Animal Encounters and Mud Explorations

Originally posted on November 25, 2016

In some ways, Fall is a time for both endings and beginnings. It has been fascinating to watch our new groups come together in play, exploration, and connection these past few months. Time outdoors in the waning days of Fall makes room for big, boisterous play that fills the body with energy and enlivens the senses. We have also observed many quiet and contemplative moments, watching the leaves fall or the stream run.

This past month we spent some extra time at Maplewood Farm due to high winds in the forest. In this part of program we have special opportunities to dig in our garden, plant and tend, connect with and care for animals, and talk to farmers.

Our day begins at our meeting spot, where we get our bodies moving and greet one another. Our morning group in the Tuesday/Thursday program is full of energy at this time, joyfully connecting in creative, imaginative ways. Perhaps they are Pacmen munching away, or wild horses neighing and hoofing the earth.

We always make time to dig in our garden and to observe how it changes from month to month. This year we planted fall and clover to build up the soil over the winter, as well as a row of garlic. Digging in soil can be both soothing and stimulating, and there are lots of different options for engagement - some children like to go all in with their hands, while others prefer to use a spade or rake. Regardless, creatures encountered in the soil world can inspire both fascination and disgust. Among many things, gardening provides a safe place to explore that "ick" feeling and ask questions about things that may frighten or disgust us. What words can we use to describe the sensation of a worm's slimy body crawling across the hand, or the tickle of a wood bug's feet? How do we feel when a spider jumps out unexpectedly from under a leaf?

The children in our classes often seem enthusiastic and curious about trying their hands at various gardening tasks; planting, applying fertilizer, watering, and weeding. But what we find draws their attention most effortlessly is the chance to explore the soil in their own time and way, without any particular external goal or purpose. This kind of play/work can be very cathartic, connective, grounding, and deeply engaging. As the soil is explored, what smells arise to greet the nose? What surprises will the next spadeful of soil unearth?

Our afternoon group has enjoyed getting to know Lima the cow at Maplewood Farm. She gave birth last Spring to a male calf, and must be milked daily as her calf has gone to live at another farm. The farmers encourage the children to ask big questions as they watch Lima being milked.

Why do people keep animals? What would happen if Lima roamed wild? What is exchanged in the relationship between animal and people at the farm? Where is Lima's baby? After she is milked, we have the thrilling chance to gently touch and pet Lima. The children have explored such questions as: how does her hair feel? Is it soft or coarse? Can we feel the warmth of her body?

One gift of being at the farm is interacting with animals, and noticing how the way we move and speak around them affects their behaviour. For example, if we move quickly or speak loudly, that calf we would like to take a close look at may move away from us. But when make our bodies and voices calm, we notice the animals feel calmer too, and we can get closer. In this way, interacting with animals can give us practice with reading nonverbal communication, and seeing the positive results of our thoughtful words and actions on the beings around us.

Those baby goats get curious about us and come over for a nice head scratch.

With a calm body and voice, those rabbits stay put while happily munching a carrot out of a child's hand.

Another favoured spot near Maplewood is the bridge and stream near our usual snack spot. This spot borders the forested area where we can explore once we have finished feeding and visiting the animals. Here the children have enjoyed very active, exciting play, re-enacting treasured stories such as "Bill Goat's Gruff," developing their skill at exploring and expanding upon narratives.

As the Fall rains have begun to be a constant factor in our time outside, we have sought ways to embrace it and all its effects on the environment. One of the results of lots of rain in the forest is the creation of lots of mud! One way we have embraced this is by using mud as a painting material. Mud applied to a clean white fabric sheet represents a novel and appealing way to explore its varied textures, smells, and consistencies, as we adjust the ratios of mud to water, and observe how the rains alter our creation.

It was surprising and fascinating to see the many different approaches children took to this activity. Some made cities; others drew their pets and loved ones; while still others enjoyed supporting and preparing materials for children who were painting.

We always offer multiple entry points into an activity to enhance the feeling of inclusivity and teamwork in our activities. If a child does not want to use her hands in the mud, we'll provide a paintbrush. If a child does not wish to paint at the sheet when others are present because they feel crowded, perhaps they would enjoy being the "water fetcher" and mixing different consistencies of mud until there is more space. Later they can enjoy the freedom to dump large amount of mud on the sheet, or explore more vigorously with their hands!

So far we have been successfully embracing the rain, the mud, and the cold at Fresh Air learning North Vancouver. Here's to a winter filled with outdoor play and learning in the misty rainforest!

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