Woods and Wetlands 2018

Summer Begins

We began with a gorgeous map turtle crossing the road as all the kids were arriving and parents were trying to park and say hello. (No photo, I’m afraid, but be sure to look them up!)

Next up was a lovely and fairly friendly ribbon snake, a type of harmless garter who only wanted to be left alone to hunt bugs, thank you very much.

Our group is comprised of former summer explorers, former school year explorers, and a few brand new explorers. It is a wonderful group of curious and intrepid learners. L, in particular, I have already realized is closely observing many details the rest of us miss.

On Monday we focused on learning and selecting landmarks and recognizing poison ivy. On Thursday we began learning about compass usage and also practiced watching where we put our hands and feet, especially when forced off trail by a large, controlled fire! The West Michigan Land Conservancy is once again conducting prescribed burns to select areas of the preserve in order to improve soil conditions and promote certain native plant species.

We are hoping they will refrain from burning our main log-walking area but I fear it will be gone by next week.

G and I tried a quick sketch of this pretty bug. E and I think it eats mosquitoes.

In this photo you can clearly see the differences between poison ivy (left) and Virginia creeper, (right.)
We reached the Vine Playground!

Learning about wintergreen

B and E made it higher than I ever thought they would!
Using gravity to help us run down hill and momentum carries us partway up the next. It’s physics!
We had quite the frog catching expedition at the other swamp!
Blue flags!
A beautiful Blandings turtle!
Woods and Wetlands 2018

Slush and Engineering

On this mid-winter melt day I had just two Woods and Wetlands explorers, but nevertheless, we had a blast!  The melting snow that was flooding the playground was slowly draining downhill toward the woods and swamp.  The boys first noticed tiny waterfalls trickling across the path we intended to take to Grandfather Oak.  We were quickly derailed by this fascinating new development and set about following the path of the moving water uphill until we located its source.
D. and J. noticed that there were two tubes coming out of the ground from the playground but only one had water trickling out.  The other seemed blocked and D. began finding ways to clear it.
Getting soaking wet was totally worthwhile as J. and I worked to remove some rocks from the tiny drainage stream, later making the effort to haul them down the hill to create a dam in the woods.
D. and I talked about and observed what kinds of things stopped water from flowing.  Discussion followed with both boys about gravity, the power of moving water, and how engineers study these factors in order to build things.
D. looks closely to find out where he could clear out more leaves and slush.
J. experimented with a plastic lid we found to see how far it would float on the moving water before getting stuck.
We would have loved to have a few, small, foldable shovels to clear the slush, but using our feet and sticks worked too.
J. worked in almost complete contented silence to build his dam.
J. checked frequently to see if the water was getting deeper and also looked for places where the water might escape.
D. really enjoyed building a dam and, like most kids, he loved talking about it.  The one context in which kids are allowed to say, “dam!”
We used packed snow and some sticks to build D’s dam.
He decided to build two separate dams to capture two tributaries.
Together we worked the entire time to clear slush, sticks, and leaves which created tiny rivers that curved and turned.  This turned into a major cause and effect lesson for all of us.
I asked D. where he thinks all the water will eventually go.  He thought hard and looked around before concluding, “Probably the swamp.”  Yup!  
We stayed warm and mostly dry despite our outer layers being soaked.  D. and I changed mittens once when our hands got wet and cold.  Luckily, I keep extras with me at all times!


Woods and Wetlands 2018

Process vs. Product

Woods and Wetlands is most definitely a process over product experience.  I am so proud of that!  It is rewarding to witness the kids each finding what interests them while I either step back and allow discoveries and practice to unfold, or I step forward for a while to ask questions, point out my own observations, or simply reflect what the kids are sharing with me.

Stepping back might look like this:  R. is working hard at getting up into the Secret Fort Tree.  I can see he is trying various methods and using all of his muscles to try.  I step back and observe, careful not to let him see me noticing.  I want him to figure this out, keep at it, and either succeed or decide he’s done for now on his own.  He doesn’t give up. He makes it! 

Stepping forward might look like this: I hear R. crow, “I did it!  Mrs. H, I got up!”  I step forward and reflect his grin and say, “You did it!  You worked SO hard and you did it!  I can tell you’re really proud!  That took a lot of hard work.”


S. hasn’t ever seen a cattail and asks me if it will hurt her.  I hold it out and assure her it will not.  She holds it carefully but after a while loses interest.  I encourage, “Try pushing your thumb into it and see what happens.”  She does and her face lights up with delight as the soft, fur-like seed puffs cascade into her hands.  Moments later she is calling her brother over to demonstrate for him and soon his arms, too, are full of cattail fluff.


Joy flourishes as the kids explore.  D. uses most of his swamp time crawling through and around the bushes peering into various openings to look for, “bunny houses.”  His voice calls out every few minutes for any of us to come see the latest bunny home he thinks he has found.  These may not actually be bunny homes, but he is using what he knows which is that rabbits do live plentifully around there; he has seen the hundreds of tracks in the snow, as well as the scat sprinkled about.  He knows they are hiding out during the day too and that they must hide from predators and snuggle down for warmth out of the wind.  He estimates how many could fit in each home and decides which areas are likely to be good bunny homes and which would not, based on any number of features.  He is evaluating and verbally sharing all of his ideas.


S. and B. team up and decide that they have a magical fort in a space between the swamp bushes where they feel cozy and protected.  I hear B. bellowing, “You are now BANISHED FROM MY KINGDOM!”  I love hearing their pretend play.  Imaginations explode into full spectrum outdoors in nature.  He and S. negotiate and renegotiate terms of their kingdom as they proceed.  This involves letting others in and finding roles for everyone who wants to play.  They giggle and change whatever elements they want.  Imagination is unlimited when no one else is creating the choices for them.


J. has made it a game with himself to try to sneak silently and unnoticed by me and around me.  He knows how to use his camouflage to his advantage!  I laugh inside my mind as I catch a glimpse of him in my peripheral vision sometimes and then he drops out of sight, only to appear again to my genuine surprise many minutes later when I have been distracted by other explorers.  His eyes are all that show and they are lit with joyful mischief.


J/s did not at first want to visit the Secret Fort Tree, though this was his first time there. He did not want to leave the swamp where we had been finding landmarks together.  But I coaxed him into coming with the promise that if he didn’t want to stay there he didn’t have to.  Half an hour later he was beaming at me from a branch over my head and declaring, “I LOVE the Secret Fort Tree!”


R. was very into discovering something for the first time all by himself.  For whatever reason, it was important to him to be the, “first,” at something.  This didn’t go over so well with the experienced explorers which necessitated some social guidance on my part. They wanted credit for their experience and for already having seen, “everything.” I admit that I love that particular element of teaching.  I love helping kids problem-solve with each other, giving them words to use and tones of voice to try out.  We spent some time on that.  R. finally was able to, “discover,” something no one else had ever mentioned.  It was only a large, discarded chunk of concrete with a large, metal pipe sticking out – not even part of nature – but he was agog with wonder, his eyes huge as he turned to me and declared, “I just discovered something OLD!”  I flashed back in my mind to finding a bit of junk jewelry in the woods once when I was a kid and how I invented romanticized stories about its origin and value.  I saw that same imaginative possibility spark in R.’s face.  I would not be the one to tell him the value of his find to anyone else.  To him it was priceless.

J. asked me whether I’d remembered my pocket knife this time so that we could cut open a Goldenrod gall.  I said I had finally remembered it.  (He has asked every week.)  So he gathered a few galls and we all returned to the Gathering Circle to cut one open.  Sure enough, a tiny, white larva moved slowly in its suddenly-exposed, woody stem.  The kids gathered around because this group had not yet seen this amazing phenomenon.  How could that tiny larva stay alive through the winter inside of a dead flower stem?  How did it get there?  What would it become?  We marveled at it.  S. remembered and compared it to the painted lady butterfly larva she observed in the fall in her classroom.


Before we left I asked S. and J/s what they liked about Woods and Wetlands, since it was their first time.  J/s looked very seriously at me as he answered, essay style.  “I liked the Fairy Tree and the swamp.  I liked the cattails too, but most of all, I liked the Secret Fort Tree!”



Woods and Wetlands 2017

Snow Day

Yesterday we had a snow day from school, but that is no reason to cancel Woods and Wetlands!  If anything, it made for an even more magical experience.  We were able to meet earlier and though it was a tiny group, only 3 explorers, we had a lovely time.

Breaking trail through new snow brings such a feeling of childhood to me and it seems completely normal to drop down and crawl through tiny openings between low branches, imagining we are little, furry animals in this wonderland.  I love and recognize the feel of being all insulated in snow pants, puffy coats, warm mittens and protective hats while the snow falls on our eyelashes and our cheeks get pink.

The kids notice all kinds of details and features of the woods and swamp that they haven’t seen before.  The girls haven’t been out there with me since last year and their voices continually brim with joy as they call out to each other and to me, “Remember when…!?”  And I am warmed by the memories they share.  I realize that some of those memories would have been lost to me if it weren’t for these verbalized recollections.  I also remember things that they do not, and between us, we rebuild some of those connections.

It is an effort to remember to pull out my phone to capture some of this beauty because I just want to soak it in and be fully present.  But I also love to share as much of it as possible with parents and others who enjoy these journeys.

We stayed toasty warm until the end when our toes began to get a bit cold and we found ourselves nicely tired out as we trudged back through the deepening snow to meet their parents.  I remembered dragging through snow behind my big sister as she broke trail for both of us throughout our childhood winters.  I glanced behind me to see O. and S. beaming at me, tired out but so happy, and B. found a burst of energy to run ahead, weaving his way through our half-filled tracks and creating new ones.

Tracks in the fresh snow, like memories made and as they fill again, half forgotten, always with the opportunity to get out there and make new ones all over again.


This was a tree/bush the girls remembered from last year and were eager to find again.  S. remembered that when they first discovered it and brought me there I had told them that they took me on a wild goose chase!  I had forgotten that.  It made her laugh.
B. really put some hard work into getting up there!  He slipped and fell a few times before getting it.  What a great feeling of accomplishment when we learn to do something ourselves!  He said he was, “self-taught.”

Looking for a way to climb up.  Like anything else, it takes thought, effort, and practice.  She can do it!
She is a strong girl!  This time she got to enjoy the best places in the Secret Fort Tree since she didn’t have to share it with an entire class.
Dropping to make a snow angel anywhere, any time!

Oh, they sure know what to do when a camera is pointed their way!


“Snow angel high fives!” they said.
We wondered whether the magic tree would open with cattail fluff applied?


Oh, the joys of texture, discovery, and making a mess!


S. decided she would call these, “Nature’s corndogs.”
This was a new memory in the making.  When we did Firsts in the Forest together we hadn’t discovered how to make cattails puff out like… well… cat tails!
B. decides to make a new trail in the swamp.
We were perplexed about how and why the cattails had new, young plants still green coming up through the snow.  We remembered seeing them that way in the springtime.

B. enjoyed playing with his, “torch,” that he found and used it to lead the way as he discovered more bunny tracks!