Categories
Children and Nature

In Appreciation of Forests

This past weekend I took some time to browse through past blog entries.  I noticed certain seasonal rituals and appreciations repeat themselves year after year.  Every fall, right about now, I renew my love of the forest and trees.

IMG_0070_1

As an adult on an elementary school calendar, September is always a month full of new beginnings, logistics to sort out, and rhythms to establish.  This is often hard work!  By October, my students have settled in and are ready for exploration further from home base, bigger projects, and the chance to enjoy the last sunny warm afternoons before winter sets in.  The forest is a perfect place for all of this.  For me, spending time in the forest is calming and rejuvenating – it reminds me of things to be grateful for, puts recent stressors in context, and stimulates my senses.

Here are some past forest-themed blog posts for you to browse.  Enjoy!

Making a discoveryChildren and Nature: The Forest ~ Why spending time outside, especially in forests, is crucial for children… “Upon entering the woods, the temperature drops noticeably.  The sounds change – whispering leaves and the occasional bird chirp blocks any outside noises from coming in.  Our foot steps are quiet on the soft needle-carpeted forest floor.  The smell of moist leaves, moss, and bark filters into our noses…”  (read more)

Mossy RoofForts and Fairy Houses ~ Discoveries and lessons learned from forest play… “We’ve discovered things that would never be possible (or allowed) in a classroom.  Different thicknesses of sticks make different sounds when banged against the trunk of a mature tree.  Pine needles make for a soft landing after tripping over a raised root.  TONS of different mushrooms and fungi grow on the forest floor after a few days of rain, and most of them are really slimy.  Pine sap is the perfect glue, but it’s better to keep it off our clothes…” (read more)

Foliage Games and Activities ~ Fun ideas for educators looking for active hands-on ways to teach students about leaves, trees, foliage, and the changing of seasons.  (read more)

Fairy-House6Zooming In: Fairy and Snail Houses ~ Fun photos and observations after several fairy and snail house building sessions with children… “Outdoor educators take note!  Fairy, gnome, and snail house building ties right into lessons on observation, habitat, ecosystems,  community, and respect for nature.  Building miniature things will lead students to observe the intricate details of pinecones, the barbs of burdocks, the veining of leaves, and much much more…” (read more) 

Welcome to the Woodlands Clubhouse ~ How the creation of a fort in the woods engaged a challenging mixed-age group of students for months after school.  (read more)

Stumps make steps and chairs for our fort

A Woodlands Playground ~ Great photos and ideas for adding natural forest elements to play spaces for children of all ages. (read more)

Ticks and Poison Ivy Season ~ Adults are increasingly fearful of the dangers of being in nature… “There are many possible dangers associated with all the activities we do every day, including playing and working outside.  I strongly believe, however, that the benefits of time spent outside far outweigh the risks…” (read more)

(reposted from October 2014)
Categories
Children and Nature

Fall in the Forest

This past weekend I took some time to browse through past blog entries.  I noticed certain seasonal rituals and appreciations repeat themselves year after year.  Every fall, right about now, I renew my love of the forest and trees.

IMG_0070_1

As an adult on an elementary school calendar, September is always a month full of new beginnings, logistics to sort out, and rhythms to establish.  This is often hard work!  By October, my students have settled in and are ready for exploration further from home base, bigger projects, and the chance to enjoy the last sunny warm afternoons before winter sets in.  The forest is a perfect place for all of this.  For me, spending time in the forest is calming and rejuvenating – it reminds me of things to be grateful for, puts recent stressors in context, and stimulates my senses.

Here are some past forest-themed blog posts for you to browse.  Enjoy!

Making a discoveryChildren and Nature: The Forest ~ Why spending time outside, especially in forests, is crucial for children… “Upon entering the woods, the temperature drops noticeably.  The sounds change – whispering leaves and the occasional bird chirp blocks any outside noises from coming in.  Our foot steps are quiet on the soft needle-carpeted forest floor.  The smell of moist leaves, moss, and bark filters into our noses…”  (read more)

Mossy RoofForts and Fairy Houses ~ Discoveries and lessons learned from forest play… “We’ve discovered things that would never be possible (or allowed) in a classroom.  Different thicknesses of sticks make different sounds when banged against the trunk of a mature tree.  Pine needles make for a soft landing after tripping over a raised root.  TONS of different mushrooms and fungi grow on the forest floor after a few days of rain, and most of them are really slimy.  Pine sap is the perfect glue, but it’s better to keep it off our clothes…” (read more)

Foliage Games and Activities ~ Fun ideas for educators looking for active hands-on ways to teach students about leaves, trees, foliage, and the changing of seasons.  (read more)

Fairy-House6Zooming In: Fairy and Snail Houses ~ Fun photos and observations after several fairy and snail house building sessions with children… “Outdoor educators take note!  Fairy, gnome, and snail house building ties right into lessons on observation, habitat, ecosystems,  community, and respect for nature.  Building miniature things will lead students to observe the intricate details of pinecones, the barbs of burdocks, the veining of leaves, and much much more…” (read more) 

Welcome to the Woodlands Clubhouse ~ How the creation of a fort in the woods engaged a challenging mixed-age group of students for months after school.  (read more)

Stumps make steps and chairs for our fort

A Woodlands Playground ~ Great photos and ideas for adding natural forest elements to play spaces for children of all ages. (read more)

Ticks and Poison Ivy Season ~ Adults are increasingly fearful of the dangers of being in nature… “There are many possible dangers associated with all the activities we do every day, including playing and working outside.  I strongly believe, however, that the benefits of time spent outside far outweigh the risks…” (read more)

Categories
Children and Nature

Welcome to the Woodlands Clubhouse

woodlands-clubhouseEngaging a small mixed-age group after school can certainly be a challenge.  Things are sailing much smoother, however, since the founding of the Woodlands Clubhouse.  After snack I take the grade schoolers out to the forest, leaving the little ones to play inside.  As a group, we picked our favorite site and began construction of the Woodlands Clubhouse several weeks ago.  We use natural materials found in a forest as building materials.  Sticks, leaves, needles, bark, and charcoal have come together to create a place we call our own.

fort-buildingBuilding forts in the forest allows students of varied skills, interests and activity levels to constructively engage in a project together.  While one student might haul heavy branches back and forth for an entire afternoon, another may focus on tidying the floor and decorating the wall of a small room.   The pride and ownership over the clubhouse, however, is collective.

forest-fortDifferent shaped additions poke out of our main structure and evolve as time goes by.  Birchbark signs with charcoal writing hang above entrances to tunnels and rooms.  Forest leaves have been raked away and orange pine needles carpet the floors.

Today’s first snow reminds me of the changing weather and seasonal shifts that will affect our outdoor time and building decisions.  I can’t wait to see how the clubhouse and its use evolves as fall turns to winter.

Categories
Children and Nature Musings

Ticks and Outdoor Play

tree-relaxingFor me, this picture highlights the inner peace and comfort I find when spending time in the forest or resting against the mighty solidity of a tree trunk.  For some, however, an image like this now inspires concerning thoughts about ticks.

The spread of tick-bourne Lyme disease has caused many families to fear outdoor play.  Lyme disease is spreading across the country and incidence of the disease increases each year.  It is certainly something we need to be well informed about.  With certain precautions, however, we can greatly reduce our chances of contracting Lyme disease and continue to enjoy the numerous benefits of outdoor play !

When working with kids, I facilitate a simple tick check when we come out of the forest.  We partner up, with one partner making a star with their bodies and the other looking for black specks.  Then every student examines around their ankles.  We then discuss the importance of checking our bodies’ dark and warm places when getting into our pajamas later that night. When ticks are attached to your body for less than 36 hours, the chance of getting Lyme disease is small!

The Vermont Department of Health has issued a clear and concise handbook that covers all of the basic information families should know about ticks and preventing Lyme disease.  I’ve taken following information from this booklet:

Preventing Lyme Disease Outdoors:

  • tick-IDWear long pants and long-sleeved shirts to minimize skin exposure to ticks.
  • Tuck your pants into your socks to form a barrier to keep ticks out.
  • Wear light-colored clothing so you can easily see ticks on your clothing.
  • Check for ticks, looking particularly for what may look like nothing more than a new freckle or speck of dirt, and remove ticks promptly.  Black-legged (or Deer) Ticks are the species that spreads Lyme disease (click the diagram to the left to learn to identify the Deer/Black-Legged Tick).

tick-removal

Preventing Lyme Disease When You Come Indoors:

Tick checks have been a regular part of outdoor activities for years for families in Connecticut and Cape Cod.  It seems like the rest of us living in the northeast and beyond will now need to make this part of our routine.  Older adults may remember how it was hard to remember to wear seat belts when legislation made them a requirement.  Now it’s second nature!   I strongly believe in the importance of outdoor play in childhood, so get informed and don’t let the fear of ticks keep you indoors.

Categories
Musings

Spring Equinox Photo Update

With the spring equinox came one last beautiful snow storm.  One last snow day.  One last chance to set up an after school snowball zone.  One last sled down the hill.  One last wintery walk in the woods.  We’re now keeping our eyes out for each new sign of spring.  Here are some photos from the past few months of Vermont adventures and observations:

Morning sun on our icy bedroom window
Morning sun on our icy bedroom window
These two pretty much sum up our President's Day weekend
These two pretty much sum up our President’s Day weekend
Snowy home
Snowy home
Sunday morning northern VT beer and donut tour.  Stop one: Poorhouse Pies.
Sunday morning northern VT beer and donut tour. Stop one: Poorhouse Pies.
The garden in the winter and our climbing tree's hammock hanging branch
The garden in the winter and our climbing tree’s hammock hanging branch
Mammoth white pine
Shrew’s eye view:  mammoth white pine
Brewing maple sap beer
Brewing maple sap beer
Mr. Photographer playing with his new camera!
Mr. Photographer playing with his new camera!
And then it all starts to drip away...
And then it all starts to drip away…
Categories
Children and Nature Recipes

Campfires with Kids

FireplaceThis winter has renewed my appreciation for a good campfire.  When spending long periods of time outside in the cold, there’s nothing more rewarding than learning to build a fire.  Though some adults might hesitate to have their kids learn to light matches and build fires, I think it’s an important life skill.  Like all risks, it’s better to learn with parents than without!

I have memories scattered throughout my life where building a good fire was a rewarding skill to have: a damp camping experience in Newfoundland when our neighbors couldn’t get their fire started, in the fireplace when we ran out of kindling and had to deconstruct a clementine box to get the fire started, and when providing tips in the forest with kids.  I’ve listed some things to remember when you’re building fires below.  At the end of this post, check out the new simple fire-roasted recipe I tried out this week!

  • Let your kids take control!  If they build an imperfect fire and have to try again, that’s a great learning experience.  They’ll discover their own solutions and best practices.  Remind the group that fire needs three things: fuel, oxygen, and an ignition source.
  • Build a fire in a previous fire pit if possible.  If one isn’t available, clear an area of flammable materials and have water nearby.
  • firestartHave kids help gather various sizes of dead wood – from very small toothpick twigs to bigger (but still breakable) sticks.  It’s important to gather dead wood because it doesn’t damage living forest trees and because dry dead wood burns better.  You’ll also need to gather tinder – grapevine bark, birch bark, and dry dead pine needles make good tinder.  Tinder is anything that lights and stays aflame when touched by a match.
  • Place your tinder in your fire pit and pile twigs – smallest first – in a tee-pee shape over the tinder.  Make sure you can reach the center with a match…you can always add on bigger sticks later!
  • Take a moment to talk about lighting matches or using a lighter safely.  The main things to avoid is having the flame too close to fingers, clothing, or flamable parts of the forest beyond the boundaries of your fire pit.
  • Try getting your fire started!  If your tinder catches flame, add on larger sticks while allowing air to flow through the tee-pee.

Roasted Apple Recipe:
appleroast2
How did it take me 26 years to discover this campfire treat!!  We simply stuck apples onto sturdy sticks and put them in the flames.  Once the apple was baked to our preference, we removed it from the fire and allowed it to cool.   Fresh snow to cooled and cleaned the apples.  While our apples were still warm, we bit in and enjoyed!  The flesh was apple-saucy: soft, caramelized, and delicious!  A perfect and healthy way to warm up with a fireside treat.

appleroast

Categories
Children and Nature

Forts and Fairy Houses

“Can we go into the forest today?!  PLeeeaaaaassssee?”

In just one month’s time, the vast majority of our group prefers forest time to time spent on the playground, blacktop, soccer field, or gym.  When asked why, here’s what some students said:
-because we can play and live in the forest and it’s fun
-because it’s fun and there’s things to build stuff
-because once we build a fort, we can go inside and play
-because I get to go inside the cool fort
-I just like it!
-I like to build forts and there’s sticks to use

Our forest forts and fairy houses have evolved over the course of a month.  Some have been built, taken apart, and moved.  Some have grown more and more elaborate.  Some have stayed simple, but have struggled with various team dynamics as we work out a space sharing system that keeps everyone happy. An originally simple tee-pee structure now has a moss roof.  Another has dead bark walls (to keep out predators).  One student hasn’t built anything, but by walking around the same area again and again, he knows it like the back of his hand.

We’ve discovered things that would never be possible (or allowed) in a classroom.  Different thicknesses of sticks make different sounds when banged against the trunk of a mature tree.  Pine needles make for a soft landing after tripping over a raised root.  Carrying long sticks is really hard – or on a related note – it’s worth giving people carrying long sticks plenty of room to walk.  It feels colder and darker in the forest.  Moss that is moved onto a latticework of a fort wall can establish itself and grow if kept moist.  TONS of different mushrooms and fungi grow on the forest floor after a few days of rain, and most of them are really slimy.  Pine sap is the perfect glue, but it’s better to keep it off our clothes.  …these are just a few of our discoveries.

 

Most of all, we feel comfortable in a space that felt like mysterious wilderness just a month ago.  We each have developed our favorite area in the forest, and after constructing a fort there, most of us feel pride and ownership, and have become caretakers of those special spots.

So back to the question, “Can we pleeeeaaase go out into the forest?”  My answer is almost always, “Yes!”

Categories
Children and Nature

Children and Nature: The Forest

Nature Deficit Disorder.  Leave No Child Inside.  De-natured Childhood. Biophilia vs. biophobia.  What reaction do you have from these phrases and slogans?

I know that children (and adults) are spending less time outside.  Headlines regularly proclaim increasing hours screen time in all age groups.  For me, the phrases above provide a framework to justify a focus on outdoor play.  They are backed up with serious research that proves that children need to play, adventure, relax, and learn in natural spaces to develop into healthy whole adults.

Richard Louv has been a champion for the Children and Nature cause.  In a recent article in the Orion Magazine, he articulated many of his main points.   The title alone summarizes his message: Leave No Child Inside: The growing movement to reconnect children and nature, and to battle “nature deficit disorder”.    Weaving stories around research-backed facts, Louv highlights the many advantages of spending time outside.  Though physical health is one of the most obvious benefits, the more subtle ones add up into a very long list: improved cognitive functioning and development, increased self esteem, more motivation, improved problem solving, encouragement of inventiveness and creativity, cooperation, increased attention spans, and psychological well-being.

In our after school program, we’ve been going into a forest twice a week.  Located right next to the playground, the forest is an unbelievable resource for our town and school community.  Upon entering the woods, the temperature drops noticeably.  The sounds change – whispering leaves and the occasional bird chirp blocks any outside noises from coming in.  Our foot steps are quiet on the soft needle-carpeted forest floor.  The smell of moist leaves, moss, and bark filters into our noses.

As we work, explore, and play in the forest as a group, we encounter a surprising number situations that translate directly to developing life skills.  The students have tweaked the guidelines that keep us safe, changed their actions and attitudes to stay at peace with neighboring forts, found fort sites near more natural resources (sticks and stones), and decided whether or not to work independently or with a group.  Though there have been plenty of conflicts to resolve, many of us have also found many moments of peace in the forest.

As an educator needing to engage a group of 20-30 students from kindergarden through sixth grade, the biggest advantage of natural space is that it meets our diverse interests and needs.  We can all learn at our own pace, make observations at our level, and pick our preferred degree of activity in the forest.  When asked what their favorite thing to do during our after school program, an overwhelming majority of students quickly said “building forts” or “going into the forest.”

Next week I’ll write more about our forest forts and fairy houses – how they’ve evolved, what we’ve discovered, and how these building sites draw us back to the forest week after week.