By Erin Kenny ©2016
The mild March weather yielded many signs of spring, including dandelion flowers, red huckleberry flowers and salmonberry flowers; cottonwood husks on the ground; babies in the sword fern nests and measurable and remarkable bracken fern growth; new sprouts of miner’s lettuce, sticky wicky and shot weed; and new leaves on the elderberry and salmonberry branches. The air smells so sweet and rich with the aroma of the forest flowers and new growth: The smell of spring!
Besides just foraging on these newly emerging edibles, we have been creating forest salads in edible leaf cups to experience the flavors together. As we are noticing flowers and tasting them, we have a chance to talk about how flowers turn into the berries of the plant so we don’t want to eat too many of the flowers. When I asked: “Does anyone know what season it is now?” one of our 2 year olds answered “Warm!” Of course, a perfectly correct answer.
One of the most intoxicating spring scents in the northwest is the emerging cottonwood and poplar leaves. The resinous husks that protect the new leaves have been used for centuries as a reliable medicinal for treating bruises, abrasions, sprains and cuts. On many days this month, we fashioned little baskets from the native salal leaves and collected the fallen cottonwood husks which we will make into our own balm of Gilead, as it is called, to use at Cedarsong.
Pollen has been streaming through the air lately. In an example of risk assessment that results from heightened awareness because of exposure, one 4 year old noticed that the climbing limbs were slippery and was curious because the branches were not wet (when they usually are expected to be slippery). Other children knew about the pollen from earlier in the week and informed him that it was pollen covering the branches. They then guided him to feel the pollen to understand its slippery texture. We talked a lot this month about what pollen is and, when I asked what pollinators are, the kids answered “wind”, “butterflies and moths”, “insects”, “hummingbirds”, “bees” and, my favorite answer, “people”.
Many insects and other creatures have emerged from hibernation and we have seen lady bugs, ants, mosquitoes, millipedes and centipedes. We have had opportunities to talk about gentle touch and how we carefully lift tiny creatures with a flat leaf. Then, we carefully relocate it to somewhere no one will step on it. One day when we found a worm, one of our two year olds suggested that we smell it and then pronounced that it “smells like cheese”.
The children have spent many days this month moving rocks, back and forth and back and forth to different places near the picnic shelter. The rocks are generally pretend eggs and the kids have created a “Steal the Egg” game. Moving the rocks really gives those kids a great workout and they don’t even realize it. We got a chance to study nests from my collection and the kids could compare the differences between a robin or towhee nest and a hummingbird nest. We noticed that the bird activity at our snack shelter had dropped and we speculated it might be because they are now sitting on their nests.
Several of our 4 and 5 year olds have been interested in spelling out their names. We have found some great natural letter sticks (L, J, r and even an S) and others we have fashioned with bendy twigs (o, b, d, p). Some children have enjoyed writing their names in the dirt with sturdy sticks or just drawing elaborate designs since the under layer of dirt is darker now. It is interesting to observe the changing developmental stages of children: regarding forest sticks, the 2-3 year olds are more likely to see animals or imaginary objects whereas the 4-5 year olds will often begin saying a stick “Looks like a 7” or “Looks like an L”.
On several days this month we took a field trip to my neighbor’s meadow and the first thing the kids noticed was that the ice was gone. The air was warm and the tall brown grass stems from last year waved enticingly. The children collected armloads of these grasses and began pretending they were making homemade bread. They passed their bread out to the teachers. One 5 year old said “this bread has sugar in it so you need to eat meat before it” and handed me a piece of bark.
The children engaged in several of their favorite nature games this month: What’s Missing? and Eagle Eye. We have found it helpful to review the rules before we start any game, to reduce conflict mid-game due to misunderstandings. Our What’s Missing game not only challenges recall and memory skills, it involves counting and plant identification. Our Eagle Eye game involves counting, increases powers of observation and discernment, and teaches what it takes to be a good hider (staying motionless!).
The children have been very interested in making collections this month: leaves, dirt, bark, cones, lichen, stones and fir branches. Whenever children are gathering for collections or for nature art, we encourage them to pick up things that have already fallen to the ground and not pull live leaves off plants. It is a great opportunity to talk about why plants need their leaves (to make sugar, to feed the plant). We make a point of thanking the plant for its gift when we do pick live leaves for forest tea or for eating, taking care to spread out our impact. The Cedarsong Way is a compassion scaffolded teaching method and consequently every day we see examples of children expressing empathy and compassion in the forest. One day a 6 year old commented “Oh, here’s a broken root” and the two year old walking behind her said “Poor root”.
Our attention has naturally been brought to our sense of smell this month with the aromatic scents wafting continuously. We have also been more attentive to intentionally smelling everything we encounter in the forest. We have all noticed that breaking Douglas fir twigs releases a very pleasing scent and we enjoy smelling them. We encourage the kids to pocket these “smelling sticks” for use later so they can inhale the scent deeply to self-soothe if they are feeling emotionally challenged. When we compared other sticks’ smells, the kids could always recognize the unique scent of the Douglas fir.
Although the sense of smell was up front and center this month, the Cedarsong forest kindergarten model emphasizes the full sensory experience: looking, smelling, tasting, listening, touching, and feeling. Many times we end up lying on the ground, looking up at the sky or closely examining the ground. Even children who tend to be very active during their day in the forest will at some point spontaneously lie down very still and gaze upwards; their eyes glazing over and their faces completely relaxed.
I believe that nature is a place of calm and healing and we can all support children in their growing understanding of this. I encourage you to remember and to model that nature is a place we can retreat when we are feeling out of balance, knowing it will reset us to a place of open-heartedness.