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.
“I want to do EXACTLY what you do when I grow up! I want to teach OUTSIDE!” -Lakes Elementary Kindergartener
“This is just SO much fun! I wish we could do this all the time!” -Cannonsburg Elementary 3rd grader
“I know so much more about nature than I ever did before!” -Roguewood 4th grader
“It’s EARTH DAY today! (Please can it be every day?)” -Me
In the spring of 2021 I was thrilled to begin offering whole-class Woods and Wetlands programs for schools. It made sense to begin with the district where I taught (indoors, mostly) for 17 years. With each hour-and-a-half program I learn more and the format continues to evolve. It began with Valley View Elementary inviting me to wrap up their One School, One Book program by taking every single one of their (many) classrooms out to the woods behind the school where we explored, learned, played, and made connections to the book, Nuts to You by Lynne Rae Perkins. Back in September and October I met Roguewood’s 4th graders at Camp Rockford and made connections to their science units while adventuring in the woods along the Rogue River and Stegman Creek. My “home base” of Lakes Elementary brought Woods and Wetlands programs to their 2nd graders as we learned about local plants and their seeds.
In March of this year I got to return to Lakes and work with the same 2nd graders I met in the fall. With ice still covering much of the swamp, we learned a little bit about the diversity of wildlife there, how the land has been changed by humans over time, and how to test the ice before stepping on it… (and so much more!)
This week I began a set of programs for Lakes kindergarten as well as Cannonsburg Elementary’s entire school! Each program is a little different and always tailored to the features of the specific space, season, and the age/grade level of the students. Beyond that, there are numerous other differences which I feel uniquely prepared to meet after years of being a classroom teacher myself. I know all too well that the energy and dynamics of each class and their teacher will vary, and I love the chance to connect with all of them in the way that works best for them. There is no exact template for Woods and Wetlands programs, though I spend many hours preparing in the weeks ahead of time. I get to be flexible and fluid each time. I do get incredibly nervous before the first of any set of programs in a new place with new students, but the moment the kids show up I find myself centered and deeply joyful to be doing this work. (It hardly feels like work!)
On Wednesday and Thursday of this week I brought kindergarten classes out to a wetland that at one time was connected to Bostwick Lake. As I pulled my classroom-on-wheels (a.k.a. wagon) out to the exploration space before meeting the kids, I caught in my peripheral vision something large, dark, airborne, and incredibly fast, swooping silently toward me from the ground to my right. Almost as quickly as I sensed it, it was past me, and my eyes and brain caught up with each other to realize it was a great-horned owl with prey of some kind in its talons! I have no idea why she was hunting at 1:30 in the afternoon, but she was breathtakingly beautiful. She landed on a low “island” of decomposing log about 100 feet away and proceeded to blend in almost perfectly despite the fact that I knew exactly where she was. We stared at each other for a while before I slowly began to move; after all, I had a class arriving soon and needed to get ready. But what a wonder it was to have that wild creature so near! I was only sorry that the kids wouldn’t get to see her. I love all of the owl encounters I seem to have these days!
The first group of any series of programs always seems to be the roughest. Both kindergarten programs were great fun and all’s well that ends well, but it is undeniable that I always learn at least a few things the hard way with group number one. In this case, my assessment of the space did not take into account the additional rain we have had recently in conjunction with how recently the ground thawed. In past years this space has never once been “mucky,” or sticky. Never once has a child lost their boot or gotten “stuck in the muck,” as we did so many times when my own classroom of first graders explored the area directly behind the school. In fact, that was precisely why I chose this other space; it was open enough to easily see all of the kids at once AND it didn’t have any deep, foot-immobilizing muck! How wrong I was! Regardless, the kids had a ton of fun and they definitely did some learning! (As did I.) Our second group fared better now that I knew what to prepare for.
I loved seeing and hearing the kids out there, balancing on mossy logs, using sticks to help test and balance, shrieking with laughter, and searching earnestly for the things I had photographed and put on a laminated card for them each to wear on a lanyard. One boy came up and triumphantly informed me that he found the duckweed! A few girls showed me the tiny, spiral-patterned snails they discovered, while other explorers turned over decomposing logs and discovered roly-poly bugs/pillbugs/sowbugs underneath. (Why do they have so many names?) I wanted to be everywhere at once! I am always so curious about what the kids find because I almost always learn something new from them. Some years ago my students discovered fairy shrimp out there. I had never seen nor heard of them before, but they are an important early food source for spring creatures just waking up from their winter hibernation.
Today I was especially nervous to be conducting 2 programs at Cannonsburg. Though I know the principal and some of the teachers, I have little familiarity with the school and only introduced myself to its woods just over a week ago when I went to take photos of interesting features for the kids to find. (There is little point in taking photos until right before the program week since nature changes so drastically here in Michigan from month to month!) The Conversation and Exploration cards I made from those photos turned out beautifully! And just as with every new program, my nerves were instantly calmed by the arrival of excited children. Both programs were with 3rd graders and both classrooms were led by teachers I knew already. Yet the two classes were so very different from each other, as most are. I was so lucky that both were fantastic in their own ways. I loved that the first group already had some experience in this space and so their familiarity with the area allowed them a deeper encounter with it this time, yet their comfort level also meant they didn’t need my guidance as much as most do. I could have probably done less talking, less cautioning. They have a teacher who is comfortable doing quite a bit of what I was brought in to do. The second class had no experience yet in this space, but they were eager to learn and were consistently respectful listeners. Their teacher seemed completely comfortable out there and was just as open to learning and exploring as the kids were! She helpfully managed the few who needed a little extra support and circulated widely, checking in and guiding as needed. It flowed just beautifully! The kids with more nature-adventure experience were still happy to take in new information and add it to their growing repertoire of nature knowledge. It rained during the last half hour or so, but the kids were troopers and many were even more delighted to be out in the rain.
Next week I head back to Lakes for the other two kindergarten classrooms and also to Parkside for one of two first-grade programs! Cannonsburg programs pick up again in May.
Below: The laminated Exploration and Conversation cards I created for Cannonsburg kids featured 6 general categories which were color-coded by their lanyard: Trees and tree seeds, plants, fungi and lichen, signs of animals, logs and soil, and patterns in nature. Each card is double-sided with a photo on each side, accompanied by a few facts and usually a thinking question. These are just a few of the photos I took for the cards.
This one is like a snake! That one reminds me of lightning! It’s a vine! This one is kind of like a spiderweb! I see a tree branch! If you turn this pattern it’s like a tornado! A beehive! This is like the pine needles! It’s a daddy longlegs! That one reminds me of a pumpkin! Or an onion! This could be a snail shell! Like the river!
Such a creative, verbal, kind, and visual group we have this time! During Morning Meeting we introduced some common nature patterns and read and moved with the book, Flow, Spin, Grow. We used our fingers in the air to draw spirals and coils, spinning from small to large and then large back to small. This is art, math, and language all spinning together! We asked our explorers to try to draw at least one of the patterns in their nature journals, encouraging them to add to the drawing to make the pattern into something specific in nature.
Our greeting was the Silent Greeting which relies on eye contact and movement as we go around the circle. Each student chooses which silent greeting they want to use. We saw waving, sign language, smiles, and finger-waves.
The mosquitoes are still pretty thick out there, but more manageable and everyone is sprayed and sprayed again with repellent. We pat non-Deet repellent on our faces and necks. Skimming Amazon’s site I discovered a plethora of hats with mosquito nets and also nets to put over one’s own hat. Click here for a link to the ones that Mrs. Webb and I are going to try.
Our group has more girls than either of our first two sessions did. During Morning Meeting one of the girls mentioned their “Girl Club,” and when I began to say that any clubs needed to be for everyone, she smiled and patiently explained to me that she called it a “Girl Club,” because girls built the fort, but that anyone could join. Later, as I looked through our photos from today, I noticed that the boys and the girls have chosen to divide themselves, which is interesting to me. I try to avoid divisions by gender, but if the kids choose it themselves, as long as there is kindness between them, I have no issue with it.
It’s been fun to notice how many new friendships are springing up among our explorers. They are, overall, a much more independent bunch and are happy to explore, play, and experiment without need for much teacher intervention or guidance. We are glad to give them their space to do their thing, though we are available for help and support if they need it. A new member joined us today and at Morning Meeting I introduced her and asked the others to imagine they are the “newbie” on day 3 of our session; what might that feel like? The kids responded so empathically! Words about feelings poured forth and afterwards there was never a moment when our new explorer was alone or without buddies to show her the ropes. In fact, while the girls were relocating their fort due to a ground nest of yellow jackets, (or hornets?) our newest friend called out to the other girls, “I have an idea!” and they stopped and listened to her idea. The self-designated leader of the group responded, “You know what? I REALLY like that idea!” (To move the fort near the creek so the fort has a pretty background.) And so it was.
Creek-time was a little different today as the “Girl Club,” which was later renamed, “Friendship Club,” decided to ferry rocks from the creek to their fort. They used our red buckets but quickly figured out that it was one thing to fill the bucket with river rocks, and quite another thing to try to carry said bucket o’ rocks while balancing on the log-bridge! One of the older boys helped and so did Mrs. Webb and I. The other group of younger girls used their creek time to practice climbing and navigating over and along the other logs across the creek. I love watching them figure out where to hold on, where to step, and how to push or pull themselves up as they develop their senses of where their bodies are in space. And all the while their young bones and muscles are growing stronger through physical play and exploration!
During snack break I read aloud the book, Nothing To Do, and the kids noticed all of the same nature patterns embedded in each illustration. I like to punctuate my read-alouds with tiny personal stories from my own childhood experiences. I notice that when adults share their own stories, kids’ ears perk up and they really respond! I paused the book to relate to them how, as a kid, I used to go out with a shovel and dig deep, deep holes near my family’s vegetable garden, and I’d collect the worms I found and put them in a jar of dirt, name them all, and then let them go again. After which my dad would go out to the garden and nearly fall into my holes, so I was told to go fill them in again, which I did, but often dug another one. The kids laughed at my version of the story and laughter bonds and connects us!
I’ll close with a quote I heard today from our newest explorer; within her first 5 minutes in the woods I overheard her say to her new friends, “I can’t believe we get to do this! This is the best day of my whole life!” My heart was full.
P.S. Should anyone be kayaking or other recreation on the Rogue River downstream from Camp Rockford and you come upon either of our two lost magnifier tops or a silver compass, please tell them we would like them to swim back upstream to us! Only one day after replacing my first 2-way magnifier, the second one lost its top to the creek. Lesson learned: find a way to attach the two pieces or don’t use it in the creek! Click here to see what it’s supposed to look like when both parts are in the same location! (We also would be thrilled if anyone would like to donate a couple of these because the kids love them!)
Our new group got off to a fun start! The creek was shallow and clear and the mosquitoes were tolerable, better for some than others. Morning Meeting began with our Rhythm Greeting, this time using our hands, feet, legs, and bellies in various combinations as our drums while chanting, Say your first name, when you do, we’ll say your first name back to you! We quickly went over safety issues and then split into two groups for our first introduction to the poison ivy and how to play safely with sticks.
Day 1 is always open exploration time to get comfortable and bonded with our space. Once we reached The Meeting Log we went over safety rules about the creek, then introduced some different nature exploration tools, and finally headed over to the creek together to check it out. The water was cold but the kids were undeterred! Approaching via the log-jam bridge I repeated, “Only do what you feel safe doing. Take your time. If you aren’t comfortable walking, then sit down and scoot.” Everyone listened to themselves and those who wanted to come across on the big log were able to do it in a way that felt safe (enough) for them. Most kids will only take minimal risks based on their own comfort level. I try to never lift or even support kids on or off of something that is up high because I may not be available when it’s time to get back down or up. If they can get somewhere by themselves, then (with encouragement sometimes) they can get back safely by themselves too.
One of the girls remembered my suggestion to use all of our senses to explore. She sniffed the moss on a log and invited me to do it as well. We both enjoyed the scent of the earthy, damp, green-ness! Everywhere I looked I saw explorers delighted with their experiences. Some sat and scooted across the log. Others balanced carefully, arms out, one foot before the other. One boy jumped off the log from up pretty high and stuck the landing in the cold water! He looked a little surprised but steadied himself and was soon wading happily, dropping rocks in the water to make splashes, some big and some small. Wading in the creek is the time for not only following the kids’ interests, but pointing out things to notice and introducing new vocabulary: Turn this way and look upstream and you can feel the current pushing against the front of your legs. Now turn and look downstream and you can feel the current pushing against the backs of your legs. Over the next 7 days they will hear the words, “upstream, downstream, current,” in context and will become more comfortable with these terms.
Using one of our two dip-nets one boy discovered what looks very much like a tiny eel! What IS this thing? This was a first sighting for me, so we took pictures and tried looking it up in our reptile and amphibian book when we returned to our Meeting Log. We think it may be a “lesser siren” which is a kind of aquatic salamander, but we didn’t observe any legs on it, nor external gills, so we aren’t sure yet. We read that the siren has only one pair of front legs, so perhaps we just didn’t notice them if they were small or still developing. Everyone nearby wanted to hold it, so we got our hands muddy and wet to protect this sensitive creature and continued to pour water on it as it was carefully passed around before being let go into the creek again. Unfortunately, these secretive and sensitive amphibians are declining in numbers due to poor water quality caused by runoff of pesticides and fertilizers that people use on farms and lawns. For safer products, I suggest checking out Gardens Alive so that we can protect and conserve more of our native plants and animals for generations to come!
I noticed a great deal of generosity and kindness between so many of our new campers! It was great to see kids waiting patiently for their turn to cross the log, and also to hear some of the older kids offer help to the younger explorers. They took turns with our only 2-way magnifier and they waited as the little mystery-amphibian was passed around. When the last person to hold it accidentally let it slip back into the creek, the original “finder” of it accepted her apology with grace and understanding. He knew it was an accident as she was going to hand it back to him for release. All of this kindness and also great listening bodes well for our future adventures together! It is a joy to spend time in nature with kids who already know how to be good to each other.
At break time some of the children brought a snack and while they ate we introduced nature journaling. Each explorer was given a nature journal and colored pencils which they may keep at the end of our 2 weeks of camp. Mrs. Webb brought a group over to check out a cool log covered with mushrooms and we had a little more time for creek exploration before it was time to go. Kids were mostly soaked but in good spirits!