Snow, Mud and Spring in North Vancouver
The last two months here at Fresh Air Learning North Vancouver have seen us make an unusual transition to Spring. The snow lingered on into March, an uncommon occurrence, though historically (in the 70s and 80s) not unheard of.
Friendships and group cohesion have deepened lately. These children have been playing and learning together twice a week for 7 months. Their knowledge of each other and themselves has deepened, and in both our morning and afternoon classes we have noticed more whole-group play emerging. This play looks thrilling, exciting, intense, rambunctious, and delicate. As their care for each other has increased over the year, so has the intensity of their emotional responses to each other, as well as their willingness to stick with their feelings and hear each other out, and work towards solutions.
In early March we had a thrilling and strange snow/mud day, where the snow was soft, slushy and half-melting. Several scooping tools and cups were all that were needed for the children to spend over 2 hours constructing mud/snow castles, cooperating together and working quietly on solo projects.
One interesting game that emerged from having access to both snow and mud involved coating snow constructions in mud to create "brown snowmen," as well as a guessing game. One child covered a snowball in mud, and enjoyed asking both teachers and classmates to guess whether the ball was made of rock or snow!
Having the snow persist for so long allowed us many chances to observe and discuss the different qualities and textures of snow. What does this snow feel like? What did it feel like last week? What kind of snow is better for snowballs and construction?
The children's snow play involved both construction and deconstruction, especially as the same snow was encountered over the period of several weeks. Snow balls or castles created on a previous day were deconstructed on the next, as the children experimented and investigated the snow's properties. Many of the children experienced "snow milestones" during this time, such as building a snow man for the first time, or learning how to role a large snow ball (as above). It was wonderful to observe the focused and determined way the children investigated the snow, and the joy and wonder they expressed at experiencing snow - some for the first time.
One day in the forest we came upon a somewhat rickety shelter that another (non FAL) group had started. We spent most of our forest time in March improving upon, expanding, and fortifying this shelter, especially in our afternoon Tuesday/Thursday group. Some children emerged as "big idea" leaders by galvanizing the group's energies to haul large log sections to the shelter site. This was achieved by securing them with a long rope and working together to haul it. As a totally child-lead activity, this endeavour required immense cooperation, team work, and initiative and reflected to us the how intrinsically motivated and excited the children were by the shelter project.
Another child worked more behind the scenes, creating a "fort supply store" where other children could go to "purchase" supplies for the shelter. Still others worked on wiring up the fort with electricity, telecommunications, and wifi (using yarn and rope for wires)!
An exploration of rocks emerged in our afternoon group in March, and continues to the present week. In particular the finding and retrieval of rocks from underneath logs and bridge. Children made comments on their many shapes, qualities, and special characteristics, such as:
"We are mining for gold! Here are all the gold pieces we found. This is our collection!"
"I'm going to get this big rock out because I'm strong!"
Referring to a stick, "This is my digging tool."
"This one is glittery - I think there is gold!"
I have noticed that rocks are commonly treasured keepsakes from time in the forest. Many times I have witnessed children making gifts of special rocks to each other as expressions of friendship. I often come home with rocks in my pockets, which children have pressed excitedly into my hands amid the hustle and bustle.
Our morning group also enjoys rock play, and the children often create sculptures out of rocks found in an interesting play space at Maplewood Farm. An old concrete platform was recently jackhammered and they have not yet cleared away the pieces. This space provides an abundance of loose parts for building, constructing, and balancing.
Here is the same area, covered in snow. Three children found an interesting and playful way to interact with this space!
The open-ended quality of the loose parts in the forested environment lead to very creative symbolic play. Symbolic play occurs when children use one object to represent another in their play. Children must have ample opportunities for symbolic play in order to fulfill their rich cognitive and communicative potential. The ability to use one object to represent another is a also a foundational skill in literacy. Children execute the same thinking process when they perform symbolic play as they do when they associate a letter with a sound, and sound with an image, object, or concept.
In the realm of symbolic play, all kinds of interesting objects may be found in the forest. Sticks, rocks, evergreen cones and loose leaves are transformed into magic wands, shovels, swords, cutting tools, phones, gold, cookies, money, and even small animals. Here a child asked me to document his pet "hedgehog" he found in the forest, and cared for over several days. He kept his "hedgehog" in his backpack to be ready for play in the forest.
Passionate about the documentation process, and the sharing of photos between electronic devices, this same child often asks me to photograph his nature treasures to "fax" to his friends, teachers, and family.
On our first week back after Spring break we spent our time at Maplewood Farm, reconnecting with our animal friends, and getting some seeds in the ground. It's fun to guess what plants will grow from which seeds, and to think about how different seeds need to be planted and tended to. We planted peas and radishes, and weeded our garlic patch.
Our garden time also includes lots of time for child-lead soil exploration. This time of year, we notice the soil coming to life. We bring our magnifying glasses and take a close look at the spiders, worms, and millipedes that inhabit our garden. The children seem to enjoy gathering and interacting with worms in particular. I can see why! One can be digging about in the soil and suddenly, unexpectedly, an iridescent, slimy, delicate pink creature squirms out! Some children revel in the feeling of a squirming worm on their bare hand or glove, while for others this sensation is unbearably disgusting! Even then, most children are compelled to get as close to a worm as their particular emotional-nervous system allows. The exciting prospect of worm catching motivated some inspired teamwork as one of our groups worked together to gather as many worms together in a yogurt container as they could (with soil and leaves for habitat of course!)
Interacting with worms provides an opportunity for children to reflect upon the idea that other creatures are delicate and vulnerable. If we are to handle them, we must use our gentle thoughtfulness and do them no harm. Worms' soft and easily damaged bodies ignite children's natural empathy for small creatures (think babies!) and activates their desire to act in a helpful, caring way. Holding worms provides children an opportunity to cultivate their gentleness, self-regulation and self-restraint. Occasionally the urge to squish a worm arises - and what to do with this urge? How to speak and think about the consequences? The opportunity to interact with such vulnerable and essential creatures is a responsibility to which children rise with great wisdom and care; especially once given the opportunity to empathize with and reflect upon the worm's experience as a tiny creature in the hands of giants!
And we always release them back to their earthly home, with gratitude for the visit! Here one child created a temporary "worm playground" replete with amusement rides and sheltered "resting spots."
Here children worked together to gather worms into a yogurt container filled with soil and leaves. When one child spotted a worm, she would holler, "worm alert! worm alert!" The other children joyfully joined her in the chant!
Another sign of Spring is the waking of bees from their dormant period. Recently we came across a lone bumble bee resting on a wooden plank. The children were immediately drawn to her, and a lively sharing of bee-sting stories erupted. Remembering past bee stings, some children regarded the bumble bee warily, not quite believing our assurances that bumble bees don't have stingers.
One child was particularly intrigued by the bee, offering her various kinds of leaves to see what she would eat. As he observed her he said to himself, "She's a bumble bee, she won't sting. Maybe she's hungry." What a wonderful opportunity to talk about the differences between honey bees, wasps, and bumblebees. How to tell the difference visually, and how is their behaviour different? Honey bees have stripes and are streamlined and a big fuzzy, and will sting if fearful. They die after stinging. Wasps are not fuzzy, have clear black and yellow stripes and can sting several times - they are more aggressive than honey bees. Lastly, bumble bees are round and very fuzzy, and have no stingers at all. This information is great to have when coping with anxiety around bees.
Another game which has emerged recently is "sushi restaurant!" While playing by the stream one day at Maplewood Farm, one child said with excitement, "This is the sushi restaurant! What would would you like!" He the proceeded to meticulously craft inari, cucumber, and tuna roles for everyone who wanted them (out of leaves, rocks, and bark of course). The children then worked together to construct a "sushi table" (below) where teachers and children alike could go to enjoy their sushi. Of course there was plenty of wasabi (aka moss) on hand for spice.
Here a child stabilizes the sushi table with loose rocks, as 3 other children observe her work.
One reason families choose our programs is to have their child in a socially rich, outdoor environment where they have lots of opportunities to connect with facilitators and their peers. After a few hours of exciting social play, sometimes what is needed is some quiet time by the stream, simply watching the leaves float by and listening to the soothing sound of the water over the rocks. What a gift for the children to have this time to rest their minds, hearts, and bodies as they recharge for the busy business of growing and learning. I love these contemplative moments and work to allow for silence and quietude when children seem to need it. Precious moments indeed as we learn and play together in North Vancouver.
Happy Spring to everyone!