Woods & Wetlands Family Format

Science Matters: Sand or Clay, Sink or Float.

It never ceases to amaze me how quickly an hour in the woods can go by! When today’s session was over, I was so not ready to leave our endeavor to build a little dam across a flowing, trickle of stream using clay found right there in the ravine.

Today’s hour of Woods and Wetlands was spent with one of the first families I explored with when initially introducing my W&W Family Format. My friend and her 3 children, ages 5, 9, and 10, were eager to show me the wonders of nature in their own backyard. Rather than the long walk to the river, we just hopped right into the woods behind their home where water has carved a ravine and flows to the nearby Rogue River. I was absolutely delighted to follow the kids as they led me to some of the special places they already know and love. As we approached, my mind leaped ahead to possibilities of learning about water – its sources, its effects, its necessity! There are endless opportunities for understanding the water cycle and our place in protecting our fresh water.

Our first stop was just a simple, shallow, pool of water with late morning sun striking it just perfectly and the kids declared it to be their frog-catching place. Sure enough, with the sun lighting up the still water we could clearly see several frogs at the bottom and at its edge. While the two older kids and their mom engaged in responding to my questions about how the sand got there in the first place, (huge glaciers, taller than their house!) the 5 year old began her own sink or float science experiment. “That leaf floats!” What else floats? Would this stick float? No. Why not? What about this stick? It does? Why does that one float and the other one doesn’t? This brought me right back to when I taught kindergarten and preschool. I also pulled out my mini magnifier and encouraged the kids to use it to examine the sandy soil and then later compared it to clay.

Our conversation about how the glaciers pushed and pressed on all that rock, grinding it into either gravel, sand, clay or loam (our focus was clay or sand) turned to learning about how nonliving rock becomes soil which then, (insert a shift of kids’ interest at this point, wherein I spoke more to myself for the moment, ha!) uses atmospheric gases which encourage growth of plant life, which then dies back to create richer soil that can host bigger plant life upon which we all depend for food. (And Z. reconnects with me here.) I invited the kids to think about food that we eat and how we all need healthy soil and plants, even if we are eating meat. Z. wondered about meat-eating animals; maybe they don’t need plants? But, yes, they do.
Think of an owl, I pointed out, what does it eat?
Right. And what do mice eat?
“… oh. Plants and seeds.”
Oh, how I love open, teachable moments with kids who know how to think as these kids clearly do!

Ultimately, the goal today (as far as the kids were concerned) was to take me to the clay spot where they most love to play. So we left the frog pool and hiked back up to the top of the ravine. We walked along the edge, looking down its steep sides and admiring some lovely beech trees growing tall above us and offering sun-dappled shade. To get back down into the ravine where the clay was found we each used different methods. I could well see how my friend’s kids return from there absolutely “filthy,” and when the 5 year old displayed some frustration with getting down while wearing boots, I decided it was time to model going barefoot. Our toes are excellent grippers and our bare feet can help our bodies know just what to do with challenging terrain. Sure enough, once I did it, L. was willing to try it too. I felt that I wanted to make a special connection with her in part because she didn’t stay with us the last time we ventured out, and also because I know, personally, what it’s like to be the littlest one who can’t do all the same things that the older kids can.

I tried various methods to connect with her before finding that she was still interested in her sink and float experiment. So she joined me near a bit of flowing water and a smaller pool than the first one and we proceeded to experiment with sticks, a rock, and balls of clay we rolled in our hands like play dough.

Meanwhile I listened as the two older siblings took turns telling me all manner of stories about what they and their friends have done when they play down in the ravine with other neighborhood kids. I just LOVE that their adults are wisely allowing their kids to play outdoors in the wild, unstructured, nature they are privileged enough to have readily available!

Shortly before our time was up, Z. and I began making a clay dam across the rivulet of water that flowed here and there beneath a large, fallen tree. What could be more fun than challenging oneself to crossing a ravine on a log bridge? I enjoyed seeing G. doing just that, carefully balancing on the log, clearly familiar with it and confident in her own body’s abilities. We spotted another fallen tree that spanned the ravine much higher than where we were playing. Eyeing it we decided that it looked like fun, but also maybe it was too dangerously high up. One great thing about unstructured play in nature is that kids will typically not try to do more than they can safely manage. That is not to say that kids don’t take risks and sometimes get hurt, but this is part of how they learn their own limits. Most children wouldn’t attempt crossing that log if they weren’t ready to do so yet. Exceptions happen when other children sometimes dare or challenge each other to do something. An important instruction I often share with kids is that they should only challenge themselves within their comfort zone, but that it can be really dangerous to try to get someone else to do something they aren’t ready for. This was certainly not an issue with these 3. They clearly take care of and look out for each other. It is obvious that empathy and kindness are well-modeled by their parents.

G. brought back a chunk of clay with the intention to bake it. However, when she added some water, it fell apart like sand. Before I left, I suggested trying it again but without adding so much water, or to experiment with collecting clay from different sites and comparing its composition. Clay without sand will stick together nicely. Clay with sand is more likely to fall apart. I hope that her interest in this continues and she will set herself the challenge to find out more. But? If not, she will follow another interest and see where it leads her. The very best learning is self-motivated, and that is why I never try to plan too much for Woods and Wetlands. When we enter the woods (or the prairie, the swamp, the river… any wild land,) we will benefit far more by remaining open to whatever nature has in store for us in each moment, trusting ourselves, and following our own intuition and curiosity wherever they may lead.


Woods & Wetlands Family Format

Parents Can Play Too!

Yesterday I had the unique opportunity for a Woods and Wetlands adventure on a friend’s private property only a few miles from my home. She is the parent of a former student of mine. Her son is grown up now and didn’t join us on our expedition through the wilds of their family’s relatively new acreage. Instead, my friend invited one of her friends to come along and explore with us. I promptly confessed that this would be the first “adults only,” version I’d done, and my friend cheerfully directed me to just treat them the same as I would children.

My friend had warned me ahead of time to be sure to wear muck boots as the property included quite a lot of swampy, wet ground. I was glad to have followed her instruction as the majority of our footing was definitely in wetlands. Just as I do with children, I felt the same quality of excitement and adventure to be outside exploring in nature, except with adults I am allowed to finish my sentences more often.

With no path yet created, the three of us were obliged to carve our own way across a shallow channel of water, around fallen branches, and through a waist-deep jungle of plant-life. As we approached the water and searched for an ideal place to cross, each step we took sent frogs leaping and plopping, one by one, into the channel where they promptly disappeared beneath floating, green, duckweed. It was hot and still out there and more than once I tipped my head back to take in a deep breath through my nose, inhaling all of those lovely fresh-water summer scents.

I knew we had only an hour, and I did try, but it is becoming clearer to me that not only do I struggle with time management, I will always have more to share and more to learn any time I am privileged enough to spend time in the wilderness. Here is a partial list of plants and trees that we noticed.

Virginia creeper
Poison ivy
Wild grapevine
Wild roses
Wild apple
Staghorn sumac
Button bushes

As we walked we could hear multiple calls of the sandhill cranes I’d spotted gathering in a nearby cornfield that I passed on my way to my friend’s house. The cranes’ wild cries never cease to thrill me and make me smile. Other than the frogs and cranes, the only other signs of animals along our way were deer tracks and scat.

I don’t personally know many other women who would have braved the thickets that we treaded yesterday. My friend hadn’t been through there yet, herself, and so none of us were entirely sure of directions, and we still had to get back! Normally I stop to point out and talk about landmarks, but there really weren’t any defining characteristics to act as guides. Nevertheless, we kept the pond and swamp area to our right and followed the curve of it around to the back of their land, my friend offering guidance as told to her by her husband who had explored their property already. His directions turned out to be really helpful as we reached first the drain channel, then the leftovers from an old apple orchard, the pond obscured by willows and button bushes, and finally a clearing in the back. We knew then that we were at least still approximately where we intended to be. I’m still not sure if we made it to the clearing my friend intended, but we did make it to A clearing, of that I am sure.

We paused so many times to talk about what we discovered that we left ourselves only about five minutes to return. Luckily a neighbor’s yard and driveway were just a short distance away and we were able to gain permission to take a shortcut. I should note, for any family members of mine who may be reading this, that my definition of “shortcut,” actually does shorten the amount of time it takes to get to a desired location, unlike the “shortcuts” from my childhood in which our dad used the term but his version was often, shall we say, a bit more troublesome and lengthy than mine. Proof? Yesterday’s adventure ended with all of us accounted for, each of us still in a good mood, and no one in tears.

If I am to compare our outing yesterday to those that include children, I would have this to say: When parents allow themselves to play like children, explore without fear of being damp or dirty, and remain open to new information, it is just as much fun! As an added bonus, my friend’s friend who joined us had a wealth of nature knowledge of her own that I was pleased to gain in return!

I didn’t take pictures, except to demonstrate how to use the iNaturalist app with a photo of swamp milkweed. There was so much to see, hear and smell as we waded through and it just felt right to soak it up by simply Being.


Uncategorized, Woods & Wetlands Family Format

A Taste of Wild

Every family experiences nature in different ways. Today felt soft, gentle, and quiet. I was already acquainted with this delightful family and I knew the older boy, from past summers of Woods and Wetlands, to be a thoughtful, bright, and curious person. It was really nice to get to know his mom and brother a bit better as we explored Brower Lake Nature Preserve together.

Though I walk or run these trails almost daily, there is always something that inspires my own sense of wonder, a phrase I frequently borrow from Rachel Carson’s 1956 book, The Sense of Wonder. With this quieter family we were able to hear and see more wildlife without scaring it away. I hadn’t really dared to hope that we would see “my” owl in those morning hours, but we DID! This magical creature regularly shows up for my late afternoon or evening walks and runs, but to see her swooping across the meadow, driven by the ever raucous blue-jays protecting their own, gave us quite a thrill! I turned, grinning, and looked behind me to see the mom’s and boys’ faces mirroring the same joy that I always feel, regardless of how many times I have seen this owl.

Though this photo was taken on a different day, this is the owl we saw today as it flew away.

There was so much to taste today! As always, the sassafras trees got the most mention with their lemony leaf scent, their three, unique, leaf shapes, and root-beer flavored roots. I also tried to convey how beautiful their leaves are when fall comes. In just one sassafras leaf one can see all shades of autumn like a stunning sunset that lights up an entire tree.

We took our time getting to the wetland, as this was a two-hour session, and our little group got to enjoy wild, black, raspberries, wild blueberries, tiny, sour, green apples, wild blackberries, and wintergreen leaves. Now that the sun can reach the center of the preserve, new plants are thriving there. Purple bee-balm (bergamot) is blooming beside black-eyed susans and pokeweed.

Checking out the wild apple tree and watching for poison ivy.

As we walked, there were pockets of peaceful silence in which we could hear a diversity of bird calls. From somewhere behind us a male cardinal chirruped incessantly, while the rest of the woods was alive with songs of rose-breasted grosbeaks, finches, and birds I could not identify by sound.

I often find myself torn between my inclination to keep talking and teaching as we walk, and falling quiet so that we can hear nature and our own thoughts for a while. I want to model the silence of an observer, while at the same time I see, smell, and hear so much that I want to share.

When we reached the wetland there was the usual thrill of enjoying the Vine Playground, and then the younger boy carefully and quietly approached the water with our net and I could see immediately that his instincts were spot-on if he wished to see or capture an aquatic animal. I showed him how to use the net to scoop from the bottom of the swamp and then to gently tip out the contents just on the edge of the water. In doing this, we found a nymph of some sort and we guessed that it might be that of a dragonfly or damselfly. I enjoyed conversation with the boys’ mom about the incredible adaptations of nature as we both shared our stories of discovery. We all viewed the nymph in my 2-way magnifier before returning it to the water.

On our way to try wintergreen we had a brief discussion about snakes. While I offered my thoughts on these necessary but often misunderstood creatures, a slim ribbon snake startled awake and darted away from us so quickly there was little chance that I could catch it, and though it would have been a perfect teachable moment, it was too fast for me. I was so encouraged to hear N. talking about how she uses self-talk to help herself feel more comfortable with snakes. This is such great modeling for her kids! If only everyone could be so aware of and motivated to change their unfounded fears! I am also a huge fan of using self-talk for any number of life’s challenges.

Though we weren’t getting over-bothered by deer flies, the boys nevertheless wanted to try my accidentally-discovered method for repelling them. Before leaving the woods they each donned a fern for their heads, amusing their mom and me. When we were nearly back to the entrance we laughed at the idea of wearing the ferns for their dad to see when he gets home.

Our walk back was just as pleasant as the hike there, though we moved a bit more quickly since we weren’t stopping to taste and look at everything this time. As we neared the entrance both boys noticed landmarks and signs indicating that we were almost back to their car where lunch was waiting. Despite all of the “nature snacks,” we’d enjoyed, they had worked up a healthy appetite and were more than ready to relax and eat.

Another beautiful adventure in the books. Next week I get to meet a friend with her family and explore their own property with her. I can’t wait!


Uncategorized, Woods & Wetlands Family Format

Wild Fun for All!

This morning’s nature adventure was a learning experience for all 5 of us! I absolutely love when I get to learn new things about nature from my students, both adults and children. One of the moms had a wealth of nature knowledge, as well as boundless curiosity that translated into great questions! Every time I get to say, “I don’t know!” I am being a scientist, and I intend to find out. With the two moms and two kids, we explored all the way to the wetland and back. I loved that the girls kept calling out their “noticings” for all of us to take a look.

While waiting for the other half of our party, I showed S. and A. the rocket wildflowers (turns out they’re also called bladder campion!) and demonstrated the use of a compass. We had a brief conversation about the frequent misidentification of poison sumac. The majority of the sumac around here is staghorn sumac, which does not cause a rash as poison sumac does. Poison sumac actually does not look too much like the non-poisonous staghorn sumac, and they prefer very different habitats. Staghorn sumac enjoys dryer soil and tends to spread and form staghorn sumac “forests.” However, the poisonous variety lives near and in wetlands and is likely to be standing alone, rather than in groups. The most noticeable difference is their berries. The poisonous variety has single berries on separate stems, but the staghorn sumac has berries that clump together and become red and fuzzy.

Natural DIY fall foraging poison sumac vs staghorn sumac | Natural ...

Right away we saw a beautiful flower that is new to me. I snapped a picture so that I could look it up later, and now I know it is dotted loosestrife, or, yellow loosestrife.

dotted or yellow loosestrife

As we walked, I realized how much has changed in this woods since just a year or two ago! With the prescribed burns and selective removal of certain trees, there is so much more sunlight which encourages very different plants to grow there.

There was so much to discover! We sniffed sassafras leaves with their deliciously lemony scent. When we visited the wild apple tree, the girls were faced with a problem: how to reach the apples? As much as I wanted to just do it for them, I held back, remembering that when I was a child I was allowed and encouraged to think and problem-solve for myself. When given enough wait time, kids become scientists, using trial and error to learn. Soon they were pulling the entire branch toward them to reach the apples. I recalled that when I was little and my sister and I frequented the wild apple trees along our driveway, we often couldn’t reach them because the deer had eaten the lowest hanging fruit. So we learned to jump and grab a branch, or, we used a stick to whack the apples down, and, while the most difficult strategy was throwing an apple from the ground and trying to hit the desired apple on the tree, success meant great satisfaction with our throwing aim! The girls tasted tiny bites of the wild apples, their faces immediately registering the sourness.

A very small catalpa tree, still blooming.

We did a lot of comparing poison ivy to other 3-leaved plants, and we noticed a plethora of oak trees, both small and tall. There were some beautiful, speckled, white flowers on the ground and we picked up up and inhaled their lovely scent. These were blooms fallen from a catalpa tree, which I finally located just above us!

Despite the repeated, helpful, reminders from the moms to their girls, it was predictably difficult for us to social distance, but we did pretty well, all things considered. I immediately fell in love with those two enthusiastic and engaging 8 year olds, and I knew they were going to just love the Vine Playground if we could get there before our hour was up. Thankfully, the moms opted for an additional hour so that we could take our time and make sure there was time to play. Nature play is so important and necessary!

Be careful when picking a fern as their stems can cut like a paper cut! But the fern-wearing did the trick! No more deer flies!

C. was noticing a deer fly circling her head, and I offered a fern for her to wear. This was based on a discovery I made many years ago when I was a child in the woods where I grew up. Quite by accident I figured out that when I picked a fern and put it on my head, the deer flies left me alone! As a result, my entire family has been wearing ferns on their heads each summer when deer flies begin to pester us. She tried it, and it worked again!

Though none of us opted to go in the swamp today, I did scoop up a net full and was immediately rewarded with a snail, a bug of some kind, and a tiny fish! We all took a look at them through the 2 way magnifying viewer before returning the critters to the water.

After everyone tried out some wintergreen and looked at the deer jaw on the Watching Log, it was time to head back. This time the girls felt confident going ahead on the trail and we made it back in record time!

Til tomorrow!


2020, Woods & Wetlands Family Format

On Fear of Snakes

Thamnophis proximus - Wikipedia

Many people are unabashedly afraid of snakes. This is a fairly normal fear to have, and in many places, it is a fear for good reason! Fear is our body and brain telling us to be careful, to stay safe. In some cases our fears are legitimate and definitely help keep us safe. Fear tells us to fight, flight, or freeze. Fear instinctively moves us out of our logical, thinking part of our brain and into the old, instinctive, fear-reaction part of our brain.

This morning I met a lovely and intelligent mom who, like countless others, plainly stated her fear and hatred of snakes. Her feelings originated not just from the deep, instinctive fear that many of us have, but also from unpleasant childhood encounters with snakes. She was perfectly able to logically recognize and even articulate the role snakes play in nature, but even so, they still terrify her. Feelings are never wrong, and, she is not alone in this feeling! Even other animals have unusually big reactions to seeing a snake. It is the only animal that seems to frighten my dogs, causing them to suddenly leap up and backward. Their instincts tell them that this is not a safe situation!

I try really hard to respect and honor other people’s beliefs and opinions, even when they are in opposition to my own. It’s not easy. Luckily, I get plenty of opportunities to practice and try again. I’m getting better at it, slowly but surely. I say this because I want to make clear that I am in no way criticizing the aforementioned mom. After all, she trusted me with her fear, offering that vulnerability to a near-stranger. But, as a teacher, it is my nature and training to want to help and to inform others, without judging or invalidating their very real fears, feelings, and ideas. After all, I, too, have my fears, feelings, and ideas! I am afraid of wasps and hornets. This is not an unfounded fear. I have been stung by them when I didn’t believe I had done anything to provoke them, though I accept that I probably did so without knowing it. I could benefit from doing some research and learning about wasps and hornets. I am also afraid of bridges. Yup. I feel like they might fall whenever I drive over one. This is a totally irrational fear. It has never happened to me. It could happen, but it is highly unlikely. So, with all of that in mind, I have some thoughts about how people tend to react to fear.

The tendency to react by killing snakes, spiders, and other fear-provoking creatures is understandable and even reasonable in some situations. After all, we must protect ourselves and our families. And maybe because I grew up loving just about every living thing in nature, as long as it didn’t hurt me, I still try to convince people not to kill what scares them. Digging deep into exactly why this kill reaction makes me so uncomfortable, I think about what it teaches our children when we kill or advocate killing what scares us, simply because it scares us, not because it is actually going to hurt us. How will children know when that reaction is actually necessary? What if they learn that the best way to respond to our fear feelings is to hurt or kill another creature? How does that translate in other situations where we may feel afraid of someone or something that is merely different from ourselves, and therefore, scary? Does it make us more okay with the killing of that person or animal? I can’t help seeing some parallels here to one of the issues that is dividing our country as we speak. The all too frequent killing of innocent and unarmed Black people by police is, I believe, deeply rooted in fear. I won’t explore that particular fear right now, but it is percolating through my mind as I consider the ways that humans behave when they are afraid of something or someone, even when there is no actual threat to their safety.

What if, instead, we began practicing first naming our fear and then exploring it a bit more by noticing how it makes us feel, physically and emotionally? Out-loud self-talk can be a powerful, psychological tool: I am afraid of snakes. I notice that when I think of or see them, my body freezes up and my breath comes up short. I shudder. I want to scream. I want to run away. I want to kill it so it won’t hurt me. And then, take it further. Identify if your fear reaction is well-founded. Is this snake going to actually hurt me? What do I know about snakes? Am I actually safe right now? I find that Self-Talk, out loud and using my own name, helps tremendously when I am struggling with big feelings. Tahlia, you know that snake is much smaller than you. It is probably very scared of you and would rather get away from you than try to bite you. You know that it is not venomous. You know that it helps humans and the ecosystem by eating bugs and other pests. Killing it will not help. By practicing this kind of self-talk, maybe we can gradually start to change our fear response. Simply by noticing and tuning in to our bodies and minds, we can learn to manage our fear so that we don’t let it control us.

I don’t want to live controlled by fear. I want to be able to understand and use my fears to respond mindfully, and I want to model this for the children in my life. They are watching and they are listening. And so, I will continue to challenge, with kindness and compassion, the reaction of hurting or killing another living thing when it has done us no harm.


Woods & Wetlands Family Format

Imagination + Nature = Magic!

Yesterday I got to enjoy the sun-dappled loveliness of Brower Lake Nature Preserve with a Belmont family consisting of a mom, dad, and 3 adventurous children. We met at the preserve’s entrance where a small meadow of rocket flowers and staghorn sumac are thriving. We entered the woods and immediately I could see the signs of joy as the kids’ faces lit up with wonder. I looked through their eyes as if this woods was new to me, and I appreciated anew the flickering shadows of oak leaves as the early evening sun shone between the trees. At one point, C., the 13 year old boy, paused and whispered reverently, “Oh! This is so beautiful!” My heart just filled at his ability to still be touched by nature’s magic, even at such a transitional age.

I opted to take them across what I call the ridge trail, which lends itself to conversation about forest management. We observed where soil erosion had happened and I pointed out how the West Michigan Land Conservancy had rerouted the trail in an effort to minimize erosion on the steep slope of a hill. Another sign of forest management that sparked questions were trees that had a strip of bark cut out of them all the way around the trunk. I explained that this technique is called, “girdling,” and it is a quick and easy way to kill a tree within just one year. I admit that this makes me sad. The trees that were girdled were those that were either invasive or non-native. Some trees and logs showed signs of having been burnt recently. This is due to the use of prescribed burns which are used to thin some of the underbrush and help with enriching the soil. The management of this forest is focused on restoring it to an oak barrens, a rare ecosystem in Michigan. This year the forest has shown dramatic changes since the burn 2 years ago. With more sunlight there are more berry bushes already loaded with hard, green berries.

Along the ridge trail there are two, huge, old, pine trees that frame a sad picture of the remains of the only sizable beech tree that used to live in this woods. The kids noticed its remains and I briefed them on the beech scale disease that is killing these beautiful trees. Changing the topic and sensing that these were some kids with wonderful imaginations, I showed them how the two, big pines form a sort of doorway and I told them how kids in past Woods and Wetlands groups have been certain they are a portal to an alternate world. A. marched right through them with no hesitation. But to return to us, she went around the trees, which led to an excited discussion about whether she left a version of herself behind in the alternate universe! I was right. These were kids with living and active imaginations, just as I had at their age!

We took our time getting to the wetlands, stopping to notice and wonder about various sights and sounds. Along the way we sniffed sassafras, tasted sorrel leaves, and nibbled on tiny, green, wild apples. Once we arrived at the swamp, I showed the kids the “Vine Playground,” a well-loved area where wild grapevine holds tightly enough to the trees that kids and adults can swing and bounce on it without fear of it breaking. A. was excited about trying more edible plants, so I showed everyone the plentiful wintergreen and we chewed on some of the new leaves of it.

I loved wading into the swamp with C. (once he’d given up on trying to get past the thorny, wild, rose bushes that mingle with swamp blueberry bushes.) After demonstrating how to use the net to scoop from beneath the water and gently dumping my findings just on the edge near the water, the kids were excited to see the tiny crayfish-like creature that was found wiggling amongst the decaying leaves. I popped it into my 2-way magnifying viewer, along with some water, and we all took a close look. It looked just like a tiny lobster. A. asked whether they are good to eat. I laughed and told her I had never tried. One of the kids carefully returned the tiny lobsters to the water once everyone had a look.

This was an extended session as the family had opted for a 2-hour time frame, so we were able to take our time and enjoy everything we encountered. On our way back we took the back loop near what I call “The Labyrinth,” and each of the kids took turns getting inside of “my” tree, imagining what it might be like to become part of a tree. When we reached the tree portal again, everyone was suggesting what might happen when A. returned to the alternate universe where she may meet a clone of herself! It was such fun to spin out these fantastical imaginings with this delightful trio of children!

I really enjoyed this family and I am so glad that I will be getting multiple opportunities to continue taking them on nature adventures!


Woods & Wetlands Family Format

What in the Woods is That?

This girl knows her plants!

This morning was only the second time I’ve been out with these girls and their mom this year, and prior to that, I hadn’t seen the girls for at least a year from our old Woods and Wetlands experiences. Despite this span of time, which is significant in the life of a child, K. still remembers everything she learned! Without the slightest effort she points out poison ivy, sassafras trees, and anything else I ask her for. I could feel her confidence and contentment out there in the woods, navigating the berry brambles and wild rose bushes with ease and comfort while she chewed casually on a tiny sassafras root.

Meanwhile her younger sister went charging ahead on the narrow deer trail we followed to a particular spot by the eastern swamp. Despite my repeated cautions about thorny plants and my attempt to have her practice recognizing them, I found myself smiling inwardly as my words fell on heedless ears. After she yelped and recoiled a few times, I noticed that she began to slow down a bit and look more carefully at the plant life that hovered over and around the trail. Each personality is different and each of us must learn in our own way. She didn’t give up. She didn’t decide that the woods is a dangerous place. Instead she learned from her errors and kept going, navigating more and more confidently with each step.

The woods was just beautiful this morning with the sun beams and leaf shadows everywhere. I enjoyed chatting with the girls’ mom as we both took turns remarking on curious sights and attempting to point them out to the girls when they were nearby. I loved seeing the wonder and peace on her face and I silently cheered when one of the girls posed and asked her to take a picture, but her mom calmly informed her that she didn’t even bring her phone and that they were going to just live in the moment. “YES, PLEASE! More of THAT!” I thought to myself. (Then I somewhat guiltily pulled out my own phone to take a few photos for this blog…)

Along the way we saw the tiny tracks of a fawn approaching the water.

As in all contexts of my life, I find that I am more and more timing challenged! (Or an incurable time-optimist?) It seems to me I can fit everything in that I want to do, but in reality, I just can’t. I quickly realized I had spent far too long pointing out other sights on our walk to the woods and then spent even longer quizzing everyone on poison ivy and reminding them to look UP now and then! My intention was to take them to the fallen tree that grows new trees on the edge of the east swamp and to spend most of our time in that area. Despite having scheduled just one hour, I could not bring myself to leave on time. It was too delightful out there and watching the girls enjoy walking along that fallen tree in the swamp pleased both their mom and me.

This is one of my favorite spots to spend time just sitting quietly and Being. It is no less attractive when populated with excited children. Both are lovely!
This tree needs a good name!

While the girls messed about with the net and K. used it to make drip art among the duckweed, we listened to the swamp calls of the red-winged blackbirds and noticed a black and shimmery grackle nearby. Frogs continued to elude the smaller k. but she kept trying. Twice we saw the last flick of a snake disappearing into the leaf litter as we startled them out of basking in the sun.

She discovers a new sort of art experience! Making patterns in the duckweed with the drips from the net reminds me of using sparklers to write my name in the air.

We are scheduling some more experiences and next time I hope to introduce this family to the meadow in this preserve. The land conservancy has been working to restore it to the black oak savanna and native wildflower prairie that it once was. The prairie/meadow is dotted with purple lupine, golden coriopsis, red and yellow wild columbine, and berry brambles already heavily laden with unripe berries. This space used to be filled with straight rows of spindly red pines planted years ago for timber but never used. The pines provided very little in the way of useful habitat for animals, so the land conservancy took out most of them and planted native wildflowers and other plants. Last year the space was inundated with pokeweed and the burnt stumps showed everywhere from the prescribed burns. This year there is a greater variety of plants and even the shade-loving lady’s slippers still bloom there. I have noticed a number of wild blueberry bushes and they, too, are bursting with clusters of tiny, green berries with the smallest hint of blue just beginning.

On our way back K. became interested in my compass and asked to see how it worked. I obliged and set it on the flat ground and proceeded to try to explain while keeping a 6 foot distance. This was not a very possible thing to do. I think I’m going to need a long pointer of some kind. I wonder where I could find some sticks….

See you tomorrow, Woods!


Woods & Wetlands Family Format

Wet? Don’t Worry. Dirt? Doesn’t Hurt!

Such an enthusiastic, creative, and respectful family!

I had a blast today with 2 different families in 2 different locations. My morning began at Rogue River Park where I have never explored prior to a brief check-in last night. Getting to meet a new family in a new location was really fun and a novel experience for me. I asked the 13 year old to lead the way since he knows this place so well. Often parents think it is better to explore a new place, but I actually often prefer a familiar place for the kids because with familiarity comes a sense of ownership and pride. When we feel ownership of something, we tend to take better care of it. So maybe if we all felt like the entire planet belonged to us, we might make better choices for it. In any case, he was more than happy to show us one of the many paths he has explored before today. As soon as we set out we encountered nature discoveries!

A turtle’s nest has been dug up and the leathery eggs were cleaned out. Likely by a raccoon or a skunk.

I was sad to see this turtle nest had been raided already, but it was still an interesting thing to inspect. The kids were able to feel the leathery texture of the eggs and the artist in our group began sketching the eggs and nest right away. This was an opportunity for me to explain about how many turtle species are facing significant loss of their numbers due to over-predation of animals like raccoons. As humans made this their home, we destroyed habitat and killed off top predators that might have kept the raccoon population in check.

Everyone meets nature in different ways. Her way is to draw and sketch the images on paper.

Mom bought 3 of the whistle/compass/magnifier combos I have and the magnifiers were great for looking at flowers up close!

Tiny magnifiers are built right into the compasses.

When we stopped for a poison ivy identification lesson we also noticed all of the white fluff that is floating all around in the air. Looking up, it seemed to be snowing in the green treetops. The kids got out their magnifiers and looked for the tiny cottonwood seeds in the fluff while I talked about various ways plants spread their seeds. Later I noticed similar fluff on a willow tree, so I have some new learning to do, myself!

Cottonwood and/or willow seeds

There was so much to notice and learn along the path, and when we came to a tiny stream we stopped to check it out. No one wanted to take me up on a close-up sniff of skunk cabbage for some reason. A little while later we came upon a swampy area where beavers had chewed down many trees at some point, though the work didn’t appear to be recent. The remainder of our time we spent swamping about with our shoes on in the muck and having a grand time balancing, slipping, trying again, inspecting horse-tails or snake-grass, and admiring blue-flags.

We got very muddy and wet but everyone was having so much fun, it didn’t even matter! I was extremely impressed with mom’s laid back attitude about all of it and the way she laughed off the various swamp shenanigans her children were into.

My afternoon group was a family I know from my days of teaching at Lakes Elementary. We explored near and in the swamp at Brower Lake Nature Preserve where there are lovely, huge, wild grapevines to climb and swing on. We spotted quite a bit of wildlife such as leeches, a spring peeper, and a wood frog. We tasted wintergreen leaves, sniffed sassafras leaves, and chewed on a sassafras root. Wading in the swamp we were unable to get very far because that swamp gets a little deeper and is protected by some very fierce, wild rosebushes.

When the littlest boy got a bit tired out, I was pleased to have in my backpack one of my all time favorite books from when I was a kid. Mom sat right down with him and cuddled up to do a picture-reading, since these books are wordless. They are a wonderful way to introduce young children to the love of books and of animals because the pictures tell a detailed story. I smiled to hear his mom making up words for the book, just as my dad used to do for me. (Though her version was much cleaner than his, as I recall!) The series is drawn by Mercer Mayer and this particular book in the series is called, A Boy, a Dog, a Frog, and a Friend.


While they read, one of the other boys joined me in an effort to find salamanders. We didn’t see any, but we did capture (with muddy hands) a tiny spring peeper and a wood frog. It was very exciting! After carefully viewing the peeper in our 2-way magnifier, we returned it to the same place we found it.

I was impressed by how careful and respectful of nature this family was. I can tell that their mom is being very intentional about this and it shows!

Using familiar landmarks, the two oldest kids led us back to the path and out to “civilization.” See you later, Swamp!


Woods & Wetlands Family Format

The Home Woods Through New Eyes

Three, sweet kids and their mom, an old friend of mine, took me on an adventure into their neighborhood woods this morning. Attempted social distancing is still difficult and awkward, and it doesn’t work in every moment, but we are humans, so we just did the best we could. The littlest of the three wasn’t quite up for the entire exploration which began by crossing their beautiful neighborhood to get to the woods path. Her dad came and picked her up, and we decided that next time we will stick to the wild area behind their home where we can spend the entire time exploring and less time walking. There is always more to discover and every day there are changes, even in the places most familiar to us.

As soon as we reached the path there were so many things I wanted to show them, and I always like to hear what the kids already know and what they enjoy in these spaces. The oldest of the three excitedly told me about all of the tiny toads they’ve been finding all over their neighborhood. We briefly examined a couple of them that had expired on the sidewalk. Before we even entered the shelter of the trees we stopped to notice and re-learn poison ivy identification. In comparing poison ivy to a wild berry cane, we discovered that the wild berry brambles were covered in the tiniest, hard, green, berries that will surely be gobbled up by animals and children alike when they ripen! I love how one small discovery opens up the next, and the next after that. We identified some oak trees and I also pointed out a terribly invasive bush called, “autumn olive.” It has a lovely name and a nice scent, but other than that it’s not much use here. It is pushing out native plants that support the native wildlife.

Moving on into the woods I could have happily left the trail for all sorts of places that beckoned to me, but I knew I wanted to first encourage the kids to show me what they connected with in this place. They spoke of an old staircase and a path to the river where someone left a fishing pole and chairs. We paused along the path to examine some decomposing logs and silver-gray beech trees. My friend shared about how ancient some of the trees are in her own yard, which reminded me to talk about how these forests are not old-growth forests, which means that all of the trees that would have been hundreds of years old here have long since been felled for timber when this area was being settled by our various ancestors. All of the trees here are relatively young compared to some of the old-growth forests of Europe. As we walked, the kids noticed and pointed out changes just since the storm we had the other day.

The kids led the way to a stairway of roots and we looked down into the flooded riverside where a huge tree had fallen, its lacework of roots now tipped on its side while virginia creeper and other vines grew over it. I could feel the child inside of me longing to scale that root system and climb aboard the old tree trunk as it lay nearly horizontal over the water. Initially, the kids seemed to hold back at the idea of wading through the ankle-deep water to reach the fallen tree, but I decided to try it myself in hopes they might follow.

After some hesitation and discussion of how they would navigate, both kids began to climb up after me from a place they felt more comfortable. Just as they began, one of my feet suddenly broke through the vines over the root cage and I found myself realizing it was more precarious than I had anticipated! This root system was unsupported from beneath, and the vines that covered it were masking multiple openings where feet could go through! I was relieved to have discovered this in time to warn z. and g. to climb with more care than I had. I mentally commended their mom for remaining calm and collected as we challenged ourselves to this climb. From our elevated perch we could see the swollen river flowing by and we looked up into the green canopy of leaves, and I took a deep, happy breath.

On our way back down, g. slipped and slid into a half-fall which scared, scraped, and startled her. In my past experience with children and in my own childhood I know that when a parent is nearby, kids tend to be more likely to cry or to look for comfort when frightened or hurt, whereas with a teacher they will often brush it off and swallow their tears. This makes perfect psychological sense! With our parents or caregivers we feel safest (or we should!) and we trust them to protect and care for us. It is easier to be emotionally vulnerable with these trusted adults than it is with an adult who is not family. I took a moment to reassure her that her tears are the body’s natural response to stress or fear, and it is important to allow ourselves to cry if we need to because we will feel better for it, and we can then move on to the next thing. I once again silently admired her mom’s composure as she gently reminded g. that she was okay, that these things happen sometimes, and that she was brave for what she did! Kids definitely look to their parents for their response, and there is nothing like a visibly freaked out or openly worried parent to make a kid feel even more scared! My friend clearly knows this and though she may have felt her own fear upon seeing g. slip and fall, she didn’t show any fear when her daughter needed her reassurance.

We had so little time left by that point, but I knew they wanted to show me the river up close, so we hurried to the other fork in the path and approached the rain-swollen river as it slipped past us. Where there is water, there is life, and I could have happily stayed there and explored some more, but our time was up so we headed back through the woods. We briefly searched under rotted log pieces for a glimpse of a salamander, but no such luck today. At some point I stopped to demonstrate how to give your hands a dirt wash, or, if there is mud, to apply mud gloves or mud mittens, so as to protect any amphibian we may handle from whatever substances we have on our hands. We did admire some iridescent green and blue damsel-flies though. g. explained that she likes to look at certain animals but not to touch them, even though she knows they can’t hurt her. I meant to tell her that the best way to learn about animals is just to observe them anyway!

One of my favorite activities in the woods is to close my eyes and shift my attention from one sense to the next, but today we hadn’t take the opportunity to do so until my friend suddenly lifted her face and sniffed, catching the sweetness of nearby wild roses blooming. She encouraged g. and z. to do the same and soon we all stood in the path just sniffing the wind. g. wasn’t sure which plant smelled so good, so I stepped off the path and broke off a small sprig of blossoms for them to sniff and take home.

The final pieces of nature information I shared for the day were related to my recent learning about trees and how some of them can communicate with each other. I would never have guessed this! Last year I read an amazing book called, “The Hidden Life of Trees,” and discovered some truly shocking and fascinating information about these ancient beings! I have always been close friends with trees, ever since I can remember, but this book opened up a whole new learning experience for me.

Next week I get to go explore even MORE of what nature has to offer with more of our local, Rockford, families. I can’t wait!


p.s. After the session was over and I returned home, my friend sent me the best text message and it made my day.
Invitation is definitely a form of flattery… we just returned from a walk in the same woods with 5 neighbor kids and two moms. We looked for poison ivy, climbed the giant tree roots, and went off the path. The kids had a ball and (the littlest one) went the whole time with zero complaints! So fun!”

2020, Uncategorized, Woods & Wetlands Family Format

Woods & Wetlands: Family Format: Week 1

Why Family Style?

Last week I began trying out a new format for Woods and Wetlands. Given the pandemic situation, I couldn’t really see myself gathering a large group of children in one place and leaning in close to view every delightful discovery they made, nor helping with bandage application should someone need one, and definitely not hauling anyone out of the swamp when they inevitably fall in! So, I needed an adult who could do those things, and who better than their parents or caregivers!? Add to this the fact that kids missed the last 3 months of school and are losing out on valuable science learning. Solution? Woods and Wetlands for Families. I can offer guidance to parents and caregivers for future nature explorations and I can continue to share my love for this incredible planet of ours with the kids who are going to inherit whatever is left of the earth after we, ourselves, return to it. The following are my recollections of our first, two family sessions of Woods and Wetlands.

I met with a mom and her three children for our first session of  W&W for Families. I wasn’t entirely sure how it would go. I am very comfortable with young children. However, I have never been quite as comfortable with their parents and I was a bit nervous. But at the same time, I have always wanted to find a way to support parents and caregivers in their parenting jobs. After all, being a Parent is probably the most important and difficult job there is!

Family Number 1

We met at the nearby Brower Lake Nature Preserve. This is a family whom I know slightly, and they live nearby to both the nature preserve and to me. Despite the fact that they had walked the paths of this preserve many times, they were unfamiliar with some of the most interesting features and I was only too glad to share my intimate knowledge built over 15 years of exploration in this particular woods! We parked our bikes at the entrance and promptly left the path in order to investigate down by the swamp where I have spent many a happy hour alone with nature and also with curious and enthusiastic groups of children. Where there is water, there is LIFE! (Clean water, anyway…)

The Trail Less Traveled

While I understand that too many feet going too often in any one place can cause damage to these natural habitats, I also know that the only way to fall head over heels in love with nature is to literally fall, head over heels INTO nature! In other words, kids need to experience everything first-hand and hands-on. Learning that happens with the body is recorded firmly in the brain. We are careful with nature, but we also sometimes get our hands muddy, clothes wet, and our hair full of twigs and leaves. We also learn to wear “Mud Gloves,” to safely handle any amphibians such as frogs, toads, or salamanders. I use every opportunity to also share ways we can be responsible in our interactions with nature, whether being cautious of causing soil erosion or making sure we don’t over-pick any plant or part of a plant that we wish to investigate.

Sensory Investigations

We used our hour in the woods to follow a deer path to a place I call my, “Watching Log,” though the log has long since mostly decomposed and I now do my watching seated on a thick, horizontal curve of wild grapevine. I introduced the family to wintergreen leaves, noting their waxy appearance, and choosing only the lightest green leaves for their tenderness. A great way to make sure of what you have picked when trying it on your own is to tear the leaf up and give it a good sniff. We humans often forget to use our noses, inferior to most animals’ noses as they may be! But they can still give us information if we remember to practice more often. Scents are much more difficult for us to pick up, however, when we are constantly inundated with competing, chemical/artificial fragrances that most people use in their laundry, lotions, and other products. These same fragrances also are highly irritating to people with asthma or other respiratory conditions, and to people who are just highly sensitive to their surroundings. Unfortunately, we often require bug repellent near the wetlands and it can seriously impede our sense of smell.

We looked at a tiny sassafras tree seedling and we sniffed its lemony leaves and root-beer flavored root. As we walked along the edge of the swamp we heard frogs plopping into the water just ahead of us, one after another. After a while we crossed the woods to the other swamp where I introduced the family to May Apple plants and a beautiful log/tree that extends into the swamp. Their mom was immediately taken with the tree that had clearly fallen but found a way to grow new trees right out of its trunk. I noticed in each of the two, separate sessions that both moms found a special, human connection with trees, finding ways to relate and draw analogies.

I loved hearing the kids share their own nature stories with me because I can connect so well with the rock collecting and love of wildlife, as my own collections and love for nature have only grown deeper with time.

Family Number 2

Turtle Time

My second family session happened two days later with a family whose girls I know from past Woods and Wetlands sessions and the school where I last taught first grade. On our way to the woods we were all thrilled to spot a turtle on her determined way to either lay eggs or return to the lake. We stopped to observe her as I shared some fascinating turtle facts I learned in my time as instructor at the zoo. The girls crouched nearby and tentatively touched the turtle’s shell and looked at her face.

Frogs and Vines

With dip-net in hand, the younger girl marched with determination, if not with stealth, along the wetland looking for frogs. While they were plentiful, they were also wary of this new hunter in her rubber rain boots. On our next outing I may demonstrate how to hunt like a great blue heron, stepping softly without a word and holding still at just the right moment.

The older sister, had retained a truly astounding quantity of information she learned from our past forays into the woods together. She recognized oak leaves, sassafras, and poison ivy, among other things. She loved collecting wintergreen leaves to bring home with her and she lit up with joy at seeing the “Vine Playground,” once again.

Science and Kindness

Since one of my intentions is to support parents and caregivers in their nature explorations, I like to encourage these adults to not be afraid if they don’t know the names of any discoveries they make with their children. Children will learn the properties of these discoveries simply by observing or using any of their first, five senses to investigate. Children are natural scientists. An important part of these excursions is modeling the curiosity, wonder, awe, and the joy of discovering nature even when we don’t know all of the information right away (or ever!). We can bring nature journals, take photos, and do our own research when we return home. A great resource I like to use is an app called iNaturalist. But even without ever knowing the names, we can still be scientists, poets, artists, naturalists, and learners.

One important point I try to make is that every time we humans mess with nature, there are unintended consequences. So, before removing that turtle from near a road, find out first whether the turtle can survive anywhere else if it doesn’t know how to find its hibernation spot, its food source, or its shelter. Before you take a baby animal to a wildlife rehab center, do your research. Many wild animal mamas leave their babies alone for long periods of time for a very good reason! And please, before you put fertilizer, weed-killer, rat-poison, or other toxins outside, think about the food chain and the wildlife in it, not to mention the people and pets who live here too.  One example is when mouse or rat poison is used and the intended recipients get eaten by an owl, passing that poison along to the owl or its babies. Some of the kindest, most well-meaning humans I know have inadvertently seriously harmed our planet and its wildlife through lack of self education. I speak for myself when I say I have made some of these same mistakes in my past. But I believe, “when we know better, then we should do better!” (~Untamed by Glennon Doyle) This is just one reason why nature education is so important.

One of the things a mom shared with me was that her girls almost never want to go out into these natural places when they are asked, but once they get there, they are inevitably as happy as can be and don’t want to leave. It can be hard to make your kids do things that they don’t seem to want to do. It can be really difficult to strike that balance when you want your kids to be happy and feel they have a choice, but you also want to make sure to expose them to as much learning as you can.

I am looking forward to our next explorations and I hope to engage with as many families as possible in my mission to help connect all humans with the earth that is our home.