Days 1-3 out of 9! (There are only a few photos until I am able to identify which students have photo permissions.)
Valley View Elementary is participating in a program called, One School, One Book. The book, in this case, is, Nuts to You! by Lynne Rae Perkins. They have booked one-hour Woods and Wetlands programs with me for every classroom in their school! Though I used to take my entire class outside for similar activities, a significant difference is that I had an established trust relationship with my own students. And like any new experience, there is a lot to learn! I am very fortunate to have VV’s PTO president joining us for each session, where he has been a tremendous help! Any adults who accompany us are asked to read over some tips as well as some of my W&W principles.
Each class is getting a unique experience. We are learning together. Most of my plans and intentions have changed or fallen by the wayside as I adapt to having just one hour with an entire class. My biggest take away so far is that every class ideally needs a full hour of free exploration followed by an hour of planned learning activities. Though I have a fun set of scavenger hunt cards made with photos of specific items of interest in our chosen exploration space, there is more benefit in letting nature guide us for at least one hour before trying to engage students with more guidance or structure. If students had these kinds of experiences on a regular basis, such as a special like art, music, or P.E., the one-hour format would be perfect.
Three days in…
DIRT DOESN’T HURT!
Day 1 was a bit choppy, which is to be expected. Beginning on day 2, I had the classes gather in a circle at Camp Valley View for about 15 minutes of prep for our exploration time. I have been asking students to deliberately rub their hands in the dirt for a few good reasons.
- We have been finding small salamanders. It is much safer for the amphibian if we only handle it briefly with dirty or muddy hands. Amphibians breathe and drink through their skins, which makes them VERY sensitive and they are considered an Indicator Species. If amphibians are doing okay, the habitat is likely not too polluted, particularly the water. When we have products like hand sanitizer on our hands and we hold a salamander, frog, or toad, they can get very sick or die from it.
- Our culture has become obsessed with cleanliness. There are definitely times and places for that. Playing and learning in nature is not one of them. Young children, especially, should not be afraid to get dirty when they play. Dirt carries microbes that can benefit our health and even increase serotonin production.
NUTS TO YOU, VALLEY VIEW! (And BE A TREE!)
- I have been exchanging a “Nuts to you,” greeting with the kids. It makes us laugh, and laughter bonds people.
- Each student receives an acorn and an evergreen cone. (We are mostly referring to them as the commonly named, “pinecone,” though technically they are spruce and hemlock.) Using the acorn, we learn a little bit about how important oak trees are. They support the most wildlife of any tree genus in North America! I’m having the kids act out growing from an acorn into a big oak which can only make acorns after 20 years! I connect this topic to Nuts to You. Kids are encouraged to take the acorn and cone to plant someplace where leaves have been allowed to do as nature intends, which is to stay on the ground, getting broken down by decomposers and turned into healthy, new, soil where new trees can grow.
- When I want the kids to stop and listen, I call out, “BE A TREE!” We all jump our feet out and our arms up and out. (Like an X) This not only grabs their attention, the holding of our arms up and out sends a body-signal to our brains that we are safe.
BUZZ PATH, MAGIC PORTALS, SAFETY, & LANDMARKS
- Just as the squirrels in the book, we follow the “buzz path” and talk about how the squirrels in the story got lost when they got distracted by playing a game and having fun. I connect this to identifying landmarks any time you are in a new space, whether forest or city.
- To capture a sense of the beautiful magic of nature, I refer playfully to “magic portals” underneath vines and between trees. While some children like to focus more on facts, others learn to love nature through imagining fantasies such as fairies, elves, and magic portals. Then there are those, like myself, who love both!
- I talk to the kids about playing with sticks. Rather than ban them, which is understandably necessary on playgrounds and with large groups, I take time to demonstrate (and usually I prefer to have a student demo it,) how to move away from other people when playing with sticks. Giving kids the go-ahead to play with them in safe ways has worked really well.
- For safety in climbing, I teach how to tell a living branch or tree from a dead one because the dead ones can’t be trusted with our weight. A student was warned yesterday that one of the the branches in the tree he was climbing was dead. While he did not put his weight on it in a way that would harm himself, he did accidentally cause it to fall off of the tree and it hit one of our most important adult helpers quite hard in the arm. (The student experienced the natural consequence of feeling pretty badly about the accident, which is all we felt was necessary, as it certainly wasn’t deliberate.) We are very glad it didn’t hit a kid, of course, but this important lesson can be shared with other classes. Accidents can and do happen. We do everything we can to minimize these risks, but playing outside in nature is, of course, something that carries risk. However, the more important thing to remember is that the more frequently children have opportunities to practice and learn about how to be careful, the less risk there will be!
- There are a lot of wild grapevines growing out there. After showing the kids the difference between poison ivy vine and wild grapevine, I demonstrate how to go about testing the strength of a grapevine for the purpose of swinging or climbing on it. From kindergarten on up, this skill can be easily taught and learned!
SMELLING AND TASTING IN NATURE
- Some plants we have been tasting: leek (or ramp) leaves, wild chives, violets, adders tongue (trout lily). With each class I remind them that they should NEVER eat anything out of nature without checking first with an adult who knows for certain that it is safe. And like many “rules,” it should be reinforced by other important adults who the child knows and trusts. It’s one of those, “it takes a village,” things!
- No one was pushed to taste anything they didn’t want to. I encouraged everyone to at least sniff one leaf. Typically children don’t care for onions, but I was surprised to find that more than a few quite enjoyed them!
SOME WILDLIFE DISCOVERIES
- Small salamanders (get hands nice and dirty or muddy before handling!)
- A box turtle!!! (Turtle tip: never move a box turtle out of its habitat. Moving it just across a road to the other side is one thing, but taking it entirely away from that area can be a death sentence for it. These (and some other) turtles know where their food supply and hibernation locations are and they live in the same small territory their entire lives. If you remove the turtle, it will spend its remaining life trying to find its home and often it will not eat, which then causes its death. Also, box turtles are not aquatic! Please don’t put them in the water!
- May Apples (umbrella plants): I ask everyone to enjoy looking at and gently touching these plants, but to mind where we step so we don’t crush them. Most of the kids have been really good about this!
- Moss (microscopic animals called “tardigrades” or “moss piglets” or “water bears” live in all moss and lichens! They look like gummy bears with 8 legs. They are fascinating creatures!)
- When someone spots a bee, we stop to learn that, first of all, we are in nature which is the bees’ home, and if one of these important little pollinators do happen to land on us, perhaps thinking we are a flower, it will soon discover that we are not flowers, say, “YUCK! You are not a flower!” and fly away.
A FEW NATURE LESSONS
- Nature shows us that when something dies, it eventually becomes part of new life.
- Some fallen trees keep enough of their roots in the ground that they begin to grow new trunks out of the old one. I like to think of this as when we fall down, we can choose to grow rather than give up.
- Trees, like people, have ways to heal themselves to some degree.