What Makes Ferns Special?

“I really liked the time when we were at the outdoor classroom, discovering what makes ferns special. There were a bunch of different types of ferns and we had to guess what types they were. We got the answers correct and it was super duper fun!” -Eamon’s, 2nd grader from Barstow Memorial School in Chittenden, favorite Four Winds memory

We asked Eamon, what makes ferns special? “The leaves are all different shapes and sizes and they look really cool. Ferns spread through those little brown thingies — oh yeah, spores! — which float in the wind.”

How were Eamon and his classmates able to tell one fern from the other? While the leaves of most ferns have a narrow stem and broad triangular blade, the lacey nature of fern fronds comes from divisions of the blade into leaflets and subleaflets. Some ferns have an “entire” blade, with no divisions or lobes. But in what are called once-cut ferns, the blade is divided horizontally into many smaller leaflets. Twice-cut ferns have leaflets further divided into subleaflets. Thrice-cut ferns are the laciest of all the ferns; every subleaflet is further subdivided into tiny lobes.

Patrick Alexander from Las Cruces, NM, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Entire” Walking Fern
Björn S…, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Once-cut” Polypody Fern
Twice-cut” Long Beech Fern
Thrice-cut” Lady Fern

At this time of year, you may begin to notice ferns browning in the forest and along roadsides, but keep your eye out in winter for evergreen ferns (Intermediate Wood Fern, Polypody, Christmas Fern, and Marginal Wood Fern) whose green foliage remains all year long, even under a blanket of  snow.

Patrick Alexander from Las Cruces, NM, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Christmas Fern under a blanket of snow

Learning All Wrapped Up Together Outdoors

Here is the perspective of Patti Smith, of Starship Kids in Bristol, VT:

“I have always done nature play and exploring with children! It always depends on what age children I have—there is always some way to participate. I do education and play. The way I look at it is, education should be fun and inviting, exciting. Play should also entail some learning. To me, it’s all kind of intermingled. I think one of the exciting things we did was last fall. The kids were kicking around the leaves (I have a very small orchard), under this one tree. So we made a spiral with the leaves, like a maze, that they could follow, in and out. Then we tied a piece of climbing rope to the tree to wind and unwind as they went along. 

It’s healing and refreshing [to be outside]. It’s good for the body and the brain, for oxygen, exercise, and all the senses. Inevitably, they’re moving around more! They could be on their back or belly on the ground. You just never know. They’re usually free-spirited. I find it teaches them sensitivity and expands their sense of respect. I try to teach them to tread softly and respect and care for nature. You’re taking care of yourself, too. It’s a time, especially during COVID, when they don’t have as many limitations. It lets them be themselves. 

It encourages learning, exploring, and observing. What is that bird doing?! Why is that squirrel hanging upside down?! Can you do that? What does it feel like to be a leaf? Part of the benefit of nature for children is to put themselves into something else that is growing or was once alive. The other thing that is really important, is they understand birth and death. That’s something that doesn’t always happen– for some children it’s such a foreign, detached situation. But one benefit in nature is you always see something newborn and you always see something dead. Whether it’s a bug, a plant, or an animal. One thing we do will lead to another, and I think that’s the thing about children being in nature, the continuation of play and life, and it’s just all wrapped up together.”

Fantasy and Imagination

“I’m a bird! Feel the wind when I flap my wings!” 

“Welcome to my house! Here are my shelves where I put my special things.” 

“These are the controls to go to the moon on my spaceship!” 

With simply cardboard, scissors, crayons, and duct tape, children’s imaginations can open wide. What will you create?!

“Young children live in their imaginations. Stories, plays, puppet shows, and dreams are preferred media for early childhood. We need to structure programs like dramatic play; we need to create simulations in which students can live the challenges rather than just study them.” –Childhood and Nature: Design Principles for Educators by David Sobel

Fantasy and Imagination are one of the seven play motifs, or recurring play patterns, David Sobel has identified from observing children playing freely outdoors around the world. Here are some books to spark Fantasy and Imagination ideas with cardboard boxes:

Big Box for Ben by Deborah Bruss

Not a Box by Antoinette Portis

What to do with a Box by Jane Yolen

Natural History Mystery

Who is this creature emerging from a sandy hole in September? They are just over an inch long. 

A baby snapping turtle! 

In the spring, female snapping turtles dig a nest in a well-drained open spot where the sun will incubate the eggs. She lays an average of 20-40 ping-pong ball-like eggs, covers the nest with the excavated soil, and heads back to the wetlands from which she came.

Most baby turtle eggs will not survive. A study from southeastern Michigan over 17 years found an average of 23% of survivorship of snapping turtle nests, although some years 0% survived the predation of raccoons, fox, mink, and others. 

After around three months, if the snapping turtles beat the odds and survive, they will use their egg tooth to break open the shell, dig out of the nest, and head to water up to a quarter-mile away. If they survive their journey to their watery home, then there are great blue herons, bullfrogs, water snakes, largemouth bass, and larger turtle predators to evade!

Nature Photography

A few weeks ago I was sitting on the porch with my seventh-grade neighbor Luke Valcour, a Four Winds Nature Program graduate, just talking about what interesting things we’d seen in nature this summer. Luke pulled out his cellphone to show me some pictures, and I noticed how many photographs he was scrolling through. Here are excerpts from our conversation, along with some of Luke’s photos (and one of Luke at work). – Lisa Purcell, executive director 

Lisa: “Wow. It looks like you do a bunch of nature photography. Your phone is full!”

Luke: “Oh, one of my favorite things to do if I have nothing else planned is to head up the back hill and see what I can find. I wasn’t very good at first, but my mom shared a few tricks for a good photograph: foreground, background, and lighting.

Like this one. At first all I saw was a tree, nothing really special. But then when you look really closely, you see so much more is going on. Sometimes the small things are the coolest, like this moss.

And this one was just so eerie, all foggy and frozen. The whole stream bed.

I like the creative process. Putting all the different pieces together. Looking for the hidden beauty.

 And look at this! I found Oscar the Grouch hibernating!” 

What has surprised YOU in nature recently?

To Run or Not to Run: We All Meet at the Next “Stopping Spot”

Here is the perspective of Kari Aube, teacher of young children at the Addison County Parent Child Center:

It can be tricky navigating a group of children from one space to another, especially when you have a mixture of needs, abilities, and levels of confidence. We teachers now know these kids –  some need to hold a hand until they feel safe and are more confident in the space. Then there are the kiddos that need to race ahead, and the ones who fall in between. How do we balance this, especially when walking with a small group on your own? 

On our walk to the path that leads us to the Wiggly Bridge, we have to hold hands at first for safety while we cross the school’s back parking lot. We talk about this expectation to hold a teacher or partner’s hand before we leave the play yard. But, as soon as we get to the hill, we can let go of hands so children can go at their own pace. Our first “stopping spot” – where we’ll stop and wait for everyone to regroup – is at the bottom of the hill on the gravel path. There we have a quick meeting about where the next “stopping spot” is. I regularly check in and say “who can see me?” as a subtle reminder. This gives them the opportunity to be in “charge” and allows them to feel like they are risk-taking by being ahead of me. 

These kids really know their stuff now as we are about to move into summer. They recognize where our usual stopping spots are and help each other remember they need to wait there for me or another teacher.

Of course, we did not get to this overnight. We have spent time coming to these spaces, learning the “limits,” and developing a relationship with these spaces. It is amazing to see kids support each other, teach the new kids the “ropes” and also have the ability to feel confident in nature. 

Small Worlds

Herp habitats, fairy fireplaces, snail sleeping spots, beetle boats, crayfish kitchens – what small worlds will you create?

“From sand boxes to doll houses to model train sets, children love to create miniature worlds… Through creating miniature representations of ecosystems, or neighborhoods, we help children conceptually grasp the big picture. The creation of small worlds provides a concrete vehicle for understanding abstract ideas.” –Childhood and Nature: Design Principles for Educators by David Sobel

Small Worlds are one of the seven play motifs, or recurring play patterns, David Sobel has  identified from observing children playing freely outdoors around the world. Here are some books to spark Small Worlds ideas:

Backyard Fairies by Phoebe Wall

Fairy Houses by Tracy Kane (and her many other fairy house books)

Fairy Houses: How to Create Whimsical Homes for Fairy Folk by Sally Smith

Mighty Min by Melissa Castrillon

“This is Beauty!”

“This is Beauty! Beauty is beautiful! I’m going to give Beauty a drink!” exclaimed a North Branch Nature Center Forest Preschooler. 

“Beauty” is a plant that the preschoolers met in their forest classroom, called Deer Camp. Students spent time with a plant, asking their name and getting to know them. Other students also met “Little Paws,” “Dario,” and “Velvet”. They noted the different sizes and lengths. One plant told a student “I’m growing!” During choice play time some students came back to their plant to talk more and to introduce their plant to others.

Forest Preschool Director Arianna Dayharsh sees her students build empathy and connection to place as they get to know the plants and animals. Arianna says the preschoolers “Greet the forest whenever we go out there and say ‘Hi, hi Deer Camp. How are you Deer Camp?'”

What plant or animal do YOU say hello to when you encounter them outside?!  

Natural History Mystery

What is that pinhead-sized cream bump on the underside of a milkweed leaf?

A monarch butterfly egg! Look for these ribbed eggs on the underside of the top tender leaves of milkweed plants. Keep watch for three to five days and you’ll notice the dark head of the developing caterpillar near the top of the egg. The caterpillar is about to emerge! 

A newly hatched monarch caterpillar, or larva, is shiny gray. Their egg shell is their first meal. Then they have the dangerous diet of sticky latex-filled milkweed leaves – about a third are mired in the milkweed latex. To avoid getting stuck in the glue, caterpillars cut a small circle in the leaf surface, blocking the flow of latex to the enclosed safe-eating area. 

After one to three days, they’ll shed their skin (become their 2nd instar) and don their characteristic black, yellow, and white bands. Over about a week or two, caterpillars shed their skin five times, grow to about two inches in length, and increase their body mass about 2,000 times! 

We’re Going on a Pretend Bear Hunt

Here is the perspective of Hayley Sirjane, teacher of young children at the Addison County Parent Child Center:

We’re going on a bear hunt.
We’re going to catch a big one.
What a beautiful day!
We’re not scared.

~Michael Rosen

My children love to go out on pretend bear hunts in the woods. When we are preparing for a pretend bear hunt, we will often read We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury. The children love to recite verses from this book as we are going over the familiar terrain. The rhythm of this story creates a great song to march to.

On our pretend bear hunt we like to collect items that might help us if we run into a bear. The children love to collect sticks. “We will wave our sticks at them and scare them,” one child in the group says. 

In this adventure we also explore large climbing rocks. We love climbing up them to get a better view for bears! All the children approach this risk differently. Some climb to the top, some climb halfway up, and some stay at the bottom and explore. Sometimes we even look for bears under logs…nope, just a slug!

The end of our pretend bear hunt usually leads us to a homemade house that was created by another group of children. There are many of these built throughout the woods we visit often. We will slowly enter the “cave” being very weary of a sleeping bear that could possibly awaken! Phew! No bear here! This bear cave becomes a great spot for a snack.

There is a lot of risk taking that happens in the woods. My children love to experience these kinds of adventures. Taking risks builds confidence and teaches valuable life skills. Children also learn to self-regulate, for example, “how high is too high on this rock?” Allowing children appropriate independence also sends the message that we trust them. Pretend bear hunts are the best!