Woods and Wetlands 2018

Any Sign of Spring?

On a snowy day we kept a lookout for green moss, buds on trees, melting ice, and the trill of the red winged blackbird.  Why?  Because it is March in Michigan and the surprise party of Spring is slowly beginning, despite the winter white that continues to visit us.









The swamp was a bit treacherous as it was covered in deceptively solid looking snow. But this was an experienced group of explorers and they knew what lay beneath and stayed out of it, instead, leaping from island to island.  The islands are actually ostrich fern hummocks where their rhizomes are waiting to create fiddleheads when spring actually decides to stay.  I always smile when I see the kids developing and practicing all the skills that go along with navigating the swamp.  Like most kids they want to move quickly, so they develop strategies for avoiding the muck below and the twiggy branches at face height.  They aim, leap, and land, often balancing quickly before making the next move.  They gracefully duck and turn, remembering to hold branches out of the way for the person behind.  All the while they are chattering and laughing, calling out and noticing.  They look for tracks already made by others and make quick decisions about which paths to follow when the path divides.  If they have a specific location in mind, they are also making automatic adjustments as they look up for certain landmarks and evaluate their own progress while developing a sense of direction.  For newer explorers they may move more slowly and sometimes inadvertently step in the muck, but they are all building self-awareness and confidence in what their bodies and minds can do.  The social aspect for those who enjoy staying in a group also continues to be relevant and necessary practice.


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We split off into several groups on Thursday and the girls with whom I traveled through the swamp were savvy enough to choose good sticks to test their footing before moving forward.  They experimented with measuring the depth of the swamp with different sticks and this activity held their attention for quite some time.  As usual, we used the Fairy Tree as our main landmark and I was remarking that I didn’t actually know for a fact that it was a white pine because I couldn’t get up in the tree to check the number of pine needles per cluster.  Just then we came across a broken pine branch in our path and decided it must have come from the Fairy Tree since there were no other pines nearby.  We counted the needles per cluster and, sure enough, it had 5 needles, which means it is a white pine!  Tree type confirmed!

Meanwhile the other groups were back on land working on building and playing pretend.  We joined them and we all went to the Secret Fort Tree where much self-challenging and determination were put into practice!


In any weather, outside is better!


Woods and Wetlands 2018

A Little Muck Never Hurt Anyone…

Muck Matters

Baptism by muck?  A self-induced hazing ritual?  All I know is that just about every kid who has explored the swamp (once it has melted) has experienced some level of immersion in muck.  For some it is at first an unpleasant shock followed by more attentive and intentional foot placement in the future.  Other explorers may discover a certain affinity for dunking themselves either boot level or deeper in the black ooze. Some children who have been cautioned all their short lives to, “be careful,” and to remain clean even when playing outdoors are initially terrified that someone will be mad that their boots or clothing are muddy.  I admit, it is a level of dirty that surpasses your average grubby result.  And I do not deny that the swamp muck is not the easiest to remove, shouldn’t be washed with other clothing items, and comes with a certain odor that takes some getting used to… But, muck doesn’t hurt.  And the fun and learning experiences far outweigh the laundry issues!

Last week the muck began to melt.  In some places it provided a mere inch or two of slippery footing.  In other less sheltered spots it melted right down to the bottom, wherever that may be!  Of our group of seven learners, four have only experienced the swamp when it was frozen.  It is a whole new world now!  I don’t deny that cold muck and water are far less amusing to encounter than when the earth has warmed into full spring, but nevertheless, everyone survived their maiden fall into the swamp.  And those who either know perfectly well how to avoid it but chose to, “slip,” anyway or who simply needed a reminder of how to step carefully when navigating the swamp, they were all stoic and even laughing as they presented their dripping, muddy legs and boots to me.


A First Timer

R. had never experienced swamp muck before.  He walked out onto the pallets and paused where a piece of the pallet wood had broken off over a year ago.  Water reflected back at him and he probably recalled the last time he put his foot there he encountered ice just beneath the slightly melted surface.  With all the confidence of the inexperienced and unconcerned, he placed his foot and entire weight into that opening… and sunk.  All the way to his knee.  As the cold water and muck filled his boot and soaked through his pants (he chose not to wear snow pants, contrary to my earlier suggestion,) his face registered the surprise and shock and then slowly crumpled into wide-mouthed misery, complete with wailing and even a few tears.  This is where I come in, where learning can happen.  This is where growth can occur.  And it did.  His initial horror faded quickly as I helped him realize he wasn’t hurt, acknowledged that it was cold and wet, and calmly made suggestions for how to find a spot to sit and dump out his boot, wring out his sock, stuff dry leaves into his boot, and put it back on.  I had the welcome assistance and support of R.M. who arrived in time to also calmly talk him into a smile and our combined lack of worry sent a message to him that what had happened was no big deal. Soon we were all laughing and joking as he pretended to wipe his sock on me and I teased and told him he was now a muck monster.  R.M. got a stout stick for him and showed him how to use it to test his footing before stepping.  As he took the stick and headed farther into the swamp I asked him if he wouldn’t like to go put on his snow pants now.  He spared me a glance and said seriously, “No, I think I’ll just be really really careful now.”  Now that is a success story!

Teaching and Learning

Of course even my most experienced girl, E., got mucky up to her shins, but I would bet she could have avoided it if she really wanted to.  There is a certain freedom in letting ourselves get dirty, and kids left to their own instincts usually enjoy it.  I overheard her helping a younger explorer by showing how to stuff dry leaves in her wet boot.  My heart warms when I observe kids teaching other kids.  It builds such confidence!

We spent quite a bit of our time at the Secret Fort Tree where the climbers practiced their climbing and dismounting routines, each calling out to me over and over, “Mrs. H, watch this!” O. timed herself getting from the ground to her favorite perch and announced it was ten seconds. The Secret Fort Tree is always a good place to also practice sharing, patience, taking turns, and acceptance.  It can be hard to wait for someone else to move so that you can get up or get down.  Sometimes someone has to learn it is not okay to dare other people to do things they aren’t comfortable doing.  A big part of safety out there is only going as far as each person feels comfortable.  It is when we allow someone else to push us too soon that we could get hurt.  It must be each climber’s personal decision to test his/her own boundaries.  We can support and encourage each other and kids can be taught the words of that language.

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Swamp Yoga and Other Matters

We returned to the swamp after climbing the SFT and the Tilted Tree for a while.  As R.M. and I demonstrated the strategy of leaping from island to island and O. proudly announced that she had found her little house tree again, J. decided that muck up to his knees was not enough.  Nothing less than a full body experience was going to suit him!  Just as my watch reminded us that we had to go, R.M. struck a yoga pose with feet on separate islands.  We laughed about the idea of teaching Swamp Yoga classes out there where you might land headfirst in the muck if you lost your balance.  I wish I had pictures to show her ideas, but there’s always next week!