January in the northwest was quite warm and we actually had some barefoot days. The temperatures have fooled the plant world into thinking it is spring: the pussywillows are in bloom, the nettles are ½ inch tall, new grass is sprouting, the elderberry buds are opening, hazelnut catkins are dangling and there are buds on many twigs. Evidence of spring is obvious in the animal world too as we have suddenly heard the native song sparrow singing its spring melody, molehills are appearing and white bird poop is here and there.
As we were observing the new leaf buds on the hazelnut tree, several children noticed that the buds and twigs were fuzzy. A four year old reached down and picked up one of last season’s brown, partially decomposed, hazelnut leaf, saying “Here a fuzzy one”. We all felt the leaf with our fingers and cheeks and then used our handheld microscopes to study the texture. I mentioned to the kids how just a few months ago, the yellowing hazelnut leaves littered the ground. I asked: “Where are those leaves now?” A 3 year old answered: “They went underground”.
The children have noticed evidence of squirrel activity in the form of piles of torn apart doug fir cones. One of our four year olds excitedly reported to a teacher: “I found pieces of doug fir cone on the unicorn!” (the “unicorn” is an old log that the kids have named). On several days, we heard the distinctive chatter of the native doug fir squirrel.
At our snack table, the spotted towhees and song sparrows continue to be regular visitors, vying for the choicest positions to forage our leftover snacks. This month, the varied thrush, a seasonal resident, showed up and the kids noticed right away that it was a new bird. Lately, flocks of golden crowned kinglets have been chirping from the trees and we delight in trying to spot these elusive tiny birds. We can hear them all around yet it is very difficult to see them. One day though, several of the kinglets were so close that we all got to see their beautiful orange crowns. The big brown bunny we sporadically see at the snack table returned for about a week this month and the kids were able to sit still as statues while the bunny came very close.
We have noticed an upswing in the amount of running and jumping the children are engaging in. These activities are a good opportunity to practice taking turns being “the leader” on the trail and, when running around in circles at Main Camp, moving in the same direction to avoid collisions. We encourage the children to be aware of their body’s position in space and to pay attention to where others are; emphasizing not only body space awareness but also consideration of your friends.
As with every month, there continues to be lots of building and construction at the mud puddle area; hauling and pouring water to make rivers; and building then deconstructing dams. As the ground is soft due to the warm temperatures and drippy rain, the children have been digging deeper and deeper holes, discovering different colors of dirt. This leads to discussions about why dirt is different colors and how dirt is made.
Experimenting with water is one of children’s favorite past times and there are great lessons learned in physics during this process. After pouring endless buckets of water, one 4 year old announced “water does not go uphill”. On another day, a five year old noticed that the “water is clear because nobody stomped in it yet”. To test her theory, we handed out plastic test tubes and invited the kids to collect water in them before and after stomping. Then, we let the test tubes sit for awhile and when we checked back, we could see how the water and dirt had separated. The children also noticed that when they stirred the water with our measuring stick – a brightly painted stick with different colors every 5 inches or so – that the water turned a darker color. They also noticed when they poured water from up the hill and it ran into the puddle, that water was a darker color.
One day the children decided to make a “tea house” under some huckleberry bushes. They busily raked and decorated the space then sat in it and drank some of the forest tea they had made. This month’s seasonal blend of forest tea has been a mix of salal leaves, huckleberry leaves, red cedar branch tips and doug fir needles and branches.
The imagination of children involved in free play never ceases to astonish me. With little more than a few buckets and shovels as props, kids create so many wonderful scenarios. For example, after mixing in a bucket, one four year old informed me: “We put sprinkled dirt in mud with leaves and it turned to chocolate”. One day, a five year old showed the other kids how to make telescopes out of rolled salal leaves. Another day, several of the children created tiny dolls out of fir cones with huckleberry leaves stuck in them. Doug fir boughs are often used as tools or pretend household implements: One three year old showed the other children how to use a bough as a dust mop as she swept the forest floor. Sword ferns crowns and skirts are often crafted into costumes for spontaneous plays at our Forest Theater (a curtain strung between two branches).
The Forest Kindergarten children have a high level of discernment for aspects of the natural world. One day, I sawed a couple of sharp branches from a few of our “balancing logs” and then encouraged the children to smell them. Each of the sticks had a different smell since they were cut from different trees, and as the kids sniffed them they described the scent as like “yogurt” or “banana”. Then, one child said “This stick smells like ‘forest candy’”, our name for the delicious doug fir buds we often eat. In fact, she was correct because the branch was from a doug fir tree, which she had not known.
Finally, the Forest Kindergarten early childhood model’s commitment to nature immersion, defined as “unstructured free time in nature resulting in an intimate, deep and personal connection to the natural world”, encourages abstract philosophical questioning as exemplified by this question posed to the teachers one day by a three year old: “Do you think trees have feelings?”
By Erin Kenny ©2014