On Tuesday I had the pleasure of taking a local Brownie troop out for a Woods and Wetlands adventure, this time in an entirely new (to me) location! The family that hosted our experience is fortunate enough to share a gorgeous piece of property with some other area residents, and we were able to explore through their woods to a small pond and a beautiful little creek.
As we set out on a mowed path there was immediately so much to notice! Using “nature eyes and ears,” the girls quickly noticed a small, reddish toad and then a tiny spring peeper, which led to educating the group about getting our hands nice and dirty before handling amphibians. (Some already knew how and why!)
Unfortunately, as in many local woodlands, I recognized and pointed out a variety of invasive plant species such as garlic mustard, autumn olive, oriental bittersweet, and barberry. Though we could spend part of our precious hour removing some of these, my goal with most Woods and Wetlands groups, particularly on our first outing, is to focus instead on learning through unstructured play in nature, which I believe contributes to a lifelong love of and connection with our planet. Once that connection is firmly established, whether with children or adults, it is more likely that these nature lovers will want to take action to restore and protect our only earth. But before humans willingly choose to take care of something, we must first develop a sense of love, connection, and ownership. We don’t need to travel far or rely on places like national parks when we can meet our own local flora and fauna in our own backyards.
We paused frequently, looking for landmarks and noticing not just what we could see, but what we could hear, smell, feel and also imagine. At one point I asked everyone to stop and look down toward their feet while trying to visualize what the sky looked like the last time they looked up. After a moment or two, we all looked up to see whether it looked as we remembered or whether it had changed. Small, intentional practices like this can build powers of observation and awareness.
The first water we came to was a small, shallow pond filled with abundant, bright, green frogs! The frogs seemed oddly unafraid of us and we spent some time wading in the murky water with them. We noticed a variety of animal tracks in the mud around the pond, but we moved on after noting that many of the prints were from deer. (*Identifying the other tracks could be a project for a different day and another session.)
As the terrain changed and the trail dipped steeply downhill, we arrived at a tiny stream where a cold current of water burbled happily around bends adorned with skunk cabbage, through a pipe, and beneath a small, plank bridge. Why do you think this water is so much colder than the pond water? One explorer guessed that it was because the water is moving. I asked the girls if they’d ever played a version of “Pooh Sticks,” (borrowed from the original Winnie the Pooh stories,) wherein each person chooses a distinctive stick and then drops their stick at the same time on the upstream side of a bridge or pipe, followed by looking to see whose stick comes out the downstream side first. This activity could, with more time, organically evolve into any number of science experiments and observations!
The girl whose family was hosting our outing was eager to show us her preferred spot along the stream, so we moved on. I love that she already had a special place there and that she wanted to share it with us. It was, indeed, a perfect location to spend more time, but by then our hour was almost up! My lesson learned? It is easier to manage our time when I already have some familiarity with the space and can intentionally allow sufficient time in the most conducive locations.
I looked around and quickly spotted a fallen tree next to the water and I remembered the strategy of inviting by doing, rather than by telling. Shedding my backpack, I climbed onto the log and walked along it, then jumped down and stepped into the stream. Sure enough, the girls soon followed and we dipped our hands into the cold water, examining some of the rocks, showing each other when we found something interesting, and eventually we began a dam project to see whether we could slow or change the water’s path. This led to discussion about beavers and materials they use to create their dams. Can you imagine using your TEETH to chew down a tree?
At one point a younger brother who had accompanied us lost his balance in the stream and landed on his bottom with a small splash. He looked up at me, his eyes wide with surprise, and I wondered if he might cry, but instead, when I grinned at him, he grinned back, getting to his feet and we went back to our “work,” undaunted by his unexpected, cold, immersion.
As is usual, we could have spent many happy hours out there, investigating and interacting with nature. On my drive home my mind was overflowing with ideas for follow-up activities, which could be introduced with any group, once the open-exploration period has reached a satisfactory point.
These sessions fill me with gratitude for being able to continue teaching, freed from the restrictions of the classroom setting. My classroom is nature. The curriculum is fluid and adaptable. The learners are free to move and play. And, “Play is the work of childhood.”