January in the Pacific Northwest has been unseasonably warm and we have observed many signs of spring. We discovered new buds on the elderberry and the huckleberry. We noticed that the hazelnut catkins (flowers) have released their pollen and that the alder catkins are ready to eat. We are seeing new sprouts of miner’s lettuce and sticky wicky (cleavers) and we are seeing lots of new mushrooms, including bird’s nest fungus. We also discovered the newly emerging “baby” sword ferns sitting in the nest at the base of the adult fronds. When the children saw these babies, they began cooing over them! We talked about how now they are babies, soon they will be preschoolers and eventually they will be all grown up.
We are observing the “jumping bugs” hopping around now instead of hibernating: The children discovered that when they lift a pile of decomposing leaves off the forest floor, the topsoil is alive with these tiny creatures. We have found the tiny white forest worms and baby native millipedes hiding as well. One day we all got to see a salamander when we lifted a log! It stayed perfectly still, thinking it if it did not move we could not see it.
The birds of spring have arrived, even though we are still many weeks from the equinox. We have noticed juncos in increasing numbers and we saw the first varied thrush of the year (the northwest harbinger of spring). The children love to challenge themselves to sit still so they can closely observe the birds as they forage on our snack crumbs. We have been re-filling our bird feeder more frequently as the populations grow. The children love to help with this and it is a great sensory experience for them. They put both hands in the seed bag and wriggle them around before taking out a large handful of seeds to carefully and accurately place in the feeder.
We have also discovered a lot of evidence of squirrel activity: the piles of pulled apart cones that are the native douglas fir squirrels’ primary food. One day we counted the remnants of twelve cones in one pile on a tabletop stump. We mostly see these clues at the place the kids have aptly named “Squirrel Camp”. One day, while observing the ripped up cone pile, we watched a very small insect crawl into a tiny hole in the stump, causing a 3 year old to state: “so bugs live in logs”.
The wet weather has lead to the children using our chunky chalk as paint: the wetter the chalk gets, the more like paint it becomes. The children have painted their “airplane”, a horizontal log that they named. In fact, they have been painting and decorating all over the forest in celebration of spring . One day, we began “painting” Clara, one of the most beloved cedar trees, and the kids spontaneously started joyously singing “Happy Birthday” to her. Those children do love their special trees: One day a 5 year old girl walked up to a young cedar tree near the entrance trail, threw her arms around it and proclaimed “I love you, tree!” When I asked if the tree had a name, without a moment’s hesitation, the girl said “Her name is Desalia”.
There has been a lot of rich imagination play this month, much of it centered on kittens being adopted by owners. We also like to play the Kitten and Mouse Game which involves calm still kittens and mice becoming energetic and running around then dancing. It has become a much-requested game. One day the kids were using sticks as magic wands and making tornadoes for us all to spin in. The children enjoyed figuring out the point at which the spinning began to make them dizzy. The children have also been running a lot, both for the physical exercise and as a strategy for keeping warm. We encourage children to choose open spaces to run around in and to run in the same direction to avoid collisions. One day we drew circles on the ground and the children hopped from one to the other while counting them out loud. There is one place in the forest the kids call “the ice cream truck”. On forays there, we are often offered ice cream sandwiches, such as a doug fir bud wrapped in a huckleberry leaf.
Although there has not been a whole lot of rain, the children are keeping themselves busy with their mud puddle. We have seen several dams come and go, with much negotiation and teamwork involved in the building. The children experimented one day with making a mud slide, noticing that the mud became more slippery as they added water. We also discovered at snack time that water can be sticky by licking a finger and then touching it to our food. I told the kids that if you asked most adults whether water was sticky, they would probably say “no”.
Because of the season and its perpetual dampness, we have seen a lot of what the kids refer to as “chicken wood” because of its resemblance to shredded chicken meat. This is usually a soft-wood tree such as the alder that is in the late stages of decomposition. Although it appears intact, it is actually so mushy that the children can squeeze water out of it, much to their delight. It is often then wrapped in a salal leaf, becoming a “burrito”.
Our forest tea blend this month is huckleberry leaves, red cedar tips, doug fir branches, sword fern and lichen. We encourage the children to choose clean leaves with no mud and to look at the underside of the leaves to make sure that they are not a home for tiny critters. They are taught to crush the leaves first before putting them in the water, to make a stronger tea. At some point during the day we all sit and have a tea party, enjoying each other’s company and the fruits of our labor.
I encourage you to find time to walk outside with a child this month, with no agenda other than enjoying each other’s company and the discoveries that come from non-directed time in nature.
By Erin Kenny ©2015