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

Last Day


I have come to love these small groups of explorers.  On this day we could have really used our “shed,” full of supplies, but since people (kids on weekends or evenings?) keep disassembling it and taking our stuff, I had to haul it home for the summer until I can locate a more sturdy and lockable vessel for the fall.  Any donations toward something like that would be most welcome!

Toward the end of our session we passed through the yard belonging to the land-owner who allows us to learn on his property.  We met him for the first time ever and everyone nicely thanked him for letting us explore there.  Thank you, Mr. Larry!

What a lovely and perfect place to be a spider! Thank you, Spiders, for catching mosquitoes. We were not enjoying the ones you did not yet catch!
Always so happy to be doing her own thing in the woods!
Hmm. Deeper than expected!
At first she worried that someone would be mad that she didn’t have her “exploring” clothes on, but she soon forgot about it and just had fun.
Look out! When she’s on a mission, there’s no stopping her!
Hello, frog!


3 different types of fern
There is plenty of space for everyone to have their own frog-hunting area, but they insist on crowding together to get one frog!


Everyone was so excited to have caught such a very large frog, a green frog, but I finally insisted they let the poor thing go on its way. The frogs were exhausted, I think.
“What happens if…”
“He likes it!” (Or maybe he’s giving up on freedom?)
It was uncomfortably hot up on the playground, but down in the swamp it was shady and pleasant.
A new plant for me to look up!


She is one of the most observant and detail-oriented learners! She spotted the look alike swamp blueberry bush by recognizing the tiny, unripe “blueberries.”


I think there’s a kid in this photo… somewhere…. the swamp was SO different now! O. wanted to go to her secret spots but quickly turned back when she realized how easy it would be to get lost now. It’s time for orange vests, whistles, and compasses!
The fiddle-heads have become full sized ferns!
How many kids can hide behind one fern?
He’s always so happy out here!
We love the Tilted Tree.
K. enjoys the “slide” feature of the Tilted Tree.
D. is demonstrating what he would have to do if one of the branches was missing.
Climbing is so good for the body and soul!
Woods and Wetlands 2018

Mission Frog-Catch (and Release)

Today was absolutely gorgeous outside!  I realized that in the winter the swamp protects us from the cold and wind by being down low and blocked by bushes and trees.  In the heat of late spring we are protected from the hot sun by the fresh shade of new leaves.  It is a perfect place to spend an afternoon and evening in any season.

Everyone was wearing lily-of-the-valley flowers in their hair for post-Crazy Hair Day.  (We smelled delightful!)
H. helps adorn D. who wasn’t terribly pleased about it.
They said they were unicorns.
Huge patches of lily-of-the-valley
They all know what the huge, old, wild grapevines look like, but no one knew what new grapevine leaves and baby grapes looked like! K. thought they looked like, “Barbie grapes.”
S. is extremely proud to have been the one who named, “The Enchanted Forest.”
On a frog-catching mission right from the start!


A wood frog on a log.
It was frog city out there!


This frog was free to go but it decided to hang out a while longer.


Frogs in buckets are much easier to catch!


She conquered her fear of frogs!


Gently petting this tiny being. Probably not the frog’s favorite activity, but in the name of building and maintaining a love for amphibians (who are a sensitive, indicator species of clean water, soil, and air,) I say, GO FOR IT! Pet that frog!
Shrieks of laughter followed by two dripping, muddy girls. I asked, “Was this on purpose, by accident, or somewhere in between?” E. grinned at me and said, “Definitely somewhere in between…”
They held hands and stomped through the last bit of water before we had to go back.


Woods and Wetlands 2018

Sshhh! Can You Hear That??!



I think the kids may have questioned my sanity last week in the swamp when I suddenly demanded their utter silence and stillness, followed by tilting my head and straining my ears just right to hear over or under the sound of passing cars while my face slowly spread into a huge and gleeful grin.  I whispered, (okay, sort of a whisper-shriek,) “THE SPRING PEEPERS ARE BACK!  Can you HEAR them?!?  Listen!  No!  Listen hard; point your ears that way!”  I was seriously so giddy with genuine excitement to hear the telltale calls of the spring peepers surrounding us out there.

Most of the kids knew what they were hearing, “They’re frogs!” they announced to each other in response to my slightly manic behavior.  A couple of kids wondered what they were hearing, “Birds?” For those who were unfamiliar, I explained about the tiny frogs with the, “X,” on their backs who populate the wetlands each spring, singing their high pitched songs.  I also mentioned chorus frogs but wasn’t exactly sure if they were both out at the same time.  My husband and I plan to attend a FrogWatch session at John Ball Zoo soon so that we can learn about the various frog songs and start documenting and sharing what we hear with people who study and report out on these matters.

I could tell you that I am obsessed with the tiny peepers because amphibians are such an important indicator species.  I could explain how their presence can indicate the health of the local air, water, and soil because they absorb so much through their skins.  That would all be true, but honestly, I just LOVE those little critters and their songs have always meant that a warmer, more alive and vibrant time is at hand.  I love to open my windows at night and go to sleep to the sounds of their calls.

Well, the kids were not as thrilled as I was but they were patient with me and gave me a little bit of silence in which to hear the frogs before setting off in hopes of actual visual confirmation.  Soon we realized that wherever we stood, the frogs sounded like they were around the perimeter but not in the water at our feet.  A few of us decided to sit on a log and and just patiently wait to see if any spring peepers showed themselves.  Soon we became distracted and instead began sifting through the muck in search of anything of interest.  We tried with our broken net but cast it aside in favor of our own hands.

I showed the kids who were with me just then how to do a dirt wash (muck wash, in this case,) to make our hands safe for any amphibians we might be handling.  It is important to do this, the opposite of how we wash up before eating, before holding frogs, toads, or salamanders.  Any residue left on our hands from hand sanitizer, soaps, lotions or oils can get into their skin and harm them.  So we scoop up dirt, swamp water, or muck that is handy and rub it all over our hands.  That way we have a nice, natural substance that won’t hurt the amphibian.

Unfortunately, we didn’t see or hold any frogs that day, though I have no doubt that we will soon!  In the meantime, J and S discovered an affinity for digging down into the muck with their bare hands and allowing it to sift slowly through their fingers.  We found a tiny, tiny snail-like shell and an even tinier wiggling shrimp-like creature.  For a while J collected muck in one of the new buckets I brought and he became completely and silently absorbed in this process for quite a long time.  I absolutely love watching kids explore freely in this way.  There are so many benefits that come from this type of activity.  Kids are such natural scientists with their open minds and willingness to just enjoy the process of something for no particular product.  (If allowed to by their adults.)

K and I were happy to see the barest beginnings of fiddle-heads poking softly through the little fern islands.  We gently touched their fuzzy curls and I described how they would now slowly push up taller each week, unfurling eventually into airy, graceful ferns that could grow taller than we are!


I loved watching O. and K. deftly leaping from fern hummock to hummock with their sturdy walking sticks in hand.  They tested the depth and solidity of the swampiest areas and, in this way, showed some of the newer, younger members how it might be done.  S noticed and right away wanted her own walking stick.

R. and I looked at some photos I brought of common, local birds.  He knows many of them by name and we discussed the differences between the black-capped chickadee and the Carolina chickadee.  We were able to hear the distinctive, trilling call of the red-winged blackbird among the cattails where it will eventually make its nest.

It is just pure happiness to be out in the swamp when spring is just beginning.  I can’t wait to share it with even more explorers in the weeks to come!


Uncategorized, Woods and Wetlands 2017

August 10, 2017: An Obstacle Course and Frogs

On Thursday we explored a new trail, a log-climbing “don’t touch the ground,” obstacle course, and a different swamp area. But before we even set out and before all of our explorers had arrived, a lovely, green, praying mantis and a garter snake were discovered in the tiny meadow area at the entrance. The praying mantis was passed from hand to hand and then into an observation container where it was given grass to help it camouflage itself and a small insect for it to eat. We freed it before beginning our hike. I asked, “What can we know about what the praying mantis needs from what we see around the area it was living? How does it protect itself? What does it eat?” We can learn so much about living things simply by observing them.

As we practiced compass usage and reviewed the shape of oak, maple, and sassafras leaves, we noticed a really huge tree trunk and I wondered aloud how big around it was? Without a measuring tape, we made do with what we had… kids! How many kids does it take to wrap their arms around this tree? The answer was 2. L. and K. could just barely reach around to each other’s hands with the tree between them.

We noticed some new landmarks, flowers, a decomposing log, and some very cool mushrooms! We also found a clump of Indian Pipes (colorless wildflowers), a moth who wanted to be a leaf, and some jewel-weed, which is a remedy for poison ivy and nettle stings.

jewelweedmoth or a leaf

A couple of our experienced Woods & Wetlanders showed the other kids the log-walking course they had discovered back in June. The kids love practicing this routine from one end to the other, perfecting their balance and speed with each repetition. I am always amazed by how things like “simply” walking along a fallen tree can be beneficial in so many ways to the developing mind and body of a child. It is a time to test and evaluate themselves. With no suggestions or encouragement from an adult, kids will set themselves the task of making it from one end of a tilted log to the end of the whole course which includes at least 2 other logs at different heights. All in the name of fun they are improving their balance, eye-hand coordination, body-awareness, spatial abilities, creative problem-solving, perseverance, and so much more! There is climbing up, down, jumping and landing, navigating hurdles, grasping, and planning ahead. And without being told, they will do all of this countless times over again to improve their methods. Of course, none of this is on their minds. They are just having fun being kids!

obstacle log

From there we took a fresh trail to the other wetland where we discovered mostly mud! In June it was knee-deep water, but August brings drier weather, so there was knee-deep mud instead. Nevertheless, frogs of all kinds and sizes abound! They stalked and caught spring peepers, wood frogs, tree frogs, and green frogs.

We ventured back to the wetland from Wednesday so that our new group members could swing and climb on the “vine playground.” Several explorers tried fresh wintergreen leaves for the first time, while others collected a handful of it to bring home.

Next week we will visit the Climbing Tree and discover even more treasures!