Cold, cold, cold

“Looks like a cold, cold winter, 

plenty of ice and snow, 

but we’ll keep the love light in our 

Hearts aglow”

As Bing Crosby said, it looked like a cold cold winter this week. With the temperatures plummeting, we were very pleased to see how well all of the children held up to the cold. Thank you, parents, for doing such a good job bundling them all up. In fact, I think us teachers were the only ones who were feeling the cold!

This week, the children spent their mornings discovering the birds hiding in the trees, following along to instruction songs, learning about the difference between migration and hibernation, and singing a very silly song that left them all giggling by the end. Snack was a colder than usual affair and snack mittens were much needed. Even after all our running around in the morning, little fingers get cold fast when they are bared in such chilly weather. On Thursday, we tried out our new tent and we were so excited to see what a great job it did to keep us all warm and sheltered from the wind. We even brought our tent heater out in case we needed it, but our tent worked so well that even in -11 degree temperatures, we didn’t really need it! 

This week the children have settled into their play at our last playsites of the session. They return to games that started last week and continue with explorations already begun. Shelters were made and digging was done. There was less rolling down hills this week as the children realized quickly how hard the frozen ground had become. 

This week was an unusual week because we had a new child spend the week with us as a special treat. Not only was he a lovely addition to our days, but it was a pleasure to watch the children respond to his presence with kindness and inclusivity. It was clear to us teachers how far some children had grown in these weeks when we watched them interacting with this new child. The children were generous with their knowledge and understanding of this new child’s uncertainty. With no external urging, the children immediately took it upon themselves to show this new friend all of the special, secret places of the field. They were careful to point out the sign warning of poison ivy and quick to remind him of the boundaries of their play. It was a very proud moment for us teachers to see the children we have been nurturing these last weeks take what we have taught and offer it so freely, so quickly, and with such open hearts.

Where have all the birds gone?

This week was one for the birds, literally! This week marks the beginning of our last three weeks of play before we break for the holidays. And our final area of interest is birds. One of the first things we discovered this week, as the children came eagerly to the nature museum to discover binoculars and bird guides, was that there were hardly any left in our meadow! Where had they all gone? Some we discovered had left for warmer climates. Some were simply adapting their behaviour and habits to account for the colder weather and more limited food. So our goal for this week was to find the birds, and if we were very lucky, we might find some feather treasures that the children could keep.

On our first attempt at finding birds, we headed up high onto the hill, to a special play site called Ponderosa Palace. The broad branches of the giant ponderosa that stands sentinel at the crest of the hill provides a perfect place for the children to climb and explore. The ground underneath is thickly carpeted with pine needles and pine cones, just waiting to be dug through and transformed by the children’s imaginations. On this day, the sandy soil in the banks at the bottom of the hill offered their inspiration and before long, most of the children were down on the ground working to excavate. Before long, pine cones and pine needles had been gathered and ice cream was being made and served! By the end of the week, the children had discovered all the joys of sliding and rolling down the slope. A game taken up by one, was then taken up by another and another. First they slid and rolled alone, doing their best the be mindful of the children climbing back to the top and the others waiting to roll, but before long one child suggested they make a train and that’s when things got interesting. The children slid and rolled in a group as us teachers stood by, observing and at times having to actively restrain ourselves from stepping in. It was the kind of dog pile of children that makes adults nervous about stepped on fingers and bonks on the head. But very quickly we could see how gentle and how careful the children we being with themselves and the others. Dog pile after dog pile, the children slid and laughed and rolled.

On our second attempt at finding some birds, we were more successful. Miss Krystal decided that our best course of action was to change our original play site we had scheduled for these weeks. We went somewhere much closer instead. And there were the birds! The bird feeders that hang in the back yards of the houses that back onto the park are an irresistible draw. We saw black-eyed junco’s and finches and sparrows and flickers. We even spied a downy woodpecker in amongst the throng. Or did we? We discovered that the hairy woodpecker and the downy woodpecker are both found in our forests and did you know that their main difference is their size? We even had a special visitor on Thursday morning. When we arrived at our play site, the children quickly stripped off their backpacks and made a line, eager to return to their play from earlier that week. As they approached the hill they had been digging at, a huge brown bird of prey swooped from the trees and glided across the park to one of the tall cottonwood trees that lined the creek bottom. It took a bit of sleuthing and in the end, we weren’t certain what bird he might be. Our best teacher guess is a juvenile dark morph broad winged hawk or a juvenile bald eagle. He was certainly a large bird and drew a lot of attention from fellow park users. The children spent their time exploring the hillside and discovering the “tunnel” that runs from the top of the hill to the bottom. Our stuffed animal friends joined us again and took turns hiding in the bushes and grass and one even made himself a den. The children took up the game quickly and were soon hiding them for each other to find. Other children used scissors to trim the grass and serve it to the animals for their dinner. The animals were a great motivator for communication and inspiration this week!

Snow!

This week saw our first snowfall of the season! What an exciting morning to be at preschool. The field was covered in a soft blanket of snow that was almost completely undisturbed, when the children arrived. They ran across the bridge with obvious excitement. Backpacks were quickly discarded and the fun started. Snow days like this, especially the very first one of the year, call for tossing out the schedule and embracing fun.

We ran and played. We threw snowballs and caught snowflakes on our tongues. Before long, someone decided it was time to build a snowman and our morning work began. It’s a challenging skill for preschoolers to learn how to make a snowball that they can roll and there’s a lot of negotiation that happens when a plan needs to be made. Where should the snowman be built? my snowball is too big for me to roll by myself, who can come and help me? What if we made a for instead? and so our morning went. First a snowman was built and then larger and larger snowballs were created, too big even for the teachers to lift! With those the children created their first snow fort of the season. The heavy and wet snow was perfect for packing and in no time they had built a wall. After a long and busy morning, we sat down for snack much later than usual. Instead of heading off to our usual play site after our snack, we ventured somewhere a bit closer and took advantage of all the snow to have some fun sliding!

This first day set the pace for the rest of the week. Wednesday we spent our morning building another fort on the other side of the field. Again we ate snack late, and went for a short walking adventure instead of heading to our play site again. The children were so engaged with building their fort, we just couldn’t bear to pull them away.

By Thursday, the snow in the field was spent. For the first time this week, we decided we should head off to our play site. It was a long adventure. The children noticed a lot of squirrels in the trees. We also saw three deer grazing on the hillside as we left the field. And when we got to our play site, there was downy woodpecker at work in the trees. There was something else unusual in our play site today too. The top of a small tree had snapped off and was lying on the side of the trail. Several of the children spent the morning working together to move to using ropes. The moved it down the hill to block the trail and create a “trap.” It was a lot of hard work. It took a lot of communication and discussion and conversation between the children to accomplish their goal.

And then they had to do it all over again later on, so we could clear the path and head home!

Creativity

This week brought us a reprieve from last week’s rather bitter cold. There was even some sun! The children arrived to a surprise in the main field this week. There were five forest animals hidden in five different species of tree. What a challenge! The children had to use their owl eyes and their accumulated learning from these last few weeks to find them all. It was pretty tricky. First one animal was found, then another. As more children arrived and more owl eyes joined in the hunt, more animals were found! On the first day, the bear proved trickiest of all and stayed hidden until the very end. By the end of the week, the only hints that the children needed were clues about what kind of tree!

The beaver is in the Ponderosa Pine tree. Remember, Ponderosa has long green needles instead of leaves.”

And off the children would run to find the hidden animal.

After circle and snack, we gather together to wander down the trail to our play site. The longer walk is getting a little bit easier but it’s still a pretty big challenge for some of our younger students. We take our time and rest often, noticing details as we wander along. The cottonwood leaves have nearly all fallen from their trees and those that remain have faded from their brilliant orange to a dull brown. That tree is where a deer has rubbed his antlers, several children point out as we walk past. Is there ice in the creek today?

When we arrive, creativity seems to be the name of our days. All of the children know how to play out here now. They know what tools we have, what toys we have, what resources they can dig out of that great big green backpack. So now, the time of discovery is passing and it’s time for their creativity to shine through. A group of children approach the day with purpose, today. As soon as we reach the site, the game of Lions has begun. Who will be the daddy lion? the mommy? the baby? Quickly, the roles are set out and play begins. But the creative opportunities here today are so varied, it doesn’t take long for things to shift. One child picks up a stick and suddenly, it’s time to fish along the bank. Another and then another child joins in. Others begin to use the blocks Krystal made as “food” to feed the lions that were abandoned by the children fishing. Some time a little later, one of the children finds a mallet, and the play shifts again. Krystal brings out her trusty tools again and makes some stakes for the children to pound into the soft dirt. First they are set on making traps for animals, measuring out the size of their foot to the area they have staked. Does it fit? Is it big enough for a lion? By the end of the morning, the lion trap has become a mouse’s house.

All of these shifts in play are where the best bits of learning are happening. The conflict that occurred earlier on in the program is starting to fall away as the children have been coached and encouraged to practice negotiating and talking through each issue. The play has settled into a routine and the amount of time children sit quiet and observant is fading, as their comfort grows and their ability to engage with their environment is increasing. There is a quiet sweetness to these last few weeks ahead. The children are really coming into their own and it’s time for us as teacher’s to take a little step back and let them take the reins a little bit more.

Tree Climbing at North Bank

This October has been unseasonably cold, as this last week was eager to remind us. Children arrived with extra layers, warm mittens, and even snow pants by the end of the week. All those preparations kept play going all morning long. Which was lucky for the children, since they had a new site to discover!

The walk to North Bend is beautiful. The trail wanders alongside the creek. The tall cottonwoods that grow beside it are golden in the fall and have been dropping their glorious heart shaped leaves for weeks now. The older children run ahead, constantly checking behind to stay in sight, or running back when the teachers coyote yip to bring them back to the group. The younger and smaller children take their time on the trek. They wave to Woodpecker Wood where we started our session off, and pause questioningly at Curly Willow Bend. But that is not where we are stopping today. A few minutes farther along and we come to the car bridge. The children are careful and wait for everyone to come together. We check together as a group, “Do you see a car coming?”

Across the road we go and into North Bend. North Bend is our farthest north site, and thus the closest to the bustle of the city and usually bears the most evidence of passersby. One teacher helps the children with their bags while the other does a thorough site check. All clear! It’s time to play.

The willow leaves are golden and green and the ground beneath the tree is thick with them. The long arms of the tree sway towards the ground, creating a secret, cozy place to play. There are no logs to be found today, so making swings will have to wait for another day. One of the children is drawn almost immediately to the creek. The bank is steep here and the creek is less accessible than at other sites. The child steps carefully close to the steep sides of the bank before deciding to sit. It seems logical to our adult eyes, but it’s an important bit of risk assessment happening. This child was able to see the steepness of the bank and decide for himself when and where to sit. He scoots forward, closer to the creek, leaning back but with one leg stretched out. There’s a stick he can see, right at the water’s edge. With careful movements and patience, he fishes it out with his foot until he can reach down and take it with his hand. Stick retrieved, he scoots back.

Out from underneath the spreading willow there are several short elm trees. Their twisted trunks and branches provide perfect hand and footholds for tree climbing! Some of the children are avid and accomplished tree climbers and they scramble up the trees with abandon. They know the rules about tree climbing at preschool and still they push the limits. “Is this too high? Can you reach me here?” It becomes a game, but they are only teasing and they stay where they know they should. Another child is new, though. He looks questioningly up at me, as if to ask if it’s okay to climb. I nod and smile, “Go ahead!”

He pulls himself onto a low branch that has fallen away from the tree but remained attached, it is almost a big around as the trunk and grow in such a way as to make a perfect step. But from there, the next branch is nearly at chest height to him. He reaches with is hands and pulls half-heartedly and then glances back. “I want to go up there,” he says, the expectation clear. Help me. But the rule at preschool is that if you can’t climb up on your own, you can’t climb up. I encourage him with words and pat the tree where he should use a leg to pull himself up. This is the help that teachers can offer, help that teaches a skill and allow the child to complete the task on their own. This time however, the child decides against tree climbing and runs off to the willow tree. But a few minutes later, he’s back once again. And once again he tries. This time, there is another child climbing before him. He watches intently to see where each foot is placed. His concentration is fierce. The tree is clear and it’s his turn now. He steps up onto the branch, a small frown on his face as places his hands where the other child did. Braced and ready, he jumps, swings his leg, and pulls himself up! Success!

“Can you take me down now?” he asks, a little plaintively. Uh-oh…well… there’s a rule at preschool. If you climb up, you have to climb down. Time for another lesson…

Relaxing into Play

The weeks have been flying by at Sprouting Knowledge and just like that, it’s the last week at our second play site. There is a distinct and notable change in how the children play as we move through the weeks of the program. By this time, the children have found their footing at outdoor preschool. They are integrating the routine and forming friendships. It is when we reach this point that we can start to see the children begin to relax into their play. Suddenly, play becomes more purposeful. Narrative threads are stronger and games started one day are picked up on the next.

This week is the perfect example of how this level of comfort has changed the children’s play. The play site has been well explored and it’s up at this point that the children can really sink into their games, really let their imaginations loose. At one play site, the earnest excavation of a very large rock last week, left a large round cavity in the hill. Several children were excited to continue their work and immediately dropped their backpacks and ran to the hill with shovels and scoops. Before long, one child is inspired to bring a bucket of water to the hill, and the excavation site becomes a building site. Another, than another child run to find buckets. Others are using scoops and shovels to dig channels down the hill. It’s going to be a fountain!

Buckets and buckets of water are poured, pushing dirt and leaves before it as it courses down the hill. Before long, the children are noticing there are small pebbles and rocks being uncovered by the stream. Their excitement mounts. And look, new channels are being created by the water. More and more buckets are filled and carefully carried across uneven ground to be poured out down the “fountain.” More and more children are gathering to watch. Curious eyes are bright with interest and discussion is plentiful and varied and the children’s cooperative skills are in full operation. Where does the water go? What is we try this instead? Can you wait for me to get my bucket filled and we can pour them together?

One of the children takes his bucket and holds it open lower down the hill in the path of the water, to try and reclaim the water being poured. He is only somewhat successful, but his experiment has been noticed by other. Some of the children wonder and watch with interest. But others seem less excited by this innovation. To one child, it is the process of watching the water wend it’s way down the hill that is most important to him. The bucket interrupts the flow and disturbs the end result. At first there is loud words and even a physical interaction and he tries to move the bucket away. With some small words of guidance though, the children settle down to negotiate. The child who is so intent on leaving the water flow is adamant that the bucket should be moved. He asks and explains and repeats and repeats himself. The other child can clearly hear him but isn’t responding or moving out of the way. As I watch them engage, there is a very big part of me that wants to get down there with them and do the work of negotiating this conflict for them. But their intent faces and quiet voices and calm bodies convince me to let them work just a little longer on the their own. After a few moments, a decision seems to have been made by the child with the bucket. He says “Look, my leg can be a bridge!” And the other child agrees happily, laughs, and announces it to the other children nearby. The games continues, undisturbed…

Rough and Tumble

What is rough and tumble play? and why is such a hot topic in Early Childhood Education these days?

Rough and Tumble play is exactly what it sounds like! It’s full body engagement, running, wrestling, grabbing and pulling. It’s exciting, it’s energizing, it’s fun, and it’s important.

Rough and tumble play is what we call it now, but you’ll probably recognize it better by it’s other name: play fighting. Fighting?! you might be thinking, at preschool?! Yes!

How can play fighting be important to your child’s development? Let me share with you how most of our mornings start at Sprouting Knowledge.

In one’s and two’s, the children run across the bridge, bright sunny smiles and shy grins and sometimes even laughter heralding the start of another day of preschool. As always, the picnic table is set with items to invigorate and inspire the children’s learning and they are always eager to see what a new week has brought. However, inevitably, one child or another looks at their friend with sparkling eyes and shouts out, “catch me if you can!” and they are off. Away from the table, away from the nature museum. They run through the field, crawl under bushes, chase and catch. And pull, and push, and wrestle.

Now as much as we encourage all children to explore all sides of themselves, it is an undisputed fact in early childhood education that boys will seek out this kind of play with more fervor and more regularity than any girl. And inevitably, that is what we see most mornings. Perhaps this makes you nervous, perhaps you’re concerned about safety, and aggressive behavior and future problems with physicality. And let me tell you, us teachers feel the same way! It is ALWAYS a challenge for us to recognize and maintain the line that is comfortable for us, while also allowing the children to engage in this play they so obviously, desperately desire. But I’ll tell you a secret that I’ve found, as a teacher and as a mother. If you’re feeling uncomfortable, I can almost guarantee that you’re a woman. I know that from my experiences, I don’t play with my children in a rough, physical way and I never have. But do you know who does? who’s always ready to wrestle, and (gently) toss and tickle and chase? Their father. This is how boys tend to play, and it’s scary for us to allow. We’ve been taught to fear their physicality, to encourage gentleness when they yearn for rigidity and pressure. We fear that aggressive behavior exhibited now will mean aggressive behavior when they’re grown. I don’t know a single parent who isn’t striving to raise kind, gentle, loving children. So how does encouraging play fighting fit into that narrative?! Let’s take a closer look at our morning.

One boy is running, full tilt, followed close behind my two more. He keeps turning his head to watch for his pursuers, but his watchful gaze is turned in the wrong direction as he’s taken by surprise by a fourth boy who jumps out from a bush and crashes into the running child. Both children fall to the ground with giggles. In second, they jump back up and turn on the boys who had been chasing the first child! Howls of laughter follow behind them. Two other children are locked in a wrestling match. One shoves at the other child and knocks him down. He pauses while the other child pulls himself upwards and they begin again.

So what does this show us? What is valuable here? We can see rough and tumble play encourage children to develop strong physical skills. They practice running and jumping. They’re developing their proprioception (the sense that tells them where they’re body is, even when they can’t see it or aren’t looking). They are learning to gauge their own strength and speed. They are recognizing the body language of the other children and learning how to regulate their reactions. This is also a springboard for children to develop strong communication skills and a precursor to collaborative play, where they are engaging their imaginations in purposeful play with intention and meaning behind it. However, like most skills a preschooler is learning, they aren’t learning them all on their own.

A child comes running from around the bushes. Their grin is gone and there is a glint of fear in their eye. Krystal, who has been keeping a close eye on the game, quickly intercedes. “Wait! Child A, have you checked in with Child B to make sure he’s wants to play this game with you?” and with that little prompting, Child A immediately stops his chase and repeats a well known script. “Child B do you want to play this game with me.” Child B shakes his head and says “No!” And Child A says, “Ok” and wanders off to find a child who wants to be chased. Or perhaps two children are wrestling and one of them grabs onto another child with force and pushes them to the ground. The grim determination on the child’s face is hard for me to read, so I step in quickly and remind the child on the ground to “tell ____ that you don’t like that if you need too.” Quickly the child responds, ” No, I do, we’re just playing a game.”

With responsive caregivers in attendance, this kind of play gives the children scripts that encourage clear communication. We watch with careful attention for smiles, giggles, frowns, concerned looks, and are always on alert for potential injury. Questions like “do you want to play this game?” are normal and nearly rote. Conversations that start with “Stop, I don’t like that” and “I don’t want to play it like that” are common and everyday. With guidance and the freedom to engage in this play, the children are learning what they like and how to speak up for themselves. They are learning how to compromise and negotiate in their play and how to resolve conflict when they are in disagreement. They are also learning to check in with one another when play goes a step too far and child is bumped harder than they meant to be, or the wind is knocked out of them, or the thrill of the chase suddenly became terrifying. We call the children’s attention to body language and facial expressions. “Are you OK?” They are learning to stop and assess.

It doesn’t happen right away, but with encouragement, freedom, and careful guidance rough and tumble play becomes a vitally important element in children’s development and can lead to wonderful moments that we treasure witnessing.

“Stop that. I don’t like it!” says a child firmly. The other child is still grinning and reaching for the child’s jacket but the first child stands his ground. “Stop!” His firm words and frowning face break through the other child’s focus on continuing play. His hands drop and his grin falters. He stops running. “Ok” he says. He looks a little lost and a little sad. The child who halted play is a favored playmate and his disappointment is palpable. The first child doesn’t really want to stop playing, but he doesn’t like this particular game. “I don’t like it when you push me. How about we can wrestle, but on our knees?” The second child’s face lights up again with a wide grin. “OK!” he agrees. The children lower themselves to their knees and the game resumes, with giggles and smiles and happy faces until it comes to it’s own natural end and the children move on to something else.

Change

Well, October has arrived with winter nipping at it’s heels. What a shock this week was, to see the temperature plummet so quickly to such unseasonable lows. The change in weather means a change in gear, more layers, and the ever-present challenge of mittens and gloves. This week also marks our fourth week in the program, which signals a shift in our area of interest and a rotation in our play spaces. The first shift from one familiar play space to a new, unfamiliar one is always interesting to observe. The children who are familiar with the program began asking last week when we would be moving on, the prospect creating an exciting element of anticipation. For the children who are new to the program, it was more of a mixed bag. Some of the children were very excited to explore a new site. Some of the children were less certain about the change. By the end of each day though, the merits of the sites having been explored, most of the children seemed invigorated by the new sites.

Changing play sites serves several purposes. Sometimes, certain play sites very clearly invite a specific type of play, so by changing our play sites we create an organic opportunity for the children to shift, change and develop their play in other ways. Changing our play sites also support the changes in our topic of interest. This week we shifted on to discussing animals. Both of our play sites are situated to allow den building. At one play site, we have moved away from the mud and wet of the creek bed, which allows us to bring out some small stuffed animals to enrich the children’s play. There are also more interesting opportunities for climbing at the new sites.

There are also philosophical and practical reasons for changing sites. From a philosophical perspective, we want the children to connect with as much of our outdoor space as possible, from creek to hill, from mowed meadow to overgrown brush, from willow tree to ponderosa pine, and from flicker to red-tailed hawk. Moving through the park creates a more holistic experience of nature in general and of Peterson Creek park in particular. From a practical perspective, ten children can do a lot of damage to a site in three short weeks! By rotating through a series of play sites, we are acting as stewards for the park and allowing each site to recover and rebound, thus ensuring many more years of enjoyment by future preschoolers and Kamloops residents.

The new sites saw several significant changes in the children. The interest in ropes and pulleys that had been dominant in the first few weeks almost entirely evaporated. With access to the creek being more restricted, the interest in boats and floating also disappeared. There was a strong interest in building structures in all of the groups. For one group it was a house, for another it was a lion’s den. There was also a lot of interest in climbing for all of the groups. The sites both offer wonderful opportunities for tree climbing that I haven’t yet seen a group of children resist. Tree climbing is a wonderful way for children to learn how to assess risk and their own abilities, says Angela Hanscom, author of Barefoot and Balanced. Tree climbing encourages children to engage so many senses at once as they determine the risk, and evaluate their capability. They use their sense of touch to feel for handholds, and assess the weight bearing capacity of each branch. They use their sense of sight to look forward to the next step, the next place to reach. They are developing their sense of proprioception, the sense that tells them where their body is, even when they can’t see it. This is an especially important sense when children decide they have reached their limit and are ready to climb back down. This is often where children begin to feel frightened, as their sense of sight is impeded. Tree climbing also engages and encourages children to develop their vestibular sense. A strong vestibular sense will provide a child with good balance, accurate body awareness, and coordination. And no less important, it’s a lot of fun!

Perhaps the most significant change in the children this week was a distinct shift, for each day, towards much more gross motor, full body play. We introduced the children to some songs and games at morning circle this week that focused on how they move their bodies. We walked like bears, stalked like cougars and lynx, and we bounded like deer. On the heels of those morning group activities, games of chase were prominent this week and often included an element of rough and tumble play. Perhaps it was the more open space, or our switch to discussing animals that prompted it. Or perhaps it was a response to the children’s increased connection to each other. As the children become more comfortable with each other, as they learn each other’s names and form friendships, their willingness and capability to discuss rules, negotiate conflict, empathize, and take/give up control of a narrative makes this kind of full body, active play so much easier to engage in.

Activate

These last few sunny days of fall feel particularly precious.

Activate: to make something active or operative.

This week was all about our senses. A child’s development is inherently tied into their sensory experiences. How we experience nature is also inherently tied into our senses. By this time in our program the children are becoming more comfortable with our routines and our daily practices, which gives us the freedom to begin to activate the children’s connection with nature more fully. 

We started off the week with a scavenger hunt, forest school style. The main field where we start our day is our anchor point in the program. We start and end our day in the same space. For convenience, certainly, but also for familiarity, comfort, security. The more time the children spend in theses spaces the more comfortable they are and the more they take ownership of these small pieces of nature. The structure of our program exists inside Peterson Creek. We move through a series of play sites to inspire the children and allow for new experiences and opportunities for play, but the anchor point of where our day starts and ends creates a secure base for the children to explore the rest of the park. Because we use the field as our anchor point and it is consistent, we decided to host our first scavenger hunt right after morning circle. Krystal chose the components of the hunt with care, choosing those things that are familiar and some that are less familiar. The children were invited to view the scavenger hunt, to identify and examine each component and fix it in their minds. And then they set off! 

What a fun opportunity to activate all of their senses! Also at this stage, the children rely on each other so much that the activity always becomes a group effort. Some children zero right in on a specific component, others follow behind more slowly. But it is so wonderful to watch them work through this challenge together. They communicate, exchange ideas, share and help each other through the process. They are excited to discover and rediscover familiar areas of the field. They trace a leaf in their hands, discuss its shape, count each lobe. They gather to discuss the challenge of finding the lone pine tree under which the coveted pine cones have fallen. Each group approached the challenges of the scavenger hunt with their own ideas and solutions!

Aside from the scavenger hunt, the children explored boats in the creek with Miss Krystal, hunted for sunshine at the top of a hill, learned to drill with hand drills, celebrated a birthday, discovered a giant slug (a rare sight in our usually dry valley!) and even spotted a kestrel chasing the flickers through the trees! The boats activated the children’s interest in science, cause and effect, and sparked their imagination. The discovery of a cozy patch of sunshine, inspired some children to climb the steepest hill and lounge atop it. They seemed to enjoy experiencing being higher than everyone around them and able to view all of the activities the other children were engaging in. The hand drills posed quite the challenge, as they required both hands, appropriate pressure and proper coordination. Their pride in the final project was beautiful to behold. We had one of our youngest children celebrate a birthday over the weekend. We think it’s important to notice and celebrate these important moments with our students, so we “baked” up a lovely “cake” at circle time, lit some candles, and sang our song. After blowing out the candles, the birthday boy was kind enough to share out his cake and let us all giggle together as we “ate” the “cake.” What a fun exercise in imagination and sharing. The giant slug and the kestrel was yet another example of the third teacher stepping in and offering us a lesson. The slug required our “owl eyes” to suss out it’s hiding spot in spite of it’s exceptional camouflage. The kestrel invited us to use our “deer ears” and notice how all the little birds and even the squirrels had quieted their ever present chirping while they hid from his sharp eyes.

The end of the week also saw our first truly challenging weather day. As teachers it is always an interesting challenge to see how the children adapt to significant changes in the weather. And how we as teachers manage the changes to suit the group. This week, the rain occurred on the back of a particularly cold downturn in the weather. The children arrived in high spirits with great active energy. Taking their energy as a lead, we made the decision to remain in the field instead of heading to our regular play site. Our regular playsite is situated right on the creek and promised an exceptionally cold and wet morning, which we worried would hinder the kind of positive connection we want the children to be making. So we stayed in the field!

Miss Krystal took the children on a sneaky hike that brought them right back to their starting point and while they were gone Miss Matthia set up a shelter and brought out the ropes and flags and play kitchen. The change in site was the perfect decision for the day. Many of the children were energized by the rain and seemed to have a strong need to run and chase, the perfect activity for a wide open, grassy field. Some of the other children found the combination of fence and rope just too irresistible, and got to work on some fine motor skill activities. Some of the children practiced tying and other practiced lacing. Later on, the children discovered that bowls, buckets and ice cream scoops in the mud kitchen can double as a drum set! It started with one child, then another, and another until five children were banging away on their drums. I saw a perfect opportunity to enrich their play by suggesting we sing along. What a wonderful noisy way to end the day!

The final cherry on our rainy Thursday was a visit by a tiny little harvest mouse. It was such a surprise. One of our younger students used his “owl eyes” to good effect and spotted the tiny creature in the grass. To all of our surprise, he was completely unperturbed by our presence. The children quickly crowded around to watch our visitor meander through the grass, nibble on shoots and wash his tiny face. He was so comfortable with us as his audience that we had to remind some of the children to move back. Even such a small and friendly seeming creature can bite! We lingered so long with our tiny friend that we had to skip our closing circle completely to make it back across the bridge on time. It was such a treat to see the children so engaged and rewarded for their engagement with such a surprise.

“When we connect with nature, we awaken a powerful source of energy and healing in our lives. The dooryway to nature is through our senses. When we awaken the senses, we discover an expanded awareness, and a new richness of relationship with the world we are a part of.”

-John Young

Inspire

A lesson (via story) about fox-walking in the forest. Notice how everyone was so engaged with Krystal’s story!

Inspire: to fill someone with the urge or ability to do or feel something, especially to do something creative.

As we all settle into the rhythm of our fall session, we are also settling into our relationships to each other. As teachers, we have spent these last two weeks relearning the familiar faces we already know, marvelling at the changes that two short months have wrought. Small children have stretched up, limbs lengthening to middle childhood; shy children display new confidence; and giddy children have matured. The changes in each child are noted, recognized and honored. How might these changes in the children similarly change how we inspire them to learn?

For the children who are new to the program, our primary focus is on creating a safe foundation of relationship that supports each child to seek out their connection to us, as their teachers. Last week, I wrote about the ways in which forest school is different from a typical preschool and how we seek to teach and inspire the children. None of those things work if the relationship we have with each individual isn’t strong and respectful. We have spent these last two weeks planting the seeds of this connection with all of the new children. While we establish connection, we also notice who is slow to warm to the group, who is anxious during drop off, who is struggling to form friendships or to settle into play. How might these unique attributes change how we inspire these children?

If play is the work of children (a concept in early childhood education that has been embraced from Locke to Montessori to Piaget to the esteemed Mr. Rogers) then the work of their teachers is to inspire. 

How do we honor the children’s interests and impulses, while also inspiring them to purposeful play? In the early weeks of each session, it’s common for children to fall back to familiar play themes: cars and trucks, super heroes, and dolls. Unfortunately our beautifully stuffed teacher backpacks are not cleverly disguised Mary Poppins-esk bottomless carpet bags and the limits to what we can carry out into the forest are very short and very clear. There are no toys cars and garages, no dress-up bins, no life sized baby dolls with all their assorted accessories at Forest School.  All of these typical themes have benefits for children and are important for them to experience and discover. But at forest school, our intention is to forge a closer connection to nature. We also want to encourage children to tap into their imagination, creativity, ingenuity and capability.

The challenge for us in the first few weeks is to find the balance between letting familiar play themes provide a comforting structure for children who are adjusting to a new program in a new environment, and encouraging them to expand their play schemas to include their new experiences. We might encourage a child who is passionate about cars and trucks to imagine how a rock or a stick might be utilized during their play. We might redirect super heroes to be re-imagined as knights of the forest. We might use a little bit of forest magic to create fairy dolls out of grass and leaves. 

However, as the children become familiar with our routines and comfortable in our play spaces, we find that the “third teacher,” the environment is what inspires the children most to purposeful play. Without familiar, clearly defined play areas (blocks, play kitchen, quiet area) the children are free to embrace the flow of their play in a natural and organic way. Play that starts off being centered around superheroes might end up morphing into a collaborative potion making team. One child stirs the vessel, two children carefully scoop water from the stream and navigate the sometimes treacherous path back. One child scoops dirt, adding just the right amount at just the right time. Another might search out the perfect leaves or small sticks to add.

This messy, busy work is a beautiful place to watch children begin to blossom. The children are practicing the physical skills of carrying liquid, walking softly, and pouring. They are communicating with each other and practicing critical social skills, such as negotiating, resolving conflict, sharing and expanding their vocabulary as they explore this experience together. The children are feeling the cold water splash on their fingers, the rough soil cake onto their palms. They notice the leaf mold and compare it to the freshly dropped leaves nearby. They smell the rich muddy fragrance of the earth as they dig it up, and the sharp green scent of freshly crushed leaves. 

While we strive to inspire the children through stories and games and beautifully curated nature museums, it is the steady but wild, constant but always changing, secret but always present third teacher who is truly the source of all our inspiration. Our goal is always to inspire the children to these beautiful moments of attention, intention, and connection with each other, with ourselves, and with our beloved third teacher, Mother Nature.

“The best classroom and the richest classroom is roofed only by the sky.”

-Margaret McMillan