Woods & Wetlands Family Format

Science Matters: Sand or Clay, Sink or Float.

It never ceases to amaze me how quickly an hour in the woods can go by! When today’s session was over, I was so not ready to leave our endeavor to build a little dam across a flowing, trickle of stream using clay found right there in the ravine.

Today’s hour of Woods and Wetlands was spent with one of the first families I explored with when initially introducing my W&W Family Format. My friend and her 3 children, ages 5, 9, and 10, were eager to show me the wonders of nature in their own backyard. Rather than the long walk to the river, we just hopped right into the woods behind their home where water has carved a ravine and flows to the nearby Rogue River. I was absolutely delighted to follow the kids as they led me to some of the special places they already know and love. As we approached, my mind leaped ahead to possibilities of learning about water – its sources, its effects, its necessity! There are endless opportunities for understanding the water cycle and our place in protecting our fresh water.

Our first stop was just a simple, shallow, pool of water with late morning sun striking it just perfectly and the kids declared it to be their frog-catching place. Sure enough, with the sun lighting up the still water we could clearly see several frogs at the bottom and at its edge. While the two older kids and their mom engaged in responding to my questions about how the sand got there in the first place, (huge glaciers, taller than their house!) the 5 year old began her own sink or float science experiment. “That leaf floats!” What else floats? Would this stick float? No. Why not? What about this stick? It does? Why does that one float and the other one doesn’t? This brought me right back to when I taught kindergarten and preschool. I also pulled out my mini magnifier and encouraged the kids to use it to examine the sandy soil and then later compared it to clay.

Our conversation about how the glaciers pushed and pressed on all that rock, grinding it into either gravel, sand, clay or loam (our focus was clay or sand) turned to learning about how nonliving rock becomes soil which then, (insert a shift of kids’ interest at this point, wherein I spoke more to myself for the moment, ha!) uses atmospheric gases which encourage growth of plant life, which then dies back to create richer soil that can host bigger plant life upon which we all depend for food. (And Z. reconnects with me here.) I invited the kids to think about food that we eat and how we all need healthy soil and plants, even if we are eating meat. Z. wondered about meat-eating animals; maybe they don’t need plants? But, yes, they do.
Think of an owl, I pointed out, what does it eat?
“Mice.”
Right. And what do mice eat?
“… oh. Plants and seeds.”
Yup!
Oh, how I love open, teachable moments with kids who know how to think as these kids clearly do!

Ultimately, the goal today (as far as the kids were concerned) was to take me to the clay spot where they most love to play. So we left the frog pool and hiked back up to the top of the ravine. We walked along the edge, looking down its steep sides and admiring some lovely beech trees growing tall above us and offering sun-dappled shade. To get back down into the ravine where the clay was found we each used different methods. I could well see how my friend’s kids return from there absolutely “filthy,” and when the 5 year old displayed some frustration with getting down while wearing boots, I decided it was time to model going barefoot. Our toes are excellent grippers and our bare feet can help our bodies know just what to do with challenging terrain. Sure enough, once I did it, L. was willing to try it too. I felt that I wanted to make a special connection with her in part because she didn’t stay with us the last time we ventured out, and also because I know, personally, what it’s like to be the littlest one who can’t do all the same things that the older kids can.

I tried various methods to connect with her before finding that she was still interested in her sink and float experiment. So she joined me near a bit of flowing water and a smaller pool than the first one and we proceeded to experiment with sticks, a rock, and balls of clay we rolled in our hands like play dough.

Meanwhile I listened as the two older siblings took turns telling me all manner of stories about what they and their friends have done when they play down in the ravine with other neighborhood kids. I just LOVE that their adults are wisely allowing their kids to play outdoors in the wild, unstructured, nature they are privileged enough to have readily available!

Shortly before our time was up, Z. and I began making a clay dam across the rivulet of water that flowed here and there beneath a large, fallen tree. What could be more fun than challenging oneself to crossing a ravine on a log bridge? I enjoyed seeing G. doing just that, carefully balancing on the log, clearly familiar with it and confident in her own body’s abilities. We spotted another fallen tree that spanned the ravine much higher than where we were playing. Eyeing it we decided that it looked like fun, but also maybe it was too dangerously high up. One great thing about unstructured play in nature is that kids will typically not try to do more than they can safely manage. That is not to say that kids don’t take risks and sometimes get hurt, but this is part of how they learn their own limits. Most children wouldn’t attempt crossing that log if they weren’t ready to do so yet. Exceptions happen when other children sometimes dare or challenge each other to do something. An important instruction I often share with kids is that they should only challenge themselves within their comfort zone, but that it can be really dangerous to try to get someone else to do something they aren’t ready for. This was certainly not an issue with these 3. They clearly take care of and look out for each other. It is obvious that empathy and kindness are well-modeled by their parents.

G. brought back a chunk of clay with the intention to bake it. However, when she added some water, it fell apart like sand. Before I left, I suggested trying it again but without adding so much water, or to experiment with collecting clay from different sites and comparing its composition. Clay without sand will stick together nicely. Clay with sand is more likely to fall apart. I hope that her interest in this continues and she will set herself the challenge to find out more. But? If not, she will follow another interest and see where it leads her. The very best learning is self-motivated, and that is why I never try to plan too much for Woods and Wetlands. When we enter the woods (or the prairie, the swamp, the river… any wild land,) we will benefit far more by remaining open to whatever nature has in store for us in each moment, trusting ourselves, and following our own intuition and curiosity wherever they may lead.

T.

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