Why Family Style?
Last week I began trying out a new format for Woods and Wetlands. Given the pandemic situation, I couldn’t really see myself gathering a large group of children in one place and leaning in close to view every delightful discovery they made, nor helping with bandage application should someone need one, and definitely not hauling anyone out of the swamp when they inevitably fall in! So, I needed an adult who could do those things, and who better than their parents or caregivers!? Add to this the fact that kids missed the last 3 months of school and are losing out on valuable science learning. Solution? Woods and Wetlands for Families. I can offer guidance to parents and caregivers for future nature explorations and I can continue to share my love for this incredible planet of ours with the kids who are going to inherit whatever is left of the earth after we, ourselves, return to it. The following are my recollections of our first, two family sessions of Woods and Wetlands.
I met with a mom and her three children for our first session of W&W for Families. I wasn’t entirely sure how it would go. I am very comfortable with young children. However, I have never been quite as comfortable with their parents and I was a bit nervous. But at the same time, I have always wanted to find a way to support parents and caregivers in their parenting jobs. After all, being a Parent is probably the most important and difficult job there is!
Family Number 1
We met at the nearby Brower Lake Nature Preserve. This is a family whom I know slightly, and they live nearby to both the nature preserve and to me. Despite the fact that they had walked the paths of this preserve many times, they were unfamiliar with some of the most interesting features and I was only too glad to share my intimate knowledge built over 15 years of exploration in this particular woods! We parked our bikes at the entrance and promptly left the path in order to investigate down by the swamp where I have spent many a happy hour alone with nature and also with curious and enthusiastic groups of children. Where there is water, there is LIFE! (Clean water, anyway…)
The Trail Less Traveled
While I understand that too many feet going too often in any one place can cause damage to these natural habitats, I also know that the only way to fall head over heels in love with nature is to literally fall, head over heels INTO nature! In other words, kids need to experience everything first-hand and hands-on. Learning that happens with the body is recorded firmly in the brain. We are careful with nature, but we also sometimes get our hands muddy, clothes wet, and our hair full of twigs and leaves. We also learn to wear “Mud Gloves,” to safely handle any amphibians such as frogs, toads, or salamanders. I use every opportunity to also share ways we can be responsible in our interactions with nature, whether being cautious of causing soil erosion or making sure we don’t over-pick any plant or part of a plant that we wish to investigate.
We used our hour in the woods to follow a deer path to a place I call my, “Watching Log,” though the log has long since mostly decomposed and I now do my watching seated on a thick, horizontal curve of wild grapevine. I introduced the family to wintergreen leaves, noting their waxy appearance, and choosing only the lightest green leaves for their tenderness. A great way to make sure of what you have picked when trying it on your own is to tear the leaf up and give it a good sniff. We humans often forget to use our noses, inferior to most animals’ noses as they may be! But they can still give us information if we remember to practice more often. Scents are much more difficult for us to pick up, however, when we are constantly inundated with competing, chemical/artificial fragrances that most people use in their laundry, lotions, and other products. These same fragrances also are highly irritating to people with asthma or other respiratory conditions, and to people who are just highly sensitive to their surroundings. Unfortunately, we often require bug repellent near the wetlands and it can seriously impede our sense of smell.
We looked at a tiny sassafras tree seedling and we sniffed its lemony leaves and root-beer flavored root. As we walked along the edge of the swamp we heard frogs plopping into the water just ahead of us, one after another. After a while we crossed the woods to the other swamp where I introduced the family to May Apple plants and a beautiful log/tree that extends into the swamp. Their mom was immediately taken with the tree that had clearly fallen but found a way to grow new trees right out of its trunk. I noticed in each of the two, separate sessions that both moms found a special, human connection with trees, finding ways to relate and draw analogies.
I loved hearing the kids share their own nature stories with me because I can connect so well with the rock collecting and love of wildlife, as my own collections and love for nature have only grown deeper with time.
Family Number 2
My second family session happened two days later with a family whose girls I know from past Woods and Wetlands sessions and the school where I last taught first grade. On our way to the woods we were all thrilled to spot a turtle on her determined way to either lay eggs or return to the lake. We stopped to observe her as I shared some fascinating turtle facts I learned in my time as instructor at the zoo. The girls crouched nearby and tentatively touched the turtle’s shell and looked at her face.
Frogs and Vines
With dip-net in hand, the younger girl marched with determination, if not with stealth, along the wetland looking for frogs. While they were plentiful, they were also wary of this new hunter in her rubber rain boots. On our next outing I may demonstrate how to hunt like a great blue heron, stepping softly without a word and holding still at just the right moment.
The older sister, had retained a truly astounding quantity of information she learned from our past forays into the woods together. She recognized oak leaves, sassafras, and poison ivy, among other things. She loved collecting wintergreen leaves to bring home with her and she lit up with joy at seeing the “Vine Playground,” once again.
Science and Kindness
Since one of my intentions is to support parents and caregivers in their nature explorations, I like to encourage these adults to not be afraid if they don’t know the names of any discoveries they make with their children. Children will learn the properties of these discoveries simply by observing or using any of their first, five senses to investigate. Children are natural scientists. An important part of these excursions is modeling the curiosity, wonder, awe, and the joy of discovering nature even when we don’t know all of the information right away (or ever!). We can bring nature journals, take photos, and do our own research when we return home. A great resource I like to use is an app called iNaturalist. But even without ever knowing the names, we can still be scientists, poets, artists, naturalists, and learners.
One important point I try to make is that every time we humans mess with nature, there are unintended consequences. So, before removing that turtle from near a road, find out first whether the turtle can survive anywhere else if it doesn’t know how to find its hibernation spot, its food source, or its shelter. Before you take a baby animal to a wildlife rehab center, do your research. Many wild animal mamas leave their babies alone for long periods of time for a very good reason! And please, before you put fertilizer, weed-killer, rat-poison, or other toxins outside, think about the food chain and the wildlife in it, not to mention the people and pets who live here too. One example is when mouse or rat poison is used and the intended recipients get eaten by an owl, passing that poison along to the owl or its babies. Some of the kindest, most well-meaning humans I know have inadvertently seriously harmed our planet and its wildlife through lack of self education. I speak for myself when I say I have made some of these same mistakes in my past. But I believe, “when we know better, then we should do better!” (~Untamed by Glennon Doyle) This is just one reason why nature education is so important.
One of the things a mom shared with me was that her girls almost never want to go out into these natural places when they are asked, but once they get there, they are inevitably as happy as can be and don’t want to leave. It can be hard to make your kids do things that they don’t seem to want to do. It can be really difficult to strike that balance when you want your kids to be happy and feel they have a choice, but you also want to make sure to expose them to as much learning as you can.
I am looking forward to our next explorations and I hope to engage with as many families as possible in my mission to help connect all humans with the earth that is our home.