“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!

Caddisfly Explorations

Look under a rock or at the bottom of a pond or stream for a while and you may catch movement of what appears to be rocks, sticks, or leaves. These could be the larvae of caddisfly!

Caddisfly adult – Ryan Hodnett, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Caddisfly adults often have antennae longer than their body and fly with hairy wings they hold like a tent over their back when resting. In their few days to few weeks as adults, female caddisflies lay eggs in gelatinous masses. When the larvae emerge, many species of caddisfly build a portable case using silk they secrete from glands around their mouth plus sticks, vegetation, stones, or other bits of their environment. Other caddisfly larvae use their silk to make nets to filter food from the water or as a belay line so they won’t be washed downstream.

Different styles of caddisfly cases

After four molts of their entire exoskeleton, the larva creates a silken cocoon as they mature from larva to pupa. For two to three weeks the pupa wriggles inside the cocoon, thus creating a small current with dissolved oxygen as they transform into an adult. The caddisfly adult, now with sturdy mandibles, cuts away the cocoon and floats to the water’s surface. And the cycle continues!

Learn more by reading the poem “Aquatic Fashion” and other pond poems in the book Song of the Water Boatman by Joyce Sidman.

Create your own caddisfly inspired aquatic fashion with camouflage cuffs. Wriggle your “caddisfly larvae” hand around to explore, net food, and hold on in the strong currents!

Special Places

“This is my favorite place,” a ReTribe Forest School student whispered as she showed off her sit-spot. She transformed this spot into a carnival during free play – including stations of throwing a stick through a stick frame, batting back and forth a jaw bone on a string, balancing on a log, face painting with charcoal, swinging, and limbo.

ReTribe co-founder and mentor Julia Hunt had a similar special place in her childhood. She says, “I think about my childhood and a certain tree at my elementary school. We called it the old man’s tree, and we built little fairy homes. I can still feel the feeling of the place and this feeling of ‘I belong here.’ I could spend all day there. It still exists, a really warm feeling. So I know that I have that in me, and I know how the kids remember this landscape … it’ll be like this magical place in their mind. I know that’ll be so special to them, and I have this belief that then they’ll want to preserve that specialness for others.”

Natural History Mystery

What is this gelatinous mass under a stream rock?

Look at who is guarding the goo for a clue!

These are the developing eggs of the Northern Two-Lined Salamander!

Northern Two-Lined Salamanders are found throughout Vermont in small rocky streams, seeps and springs. They attach fifteen to over one hundred eggs to the underside of a rock in flowing streams or spring water. One female guards the “nest,” where sometimes multiple females have laid eggs. The eggs hatch into aquatic larvae with tufts of external gills. After two to three years, they transform into adults, which are around 2.5 inches long and have the characteristic two dark lines bordering a yellow-brown stripe from their head to their tail. 

Try flipping stream rocks and see what mysteries you discover!

Can you find the two camouflaged aquatic larvae?

I Wonder

Here is the perspective of Katie Scanlon, Four Winds volunteer for Hanover Street School in Lebanon, NH:

When I’m learning these natural science lessons, I find myself saying I wonder, and then it just gets that ball rolling of wanting to be out in nature more, and exploring more. 

I love telling the students, “I wonder?” I just finished my last Four Winds lesson, and we were all outside. It was a beautiful day, and we had just done Water. They were wrapping their heads around the concept that water is sticky. 

I was saying, “I wonder what else we’re going to explore.” When I said that this is our last lesson of the year, they all were saying, “No!” so then I said “well, here’s your homework: to go out in nature and say ‘I wonder’ because something’s going to happen.” They were so excited about that. Four Winds doesn’t end when Mr. Kevin and I leave the schoolyard with you today, it continues! 

I’ve taught from kindergarten up to fourth grade now. I remember one of the first years with kindergarten (and it’s kindergarten, so, it’s hysterical). We were doing Rotting Logs and some of the kids just wanted to get in there and touch and feel and some kids were like, “I don’t want to touch it.” But there was this one little girl and she was looking so intently but not touching it. We’re talking about decomposers and trying to understand what that means. She was just looking. You could see her mind moving and she didn’t want to touch it. She said, “Those guys have a big job so I don’t want to disrupt that.” 

You could see her wheels turning, wanting to know. And again, that was a kindergartner! And you love that because it’s just that tip of the iceberg to get them asking those questions. Then when you go and you teach fourth grade and you’re doing that same type of lesson, they’re taking it to the next level. Well let’s talk about decomposers, what type of insects are these? It’s just so great to see that progression to that next question!

Infants in the Outdoors?

Here is the perspective of Jill Oudman, teacher of young children, ages birth-5 years, at the Addison County Parent Child Center:

Ever try to bring an infant group outdoors to play, or to the woods for an “adventure”?  Well what an adventure it can be!

Picture this: Six infants – some more mobile than others, three staff.  We got this, right?  NOT!  One baby becomes unsettled and starts to cry, setting off a chain reaction.  End Adventure!

Over the past two decades I have learned to take it slow and get a feel for the group, have an open mind and a full bag of tricks, and then, follow the children’s lead.  Today, the following is how it may look when I am working with infants/young toddlers that are unsure or unsettled while initially exploring the outdoors:

Planning ahead, I would place a blanket or two outside for the child to be on.  Adding a few familiar toys to the blankets to encourage engagement and possibly use for scaffolding further explorations. Starting with only one or two infants at a time, I would sit on the blanket with them, offering as much comfort as needed to engage in play. I place items such as grass, leaves, flowers, sticks, and pinecones on the blanket for them to explore.  

They are infants, and so YES they will explore by putting these items in their mouths! Keeping this in mind, I will offer large items that I know are safe, such as edible plants/herbs, large or chunky pine cones, and sticks.  As they become more comfortable, I move closer to the edge or even off the blanket to encourage their exploration of the surroundings, always being available to keep them feeling safe.  Sometimes it takes the comfort of holding the child while introducing them to the environment in order to reduce stress and allow for a positive experience and engagement.

Gradually the children become more comfortable and expand on their sensory experiences by exploring further and further from the blanket. If it seems like the sensory experience of crawling on the grass is undesirable and prohibiting a child from moving off the blanket, it might help if you put them in long pants tucked into socks and a long sleeved shirt with mittens or socks on their hands.) 

Routinely building in enriching outdoor experiences helps create more confident and curious children.  Remember, you can start small. Nature is right outside your door.

Magical Fern Forest

Here is the perspective of Erika Bodin, Four Winds Coordinator for Barstow School in Chittenden, VT:

We have this really beautiful ostrich fern patch by the outdoor classroom in the woods. The ferns are taller than the children and so that was really magical. I took them in there and they were just full of awe. “Wow, it’s like a magical fern forest!”

Most of them had grabbed sticks and were using them like walking sticks through the ferns. They all looked like this great little intrepid group exploring. They were calling out to each other: “Oh, I found a fiddlehead!”, “I found a fertile frond!”, “Let’s follow the water!” 

Just Questions

“I didn’t feel anything else,” was how a six-year old student of Thickets, a Montpelier place-based education program, described the experience of cliff-climbing. Teacher Mia Rubow sees her students build focus, confidence, strength, and “grounding connections” as they explore outdoors – finding their way to the state house and discovering the best creek for clay.

Spring leads Thickets students to the water. Weeks are spent directing the flow of water entering the pond, experimenting with damming, creating boats, catching frogs, forming and defending islands (which later connected with researching battling island states). This continuous exploration, “didn’t require anything from me,” says Mia, “just questions.”