Each adventure is different. One of the things I love about this work I am doing is the variation. Never ever am I bored! Each group of explorers is unique. Even the same space in the same woods is different from day to day, hour to hour. This week I got to take four, third-grade classes into the woods and creek at Camp Rockford.
I always tell the kids that I learn about and notice new things in nature every single day, and this continues to be true. An odd and armored bug blending in with near perfection to the oak bark, a woolly bear caterpillar on the very same path we just trooped down half an hour ago, a dead crayfish in the creek where three other classes went wading without seeing any sign of aquatic creatures.
I, too, am unintentionally different with each group. My energy and mood respond to the dark, rainy days or the blue-sky and breezy days. Interactions with each classroom teacher also contribute to the tone of each program. On Monday I felt nervous, awkward, uncomfortable. It was hard to find my groove for some reason. That night I lay in bed worrying that the kids didn’t have enough fun, that the teachers might have been disappointed. When Tuesday arrived, bright morning sun dappling our wooded space, my sense of joy for what I do and how I do it returned. I felt myself light up as I shared the magic and wonder of nature with the remaining two, third-grade classes.
Learning as I go is something I am gradually coming to accept and embrace. Identifying the exact elements of any program that didn’t go well or didn’t meet my expectations is part of the process. How can I better ensure that kids are dressed to stay warm and relatively dry? How can I best communicate to teachers and parents the value of these programs when they are accustomed to thinking of play as, “just play?” What if I realize I am trying to pack far too much into such a short time? Can I expand the programs to encompass half of an entire school day? Would anyone still want to do it? Could they afford it? Is there anything I should cut out of these programs?
The fact that I don’t know anyone else who does exactly what I do makes it a somewhat lonely process, and I find myself missing the opportunities to brainstorm with other educators. At the same time, I am thrilled to be able to craft and modify Woods and Wetlands programs to exactly what I want, based on what I know and feel is right! There are no state or federal boards of education telling me what to do or how to do it. No developmentally inappropriate curriculum to force down unready learners’ throats. Parents don’t get to be rude to me and get away with it. (Not that most of them ever are; it’s just the echoes of the very few over the years still rankling a bit in the back of my mind. The vast majority of parents have been kind, compassionate, supportive, and respectful.) I get to choose my days, times, and locations. I can dictate how many explorers I am willing to work with at a time.
All in all, I am tremendously fortunate. I am learning as I go.
Oh, the gems I overhear between children! The overlap of absolutely lovely manners with the texture and images of a slug, not to mention how bizarre this request would be in nearly any other context, just cracked me up!
More than meets the eye.
Each explorer received a different kind of tree leaf (or needles). We noticed the shapes, textures, colors, and patterns of each leaf. Then we used them for our greeting; the kids had to find the person with the matching leaf and then go look for a tree nearby that has the same kind of leaves. We used oak, maple, wild cherry, white pine, red pine, and beech tree leaves/needles and I explained that one reason leafy trees drop their leaves before winter is so the snow doesn’t weigh them down and break their branches.
Wildlife, Teamwork, and STEAM work
Notice the huge variety of activities they choose. Nature play and play-based learning are naturally differentiated. As long as they understand that we expect them to listen to themselves and only do what they feel comfortable (enough) doing, they will take risks and seek out learning that is developmentally just-right for them as individuals!
Physical Education is not the same thing as Sports.
These days (in the privileged world) most kids who want to learn a sport will do so with or without P.E. class, but most kids do not have regular access to unstructured, independent, child-led but teacher-guided, nature play or nature study. If we bring children to a wild space we have only to teach them a few safety practices and then get out of the way because they will seek out activities that build strength, balance, coordination, flexibility, turn-taking, collaboration, spatial awareness, aim, body awareness, and body confidence. They learn to listen to and trust their bodies. Just look.
We Never Want it to End. Classroom Programs this Year?
Woods and Wetlands All Year Round
Woods and Wetlands programs for classrooms are wonderful class gifts from parents and caregivers to your child’s teacher. If the school has a wild space nearby we will use it. If not, they only have to come up with funding for busing to a local place such as Luton Park or a West Michigan Land Conservancy location. I also offer private programs for small groups of children such as those who are home schooled or students who are attending virtual school during the ongoing pandemic.
Our new group includes 9 explorers from last year’s Woods and Wetlands summer adventures. Add to that a wide developmental range and we have a hodge-podge of personalities, abilities, and experience! Compared to our last two groups this one got off to what felt like an awkward start, at least for the teachers. But after four mornings together, we have settled in nicely. It’s fun to watch the kids with prior experience because they are more independent, confident, and they are able to deepen and broaden their explorations. Nature-play and Play-Based Learning naturally lend themselves to scaffolding as children instinctively challenge themselves at that “just right” level at which they take appropriate risks and set themselves to learning and growing by pursuing their own interests. We offer support in the form of thinking questions and encouragement, stepping back when possible and stepping in when needed.
Childhood is the best time to learn from mistakes. One of our new explorers had a rough start, socially speaking. Some poor choices were made. But we don’t use loss of participating as a consequence. Instead we try to always offer chances for “do-overs,” in conjunction with giving children specific words and strategies they need for round 2. How else can we learn unless we get to try again?
Patterns and Treasures
I usually introduce a theme of sorts during Morning Meeting. Sometimes I plan it but often the kids’ energy and/or interests prompt me to modify it on the spot. Teaching and earning without blocking the natural flow always works better for me and for the kids. During our first week we introduced Nature Treasures and Patterns in Nature. These two “lessons” are intertwined and next week we will blend them in with learning about different trees based on leaf recognition.
Exploring in nature during Woods and Wetlands is a full, sensory experience. Children learn best by using their bodies. “Move to learn and learn to move.”
P.S. Mini-rant: I so wish that nature play and play based learning were woven into school curriculums at every level. Teachers need to be trained so that they can feel safe and comfortable taking their kids out into the wild. Time to do so ought to be guaranteed and protected as a necessary part of the school day or week. Funding programs like Woods and Wetlands throughout the school year would make such a positive impact on the mental, physical, social, emotional, and academic health of every student AND their teachers! Yet schools are, instead, adding MORE testing and MORE curriculum, while cutting back on recess and continuing outdated models of schooling that clearly are not working for the majority of children. The scientific evidence demonstrating what works is being largely ignored by those who control the curriculums, testing regimes, and school day structure in this country.
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!
On our next-to-last day of Session 1 for Woods and Wetlands, we took the kids down to the main river channel. By this time the water level had gone down and the current wasn’t as strong along the sides of the river. Just as importantly, we now knew these kids pretty well and were ready to trust them to do their part to help keep themselves and others safe. We expected to find crayfish as we did last year, but we should have remembered that nature always offers us the unexpected! (No crayfish.)
Above: Enjoying the cool river water on a hot day, the kids discovered a “mess” of tadpoles, some tiny trout, and how sunlight refracts in water, changing our depth and spatial perceptions. When the current increased in strength for those who went a little deeper, they noticed it and processed it verbally. Mrs. Webb and I kept our eyes on the kids at all times, offering thinking questions and modeling how to wonder, to guess, and to think about everything around us. Every moment could be a teachable moment in the wild, but we still choose to allow many moments to flow past with the current, just staying in the present. The natural world is where humankind evolved and where we are still adapted to be, though we don’t always know it. The more exposure to the natural world, the more resilient we become to life’s stressors.
With about half the group and Mrs. Webb engaged with using their nets along the river’s edge, the other half opted to go on a mini adventure with me to find the place where “our” creek flows into the river. But before we’d gone very far upstream, we encountered a large maple tree that had recently fallen across the river. We didn’t let it stop us though! The first few explorers clambered easily through the leafy branches about 4 feet above the river. These were experienced tree climbers. One of them returned to offer support to the others.
I perched myself in the middle of the tree and gave what encouragement I could to those less experienced. Despite saying they were afraid sometimes, they didn’t give up and go back. “It is okay to be scared. Take your time. Only do what you feel safe doing.” Slowly, hand by hand and foot by foot, from branch to branch, they made their way through the horizontal tree. This was the ultimate chance to teach the differences between living and dead branches. They could feel the flexible strength of the still-living fallen tree, while older, dead logs beneath our feet filled in some of the gaps, but had to be carefully tested before putting any weight on them. They learned to lightly press these, noticing how some rolled, tipped, or even cracked. With lots of coaxing, reassuring, and suggestions from me, I was elated when the last explorer arrived on the far side of the tree… just in time for us to realize it was time to go back and pack up for the day!
Back they went, but reversing the process that brought them through wasn’t an easy thing to do. Once again the more experienced climbers scrambled through, stepping confidently from branch to branch despite the river and the unknown below. I stayed with the new learners as they worked their way back. Such concentration on their faces! Once through, they offered different responses. One of the twins was elated, proud of his success, happily boasting that he wasn’t scared. The other, who typically is the more confident of the two, breathed a gust of relief and said, “Well, I’m never doing THAT again!” I paused for a moment to consider her feelings as well as my own. Then I offered the following: “That would be too bad because it will be so much easier the next time you try! Your brain is going to process what you did today while you are asleep tonight. Your muscles will remember some of what they learned. And you were so brave to go through that tree like that! I hope you’ll try again, but you don’t have to.“ Now it was her turn to pause. With a huge grin, she exclaimed, “So, you mean my brain will be climbing trees all night?!” She was delighted with this prospect!
The next day, our last, the whole group went through or around (on the shore side) the fallen tree. I had a feeling I would not have to ask whether the twins were going to try it again. Their brains definitely climbed trees while they were sleeping! They went through before I even realized they’d started!
We were sad to say good-bye to this group, but we know we will love all of the groups still to come! I hope to see everyone this next school year when I bring Woods and Wetlands programs to local elementary schools again!
“My good thing is that we got to go to a nature center and I learned how to tell the difference between a boy or a girl toad is you massage their armpit and if they make noises it’s a boy, but if it’s quiet it’s a girl.”
So we tried it. She, (if, indeed, this method is reliable,) was silent but without a doubt highly offended by our rude invasion of her amphibious armpits! We may have scarred that poor toad for life. In hindsight, we probably should have asked her first.
Below: After trying out a few of the Exploration and Conversation cards I gave them, most of the kids found their own preferred methods. I loved watching them work and play together, learning social skills as they navigated how to make suggestions, how to get what they wanted, ways to negotiate, and making space for everyone to participate.
Way back last summer during Woods and Wetlands camp, our last day rolled around and one of our little guys was inconsolable about it ending. Big, fat tears rolled down his cheeks because he didn’t want it to be the last day. When Christmas came around, his grandparents gave him a Woods and Wetlands gift certificate as a gift, and TODAY we used it!
Above: “Be a Tree,” takes on a whole new meaning!
Above: Foraging for and tasting wild food is in our DNA. The kids loved the tiny, green, sour, wild apples just as much as I did when I was a kid. Sassafras roots are always a hit, and we also sniffed the lemony scent of its leaves. The two siblings went home with a pocket full of wintergreen leaves as well.
The Vine Playground is always a hit! From there we could hear the gulps of bullfrogs and smell the rich, dark, decomposing “muck” in the nearby swamp, while birds sang, flitted, and drummed in the branches above us. And so three hours flew by without anyone noticing them.
Celebrating our success at freeing a living tree from beneath a fallen dead tree. We worked really hard at it for a long time!
When perseverance pays off!
Above: with careful instruction and close supervision, young children can learn to safely use real tools. This heavy, dead tree fell over a smaller living tree, trapping it against the ground. It is important to leave dead trees, branches, and logs in place whenever possible, as they provide critical habitat and food. Once we freed the living tree, allowing it to stand up again, we left the dead one to the millions of tiny living things as it gradually becomes new soil again, courtesy of decomposers.
Above: Reading and writing about real and immediately accessible experiences makes literacy a joy!
Above and below: Shouldn’t THIS be what P.E. and science classes look like?
Below: Learning to be gentle with other living creatures.
Below: Learning about and carefully handling Ms. T’s Nature Treasures.
Above: I trusted this group to pass around delicate snake skins, a fragile egg, a partial muskrat skull, and seriously spiny seed pods. We don’t just tell them to be careful, we show them how. Then, little by little, trust and confidence can grow. Nothing was broken and no one was injured. This is not found in a school curriculum, but is a worthwhile life skill.
This is the best camp ever! I wish I wouldn’t get older and not be able to do it again!
What if you had tree branches growing out of your ear holes?
Summer Woods and Wetlands Camp at Camp Rockford has begun! Our first group has only been with us three days and already there is a definite sense of bonding between all of us. Already these kids have filled my heart and gained my trust. It may be 90+°F out where the paved and treeless places swelter in the sun, but we are right where our bodies are adapted to be, playing and learning in the deep shade of oaks, maples, and hickories, as well as wading around through the cold, flowing water of a local creek. We watch slimy slugs staying cool tucked into the grooves of wet oak bark, while toads abound in the soft, dark leaf litter and rich forest soil.
Day 1 we went over a lot of safety info and then explored the creek. We introduced the journals toward the end of our morning and were pleasantly surprised by how well the kids took to them this time. Of course, each group and individual differs, but my theory is that starting out with journals last year felt too much like school, hence, more resistance. This time the kids welcomed a chance, after exploring, to plop down, tired but happy, and draw and/or write about what they experienced. I also have the benefit of having read more of Anna Botsford Comstock’s, Handbook of Nature Study, in which she states her observation that, “The child might rather never had this experience than be forced to write about it.” Instead, she encouraged students to write about it only “because I am curious to know what you discovered,” and only if they wanted to. I was very struck by this! It seems wise to me and fits with my philosophy about the importance of nature-play-based learning to build a sense of love, connection, and ownership with nature on Earth that may later lead to more reading, writing, and more formal study of the natural world.
Day 1 also included the standing sensory exploration I began implementing in the spring with all of the classroom programs I did. On Day 2 we introduced Brain Gym and mindful breathing. When we focus on and are aware of our breath, we cannot help but be present in the moment. I recently learned a new breath-work technique that has significantly improved my own anxiety, and I now teach it to children to use for calming themselves as needed. It felt so amazing to observe these kids who I only just met on Monday, trusting me to guide them through trying some bizarre, new, movements and breathing strategies! I simply explained that the movements help the two sides of their brains work together better, and the breath helps us notice how we are feeling on the inside. What I did not say is, with near-constant external stimulation of today’s world of technology, it takes intention to remember to check in with our bodies. As a culture, we are losing touch with being able to feel/notice our own sensations and to recognize and name them. How can we trust and hear our bodies and minds if we never stop the busy-ness and put away the screens in order to turn inward now and then throughout our day?
When I got home after camp today, I noticed a note I had made to myself earlier this morning. It said, “greeting with info about what they Know, Notice, or Wonder about a nature treasure.” My initial thought when I spotted the note was, “Darn! I forgot to do that!” Then I paused and laughed at myself. Any teacher of my generation will know I was plugged into the old, “KWL,” strategy. It has morphed into any number of different permutations over the years, but the point of it is essentially the same. But what struck me as funny today was it hit me that when children are engaged in learning through nature play, no one needs to prompt them to ask questions, share observations, or tell about what they already know. Because it is their nature to do all of these things on their own! In fact, a teacher would be lucky to get a word in edgewise between the questions, stories, and exclamations!
Our Morning Meeting is held beneath the shady arms of a single tree in a tamed expanse of mowed grass. Today the tree was raining seeds down upon us, which precipitated a mini lesson about how seeds that land in places where humans have stifled or destroyed the natural order of life, death, decomposition, soil, and new growth, cannot grow to make new trees. We began imagining aloud what if the seeds landing upon us took root and we grew trees out of our heads!? Always open to silliness, our imaginings expanded. The kids had us all laughing over the idea of acorns for eyes and branches growing from our noses or ears. As I reflect on this now, I see an analogy. Too often we adults get in the way of children’s natural interests and learning abilities. We have good intentions, like mowing under a tree, but maybe we need to get out of the way a bit more. Mow a lot less. Let the kids’ “seeds” land where they will, and grow in a place we have not prepared for them, and in ways that work for each individual. Let learning be organic and messy. Follow their lead and offer enrichment when needed, but step back too. When we force every seed to land in the same place, a place we have interfered with so much that nothing can grow there except grass that is never allowed to flower and drop its own seeds, there will be little to learn in that monotonous place. Our children grow rich in mind, body, and spirit when they are surrounded by diverse, natural, spaces where their seeds can all take root.
I want every, single, Woods and Wetlands program to just feel like fun for the students. Learning is happening the entire time, but I see no reason to point that out in the moment, at least not until a sense of ownership of, love for, and responsibility to that space has grown in each child. I am now realizing that what would be far better than a one-and-done program would, instead, be a series, each building upon the last. A series that begins in early fall/late summer, followed by (in the same space), a program in late fall, mid-winter, early spring, and late spring. Imagine the width and depth of learning that could occur in such a format!
Last Friday, with my second group of first-graders behind Parkside Elementary, we were prepared for definitively predicted rain. The teacher and I discussed rescheduling, though we both knew not to trust the forecast… ever. Nevertheless, as the kids were so excited to get out there, we decided to go for it! We were rewarded by only a little sprinkle of rain in the first few minutes, followed by some sun and no further precipitation. Of course, quite a few kids DID get wet feet and legs, even those wearing rain boots, because we went wading. But no one cared about that!
Much fun WAS had, but it was preceded by the following quote and exchange as we walked the short distance to our space:
“Are there crocodiles out here?“ -First grader
No crocodiles, I promise. I introduced the kids to our exploration space, a beautiful little creek and woodland just behind their playground. Most had never set foot there and they did just GREAT! They stayed within our boundaries and actively participated in both the open and planned explorations. It brought me so much joy to see all these excited and eager explorers wading, wandering, and wondering.
Getting muddy hands, on purpose, is always a shock for some, but once they understood it mean they could carefully handle small wildlife with their mud gloves on, most were all too happy to get to it! We did see a toad, as well as water striders, roly-polies, and a tiny snail who was poking it’s itty-bitty eyes-on-stalks out at us, then pulling them back in, probably hoping we would be gone when it looked again. I loved seeing the kids getting down close to the earth, peering at tiny bits of life, using all of their senses to explore. They climbed wherever they could find something climbable. They felt the softness of moss and the rough, flaky, bark of wild grapevine. They sniffed rich, wet, soil (some pronounced disgusting and others enjoyed it.)They listened to red-winged blackbirds warning everyone to stay away from their nesting cattails and we all sniffed and then tasted: wild chives, adder’s tongue (trout lily), and watercress. (I forgot to have them taste wild violets, darn-it!)
I was besieged by so many wonderful questions and requests to, “Come see what we found!!!” And as always, we could have happily stayed and played (learned) out there all day. I knew, once again, that this work is not only what I am meant to be doing, but what kids are meant to be doing. Nature play addresses and heals so much of what is broken and hurting for all of us. Nature play IS learning, and learning through play is the work of childhood. It is supposed to be fun. As for me? My work is also fun. More, please.