Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Wind or Weather: An Elemental Experience by Jaimmie Stugard

After nearly half a year of frigid Wisconsin winter, gradually the snow and the half foot of ice buried beneath it began to melt away.  Here and there we caught a few glimpses of sunshine, a warmish 50 degree breeze, only to have the temperature plummet again the next day.  The last week has brought us constant rain, wind and thunder along with frigid temperatures.  And yet, at LifeWays we go outside nearly every single day.
            Yesterday, I decided I needed a break from the cold and the rain. Even on chilly days, playing outdoors in the rain really isn't so bad.  We bundle up with lots of layers and water-proof clothing and the children delight in their time outside.  The water and mud have become their new toys- perfectly impermanent, open-ended and creative.  It is only when we head indoors that the children begin to complain.  They are soaked, and even the best rain gear couldn't hold up to their exuberant play. So we head inside and begin to peal off layer after layer of wet, muddy clothes. 
            Suddenly, the children who delighted in splashing in puddles and sculpting with the goopy mud have developed an aversion to dirt!  They cry and fuss at the prospect of touching their soiled jackets and removing them with their own hands.  Eventually, I am able to convince them to undress themselves while I help the toddlers peel out of their saturated gear.  I scan the floor for abandoned hats and boots and remind the children to hang up their things, wring out a few jackets and socks and help the children into fresh, dry clothes.  By now, most of the older children have already changed and muddy clothes are strewn about the carpet.  They squeal and giggle at the sight of a pants-less baby who is trying desperately to escape clean clothes and a diaper change.  Occasionally, a couple of partially dressed  preschoolers take the opportunity to shout and jump in a chaotic underpants dance.  Once dressed, the children bag up their wet clothes and place them on their hooks.  They wash their faces with their handmade cloth that was soaked in warm, lavender and calendula infused water.  Hands are washed and we are refreshed and ready to eat the hot, delicious meal Miss Monica has lovingly prepared.
            After a few days of steady rain, I grew tired of this wet, cold, chaotic routine.  So, I told the children (for the first time in a VERY long time) that we would be playing indoors all day.  Most of our suite-mates were in forest-kindergarten on this particular day, and it seemed like our little group of youngsters could handle the confines of indoor play.  At first, they were happy to be free of the burden of putting on layer after layer of outerwear and seemed eager to do some watercolor painting and fort-building.  But it wasn't long before a couple of three year old fellas were tumbling over one another like rowdy little puppies, crashing into anything that got in their way.  Watercolors went flying, the toddler was crying and another child lay in the cozy corner, unusually lethargic.  I thought to myself, “This is what I get for breaking the rhythm.”  It wasn't long before our lethargic friend got sick to her stomach, and while I cared for her and cleaned up mess, I considered that perhaps this was the reason why we needed to stay indoors on this particular day.  Or, perhaps I just needed to be reminded  that going out in all sorts of weather is well worth the effort.  
            The next day was as cold and wet as the others and we happily went outdoors.  We hiked in the woods, spotting scilla, snowdrops and crocus buds daring to defy the wintery mix that slopped from the sky.  The brown earth was finally beginning to fill with patches of green.  After our stroll, we gathered in the front yard, nestled between the garden and the woods.  The bigger kids hauled branches into a pile that  began as a fire pit and evolved into many things as they played.   As is my habit on cold, wet days, I led the children away from the puddles until our playtime neared an end.  (This way the children don't have to bear soaking, cold gear for our entire time outdoors.)  As lunch-time drew near, the little ones gravitated toward the puddles and enjoyed some wet play.  They bent long sticks in half, making fishing poles to fish in their tiny ponds.  The timid toddler crouched at the perimeter, splashing the water with little sticks and tossing in pebbles. Plip. Plop.  A handful of children dashed, splashed and jumped in an immense puddle beneath the pear trees.  Knowing we needed plenty of time to change, I called the children to  hike back to the door with our usual melody. “We are walking in the woods, walking, walking in the woods. We don't stop for wind or weather, we keep walking all together.”  A chorus of disappointed  little voices lamented coming out of the puddles and followed me to the back door.
             Over the years I've noticed a distinct difference in the way adults and children speak about the weather.  Adults seem to frame their observations within the context of their desires or preferences.  We say, “It's a beautiful day.” or  “What terrible weather we are having.”  While the children tend to make observations, “It's raining.  It's snowing. It's hot. It's froggy” (aka foggy).  They are simply accepting and experiencing the elements.  No matter what the weather, children who are dressed properly revel in their time outdoors.  Rain, heat, thunder or snow, they rarely seem to mind the elements.  Even when it is freezing out, the children complain about coming inside. I admire their receptivity to the wide array of elemental experiences our climate offers.  I seek to follow their example and refrain from casting judgment about the weather in their presence.  I wouldn't want to take away from their experience with my skewed adult perceptions. So, I quietly bundle up and head outdoors wind or weather, to share in their awe and wonder. 

The Messy Relationship between Children and the Natural World by Mary O'Connell

As I think about children and nature, three past conversations come to mind. The first was about 12 or 13 years ago when my home daycare was in full swing. My husband was lamenting about his inability to grow grass in a yard that was played upon daily by a busy group of children. I remember saying to him, “We’re not growing grass. We are growing children.” He smiled in that way he does when he knows he can talk until he’s blue in the face but it will not change the situation. That grass actually never did come back, by the way.

The second conversation was a year or two later as I brought my little group of children to the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center to our very favorite frog pond. Nets in hand, the older boys would gracefully swoop the nets into the pond at just the right moment to catch a frog that was watching them near the edge. Then the children would very carefully lift the frog from the net, pass it around, and gently let it go right where they had found it a few minutes before.  The children had been coached many times to be very gentle with the frogs. A passing gentleman on the path was dismayed to see them catching frogs. He scolded me, saying that I should teach the children never to touch frogs because the oils from their hands are damaging to them. I guess you can’t really call this one a conversation at all, because I was so taken aback by my apparent ignorant disrespect of frogs and also trying to figure out if he knew what he was talking about, I just stood there in stunned silence.

Finally, the third conversation is one that seems to come around every year these days, returning just as dependably as the geese do every spring. It starts with an email from our landlords saying that they have noticed erosion in the places that the children love to play in the forest and reminding us to keep them on the paths. Last year the conversation continued in person as the nice woman from the land committee took me on a walk to show me some potential projects on the land. Our conversation led us to an area behind Gaenslen School that is a favorite place for the children to play. I shared with her how they love to climb in the dead brambles and struggle up the steeper incline there.

She turned to me in disbelief and said, “You let the children play in that area? That’s not on the path.” I explained that we know the Friends are trying to protect their land from erosion so we have specifically chosen to let the children play in this area that is not their land. She responded, “I don’t care whose land it is. By letting the children play there you are causing erosion. As an educator of children, you should show them the damage they have done and work with them to repair it.” You can probably imagine my silence as I stood there pondering how to explain the Soil Erosion Reparation Plan to the toddlers.

 The fact that these conversations keep coming up seem to indicate that I am a very slow learner.  Am I being cavalier? Setting the wrong example? Being a sloppy educator of children and guardian of the natural world?

I mean no disrespect to the folks who have brought these concerns. I truly appreciate their commitment to a healthier planet and their ideas to protect the environment yet still allow children to observe and learn from a distance. I do realize that the frog would be happier and healthier if it was never picked up by little hands, no matter how gentle.  I completely understand that we must be careful where we trod, because by playing in an area of the forest, the children’s feet trample young seedlings and compact the soil in that area just as they did the grass in our yard, until the area is permanently altered.

Do you know what else is permanently altered during free play in nature? The children. They have developed a love relationship with the natural world. In the end, isn’t that of vital importance to both the children and Mother Nature?

In Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods, he shares the story of famous naturalist John Muir who, as a boy, would run along the beach with his gun and shoot at sea gulls. (I am not suggesting that we arm the children at LifeWays with guns, by the way.) Louv uses this example to point out how very drastically the interaction between people and nature has changed.  We feel more protective about wildlife than adults did when Muir was a child. The good news is that children today are less likely to kill animals for fun. The bad news, Louv says, is that today’s children are so disconnected from nature they often idealize it or associate it with fear instead of developing a loving relationship with it.  Young children learn to love something through all of their senses, not just by watching and listening, but also by touching, balancing, moving, climbing, feeling, squishing, digging, smelling and tasting. I wonder:  how differently might have Muir’s adult work developed if the grown-ups of his childhood had admonished him daily for leaving the designated walking path?

I am sure these conversations will continue to come my way as long as I work with children. There is certainly a great deal to ponder with regard to the relationship between children and nature. One thing I have come to feel pretty strongly about, though, is this: If we want to raise children who love our Earth enough to protect her from the thugs who seek to exploit her, we need to let the children fall in love with her. I don’t think they can do that from behind glass, on a carefully orchestrated walking tour, or via educational TV shows. We need to let them truly engage with nature using all of their senses, and sometimes that gets a little messy.

Loose Parts Toys by Emily Hall

A "loose- parts" toy... is open ended; children may use it in many ways and combine it with other loose parts through imagination and creativity. A typical list of loose parts for a natural play area might include water, trees, bushes, flowers, and long grasses; sand ( best if it can be mixed with water) ; places to sit in, on, under; structures that offer privacy and views. Go beyond that play area, to woods, fields, and streams, and the parts become looser and even more potent to the imagination.- Richard Louv, from Last Child in the Woods

                One  spring morning in kinderforest, three little boys collected some of the river clay/ mud and rolled it into balls all morning long as they hiked to Kern Park. The sensory experience of squishing the mud between their fingers and scooping it from puddles to create a little ball also stimulates fine motor skills, which develop strongly between the ages of three and five. Over the years, I've seen the children get creative with mud- making creatures with pebble eyes and stick mouths, painting with mud on the Troll Bridge, and using it to cook with each other.  Another two of my friends built a see saw from a log and a fallen tree ( see picture) and the children used their large motor skills to negotiate around the others and worked on their patient waiting. Everyone wanted a turn with the seesaw.

                Other ways I've seen children use loose parts includes a morning in the winter when the children from two combined suites spent their morning in the clearing rolling a snowball around and then finding branches to decorate it. (see picture)The only 'loose part' I sometimes like to bring into the forest is yarn- then we can spend the morning making bows and arrows and fishing poles as we learn to tie knots. The very young child is working on these fine and large motor skills through the use of loose parts toys constantly at LifeWays.

                Another loose part is the stick. Children get very attached to their sticks and want to bring them inside and on nature hikes, sometimes attempting to hike long distances with huge piles of sticks in their arms, or sneak extra sticks in their rainboots or under their jackets. The reason for this is the stick's versatility. Children have a deep need for simple toys that can easily transform into anything that their creative play requires. In Spring, we love to work on our knot tying by making ribbon sticks to carry at circle time. Sticks and fallen branches have been used to construct houses in the forest and it is great to see how an entire kitchen, spaceship, mouse house, or pirate ship can be created just from a fallen tree and some branches. The children never cease to surprise me with their inventiveness with loose parts as they develop and grow.

Treasured Times by Tamara Treviranus

Several years ago, when my now pre teen daughter attended Lifeways, she was lucky to be one of the first forest kindergarteners at Lifeways. One spring day, probably about this time of year, I picked her up as usual after lunch.   She wanted me to take a walk in the woods with her.  I felt that it really was time to go home and take a nap.  Her persistence and sincere desire to show me the forest won out and off we went down the path surrounded by small blue flowers to the river. My 3 year old daughter led me on a hike all the way to the troll bridge and showed me what amazing magical sounds a stick made when dragging it across the metal bars. She showed me where the fairies and gnomes hide, and how to make proper hot “lockichaw” with a  stick stirring at the edge of the river.  I was astounded that making “hot lockichaw” was an enjoyable activity for 45 minutes for a 3 year old.  Keeping a 3 year old busy at home by myself was never so laid back.  Needless to say we began taking more frequent trips to the river for some peaceful enjoyment together. 
Now, several years later, we still occasionally take walks in these woods as a family. Despite my childrens’ (now 12 and 7) protestations that “hike” is a  four letter word, we still go and most often they still enjoy it.
Perhaps some of your children have also taken you for forest explorations. Some of the older children at Lifeways are certainly good forest explorers.  So, if you have time and opportunity, maybe your child could take you for a hike to the troll bridge.  Definitely grab a stick and make music together.  You will be glad you did.

Natural Play Spaces by Amanda Quesnell

Last semester I did field work at the Milwaukee Public Sign Language School for a K-4 classroom.  Working there with the children was the complete opposite of what I have experienced while working at LifeWays.  I would go to that school in the morning and stay for the day.  After that I would go straight to LifeWays. 

When transitioning from the K4 classroom to LifeWays, I had to do a complete 180 on how I worked with the children in each program.  The atmosphere and ideals of both schools are so different.  One of the differences between the schools that I noticed was free-play.   Everyday, the children in the K4 classroom would usually get one-hour a day of free-play, most of the time it was inside.  Once in a great while we got the opportunity to go play outside.  At the Milwaukee Public School there was a huge blacktop with a small fenced-in playground.  I would watch the children play on this playground and then I would go to LifeWays and watch the children play in the front yard, climb a tree, or play by the clearing, etc.  While observing the two groups of children in these different outdoor play areas I noticed a huge difference in their play. 
Children on the playground played games like tag, hide-and-seek, and follow the leader.  They took turns sliding down the slides and crossing the monkey bars.  But for the most part I observed children running all around the fenced in play yard trying to get one another, running in groups, or running by themselves.  Hardly ever did I see the children engaged in imaginative play, such as house or pirates.

While at LifeWays I noticed that the play was significantly different.  Whether we were in the play yard with sand toys, in the front yard, or playing by a fallen down tree, the children’s play was imaginative.  Once when I was in the woods with Jasper, he asked if he could take our group to his “Jasper house.”  He led us down the path into the woods and he had taken us to a tree that did not grow up but grew in an umbrella shape that made it house-like.  Jasper and Otto climbed on top and started making “dog food.”  James and Luka joined in the play first by being the customers and then they became cooks as well.  Jasper, Otto, James, and Luka all had a different type of food they were making for the dogs.  They had created a whole system; one of them was even in charge of the “money.”

 Imaginative play is always present at LifeWays.  I hardly ever see the children at LifeWays playing tag or hide-and-seek, and rarely does a child look bored or not know what to do.  Natalie and Orion’s favorite game to play is family.  Almost everyday day during afternoon snack I hear Natalie say, “Orion, after snack do you wanna play family?”  Sometimes their family is on a bench (which they pretend is a ship) with Otto Knox being a family of pirates; sometimes they are a family of lions with Eli crawling around a tree.  But no matter what their family is, it is different everyday, and different children are involved in the game.  It is always fun to watch and see what their play will develop into.  The presence of imagination is only one of the many benefits of having a natural play space. 

The children do not need elaborate equipment such as swings, monkey bars, or slides. All they need is nature, and a little imagination.