Celebrating our success at freeing a living tree from beneath a fallen dead tree. We worked really hard at it for a long time!
When perseverance pays off!
Above: with careful instruction and close supervision, young children can learn to safely use real tools. This heavy, dead tree fell over a smaller living tree, trapping it against the ground. It is important to leave dead trees, branches, and logs in place whenever possible, as they provide critical habitat and food. Once we freed the living tree, allowing it to stand up again, we left the dead one to the millions of tiny living things as it gradually becomes new soil again, courtesy of decomposers.
Above: Reading and writing about real and immediately accessible experiences makes literacy a joy!
Above and below: Shouldn’t THIS be what P.E. and science classes look like?
Below: Learning to be gentle with other living creatures.
Below: Learning about and carefully handling Ms. T’s Nature Treasures.
Above: I trusted this group to pass around delicate snake skins, a fragile egg, a partial muskrat skull, and seriously spiny seed pods. We don’t just tell them to be careful, we show them how. Then, little by little, trust and confidence can grow. Nothing was broken and no one was injured. This is not found in a school curriculum, but is a worthwhile life skill.
This is the best camp ever! I wish I wouldn’t get older and not be able to do it again!
What if you had tree branches growing out of your ear holes?
Summer Woods and Wetlands Camp at Camp Rockford has begun! Our first group has only been with us three days and already there is a definite sense of bonding between all of us. Already these kids have filled my heart and gained my trust. It may be 90+°F out where the paved and treeless places swelter in the sun, but we are right where our bodies are adapted to be, playing and learning in the deep shade of oaks, maples, and hickories, as well as wading around through the cold, flowing water of a local creek. We watch slimy slugs staying cool tucked into the grooves of wet oak bark, while toads abound in the soft, dark leaf litter and rich forest soil.
Day 1 we went over a lot of safety info and then explored the creek. We introduced the journals toward the end of our morning and were pleasantly surprised by how well the kids took to them this time. Of course, each group and individual differs, but my theory is that starting out with journals last year felt too much like school, hence, more resistance. This time the kids welcomed a chance, after exploring, to plop down, tired but happy, and draw and/or write about what they experienced. I also have the benefit of having read more of Anna Botsford Comstock’s, Handbook of Nature Study, in which she states her observation that, “The child might rather never had this experience than be forced to write about it.” Instead, she encouraged students to write about it only “because I am curious to know what you discovered,” and only if they wanted to. I was very struck by this! It seems wise to me and fits with my philosophy about the importance of nature-play-based learning to build a sense of love, connection, and ownership with nature on Earth that may later lead to more reading, writing, and more formal study of the natural world.
Day 1 also included the standing sensory exploration I began implementing in the spring with all of the classroom programs I did. On Day 2 we introduced Brain Gym and mindful breathing. When we focus on and are aware of our breath, we cannot help but be present in the moment. I recently learned a new breath-work technique that has significantly improved my own anxiety, and I now teach it to children to use for calming themselves as needed. It felt so amazing to observe these kids who I only just met on Monday, trusting me to guide them through trying some bizarre, new, movements and breathing strategies! I simply explained that the movements help the two sides of their brains work together better, and the breath helps us notice how we are feeling on the inside. What I did not say is, with near-constant external stimulation of today’s world of technology, it takes intention to remember to check in with our bodies. As a culture, we are losing touch with being able to feel/notice our own sensations and to recognize and name them. How can we trust and hear our bodies and minds if we never stop the busy-ness and put away the screens in order to turn inward now and then throughout our day?
When I got home after camp today, I noticed a note I had made to myself earlier this morning. It said, “greeting with info about what they Know, Notice, or Wonder about a nature treasure.” My initial thought when I spotted the note was, “Darn! I forgot to do that!” Then I paused and laughed at myself. Any teacher of my generation will know I was plugged into the old, “KWL,” strategy. It has morphed into any number of different permutations over the years, but the point of it is essentially the same. But what struck me as funny today was it hit me that when children are engaged in learning through nature play, no one needs to prompt them to ask questions, share observations, or tell about what they already know. Because it is their nature to do all of these things on their own! In fact, a teacher would be lucky to get a word in edgewise between the questions, stories, and exclamations!
Our Morning Meeting is held beneath the shady arms of a single tree in a tamed expanse of mowed grass. Today the tree was raining seeds down upon us, which precipitated a mini lesson about how seeds that land in places where humans have stifled or destroyed the natural order of life, death, decomposition, soil, and new growth, cannot grow to make new trees. We began imagining aloud what if the seeds landing upon us took root and we grew trees out of our heads!? Always open to silliness, our imaginings expanded. The kids had us all laughing over the idea of acorns for eyes and branches growing from our noses or ears. As I reflect on this now, I see an analogy. Too often we adults get in the way of children’s natural interests and learning abilities. We have good intentions, like mowing under a tree, but maybe we need to get out of the way a bit more. Mow a lot less. Let the kids’ “seeds” land where they will, and grow in a place we have not prepared for them, and in ways that work for each individual. Let learning be organic and messy. Follow their lead and offer enrichment when needed, but step back too. When we force every seed to land in the same place, a place we have interfered with so much that nothing can grow there except grass that is never allowed to flower and drop its own seeds, there will be little to learn in that monotonous place. Our children grow rich in mind, body, and spirit when they are surrounded by diverse, natural, spaces where their seeds can all take root.
A few weeks ago when my (retired) dad was ranting about how miserable it is for a person to have to go to work, thus interrupting their enjoyment of Life, I responded cheerfully that I actually really love both of my jobs and enjoy going to them. He paused, just barely, and with hints of both mock horror and admiration tucked into his smirk, he exclaimed, “Well, you must not be doing it right!” I beamed at him. It’s true. Woods and Wetlands continues to evolve and I learn ways to improve it with every single program, but the senses of purpose, joy, and meaning it gives to me are full and shining. Even in moments when I notice that I am being too hard on myself, wishing I had said or done something different, I catch those harsh thoughts and reframe them. Now I know this. I did not know it before. I will try again. I return home feeling like what I do matters, and it’s getting better all the time.
I also try to remember to ask the students at the end of their program, “What do you know today that you did not know yesterday?” (I frequently do forget to ask this, or I run out of time because time management is evidently something I will have to work on for the rest of my life.) Last week I got to take two classes, each, of kindergarten, first grade, and second grade out into the beautiful, hilly woods behind Cannonsburg Elementary for an hour and a half per class. It is a lovely little space, though it would be much better if it wasn’t split off from the creek in the wilds of Townsend Park by a loud and somewhat busy road.
Before today I did not know that nature could be peaceful.
I did not know that there are tiny things that eat dead stuff and turn it into soil, and that new things can grow in that soil.
I did not know that we should get our hands dirty to protect frogs and toads if we hold them.
I did not know there was this bad plant we should pull out because it is pushing out plants that are supposed to be here.
Now I know what poison ivy looks like.
Now I know it’s okay to get my hands dirty.
I did not know that some bees live underground.
I did not know there are flowers people can eat.
As for me, now I know that if I want the students to really explore and get curious about the diverse array of nature, I should wait until later in the program to show them how bizarrely satisfying it can be to pull out garlic mustard plants! Because once they knew, it was all they wanted to do! I also now know that just a few classes of children can fill massive bags with this terribly invasive and aggressive plant in a short amount of time! Of course, I was pleased on behalf of native plants and animals, but somewhat aghast that I had inadvertently short-circuited my own program plans. Oh well. Now I know.
The kindergarten classes chose to keep their scheduled day and time despite the rain, and I allowed the kids to pick (not pull) just one May Apple leaf to use as an umbrella, just as I loved to do in our lane when I was their age. We had a grand time playing in the rain.
One boy accidentally pulled out a plant that was not garlic mustard, nor did it resemble it in the slightest, but as I began saying so, it hit me that I must remember that to one who has no experience, one plant may very well look very like another. I also recalled that pointing out what has been done wrong should be done kindly, with credit given for good intentions. This was a chance to teach and learn. So we found a spot of soft soil and used our hands to dig a little hole. I showed him how to gently set the plants roots down into the hole and we tucked them all back in again, patting the soil tightly at the base of the plant. Now he knows how to plant something. A day later, another student did the same thing, and I was ready for it. Now I know exactly how I want to handle this in the future. We should all get such do-overs whenever we can.
I adored every single one of those K-2 class programs. The kids were enthusiastic, respectful, engaged, and brave. If I could have stayed there with them all day, I would have. I will never tire of seeing kids transformed by the magic of our beautiful, one-and-only, Earth.
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.
Why are there all these trees in this woods? ~Kindergarten student while walking a path through a narrow, sparse, band of trees bordered by a tree-less swamp and a tree-deprived school playground.
I can’t find a stick. Will you get me a stick? ~Kindergarten student, surrounded by sticks after my “How to use sticks,” demo.
I used to think it was bad to get dirty, but now I know it’s okay! -Kindergarten student happily applying “mud gloves” in hopes of holding an amphibian.
There’s bears out here. -Kindergarten student who refused my assurance that there are NOT, in fact, bears out there.
What is a beaver? Kindergarten student when a classmate guessed that a woodpecker hole in a tree was made by beavers.
I didn’t find any moss. Kindergarten student upon looking around the moss-carpeted wetland where nothing but moss was green yet.
I love it out here! I want to stay out here all day. I want to stay out here all of the time. I want to sleep out here! -Kindergarten student just before it was time to leave.
Over the past two weeks I thoroughly enjoyed 4 kindergarten programs in the wetland behind Lakes Elementary, and one of two first-grade programs along Rum Creek near Parkside Elementary. All three programs resulted in some very wet feet and legs for a few students, but the adventure was well worth the wet! (It didn’t hurt that the temps were reasonably warm and the sun was shining.) The quotes (above) were indications to me that these kids need to have a lot more nature play in their lives.
I can’t find a stick.
The context around the “can’t find a stick,” comment was that we were quite literally surrounded by sticks on all sides. There were new sticks that had been branches only yesterday. There were a couple dozen sticks cast-aside by other two kindergarten classes the week prior. No shortage of sticks. Not only that, but the children asking us to help them find a stick had not actually gone looking for a stick at all. And yes, I did strongly suggest to them that having a “good stick,” would be helpful.
Part of my safety spiel is always showing students how to safely use sticks. We practice how to look around us before swinging or waving a stick so as to notice whether we should move away from other people first. I model how to use a stick to measure and estimate how deep the water or muck might be before stepping into it. I demonstrate using a stick to help with balance as we walk along logs or hop from hummock to hummock. I encourage them to use sticks to dig or to gently poke at something if they aren’t sure about touching it with their fingers. Sticks are good for building forts or nature-art. Should we allow pretend weapon play with sticks? This may surprise you, but I think we should, in certain circumstances. Playing pretend anything helps children (with relative safety) get a feel for what it might be like in real life. “Role play helps the brain transform ‘what is’ to ‘what if’ and opens the gates to make-believe.” (A Moving Child is a Learning Child, by Gill Connell and Cheryl McCarthy,) and role-play also contributes to developing empathy.
Frankly? Sticks can be plain, old, fun to play with for no particular purpose and most, modern-day children have not had the opportunity to learn how to do so safely. They have always been told, “Put down the stick!” “No sticks allowed!” How would they have learned about sticks without actually using them? How would they learn how it feels to accidentally whack a nearby friend or to be bonked with a stick themselves? (This may hurt but is quite survivable! Valuable lessons learned!) Every mistake is a chance to learn and do better next time. What a fun way to learn the mathematical thinking that comes into play when determining which stick will break when leaned-upon, which sticks will crumble into decomposed soil, which sticks have the right length-to-height ratio? And the discovery that some sticks are large but very light-weight and others are heavy, and some float in water while others do not? Which stick will flow under the bridge faster than another and why? What made that stick stop under the bridge while the other one sailed freely right through? These are all activities that young children must be allowed to try. No adult needs force these activities or present purpose statements or learning targets. When turned out into a natural wild-space, kids will just do these sorts of things for the fun of it, but WE know they are learning valuable lessons about the natural world and their place in it. But I digress. (As usual.)
Back to my assumptions about what they already knew. What I evidently failed to intentionally point out or describe about my stick of choice included the following: its length relative to my height, its sturdiness that allowed me to lean my weight on it, and how to transform a too-long stick to a just-right stick.
After delivering my usual safety suggestions, I turned the explorers loose for about 20 minutes of just getting to know the space and how they could move around in it before I introduced our Exploration and Conversation cards. Instantly, I saw the results/consequences of my erroneous, basic assumptions. A few children had selected sticks no longer than their own forearms and thin as a whip. These “sticks” were carried firmly in one hand but served absolutely no purpose that I could see, unless it was as imaginary magic wands, (which is another valid use for a stick!) Other children hauled branches longer than they were tall, and these merely had an unbalancing effect or waved dangerously near the head of nearby explorers. Then there were those who either heard not a word I said about sticks or decided that they had no need for such things, and these intrepid adventurers went splashing happily off into the watery woodland with what was either blind confidence or complete disregard for possible consequences. And more than a few simply stood in place and announced that they couldn’t find a stick. In a word? Inexperienced. Even more inexperienced than I had ever supposed was possible.
Nature Deficit Symptoms?
I tell you all of this not to criticize nor to condescend. Yes, I was a bit flabbergasted. And I won’t pretend I wasn’t also amused and even a bit charmed by their innocence. But I also understood these little explorers would be okay out there, and I also understood how and why most kids don’t have these kinds of experiences anymore. I saw and heard that they were having fun. I knew they would learn some valuable lessons for the next time. I knew they were out there doing what kids naturally do if we get out of the way and we shut up long enough to let them do it- LEARN through nature play.
These young scientists were unwittingly hypothesizing and experimenting. They were developing their sense of their own bodies in space. These were kids without devices in hand nor in front of their faces. They were breathing fresh air and practicing balance, focus, coordination, perseverance, problem-solving, and determination. If allowed to do this daily or even weekly, they would quickly begin growing their self-confidence, strength, self-assurance, curiosity, and self-reliance. What would they lose? They would begin to lose some of the effects of stresses that modern life, particularly during these past 2 years, has placed heavily upon them. They would become more resilient in response to future stresses. They would build a sense of connection with something bigger than themselves. What teacher or parent wouldn’t want all of that for their children on a regular basis?
What’s a Beaver?
Me: “What do you think made that hole in the tree?”
Student: “A beaver.”
Another student: “What’s a beaver?”
Me: “A brown, furry animal with a big, flat tail that lives in the water and makes a big house out of sticks. They have a secret underwater tunnel up into their cozy home. They-“(interruption)
Student: “What is it?”
Me: “What is what?”
Student: “That you were talking about?”
Me: “A beaver.”
Student: “What’s a beaver?”
Me: “ummm. Never mind. A woodpecker made that hole, anyway.”
“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.
Our last day began with sharing some of our favorite things about Woods and Wetlands. Using their journals to document and share was optional, but everyone got to take home their journals and colored pencils at the end of the day. Maybe they’ll use them for their own nature adventures! It was fun hearing all the different memories the kids had and to hear the others pipe up and say, “Oh yeah! I remember that. I loved that too!”
Since some of the kids wanted to go back to the two “new” spaces we explored on Wednesday, and others wanted to return to our “normal” spot, while a few were eager to walk upstream to the giant boulder and the tunnel they hadn’t seen yet, we compromised. Everyone agreed that we would spend 15 minutes in each area and then vote on where we wanted to spend the remainder of our time. I set the visual timer (they LOVE this thing and are so much more willing to move on, pack up, or give up a nature exploration tool to another explorer when they feel they have control over the timing,) and off we went.
In the woods up high above the Rogue River some of the kids returned to throwing various things into the water just to see if they could, and to watch the rings and ripples created as the sticks, rocks, and acorns hit and either sunk or floated. Others challenged themselves to climbing the slanted, fallen tree. New “nature Swiss army knives” were crafted from sticks and imagination.
After 15 minutes, we moved on down to the main channel of the river so that we could catch and observe more crayfish. I think this activity could have entertained most of the kids for the entire morning if we’d had more dip-nets available!
Traveling in order, next we moved to our “normal” spot with The Meeting Log, Logjam Bridge, and forts. It was a good place to stop for a snack mid-morning. A few explorers were still set on “fishing,” so I went to the creek with them. These photos capture some really peaceful, calm moments where no one was talking or yelling or moving around. Just feeling at-ease and quite content. These are the moments when kids have had enough active exploration in a location and they can now just sit down and breathe, mindful of how good it feels to be in a natural space they have bonded with.
The end of the route we took was where “our” creek flows through two, metal, tunnels beneath a dead-end, gravel road. Some of the kids chose to join me in wading upstream to it in the water, while others chose to walk along on the bank with Mrs. Webb. My intention was to merely show them the mossy boulder and yell into the echoing tunnels, but enough kids begged to wade through the tunnel that I gave in and agreed to this adventure. After all, one of my favorite repeated activities in my own childhood was walking through a similar tunnel with my older sister, yelling and echoing while brushing spiderwebs away from our faces. I warned our intrepid explorers that there would be cobwebs and spiderwebs so we brought short sticks to wave before our faces. A few kids were triumphant as we emerged into the sunlit creek on the upstream side of the road, while others seemed to feel a little less secure and were more than ready to go back. Together we sloshed back through the dark tunnel, each of us with one hand above our heads to follow the metal ribs of the tunnel so we didn’t bump our heads on the low ceiling.
Meanwhile, those explorers who chose to hang back with Mrs. Webb got busy mud painting some trees and roots, apparently to protect and bandage them. When the tunnel group met back up with them, some stayed there and others returned to The Meeting Log with me.
Those who remained with me went back to their teeter-totter experiments. This time, when they announced that they were perfectly balanced, I offered some questions to get them hypothesizing and testing. What happens if the kids on one side scoot further forward? Backward? What if both sides move forward at the same time? Backward? What happens if one person stays toward the back and the others move forward? Now alternate? What about when one side moves forward and the other moves backward? They tried every scenario and invented some of their own. Levers, fulcrums, balance, weight, distribution… it’s SCIENCE, people!
It wasn’t easy to say good-bye to this group. They were a stellar class of kids! There were a few tears- one of our sweet boys was full-on sobbing when his mom picked him up- and we were surrounded by hugs. I assured them all that Woods and Wetlands is always available if their parents can gather a group of at least five explorers and we can choose any natural space available for future adventures!
I must admit, I can no longer keep up with daily writing about all of the wonder and joy we are experiencing during this summer’s Woods and Wetlands camp! I will just have to let photos and captions give you a fraction of what goes on out there. We discover new things every day. Kids create, invent, problem-solve, think, communicate, gain confidence, and ever so much more!
Empathy and Literacy: Learning that trees and humans have far more in common than we might have ever realized. Noticing and caring for tiny creatures reminds us we are not alone on this earth. Seeing, feeling, smelling, listening to, and tasting nature creates lasting thoughts and feelings. We held a toad, crayfish, spiders, grubs, slugs, minnows, mushrooms, and fairy shrimp. Everyone was gentle and kind. They were able to imagine what it might be like to be one of these small lives so different from ours. We read the book, A Snake In the House, and the kids were on the edge of their seats, so to speak, wondering how the little snake would get back home to the pond where it belonged. At the end there was a collective sigh of relief as the boy in the story “shared its joy at being home.” In addition to listening to both fiction and nonfiction read alouds, the kids are exploring the field guides and gaining interest in looking up our various “finds” using iNaturalist. They are writing and/or drawing in their nature journals almost daily, though not everyone was developmentally ready for that and we didn’t push it because we don’t want to create negative associations with writing or journaling.
Math: Estimating how long a stick or string needed for “fishing.” Gauging the distance one can leap or jump from a log into the water or the ground. Today one explorer created a monetary system using beech nuts (1 is worth $5 because, due to the beech scale disease, there aren’t going to be so many of these in the future,) and acorn caps (worth only $1 because they were all over the place.) Two other explorers stood on the steep, high bank over the river and had a “rocks vs sticks vs acorns” contest to see which created the biggest and most circles rippling outward in the water. They energetically proceeded to throw the aforementioned items as hard as they could into the river. (Hello, physical strength and spatial senses!) They noticed the rings started small and grew larger as they expanded.
This week began our fourth and final session of Woods and Wetlands at Camp Rockford. (There will always be more Woods and Wetlands available throughout the entire year to anyone who wants it!) Two days in and both Mrs. Webb and I feel that this is an easy, happy, bright little group of explorers. They collaborate and follow directions. They listen attentively and are eager to explore and learn together. In short, we know we are going to have such a fun final session! We talked to each other about how much we enjoy seeing this space through the eyes of new campers every two weeks. It never gets boring for us because we see the joy, wonder, and curiosity of the kids and we can’t help but be excited again, right along with them!
We learned Brain Gym and used the Rhythm Greeting during Morning Meeting on day 1, followed by some quick safety tips and hands-off lessons about poison ivy. After dropping off our supplies at the Meeting Log, everyone wanted to check out the creek. The whole group used the Log-jam bridge to make their way down to the water. At first most of the kids were wary about getting wet or letting the water go over the tops of their boots, but by the end of the morning they were happily wading around getting wet and muddy. It was a successful exploration day! One boy declared that he would be in that creek every single day of camp!
One of my favorite things about teaching and learning through play and exploration outdoors is that nature always shows us something new, even in a space that Mrs. Webb and I have explored for six weeks straight! For the first time all summer we found fairy shrimp, which are tiny shrimp-like creatures, found in the mud and sand of the creek, that are very important as food for many other animals in the food chain. The kids with nets were scooping up nets full of what looked like just leaf litter, mud, and sand and dumping them out just on the edge of the creek. I showed them how to pick and paw their way through it looking for small creatures. In just a few scoops we discovered multiple fairy shrimp! (We put it all back in the creek pretty quickly.)
Later we gave the kids their nature journals to decorate as they please with their colored pencils. I asked them to draw or write about something they saw or did on the first day. There were a few drawings of fairy shrimp in there!
On day 2 we learned about some common patterns found in nature. First everyone was given a card with 8 patterns on it and we asked them to try to draw at least one of these in their nature journals. They did a great job and some even added to the patterns to turn them into something else, such as a snake or a tree. We greeted each other while passing around part of an old paper-wasp nest and marveled at the patterns these insects were able to make by chewing wood and mixing it with their saliva. As the nest was passed to each child, they made eye contact and said good morning. We read the book, Nothing to Do, and looked for the patterns on each page. Our purpose today was to keep an eye out for patterns like these in real-life nature.
We discovered a spiral patterned shell, wavy lines on and under the water, meandering patterns beetles left on a log, and a triangular rock.
Throughout the morning our group flowed and regrouped in multiple ways and places. Some explorers chose to play and build a fort in the woods with Mrs. Webb. We had a snack break and a few who finished their snacks early went to check out where one of the trails led. We had more creek explorations and briefly captured some tadpoles to look at. The kids who were catching and releasing these little creatures were careful to make sure they got water poured over them repeatedly so that they could live through the observations.
I loved watching a few of the kids find new and creative ways to move across the Log-jam bridge as they continue to master living in their own bodies, developing their proprioceptive systems. Balance, coordination, strength, flexibility, spatial sense, and self confidence are just some of the many benefits of unstructured play in nature. One boy worked out routines and methods that suited him and then taught those around him how to do the same. For a few minutes a small group of explorers took turns sitting and sliding down the side of the log to try to land on their feet in the creek. This was followed by jumping into the creek from a standing position on the log. Not everyone tried it that way, but those who were ready to dare themselves were taking just enough risk to feel both safe and thrilled at the same time. This was my opportunity to explain to them why we don’t try to dare or challenge other kids to do what we are doing. In Woods and Wetlands everyone does what feels safe and comfortable for them as individuals.
We are incredibly fortunate to have this beautiful piece of property where kids can freely and safely play and learn. As water becomes more and more scarce and precious in the west, we are even more grateful than ever for all of Michigan’s lovely wetlands and waterways. I hope these kiddos grow up to be adults who love and protect our natural resources so that everyone from microscopic moss piglets (tardigrades or water bears) to fairy shrimp, to frogs, beetles, and bats and more, to HUMANS, will always have safe, clean, healthy water.