The last day is always hard. None of us want to say goodbye! I am hoping that I can continue bringing Woods and Wetlands to local schools this fall, so I plan to reach out to as many educators as possible to get these programs scheduled. One of my dreams would be to offer repeat programs for the same classes in the same, wild, space throughout a school year, whether once a month or even 4 times a (school) year. Imagine the kids getting to bond with a natural area that they can access whenever their adults can get them there, where they would benefit from seeing nature change throughout the seasons! School curriculum would be supported as we learn naturally about local plants, animals, fungi, geology, history, and geography. Woods and Wetlands programs support physical education related to strength, balance, coordination, teamwork, spatial awareness, and self-confidence. The arts can be woven into repeat programs as well. Nature-play and play-based learning offers health and wellness to all of us, even those who don’t enjoy the outdoors. We become more resilient to the stresses of life and better able to heal and grow our spirits when the world gets to be too much.
Imagine you have spent your childhood living down deep in the warm mud of a wetland, swimming around and breathing with gills. One day when you are anywhere from 3 months to 5 years old, you crawl out of the muck, up onto a cattail or blade of grass, your back splits open, and you crawl right out of your “skin” (exoskeleton), but you are no longer a creepy crawler; you are an iridescent, shimmery, winged creature who can now FLY! You have lovely fairy-like wings and amazing eyesight. No more dark, muddy days. You are a DRAGONFLY!
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.
We searched the cattails for redwing blackbird nests but had no luck. O. made her own nest on a secret island she and D. discovered. D. and I decided on a fort area that had a pretend doorbell and a secret password. The password changes frequently, so it is safe to tell you that the first time it was, “Fiddle head island.” I have already forgotten what it was the second time. We also tried catching water bugs but they were too fast for us.
We had a wonderful time until close to the end of Woods and Wetlands last week. Sometimes it can be hard for kids to know when enough is enough and when the line between fun and poor choices has been crossed. Childhood is the ideal time to be allowed learn these lessons. One of our explorers had tripped and gotten pretty wet and decided that she might as well let others get her even wetter. She gave the invitation to drop wet, swamp leaves and more water on her lap which quickly got out of control and she needed help knowing how to make it stop. Another explorer observed the attention from other kids that resulted from the crossing of that line and she asked others to dare her to go in the water well beyond her boot tops. When I heard the chant, “Do it! Do it!” I immediately put a stop to that and tried to explain how we shouldn’t offer or accept dares to do something that we don’t really want to do ourselves. I have never felt comfortable with chanting like that as it feels like a little mob-mentality. I explained that it is one thing to get wet in exploration or by accident but to use it to get attention is likely to have a negative result. The air was still chilly enough that getting too wet would ruin the rest of the time out there. Everyone involved in that situation shared responsibility for their choices and before we left I asked a few kids to explain something they learned that day. It is possible that the lesson hasn’t been totally learned yet by every one of them, but it is a piece of learning that will hopefully come to mind the next time something similar happens. My hope is that they will remember how it felt and make a different choice next time.