Baptism by muck? A self-induced hazing ritual? All I know is that just about every kid who has explored the swamp (once it has melted) has experienced some level of immersion in muck. For some it is at first an unpleasant shock followed by more attentive and intentional foot placement in the future. Other explorers may discover a certain affinity for dunking themselves either boot level or deeper in the black ooze. Some children who have been cautioned all their short lives to, “be careful,” and to remain clean even when playing outdoors are initially terrified that someone will be mad that their boots or clothing are muddy. I admit, it is a level of dirty that surpasses your average grubby result. And I do not deny that the swamp muck is not the easiest to remove, shouldn’t be washed with other clothing items, and comes with a certain odor that takes some getting used to… But, muck doesn’t hurt. And the fun and learning experiences far outweigh the laundry issues!
Last week the muck began to melt. In some places it provided a mere inch or two of slippery footing. In other less sheltered spots it melted right down to the bottom, wherever that may be! Of our group of seven learners, four have only experienced the swamp when it was frozen. It is a whole new world now! I don’t deny that cold muck and water are far less amusing to encounter than when the earth has warmed into full spring, but nevertheless, everyone survived their maiden fall into the swamp. And those who either know perfectly well how to avoid it but chose to, “slip,” anyway or who simply needed a reminder of how to step carefully when navigating the swamp, they were all stoic and even laughing as they presented their dripping, muddy legs and boots to me.
A First Timer
R. had never experienced swamp muck before. He walked out onto the pallets and paused where a piece of the pallet wood had broken off over a year ago. Water reflected back at him and he probably recalled the last time he put his foot there he encountered ice just beneath the slightly melted surface. With all the confidence of the inexperienced and unconcerned, he placed his foot and entire weight into that opening… and sunk. All the way to his knee. As the cold water and muck filled his boot and soaked through his pants (he chose not to wear snow pants, contrary to my earlier suggestion,) his face registered the surprise and shock and then slowly crumpled into wide-mouthed misery, complete with wailing and even a few tears. This is where I come in, where learning can happen. This is where growth can occur. And it did. His initial horror faded quickly as I helped him realize he wasn’t hurt, acknowledged that it was cold and wet, and calmly made suggestions for how to find a spot to sit and dump out his boot, wring out his sock, stuff dry leaves into his boot, and put it back on. I had the welcome assistance and support of R.M. who arrived in time to also calmly talk him into a smile and our combined lack of worry sent a message to him that what had happened was no big deal. Soon we were all laughing and joking as he pretended to wipe his sock on me and I teased and told him he was now a muck monster. R.M. got a stout stick for him and showed him how to use it to test his footing before stepping. As he took the stick and headed farther into the swamp I asked him if he wouldn’t like to go put on his snow pants now. He spared me a glance and said seriously, “No, I think I’ll just be really really careful now.” Now that is a success story!
Teaching and Learning
Of course even my most experienced girl, E., got mucky up to her shins, but I would bet she could have avoided it if she really wanted to. There is a certain freedom in letting ourselves get dirty, and kids left to their own instincts usually enjoy it. I overheard her helping a younger explorer by showing how to stuff dry leaves in her wet boot. My heart warms when I observe kids teaching other kids. It builds such confidence!
We spent quite a bit of our time at the Secret Fort Tree where the climbers practiced their climbing and dismounting routines, each calling out to me over and over, “Mrs. H, watch this!” O. timed herself getting from the ground to her favorite perch and announced it was ten seconds. The Secret Fort Tree is always a good place to also practice sharing, patience, taking turns, and acceptance. It can be hard to wait for someone else to move so that you can get up or get down. Sometimes someone has to learn it is not okay to dare other people to do things they aren’t comfortable doing. A big part of safety out there is only going as far as each person feels comfortable. It is when we allow someone else to push us too soon that we could get hurt. It must be each climber’s personal decision to test his/her own boundaries. We can support and encourage each other and kids can be taught the words of that language.
Swamp Yoga and Other Matters
We returned to the swamp after climbing the SFT and the Tilted Tree for a while. As R.M. and I demonstrated the strategy of leaping from island to island and O. proudly announced that she had found her little house tree again, J. decided that muck up to his knees was not enough. Nothing less than a full body experience was going to suit him! Just as my watch reminded us that we had to go, R.M. struck a yoga pose with feet on separate islands. We laughed about the idea of teaching Swamp Yoga classes out there where you might land headfirst in the muck if you lost your balance. I wish I had pictures to show her ideas, but there’s always next week!