Uncategorized, Woods and Wetlands 2022

You Have Just Changed EVERYTHING for me!

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.


Woods and Wetlands 2018

Mission Frog-Catch (and Release)

Today was absolutely gorgeous outside!  I realized that in the winter the swamp protects us from the cold and wind by being down low and blocked by bushes and trees.  In the heat of late spring we are protected from the hot sun by the fresh shade of new leaves.  It is a perfect place to spend an afternoon and evening in any season.

Everyone was wearing lily-of-the-valley flowers in their hair for post-Crazy Hair Day.  (We smelled delightful!)

H. helps adorn D. who wasn’t terribly pleased about it.

They said they were unicorns.

Huge patches of lily-of-the-valley

They all know what the huge, old, wild grapevines look like, but no one knew what new grapevine leaves and baby grapes looked like! K. thought they looked like, “Barbie grapes.”

S. is extremely proud to have been the one who named, “The Enchanted Forest.”

On a frog-catching mission right from the start!


A wood frog on a log.

It was frog city out there!


This frog was free to go but it decided to hang out a while longer.


Frogs in buckets are much easier to catch!


She conquered her fear of frogs!


Gently petting this tiny being. Probably not the frog’s favorite activity, but in the name of building and maintaining a love for amphibians (who are a sensitive, indicator species of clean water, soil, and air,) I say, GO FOR IT! Pet that frog!

Shrieks of laughter followed by two dripping, muddy girls. I asked, “Was this on purpose, by accident, or somewhere in between?” E. grinned at me and said, “Definitely somewhere in between…”

They held hands and stomped through the last bit of water before we had to go back.


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.