I am an and outdoor educator with a master's in early childhood development. I taught elementary school for 20 years and now own Woods and Wetlands LLC, offering programs for local children to engage in nature study through play and exploration-based learning. My programs are all outdoors in whatever "wild" spaces are available. I live in Rockford, Michigan with my husband, dog, and three cats. My unique, therapeutic, one and a half hour programs help children to connect with the natural world and with themselves.
Each adventure is different. One of the things I love about this work I am doing is the variation. Never ever am I bored! Each group of explorers is unique. Even the same space in the same woods is different from day to day, hour to hour. This week I got to take four, third-grade classes into the woods and creek at Camp Rockford.
I always tell the kids that I learn about and notice new things in nature every single day, and this continues to be true. An odd and armored bug blending in with near perfection to the oak bark, a woolly bear caterpillar on the very same path we just trooped down half an hour ago, a dead crayfish in the creek where three other classes went wading without seeing any sign of aquatic creatures.
I, too, am unintentionally different with each group. My energy and mood respond to the dark, rainy days or the blue-sky and breezy days. Interactions with each classroom teacher also contribute to the tone of each program. On Monday I felt nervous, awkward, uncomfortable. It was hard to find my groove for some reason. That night I lay in bed worrying that the kids didn’t have enough fun, that the teachers might have been disappointed. When Tuesday arrived, bright morning sun dappling our wooded space, my sense of joy for what I do and how I do it returned. I felt myself light up as I shared the magic and wonder of nature with the remaining two, third-grade classes.
Learning as I go is something I am gradually coming to accept and embrace. Identifying the exact elements of any program that didn’t go well or didn’t meet my expectations is part of the process. How can I better ensure that kids are dressed to stay warm and relatively dry? How can I best communicate to teachers and parents the value of these programs when they are accustomed to thinking of play as, “just play?” What if I realize I am trying to pack far too much into such a short time? Can I expand the programs to encompass half of an entire school day? Would anyone still want to do it? Could they afford it? Is there anything I should cut out of these programs?
The fact that I don’t know anyone else who does exactly what I do makes it a somewhat lonely process, and I find myself missing the opportunities to brainstorm with other educators. At the same time, I am thrilled to be able to craft and modify Woods and Wetlands programs to exactly what I want, based on what I know and feel is right! There are no state or federal boards of education telling me what to do or how to do it. No developmentally inappropriate curriculum to force down unready learners’ throats. Parents don’t get to be rude to me and get away with it. (Not that most of them ever are; it’s just the echoes of the very few over the years still rankling a bit in the back of my mind. The vast majority of parents have been kind, compassionate, supportive, and respectful.) I get to choose my days, times, and locations. I can dictate how many explorers I am willing to work with at a time.
All in all, I am tremendously fortunate. I am learning as I go.
Oh, the gems I overhear between children! The overlap of absolutely lovely manners with the texture and images of a slug, not to mention how bizarre this request would be in nearly any other context, just cracked me up!
More than meets the eye.
Each explorer received a different kind of tree leaf (or needles). We noticed the shapes, textures, colors, and patterns of each leaf. Then we used them for our greeting; the kids had to find the person with the matching leaf and then go look for a tree nearby that has the same kind of leaves. We used oak, maple, wild cherry, white pine, red pine, and beech tree leaves/needles and I explained that one reason leafy trees drop their leaves before winter is so the snow doesn’t weigh them down and break their branches.
Wildlife, Teamwork, and STEAM work
Notice the huge variety of activities they choose. Nature play and play-based learning are naturally differentiated. As long as they understand that we expect them to listen to themselves and only do what they feel comfortable (enough) doing, they will take risks and seek out learning that is developmentally just-right for them as individuals!
Physical Education is not the same thing as Sports.
These days (in the privileged world) most kids who want to learn a sport will do so with or without P.E. class, but most kids do not have regular access to unstructured, independent, child-led but teacher-guided, nature play or nature study. If we bring children to a wild space we have only to teach them a few safety practices and then get out of the way because they will seek out activities that build strength, balance, coordination, flexibility, turn-taking, collaboration, spatial awareness, aim, body awareness, and body confidence. They learn to listen to and trust their bodies. Just look.
We Never Want it to End. Classroom Programs this Year?
Woods and Wetlands All Year Round
Woods and Wetlands programs for classrooms are wonderful class gifts from parents and caregivers to your child’s teacher. If the school has a wild space nearby we will use it. If not, they only have to come up with funding for busing to a local place such as Luton Park or a West Michigan Land Conservancy location. I also offer private programs for small groups of children such as those who are home schooled or students who are attending virtual school during the ongoing pandemic.
Our new group includes 9 explorers from last year’s Woods and Wetlands summer adventures. Add to that a wide developmental range and we have a hodge-podge of personalities, abilities, and experience! Compared to our last two groups this one got off to what felt like an awkward start, at least for the teachers. But after four mornings together, we have settled in nicely. It’s fun to watch the kids with prior experience because they are more independent, confident, and they are able to deepen and broaden their explorations. Nature-play and Play-Based Learning naturally lend themselves to scaffolding as children instinctively challenge themselves at that “just right” level at which they take appropriate risks and set themselves to learning and growing by pursuing their own interests. We offer support in the form of thinking questions and encouragement, stepping back when possible and stepping in when needed.
Childhood is the best time to learn from mistakes. One of our new explorers had a rough start, socially speaking. Some poor choices were made. But we don’t use loss of participating as a consequence. Instead we try to always offer chances for “do-overs,” in conjunction with giving children specific words and strategies they need for round 2. How else can we learn unless we get to try again?
Patterns and Treasures
I usually introduce a theme of sorts during Morning Meeting. Sometimes I plan it but often the kids’ energy and/or interests prompt me to modify it on the spot. Teaching and earning without blocking the natural flow always works better for me and for the kids. During our first week we introduced Nature Treasures and Patterns in Nature. These two “lessons” are intertwined and next week we will blend them in with learning about different trees based on leaf recognition.
Exploring in nature during Woods and Wetlands is a full, sensory experience. Children learn best by using their bodies. “Move to learn and learn to move.”
P.S. Mini-rant: I so wish that nature play and play based learning were woven into school curriculums at every level. Teachers need to be trained so that they can feel safe and comfortable taking their kids out into the wild. Time to do so ought to be guaranteed and protected as a necessary part of the school day or week. Funding programs like Woods and Wetlands throughout the school year would make such a positive impact on the mental, physical, social, emotional, and academic health of every student AND their teachers! Yet schools are, instead, adding MORE testing and MORE curriculum, while cutting back on recess and continuing outdated models of schooling that clearly are not working for the majority of children. The scientific evidence demonstrating what works is being largely ignored by those who control the curriculums, testing regimes, and school day structure in this country.
The last day is always hard. None of us want to say goodbye! I am hoping that I can continue bringing Woods and Wetlands to local schools this fall, so I plan to reach out to as many educators as possible to get these programs scheduled. One of my dreams would be to offer repeat programs for the same classes in the same, wild, space throughout a school year, whether once a month or even 4 times a (school) year. Imagine the kids getting to bond with a natural area that they can access whenever their adults can get them there, where they would benefit from seeing nature change throughout the seasons! School curriculum would be supported as we learn naturally about local plants, animals, fungi, geology, history, and geography. Woods and Wetlands programs support physical education related to strength, balance, coordination, teamwork, spatial awareness, and self-confidence. The arts can be woven into repeat programs as well. Nature-play and play-based learning offers health and wellness to all of us, even those who don’t enjoy the outdoors. We become more resilient to the stresses of life and better able to heal and grow our spirits when the world gets to be too much.
Imagine you have spent your childhood living down deep in the warm mud of a wetland, swimming around and breathing with gills. One day when you are anywhere from 3 months to 5 years old, you crawl out of the muck, up onto a cattail or blade of grass, your back splits open, and you crawl right out of your “skin” (exoskeleton), but you are no longer a creepy crawler; you are an iridescent, shimmery, winged creature who can now FLY! You have lovely fairy-like wings and amazing eyesight. No more dark, muddy days. You are a DRAGONFLY!
This week we learned to adapt to an unwelcome change, observed the cycle of life and death in nature, discovered a new land, and learned from our mistakes. (And the kids renamed me, “Ms. Tree.” I kinda like it!)
After a week away from “our” woods and creek the kids were so excited to get back to their adventures. Can we go to the creek???!!! is the question pelting me from all directions the moment we reach our Meeting Log and begin to set up our mobile classroom each morning. But on this morning I heard cries of shock and distress when they reached the bank where our beloved Log Jam Bridge should have been waiting for us. What happened?! Someone cut it down! Where is our bridge? Why is it gone? A chorus of dismay rose from our little group of explorers as they found that the neighbor to the west of Camp Rockford had clearly taken a chainsaw to all but one of the logs that formed “our” bridge. Without the other logs and a living tree that was growing out of one, there was now nothing to hold on to when crossing the only remaining log. Not only that, but the water now flowed much faster and deeper, making it an unsafe place for us to explore, at least until drought conditions reduce the level of the creek at some point. Mrs. Webb and I looked at each other and a great deal of thoughts and feelings passed silently between us. It was impossible to completely conceal our own dismay. The kids wanted answers and we are the people who usually have them. But this time we could only make assumptions.
Unfortunately, our first assumption was that the neighbor had intentionally tried to ruin something for our campers because we had heard in the past that he was not a fan of children using the RPS property separated from his only by the creek. Not only that, but the week prior I had sent him a letter with the intention of reassuring him about any concerns he might have about us damaging his property or causing problems for nature, because he mentioned to the other camp’s teacher that some rocks from his side of the creek bank had been moved. Could it have been my letter that somehow prompted this removal of our favorite place of all? As we processed what had happened and moved upstream to find other places to explore, I heard some of the kids talking about how mean that man was to do what he did, and I realized we were in a teachable moment. After getting the attention of the little group closest to me, I told them this: We don’t actually know why he cut those logs, and so we need to be careful not to start telling people he did it to be mean. The kids asked me why. Because when we don’t know the truth of a situation, we shouldn’t assume. We should get more information. Otherwise, we are starting and spreading a rumor, and rumors can be very hurtful.
In Which We Go On An Adventure to New Lands.
Unexpected changes are usually hard for most of us. But as I’m sure many can attest since the changes of 2020, if we allow ourselves to adapt, there is usually something good that comes from change, and at the very least, we learn from it. So, despite how bummed we were to lose our Log Jam Bridge, we decided on Tuesday to strike out in a new direction for lands unknown. One group headed upstream and into the woods with Mrs. Webb, and the other intrepid explorers chose to come with me on an Adventure Expedition to New Lands. (Adding lots of fun language and dramatic voices makes it so much more fun and the kids catch the tone and pick up new vocabulary this way.) We blazed a new trail where none of us (including last year’s groups) had ever gone before! We stomped down some nettles, walked along logs, jumped to the ground, and stopped frequently to reassure and support those who were being extra brave when they were just a little bit scared. When the vegetation opened up we found ourselves at the corner of where “our” creek flowed into the Rogue River. By the time we left, the kids were calling it “Mud Island,” and its new, part-time inhabitants were, “Mudlanders.”
Life to Death to Life Again
Another less-than-pleasant, but also fascinating, discovery this week were the remains of a very tiny, probably premature, fawn. We faced it with not only acknowledgement of sad feelings, but also with the interest and curiosity of scientists. The finding was a perfect time to notice how decomposers were already doing their work of recycling what used to be alive, turning it into rich soil from which new life will grow. The next morning we followed up with a conversation about how every single food we eat is part of that cycle of life and death. All of our food depends on plants, and plants depend on soil and pollinators. Dead things and bodily waste (poop/scat/dung) do not recycle on their own. They depend on soil microbes and other decomposers to do that work. And one day, new plants will grow where that tiny fawn died, and a living fawn might eat those plants. The parts of the fawn we could not find became food for larger animals that need meat to survive. More recycling! Even if our “Littles,” don’t fully grasp all of that, it was a hands-on, meaningful and memorable experience upon which future learning can build!
There are more magical moments with our explorers than I could ever recall or write about, but this week the experiences of one, particular camper filled me with pure joy. To appreciate it, you need to know that when she began Woods and Wetlands two weeks ago, she was so clearly inexperienced in every way. She was terrified of everything. Her body didn’t yet seem to belong to her, in that she hadn’t developed her vestibular and proprioceptive systems as I would have expected by her age. (Her sense of her body in space and her balance, strength, coordination, etc.) She fell a LOT. She cried a lot and easily. But I am proud to say we met her where she was, and some of the other kids began developing a sense of protectiveness of her. We did a lot of coaxing, hand-holding, reassuring, and one-on-one explicit teaching of small, critical skills and information.
Two days ago when a group of us went on our Adventure to New Lands, she chose to come with us. (Bravery indeed!!) She stayed close to me and we moved inch by inch along a slippery log. I’m scared! Can I touch that? Is it a nettle tree? We slowly created a path as I showed her nettle after nettle so she could begin to recognize them on her own. I trampled them down ahead and beside us as we crept along. With the other explorers coming patiently behind us, I identified each tree branch and showed them how to move them out of their way without letting them swing back on the person behind them. Are those nettles? Those are just wet tree leaves. We kept going. Only once she let her fear overwhelm her and she wanted to go back. We stopped and did some calming breathing. She chose to keep going. Every moment of that short hike (a 1-minute hike for an experienced adult, just to give you context,) was packed with new, frightening, interesting, experiences for her. Her mind and body were fully engaged. After navigating 2 more slippery logs, we made it to the Mudlands. On our way back she was still scared, but slightly more confident. Then, today, she chose to go again, but this time she could point out the nettles all by herself. This time she knew how to bend her knees when she jumped off a log and landed. This time she taught OTHER kids about their surroundings. There’s no such thing as nettle trees, so you can hold on to trees to help you! She couldn’t wait to get back and tell Mrs. Webb, “I wasn’t scared today!”
She did fall once. And she did cry a little.
But don’t we all?
We had a little tree lesson, after which one of the kids accidentally called me, “Ms. Tree,” rather than, “Ms. T.” It caught on quickly!
How do I get over there? How did you get where you are in the first place? I don’t know!
I’m so scared–this is so much fun!
“Moving and learning play is all about doing,” “As long as the child chooses it and is physically involved in it, fun and learning are bound to follow!” –A Moving Child is a Learning Child: How the Body Teaches the Brain to Think by Gill Connell and Cheryl McCarthy
Session 2 started last Monday with a whole new set of young explorers. What completely different energy this group has! We have many more girls than boys this time, and far less prior experience among them compared to our Session 1 group. On Day 1 some weren’t sure at first, but within the first hour, “Actually, this is really fun!”
I won’t lie; it takes more energy, focus, and presence on the teachers’ part, but there is so much room for growth with these little adventurers! We already are excited and curious to watch them grow, learn, and change in their relationship with themselves, the natural world and each other.
For one thing there’s a lot more screaming, but it is with excitement and delight more than fear. We also notice that even physically strong and agile kiddos are less sure of their bodies when crossing a log or climbing out of the creek. They are working on their proprioceptive and vestibular systems! (Balance, sense of where their bodies are in space, etc.) A couple seem to have rarely, if ever, used their muscles in certain ways, and I will be interested to see how that may change by the end of our camp session, though, unfortunately, our 2-week camp will be split with a week off in-between for 4th of July week this session.
In any case, they are a lovable bunch and we are thoroughly enjoying supporting them as they explore and learn!
Below: Using puppets to role play is a wonderful way for young children to learn. They get to safely try out different roles and imagine what it might be like to be someone or something else, which helps build empathy! Not to mention the joy of whole-group belly-laughter that bonds us!
On our next-to-last day of Session 1 for Woods and Wetlands, we took the kids down to the main river channel. By this time the water level had gone down and the current wasn’t as strong along the sides of the river. Just as importantly, we now knew these kids pretty well and were ready to trust them to do their part to help keep themselves and others safe. We expected to find crayfish as we did last year, but we should have remembered that nature always offers us the unexpected! (No crayfish.)
Above: Enjoying the cool river water on a hot day, the kids discovered a “mess” of tadpoles, some tiny trout, and how sunlight refracts in water, changing our depth and spatial perceptions. When the current increased in strength for those who went a little deeper, they noticed it and processed it verbally. Mrs. Webb and I kept our eyes on the kids at all times, offering thinking questions and modeling how to wonder, to guess, and to think about everything around us. Every moment could be a teachable moment in the wild, but we still choose to allow many moments to flow past with the current, just staying in the present. The natural world is where humankind evolved and where we are still adapted to be, though we don’t always know it. The more exposure to the natural world, the more resilient we become to life’s stressors.
With about half the group and Mrs. Webb engaged with using their nets along the river’s edge, the other half opted to go on a mini adventure with me to find the place where “our” creek flows into the river. But before we’d gone very far upstream, we encountered a large maple tree that had recently fallen across the river. We didn’t let it stop us though! The first few explorers clambered easily through the leafy branches about 4 feet above the river. These were experienced tree climbers. One of them returned to offer support to the others.
I perched myself in the middle of the tree and gave what encouragement I could to those less experienced. Despite saying they were afraid sometimes, they didn’t give up and go back. “It is okay to be scared. Take your time. Only do what you feel safe doing.” Slowly, hand by hand and foot by foot, from branch to branch, they made their way through the horizontal tree. This was the ultimate chance to teach the differences between living and dead branches. They could feel the flexible strength of the still-living fallen tree, while older, dead logs beneath our feet filled in some of the gaps, but had to be carefully tested before putting any weight on them. They learned to lightly press these, noticing how some rolled, tipped, or even cracked. With lots of coaxing, reassuring, and suggestions from me, I was elated when the last explorer arrived on the far side of the tree… just in time for us to realize it was time to go back and pack up for the day!
Back they went, but reversing the process that brought them through wasn’t an easy thing to do. Once again the more experienced climbers scrambled through, stepping confidently from branch to branch despite the river and the unknown below. I stayed with the new learners as they worked their way back. Such concentration on their faces! Once through, they offered different responses. One of the twins was elated, proud of his success, happily boasting that he wasn’t scared. The other, who typically is the more confident of the two, breathed a gust of relief and said, “Well, I’m never doing THAT again!” I paused for a moment to consider her feelings as well as my own. Then I offered the following: “That would be too bad because it will be so much easier the next time you try! Your brain is going to process what you did today while you are asleep tonight. Your muscles will remember some of what they learned. And you were so brave to go through that tree like that! I hope you’ll try again, but you don’t have to.“ Now it was her turn to pause. With a huge grin, she exclaimed, “So, you mean my brain will be climbing trees all night?!” She was delighted with this prospect!
The next day, our last, the whole group went through or around (on the shore side) the fallen tree. I had a feeling I would not have to ask whether the twins were going to try it again. Their brains definitely climbed trees while they were sleeping! They went through before I even realized they’d started!
We were sad to say good-bye to this group, but we know we will love all of the groups still to come! I hope to see everyone this next school year when I bring Woods and Wetlands programs to local elementary schools again!
“My good thing is that we got to go to a nature center and I learned how to tell the difference between a boy or a girl toad is you massage their armpit and if they make noises it’s a boy, but if it’s quiet it’s a girl.”
So we tried it. She, (if, indeed, this method is reliable,) was silent but without a doubt highly offended by our rude invasion of her amphibious armpits! We may have scarred that poor toad for life. In hindsight, we probably should have asked her first.
Below: After trying out a few of the Exploration and Conversation cards I gave them, most of the kids found their own preferred methods. I loved watching them work and play together, learning social skills as they navigated how to make suggestions, how to get what they wanted, ways to negotiate, and making space for everyone to participate.
Way back last summer during Woods and Wetlands camp, our last day rolled around and one of our little guys was inconsolable about it ending. Big, fat tears rolled down his cheeks because he didn’t want it to be the last day. When Christmas came around, his grandparents gave him a Woods and Wetlands gift certificate as a gift, and TODAY we used it!
Above: “Be a Tree,” takes on a whole new meaning!
Above: Foraging for and tasting wild food is in our DNA. The kids loved the tiny, green, sour, wild apples just as much as I did when I was a kid. Sassafras roots are always a hit, and we also sniffed the lemony scent of its leaves. The two siblings went home with a pocket full of wintergreen leaves as well.
The Vine Playground is always a hit! From there we could hear the gulps of bullfrogs and smell the rich, dark, decomposing “muck” in the nearby swamp, while birds sang, flitted, and drummed in the branches above us. And so three hours flew by without anyone noticing them.
Celebrating our success at freeing a living tree from beneath a fallen dead tree. We worked really hard at it for a long time!
When perseverance pays off!
Above: with careful instruction and close supervision, young children can learn to safely use real tools. This heavy, dead tree fell over a smaller living tree, trapping it against the ground. It is important to leave dead trees, branches, and logs in place whenever possible, as they provide critical habitat and food. Once we freed the living tree, allowing it to stand up again, we left the dead one to the millions of tiny living things as it gradually becomes new soil again, courtesy of decomposers.
Above: Reading and writing about real and immediately accessible experiences makes literacy a joy!
Above and below: Shouldn’t THIS be what P.E. and science classes look like?
Below: Learning to be gentle with other living creatures.
Below: Learning about and carefully handling Ms. T’s Nature Treasures.
Above: I trusted this group to pass around delicate snake skins, a fragile egg, a partial muskrat skull, and seriously spiny seed pods. We don’t just tell them to be careful, we show them how. Then, little by little, trust and confidence can grow. Nothing was broken and no one was injured. This is not found in a school curriculum, but is a worthwhile life skill.