Woods and Wetlands 2018

Summer Begins

We began with a gorgeous map turtle crossing the road as all the kids were arriving and parents were trying to park and say hello. (No photo, I’m afraid, but be sure to look them up!)

Next up was a lovely and fairly friendly ribbon snake, a type of harmless garter who only wanted to be left alone to hunt bugs, thank you very much.

Our group is comprised of former summer explorers, former school year explorers, and a few brand new explorers. It is a wonderful group of curious and intrepid learners. L, in particular, I have already realized is closely observing many details the rest of us miss.

On Monday we focused on learning and selecting landmarks and recognizing poison ivy. On Thursday we began learning about compass usage and also practiced watching where we put our hands and feet, especially when forced off trail by a large, controlled fire! The West Michigan Land Conservancy is once again conducting prescribed burns to select areas of the preserve in order to improve soil conditions and promote certain native plant species.

We are hoping they will refrain from burning our main log-walking area but I fear it will be gone by next week.

G and I tried a quick sketch of this pretty bug. E and I think it eats mosquitoes.

In this photo you can clearly see the differences between poison ivy (left) and Virginia creeper, (right.)
We reached the Vine Playground!

Learning about wintergreen

B and E made it higher than I ever thought they would!
Using gravity to help us run down hill and momentum carries us partway up the next. It’s physics!
We had quite the frog catching expedition at the other swamp!
Blue flags!
A beautiful Blandings turtle!
Woods and Wetlands 2018

Sshhh! Can You Hear That??!



I think the kids may have questioned my sanity last week in the swamp when I suddenly demanded their utter silence and stillness, followed by tilting my head and straining my ears just right to hear over or under the sound of passing cars while my face slowly spread into a huge and gleeful grin.  I whispered, (okay, sort of a whisper-shriek,) “THE SPRING PEEPERS ARE BACK!  Can you HEAR them?!?  Listen!  No!  Listen hard; point your ears that way!”  I was seriously so giddy with genuine excitement to hear the telltale calls of the spring peepers surrounding us out there.

Most of the kids knew what they were hearing, “They’re frogs!” they announced to each other in response to my slightly manic behavior.  A couple of kids wondered what they were hearing, “Birds?” For those who were unfamiliar, I explained about the tiny frogs with the, “X,” on their backs who populate the wetlands each spring, singing their high pitched songs.  I also mentioned chorus frogs but wasn’t exactly sure if they were both out at the same time.  My husband and I plan to attend a FrogWatch session at John Ball Zoo soon so that we can learn about the various frog songs and start documenting and sharing what we hear with people who study and report out on these matters.

I could tell you that I am obsessed with the tiny peepers because amphibians are such an important indicator species.  I could explain how their presence can indicate the health of the local air, water, and soil because they absorb so much through their skins.  That would all be true, but honestly, I just LOVE those little critters and their songs have always meant that a warmer, more alive and vibrant time is at hand.  I love to open my windows at night and go to sleep to the sounds of their calls.

Well, the kids were not as thrilled as I was but they were patient with me and gave me a little bit of silence in which to hear the frogs before setting off in hopes of actual visual confirmation.  Soon we realized that wherever we stood, the frogs sounded like they were around the perimeter but not in the water at our feet.  A few of us decided to sit on a log and and just patiently wait to see if any spring peepers showed themselves.  Soon we became distracted and instead began sifting through the muck in search of anything of interest.  We tried with our broken net but cast it aside in favor of our own hands.

I showed the kids who were with me just then how to do a dirt wash (muck wash, in this case,) to make our hands safe for any amphibians we might be handling.  It is important to do this, the opposite of how we wash up before eating, before holding frogs, toads, or salamanders.  Any residue left on our hands from hand sanitizer, soaps, lotions or oils can get into their skin and harm them.  So we scoop up dirt, swamp water, or muck that is handy and rub it all over our hands.  That way we have a nice, natural substance that won’t hurt the amphibian.

Unfortunately, we didn’t see or hold any frogs that day, though I have no doubt that we will soon!  In the meantime, J and S discovered an affinity for digging down into the muck with their bare hands and allowing it to sift slowly through their fingers.  We found a tiny, tiny snail-like shell and an even tinier wiggling shrimp-like creature.  For a while J collected muck in one of the new buckets I brought and he became completely and silently absorbed in this process for quite a long time.  I absolutely love watching kids explore freely in this way.  There are so many benefits that come from this type of activity.  Kids are such natural scientists with their open minds and willingness to just enjoy the process of something for no particular product.  (If allowed to by their adults.)

K and I were happy to see the barest beginnings of fiddle-heads poking softly through the little fern islands.  We gently touched their fuzzy curls and I described how they would now slowly push up taller each week, unfurling eventually into airy, graceful ferns that could grow taller than we are!


I loved watching O. and K. deftly leaping from fern hummock to hummock with their sturdy walking sticks in hand.  They tested the depth and solidity of the swampiest areas and, in this way, showed some of the newer, younger members how it might be done.  S noticed and right away wanted her own walking stick.

R. and I looked at some photos I brought of common, local birds.  He knows many of them by name and we discussed the differences between the black-capped chickadee and the Carolina chickadee.  We were able to hear the distinctive, trilling call of the red-winged blackbird among the cattails where it will eventually make its nest.

It is just pure happiness to be out in the swamp when spring is just beginning.  I can’t wait to share it with even more explorers in the weeks to come!


Woods and Wetlands 2017

Climbing, Falling, and Tracking


On Tuesday we had another small group, this time of nine explorers.  Seven of them were experienced either through Woods and Wetlands or past years’ Firsts in the Forest.  We began by visiting the Secret Fort Tree via the tunnel we have created which requires most of us to crawl at some point.  Mind you, there is a much easier way to arrive at the Secret Fort Tree but it takes the, “Secret,” out of the title, so the tunnel is much more challenging and fun.  The kids took turns climbing up and O. found a new way to get up into the tree since her usual way was being used by other kids.  I love seeing the problem-solving creativity that kids will use when they are allowed to take the time to think about it.  Different kids approach problems in different ways based on their individual personalities and experiences.  For example, some explorers didn’t immediately find a way up and asked for help right away.  Others, like O, don’t give up and ask for help at first; they try different options and accept failure as a learning experience that ultimately ends in success after effort.  My goal and hope is to teach that approach to kids who haven’t yet learned it.

A. was new to Woods and Wetlands and I was delighted to see that she already possessed a valuable skill; she knows how to fall!  It is wonderful to see kids climbing and balancing, but of course, they do fall from time to time.  We all do.  But what I didn’t learn as a child myself was how to fall!  I remember being so afraid to fall, both literally and figuratively, that I didn’t always try new experiences.  But A. went fearlessly up and forward and she did fall a few times.  She landed, looked surprised, laughed, and got up to try again.  She didn’t fight the fall, but she did learn from it.  I admire that quality and wonder if it, also, is teachable?

Later we went to the swamp which is most definitely not frozen solid.  Beneath the snow and ice there are still treacherous muck holes and most of us discovered that very quickly!  I pulled my own boot out with a tremendous sucking sound as the muck reluctantly released me.  One explorer wondered how deeply the hibernating frogs were buried and whether we might accidentally step on them.


J. and B. teamed up as usual and then came hurrying with great excitement to find me, wanting to show me something they discovered.  They had such an air of mystery, wonder, and delight in their faces!  They found tracks in the snow that were unlike the deer or rabbit tracks we have previously discovered and they wanted to know what sort of animal made them.  We followed a line of the tracks to a tree where they appeared to end at first.  We looked up into the tree but it was a small one and its branches were empty.  Then the boys called out urgently that they found where the tracks picked up again just a short distance from the tree.  Using questioning and discussion worthy of well-trained classroom collaborators, they concluded that whatever it was must have climbed up the tree and then jumped some distance from it to the new trail of paw prints.  We followed these for a while too and then, after guessing at what could make those tracks, climb a tree, and jump from it we remembered that we have a ring of laminated cards with pictures of animal tracks and animal scat back in our storage container.  B. flipped slowly through the cards as J. and I looked on.  We discussed each possibility and compared them to the photos I had taken of the paw prints.  We noted the triangular, pointy shape of the heel and the number of toes.  The boys had noticed right away that they showed actual claw marks too.  We took into account the size of each track printed on our identification cards.  Finally, we concluded that it must have been a squirrel.  Satisfied with their work, they went to roll snowballs.

Meanwhile, K., who was our only 5th grader this time, had climbed up the Tilted Tree all the way to the tree that both holds and intersects the Tilted Tree.  She perched comfortably way up in its branches and grinned down at the rest of us.  I recalled the powerful, cozy, magical feeling I used to have, (and still do!) when I climbed a tree and found a spot to just sit and be by myself.  It was never a lonely feeling, even when I was alone.  K. looked like she had that feeling.

Some of the smaller kids marveled at how she got up there.  The Tilted Tree is still steady, alive, and strong enough despite part of its roots having been pulled out of the ground, but parts of it have died so it is missing bark on a crucial section toward the bottom where any smaller climbers might need to grip.  I remembered that I had some narrow rope in our storage box and began wrapping and tying it to the tree so that climbers could grab it for support as they began their ascent.  It wasn’t ideal as it is slippery and narrow, but it is strong enough for the purpose and is better than nothing.  Several kids looked on and advised me on where they thought the rope should go.  Upon reflection, I should have let them try doing it first.  But it helped A. get up into the tree, though she slipped off and had another skillful falling experience.  Once again, she shook it off and tried a second time.


S. works to untangle the rope for me.









We ended earlier than usual since darkness falls sooner now.  The kids couldn’t believe our time was already up.  O. walked back beside me and recounted her memory of last week when we were wading through deep snow to get back.  We smiled our way to the front of the building and said good-bye until next time.



Woods and Wetlands 2017

Is It Time to Hibernate?

M. discusses how and tries to make a fire with a stick rubbing quickly against another stick.  It did get warm, but the patience and know-how wasn’t entirely there, which was fine since we aren’t really allowed to start fires out there!
Some of the kids found a natural shelter and covered the muck with sticks while finding small islands to sit on.  B. pointed out that once the muck freezes the sticks will freeze into it creating a nice floor.  I asked them for predictions on how many days it would take at a similar temperature (around 27 degrees) for the muck to freeze solid.  Guesses ranged from 1-4 days.  We shall see!
L. reclines and looks up at the snowflakes falling from the sky.  He stayed there for a while, quiet and peaceful.

Blurry photo but cool tree growing out of an old stump.
L. found a place he likes to sit.  He brought me over to show me and I immediately noticed the poison ivy vine hanging right in front of his face!  I urged him to find a different spot or be extremely careful!  Crossing the poison ivy vine is a wild grapevine, (the one he is touching.)
The Fairy Tree is ready for winter.
Woodpeckers have been finding food in the Fairy Tree.  We wondered if anything was living in those holes yet.
B. and I discussed the temperature in the swamp and how it is usually a couple degrees warmer than everywhere else nearby.

I reminded them that just because there was snow dusting the top didn’t mean the muck was ready to be stepped on.  A few had to test that out for themselves.  
Woods and Wetlands 2017

What Do You Notice?

In the two weeks since our last class the ferns in the swamp have turned brown and crumbly.  Some of the kids have now watched the entire (most visible) life cycle of the fern from the days in early spring when snow still lay in patches and the ferns slowly pushed up their curled fiddle-heads all the way to now as the feathery fronds die back again.  Nature has a beautiful way of demonstrating how every living thing dies at some point, yet most live again in some way, shape, or form.  Perhaps that is why spring and fall evoke such strong feelings in humans.

We were lucky enough to have a parent volunteer this time and she was able to go with groups to visit the secret fort, the swamp, and the boardwalk and wild apple tree.  The kids demonstrated their independence but also their kindness and empathy toward each other as one or another got tiny bumps or scrapes and they stopped to check on each other.

A group of about half the kids and I visited the, “Fairy Tree,” which is the tallest white pine tree in the swamp, making it an excellent landmark.  This precipitated a mini lesson and discussion of what landmarks are and how to use them.  Several children had already learned about landmarks in an earlier W&W class, but there were a few who were new to the concept and J. was very interested in looking for more of these guide-posts.  He picked it up right away and noticed several other unusual sights that could help us recognize our surroundings.

A visit to the Secret Fort took some of us through a narrow, winding path beneath vines and branches where we had to all duck down as small as possible.  This route lends a feeling of being a small animal creeping through the underbrush and it even passes an animal den dug deep into the hillside.  The den does not appear to have been used in some time, but it is fun to peer in and imagine what might live there.  Part of Woods and Wetlands is learning what kinds of animals could potentially live there, since many people don’t know what wild creatures are native to our own backyards and surrounding areas.  If I had to guess at this particular den, I would guess a fox or a woodchuck once called it home.

At the fort we all climbed up into the old tree by means of the gigantic, twisted grape-vine or directly up the nubbly branches and trunk of the tree itself.  Cars flash past outside of our fort but they cannot see us with the exception of just bright flashes of those who are wearing the neon orange vests we have for safety use.  It is a cozy feeling to be all tucked up into the curve of a tree branch with legs swinging free and the changing colors and smells of leaves all around.

J. noticed on the path to the boardwalk that some of the trees made good landmarks in that area because the bark, “looks like an armadillo!”  I took a closer look and saw what he meant; the bark was scaly and unusual.  He is a good nature detective to notice details like that!

When we visited the boardwalk some of us stopped at the wild apple tree and spent quite a long time working at releasing wild apples for everyone to taste.  Despite their discoloration, scabs, and occasional holes, they are safe to eat and there are portions that are clear for biting into.  Kids love to be able to forage for their own snacks in nature and this apple tree kept them busy for a while!  E. climbed up and knocked down apples for other children, catching some in her own hands and then tossing them to open hands below.  I loved watching the upturned faces alight with anticipation and then satisfaction as they spotted apples that were then delivered to them.  J. climbed up as well with a long stick and was able to shake and knock down some of the larger apples from far over our heads and he shared these with the smaller kids on the ground.  It’s fun to see the teamwork and kindness between them.

E. and some others recognized poison ivy in some areas we hadn’t noticed it before.  I was impressed that they identified it without any help this time!  Next, I’d like more of the kids to be able to notice what sort of branches and vines they grab before they poke themselves on brambles and other spiny plants.  But in this case there is nothing like a natural consequence to teach this lesson better than I ever could!

Back at our base area C. and D. gently handled two millipedes, noting that one of them curled up into a perfect spiral when first touched, while the other flowed around on their hands without curling up at all.  We examined their many, tiny legs and noticed how smoothly their bodies move and flow much like a train, without any side to side movement or legs sticking out to the side as other bugs might.  It is interesting and satisfying to simply observe small creatures like this and wonder about them.

Toward the end of our session there was some movement toward re-building some forts with the large branches that still lie there from last year.  I watched a few kids work together to carry heavy branches and was amazed by D.’s strength as he carried one all by himself!


It was another wonderful day in the woods and wetlands of Michigan.  I am so thankful that we have this opportunity to go out there and just Be.