Uncategorized, Woods and Wetlands 2022

Why Are There All These Trees in This Woods?

Why are there all these trees in this woods?
~Kindergarten student while walking a path through a narrow, sparse, band of trees bordered by a tree-less swamp and a tree-deprived school playground.

I can’t find a stick. Will you get me a stick?
~Kindergarten student, surrounded by sticks after my “How to use sticks,” demo.

I used to think it was bad to get dirty, but now I know it’s okay!
-Kindergarten student happily applying “mud gloves” in hopes of holding an amphibian.

There’s bears out here.
-Kindergarten student who refused my assurance that there are NOT, in fact, bears out there.

What is a beaver?
Kindergarten student when a classmate guessed that a woodpecker hole in a tree was made by beavers.

I didn’t find any moss.
Kindergarten student upon looking around the moss-carpeted wetland where nothing but moss was green yet.

I love it out here! I want to stay out here all day. I want to stay out here all of the time. I want to sleep out here!
-Kindergarten student just before it was time to leave.

Over the past two weeks I thoroughly enjoyed 4 kindergarten programs in the wetland behind Lakes Elementary, and one of two first-grade programs along Rum Creek near Parkside Elementary. All three programs resulted in some very wet feet and legs for a few students, but the adventure was well worth the wet! (It didn’t hurt that the temps were reasonably warm and the sun was shining.) The quotes (above) were indications to me that these kids need to have a lot more nature play in their lives.

I can’t find a stick.

The context around the “can’t find a stick,” comment was that we were quite literally surrounded by sticks on all sides. There were new sticks that had been branches only yesterday. There were a couple dozen sticks cast-aside by other two kindergarten classes the week prior. No shortage of sticks. Not only that, but the children asking us to help them find a stick had not actually gone looking for a stick at all. And yes, I did strongly suggest to them that having a “good stick,” would be helpful.

Part of my safety spiel is always showing students how to safely use sticks. We practice how to look around us before swinging or waving a stick so as to notice whether we should move away from other people first. I model how to use a stick to measure and estimate how deep the water or muck might be before stepping into it. I demonstrate using a stick to help with balance as we walk along logs or hop from hummock to hummock. I encourage them to use sticks to dig or to gently poke at something if they aren’t sure about touching it with their fingers. Sticks are good for building forts or nature-art. Should we allow pretend weapon play with sticks? This may surprise you, but I think we should, in certain circumstances. Playing pretend anything helps children (with relative safety) get a feel for what it might be like in real life. “Role play helps the brain transform ‘what is’ to ‘what if’ and opens the gates to make-believe.” (A Moving Child is a Learning Child, by Gill Connell and Cheryl McCarthy,) and role-play also contributes to developing empathy.

Frankly? Sticks can be plain, old, fun to play with for no particular purpose and most, modern-day children have not had the opportunity to learn how to do so safely. They have always been told, “Put down the stick!” “No sticks allowed!” How would they have learned about sticks without actually using them? How would they learn how it feels to accidentally whack a nearby friend or to be bonked with a stick themselves? (This may hurt but is quite survivable! Valuable lessons learned!) Every mistake is a chance to learn and do better next time. What a fun way to learn the mathematical thinking that comes into play when determining which stick will break when leaned-upon, which sticks will crumble into decomposed soil, which sticks have the right length-to-height ratio? And the discovery that some sticks are large but very light-weight and others are heavy, and some float in water while others do not? Which stick will flow under the bridge faster than another and why? What made that stick stop under the bridge while the other one sailed freely right through? These are all activities that young children must be allowed to try. No adult needs force these activities or present purpose statements or learning targets. When turned out into a natural wild-space, kids will just do these sorts of things for the fun of it, but WE know they are learning valuable lessons about the natural world and their place in it. But I digress. (As usual.)

Back to my assumptions about what they already knew. What I evidently failed to intentionally point out or describe about my stick of choice included the following: its length relative to my height, its sturdiness that allowed me to lean my weight on it, and how to transform a too-long stick to a just-right stick.

After delivering my usual safety suggestions, I turned the explorers loose for about 20 minutes of just getting to know the space and how they could move around in it before I introduced our Exploration and Conversation cards. Instantly, I saw the results/consequences of my erroneous, basic assumptions. A few children had selected sticks no longer than their own forearms and thin as a whip. These “sticks” were carried firmly in one hand but served absolutely no purpose that I could see, unless it was as imaginary magic wands, (which is another valid use for a stick!) Other children hauled branches longer than they were tall, and these merely had an unbalancing effect or waved dangerously near the head of nearby explorers. Then there were those who either heard not a word I said about sticks or decided that they had no need for such things, and these intrepid adventurers went splashing happily off into the watery woodland with what was either blind confidence or complete disregard for possible consequences. And more than a few simply stood in place and announced that they couldn’t find a stick. In a word? Inexperienced. Even more inexperienced than I had ever supposed was possible.

Nature Deficit Symptoms?

I tell you all of this not to criticize nor to condescend. Yes, I was a bit flabbergasted. And I won’t pretend I wasn’t also amused and even a bit charmed by their innocence. But I also understood these little explorers would be okay out there, and I also understood how and why most kids don’t have these kinds of experiences anymore. I saw and heard that they were having fun. I knew they would learn some valuable lessons for the next time. I knew they were out there doing what kids naturally do if we get out of the way and we shut up long enough to let them do it- LEARN through nature play.

These young scientists were unwittingly hypothesizing and experimenting. They were developing their sense of their own bodies in space. These were kids without devices in hand nor in front of their faces. They were breathing fresh air and practicing balance, focus, coordination, perseverance, problem-solving, and determination. If allowed to do this daily or even weekly, they would quickly begin growing their self-confidence, strength, self-assurance, curiosity, and self-reliance. What would they lose? They would begin to lose some of the effects of stresses that modern life, particularly during these past 2 years, has placed heavily upon them. They would become more resilient in response to future stresses. They would build a sense of connection with something bigger than themselves. What teacher or parent wouldn’t want all of that for their children on a regular basis?

What’s a Beaver?

Me: “What do you think made that hole in the tree?”

Student: “A beaver.”

Another student: “What’s a beaver?”

Me: “A brown, furry animal with a big, flat tail that lives in the water and makes a big house out of sticks. They have a secret underwater tunnel up into their cozy home. They-“(interruption)

Student: “What is it?”

Me: “What is what?”

Student: “That you were talking about?”

Me: “A beaver.”

Student: “What’s a beaver?”

Me: “ummm. Never mind. A woodpecker made that hole, anyway.”

Student: “What’s a woodpecker?”


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!
How to - For Parents

A Walk in the Rain

How often have you and your children stayed inside because it was raining or wet outside? Or too hot, too cold, too windy, too humid, or too dry?  When we retreat to our heated or air-conditioned homes every time the weather isn’t what we think of as, “perfect,” what are we teaching our children and reinforcing in ourselves?  How does that lesson translate when compared to Real Life?  You don’t have to go to a nature center to experience nature.  Any patch of it will do.

Let’s go for a walk.  Yes, I know it’s wet outside.  Yup; it might rain some more.  Let’s dress for it.  Let’s wear shoes we don’t care about getting wet, clothes that will keep us warm enough for an hour or so, and who cares if we get wet?  We will dry again and our skin… it’s amazing and magical because it’s naturally WATERPROOF!  Oh, I know you don’t want to, but we are going to anyway.  You will survive somehow.  Let’s go.

(And, leave your phone at home; trust me on this.  Or if you MUST bring it, then silence it and treat it like it only works in emergencies.  No, don’t even use the camera.  You don’t have to have a photograph of everything in life.  With any luck and maybe some basic care, the outdoors will still be there later.  You can just enjoy the experience and be totally PRESENT, not to mention modeling it for someone else…)

We can splash around in puddles here in the driveway if you want.  Wait!  Look at this! It’s so cool how this flower has water droplets hanging off the tips of every petal.  I wonder how this flower stayed intact even in that wind we had earlier?  How many days will it bloom?  Why is this bee sitting so still in the center?  Maybe it’s cold and not ready to move around.  Look at its soft, fuzzy back!  It looks kind of sweet and harmless right now.  Let’s get closer… aww.  Its face is actually cute when you really look at it!

Tired of puddles?  Okay; let’s walk a bit down the side of the road.  Whoops!  Look out for that frog!  It looks quite happy there in that little pot-hole in the gravel road, doesn’t it?  Maybe we should move it to the water by the side though, just in case a car comes by?  Oh!  Wow!  I guess it didn’t want to be held; there it goes!  I wonder how far frogs can jump in one leap?

Hey!  Check out this rock!

We squat over the shiny, wet rocks that make up this part of the gravel road and there is so much to notice.  That rock with the lightning bolt of white quartz blazing through the middle and the one that is just plain black but such a smooth and inviting shape and size to hold in your hand.  We can be entertained for many minutes, even hours, by rocks in the rain.  (or in the sun, the lake, the field pile…)

What is THAT?  I have never seen a mushroom like that before!  It wasn’t there yesterday, but it’s huge!  They just seem to pop out of nowhere, especially after the rain. How does that happen?  Look at the patterns on the underside of it!  They remind me of something I saw before under the hood of a car.

That tree trunk over there looks almost black but usually it’s sort of silvery.  Everything is darker in the rain.  I wonder where this rain was before it came here?  Did you know all the water on earth is the same water that has always been here?  That water that fell as rain is going to be recycled again.  It’s hard to imagine!

Oooh!  Look at all the cattails by the wetland!  They are so tall!  I remember in the spring when they only came up to my knee and now they are taller than I am.  Those brown, hot-dog-like parts weren’t there then either; they grew over the summer.  In one of my favorite books there’s a kid who lives off the land and he makes some kind of food with cattail roots.  I remember him saying they were, “starchy.”

Ssshhh.  Do you hear that?  I love that sound of the raindrops pattering on the leaves.  I noticed we are hardly even wet under the trees here.  …  It’s so quiet; I think the rain is stopping or slowing down.  Wait!  Do you hear THAT?  What IS that?  Let’s go out in the open and look.  Whoa!  Look at those birds!  They are making that sound!  I think they might be sandhill cranes!  Let’s count them.

I’m going to go walk along that log there.  Yikes!  It’s way more slippery than I thought it would be.  I guess rain makes things slippery.  It’s fun to try to balance though.  I’m going to try again…

Are you ready to go home?  I guess it’s time because I’m hungry now.  I’m so glad we took this walk and had this time together.  It was way more fun to see and do real things that aren’t happening on a screen.  Let’s do it again tomorrow!

This is just a tiny example of what a walk could look and sound like with a child.  You don’t have to know the names of anything or the answers to any questions.  You get to wonder and question right along with your child; they love that!  You might remember stories from when you played outside as a kid and your kids love to hear those stories!  You might discover something totally new together.  It might be a springboard for further research; maybe you will go home and read about something you wondered about during the walk. Perhaps you will find a place you’ve never been and there are no signs telling you not to go there.  And while you are there, maybe you will have an adventure, big or small, with your children.  

Memories are made, not watched on a screen.  Think back to your favorite childhood memories.  I bet most of them were real, and I will also bet that many were outdoors without structure or rules.  Don’t you want your child to have those same kinds of nostalgic memories someday?  You can do it.  You can send them outside and take them outside, and the rest will follow naturally.  Just give it a try.  Give it time.  It might not be easy at first, but you can do it.  I promise you will not regret it.


Firsts in the Forest

What Came Before

In 2009 I invented a summer class for our local community education group called, “Woods and Wetlands.”  Then, in 2015 I created, “Firsts in the Forest,” for Fridays during the school year.  This was only for my first-graders and I implemented it for 2 school years.  Here is the link to the blog about that.  http://firstsintheforest.blogspot.com/