Winter in the Woods, ZooLittles

ZooLittles: Ace’s Pet Tardigrade

December 4, 2022

One Friday morning at 9:00, one of my (admittedly favorite) ZooLittles walked through the door, cupping his closed hands together in the manner of one holding a precious, living, creature that might escape at any time. With big, blue eyes shining above rosy cheeks and his adorable, perfect baby-teeth smile, he walked right up to me as I scrunched down to meet him at his eye level. Ace always speaks with precision, enunciating his words more carefully than most 4-year olds, and he has been this way since I met him as a just-3-year-old. 

“Miss Tahlia! Do you want to hold my pet tardigrade?” 

Of COURSE I wanted to hold his pet tardigrade! I held out my own hands and, with UTTER seriousness, slowly setting the cage of his hands into the cup of mine, he carefully transferred his precious microscopic friend into my waiting palms. He explained how he had gathered some moss and from it extracted his tardigrade.

I held his invisible-to-the-naked-eye pet with the same level of care and seriousness he had used. “Wow! That is SO COOL! Ace, do you want to know two more names for tardigrades?” 

His eyes lit up even brighter than before. “YES!”

“They are ALSO called, ‘moss piglets,’” I explained, “and, ‘water bears,’ because when seen through a microscope, they look sort of like a gummy bear with 8 legs. But I love calling them, ‘moss piglets,’ because it is such a funny name.”

Ace’s grandfather, who had ushered him into the room and was standing by during this whole exchange, chuckled, and, with great fondness and good humor, shook his head and said, “Of course you know what he’s talking about! You two are such NERDS!” I grinned up at him, having entirely forgotten he was even there during this opening conversation just inside the doorway to our classroom. I have the impression that his grandpa may not always fully understand Ace, but he completely and utterly adores him and is greatly amused by his grandson’s unique and undeniable charm.

In a low murmur, Ace carefully repeated these terms, “Moss piglets. Water bears,” no doubt sealing them into his incredibly receptive and curious mind for future use. He is, hands-down, the most curious and delightful of any and all of “my” ZooLittles I have known over the past 5 years. Like most young children he is full of questions, but his questions are often of a deeper nature than those of his peers, and he listens attentively to my detailed answers, his inquisitive mind processing new information thoroughly enough to not only understand and remember it, but to be able to repeat it and explain it to others! His follow-up questions are logical and he waits patiently to hear the entire answer, never settling for the short, simple version. He needs a complete answer! We are a perfect pair because I need to explain things fully and in great detail, and he is a patient and attentive listener, fascinated by each new thing he learns. Each week it takes great intention for me to tear myself away from him in order to engage with my other nine, beloved, ZooLittles who also need and deserve my attention. 

As Ace prepared to begin divesting himself of his backpack, coat, and boots, he first needed a safe place to store his pet tardigrade. (Named “Tardy,” of course! In this, he is a classic 4-year old.) He verbally ran through his options: backpack? Coat pocket? Snow pants? Once Tardy was safely stored in his backpack, Ace joined the other children to play until our visual timer indicated it was time to clean up. 

After cleaning up, greeting each other in our Morning Meeting, and taking turns using the bathrooms, we began the long process of putting on all of our winter gear to go play and learn in the woods. Though most of our ZooLittles are accustomed to their parents and caregivers doing most of this process for them, we make sure to take the necessary time to teach them how to put on all of their gear by themselves. We understand that parents don’t always have the luxury of time for this, but we do and, in the long run, it will benefit parents when their child proudly puts on their own outerwear in record time! 

Ace decided to bring his pet tardigrade to the woods to look for some more moss for him. Once again he went over his options for tardigrade storage. He did NOT want to lose Tardy! Having witnessed Ace’s utter, emotional devastation over losing some of his goldfish crackers in the woods last spring, I took his concern quite seriously this time. I explained that tardigrades are really good at holding on. He could even ride buried in the fleece bib of Ace’s snow pants and would not fall off. Ace settled on his snow pants’ fleece pocket. And so, Tardy joined us for an hour of Winter in the Woods.

At the end of our morning as adults and ZooLittles gathered up their things to go home, I overheard Ace making sure that Tardy was safely stowed away while his grandfather patiently readied him to leave. Most young children forget to bring home visible items such as water bottles, mittens, random socks, and art work they created earlier in the day. Ace remembered to bring home his microscopic pet tardigrade. I couldn’t wait to find out if Tardy would join us again the following week.


A couple of weeks later, Ace and his mom brought me the most fantastic Christmas gift: tardigrade earrings!

Uncategorized, Woods and Wetlands 2021

Woods & Wetlands for Valley View Begins

Days 1-3 out of 9! (There are only a few photos until I am able to identify which students have photo permissions.)

Valley View Elementary is participating in a program called, One School, One Book. The book, in this case, is, Nuts to You! by Lynne Rae Perkins. They have booked one-hour Woods and Wetlands programs with me for every classroom in their school! Though I used to take my entire class outside for similar activities, a significant difference is that I had an established trust relationship with my own students. And like any new experience, there is a lot to learn! I am very fortunate to have VV’s PTO president joining us for each session, where he has been a tremendous help! Any adults who accompany us are asked to read over some tips as well as some of my W&W principles.

Each class is getting a unique experience. We are learning together. Most of my plans and intentions have changed or fallen by the wayside as I adapt to having just one hour with an entire class. My biggest take away so far is that every class ideally needs a full hour of free exploration followed by an hour of planned learning activities. Though I have a fun set of scavenger hunt cards made with photos of specific items of interest in our chosen exploration space, there is more benefit in letting nature guide us for at least one hour before trying to engage students with more guidance or structure. If students had these kinds of experiences on a regular basis, such as a special like art, music, or P.E., the one-hour format would be perfect.

Three days in…


Day 1 was a bit choppy, which is to be expected. Beginning on day 2, I had the classes gather in a circle at Camp Valley View for about 15 minutes of prep for our exploration time. I have been asking students to deliberately rub their hands in the dirt for a few good reasons. 

  • We have been finding small salamanders. It is much safer for the amphibian if we only handle it briefly with dirty or muddy hands. Amphibians breathe and drink through their skins, which makes them VERY sensitive and they are considered an Indicator Species. If amphibians are doing okay, the habitat is likely not too polluted, particularly the water. When we have products like hand sanitizer on our hands and we hold a salamander, frog, or toad, they can get very sick or die from it.
  • Our culture has become obsessed with cleanliness. There are definitely times and places for that. Playing and learning in nature is not one of them. Young children, especially, should not be afraid to get dirty when they play. Dirt carries microbes that can benefit our health and even increase serotonin production.


  • I have been exchanging a “Nuts to you,” greeting with the kids. It makes us laugh, and laughter bonds people. 
  • Each student receives an acorn and an evergreen cone. (We are mostly referring to them as the commonly named, “pinecone,” though technically they are spruce and hemlock.) Using the acorn, we learn a little bit about how important oak trees are. They support the most wildlife of any tree genus in North America! I’m having the kids act out growing from an acorn into a big oak which can only make acorns after 20 years! I connect this topic to Nuts to You. Kids are encouraged to take the acorn and cone to plant someplace where leaves have been allowed to do as nature intends, which is to stay on the ground, getting broken down by decomposers and turned into healthy, new, soil where new trees can grow.
  • When I want the kids to stop and listen, I call out, “BE A TREE!” We all jump our feet out and our arms up and out. (Like an X) This not only grabs their attention, the holding of our arms up and out sends a body-signal to our brains that we are safe.


  • Just as the squirrels in the book, we follow the “buzz path” and talk about how the squirrels in the story got lost when they got distracted by playing a game and having fun. I connect this to identifying landmarks any time you are in a new space, whether forest or city.
  • To capture a sense of the beautiful magic of nature, I refer playfully to “magic portals” underneath vines and between trees. While some children like to focus more on facts, others learn to love nature through imagining fantasies such as fairies, elves, and magic portals. Then there are those, like myself, who love both!
  • I talk to the kids about playing with sticks. Rather than ban them, which is understandably necessary on playgrounds and with large groups, I take time to demonstrate (and usually I prefer to have a student demo it,) how to move away from other people when playing with sticks. Giving kids the go-ahead to play with them in safe ways has worked really well.
  • For safety in climbing, I teach how to tell a living branch or tree from a dead one because the dead ones can’t be trusted with our weight. A student was warned yesterday that one of the the branches in the tree he was climbing was dead. While he did not put his weight on it in a way that would harm himself, he did accidentally cause it to fall off of the tree and it hit one of our most important adult helpers quite hard in the arm. (The student experienced the natural consequence of feeling pretty badly about the accident, which is all we felt was necessary, as it certainly wasn’t deliberate.) We are very glad it didn’t hit a kid, of course, but this important lesson can be shared with other classes. Accidents can and do happen. We do everything we can to minimize these risks, but playing outside in nature is, of course, something that carries risk. However, the more important thing to remember is that the more frequently children have opportunities to practice and learn about how to be careful, the less risk there will be! 
  • There are a lot of wild grapevines growing out there. After showing the kids the difference between poison ivy vine and wild grapevine, I demonstrate how to go about testing the strength of a grapevine for the purpose of swinging or climbing on it. From kindergarten on up, this skill can be easily taught and learned!


  • Some plants we have been tasting: leek (or ramp) leaves, wild chives, violets, adders tongue (trout lily). With each class I remind them that they should NEVER eat anything out of nature without checking first with an adult who knows for certain that it is safe. And like many “rules,” it should be reinforced by other important adults who the child knows and trusts. It’s one of those, “it takes a village,” things!
  • No one was pushed to taste anything they didn’t want to. I encouraged everyone to at least sniff one leaf. Typically children don’t care for onions, but I was surprised to find that more than a few quite enjoyed them! 
Sniffing and tasting wild leek leaves


  • Small salamanders (get hands nice and dirty or muddy before handling!)
  • A box turtle!!! (Turtle tip: never move a box turtle out of its habitat. Moving it just across a road to the other side is one thing, but taking it entirely away from that area can be a death sentence for it. These (and some other) turtles know where their food supply and hibernation locations are and they live in the same small territory their entire lives. If you remove the turtle, it will spend its remaining life trying to find its home and often it will not eat, which then causes its death. Also, box turtles are not aquatic! Please don’t put them in the water!
  • May Apples (umbrella plants): I ask everyone to enjoy looking at and gently touching these plants, but to mind where we step so we don’t crush them. Most of the kids have been really good about this!
  • Moss (microscopic animals called “tardigrades” or “moss piglets” or “water bears” live in all moss and lichens! They look like gummy bears with 8 legs. They are fascinating creatures!)
  • When someone spots a bee, we stop to learn that, first of all, we are in nature which is the bees’ home, and if one of these important little pollinators do happen to land on us, perhaps thinking we are a flower, it will soon discover that we are not flowers, say, “YUCK! You are not a flower!” and fly away.


  • Nature shows us that when something dies, it eventually becomes part of new life.
  • Some fallen trees keep enough of their roots in the ground that they begin to grow new trunks out of the old one. I like to think of this as when we fall down, we can choose to grow rather than give up.
  • Trees, like people, have ways to heal themselves to some degree.