Woods and Wetlands 2017

Climbing, Falling, and Tracking


On Tuesday we had another small group, this time of nine explorers.  Seven of them were experienced either through Woods and Wetlands or past years’ Firsts in the Forest.  We began by visiting the Secret Fort Tree via the tunnel we have created which requires most of us to crawl at some point.  Mind you, there is a much easier way to arrive at the Secret Fort Tree but it takes the, “Secret,” out of the title, so the tunnel is much more challenging and fun.  The kids took turns climbing up and O. found a new way to get up into the tree since her usual way was being used by other kids.  I love seeing the problem-solving creativity that kids will use when they are allowed to take the time to think about it.  Different kids approach problems in different ways based on their individual personalities and experiences.  For example, some explorers didn’t immediately find a way up and asked for help right away.  Others, like O, don’t give up and ask for help at first; they try different options and accept failure as a learning experience that ultimately ends in success after effort.  My goal and hope is to teach that approach to kids who haven’t yet learned it.

A. was new to Woods and Wetlands and I was delighted to see that she already possessed a valuable skill; she knows how to fall!  It is wonderful to see kids climbing and balancing, but of course, they do fall from time to time.  We all do.  But what I didn’t learn as a child myself was how to fall!  I remember being so afraid to fall, both literally and figuratively, that I didn’t always try new experiences.  But A. went fearlessly up and forward and she did fall a few times.  She landed, looked surprised, laughed, and got up to try again.  She didn’t fight the fall, but she did learn from it.  I admire that quality and wonder if it, also, is teachable?

Later we went to the swamp which is most definitely not frozen solid.  Beneath the snow and ice there are still treacherous muck holes and most of us discovered that very quickly!  I pulled my own boot out with a tremendous sucking sound as the muck reluctantly released me.  One explorer wondered how deeply the hibernating frogs were buried and whether we might accidentally step on them.


J. and B. teamed up as usual and then came hurrying with great excitement to find me, wanting to show me something they discovered.  They had such an air of mystery, wonder, and delight in their faces!  They found tracks in the snow that were unlike the deer or rabbit tracks we have previously discovered and they wanted to know what sort of animal made them.  We followed a line of the tracks to a tree where they appeared to end at first.  We looked up into the tree but it was a small one and its branches were empty.  Then the boys called out urgently that they found where the tracks picked up again just a short distance from the tree.  Using questioning and discussion worthy of well-trained classroom collaborators, they concluded that whatever it was must have climbed up the tree and then jumped some distance from it to the new trail of paw prints.  We followed these for a while too and then, after guessing at what could make those tracks, climb a tree, and jump from it we remembered that we have a ring of laminated cards with pictures of animal tracks and animal scat back in our storage container.  B. flipped slowly through the cards as J. and I looked on.  We discussed each possibility and compared them to the photos I had taken of the paw prints.  We noted the triangular, pointy shape of the heel and the number of toes.  The boys had noticed right away that they showed actual claw marks too.  We took into account the size of each track printed on our identification cards.  Finally, we concluded that it must have been a squirrel.  Satisfied with their work, they went to roll snowballs.

Meanwhile, K., who was our only 5th grader this time, had climbed up the Tilted Tree all the way to the tree that both holds and intersects the Tilted Tree.  She perched comfortably way up in its branches and grinned down at the rest of us.  I recalled the powerful, cozy, magical feeling I used to have, (and still do!) when I climbed a tree and found a spot to just sit and be by myself.  It was never a lonely feeling, even when I was alone.  K. looked like she had that feeling.

Some of the smaller kids marveled at how she got up there.  The Tilted Tree is still steady, alive, and strong enough despite part of its roots having been pulled out of the ground, but parts of it have died so it is missing bark on a crucial section toward the bottom where any smaller climbers might need to grip.  I remembered that I had some narrow rope in our storage box and began wrapping and tying it to the tree so that climbers could grab it for support as they began their ascent.  It wasn’t ideal as it is slippery and narrow, but it is strong enough for the purpose and is better than nothing.  Several kids looked on and advised me on where they thought the rope should go.  Upon reflection, I should have let them try doing it first.  But it helped A. get up into the tree, though she slipped off and had another skillful falling experience.  Once again, she shook it off and tried a second time.


S. works to untangle the rope for me.









We ended earlier than usual since darkness falls sooner now.  The kids couldn’t believe our time was already up.  O. walked back beside me and recounted her memory of last week when we were wading through deep snow to get back.  We smiled our way to the front of the building and said good-bye until next time.



Woods and Wetlands 2017

Stick Play and A Magic Tree

This is a great way to enter the woods… once it actually gets icy.  This is mostly just dry snow and dirt.  But that doesn’t get in the way of kids who want to have fun!
The expressing of cattails never seems to get old.
Look how happy they are out in the snow being kids!
They played with sticks for at least half an hour.  No one got hurt.  No one got mad.  They took turns carefully pretending to jab at and whack each other, grinning and laughing, taking care to not actually hurt each other.  I watched and learned.

If it can be climbed, they will climb it.

Trying to unlock the magic portal with a cattail.

This was clearly a magical tree.  With S’s help, we named it Gandalf.
The  Magic Portal.

B. followed bunny tracks all over the swamp.
The muck has not yet frozen.  We talked about how the snow is an insulator.
Woods and Wetlands 2017

Snow Day

Yesterday we had a snow day from school, but that is no reason to cancel Woods and Wetlands!  If anything, it made for an even more magical experience.  We were able to meet earlier and though it was a tiny group, only 3 explorers, we had a lovely time.

Breaking trail through new snow brings such a feeling of childhood to me and it seems completely normal to drop down and crawl through tiny openings between low branches, imagining we are little, furry animals in this wonderland.  I love and recognize the feel of being all insulated in snow pants, puffy coats, warm mittens and protective hats while the snow falls on our eyelashes and our cheeks get pink.

The kids notice all kinds of details and features of the woods and swamp that they haven’t seen before.  The girls haven’t been out there with me since last year and their voices continually brim with joy as they call out to each other and to me, “Remember when…!?”  And I am warmed by the memories they share.  I realize that some of those memories would have been lost to me if it weren’t for these verbalized recollections.  I also remember things that they do not, and between us, we rebuild some of those connections.

It is an effort to remember to pull out my phone to capture some of this beauty because I just want to soak it in and be fully present.  But I also love to share as much of it as possible with parents and others who enjoy these journeys.

We stayed toasty warm until the end when our toes began to get a bit cold and we found ourselves nicely tired out as we trudged back through the deepening snow to meet their parents.  I remembered dragging through snow behind my big sister as she broke trail for both of us throughout our childhood winters.  I glanced behind me to see O. and S. beaming at me, tired out but so happy, and B. found a burst of energy to run ahead, weaving his way through our half-filled tracks and creating new ones.

Tracks in the fresh snow, like memories made and as they fill again, half forgotten, always with the opportunity to get out there and make new ones all over again.


This was a tree/bush the girls remembered from last year and were eager to find again.  S. remembered that when they first discovered it and brought me there I had told them that they took me on a wild goose chase!  I had forgotten that.  It made her laugh.
B. really put some hard work into getting up there!  He slipped and fell a few times before getting it.  What a great feeling of accomplishment when we learn to do something ourselves!  He said he was, “self-taught.”

Looking for a way to climb up.  Like anything else, it takes thought, effort, and practice.  She can do it!
She is a strong girl!  This time she got to enjoy the best places in the Secret Fort Tree since she didn’t have to share it with an entire class.
Dropping to make a snow angel anywhere, any time!

Oh, they sure know what to do when a camera is pointed their way!


“Snow angel high fives!” they said.
We wondered whether the magic tree would open with cattail fluff applied?


Oh, the joys of texture, discovery, and making a mess!


S. decided she would call these, “Nature’s corndogs.”
This was a new memory in the making.  When we did Firsts in the Forest together we hadn’t discovered how to make cattails puff out like… well… cat tails!
B. decides to make a new trail in the swamp.
We were perplexed about how and why the cattails had new, young plants still green coming up through the snow.  We remembered seeing them that way in the springtime.

B. enjoyed playing with his, “torch,” that he found and used it to lead the way as he discovered more bunny tracks!
Woods and Wetlands 2017

Is It Time to Hibernate?

M. discusses how and tries to make a fire with a stick rubbing quickly against another stick.  It did get warm, but the patience and know-how wasn’t entirely there, which was fine since we aren’t really allowed to start fires out there!
Some of the kids found a natural shelter and covered the muck with sticks while finding small islands to sit on.  B. pointed out that once the muck freezes the sticks will freeze into it creating a nice floor.  I asked them for predictions on how many days it would take at a similar temperature (around 27 degrees) for the muck to freeze solid.  Guesses ranged from 1-4 days.  We shall see!
L. reclines and looks up at the snowflakes falling from the sky.  He stayed there for a while, quiet and peaceful.

Blurry photo but cool tree growing out of an old stump.
L. found a place he likes to sit.  He brought me over to show me and I immediately noticed the poison ivy vine hanging right in front of his face!  I urged him to find a different spot or be extremely careful!  Crossing the poison ivy vine is a wild grapevine, (the one he is touching.)
The Fairy Tree is ready for winter.
Woodpeckers have been finding food in the Fairy Tree.  We wondered if anything was living in those holes yet.
B. and I discussed the temperature in the swamp and how it is usually a couple degrees warmer than everywhere else nearby.

I reminded them that just because there was snow dusting the top didn’t mean the muck was ready to be stepped on.  A few had to test that out for themselves.  
Woods and Wetlands 2017

Curious and Creative

Impromptu chemistry lab.  Even fifth graders still like to (and should!) play with random substances.  This is a concoction of swamp muck and bittersweet berry juice made for no other purpose than to experiment with what it would look and smell like.  Process over product is where learning happens!
Beautiful bittersweet berries.  We looked them up to learn about whether they are edible, though I was sure they are not.  It said that while they won’t be actually poisonous, they will produce some extremely unpleasant results.  I reinforced the rule about never eating substances out of nature without an adult who absolutely knows what it is and whether it is safe.  But we also talked about how early humans might have tested berries to find out what they could eat.  They might have touched them, broken them open, sniffed them, perhaps touched just the tip of their tongue and waited to see how that felt or tasted.  Medicines could also be tested this way in small quantities.
This was the larva of the gall fly that we found after cutting open several galls we found on goldenrod stems.  They used their magnifying glasses to inspect it closely.
Collaboration and discussion as they take turns looking at their discovery.
This is a gall that I cut open with my pocket knife.  Inside we found a tiny larva.  We wondered, “What kind was it?  How did it get there?  When would it hatch into something else?  How would it get out?”  We researched the answers online using my phone and found that it was a gall fly.  They choose only certain, select goldenrod plants and lay their eggs at the tip of the stem.  The larva produces saliva that imitates the plant’s hormones, causing it to grow this woody, round gall around the larva, protecting it for the winter until it is ready to hatch and burrow out as a fly.

G. did some mud painting on various surfaces.
They kept their frog in a container of leaves for a while before adding a worm and another bug.
S. and B. learned and practiced braiding cattail leaves to make a rope.

Ever the artist, G. makes swamp muck paint and uses a cattail as a paintbrush.

I was amazed that they found this sleepy little wood frog so late in the year!
Woods and Wetlands 2017

Make a Wish

Can you make a wish on cattail fluff?  If you can, then these kids will have enough wishes for the whole world.

They love to hug Grandfather Oak.


Despite not really wanting to be wet, they can’t help trying to make it through.
This log held soft, almost-earth-again material.


I was enchanted by this tree that has evidently grown out of another fallen tree.
When left to their own, unstructured devices, kids WILL entertain themselves.
Mission:  find as many trees with matching bark as you can between here and the path.
M. found a shell!
Oh the joy of cattail torches.
Make a wish!
Endlessly fascinating.
It felt like it was snowing at 50 degrees.
A bundle of dried ferns made a duster. I don’t dust. And luckily the outdoors doesn’t need to be dusted!
They covered the stump with cattail fluff. I am beginning to think we should stuff pillows with it!
Conducting experiments.
H. was so proud. She never climbed this high before!
She did it!
C. is in her happy place.

Woods and Wetlands 2017

Those Kids Are Climbing That Tree!

Last week with my Tuesday group was relaxing and fun.  I have realized recently that there is no reason daily life can’t be this way more often.  Stressful and busy do not have to define a day in order for it to be worthwhile.  Spending time with children who are delighting in the dispersal of cattail fluff, climbing high into a tilted tree, and tying bits of nature treasures to a stick is a perfect way to pass part of a day.

We remained in our usual area rather than hike over to the new wetland.  The kids voted last week for the new and this week for the old.  S. and H. and I spent most of our time making nature mobiles.  G. helped us collect acorn tops to add to our  mobiles.  We also used dried ferns, berry clusters, tiny sprays of twigs, and leaves for our creations.



While I was busy tying knots I heard B. repeating urgently, “Those kids are climbing that tree!” until I finally realized he was either worried about them or thought they shouldn’t be doing it. (or both)

I glanced at the kids in question and nodded, “Yes, they sure are!” and went back to what I was doing.

“OH!” he said then.  He seemed to be thinking that over.  I looked around at him and asked if he was worried about them.  He nodded, “It might fall down!”

So I brought him over to it and, with the support of other kids, I showed him how to tell the difference between a living and a dead tree or branch.  The next time I looked around, he had climbed halfway up the trunk and was blissfully reclined on a spreading branch.


Meanwhile several of the kids had discovered various methods of exploding cattails into their fluffy seed carriers.  I.B. was gleefully shaking one cattail, making it, “snow,” and watching the white puffs sail off in the wind.  T. showed me how he could press his finger into the cattail and it suddenly looked like a lump of fur had emerged.  Before long a bunch of the kids were having cattail fluff fights and yelling with joy and laughter.  I encouraged them to find a place where the thousands of tiny, clingy seeds would not blow into the hair and clothing of those of us who preferred to be fluff-free.  This makes for a natural lesson in wind direction and how to use the wind to affect one’s activities.

We briefly tried estimating the number of seeds in a cattail…



C. asked me how high they were allowed to climb in the Tilted Tree.  I explained that she could climb as high as she felt safe and comfortable climbing and pointed out where the branches began to thin as a place the tree might weaken.  Later, after she had climbed high and come back down she and I stood beneath the tree and looked up together as she wondered how high she had been.  We then used my 5 foot (-ish) height to estimate how many feet up she had been.  We do quite a bit of estimating out there in the wild.


Another blissful session of Woods and Wetlands came to a close as the sun began to set. We returned our orange safety vests to our storage unit and returned to the world of cars and screens.  I always leave hoping that the kids will carry their love and stories of outdoor adventures back home to share with someone else.



Woods and Wetlands 2017

If a Tree Falls in a Forest…

It was so good to see everyone dressed just perfectly for the chilly, fall afternoon yesterday.  Nevertheless, getting a boot full of swamp water on a 40 degree day is quite different from an 80 degree, June day.  I notice the kids nearly always have a hard time with this the first time it happens but they tend to toughen up and take it well if it happens again.  In fact, I heard one of the first grade boys echo my own words when he slipped and ended up with a wet foot, “Well… it happens.”  Yes, it does.  Very philosophical!

I was smiling because I had just had a short conversation with some girls as we were wondering if anyone had fallen in yet.  G. had smiled and said, dryly, “Someone always falls in!”  I pondered aloud what we would do if one of these days no one did.  I jokingly concluded that we would simply have to push someone in!  The girls laughed and we went on our way, balancing on mossy logs through the cold water.

C. was wondering what the tube under the path was for and I showed her how it allows water to flow under instead of over when the water rises.  We found 3 places where the water had gone over and through, eroding the soil and collapsing the path.  S. used a stick to pole vault herself over these narrow waterways.  It was a perfect situation for observing the power of water and how it can affect soil where tree roots do not hold it in place.

As I reflect on our conversations and observations I am always pleased to notice ways that the kids just naturally engage in mathematical and scientific thinking.  For another example, on our way to Grandfather Oak someone noticed a portion of a dead tree that was held up off the ground by another tree in which it was trapped toward the top.  I encouraged everyone to stop and try to use clues nearby to piece together what might have happened to cause what they were seeing.  I wish I could relay the entire complex of conversation that went on for the next 10 minutes or so.  They grasped onto my question and I began hearing them take turns telling each other and me what they noticed such as, “Look!  I think this chunk of tree trunk on the ground matches up right here with the part of the tree that’s still hanging up.”  and, “This end of that chunk is smooth!  Someone must have chopped it down somewhere!”  and, “Here’s a stump.  Maybe it came from this.”  (Guiding question from me: “But is the size of that stump right?  Is it the same size as the base of that tree?”)  “No!  It’s not.  It’s too small… Here’s one!  This one matches!” and, “I agree with C.” and, “I think that tree fell onto the other one first and then someone chopped it out of the way and then it fell apart over here…”  etc.  These are the kinds of conversations and investigations we have been trying to facilitate in our classrooms and here they are happening with almost no effort on my part after school in the woods.  This one could have been extended in so many ways.

If kids conduct a scientific or mathematical inquiry about a tree that fell in the woods and no administrators are there to hear it and no tests are there to evaluate it, did it still, “make a sound??”  Yes, and it was a beautiful sound.  The valuable, memorable,  happy sound of kids learning naturally.


“Eew!  Poop!”  Nope.  Not poop.  Fungus!  We don’t know what it’s called, but it didn’t feel as gross as it looked.
H. balanced her way across the log.
We wondered what might make a home in this cool tree.
There was some debate about whether these were mushrooms or not.  C. used his background knowledge of the mushrooms he has seen in the grocery store to declare that they did not look like mushrooms.  This illustrates the point that the more experiences kids have, the more they use those experiences to learn new things.  
The kids really lend bright colors to these dark, November days!




Woods and Wetlands 2017

Never Bored

45° and sunny

November 7, 2017

No one could be bored with a woods and swamp to explore.  Today (Tuesday) many of the kids had their new compasses and they practiced using them while also learning to read an old map on our new exploration.

Is it poison sumac?

Before heading out on our new discovery the kids wanted to go explore some more out past the Fairy Tree.  A group decided to make a path between the Fairy Tree and the Boardwalk, (which was pretty easy because of the kids from the Thursday group who already did that the week prior…)   They came back triumphant and announcing that they are, “real men and women,” because they made it all that way!  I contemplated having a discussion about what they think it means to be a, “real man,” or, “real woman,” but I could tell they were just being silly and so I laughed with them and said nothing other than reflecting that I could tell they were proud of themselves.  Unfortunately, (or fortunately, depending on your point of view,) I found what I think is poison sumac out in the area near the boardwalk where the kids have started making the new path.  We will be avoiding that and learning to identify it asap!

Possibly poison sumac? Poison sumac differs from the staghorn sumac that we often see growing in meadows in our area. Poison sumac sometimes has white berries. It can grow into a large bush and is described as growing in swampy areas. We did have two students who developed a rash the week before and it does say in the 1978 nature trail book from Lakes that there was poison sumac out near the old boardwalk which is where I found this. I am waiting on positive identification from a forester friend.

The new path:  a map, an old oak, and a mossy wetland

Several of us blew our whistles to call everyone to us so that we could follow the old map to a new location.  I had copies made of the 1978 map of the Lakes Nature Trail so anyone who wanted to follow along on it as we walked was able to do so.  Most of the kids were excited to do so.  Our first stop was at Grandfather Oak.  We noted how old he looks and gave him a hug.  The kids noticed that an animal has or had a den at the base of Grandfather Oak.  Someone asked what kind of animal it was so I asked what kind it could be.  This is a good way to determine what kids already know about their local wildlife.  My guess was a woodchuck, but nobody was home at the moment so we didn’t find out for sure.



The new woods is both a woods and a wetland at the same time.  It reminds me a bit of one of the planets on the old Star Wars movies, but I don’t know which one.  It is beautiful and decorated with mossy logs, clear water with a leafy floor, and weathered stumps that look like fairy castles.









Dead tree trunk and a bird’s nest

M. came upon a dead tree trunk barely balancing on its last leg and he wanted to push it down, (because it’s fun for kids to do stuff like that!) but I was so glad he asked first.  I was explaining how dead trees provide food and shelter for birds and bugs, and then someone noticed a bird nest up in one of the cavities of the trunk!  I am sure it will fall down on its own at some point soon, but we were glad to leave it alone for now in case it lasts until spring.  This spontaneous mini lesson on how dead trees are beneficial turned into another mini lesson about how birds do not live in nests except to raise their young! C. (4th grader) was very curious about this and he said that he never knew that because books seem to always show birds in their nests so he assumed that’s where they go at night when they go to sleep.  He thought about it and asked me where they do sleep if they don’t sleep in nests?   I love that he was thinking about it and wondering.

Authentic compass usage + a handy thermometer

C. (5th grader) and I had a great conversation/lesson about directions.  She thought her compass wasn’t working properly because it was pointing the direction she was sure was east.  Once we established that it was, in fact, north, she was baffled by how her sense of direction was turned around.  This happened again when it was time to walk back and she felt strongly that we should walk in a different direction.  I explained about our sense of direction and how it will improve with practice just like any other skill.  I assured her that I still get turned around in my head sometimes and that is why knowing how and when to use a compass is really helpful.

The sun started to set when it was time to go and we could see it shining brightly through the trees to the… “Who knows in what direction the sun sets?”  This was met with a chorus of ALL of the directions shouted out at me.  Finally I got them quiet enough to confirm WEST and have everyone check their compasses.

This photo captures him after he had already walked, balancing carefully, along the log and fallen in. He didn’t give up but stood up and climbed back onto the log with a branch for additional support. His feet were wet and cold but the smile never left his face.

We headed back, trying to be extra quiet and respectful as we skirted the edge of a property owner’s lawn.  I have permission from that particular landowner, but will need to get permission from some others now that we are exploring farther afield.

The temperature had dropped by that time and some of us checked our thermometers on the back of the compasses.  It had only dropped by 3 degrees (a quick math problem done by a 2nd grader as we walked,) but without the sun it felt really cold!  Those who had slipped and had boots full of water were starting to get pretty chilly by then.  It may be time for thick socks or multiple layers!

It was a wonderful afternoon of my favorite kind of teaching and learning!



Woods and Wetlands 2017

So Much Fun!

I know I have had as much fun as the kids when I don’t even think to take many photos.  It means I was present.  I was there in the moment enjoying myself and watching the kids being kids.  We were again fortunate to have a volunteer with us.  I am always a bit unsure at first with adults since kids are my comfort zone, but Mrs. V. was definitely up for the experience!  She knew what she was seeing was of value and she had her own nature stories to share as well!  I love knowing there are adults who see the swamp’s beauty and the kids’ eyes all lit up with joy and a sense of adventure.

We explored and noticed all kinds of cool things.  What amazes me is that there is always something new that I have never seen before.  For example, a couple of boys brought over a tiny piece of a branch that had what appeared to be very small fungi of some sort growing on it.  The boys were curious to know what they were and I am no fungus expert but I was pretty sure they were a fungus.  We poked some open and found dry, grayish powder inside which I guessed to be spores.  We sniffed at it carefully and came up with a few scientific guesses as to what it might be.  Mrs. V. is totally on the same page with me in terms of combining science and imagination because she waited until we were done guessing before posing her hypothesis about swamp alien pods.  We laughed and expanded on that fun idea.  The classroom teacher in my mind reflected on the writing projects that could come from this!

One of the girls was curious about some kind of woody growth on a different branch so I got my pocket knife and we cut it open to see what might be living inside, if anything.  We didn’t confirm anything in particular, but everyone crowded around to see what it might be.  The curiosity and the process of investigation seem like the best part, even if we don’t have any conclusions.

A few kids went on a longer exploration past the Fairy Tree and came back with stories about what they saw as well as a curl of bark filled with cattails, but they called them corn dogs.  Who could argue?


About half the class went with me to the boardwalk because I wanted to see whether I could locate any poison sumac by sight.  I read in our 1978 Lakes nature trail booklet that there was poison sumac out in the swamp, but I have never seen it if it is still there.  We have had one boy recently who did get a rash, but we don’t know if it is from that or poison ivy or something else.  My knowledge of sumac extends only to the common staghorn sumac you see around the fields and open lands in Michigan with its fuzzy, red clusters of berries and harmless leaves.  With most of the leaves off of the swamp bushes I was unable to identify anything that might possibly be poison sumac.  I referred to online photos of it with white berries and leaves not unlike those of staghorn sumac.  I will continue researching.

At the boardwalk, G. demonstrated her tremendous balancing abilities on the old railing.


Next week I hope to take the class on a little hike using the new (old!) map in the 1978 guide that Mrs. Wells found in an old filing cabinet last spring.  I can’t wait to see what happens!