Why are there all these trees in this woods?
~Kindergarten student while walking a path through a narrow, sparse, band of trees bordered by a tree-less swamp and a tree-deprived school playground.
I can’t find a stick. Will you get me a stick?
~Kindergarten student, surrounded by sticks after my “How to use sticks,” demo.
I used to think it was bad to get dirty, but now I know it’s okay!
-Kindergarten student happily applying “mud gloves” in hopes of holding an amphibian.
There’s bears out here.
-Kindergarten student who refused my assurance that there are NOT, in fact, bears out there.
What is a beaver?
Kindergarten student when a classmate guessed that a woodpecker hole in a tree was made by beavers.
I didn’t find any moss.
Kindergarten student upon looking around the moss-carpeted wetland where nothing but moss was green yet.
I love it out here! I want to stay out here all day. I want to stay out here all of the time. I want to sleep out here!
-Kindergarten student just before it was time to leave.
Over the past two weeks I thoroughly enjoyed 4 kindergarten programs in the wetland behind Lakes Elementary, and one of two first-grade programs along Rum Creek near Parkside Elementary. All three programs resulted in some very wet feet and legs for a few students, but the adventure was well worth the wet! (It didn’t hurt that the temps were reasonably warm and the sun was shining.) The quotes (above) were indications to me that these kids need to have a lot more nature play in their lives.
I can’t find a stick.
The context around the “can’t find a stick,” comment was that we were quite literally surrounded by sticks on all sides. There were new sticks that had been branches only yesterday. There were a couple dozen sticks cast-aside by other two kindergarten classes the week prior. No shortage of sticks. Not only that, but the children asking us to help them find a stick had not actually gone looking for a stick at all. And yes, I did strongly suggest to them that having a “good stick,” would be helpful.
Part of my safety spiel is always showing students how to safely use sticks. We practice how to look around us before swinging or waving a stick so as to notice whether we should move away from other people first. I model how to use a stick to measure and estimate how deep the water or muck might be before stepping into it. I demonstrate using a stick to help with balance as we walk along logs or hop from hummock to hummock. I encourage them to use sticks to dig or to gently poke at something if they aren’t sure about touching it with their fingers. Sticks are good for building forts or nature-art. Should we allow pretend weapon play with sticks? This may surprise you, but I think we should, in certain circumstances. Playing pretend anything helps children (with relative safety) get a feel for what it might be like in real life. “Role play helps the brain transform ‘what is’ to ‘what if’ and opens the gates to make-believe.” (A Moving Child is a Learning Child, by Gill Connell and Cheryl McCarthy,) and role-play also contributes to developing empathy.
Frankly? Sticks can be plain, old, fun to play with for no particular purpose and most, modern-day children have not had the opportunity to learn how to do so safely. They have always been told, “Put down the stick!” “No sticks allowed!” How would they have learned about sticks without actually using them? How would they learn how it feels to accidentally whack a nearby friend or to be bonked with a stick themselves? (This may hurt but is quite survivable! Valuable lessons learned!) Every mistake is a chance to learn and do better next time. What a fun way to learn the mathematical thinking that comes into play when determining which stick will break when leaned-upon, which sticks will crumble into decomposed soil, which sticks have the right length-to-height ratio? And the discovery that some sticks are large but very light-weight and others are heavy, and some float in water while others do not? Which stick will flow under the bridge faster than another and why? What made that stick stop under the bridge while the other one sailed freely right through? These are all activities that young children must be allowed to try. No adult needs force these activities or present purpose statements or learning targets. When turned out into a natural wild-space, kids will just do these sorts of things for the fun of it, but WE know they are learning valuable lessons about the natural world and their place in it. But I digress. (As usual.)
Back to my assumptions about what they already knew. What I evidently failed to intentionally point out or describe about my stick of choice included the following: its length relative to my height, its sturdiness that allowed me to lean my weight on it, and how to transform a too-long stick to a just-right stick.
After delivering my usual safety suggestions, I turned the explorers loose for about 20 minutes of just getting to know the space and how they could move around in it before I introduced our Exploration and Conversation cards. Instantly, I saw the results/consequences of my erroneous, basic assumptions. A few children had selected sticks no longer than their own forearms and thin as a whip. These “sticks” were carried firmly in one hand but served absolutely no purpose that I could see, unless it was as imaginary magic wands, (which is another valid use for a stick!) Other children hauled branches longer than they were tall, and these merely had an unbalancing effect or waved dangerously near the head of nearby explorers. Then there were those who either heard not a word I said about sticks or decided that they had no need for such things, and these intrepid adventurers went splashing happily off into the watery woodland with what was either blind confidence or complete disregard for possible consequences. And more than a few simply stood in place and announced that they couldn’t find a stick. In a word? Inexperienced. Even more inexperienced than I had ever supposed was possible.
Nature Deficit Symptoms?
I tell you all of this not to criticize nor to condescend. Yes, I was a bit flabbergasted. And I won’t pretend I wasn’t also amused and even a bit charmed by their innocence. But I also understood these little explorers would be okay out there, and I also understood how and why most kids don’t have these kinds of experiences anymore. I saw and heard that they were having fun. I knew they would learn some valuable lessons for the next time. I knew they were out there doing what kids naturally do if we get out of the way and we shut up long enough to let them do it- LEARN through nature play.
These young scientists were unwittingly hypothesizing and experimenting. They were developing their sense of their own bodies in space. These were kids without devices in hand nor in front of their faces. They were breathing fresh air and practicing balance, focus, coordination, perseverance, problem-solving, and determination. If allowed to do this daily or even weekly, they would quickly begin growing their self-confidence, strength, self-assurance, curiosity, and self-reliance. What would they lose? They would begin to lose some of the effects of stresses that modern life, particularly during these past 2 years, has placed heavily upon them. They would become more resilient in response to future stresses. They would build a sense of connection with something bigger than themselves. What teacher or parent wouldn’t want all of that for their children on a regular basis?
What’s a Beaver?
Me: “What do you think made that hole in the tree?”
Student: “A beaver.”
Another student: “What’s a beaver?”
Me: “A brown, furry animal with a big, flat tail that lives in the water and makes a big house out of sticks. They have a secret underwater tunnel up into their cozy home. They-“(interruption)
Student: “What is it?”
Me: “What is what?”
Student: “That you were talking about?”
Me: “A beaver.”
Student: “What’s a beaver?”
Me: “ummm. Never mind. A woodpecker made that hole, anyway.”
Student: “What’s a woodpecker?”