch of Kurt Weill. Sign me up. Oh, and PS, there are also rumors that she ran a brothel out of her castle.

Somewhat annoyingly, although I guess in the spirit of the original house, the ruin seems to be a favorite spot of revelers. The last time we were there, there was a lot of broken glass and trash left on top of the ruin. My son has deemed himself a litter hero and decided that next time we come we will bring a canvas bag and remove all the garbage that other folks left behind. We have tried this on a couple other hikes we’ve gone on and it always feels good to leave things nicer than we found them, although I think it is giving my little garbage collector superhero delusions of grandeur. As we emerged from the woods with a small bag of second-hand trash, he turned to me and earnestly asked, “Are we famous now?”

On to more wholesome hiking locales, coming home from Walpole NH (home of both Alyson’s Orchard and the mouthwatering L. A. Burdick Chocolates) one day, we stumbled across the lovely Ruth C. Warwick Nature Preserve in Westmoreland. Late May was a great time to enjoy the wildflowers the Warwick preserve is known for – we stumbled across quite a bit of trilliumtrillium

and this Jack-in-the-Pulpit, which looks like something straight out of an Uncle Wiggily story (though how a rabbit could possibly hide in one is still beyond me).DSC08144

There’s also a little stream that runs down the hill, from a spring that the eponymous Ruth Warwick had cleared to provide water for the animals that live in the woods. Perfect for some light stomping and splashing in.hiking warwick nature preserve

We spent Labor Day hiking the trail around Sweet Pond State Park  in Guilford VTDSC00765

Tons of cool sensory forest experiences to be had there.DSC00768

I always love how baby pine(?) trees grow so close together they look like a miniature forest.DSC00772

The trail is a 1.3 mile almost-loop (you have to walk about a quarter mile down the road to get back to the parking area) next to what used to be an large pond. The pond was created in the 1800s when developers built a dam in the Keats Brook to power a mill, but it was recently drained due to concerns about the structural integrity and safety of the dam. Apparently there are plans to repair the dam and restore the pond eventually. For now, it’s become an 18-acre marshy wetland in the middle of the woods that has pretty much the most awesome echo I’ve ever experienced. There are several vista offshoots from the main trail, and the kids and I took one to climb out on this fallen tree and sing at the top of our lungs into the echoing meadow.DSC00859

The edge of the pond was rich with little late summer wildflowers, including these little orange lovelies that I keep seeing everywhere, including at the edge of the woods behind my son’s elementary school. Anybody know what they’re called?DSC00883

Of course, you can’t talk about hikes in and around Brattleboro without mentioning Fort Dummer and the Brattleboro Retreat Trails. Our favorite kid-friendly hike on the Retreat Trails is the path past the cemetery up to the haunted tower. Sounds deliciously spooky, doesn’t it? Perfect for a late October outing!5876515623_f3d41662aa_b

The woods are very pretty and lush, and this hike is fairly short though it gets pretty steep at the end. But I’ve taken 2 year olds on it multiple times with no trouble.9162177629_b272c219ad_k

Oh, did I mention the tower was built by patients at the Vermont Asylum for the Insane (now known as the Brattleboro Retreat)? And yes, it’s supposedly haunted.6434554585_389b11f942_b

The tower is usually locked, but if you’ve ever been curious what it looks like inside, or from the top, somebody made a video and youtubed it:

In November, we’ll do our annual Lantern Walk down the sunset trail at Fort Dummer.10769919035_007d20ef10_k

Fort Dummer originated as a British fort pre-dating the Revolutionary War by about 50 years, used in a conflict between New England and a confederacy of Native American tribes who were allied with New France, called Dummer’s War. It’s named for William Dummer, who was the governor of Massachussetts (which what’s now Vermont was then a part of) at that time. Um, yeah, that may be the most confusingly worded sentence of all time. Three tries and that’s the best I can do. Nowadays, it’s a 218-acre state park, with beautiful vistas for watching the sun set (and rise, if you’re the type of person who goes on hikes at sunrise, which I decidedly am not).10089968306_09e0d29d57_k

Fort Dummer is also a great place to visit for the petless dog lover. I’m not really a dog person but my kids so are, and it always makes them so happy to encounter dogs, as we always do, who are taking their people for a walk through the Fort Dummer park. If you decide to do a late afternoon/early evening hike, this is a great place for it but make sure to bring a flash light. Darkness falls quickly as autumn draws on, and there are a lot of roots crossing the trail for you to trip over if you’re not careful.

Happy hiking, and remember, take nothing but pictures (and trash), leave nothing but footprints!

adventures in cardboard

Ahhhh, beautiful, precious cardboard. Is there anything it can’t become? Our recycling bin is one of our most shopped sites for art materials and entertainment, in fact my son recently forbade me from throwing away any cardboard box, EVER. These kids love cardboard so much that despite having two cutely outfitted twin beds, they have recently taken to even sleeping in it.sleeping in a box

Other past cardboard ventures include fairy houses,toilet paper roll fairy houses

toilet paper roll critterstoilet paper roll bat

a viking longshipcardboard viking ship

a submarine and crewcardboard submarine

a deep sea dioramadeep sea diorama

a plethora of birthday party decorations over the years, including dinosaur lawn decorationspainting a cardboard ankylosaurus

and a great white shark beanbag tossshark beanbag toss

and hilariously, an iPad.cardboard ipad

cardboard ipad

Yes, we’re those mean parents who won’t get their kids a tablet. (I spend enough energy setting and enforcing screen time limits as it is.) They love to play games on their grandparents’ ones, and my son tries to create analog versions of his favorite apps to play back at home.

Some of his best efforts have been “Dino Maker,” a mix-n-match game that lets you select a head, front, back, and tail to create your own dinosaur species

dino maker cardboard ipad app

“Ant Squish,” where you use your fingers to squish the ants as they rotate around the tablet, and make their pipe cleaner guts spill out, but avoid touching the wasps or you lose your turnant squish cardboard ipad app

And “Medic,” where you remove construction paper tumors from the patient’s brain.cardboard ipad app - brain surgery

playing the cardboard ipad

Most readers of this blog have probably seen the amazing video Caine’s Arcade, featuring a mind-blowing game arcade created completely out of cardboard and recyclables by (then) 9-year old Caine Monroy. If you haven’t then it’s required viewing before scrolling on to the rest of this post:

I watched, and rewatched it a couple of years ago when it came out but what I didn’t realize until recently is that it had a huge impact beyond the viral popularity of the video. Donations flooded in for a college fund for Caine (currently at almost $240,000!) and the filmmaker ended up starting a foundation to promote this kind of creative play for kids. It’s called the Imagination Foundation and they also host an annual event called the Global Cardboard Challenge where kids are invited to make anything their imaginations can dream up out of cardboard and other recyclables.

We actually went to a very similar event recently, sponsored by The Play Workshop, a new non-profit organization in Northampton, MA, that is working on bringing a permanent adventure playground to the area. If you read that Atlantic article The Overprotected Kid about adventure playgrounds last spring, then you’re probably as excited about this prospect as I am! A place for kids to play independently, constructing their own play structures out of loose parts. Healthy learning about risk-taking! Self-expression! The pride and excitement of creating things for themselves! I long for my kids to have the kind of free-wheeling childhood I did, and while there were no European-style loose parts playgrounds involved, there was a heck of a lot more independent, unsupervised play than is considered normal, or even legal, today. Less helicoptering, more Roxaboxen. I have a lot to say about the trend toward constant supervision ’til high school, actually, but that’s pretty far off track from what I meant to talk about here, which is my passionate love of cardboard.

So The Play Workshop’s eventual plan is to create an adventure playground in the Pioneer Valley, but until they reach that goal, they are putting on these pop-up adventure playgrounds, where the loose parts are easily transportable stuff like, you guessed it, cardboard boxes and recyclables!pop up adventure playground 3

My kids had a great time exploring other children’s forts and joining in their play,pop up adventure playground 1

as well as making some improvements to them.pop up adventure playground 2

and making some constructions of their own.pop up adventure playground 4

They even built a teeter totter out of an old cable spool and a long board!pop up adventure playground 5

What my three year-old lacks in cardboard building skills, she more than makes up for in imagination. She adopted this scrap of box and declared it her pet tiger, carrying it around with her for a good 30 minutes.

pop up adventure playground 7

And both kids seemed to get as much enjoyment out of the clean-up process as they did the building and exploring part, utilizing this pile of flattened boxes as a trampoline.pop up adventure playground 8

I want to finish by sharing my favorite resource on cardboard and kids. The amazing and inspirational LiEr of Ikat Bag wrote this awesome cardboard manifesto a few years ago, and it is basically the bible of how to make stuff out of cardboard with your kids. What kind of cardboard to use for what purpose, how to cut it, how to bend it, how to fasten it, and links to a bunch of tutorials of cardboard toys she’s done, including the cool viking ship we made (above) and dozens of other great things.

Oh, and I can’t end this post without my all time best favorite movie about kids and cardboard ever:

Happy Cardboard Adventures!