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

The Process of Accomplishment and Adventure


We did it.  That old map I’ve previously written about?  For the first time ever we followed what used to be the trail that circled the entire swamp, returning to our Meeting Circle.  It wasn’t easy and, frankly, wasn’t always entirely enjoyable, but it was an adventure!

At one point I became uncomfortably aware that I was leading an expedition not unlike some of the wild goose chases on which my dad used to take our family when I was younger… the sort of, “hikes,” that were punctuated by a lot of complaining, whining, agonizing over when we’d be there, and even crying, (mostly on my part, as I recall.)  But these kids didn’t cry, not once.  They remained stoic and engaged, even when boots were soaked through or filled with cold swamp water, despite the occasional trip-and-fall, random thorns, and tired leg muscles.  (And all the while, the songs of the spring peepers kept us company!)

In fact, I wasn’t even the one doing the leading.  E. took the lead as the oldest of the kids and she did so with great confidence.  I don’t know if I can properly express my pride and affection as I now reflect on all that went into our expedition that day.  The faith and trust the kids put in me and themselves as we left the trail and went wading through and around cattails, fallen trees, bushes and deepening muck… it fills my heart and brings a smile.  I am visualizing little S. as she gamely struggled along, chattering most of the way, rarely asking me or anyone to help her.  Her former default to learned helplessness is disappearing. Even with her boots soaked, (as we cross between needing to be warm to needing to be waterproof,) and her legs shorter than everyone else’s, she kept a smile on her face every time I checked on her.  I was so proud.









O. was quickly saturated before we even left the trail, and though she exclaimed about being wet, she plowed on through the difficult terrain and I gently teased her about not being able to get any wetter.  (Later, even in the parking lot, she jumped up and down in a puddle…) Her sense of humor kept her together when she was probably pretty uncomfortable by the end of the hike.  We agreed that we wouldn’t do this particular route again and that it wasn’t as fun as getting to just wander in one area with the option of sitting down and resting on a log or standing still to look around.  We had to keep moving or we would never make it back in time for parent pick-up time. And, as I have recently promised myself to do whatever I can to avoid rushing, hurrying, and that awful sense of not enough time, I was in full sympathy with her (and others’) need to stop and to take our time.

But we did it.  They began the session with great curiosity about the old map, where the trail led, and whether we could get all the way around as it indicated.  Now we know. As we picked up a deer trail through the swamp, spotted the Fairy Tree, and finally neared the familiar woods, “LAND, HO!” shouted D., one explorer expressed regret that we had done that hike.  But I pointed out that if we hadn’t done it we would have always wondered if we could, if the old path remained, and now we knew it did not. Now we could spend our time doing what we know we love.  Next week I predict we will wander the (Forgotten Forest?  Hidden Forest? … it needs a name) which has charms and adventures enough to satisfy all explorers, minus the exhausting hike.

At the end I told all of the kids how proud I hoped they were of themselves.  They worked hard, didn’t give up, and stayed together.  They looked out for each other and tried something new.  It was an unknown, physical challenge, not one that just anyone would take on. I couldn’t fully express all that I felt and thought when I looked at their muddy, bedraggled selves, but I hope they felt something good and strong inside.  They earned it.


Additional Notes:

All of this week’s photos were taken prior to the hike due to the difficulty of terrain and need for both of my hands free.  I am also having difficulty uploading photos at this time.

Regarding the week prior, I learned that the tiny, shrimp-like thing we found in the swamp is called a, “fairy shrimp,” and that they are common in swamps and vernal ponds this time of year.  They are necessary food for many other creatures just waking up and hatching each spring.

Woods and Wetlands 2017

Never Bored

45° and sunny

November 7, 2017

No one could be bored with a woods and swamp to explore.  Today (Tuesday) many of the kids had their new compasses and they practiced using them while also learning to read an old map on our new exploration.

Is it poison sumac?

Before heading out on our new discovery the kids wanted to go explore some more out past the Fairy Tree.  A group decided to make a path between the Fairy Tree and the Boardwalk, (which was pretty easy because of the kids from the Thursday group who already did that the week prior…)   They came back triumphant and announcing that they are, “real men and women,” because they made it all that way!  I contemplated having a discussion about what they think it means to be a, “real man,” or, “real woman,” but I could tell they were just being silly and so I laughed with them and said nothing other than reflecting that I could tell they were proud of themselves.  Unfortunately, (or fortunately, depending on your point of view,) I found what I think is poison sumac out in the area near the boardwalk where the kids have started making the new path.  We will be avoiding that and learning to identify it asap!

Possibly poison sumac? Poison sumac differs from the staghorn sumac that we often see growing in meadows in our area. Poison sumac sometimes has white berries. It can grow into a large bush and is described as growing in swampy areas. We did have two students who developed a rash the week before and it does say in the 1978 nature trail book from Lakes that there was poison sumac out near the old boardwalk which is where I found this. I am waiting on positive identification from a forester friend.

The new path:  a map, an old oak, and a mossy wetland

Several of us blew our whistles to call everyone to us so that we could follow the old map to a new location.  I had copies made of the 1978 map of the Lakes Nature Trail so anyone who wanted to follow along on it as we walked was able to do so.  Most of the kids were excited to do so.  Our first stop was at Grandfather Oak.  We noted how old he looks and gave him a hug.  The kids noticed that an animal has or had a den at the base of Grandfather Oak.  Someone asked what kind of animal it was so I asked what kind it could be.  This is a good way to determine what kids already know about their local wildlife.  My guess was a woodchuck, but nobody was home at the moment so we didn’t find out for sure.



The new woods is both a woods and a wetland at the same time.  It reminds me a bit of one of the planets on the old Star Wars movies, but I don’t know which one.  It is beautiful and decorated with mossy logs, clear water with a leafy floor, and weathered stumps that look like fairy castles.









Dead tree trunk and a bird’s nest

M. came upon a dead tree trunk barely balancing on its last leg and he wanted to push it down, (because it’s fun for kids to do stuff like that!) but I was so glad he asked first.  I was explaining how dead trees provide food and shelter for birds and bugs, and then someone noticed a bird nest up in one of the cavities of the trunk!  I am sure it will fall down on its own at some point soon, but we were glad to leave it alone for now in case it lasts until spring.  This spontaneous mini lesson on how dead trees are beneficial turned into another mini lesson about how birds do not live in nests except to raise their young! C. (4th grader) was very curious about this and he said that he never knew that because books seem to always show birds in their nests so he assumed that’s where they go at night when they go to sleep.  He thought about it and asked me where they do sleep if they don’t sleep in nests?   I love that he was thinking about it and wondering.

Authentic compass usage + a handy thermometer

C. (5th grader) and I had a great conversation/lesson about directions.  She thought her compass wasn’t working properly because it was pointing the direction she was sure was east.  Once we established that it was, in fact, north, she was baffled by how her sense of direction was turned around.  This happened again when it was time to walk back and she felt strongly that we should walk in a different direction.  I explained about our sense of direction and how it will improve with practice just like any other skill.  I assured her that I still get turned around in my head sometimes and that is why knowing how and when to use a compass is really helpful.

The sun started to set when it was time to go and we could see it shining brightly through the trees to the… “Who knows in what direction the sun sets?”  This was met with a chorus of ALL of the directions shouted out at me.  Finally I got them quiet enough to confirm WEST and have everyone check their compasses.

This photo captures him after he had already walked, balancing carefully, along the log and fallen in. He didn’t give up but stood up and climbed back onto the log with a branch for additional support. His feet were wet and cold but the smile never left his face.

We headed back, trying to be extra quiet and respectful as we skirted the edge of a property owner’s lawn.  I have permission from that particular landowner, but will need to get permission from some others now that we are exploring farther afield.

The temperature had dropped by that time and some of us checked our thermometers on the back of the compasses.  It had only dropped by 3 degrees (a quick math problem done by a 2nd grader as we walked,) but without the sun it felt really cold!  Those who had slipped and had boots full of water were starting to get pretty chilly by then.  It may be time for thick socks or multiple layers!

It was a wonderful afternoon of my favorite kind of teaching and learning!



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!