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.

T.

Camp Rockford 2021, Woods and Wetlands 2021

Nature Study

“I notice the clouds are moving very fast!” announced one of our explorers during journaling time this morning. I noticed is one of my favorite phrases, and I encourage kids to use it often! We began with journaling, then Brain Gym, followed by sharing Good Things. The energy of the group felt more chaotic and off-balance today than last week for some reason. Transitioning from the weekend can be harder for some of us than others. I always try to keep in mind that we all live in multiple contexts and if we don’t know what is going on in some of those other contexts, we should still extend compassion and patience to each other. This is often easier said than done. Nevertheless, I held our group together long enough to teach them an old favorite Morning Meeting activity called, “Zoom!” It took longer than intended but we definitely did some laughing!

As we headed to the woods I asked the kids to predict what might have changed out there since Friday. The cooler temps, chilly wind, and cloudy sky kept us out of the water this morning, but we did check to see if the river water looked higher than last week due to the rain, which was one of the kids’ predictions. Others predicted more mud and different animals. We noticed right away that it was darker but also warmer in the woods than out in the open where we had been for Morning Meeting. I brought foam sit-pads for dry seating (not that we did too much sitting!) since no one was wearing rain pants, (including myself.)

Over the weekend I created nature discovery cards for our exploration space. These act as a kind of scavenger hunt to help kids with noticing and becoming familiar with some of the interesting features of the woods and river. I asked the kids to just do their best to find what they saw in the photograph on each double-sided card, and if they were able to read the text, they had additional suggestions and questions to consider. As our explorers used the cards to make discoveries, they were also led to their own discoveries! While looking for a tree that had mossy “feet” at its base, C. found some animal scat and came running excitedly to us to let us know. Each card also includes symbols for each of our first, five senses. I included these as encouragement to use senses other than our eyes to explore our world. At this point there is very little out there to taste, but I encourage sniffing just about everything!

During our snack break I read one of my favorite books to the kids who were interested in listening to it, called, A Snake in the House. I chose this book as a way to develop empathy for wildlife and to discourage kids from trying to keep wildlife at home as pets. In this story, a boy catches a little garter snake down by a pond and he brings it home in a glass jar to show his mother. In the house, the snake escapes the jar when the lid wasn’t on properly and it spent several desperate days looking for food and water while avoiding a cat and a vacuum cleaner. When it finally is accidentally returned to its own habitat near the pond, the boy discovers that the snake is not slimy, but is very much alive, strong, and has a strong urge to be free. He lets it go and “shares its joy at being home.”

We decided to go have a closer look at the main channel of “our” river, and inspected some holes along the bank, a poison ivy vine growing up a tree near the edge of the river, and we went for a short walk up the hill toward the old building and slightly beyond. Along the way we discovered beech-nuts forming on a low branch of a beech tree. The kids felt the now-soft bristles and broke one open to see the green nut forming on the inside. In the fall this will be bigger and the bristles will have hardened into sharper points. Just as we moved on and found a space the kids wanted to play, our time was up and we had to go back to our Meeting Log and get our backpacks and other things. I assured them we can check out that new space tomorrow.

One of the nature discovery cards I made included a photograph of an old beech tree into which someone carved letters and symbols on its silver-gray bark. I had the whole group come and look at it, explaining that when bark is cut like that, the tree is hurt and it is a way that disease and beetles can get inside and eventually kill the tree. Beetles that find their way in will leave interesting looking tracks and markings that resemble some kind of hieroglyphics where they have gouged their way under the bark. These beetles will send out messages to other beetles to come and join them and they lay their eggs under the bark. The cycle continues. If a healthy stand of trees is nearby and the injured tree is too full of beetles, sometimes new beetles will attack those healthy trees as well. Unfortunately, many of our beech trees in Michigan are being attacked and killed by a beech-scale disease, so in a few years, we may not have old beech trees around anymore.

Just as kids were about to be picked up, Mrs. Webb and some of the kids discovered a living nature treasure, a monarch butterfly! She was too cold to fly, so after we all got a close look at her, safely cupped in Mrs. Webb’s hand, she was relocated to a spot where she was safer and could fly away when she was ready to. This was the perfect opportunity to let the kids know that we should not touch a butterfly’s wings because we can accidentally cause it to be unable to fly.

One of the best parts about exploring nature with children is that they almost always find and discover the unexpected! Kids help to remind me to slow down and take as long as is needed to notice and be curious about our world.

T.

Woods & Wetlands Family Format

Science Matters: Sand or Clay, Sink or Float.

It never ceases to amaze me how quickly an hour in the woods can go by! When today’s session was over, I was so not ready to leave our endeavor to build a little dam across a flowing, trickle of stream using clay found right there in the ravine.

Today’s hour of Woods and Wetlands was spent with one of the first families I explored with when initially introducing my W&W Family Format. My friend and her 3 children, ages 5, 9, and 10, were eager to show me the wonders of nature in their own backyard. Rather than the long walk to the river, we just hopped right into the woods behind their home where water has carved a ravine and flows to the nearby Rogue River. I was absolutely delighted to follow the kids as they led me to some of the special places they already know and love. As we approached, my mind leaped ahead to possibilities of learning about water – its sources, its effects, its necessity! There are endless opportunities for understanding the water cycle and our place in protecting our fresh water.

Our first stop was just a simple, shallow, pool of water with late morning sun striking it just perfectly and the kids declared it to be their frog-catching place. Sure enough, with the sun lighting up the still water we could clearly see several frogs at the bottom and at its edge. While the two older kids and their mom engaged in responding to my questions about how the sand got there in the first place, (huge glaciers, taller than their house!) the 5 year old began her own sink or float science experiment. “That leaf floats!” What else floats? Would this stick float? No. Why not? What about this stick? It does? Why does that one float and the other one doesn’t? This brought me right back to when I taught kindergarten and preschool. I also pulled out my mini magnifier and encouraged the kids to use it to examine the sandy soil and then later compared it to clay.

Our conversation about how the glaciers pushed and pressed on all that rock, grinding it into either gravel, sand, clay or loam (our focus was clay or sand) turned to learning about how nonliving rock becomes soil which then, (insert a shift of kids’ interest at this point, wherein I spoke more to myself for the moment, ha!) uses atmospheric gases which encourage growth of plant life, which then dies back to create richer soil that can host bigger plant life upon which we all depend for food. (And Z. reconnects with me here.) I invited the kids to think about food that we eat and how we all need healthy soil and plants, even if we are eating meat. Z. wondered about meat-eating animals; maybe they don’t need plants? But, yes, they do.
Think of an owl, I pointed out, what does it eat?
“Mice.”
Right. And what do mice eat?
“… oh. Plants and seeds.”
Yup!
Oh, how I love open, teachable moments with kids who know how to think as these kids clearly do!

Ultimately, the goal today (as far as the kids were concerned) was to take me to the clay spot where they most love to play. So we left the frog pool and hiked back up to the top of the ravine. We walked along the edge, looking down its steep sides and admiring some lovely beech trees growing tall above us and offering sun-dappled shade. To get back down into the ravine where the clay was found we each used different methods. I could well see how my friend’s kids return from there absolutely “filthy,” and when the 5 year old displayed some frustration with getting down while wearing boots, I decided it was time to model going barefoot. Our toes are excellent grippers and our bare feet can help our bodies know just what to do with challenging terrain. Sure enough, once I did it, L. was willing to try it too. I felt that I wanted to make a special connection with her in part because she didn’t stay with us the last time we ventured out, and also because I know, personally, what it’s like to be the littlest one who can’t do all the same things that the older kids can.

I tried various methods to connect with her before finding that she was still interested in her sink and float experiment. So she joined me near a bit of flowing water and a smaller pool than the first one and we proceeded to experiment with sticks, a rock, and balls of clay we rolled in our hands like play dough.

Meanwhile I listened as the two older siblings took turns telling me all manner of stories about what they and their friends have done when they play down in the ravine with other neighborhood kids. I just LOVE that their adults are wisely allowing their kids to play outdoors in the wild, unstructured, nature they are privileged enough to have readily available!

Shortly before our time was up, Z. and I began making a clay dam across the rivulet of water that flowed here and there beneath a large, fallen tree. What could be more fun than challenging oneself to crossing a ravine on a log bridge? I enjoyed seeing G. doing just that, carefully balancing on the log, clearly familiar with it and confident in her own body’s abilities. We spotted another fallen tree that spanned the ravine much higher than where we were playing. Eyeing it we decided that it looked like fun, but also maybe it was too dangerously high up. One great thing about unstructured play in nature is that kids will typically not try to do more than they can safely manage. That is not to say that kids don’t take risks and sometimes get hurt, but this is part of how they learn their own limits. Most children wouldn’t attempt crossing that log if they weren’t ready to do so yet. Exceptions happen when other children sometimes dare or challenge each other to do something. An important instruction I often share with kids is that they should only challenge themselves within their comfort zone, but that it can be really dangerous to try to get someone else to do something they aren’t ready for. This was certainly not an issue with these 3. They clearly take care of and look out for each other. It is obvious that empathy and kindness are well-modeled by their parents.

G. brought back a chunk of clay with the intention to bake it. However, when she added some water, it fell apart like sand. Before I left, I suggested trying it again but without adding so much water, or to experiment with collecting clay from different sites and comparing its composition. Clay without sand will stick together nicely. Clay with sand is more likely to fall apart. I hope that her interest in this continues and she will set herself the challenge to find out more. But? If not, she will follow another interest and see where it leads her. The very best learning is self-motivated, and that is why I never try to plan too much for Woods and Wetlands. When we enter the woods (or the prairie, the swamp, the river… any wild land,) we will benefit far more by remaining open to whatever nature has in store for us in each moment, trusting ourselves, and following our own intuition and curiosity wherever they may lead.

T.

Woods and Wetlands 2017

Day 1: Pure Gold

15 children ranging in grade level from first to fifth joined me for our first after-school Woods and Wetlands experience yesterday.  It was a perfect late-summer day with colors ranging toward early fall down in the swampland.  We spent a little bit of time on introductions, (with the help of some of my favorite Michigan animal puppets,) and basic safety skills.  8 of the 15 have had some prior Woods and Wetlands experience with me before, and 4 of the 8 know that particular piece of land pretty well.  I love when the students become teachers for each other and that is just what they did.

I showed our newbies where most of the poison ivy grows and pointed out ways to recognize both the leaves and the vine.  Hopefully everyone can avoid it as we continue our explorations in the coming weeks.  Our first aid kit contains both a preventative lotion as well as a soothing jewelweed salve, so we should be all set in case of an outbreak.

The tilted tree remains a favorite for climbers and I reminded them to only climb as high as each feels comfortable.  It was a good sign that right away this group cooperated and took turns waiting to get up and also to get back down.

Of course, the swamp is usually the main attraction.  This time of year it is quite dry and even an accidental step into the black muck results in only a mucky foot rather than a lost boot or full bodily submersion.  The ferns that some of us watched unfurl last spring from tight little fiddle-heads are now great, towering fronds that wave overhead in shades of green, copper, and gold.  L noticed that one fern was the exact shade of her beloved dog, Miles.  (Such a grin about that!)

Even as the kids disappeared from view quickly hidden by the thick foliage of leafed out shrubs, trees, and all kinds of interesting undergrowth, I smiled to hear their happy, excited voices calling out to each other and to me.  As instructed, everyone stayed with at least one other partner as we slowly made our way over, under, and around fallen logs and poking branches.

I love the delicious smells of drying plants and even the scent of the swamp muck itself underneath everything.  The kids did a lot of noticing and discovering, from feathers to woodpecker holes.  C noticed a tiny snail clinging to a cattail plant while back on “land” some furry, white caterpillars were captured and gently transferred to our critter container for observation.

IMG_0678

An opportunity for practicing the use of meaningful words to communicate and the skill of mindful listening to others came up when one student wanted to release the various creatures and another student became upset about it.  I guided each through the process of saying exactly what it was they wanted and finding empathic understanding, if not full agreement.  Peace restored, they observed a while longer and then returned all of the creatures in question to where they had been found.

All too soon our time was up and everyone helped clean up our space for next time! There is so much to explore and to learn out there; I can’t wait to see what has changed by next week!

T.

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.

T.

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/