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Patterns

Late winter in New England means a kind of limbo between seasons. You never know what it will be like out — snow or mud or something in between. So when I was preparing for a visit to my twin daughters’ classroom to teach a winter science lesson, I had to be flexible. The class had been working with patterns as a part of an art project making quilt squares. At home, we had become fascinated with quilts, reading and rereading Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois written by Amy Novesky and illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault [Editor’s note: read the Magazine‘s starred review and Susan’s own review]. Bourgeois’s art reflects elements in nature such as rivers and spiders, and it occurred to me that this would be a wonderful way to connect the art project to things observed outside. For the upcoming lesson, I had planned to bring the students out to look at patterns of tracks in the snow, both from animals and from the kids’ snow boots. But, the snow did not cooperate (by sticking around long enough) for that exercise.

Instead, I started the lesson by talking about snowflakes, which are full of neat symmetries. I shared The Story of Snow: The Science of Winter’s Wonder  written and with photos by Mark Cassino, with its crystalline photos of different types of snowflakes (see my previous thoughts about this book). Scientists Cassino and his collaborator Jon Nelson share scientific details about the formation of these crystals without being too complex. We looked at the iconic star shaped ones as well as the tiny cylindrical crystals formed in the coldest of temperatures. We spent a moment brainstorming what other patterns we might see outside. “Pinecones,” said one student. “Bark,” said another. I didn’t even have those on my list of possibilities! Once outside, they continued to notice patterns everywhere — in the clouds, in the ice, and in fallen leaves.

Needing to warm up a bit, we decided to see what human patterns we could make, including a spiral, a pair of stripes, and a circle alternating boys with girls. Next, I divided them up into groups of six to make human snowflakes. One group held mittened hands in the center of a circle, another lay on their backs with feet in the air, and a third sat up back to back and raised their arms over head. Each one as unique as a snowflake.

We followed up in the classroom by asking the students to create their own nature patterns with simple supplies. We started with a piece of white paper and color pencils. When a student asked for scissors and tape, I thought she might cut out a snowflake, but I was surprised instead to see her make her paper into a tube and with slits cut in it. She unrolled it and rubbed her pencils over the newly formed bumps in the paper to make a wave-like pattern. We ended the experience with an indoor “nature walk” where everyone shared their creations, all of them different and all full of imagination.

Books mentioned

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois written by Amy Novesky; illus. by Isabelle Arsenault (Abrams, 2016)

The Story of Snow: The Science of Winter’s Wonder by Mark Cassino with Jon Nelson (Chronicle, 2009)

Visit Susan’s blog for more of her thoughts about these and other nature-themed picture books.

Susan Olcott About Susan Olcott

Susan Olcott lives in Maine with her husband and six-year old twin girls. She's played on lobster boats while getting her M.S. in Marine Science, designed and led snorkeling and kayaking tours in San Diego for the Scripps Institute of Oceanography and Birch Aquarium, taken kids on bike tours in Europe and the U.S., and taught biology to military personnel in Sardinia, Italy.

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