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!
“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.
This is the best camp ever! I wish I wouldn’t get older and not be able to do it again!
What if you had tree branches growing out of your ear holes?
Summer Woods and Wetlands Camp at Camp Rockford has begun! Our first group has only been with us three days and already there is a definite sense of bonding between all of us. Already these kids have filled my heart and gained my trust. It may be 90+°F out where the paved and treeless places swelter in the sun, but we are right where our bodies are adapted to be, playing and learning in the deep shade of oaks, maples, and hickories, as well as wading around through the cold, flowing water of a local creek. We watch slimy slugs staying cool tucked into the grooves of wet oak bark, while toads abound in the soft, dark leaf litter and rich forest soil.
Day 1 we went over a lot of safety info and then explored the creek. We introduced the journals toward the end of our morning and were pleasantly surprised by how well the kids took to them this time. Of course, each group and individual differs, but my theory is that starting out with journals last year felt too much like school, hence, more resistance. This time the kids welcomed a chance, after exploring, to plop down, tired but happy, and draw and/or write about what they experienced. I also have the benefit of having read more of Anna Botsford Comstock’s, Handbook of Nature Study, in which she states her observation that, “The child might rather never had this experience than be forced to write about it.” Instead, she encouraged students to write about it only “because I am curious to know what you discovered,” and only if they wanted to. I was very struck by this! It seems wise to me and fits with my philosophy about the importance of nature-play-based learning to build a sense of love, connection, and ownership with nature on Earth that may later lead to more reading, writing, and more formal study of the natural world.
Day 1 also included the standing sensory exploration I began implementing in the spring with all of the classroom programs I did. On Day 2 we introduced Brain Gym and mindful breathing. When we focus on and are aware of our breath, we cannot help but be present in the moment. I recently learned a new breath-work technique that has significantly improved my own anxiety, and I now teach it to children to use for calming themselves as needed. It felt so amazing to observe these kids who I only just met on Monday, trusting me to guide them through trying some bizarre, new, movements and breathing strategies! I simply explained that the movements help the two sides of their brains work together better, and the breath helps us notice how we are feeling on the inside. What I did not say is, with near-constant external stimulation of today’s world of technology, it takes intention to remember to check in with our bodies. As a culture, we are losing touch with being able to feel/notice our own sensations and to recognize and name them. How can we trust and hear our bodies and minds if we never stop the busy-ness and put away the screens in order to turn inward now and then throughout our day?
When I got home after camp today, I noticed a note I had made to myself earlier this morning. It said, “greeting with info about what they Know, Notice, or Wonder about a nature treasure.” My initial thought when I spotted the note was, “Darn! I forgot to do that!” Then I paused and laughed at myself. Any teacher of my generation will know I was plugged into the old, “KWL,” strategy. It has morphed into any number of different permutations over the years, but the point of it is essentially the same. But what struck me as funny today was it hit me that when children are engaged in learning through nature play, no one needs to prompt them to ask questions, share observations, or tell about what they already know. Because it is their nature to do all of these things on their own! In fact, a teacher would be lucky to get a word in edgewise between the questions, stories, and exclamations!
Our Morning Meeting is held beneath the shady arms of a single tree in a tamed expanse of mowed grass. Today the tree was raining seeds down upon us, which precipitated a mini lesson about how seeds that land in places where humans have stifled or destroyed the natural order of life, death, decomposition, soil, and new growth, cannot grow to make new trees. We began imagining aloud what if the seeds landing upon us took root and we grew trees out of our heads!? Always open to silliness, our imaginings expanded. The kids had us all laughing over the idea of acorns for eyes and branches growing from our noses or ears. As I reflect on this now, I see an analogy. Too often we adults get in the way of children’s natural interests and learning abilities. We have good intentions, like mowing under a tree, but maybe we need to get out of the way a bit more. Mow a lot less. Let the kids’ “seeds” land where they will, and grow in a place we have not prepared for them, and in ways that work for each individual. Let learning be organic and messy. Follow their lead and offer enrichment when needed, but step back too. When we force every seed to land in the same place, a place we have interfered with so much that nothing can grow there except grass that is never allowed to flower and drop its own seeds, there will be little to learn in that monotonous place. Our children grow rich in mind, body, and spirit when they are surrounded by diverse, natural, spaces where their seeds can all take root.
Today was Day 1 of Woods and Wetlands for Rockford Community Services at Camp Rockford. Camp Rockford is located along a beautiful little stretch of the Rogue River, and our day camp has the amazing opportunity to use not only the river, but also a shallow tributary that enters the main river channel (best for the “Littles” we have,) and some gorgeous, wild woodland that borders it! Maples, oaks, hickories, beech trees, trillium, jack-in-the-pulpit, May apples, and a bit of poison ivy are just some of what we will get to learn about in the coming days.
Of course, the first day of anything is always a little bumpy as we get to know each other, work out the kinks of drop-off and pick-up, and manage our time out there. Time management is not one of my strengths, so I rely heavily on multiple alarms I set on my watch, as well as the use of a small, visual timer that helps the kids to feel they have some control over how they use their own time. Of course, the visual timer wasn’t visible from where we spent most of our morning, so I’ll have to figure out a way to remedy that tomorrow. I love that I get to spend 8 mornings with the same kids! We will have the chance to get to know and trust each other, starting each morning with my tried and true Morning Meeting before moving to our “wild” space along the tributary.
As always, I didn’t even try to plan many details of our day, knowing that it will take at least a couple of days for everyone to explore our space and get comfortable with our boundaries. I am SO fortunate to have one of the best aides EVER! We already knew each other from when I was a classroom teacher at Lakes Elementary and I was thrilled that she was willing to join me for this summer program! I couldn’t have asked for a better partner. She stays calm and cool, knows exactly how to support without me having to even ask, and she really knows how to connect with kids. I am incredibly grateful for her! We are lucky that we seem to have a wonderful group of kids to work with as well!
After our extra-long Morning Meeting (The Morning Meeting Book by Roxann Kriete has been my “go-to” for almost 20 years!) and a little bit of Brain Gym, we headed down to the woods and the river. (I will refer to our little tributary as either the river or a creek periodically.) We did have to stop first to begin recognizing what poison ivy looks like. Luckily, after a very short distance, it disappears and we have safe walking the rest of the way to our Meeting Log and the river just beyond. I hauled my wagon that now houses some of what used to be in my classroom, including a heavy crate of books, down to the log and we all dropped our backpacks and water bottles off there so our hands were free to help us get down the steep bank to the shallow (and COLD) water. The first couple feet from the bank to the center of the creek were very sticky and difficult even for me to pull my rubber-booted feet out of, so our first project began! With the help of most of our explorers, we spent the next hour hauling logs and dead branches to make a sort of bridge to get us past the sticky part and right to the center where the sand is solid and the water is clear.
I wish I could have just sat back and observed because when I paused to look around, to count kids, or to check in with Chara, everything I saw brought me joy and made me smile. One of our explorers was challenging herself against the current, which was pretty strong, despite how shallow the water was. A couple of other explorers were using nature exploration tools to scoop up water and look at what was in it. Two of the boys asked if they could go back to the Meeting Log to look around, and a small crew went up on land with Chara to use teamwork to bring logs and branches to those of us who were standing in the creek and placing the logs. One boy I noticed was very quiet and serious about everything. He seemed to be a bit of an “old soul,” and I could tell he was just taking things in and listening intently. At some point he started using his critter-catching tool to scoop up muck and mud and pack it in between the logs, just like beavers do when they build their dams. I commented on this and he merely nodded and gave a small smile and went back to his work.
Most of the kids were soaking wet, dirty, and happy by the time we had to head back. My boots were full of river-water and it was fun to sit down on the log and dump them out while some of the kids were doing the same. (One boy did say his dad told him he wasn’t to get wet! Oh dear… I will be emailing all of the parents tonight to make sure we are all on the same page, or in the same river, so to speak.) I had given each of the kids a blank nature journal and a little canister of colored pencils with a sharpener built into the lid. We used these at the beginning of our morning and again at the end to draw and/or write about our expectations and then our experiences. Sometimes I will give them something specific I want them to write or draw, but I want these journals to belong to them and they will get to keep them (and the pencils) after our 8 days together come to an end. We took just about 5 silent minutes to journal and then packed up and headed back to grab lunches and head home.
At some point in the middle of our morning, one of the kids yelled out, “Can we do this again tomorrow?” It was with great joy and rare satisfaction that I got to reply, “YES!“