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

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!




Woods and Wetlands 2017

In the Eye of the Beholder

The Thursday before last I got to enjoy a new group of Woods and Wetlanders.  We explored freely on a 50 degree, partly sunny afternoon.  Some of the kids had previously been in my original group of Firsts in the Forest, so they knew the land well.  A couple were veteran Woods and Wetlanders from our other site, and still others were brand new to the whole thing, even coming over from other elementaries in the district.  I love how accepting kids are capable of being.  There is always someone who casually invites the newcomers to explore with them.  Sometimes kids would rather be near me, watching and learning from quiet observation rather than instant participation.  Both are valid ways to get comfortable.  Some children are just prefer to be with an adult.  In Woods and Wetlands we accept everyone!

I was so thankful to have E’s grandma, “Ga,” join us so that we could spread out farther, allowing more exploration and discovery.  She is also an experienced helper from 2 years in a row of Firsts in the Forest, so she knew exactly what to expect and how to roll with what we do.

Normally when I begin a new W&W group I like to teach about landmarks, followed the next week by reviewing landmarks and adding something new such as how to use a compass or read a trail map.  My mini lessons usually include tree identification by leaf as well as poison ivy recognition and other nature study topics. With a mixed group, it is more difficult because many of the kids already have experienced these lessons with me.  Additionally, in the past these lessons were taught during the summer after school was out, but now they are directly after a long school day.  This means that the kids have sat still and listened for long enough and need to move, talk, and be free to learn outside on their own terms.  I will continue to insert formal instruction where and when it fits, but this new, “class,” will just have to evolve as we go along.  For now I will try to be there to guide and stimulate their learning as they share discoveries with me.  Yet even if they experience no formal nature study, I am watching them learn valuable things every moment they are out there.

At the Secret Fort:  About half of the kids wanted to come climb in the Secret Fort, so I accompanied them and I happily climbed up into the tree via grapevine.  One boy exclaimed with surprise, “Mrs. H!  I didn’t know you climbed trees too!”  I laughed and pointed out that of course I climb trees!  Climbing trees is one of my favorite activities!  I watched all of the kids search for a way up into the tree and vine that would work for them.  Some saw options immediately and went for it, leading the way for others who watched to see how it might be done.  A few had to wait a while until there was room to climb.  Two boys crowded too close on a branch and had to solve the problem of one stepping on the other’s hand.  I got down so that more kids could climb up.  A few of the kids gave helpful guidance to those who seemed timid.  And there are always one or two who get as high up as possible and then wonder how they will get down.  But they always do.

What they did:  Climbed a tree and grapevine.

What I saw:  Kids getting a chance to be leaders.  Kids learning from other kids.  Verbal communication to solve problems.  Compassion for others.  Noticing others and showing empathy.  Balance practice.  Strength building.  Character development.  Spatial awareness.  Self confidence.  Trust in self and others.


In the swamp:  An enthusiastic group of explorers set out to make a path through the swamp from the Fairy Tree to the Boardwalk.  This was no easy feat and about half of the kids turned back.  I continued on with a few intrepid and determined boys.  We quickly discovered we needed to keep our hands up out of the cattails to avoid what felt like paper cuts from the drying reeds.  We developed a method of stepping ahead to flatten our path before our faces and hands encountered all of the plants in our way.  It wasn’t particularly boggy, but it still took a long time and we paused to consider going back several times.  The cattail reeds were still well above my head so we had effectively disappeared from anyone else’s sight.  We began to get the feeling we should be seeing the Boardwalk soon but it wasn’t where we expected to see it.  Finally I spotted the railings off to our left quite a ways from where I had anticipated.  We all agreed that our sense of distance had been confused and we were surprised by that.  We joked with the rest of the class when we reunited with them that we had been lost for a year and had nearly died from our risk-laden adventure!  By that time it was time to get ready to go back to the real world and everyone was nicely tired.

What they did:  Waded through tall cattails in a swamp from one place to another in about 15-20 minutes.

What I saw:  Kids getting to have a real adventure that wasn’t on a screen happening to someone else.  Kids developing problem solving techniques for doing something they had never done before.  Growth of self-confidence.  Focus on a task at hand.  Bravery and courage for exploration and risk.  Developing a new perspective.  Teamwork.  Physical strength and endurance.  Mastery of fear and minor injuries, i.e. bleeding a bit from a cut but brushing it off and saying, “I’m okay.”  Making memories.  Working toward developing a sense of direction.

Until next time!


Woods and Wetlands 2017

Day 1: Pure Gold

15 children ranging in grade level from first to fifth joined me for our first after-school Woods and Wetlands experience yesterday.  It was a perfect late-summer day with colors ranging toward early fall down in the swampland.  We spent a little bit of time on introductions, (with the help of some of my favorite Michigan animal puppets,) and basic safety skills.  8 of the 15 have had some prior Woods and Wetlands experience with me before, and 4 of the 8 know that particular piece of land pretty well.  I love when the students become teachers for each other and that is just what they did.

I showed our newbies where most of the poison ivy grows and pointed out ways to recognize both the leaves and the vine.  Hopefully everyone can avoid it as we continue our explorations in the coming weeks.  Our first aid kit contains both a preventative lotion as well as a soothing jewelweed salve, so we should be all set in case of an outbreak.

The tilted tree remains a favorite for climbers and I reminded them to only climb as high as each feels comfortable.  It was a good sign that right away this group cooperated and took turns waiting to get up and also to get back down.

Of course, the swamp is usually the main attraction.  This time of year it is quite dry and even an accidental step into the black muck results in only a mucky foot rather than a lost boot or full bodily submersion.  The ferns that some of us watched unfurl last spring from tight little fiddle-heads are now great, towering fronds that wave overhead in shades of green, copper, and gold.  L noticed that one fern was the exact shade of her beloved dog, Miles.  (Such a grin about that!)

Even as the kids disappeared from view quickly hidden by the thick foliage of leafed out shrubs, trees, and all kinds of interesting undergrowth, I smiled to hear their happy, excited voices calling out to each other and to me.  As instructed, everyone stayed with at least one other partner as we slowly made our way over, under, and around fallen logs and poking branches.

I love the delicious smells of drying plants and even the scent of the swamp muck itself underneath everything.  The kids did a lot of noticing and discovering, from feathers to woodpecker holes.  C noticed a tiny snail clinging to a cattail plant while back on “land” some furry, white caterpillars were captured and gently transferred to our critter container for observation.


An opportunity for practicing the use of meaningful words to communicate and the skill of mindful listening to others came up when one student wanted to release the various creatures and another student became upset about it.  I guided each through the process of saying exactly what it was they wanted and finding empathic understanding, if not full agreement.  Peace restored, they observed a while longer and then returned all of the creatures in question to where they had been found.

All too soon our time was up and everyone helped clean up our space for next time! There is so much to explore and to learn out there; I can’t wait to see what has changed by next week!