By Katie O'Reilly
There's a fine art to setting a mindful example while also providing some good old-fashioned fun.
That's why Sierra scoured toy stores, tech startups, kids' outfitters and adventure companies for unique gifts that are gentle on the planet, but that also provide developing minds with truly exciting fodder. Behold some of 2017's most ethically conscious—and awesome—toys, games, gear and more.
We're all about encouraging kids to unplug, but at the same time, we can't ignore the fact that ours is an increasingly tech-dependent world. So, it doesn't hurt to instill the fundamentals of coding, engineering and STEM-centric problem-solving at a young age. The DIY Piper Computer Kit ($299) teaches kids aged 7-12 to assemble their own computers, and then code and program them. How? Through step-by-step instructions provided within the 3D worlds of popular computer games including Minecraft and Raspberry Pi. (So no, yours will not be the dreaded "boring" educational gift). Because the Piper set gives kids an active role in the technology they use (as opposed to one of passive consumption), teachers have been utilizing it more in school settings. What's more, Apple Co-Founder Steve Wozniak endorses it.
The best way to get kids jazzed about nature, science and gardening? Growing a plant of one's own, of course. When his fifth-grade teacher gave him some seeds, Mark Chipkin grew his first plant—one that very memorably responded to his touch by dancing "like an animal." The experience got Chipkin so excited about the wonders of nature that he says it helped launch his career as a science teacher. He also went on to create TickleMe Plant greenhouse kits ($20), which contain everything kids need (soil, seeds, six pots and simple instructions) to grow indoor plants that are particularly interactive. Once they sprout, they close their leaves and lower their branches when tickled (or, as Sierra editors can attest, even merely touched). The kit also comes with "10 Fun Activities" for the TickleMe plant, as well as packaging (made from recycled plastic) that acts as a mini-greenhouse. For an added eco-bonus, the soil is made from discarded coconut shells.
Nurture budding chefs' and foodies' interests with a cool gift that gives back: The Kitenge Child Apron ($20) from KAZI, a company that features goods crafted by African artisans, and whose profits help provide sustainable income to East Africa's rural poor. Normally wrapped around the heads or bodies of women in African villages, the multi-colored patterns used to create the Kitenge aprons (which are also available in adult sizes) showcase unique style, and carry special significance.
Foster an appreciation for the art of wood-carving at a young age with the gift of the Morakniv Rookie ($20), created by Swedish knife-makers who've been making professional carving tools since 1891. With a rounded safety tip and finger guard to prevent slipping—along with a small, spindle-shaped handle for small hands—this knife is specially designed for children.
Made from sustainably-harvested birch wood and non-toxic water-based inks, Modern Moose natural wood clocks ($49) teach kids the analog-era art of telling time. Available in the images of moose, sharks, foxes, suns and more, these old-school pendulum wall clocks also make for fun nursery and playroom decor.
For a classic toy that may well instill a planet-saving ethos, look no further than the Tonka Mighty Builders Rugged Recycle Truck Play Set ($30). The 25-set package comes with batteries, a 4-piece take-apart-and-build recycling truck, a driver figure, safety cones, a trash bin and 17 durable "Tonka Kid@Work" building blocks so kids aged 1+ can mix and match parts with other Tonka playsets to create their own vehicles. We vote this gift "Most Likely to Spark Some Formative Conversations About the Importance of Recycling."
Keep little feet comfortable year-round with 100 percent boiled wool, which is naturally moisture-wicking, temperature-regulating and breathable. Giesswein is an Austrian houseshoe-maker known for hand-crafted wool products that use zero synthetic glues, are colored with vegetable dyes, and dipped in natural latex. And they have a playful line of adorable (and machine-washable) children's slippers created in the images of dragons, reindeer, polar bears and many other adorable creatures. What's more, their non-skid soles are safe for wee ones, as is the secure fit. This dirt- and water-resistant gift, suitable for indoor and outdoor play, is ideal for preschoolers required to wear shoes indoors, and available in babies', toddlers and children's sizes up to 10. Our favorite is the Klein Leine model ($51), which turns kids' feet into doggies busy chewing bones.
The image of a shiny new bicycle beneath a garlanded tree has become iconic of the year-end gifting bonanza. Now, you can keep the trikes and little bikes of yesteryear out of landfills, thanks to Yuba Bikes, which offers the first kids' cargo bicycle built to grow with its rider—from 15 months to age six. The Flip Flop Balance Bike ($120) lets you start tots out on a low-frame setting. As they grow, you can flip the frame over to a higher setting (and even flip it back down for a younger sibling). Kids can load up the cargo hold with their adventure accoutrements of choice—be they rocks, toys or snacks. Best of all, the Flip Flop comes in a rainbow of solid colors and, for animal lovers, Giraffe and Cow prints, too.
Reposted with permission from our media associate SIERRA Magazine.
Sweden's reindeer have a problem. In winter, they feed on lichens buried beneath the snow. But the climate crisis is making this difficult. Warmer temperatures mean moisture sometimes falls as rain instead of snow. When the air refreezes, a layer of ice forms between the reindeer and their meal, forcing them to wander further in search of ideal conditions. And sometimes, this means crossing busy roads.
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By Aaron W Hunter
A chance discovery of a beautifully preserved fossil in the desert landscape of Morocco has solved one of the great mysteries of biology and paleontology: how starfish evolved their arms.
The Pompeii of palaeontology. Aaron Hunter, Author provided<h2></h2><p>Although starfish might appear very robust animals, they are typically made up of lots of hard parts attached by ligaments and soft tissue which, upon death, quickly degrade. This means we rely on places like the Fezouata formations to provide snapshots of their evolution.</p><p>The starfish fossil record is patchy, especially at the critical time when many of these animal groups first appeared. Sorting out how each of the various types of ancient starfish relate to each other is like putting a puzzle together when many of the parts are missing.</p><h2>The Oldest Starfish</h2><p><em><a href="https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/216101v1.full.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Cantabrigiaster</a></em> is the most primitive starfish-like animal to be discovered in the fossil record. It was discovered in 2003, but it has taken over 17 years to work out its true significance.</p><p>What makes <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> unique is that it lacks almost all the characteristics we find in brittle stars and starfish.</p><p>Starfish and brittle stars belong to the family Asterozoa. Their ancestors, the Somasteroids were especially fragile - before <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> we only had a handful of specimens. The celebrated Moroccan paleontologist Mohamed <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.palaeo.2016.06.041" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Ben Moula</a> and his local team was instrumental in discovering <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0031018216302334?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">these amazing fossils</a> near the town of Zagora, in Morocco.</p><h2>The Breakthrough</h2><p>Our breakthrough moment came when I compared the arms of <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> with those of modern sea lilles, filter feeders with long feathery arms that tend to be attached to the sea floor by a stem or stalk.</p><p>The striking similarity between these modern filter feeders and the ancient starfish led our team from the University of Cambridge and Harvard University to create a new analysis. We applied a biological model to the features of all the current early Asterozoa fossils in existence, along with a sample of their closest relatives.</p>
Cantabrigiaster is the most primitive starfish-like animal to be discovered in the fossil record. Aaron Hunter, Author provided<p>Our results demonstrate <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> is the most primitive of all the Asterozoa, and most likely evolved from ancient animals called crinoids that lived 250 million years before dinosaurs. The five arms of starfish are a relic left over from these ancestors. In the case of <em>Cantabrigiaster</em>, and its starfish descendants, it evolved by flipping upside-down so its arms are face down on the sediment to feed.</p><p>Although we sampled a relatively small numbers of those ancestors, one of the unexpected outcomes was it provided an idea of how they could be related to each other. Paleontologists studying echinoderms are often lost in detail as all the different groups are so radically different from each other, so it is hard to tell which evolved first.</p>
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