A few weeks ago when my (retired) dad was ranting about how miserable it is for a person to have to go to work, thus interrupting their enjoyment of Life, I responded cheerfully that I actually really love both of my jobs and enjoy going to them. He paused, just barely, and with hints of both mock horror and admiration tucked into his smirk, he exclaimed, “Well, you must not be doing it right!” I beamed at him. It’s true. Woods and Wetlands continues to evolve and I learn ways to improve it with every single program, but the senses of purpose, joy, and meaning it gives to me are full and shining. Even in moments when I notice that I am being too hard on myself, wishing I had said or done something different, I catch those harsh thoughts and reframe them. Now I know this. I did not know it before. I will try again. I return home feeling like what I do matters, and it’s getting better all the time.
I also try to remember to ask the students at the end of their program, “What do you know today that you did not know yesterday?” (I frequently do forget to ask this, or I run out of time because time management is evidently something I will have to work on for the rest of my life.) Last week I got to take two classes, each, of kindergarten, first grade, and second grade out into the beautiful, hilly woods behind Cannonsburg Elementary for an hour and a half per class. It is a lovely little space, though it would be much better if it wasn’t split off from the creek in the wilds of Townsend Park by a loud and somewhat busy road.
Before today I did not know that nature could be peaceful.
I did not know that there are tiny things that eat dead stuff and turn it into soil, and that new things can grow in that soil.
I did not know that we should get our hands dirty to protect frogs and toads if we hold them.
I did not know there was this bad plant we should pull out because it is pushing out plants that are supposed to be here.
Now I know what poison ivy looks like.
Now I know it’s okay to get my hands dirty.
I did not know that some bees live underground.
I did not know there are flowers people can eat.
As for me, now I know that if I want the students to really explore and get curious about the diverse array of nature, I should wait until later in the program to show them how bizarrely satisfying it can be to pull out garlic mustard plants! Because once they knew, it was all they wanted to do! I also now know that just a few classes of children can fill massive bags with this terribly invasive and aggressive plant in a short amount of time! Of course, I was pleased on behalf of native plants and animals, but somewhat aghast that I had inadvertently short-circuited my own program plans. Oh well. Now I know.
The kindergarten classes chose to keep their scheduled day and time despite the rain, and I allowed the kids to pick (not pull) just one May Apple leaf to use as an umbrella, just as I loved to do in our lane when I was their age. We had a grand time playing in the rain.
One boy accidentally pulled out a plant that was not garlic mustard, nor did it resemble it in the slightest, but as I began saying so, it hit me that I must remember that to one who has no experience, one plant may very well look very like another. I also recalled that pointing out what has been done wrong should be done kindly, with credit given for good intentions. This was a chance to teach and learn. So we found a spot of soft soil and used our hands to dig a little hole. I showed him how to gently set the plants roots down into the hole and we tucked them all back in again, patting the soil tightly at the base of the plant. Now he knows how to plant something. A day later, another student did the same thing, and I was ready for it. Now I know exactly how I want to handle this in the future. We should all get such do-overs whenever we can.
I adored every single one of those K-2 class programs. The kids were enthusiastic, respectful, engaged, and brave. If I could have stayed there with them all day, I would have. I will never tire of seeing kids transformed by the magic of our beautiful, one-and-only, Earth.
I want every, single, Woods and Wetlands program to just feel like fun for the students. Learning is happening the entire time, but I see no reason to point that out in the moment, at least not until a sense of ownership of, love for, and responsibility to that space has grown in each child. I am now realizing that what would be far better than a one-and-done program would, instead, be a series, each building upon the last. A series that begins in early fall/late summer, followed by (in the same space), a program in late fall, mid-winter, early spring, and late spring. Imagine the width and depth of learning that could occur in such a format!
Last Friday, with my second group of first-graders behind Parkside Elementary, we were prepared for definitively predicted rain. The teacher and I discussed rescheduling, though we both knew not to trust the forecast… ever. Nevertheless, as the kids were so excited to get out there, we decided to go for it! We were rewarded by only a little sprinkle of rain in the first few minutes, followed by some sun and no further precipitation. Of course, quite a few kids DID get wet feet and legs, even those wearing rain boots, because we went wading. But no one cared about that!
Much fun WAS had, but it was preceded by the following quote and exchange as we walked the short distance to our space:
“Are there crocodiles out here?“ -First grader
No crocodiles, I promise. I introduced the kids to our exploration space, a beautiful little creek and woodland just behind their playground. Most had never set foot there and they did just GREAT! They stayed within our boundaries and actively participated in both the open and planned explorations. It brought me so much joy to see all these excited and eager explorers wading, wandering, and wondering.
Getting muddy hands, on purpose, is always a shock for some, but once they understood it mean they could carefully handle small wildlife with their mud gloves on, most were all too happy to get to it! We did see a toad, as well as water striders, roly-polies, and a tiny snail who was poking it’s itty-bitty eyes-on-stalks out at us, then pulling them back in, probably hoping we would be gone when it looked again. I loved seeing the kids getting down close to the earth, peering at tiny bits of life, using all of their senses to explore. They climbed wherever they could find something climbable. They felt the softness of moss and the rough, flaky, bark of wild grapevine. They sniffed rich, wet, soil (some pronounced disgusting and others enjoyed it.)They listened to red-winged blackbirds warning everyone to stay away from their nesting cattails and we all sniffed and then tasted: wild chives, adder’s tongue (trout lily), and watercress. (I forgot to have them taste wild violets, darn-it!)
I was besieged by so many wonderful questions and requests to, “Come see what we found!!!” And as always, we could have happily stayed and played (learned) out there all day. I knew, once again, that this work is not only what I am meant to be doing, but what kids are meant to be doing. Nature play addresses and heals so much of what is broken and hurting for all of us. Nature play IS learning, and learning through play is the work of childhood. It is supposed to be fun. As for me? My work is also fun. More, please.
“I want to do EXACTLY what you do when I grow up! I want to teach OUTSIDE!” -Lakes Elementary Kindergartener
“This is just SO much fun! I wish we could do this all the time!” -Cannonsburg Elementary 3rd grader
“I know so much more about nature than I ever did before!” -Roguewood 4th grader
“It’s EARTH DAY today! (Please can it be every day?)” -Me
In the spring of 2021 I was thrilled to begin offering whole-class Woods and Wetlands programs for schools. It made sense to begin with the district where I taught (indoors, mostly) for 17 years. With each hour-and-a-half program I learn more and the format continues to evolve. It began with Valley View Elementary inviting me to wrap up their One School, One Book program by taking every single one of their (many) classrooms out to the woods behind the school where we explored, learned, played, and made connections to the book, Nuts to You by Lynne Rae Perkins. Back in September and October I met Roguewood’s 4th graders at Camp Rockford and made connections to their science units while adventuring in the woods along the Rogue River and Stegman Creek. My “home base” of Lakes Elementary brought Woods and Wetlands programs to their 2nd graders as we learned about local plants and their seeds.
In March of this year I got to return to Lakes and work with the same 2nd graders I met in the fall. With ice still covering much of the swamp, we learned a little bit about the diversity of wildlife there, how the land has been changed by humans over time, and how to test the ice before stepping on it… (and so much more!)
This week I began a set of programs for Lakes kindergarten as well as Cannonsburg Elementary’s entire school! Each program is a little different and always tailored to the features of the specific space, season, and the age/grade level of the students. Beyond that, there are numerous other differences which I feel uniquely prepared to meet after years of being a classroom teacher myself. I know all too well that the energy and dynamics of each class and their teacher will vary, and I love the chance to connect with all of them in the way that works best for them. There is no exact template for Woods and Wetlands programs, though I spend many hours preparing in the weeks ahead of time. I get to be flexible and fluid each time. I do get incredibly nervous before the first of any set of programs in a new place with new students, but the moment the kids show up I find myself centered and deeply joyful to be doing this work. (It hardly feels like work!)
On Wednesday and Thursday of this week I brought kindergarten classes out to a wetland that at one time was connected to Bostwick Lake. As I pulled my classroom-on-wheels (a.k.a. wagon) out to the exploration space before meeting the kids, I caught in my peripheral vision something large, dark, airborne, and incredibly fast, swooping silently toward me from the ground to my right. Almost as quickly as I sensed it, it was past me, and my eyes and brain caught up with each other to realize it was a great-horned owl with prey of some kind in its talons! I have no idea why she was hunting at 1:30 in the afternoon, but she was breathtakingly beautiful. She landed on a low “island” of decomposing log about 100 feet away and proceeded to blend in almost perfectly despite the fact that I knew exactly where she was. We stared at each other for a while before I slowly began to move; after all, I had a class arriving soon and needed to get ready. But what a wonder it was to have that wild creature so near! I was only sorry that the kids wouldn’t get to see her. I love all of the owl encounters I seem to have these days!
The first group of any series of programs always seems to be the roughest. Both kindergarten programs were great fun and all’s well that ends well, but it is undeniable that I always learn at least a few things the hard way with group number one. In this case, my assessment of the space did not take into account the additional rain we have had recently in conjunction with how recently the ground thawed. In past years this space has never once been “mucky,” or sticky. Never once has a child lost their boot or gotten “stuck in the muck,” as we did so many times when my own classroom of first graders explored the area directly behind the school. In fact, that was precisely why I chose this other space; it was open enough to easily see all of the kids at once AND it didn’t have any deep, foot-immobilizing muck! How wrong I was! Regardless, the kids had a ton of fun and they definitely did some learning! (As did I.) Our second group fared better now that I knew what to prepare for.
I loved seeing and hearing the kids out there, balancing on mossy logs, using sticks to help test and balance, shrieking with laughter, and searching earnestly for the things I had photographed and put on a laminated card for them each to wear on a lanyard. One boy came up and triumphantly informed me that he found the duckweed! A few girls showed me the tiny, spiral-patterned snails they discovered, while other explorers turned over decomposing logs and discovered roly-poly bugs/pillbugs/sowbugs underneath. (Why do they have so many names?) I wanted to be everywhere at once! I am always so curious about what the kids find because I almost always learn something new from them. Some years ago my students discovered fairy shrimp out there. I had never seen nor heard of them before, but they are an important early food source for spring creatures just waking up from their winter hibernation.
Today I was especially nervous to be conducting 2 programs at Cannonsburg. Though I know the principal and some of the teachers, I have little familiarity with the school and only introduced myself to its woods just over a week ago when I went to take photos of interesting features for the kids to find. (There is little point in taking photos until right before the program week since nature changes so drastically here in Michigan from month to month!) The Conversation and Exploration cards I made from those photos turned out beautifully! And just as with every new program, my nerves were instantly calmed by the arrival of excited children. Both programs were with 3rd graders and both classrooms were led by teachers I knew already. Yet the two classes were so very different from each other, as most are. I was so lucky that both were fantastic in their own ways. I loved that the first group already had some experience in this space and so their familiarity with the area allowed them a deeper encounter with it this time, yet their comfort level also meant they didn’t need my guidance as much as most do. I could have probably done less talking, less cautioning. They have a teacher who is comfortable doing quite a bit of what I was brought in to do. The second class had no experience yet in this space, but they were eager to learn and were consistently respectful listeners. Their teacher seemed completely comfortable out there and was just as open to learning and exploring as the kids were! She helpfully managed the few who needed a little extra support and circulated widely, checking in and guiding as needed. It flowed just beautifully! The kids with more nature-adventure experience were still happy to take in new information and add it to their growing repertoire of nature knowledge. It rained during the last half hour or so, but the kids were troopers and many were even more delighted to be out in the rain.
Next week I head back to Lakes for the other two kindergarten classrooms and also to Parkside for one of two first-grade programs! Cannonsburg programs pick up again in May.
Below: The laminated Exploration and Conversation cards I created for Cannonsburg kids featured 6 general categories which were color-coded by their lanyard: Trees and tree seeds, plants, fungi and lichen, signs of animals, logs and soil, and patterns in nature. Each card is double-sided with a photo on each side, accompanied by a few facts and usually a thinking question. These are just a few of the photos I took for the cards.
Our last day began with sharing some of our favorite things about Woods and Wetlands. Using their journals to document and share was optional, but everyone got to take home their journals and colored pencils at the end of the day. Maybe they’ll use them for their own nature adventures! It was fun hearing all the different memories the kids had and to hear the others pipe up and say, “Oh yeah! I remember that. I loved that too!”
Since some of the kids wanted to go back to the two “new” spaces we explored on Wednesday, and others wanted to return to our “normal” spot, while a few were eager to walk upstream to the giant boulder and the tunnel they hadn’t seen yet, we compromised. Everyone agreed that we would spend 15 minutes in each area and then vote on where we wanted to spend the remainder of our time. I set the visual timer (they LOVE this thing and are so much more willing to move on, pack up, or give up a nature exploration tool to another explorer when they feel they have control over the timing,) and off we went.
In the woods up high above the Rogue River some of the kids returned to throwing various things into the water just to see if they could, and to watch the rings and ripples created as the sticks, rocks, and acorns hit and either sunk or floated. Others challenged themselves to climbing the slanted, fallen tree. New “nature Swiss army knives” were crafted from sticks and imagination.
After 15 minutes, we moved on down to the main channel of the river so that we could catch and observe more crayfish. I think this activity could have entertained most of the kids for the entire morning if we’d had more dip-nets available!
Traveling in order, next we moved to our “normal” spot with The Meeting Log, Logjam Bridge, and forts. It was a good place to stop for a snack mid-morning. A few explorers were still set on “fishing,” so I went to the creek with them. These photos capture some really peaceful, calm moments where no one was talking or yelling or moving around. Just feeling at-ease and quite content. These are the moments when kids have had enough active exploration in a location and they can now just sit down and breathe, mindful of how good it feels to be in a natural space they have bonded with.
The end of the route we took was where “our” creek flows through two, metal, tunnels beneath a dead-end, gravel road. Some of the kids chose to join me in wading upstream to it in the water, while others chose to walk along on the bank with Mrs. Webb. My intention was to merely show them the mossy boulder and yell into the echoing tunnels, but enough kids begged to wade through the tunnel that I gave in and agreed to this adventure. After all, one of my favorite repeated activities in my own childhood was walking through a similar tunnel with my older sister, yelling and echoing while brushing spiderwebs away from our faces. I warned our intrepid explorers that there would be cobwebs and spiderwebs so we brought short sticks to wave before our faces. A few kids were triumphant as we emerged into the sunlit creek on the upstream side of the road, while others seemed to feel a little less secure and were more than ready to go back. Together we sloshed back through the dark tunnel, each of us with one hand above our heads to follow the metal ribs of the tunnel so we didn’t bump our heads on the low ceiling.
Meanwhile, those explorers who chose to hang back with Mrs. Webb got busy mud painting some trees and roots, apparently to protect and bandage them. When the tunnel group met back up with them, some stayed there and others returned to The Meeting Log with me.
Those who remained with me went back to their teeter-totter experiments. This time, when they announced that they were perfectly balanced, I offered some questions to get them hypothesizing and testing. What happens if the kids on one side scoot further forward? Backward? What if both sides move forward at the same time? Backward? What happens if one person stays toward the back and the others move forward? Now alternate? What about when one side moves forward and the other moves backward? They tried every scenario and invented some of their own. Levers, fulcrums, balance, weight, distribution… it’s SCIENCE, people!
It wasn’t easy to say good-bye to this group. They were a stellar class of kids! There were a few tears- one of our sweet boys was full-on sobbing when his mom picked him up- and we were surrounded by hugs. I assured them all that Woods and Wetlands is always available if their parents can gather a group of at least five explorers and we can choose any natural space available for future adventures!
I must admit, I can no longer keep up with daily writing about all of the wonder and joy we are experiencing during this summer’s Woods and Wetlands camp! I will just have to let photos and captions give you a fraction of what goes on out there. We discover new things every day. Kids create, invent, problem-solve, think, communicate, gain confidence, and ever so much more!
Empathy and Literacy: Learning that trees and humans have far more in common than we might have ever realized. Noticing and caring for tiny creatures reminds us we are not alone on this earth. Seeing, feeling, smelling, listening to, and tasting nature creates lasting thoughts and feelings. We held a toad, crayfish, spiders, grubs, slugs, minnows, mushrooms, and fairy shrimp. Everyone was gentle and kind. They were able to imagine what it might be like to be one of these small lives so different from ours. We read the book, A Snake In the House, and the kids were on the edge of their seats, so to speak, wondering how the little snake would get back home to the pond where it belonged. At the end there was a collective sigh of relief as the boy in the story “shared its joy at being home.” In addition to listening to both fiction and nonfiction read alouds, the kids are exploring the field guides and gaining interest in looking up our various “finds” using iNaturalist. They are writing and/or drawing in their nature journals almost daily, though not everyone was developmentally ready for that and we didn’t push it because we don’t want to create negative associations with writing or journaling.
Math: Estimating how long a stick or string needed for “fishing.” Gauging the distance one can leap or jump from a log into the water or the ground. Today one explorer created a monetary system using beech nuts (1 is worth $5 because, due to the beech scale disease, there aren’t going to be so many of these in the future,) and acorn caps (worth only $1 because they were all over the place.) Two other explorers stood on the steep, high bank over the river and had a “rocks vs sticks vs acorns” contest to see which created the biggest and most circles rippling outward in the water. They energetically proceeded to throw the aforementioned items as hard as they could into the river. (Hello, physical strength and spatial senses!) They noticed the rings started small and grew larger as they expanded.
This week began our fourth and final session of Woods and Wetlands at Camp Rockford. (There will always be more Woods and Wetlands available throughout the entire year to anyone who wants it!) Two days in and both Mrs. Webb and I feel that this is an easy, happy, bright little group of explorers. They collaborate and follow directions. They listen attentively and are eager to explore and learn together. In short, we know we are going to have such a fun final session! We talked to each other about how much we enjoy seeing this space through the eyes of new campers every two weeks. It never gets boring for us because we see the joy, wonder, and curiosity of the kids and we can’t help but be excited again, right along with them!
We learned Brain Gym and used the Rhythm Greeting during Morning Meeting on day 1, followed by some quick safety tips and hands-off lessons about poison ivy. After dropping off our supplies at the Meeting Log, everyone wanted to check out the creek. The whole group used the Log-jam bridge to make their way down to the water. At first most of the kids were wary about getting wet or letting the water go over the tops of their boots, but by the end of the morning they were happily wading around getting wet and muddy. It was a successful exploration day! One boy declared that he would be in that creek every single day of camp!
One of my favorite things about teaching and learning through play and exploration outdoors is that nature always shows us something new, even in a space that Mrs. Webb and I have explored for six weeks straight! For the first time all summer we found fairy shrimp, which are tiny shrimp-like creatures, found in the mud and sand of the creek, that are very important as food for many other animals in the food chain. The kids with nets were scooping up nets full of what looked like just leaf litter, mud, and sand and dumping them out just on the edge of the creek. I showed them how to pick and paw their way through it looking for small creatures. In just a few scoops we discovered multiple fairy shrimp! (We put it all back in the creek pretty quickly.)
Later we gave the kids their nature journals to decorate as they please with their colored pencils. I asked them to draw or write about something they saw or did on the first day. There were a few drawings of fairy shrimp in there!
On day 2 we learned about some common patterns found in nature. First everyone was given a card with 8 patterns on it and we asked them to try to draw at least one of these in their nature journals. They did a great job and some even added to the patterns to turn them into something else, such as a snake or a tree. We greeted each other while passing around part of an old paper-wasp nest and marveled at the patterns these insects were able to make by chewing wood and mixing it with their saliva. As the nest was passed to each child, they made eye contact and said good morning. We read the book, Nothing to Do, and looked for the patterns on each page. Our purpose today was to keep an eye out for patterns like these in real-life nature.
We discovered a spiral patterned shell, wavy lines on and under the water, meandering patterns beetles left on a log, and a triangular rock.
Throughout the morning our group flowed and regrouped in multiple ways and places. Some explorers chose to play and build a fort in the woods with Mrs. Webb. We had a snack break and a few who finished their snacks early went to check out where one of the trails led. We had more creek explorations and briefly captured some tadpoles to look at. The kids who were catching and releasing these little creatures were careful to make sure they got water poured over them repeatedly so that they could live through the observations.
I loved watching a few of the kids find new and creative ways to move across the Log-jam bridge as they continue to master living in their own bodies, developing their proprioceptive systems. Balance, coordination, strength, flexibility, spatial sense, and self confidence are just some of the many benefits of unstructured play in nature. One boy worked out routines and methods that suited him and then taught those around him how to do the same. For a few minutes a small group of explorers took turns sitting and sliding down the side of the log to try to land on their feet in the creek. This was followed by jumping into the creek from a standing position on the log. Not everyone tried it that way, but those who were ready to dare themselves were taking just enough risk to feel both safe and thrilled at the same time. This was my opportunity to explain to them why we don’t try to dare or challenge other kids to do what we are doing. In Woods and Wetlands everyone does what feels safe and comfortable for them as individuals.
We are incredibly fortunate to have this beautiful piece of property where kids can freely and safely play and learn. As water becomes more and more scarce and precious in the west, we are even more grateful than ever for all of Michigan’s lovely wetlands and waterways. I hope these kiddos grow up to be adults who love and protect our natural resources so that everyone from microscopic moss piglets (tardigrades or water bears) to fairy shrimp, to frogs, beetles, and bats and more, to HUMANS, will always have safe, clean, healthy water.
Today’s explorations extended from yesterday’s with the added focus of noticing patterns in nature. We read Flow, Spin, Grow and Nothing To Do. Each of our campers found a small, laminated, card on their sit pads this morning and I asked them to choose at least 1 of the patterns on the card to try to draw in their nature journals. We talked about which of these patterns reminded us of different natural objects. For example, one girl said that one of the patterns reminded her of tree branches. Another noticed that the close-packed pattern was like beehives. After drawing everyone’s attention to these patterns, we went out and looked for similar shapes in our exploration space.
We checked the river again, and though it seems lower and slower, it’s still too deep to be safe. Next week should be better unless we get a lot of rain before then.
There is so much to do out there! We love seeing kids playing, running around, exploring, noticing, laughing, and learning. Unlike in school, I allow children to play with sticks because we teach them how to use them safely. Additionally, kids who play with each other and use physical contact are allowed to do so as long as everyone involved is comfortable with the game or activity. We adults tend to get too worried and anxious that someone might get hurt if they roughhouse, but some level of this is normal and healthy. We always make sure our explorers are playing safely, but that doesn’t have to mean never touching anyone else. I try to encourage kids in ways to play respectfully but also to know they can say “no,” or, “stop,” as needed, and that everyone must listen to each other’s words and respect each other’s boundaries.
Toward the end of our morning I was checking in with a camper who was sitting against this tree when suddenly another camper noticed this TOAD who had attached itself to the bark just above the other camper’s head! The toad held very still and we could just barely see it’s little throat moving up and down as it breathed. We didn’t touch or hold this one, but instead observed and noticed how beautifully camouflaged it was on the tree bark. I used this opportunity to teach the kids around me about how both frogs and toads hatch from eggs in the water, first as tadpoles and then as frogs or toads, but noted that toads generally leave the water and frogs tend to stay near or in the water. I also use these chances to model and teach empathy. I pointed out how very big we are compared to the toad and how it probably felt that we were predators who wanted to eat it!
A note from yesterday: I have begun talking to the kids about how trees and humans have similarities. Today one of the girls recalled that the top tree branches that spread out are called the “crown,” which is kind of like our heads. I explained how trees protect themselves with bark and humans with skin, but if bark or skin are cut, germs or bugs can get inside and so the bark and our skin can form scabs for repair. In the book, Flow, Spin, Grow, the author and illustrator showed how inside of our human bodies we have branches too! Branching of our bronchial tubes, arteries, and veins are very similar to tree branch patterns! Making these personal connections between people and trees is important if we are going to find ways to live in balance with nature.
Our new group of explorers started today and we lucked out because there were no storms and not even any rain! (We do not cancel for rain.) Unfortunately the river and its little tributary were both far too deep and fast to be safe for any of us to go wading. Even our little DIY “bridge” we made with our first group was underwater and the logjam bridge was inaccessible. We are hoping that before our two weeks with this group are over that the water will recede and we can safely play and explore there.
Day 1 with any group always contains far too much talking on my part and though I try to incorporate movement into our introductions, going over basic rules and safety expectations inevitably takes too long. This group is, overall, younger than our first group, so our activities and the kids’ interests will be different. It was fun to begin getting to know all 15 different personalities today! Learning all those names is my first priority, so Mrs. Webb and I practiced throughout the morning and I think we’ve almost got them all matched up with faces!
We met and greeted each other by having each of us act out something we love to do and then we all said good morning while acting out the same thing. For example, I said, “Miss Tahlia likes to climb trees,” while pretending to climb a tree. Then they all said, “Good morning, Miss Tahlia!” while pretending to climb a tree. We went around the circle like this. I also had them act like human protractors (an idea from my beloved Morning Meeting Book) to show how much experience they have had exploring in nature. A “10” meant they have already done A LOT of nature exploration, so they stood up straight with their arms straight up over their heads. A “0” meant they had no experience at all, and they stood with their body folded forward, touching their toes. A “5” was in the middle, bent in half, to show they had some, but not a lot, of experience.
On our way to the woods we stopped to have our first, (but not last!) visual introduction to some different poison ivy plants. It is VERY hard to identify until you have practiced a lot. Some of it was big, some small. Some plants were dark green and others were light green. A few leaves had large, deep, “teeth” on the edges, while others had almost no jagged edges at all. One of the kids asked, quite exasperated, how are we supposed to know what it looks like if it always looks different? All I could do was laugh and agree with her that it is VERY HARD to know! We just have to keep practicing.
We met at least 3 toads today, each apparently living in a small burrow formed at the base of a tree! There was some talk of uniting them, as a few kids felt certain the toads were sisters. Whiel this may be so, I did have the toads returned to their original “home” once we were done admiring them. I was glad I gave the pre-amphibian-handling pep talk about making sure to get our hands VERY dirty/muddy before handling these sensitive animals! They drink and breathe through their skin, so when we touch them with left over hand sanitizer, lotion, soap, bug repellent, sunscreen, or even just our own natural skin oils, we are causing them harm. We also had a talk about not killing spiders or daddy longlegs either, since they will not hurt us and are actually quite helpful.
Mrs. Webb and the group who were nearest her discovered a stunning, metallic, green, beetle on a log. I had seen these before but never knew what they were, so tonight I looked them up using iNaturalist and discovered they are “common tiger beetles.” Well! There was nothing common about this little creature! Apparently they come in different metallic colors and patterns. I can’t wait to tell the kids about them tomorrow!
When our timer went off I used our new chime (courtesy of a parent from our first group!) to call the kids over to the Meeting Log where I introduced nature journaling and gave them all their own journals and colored pencils. Most of the kids did at least a little bit of drawing and/or writing in their first page. We will hold onto these for them until our last day when they will be able to take them home. A few of the kids were interested in using the scavenger hunt cards and they went in search of the places and things that I photographed to make the cards.
It was a busy morning and we are all so excited to find out what tomorrow will bring! We are also crossing our fingers that it won’t bring any thunder and lightning because we have no indoor shelter available at Camp Rockford. As of the writing of this entry, the forecast calls for rain but the storms look like they won’t happen until the afternoon when we are all done for the day.
No, not everyone got nettle rashes, but three kids did brush against nettles and I applied fresh jewelweed juice. Mrs. Webb remembered that I keep jewelweed salve in my W&W backpack and she had the kids apply it for good measure since there wasn’t really much juice to be found in the fresh plants. Anyway, a bit later one of the kids announced that it was a “nettle day,” today.
After we all put the date and some basic weather words or drawings in our nature journals, we began our last morning with Brain Gym. It’s been so interesting to me to see kids get better and better at these seemingly simple movements that cross the body’s midline. I continue to be fascinated by how quickly we are able to change how our own brains function! Our greeting was one I haven’t attempted before and it went alright, though not as easily as I had hoped. We split our group into two, concentric circles (like the rings of a tree trunk!). The inside circle turned to face the kids on the outside circle. We greeted each other with elbow bumps and then the inner circle rotated clockwise one person at a time until we had greeted everyone that way. I’ll admit I felt a bit like I was trying to herd cats! We only were off by one shift, however, and it was a fun little way to say good morning and use our brains differently.
On the spur-of-the-moment I decided the kids still had enough patience left for me to read them this book before heading to the woods. I was so glad I did because it turned into a theme for many of our explorers, later on, wading in the creek with me! We scooped up sifting rocks and picked out the ones that caught our eye. This book has beautiful photographs of children finding a wide variety of rocks for different purposes: wishing rocks, climbing rocks, fossils, skipping rocks, worry rocks, memory rocks, and more! So many kids can identify with the joy of rock-collecting. I love collecting rocks from nature in part because they are free and found in so many places, even parking lots or driveways! One of the most avid rock-hunters proposed that these little safety vests should have multiple pockets and ways to close the pockets. I completely agree. She found that when she leaned over to pick up more rocks, the treasures in her pocket fell out again. She quickly learned to hold it closed with one hand while searching for new rocks with the other.
I was one of the rock hunters today, so I have very few photos of this activity. Both of my hands were in the water instead of on my phone. I really prefer to be without a phone during W&W, but for safety and documentation, it is unfortunately necessary. I try not to ask the kids to direct their attention toward my camera, however, since they probably already have more than enough screen time in their lives after a year of on and off virtual school!
Part and parcel of working with kids is helping them handle social conflicts. I was taught to give children words, (when possible) rather than speak on their behalf. Yesterday one of our kids came to me and sadly told me that one of the other explorers kept yelling at her. (Mrs. Webb and I later determined that he just generally yells, and not necessarily at anyone.) I could have marched over to said “yeller” and told him not to yell at people. Had I done that, I would have been giving more attention to the offender than to the child whose feelings were hurt. It also reinforces “telling” on each other rather than teaching kids to ask for help. So after finding out how she felt when he yelled at her, I offered to go with her to talk to him about it so she could tell him how she felt and ask him to use a kinder voice. I gave her the words she could say, “I don’t like it when you yell at me. It hurts my feelings. Please don’t do that again.” She decided she didn’t want to do that, but she wanted me to go and tell him myself. I repeated that I would be happy to go with her and help her tell him herself. She opted to just let it go rather than try to talk about it together. This, too, is always an option. What I often find is that many kids just want an adult to acknowledge their experience and feelings, and then they are good to go. I sensed this was one of these situations.
Today we had a different social problem. Three different kids wanted to pull our heavily loaded wagon of supplies to and from the woods. I was at a loss because I couldn’t remember who I told yesterday that they could pull it today. The kids weren’t sure either. As much as I wanted to get us to the woods as soon as possible, I decided to hang back with these 3 and ask them to do the work of solving this problem. There was a lot of calm negotiating. At first they each just said what they, personally, wanted. After a minute or so of that going nowhere, they realized I wasn’t going to solve this for them and I wasn’t going to decide who got to pull the wagon. I just smiled and told them they could work something out. They did! They listened to each other’s ideas and agreed on a plan. When it was time to leave the woods, they reconvened and remembered the plan that THEY came up with, and modified it to their satisfaction! Because they had buy-in, they felt ownership and responsibility. They learned they could be trusted to solve hard problems. There was no further disagreement, which was well worth the time it took for them to work this out. Maybe kids should be running the country…
Sharing is also hard for young children. I only have 2 dip nets and this morning someone wanted to use one but both were already in use. After one of the boys asked another boy with a net if he could have it, and was told no, he turned to me for help. Reaching into my mental bag of strategies (courtesy of MSU’s child development department 28 years ago!) I asked the boy who had the net how much longer he wanted to use it. He said 10 minutes. I asked the other boy if that was agreeable to him. He said no. The boy with the net was then willing to agree to 5 minutes, so I set my watch, knowing that he would likely lose interest in using the net before the 5 minutes were up. Sure enough, in just another minute or two he called out to the other boy that he was done with the net and that he could have it. He also made sure I knew I could turn off my timer.
These are the kinds of the moments I really miss having with my own classroom of students. If I’d only had this group for one morning, they probably wouldn’t have had the bond with each other and with me that makes this kind of problem-solving possible.
I don’t know why the saying goes, “all good things must come to an end,” because this is true of all things, whether good, bad, or somewhere in between! Time insists on moving forward, unless crossing time zones or coping with Daylight Saving Time, and that’s just confusing. In any case, these past two weeks have been absolutely delightful, and I so hope to see these faces again someday! I gave each of the kids a little Woods and Wetlands sticker and handed their parents/caregivers a flyer with the info needed if they ever want to book a Woods and Wetlands program for their kids’ birthdays, scout troops, or just for fun!
Our final journal entry (at my request) was to write or draw something to Mrs. Webb or to me, telling us what they liked best about Woods and Wetlands, or anything else they wanted to share. It seemed to make a difference that we gave them an audience this time. I noticed a little more motivation to actually make the effort. Our youngest camper wasn’t at all interested in using a nature journal, but that just tells me he’s not developmentally ready for it yet, which is perfectly okay. One of the reasons I left classroom teaching was the pushing of developmentally inappropriate curriculum on kids, treating them not as individuals within the myriad contexts of their lives and experiences, but as if they all think, learn, and perform in exactly the same ways. Kids need to move to learn.
On Monday we will have a whole new group of explorers! Our little vests have already been laundered and are ready to go back out into the wild. The lessons we have learned from our first group will help us be better teachers for the next group. But the first group is no doubt going to hold a special place in our hearts. There were many hugs and high-fives today when it was time to go. A few kids ran back for double hugs. One can never have too many!