Uncategorized, Woods and Wetlands 2022

Wading, Wandering, and Wondering.

“Children move to learn as they learn to move.”

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.


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

Process vs. Product

Woods and Wetlands is most definitely a process over product experience.  I am so proud of that!  It is rewarding to witness the kids each finding what interests them while I either step back and allow discoveries and practice to unfold, or I step forward for a while to ask questions, point out my own observations, or simply reflect what the kids are sharing with me.

Stepping back might look like this:  R. is working hard at getting up into the Secret Fort Tree.  I can see he is trying various methods and using all of his muscles to try.  I step back and observe, careful not to let him see me noticing.  I want him to figure this out, keep at it, and either succeed or decide he’s done for now on his own.  He doesn’t give up. He makes it! 

Stepping forward might look like this: I hear R. crow, “I did it!  Mrs. H, I got up!”  I step forward and reflect his grin and say, “You did it!  You worked SO hard and you did it!  I can tell you’re really proud!  That took a lot of hard work.”


S. hasn’t ever seen a cattail and asks me if it will hurt her.  I hold it out and assure her it will not.  She holds it carefully but after a while loses interest.  I encourage, “Try pushing your thumb into it and see what happens.”  She does and her face lights up with delight as the soft, fur-like seed puffs cascade into her hands.  Moments later she is calling her brother over to demonstrate for him and soon his arms, too, are full of cattail fluff.


Joy flourishes as the kids explore.  D. uses most of his swamp time crawling through and around the bushes peering into various openings to look for, “bunny houses.”  His voice calls out every few minutes for any of us to come see the latest bunny home he thinks he has found.  These may not actually be bunny homes, but he is using what he knows which is that rabbits do live plentifully around there; he has seen the hundreds of tracks in the snow, as well as the scat sprinkled about.  He knows they are hiding out during the day too and that they must hide from predators and snuggle down for warmth out of the wind.  He estimates how many could fit in each home and decides which areas are likely to be good bunny homes and which would not, based on any number of features.  He is evaluating and verbally sharing all of his ideas.


S. and B. team up and decide that they have a magical fort in a space between the swamp bushes where they feel cozy and protected.  I hear B. bellowing, “You are now BANISHED FROM MY KINGDOM!”  I love hearing their pretend play.  Imaginations explode into full spectrum outdoors in nature.  He and S. negotiate and renegotiate terms of their kingdom as they proceed.  This involves letting others in and finding roles for everyone who wants to play.  They giggle and change whatever elements they want.  Imagination is unlimited when no one else is creating the choices for them.


J. has made it a game with himself to try to sneak silently and unnoticed by me and around me.  He knows how to use his camouflage to his advantage!  I laugh inside my mind as I catch a glimpse of him in my peripheral vision sometimes and then he drops out of sight, only to appear again to my genuine surprise many minutes later when I have been distracted by other explorers.  His eyes are all that show and they are lit with joyful mischief.


J/s did not at first want to visit the Secret Fort Tree, though this was his first time there. He did not want to leave the swamp where we had been finding landmarks together.  But I coaxed him into coming with the promise that if he didn’t want to stay there he didn’t have to.  Half an hour later he was beaming at me from a branch over my head and declaring, “I LOVE the Secret Fort Tree!”


R. was very into discovering something for the first time all by himself.  For whatever reason, it was important to him to be the, “first,” at something.  This didn’t go over so well with the experienced explorers which necessitated some social guidance on my part. They wanted credit for their experience and for already having seen, “everything.” I admit that I love that particular element of teaching.  I love helping kids problem-solve with each other, giving them words to use and tones of voice to try out.  We spent some time on that.  R. finally was able to, “discover,” something no one else had ever mentioned.  It was only a large, discarded chunk of concrete with a large, metal pipe sticking out – not even part of nature – but he was agog with wonder, his eyes huge as he turned to me and declared, “I just discovered something OLD!”  I flashed back in my mind to finding a bit of junk jewelry in the woods once when I was a kid and how I invented romanticized stories about its origin and value.  I saw that same imaginative possibility spark in R.’s face.  I would not be the one to tell him the value of his find to anyone else.  To him it was priceless.

J. asked me whether I’d remembered my pocket knife this time so that we could cut open a Goldenrod gall.  I said I had finally remembered it.  (He has asked every week.)  So he gathered a few galls and we all returned to the Gathering Circle to cut one open.  Sure enough, a tiny, white larva moved slowly in its suddenly-exposed, woody stem.  The kids gathered around because this group had not yet seen this amazing phenomenon.  How could that tiny larva stay alive through the winter inside of a dead flower stem?  How did it get there?  What would it become?  We marveled at it.  S. remembered and compared it to the painted lady butterfly larva she observed in the fall in her classroom.


Before we left I asked S. and J/s what they liked about Woods and Wetlands, since it was their first time.  J/s looked very seriously at me as he answered, essay style.  “I liked the Fairy Tree and the swamp.  I liked the cattails too, but most of all, I liked the Secret Fort Tree!”