Ah, the dramatic statements of fifth grade girls! I don’t often do programs with upper elementary students and, honestly, my comfort level is definitely with the younger learners. But this week I had a lot of fun and some useful learning experiences with three 5th-grade classrooms from Crestwood Elementary in Rockford. The title of this post is a direct quote delivered with delightful flair, though the girl in question was utterly serious.
With only five minutes left before we had to wrap it up, two girls who were working on their nature study page nearby asked me to show them how to do a leaf rubbing. I never know for sure which of the many elements of my programs are going to spark interest, but in this case it was immediately clear that being able to use a leaf, a crayon, and some paper to save some of the lovely sassafras leaves we had just learned about was an evident game-changer for at least these two girls. Who knew a leaf rubbing could change lives?
Sassafras and Salamanders
Prior to life-altering leaf-rubbing, both of Tuesday’s classes managed to find multiple, tiny salamanders all over the beautiful woodland we were exploring. Their presence as an important environmental indicator species largely confirmed a guess I had about a few lowland areas nearby that showed evidence of having held a good deal of water in the past season. I’m no expert on this, but I think those spaces hold vernal pools in the early spring! Vernal pools are absolutely critical to the survival of many amphibians, including salamanders. Unfortunately, too many of these areas are unprotected as they do not have water year-round and are not considered wetlands. (But they should be!) Scientists are finding that vernal pools are incredibly important to the ecosystem. (Click the link above to learn more about them!) Thank you to amphibians for eating so many bugs! And for being food for thousands of other animals.
I wish we could just do this all day instead. of learning!
Ha! To which I replied, “Too late! You are already learning!” Even when they don’t know it, I know it. Regular readers of my blog will already know the plethora of learning experiences children have during Woods and Wetlands adventures. For those new to it, here are just a handful: physical learning (balance, strength, coordination, aim, flexibility), mathematical learning (estimation, spatial awareness, patterns, number sense,) SCIENCE (literally everything,) art (noticing and recreating fractals/patterns in nature, building structures, nature-art and design,) emotional and social (independence, self confidence, collaboration, empathy, compassion,) … you get the idea. Want more? Please read my favorite nature book ever: The Nature Fix by Florence Williams.
And yesterday? Fractions!
Three boys discovered a long stick stuck through the vertex of a tree and when one of them pulled on one end it snapped the stick. Upon seeing this, they realized they could break other sticks that way. As a team, the boys began hauling bigger and bigger sticks, lifting them one by one into the split between the two trunks, and then planning how and where they would break it, waiting for each other to be in position, and coordinating their efforts as it got more difficult. I hung back just watching and listening. They were totally absorbed in this activity that may seem like meaningless play to most, but I saw completely meaningful, playful, learning happening. One of the boys said, “I bet we can break this one into like twelve pieces!” They shifted the stick and evaluated where to break it each time so that they could get twelve, roughly equal pieces. (Hands-on fraction action!)
Independent Nature Study
This time I deviated from the Observation and Conversation cards I’ve been using for the last year because they weren’t quite always working as I’d hoped. Trial and error is a great way to learn if you’ve got the time, patience, and self-forgiveness to do it! The master’s class I am taking on play and learning declares that, “the children ARE the curriculum.” That is to say, their interests should be guiding the teachers to offer support and enhancement. (Another incredible book: Lisa Murphy On Play: The Foundation of Children’s Learning.) While the class is focused on young children (birth through age 8) I know too many kids these days haven’t gotten the kind of critical play-based learning that they all needed when they were young, so I think it’s worth applying these principles to older elementary children as well. Playful learning really is the foundation for ALL future learning!
So this time around, rather than giving everyone a laminated card with specific activities to try or photographs of cool, natural, objects I wanted them to notice in their exploration space, I gave everyone a card that invited them to choose something they had discovered while they had free exploration time, and offered some options for how to do a mini-nature study page. On the other side of the card they would find a copy of some of my own nature study journal pages, just for reference. After engaging the whole class by sharing my box of found nature treasures (snake sheds, fossils, half a muskrat skull, dead butterflies, dead cicadas, a robin’s egg, feathers, galls, various cool tree seeds, etc.) I sent them off to find a peaceful space in the woods they just explored and invited them to sketch, draw, label, and/or write about something that interested them in that place. This was only a tiny part of our program because I only intend it to be a quick sample of what it might be like to engage with nature by recording our experiences independently. Frankly, I’d much rather save it for consecutive programs with the same group rather than pushing it during their initial program. Not everyone would love it, but they had a chance to try it out. Below are some samples of their efforts.
Luckily my current favorite topic to talk about is the connection between all life and soil! The fifth graders have recently been taught about decomposers in school. I find myself imagining how much more deeply they could understand these concepts if we could spend many more hours playfully learning in that lovely woods.