The forest has dried out and we were wearing less rain gear as the month of April progressed. The warmer weather is here to stay and the plant growth has visibly accelerated. The bracken ferns we have been measuring for a couple of months are now astonishingly taller than the children. The children are amazed at how quickly the ferns grew and, through their own process of setting up measuring sticks beside the ferns at each new height, are better able to visualize them as living beings. The baby sword ferns we have been observing since they appeared as fuzzy bumps in the base of the clump nest are now as big as last year’s growth (the adults) and only by the brighter shade of green can you tell the new from the old fronds. The children made the distinction that the bracken ferns stand alone while the sword ferns grow in clumps.
Our foraging options have increased and we are adding more flowers to our palate, such as huckleberry flowers, madrona flowers, elder flowers and red flowering currant flowers. We also have been enjoying the flavor of the bright green new branch tips of the douglas fir, the new salmonberry leaves, and what the children call “goodness” (the red new growth of the evergreen huckleberry). We have been adding these new seasonal goodies to our forest tea blend this month, along with the usual salal leaves, huckleberry leaves and western red cedar.
The children are continuing to get first hand experience with observing and identifying wildlife. All of the Cedarsong kids know the call of a raven and the song of the winter wren; they can also quite often correctly identify whether we are observing a male or female towhee or whether it is the junco or the song sparrow we are watching. We found a robins nest in a huckleberry bush and have been carefully observing it from afar. So far, there is no sign of baby birds but the mother is sitting on the nest silently and motionless most of the day. We continue to see the two black rabbits visiting our snack area occasionally.
At Squirrel Camp we usually see some evidence of squirrel activity, with clues such as pulled apart fir cones and cone cobs, however one day this month we actually saw squirrel poop (called scat by scientists). Seeing the poop was a big deal because we have not seen this type of evidence before. We counsel the children to never touch animal poop and we talk about how it is just one more thing that decomposes and makes new soil. Speaking of animal decomposition, we found a half eaten vole at Old Madrona Camp and it was a fresh kill. We had the opportunity to ask the children what they thought had eaten it: “an owl”, “a hawk”, “a raccoon”. I carefully moved the dead mammal by sliding it onto a leaf and placed it where the children could not get to it yet we can watch it change every day. After I asked what happens to a dead vole over time, one 4 year old responded: “It turns into dirt and then a plant will grow out of it”. The vole completely disappeared completely within 3 weeks and the children described it as melting into the ground.
We had a couple of days this month the children proclaimed to be “banana slug day at Cedarsong” because of their prevalence. Banana slugs are our only native slug and they are quite large. The children often want to pick them up and hold them. We encourage children to explore these creatures gently and carefully and they are taught how to respectfully and carefully hold the slugs. Upon exploration, the children quickly learn that slugs are both slimy and sticky. Young children often want to continue carrying around these small animals, often naming them and cooing over them. Although we allow a brief holding period, we discourage carrying the slugs around by pointing out that where we found the animal is their home and we need to leave it there.
We had many opportunities to visit the tadpoles in our vernal pond this month. Teachers carefully scooped up the tiny amphibians into a clear plastic cup and everyone got to look closely at them with magnifying glasses. On many of the tadpoles we could see tiny legs emerging from the area underneath their tails. We talked about metamorphosis and how it happens with frogs and with butterflies and moths. This theme carried over into our story telling this month and we often enthralled each other with tales of tadpoles who secretly wished to be frogs.
We do not supply many props at Cedarsong’s Forest Kindergarten however one of the items we offer is chunky chalk, which is set out each morning for the children to use, if they want to, in their explorations of nature. Many times he children color the trees’ bark and compare the textures, enabling them to identify the tree through the tactile observation.This month there was lots of chalk coloring in the forest as well as making paint by mixing chalk dust or charcoal with water. As Easter was on kids’ minds this month, there were several days on which the children colored rocks and I hid them for the children to find. Children often paint their own or each others’ face with mud, mixing up the perfect consistency in a bucket (of course they ask each other permission first to apply mud face paint). The eroded roots were intentionally chalk-colored by the children to reduce the incidence of people tripping over them. This lead to a discussion about “What do roots do for the tree?” To which the 3 and 4 year olds answer: “they eat dirt”, “they drink”, “they hold the tree up”. These young children’s level of understanding about natural science processes is astounding to most observers.
As the children become more active due to the warmer weather, we have had to remind each other more about some of our Cedarsong safety rules, especially regarding sticks. Some of the most important safety rules regarding sticks are: sticks need to be carried point down; big sticks in big places only; if putting a stick in the mouth, it needs to go horizontally; and lastly, the big one, no gun play at Cedarsong. We remind the children that Cedarsong is a plant and animal sanctuary and there is no (even pretend) killing on our school grounds. When children are pretending a stick is a gun, we try redirecting first and only as a last resort will we put the gun/stick in a time out. Children are never put in a timeout at Cedarsong by the way.
We have been playing with and observing bubbles as we blow them out over the mud puddle. We notice that we can see which way the breeze is going by the direction of the bubbles’ travels. We have observed that the direction of the wind changes quickly at ground level in the forest. The children discovered that when bubbles hit the surface of the puddle they grow bigger and turn a swirly golden color. On some of the pouring rain days the children discussed why there were spontaneous bubbles forming on the surface of the water. They correctly discerned that it was because the rain was so hard and concluded: “when hard rain hits the puddle it makes bubbles”.
Cedarsong programs are rich with practices of empathy and compassion. Whenever children injure themselves, we encourage all the children to check in saying “Are you okay, friend?” before continuing on with their play. We see many examples of spontaneous expressions of concern and compassion for the forest kindergarteners classmates and for the living world around them. This is an important part of the work we are doing and we believe that it is critically important to instill empathy in children under age 5. One day, one of the children tripped over a rock and she was upset and crying. All the children ran over to check in with her, asking if she was okay and if she needed a hug. They then discerned which rock she had tripped over and began a collaborative effort to remove that rock from the path. On another day a 5 year old boy said to me “I am worried about that tree root”, pointing out a cedar tree root that was above ground and filled with holes. He then proceeded to let his friends know of his concern and initiated a project of hauling mud buckets up to the root to fill the holes. This project was very focussed and tender and the kids kept at it for a long time, talking between each other about the best way to fill the holes and how much better the tree would feel.
There is often a lot of building, teamwork and collaborative negotiation whenever the rains pour. Many days were spent in reinforcing the bridge at Main Camp and constructing dams and piers and sand bars. As the puddle began shrinking, more of our various types of mud became obvious. The children explore the various mud samples such as silky mud, spotty mud, gooey mud and sticky mud, to name a few. They know that each type of mud is better for different uses. Often, the children will collect mud samples for a mud museum or make mud balls to throw against a tree and see which types stick. The children also use mud to reinforce their fairy houses, discussing how to mix up the perfect “cement” for the job.
There was a lot of rich imagination play this month. The children were building all sorts of cone creatures and cone superheroes. We take little sticks and insert them into cones for the four limbs and then add a colorful leaf for the cape. Or sometimes two leaves become the wings of the tiny creature. We have seen cones become rocket ships and race cars also. Children’s imaginations are ignited in the forest kindergarten model because of the reliance on forest-found loose parts “toys”and this type of creativity benefits them as it is an important life skill which will serve them successfully throughout their academic career.
Take some time this month to go outside with one of your favorite children and see how many fun toys you both can make with just the natural materials around you. Stimulate your creativity and let your child’s imagination guide you.
By Erin Kenny ©2015