In the pacific northwest of the U.S., the time of winter solstice feels more like the middle of winter than the beginning. Our wet season begins in early fall and runs right through late spring! This year we have noticed some unusual activity in the plant world that seems to indicate spring rather than winter, such as new leaf buds emerging, hazelnut and alder catkins pollinating, increased bird activity and the presence of flying insects. The main clue that it is winter is the darkness of the forest.
Although the temperatures overall have been unseasonably warm, we did have some of our coldest days yet this year, with temperatures in the 20’s. For about ten days this month we got to experience and explore ICE! We found ice in our buckets, ice in the birdbath and ice on some downed logs. We noticed that the ice looked different depending on where it formed: sometimes it was smooth and flat (like in our puddle) and other times it formed crystals (like on the fallen leaves). On the smooth ice of the puddle, the children played a hockey game using chunks of ice and fir cones as the puck.
There were sticks frozen in the ice of our puddle and the kids tried to break them out. This caused bubbles to form under the ice and we delighted in moving the bubbles around under the surface. One day, after we broke the ice on the puddle, a flock of chestnut-backed chickadees came and splashed around in the freezing water.
We observed that once the ice got really thick though, the sticks would break but not the ice. The children experimented with sound by tapping the ice with sticks and noticing the sound changed depending on the thickness of the ice. They also discovered that sticks thrown onto ice make a sound. During the cold snap, ice crystals formed at the surface of the ground, making the dirt look spongy. We noticed we could hear our footsteps loudly as we crunched the ice crystals in the dirt as we walked. The children all observed that the ice made everything more slippery and they had to use extra caution when balancing or climbing over logs.
We do not have a thermometer at Cedarsong and we avoid using numbers to describe the temperature. We want to encourage personal experience of the weather and honor each of our unique experience of it, to increase body awareness. We will ask the children: Do you feel like it is colder or warmer than yesterday? We guide them to use observations too, such as how thick is the ice in birdbath? What does the puddle ice look like? Do we need our mittens? Are the water bottles frozen? Is the ground frozen? For safety reasons, we have instituted some winter rules regarding appropriate clothing and play. For example, when we see ice in the forest, we do not allow any more water play, and we insist that the children wear their coats, mittens and hats at all times.
Our foraging this month has been limited although we have greatly enjoyed eating the frozen huckleberries! We are still nibbling the doug fir buds (forest candy) and the alder catkins. The kids observed that although all of the mushrooms are frozen solid, the plant leaves are not and this lead to a discussion about why that might be so. Once the temperatures warmed again, those frozen mushrooms turned to mush and started rapidly sinking into the soil. One 3 year old, upon observing this, stated that there were no more mushrooms because “they are in the ground making more”.
The children of course engaged in a lot of imagination play in December, which we strongly encourage. This month the play centered around travel, as many families are making plans for their winter vacation. There are several specific downed logs that the children like to pretend are airplanes or trains and we often take imaginary trips complete with a snack service (usually salal leaf plates with huckleberries on them). The kids also spent a lot of time building large elaborate nests and beds to sleep on or hibernate in and they displayed a lot of teamwork and cooperation in moving around huge doug fir branches.
We talked a lot about the winter solstice this month and the children spent many days making cakes and gingerbread houses out of mud and dirt. There was a lot of singing of our seasonal songs as well as a conscious decorating of the forest and its trees in celebration.
The towhees and song sparrows have rejoined us at the snack table after a brief absence. We get to observe them so closely that the children can identify the young birds from this last summer because their tails are shorter and their bodies are stubbier. We also saw a wild brown rabbit near the snack table on the last day of school before the winter break. Another animal sighting worth noting is that we have seen lots of spider egg cases on doug fir bark this month. We have noticed that they prefer the doug fir tree and speculate it is because the ridges in the bark are deeper on that native tree and therefore would be more protective.
We ended the month with our annual Winter Solstice Celebration and Lantern Walk. We gathered as our Cedarsong Community to share food and mulled drinks before walking through the forest with only the light of the luminaries to guide us while singing at the top of our lungs!
By Erin Kenny ©2013