December in the forest was dark and foggy. We had several of the coldest days so far, with temperatures in the low 30’s (Fahrenheit). Our teachers had to work diligently to make sure the children stayed warm. We also kept open communication with the parents about what clothing was working and what was not. Because children this age (2-5 years old) are so tactile, they kept wanting to take off their mittens and we had to insist that they keep them on all day for their own safety. When the children complain of feeling cold, we ask “What could you do to warm up?” To which we hear a chorus of responses including “run”, “dance”, “jump”, “be silly”.
Most of the deciduous trees have lost their leaves and the yellow hazelnut leaves which fell to the ground have turned brown and are decomposing rapidly. It is a great season for noticing which tree leaves decompose quicker and to explore why that might be. One day the children all noticed that there were no longer any leaves on our hazelnut climbing tree. This led to a discussion about how plants go dormant in the winter and that just because they have lost all their leaves, they are not dead. We ask the children to look for other clues that a branch may be alive so they don’t accidentally break a living branch that is dormant.
With all the wind last month, the forest floor is littered with debris such as Doug fir branches (which harbor the highly desired edible buds the children call “forest candy”), edible protein-packed catkins on alder branches and the highly medicinal native lichens. We added each of them to our forest tea blend this month and talked about how they are not only edible but also medicinal and that steeping those plants in our tea would yield a healthful cup.
The children were very interested this month in playing many of our nature games, including “What’s Missing?” (a memory challenge game), Eagle Eye (an discernment and observation skills game), and Howl and Seek (a sensory challenge and hiding game).
This time of year, when many of the plants have lost their leaves, we can see into the forest more readily and can more easily spot animal trails. The children often request following an animal trail to see where it ends up. Since everyone wants to be the leader, we have to make sure that the children take turns in this coveted role. It teaches fairness and patience. We also talk about what it means to be a leader and that being a leader does not mean just getting there first; It comes with a responsibility towards the group, making sure everyone else is okay and stays together. Once we arrive at a new “destination”, the children delight in naming this new hide-out/play space.
We experienced a lot of rain this month and talked about the difference between leaf rain and sky rain. The children spent endless hours pouring water back and forth into buckets, building dams, clearing dams, and making rivers and channels. One day they spent a long time taking water by the bucketful out of our main puddle to make a secondary puddle above the dam they built. It was exhilarating to the children that they could make such a visible difference in the depth of the mud puddle just by using teamwork and cooperation. On another day, the children spent hours creating the longest river ever at Cedarsong. They then were experimenting with how a flood looks by overflowing the banks of their river. We talked about how water is strong (experimented with putting things – like cones – in the water’s way and seeing how water could move them) and how best to direct the flow (deeper channels and walls edging them).
The fluctuating water level in our natural puddle inspired the children to measure its depth each day. They would spontaneously grab one of our painted measuring sticks and first guess which colored stripe the water level would come up to before plunging the stick into the water. They noticed which areas of the large puddle was deeper and questioned why. They also enjoyed mixing some of the smaller trail puddles with sticks or their feet until they became mud. Many children spent quite a bit of time jumping into and splashing through the various puddles. Since it is winter, we advised the children that they could not go into the deeper puddles until closer to pick-up time.
There are many ways we introduce math spontaneously in our forest explorations. We always encourage kids to count how many are going out on an adventure before we leave Main Camp. We always count the objects in our game of “What’s Missing?” We often count numbers of species we see in a day, such as how many towhees, how many mushrooms, and how many different kinds of leaves. We have made fir cone spirals and then counted how many cones we used. On several days, we counted the rings of a downed hemlock tree (18 years old) and the children learned about how the rings form and indicate how old the tree was.
We are still being visited by the song sparrows, the towhees and one varied thrush at our snack table. The song sparrow lets all the other birds know when it is snack time by sitting on a nearby stump and singing loudly. Our transient golden crowned kinglets have returned; we only see them in the winter. They are tiny flocking birds that are near impossible to see as they cling to the tree bark looking for hibernating insects. Their song is delightful and it is indeed a challenge to spot them even as they sound like they are surrounding you.
The soft stem and cap mushrooms of last month have all turned to mush and decomposed. When I asked: “Where are the mushrooms we saw on the ground last month?”, one four year old girl answered, very matter-of-factly “decomposing into dirt”, again exemplifying the deep understanding of natural science processes by even our youngest children. We continue to see many bunny ear mushrooms, carbon antlers, orange jelly and shelf mushrooms. We discovered a new mushroom and named it purple jelly because it looks very similar to the orange jelly except for the color.
We have engaged in some huckleberry taste testing. With all of the rain and the colder weather, we wondered if the berries tasted different. We all agreed after tasting that the skin on the berries is thicker, that they have less moisture, and that they are tarter and less sweet.
On many days this month, the children chose to lie on the ground, watching the clouds move and the tree branches sway. They began to call the light breeze ‘baby’ wind. They also enjoyed playing our “Who turned out the lights?” game which increases awareness of shifting light in the forest this time of year. Apparently, even 2 year olds understand the process, as our youngest forest kindergarten kid answered “the sun” even as the other kids joked that they had turned out the lights.
There was a palpable merriness in the forest this month, especially as we approached the holiday season. We spent a lot of time singing and playing music. We sang our Cedarsong songs and some Christmas songs and had several raucous parades down the trails.
Here’s hoping you got plenty of outdoor time over the Holiday season and that you continue to do so in the new year.
By Erin Kenny ©2015