I admit it. This summer, I failed to print out the math review worksheets for RocketteGirl and Lightning McQueen.
I know, I know – bad dad! But, wait, hear me out.
Like most kids these days, when they weren’t at swim practice, Tae Kwon Do, or on fun trips with family, my rising 2nd- and 4th-grade girls’ summer schedules were packed with exhausting week-long, all-day camps.
Part of me regrets that I didn’t make more of an effort to have my kids study this summer, but another bigger part of me is confident of three things:
- My Nerds are pretty sharp cookies and quick studies – they’ll get back into math soon enough this fall;
- I’m not a perfect dad, but I try my best to do the right Nerd thing when possible; and
- While they weren’t hunkered down scribbling answers on formal math worksheets or diligently flipping flashcards over the past 10 weeks, they got a sneaky-good dose of STEAM curriculum and creativity in virtually everything they did over the break.
STEAM Is Everywhere
Imperfect as it may have been for me to forget the math review, I was still pretty good at helping identify and emphasize informal STEAM lessons whenever and wherever they popped up. Some creative learning opportunities were conveniently – and purposely – built into the kids’ summer camp agenda (drama camp at Imagination Stage and Young Naturalist camp at Potomac Overlook Regional Park) as well as most of our family outings (like tackling the “Labyrinth” ropes course at Sandy Spring Adventure Park and exploring the eclectic Mansion on O).
But, by far, one of our favorite ways we incorporated creative science and math into our summer activities this year was with a trip to Florida and Siesta Key for the first time. Why? Simple:
- The Gulf Coast beaches are very different from the Atlantic beaches they know and love; and
- We experienced new & unfamiliar wildlife* up-close and personal.
In this new and fascinating environment, our girls’ curiosity was instantly engaged. RocketteGirl and Lightning McQueen drove discussions on all the interesting characteristics of the geography as well as its diverse flora and fauna.
A few local attractions made it easy to immerse ourselves in the South Florida ecosystem, including Sarasota Jungle Gardens and the Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium. We even caught a Red Sox-Rays game at Tropicana Field, where, surrounded by 15,000 70-and 80-somethings on “Senior Thursday,” we discussed poor ballpark engineering decisions, including putting a baseball-camouflaging white roof and several low-hanging catwalks above the field of play.
Here’s a quick summary of the myriad other STEM discoveries and encounters we enjoyed during our grand tour of Siesta Key and Sarasota:
- Lizards and snails everywhere. You had to watch your step to dodge the Anole lizards scurrying around the condo property where we stayed. Anole lizards come in many sizes and colors – mostly shades of green, brown, and gray. Like chameleons, they can change to approximate the color of their surroundings. In contrast to the lightning-quick Anole, groups of large terrestrial snails gathered along flower bed walls and sidewalks adorned in shells not unlike those we found along the beaches. Thankfully, we never crossed paths with one of these!
- Kinder, gentler beaches. The beaches we visited along our stretch of the Gulf of Mexico coastline (Siesta Beach and Turtle Beach) are much wider and have sand that’s softer, whiter, cooler to the touch, and finer than the Atlantic beaches we usually go to on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. The Gulf Coast sand is made of white quartz crystals washed down from the Appalachian Mountains. It’s so fine that it literally squeaks beneath your feet. In addition, the surf and currents in the area are extremely gentle, which means you don’t get the same crashing waves and beach erosion as occur along the Atlantic Coast. So, beachcombing for seashells was more fruitful for the kids in Siesta Key since the shells stay intact.
- Strange birds. There seemed to be a wider, more exotic variety of birds commonly found in populated places. For instance, we spotted a heron in the parking lot at a Publix supermarket. And these flamingos, although housed in the bird sanctuary at the Jungle Garden, might as well have been pigeons in a Washington, DC park they were so “friendly” or, rather, eager to be hand-fed.
- ‘Tis the season! Apparently, late August is prime time for fighting conch breeding. It’s a good thing the waters in Siesta Key are crystal clear because we needed that visibility to keep from tripping over the thousands of occupied conch shells on the prowl. The kids got a kick out of picking up the critters to find two eyeball stalks staring back at them. After getting a good look at them, my girls said they’d never let us order conch fritters again. It’s a shame.
- Nothing like cool aquarium fun on a hot day. With the heat index well over 100, we ventured to the Mote Aquarium to enjoy its (mostly) indoor exhibits and marine lab. The girls not only saw several creatures they’d never seen up-close before, like manatee, sea dragons (related to seahorses), and the yellowhead jawfish (which holds all its babies in its mouth), but also got hands-on with some rays, starfish, and baby sharks. They learned about coral bleaching, reef conservation, and marine life rehabilitation. Mote also offers a number of experiential field activities and tours.
- Hello, Dalí! The Dalí Museum is just down the street from Tropicana Field, on the waterfront of Tampa Bay. In addition to the museum’s amazing architecture, permanent collection of nearly 100 Dalí original paintings and other assorted surreal objects, it has a small but spectacular outdoor gallery. On display in what’s known as the “Avant-Garden,” next to a giant sculpture of Dalí’s trademark mustache, is a hedge labyrinth. Next to that is a physical representation of the mathematical constant pi (π) created with 29 stepping stones. According to the museum’s website, “The Mathematical Garden allows students to experience the relationship between math and nature.”
So, would it have been better to have printed out the review packets and at least had the kids dig into them during our flights to and from Tampa?
But by putting a little forethought into our summer camp schedule and enriching our beach vacation itinerary, we worked in plenty of real-world science, technology, arts and, yes, even a little math to stimulate our kids’ well-rounded noggins. I think we can all live with that.