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.


Woods and Wetlands 2017

A Secret Fort, Magical Markings, Seeds of Fall and Wild Apples

Snake, seeds, stink-bug, spiders, …. and more.  Those are just the ones that begin with, “s!”  Another beautiful afternoon in the woods yesterday yielded so many discoveries.  We not only continued to explore the woods and swamp but we also checked out the, “Secret Fort,” (what IS it about adding the word, “secret,” to make a place seem more extraordinary?) and the old boardwalk, which some referred to as a bridge.  Despite the relative small land area available to us, I think there will be no end to new explorations of one kind or another.  Each day is new and different.

Even though I prefer the Woods and Wetlands experience to be mostly child-led, I do lend my observations, questions, and sometimes suggestions for a focus to see where the kids will go with it.  Yesterday I suggested that as they explore they also notice how many different types of seeds they could find and collect on our collection log.  At some point one explorer suggested we have a place for, “cool stuff,” regardless of whether it is a seed.  I agreed that this was a fabulous idea and that we could have a museum of sorts. Nevertheless, most of the kids did collect some interesting seeds and we noticed how some are large and hard, such as an acorn, and others are tiny, soft, and fuzzy.  Some have spiny ends for the purpose of being carried by way of attaching to a moving creature, such as ourselves, and other seeds have wispy tufts designed to be carried by the wind. I expect this experience will open itself up to later discussions, observations, and learning about how plants make new plants when the old ones die or go dormant.  I love nature-study!

Almost immediately C. found a ribbon snake, which is simply a slender garter snake.  Many people call them, “garden,” or, “gardner,” snakes.  In fact, the word, “garter,” came from the striped ribbons people used to use to hold up their stockings back before elastic did the trick for us.  These pretty, striped snakes resembled a striped garter.  The garter in question yesterday was not very aggressive and though it showed some signs of fear of the collection of assumed predators surrounding it, it still allowed us to touch and hold it without much protest.  After everyone had seen it who wanted to, it was gently released where it had been found.  I enjoyed watching a few of the kids follow behind to see where it went and watch it go free.  I love the feeling of imagining being a wild creature that has been safely returned to its habitat.  I imagine that some of the kids were developing that kind of empathy as they observed it disappear into the underbrush.

J and B discovered some very cool markings on a dead tree trunk and we discussed what could have (and did) make them.  I love that even when something can be explained scientifically we can also imagine magical explanations for it.  The markings came from where the bark used to be attached to the tree as well as some markings were etched by tiny bugs beneath the loosened bark as the tree died.  (But they looked like mysterious symbols made by imaginary creatures!)

Our storage container out there is padlocked but is nevertheless far from secure from either tiny 6 or 8 legged creatures as well as larger, 2-legged varieties who just go ahead and pull the plastic doors right apart.  Either way, over the summer there have been some intruders.  Yesterday we observed a couple of 8-legged visitors who remain there as guardians of our materials.  I refer to them as, “tiny,” only relative to us.  In fact, they are probably larger than most humans would want to have nearby, though they are harmless to us.  Rather than scream and squash them on sight, I opted for modeling gratitude that they are busy eating other bugs that actually do hurt us or damage our belongings.  In short, we have two (at least) good-sized guardian spiders who have worked hard to make their amazing webs inside our container. Naturally, we named one of them, “Charlotte.”  They both mind their own business and so we mind ours.


E took most of her time out there to enjoy the tactile feel of the swamp muck/mud in and on her hands.  At one point she held out her hands to me and it appeared she was wearing elegant, black gloves.  I love seeing kids gradually lose their culturally taught need to stay clean and gain their birthright as children by getting dirty and having fun doing it!  A parent once said to me, “Muddy kids are happy kids!”  I realize that doesn’t always translate to happy parents though.  Luckily, mud washes off, albeit with a scrub brush sometimes.IMG_0734

The “Secret Fort,” is, in fact, an ancient wild apple tree that is being slowly choked by wild grape-vine.  The vines and branches have an other-worldly, gnarled look about them and with all the leaves still in place, we are sheltered from view by cars that pass by on the nearby road.  There is enough space for most of the kids to climb at the same time, and they used words and took turns so that everyone who wanted a turn was able to have one.  A couple of kids did get band-aids for small scratches which are bound to happen when we crawl through brambles, climb up scratchy branches, and jump down to a stick-laden forest floor.  I could see that J was torn between worry over the tiny drops of blood on his leg and wanting to appear brave in front of me and the other kids.  Since we were at a distance from the first-aid kit, I opted for distraction in the form of pointing out the wonder of how his skin will make that blood into a scab and then make all new skin to close it up and make it new again without any directions from him.  How cool is that?!  I did get a smile from him at that point.

After the secret fort we walked down to an old boardwalk that has been there since at least 1978, based on an old trail map that Mrs. Wells found tucked away in some files last spring.  Along and at the end of the boardwalk we saw more towering cattail plants, some purple asters, the deep red berries of the Jack-in-the-Pulpit plant, swamp milkweed, and many other plants we have yet to identify!  J found a beautiful bug that we both thought was probably a stink bug or shield bug.  As we headed back, I noticed a wild apple tree still holding a few scabbed, misshapen, multi-colored, and enticing apples.  I announced that I could see it but did not tell where.  All at once everyone was exclaiming, “Can I try one?  I want one!  Where is it?”  I smiled and told them they could certainly try a wild apple if they could locate the tree.  My purpose?  Encouraging observational skills, problem-solving, self-reliance, motivation… etc.  And they found it!  Then came the challenge of reaching the higher hanging fruit.  I helped out some, but others got sticks to knock down the apples, or jumped to grab the branches.  I remember doing both of those when I was a kid.  Once everyone who wanted one had an apple, there came the expected concerns about how to eat something that looked so very different than what we are used to in the store.  I explained that this is what natural apples will look like if no one sprays them with anything to protect from bugs or diseases.  I showed them areas that were good to bite into and pointed out that I ate them my entire life and never had any problems, so it is likely they won’t either.  Even if they bite into a “yucky” spot, they can just spit it out and try another.  No harm done.  The apples were a combination of sweet and tart and I was proud to see how many kids were willing to try them.  There is something to be said for foraging for your own food, however odd it may look!

Then it was time to leave and we hadn’t even gotten to go have a look at all of the different seeds we collected.  But it didn’t matter; we had a great experience and there will be more seeds next week.  It is a wonderfully free feeling to go into the woods with only the expectation that we WILL make discoveries, but no specific expectations of certain outcomes.  Learning and fun happen best when we just remain open to and present for whatever comes our way as well as what we, ourselves, bring to an experience.