Tuesday was a beautiful, breezy spring day at Saul Lake Bog where I met a few members of a local Girl Scout troop. Since the troop leaders were open to whatever the nature of both the woods and the girls offered that day, we were free to enjoy whatever came our way or caught our interest. I was pleased to recognize one of my former Woods and Wetlands explorers from a couple of years ago, and I enjoyed getting to know the other girls as we went exploring at this gorgeous but off-the-beaten-path location.
Observing the different ways that kids experience their world is one of my favorite elements of Woods and Wetlands. Two of the girls felt comfortable and confident together and were happy to bound ahead with that pre-teen energy: erupting into mutual giggling, whispered confidences, and charming, childhood, sweetness blended with the new independence of not-quite-teenagers. Other girls were more at ease hanging back, taking their time, and listening thoughtfully to what I was sharing. I loved that I could let them all be who they wanted to be! This is one of the freedoms I now have outside of the restrictions of classroom teaching. The latter were girls as I had been at their age, quieter in the presence of more boisterous friends, and they waited until I was available for one to one communication. I wished I had more time to offer them, to listen closely to their quiet voices as they shared personal stories about their own connections to nature.
I briefly introduced some of the patterns that can be found in the natural world, some of which are called fractals. It is only recently that I have been introduced to fractals in nature, repeating patterns of different sizes that reflect the general shape of the whole structure. I asked the girls to keep an eye out for these patterns as we explored. My intention was to hold that thread for the entire session, along with asking them to do a lot of intentional noticing using all of their senses, and awareness of landmarks. We did manage to listen silently to various bird songs, sniff and touch water from the bog, look closely at duckweed and a tamarack tree’s new green growth, and only at the end we tasted some wild chives. (Most were not fans of these little onion plants, which was to be expected at that age.) I may have even remembered once to mention landmarks again.
Despite my intentions, however, I am just as distractible as kids can be and it really is part of my philosophy to allow the program to flow without resistance or much in the way of structure during our outdoor adventures. Honoring my educational roots and training, I want these experiences to offer open-ended, fun, learning opportunities during which the kids may not even be aware that they are learning! So I allowed myself to forget about my own suggestions about patterns, senses, and landmarks.
As we moved through the woods, we stopped often to investigate what caught our attention:
–a really cool rock (how did it get broken that way?),
-lovely green patches of moss (a.k.a. fairy forests and, did you know? There are microscopic animals called MOSS PIGLETS in there! Technically named tardigrades, but they look a little like gummy bears or piglets with 8 legs!),
-a beautifully decomposing old log (don’t clean up all the fallen leaves, trees, or branches! They provide critical habitat and food for many critters, and they make new soil from which new trees will grow!)
-different kinds of tree bark and tree shapes, (what made that one grow curved?)
–logs to walk on and balance (I told the girls that despite my age, I still play in many of the same ways I did as a kid, including log-balancing, tree-climbing, and frog-catching!)
When we reached one of the small bridges over a tiny, barely moving, seasonal stream, a few of the girls began trying to build their own bridge (creativity and engineering!) using a log they’d carried over together, (teamwork!) When that log broke upon their first attempt, they quickly gave up. I stepped in and encouraged them to try again, to figure out what they learned from their first attempt. They took me up on my suggestion and tried again, (perseverance!) this time choosing a sturdier log, and one of the girls stepped up to give it a try. Carefully, she balanced in her boots, one foot in front of the other, arms out, totally focused. The log held and she made it across without incident. (only about a foot off the ground, but still!) Success!
Further down the stream, a massive and recently broken oak tree beckoned to the adventurers, (this tree calls me to it as well, every time I’m there!) but on our way, some of the girls invented a challenge for themselves to run, slide, and jump over the little stream. Back and forth they went. This is another example of how much children benefit from following their own interests. Soon, most of the group was practicing their jumps, over and over, challenging themselves only as far as they felt safe, and moving on when they felt ready. This may have looked like, “just fun,” but in my world, there is no “just” about “fun.” Fun is what we hope for.
Here is what I saw as they ran and leaped, over and over again (and this was only one hour!
-building strength, control, and body/spatial awareness
-learning about momentum
-learning from errors and self-correcting
-building healthy bone mass
-developing coordination and flexibility
Earlier I mentioned the connection I felt with the girls who were quieter; more of their world happening inside of their heads than out in the open for all to see. This way of being is just as valuable as the more outspoken, chatty, active personalities. If my 12 year old self had been there, I would not have been part of the leaping, running group either. I would have been more likely to ask my parents to bring me there without the others and then I might have tried my own leaps and jumps without an audience. And while the leaping and shouting was going on, the minds of the other girls were busy too, just less obviously. Each learner has her own way.
While a few of the girls ran on ahead to climb up on that broken oak, I got to have a peaceful moment with one of the quieter scouts. I scooped up a few acorns at the base of one of the trees that grew into the bank of the stream. She listened attentively as I shared some of my recently acquired information about oaks, which grow from acorns. Oaks take 20 years to mature enough to grow acorns. They support more life than any other North American tree, and their fallen leaves support thousands of decomposers that help turn the leaves into new soil. I handed over the acorns. She examined them closely and later on she pointed out to me that she noticed the acorn caps contained patterns! As we all returned to our vehicles and said good-bye, she appeared at my side with something to share. There in her outstretched palm was a pretty little piece of wild chive that had grown oddly in a spiral, and I realized that the entire time she had been taking my initial suggestion to look for nature patterns and had been doing just that.
I left with a smile on my face, and it has returned as I write and recollect our session. Connecting kids with nature. I’ve missed these experiences more than I realized this past year. It’s good to be back.