Following the children’s lead in learning

It began with the discovery of a tealish-green piece of wood by a student in Jean Bressor’s Brewster-Pierce Nature-Based Preschool class. Students kept finding this mysteriously stained wood throughout their outdoor-centered school day. They created a special shelf in their classroom to hold their growing collection. Jean would ask the children, “What do you think is happening? Why is there this green? I notice that it’s when the wood is already dead and wet.” While Jean was thinking it was part of the rotting process, students were coming up with their own ideas: an animal peed on it, someone painted it, grass got stained on it. After a five month learning journey of noticing, wondering, and researching, they discovered the mysterious stain was the mycelium (the network of fine filaments) of a fungus – aptly named Green Stain Fungus, or Green Elfcup. While the greenish-blue cup-shaped fruiting bodies are usually seen July to late October, the stain can be seen year-round on decaying wood. Jean felt the joy of allowing students to take the lead of their learning. She says, “It’s a funny balance as an adult. How much do you provide facts and how much do you journey with them to figure things out?”

Jean says COVID was the “kick in the pants” to getting outside consistently. And she has been seeing many benefits. She’s observed her students reach higher levels of socialized play outside before they do inside. She sees sensory needs being met more easily and naturally, with students free to jump, roll, climb, and play with sand and rocks. She sees less attention-deficit behaviors outside because children are allowed to follow their interests. Jean sees huge benefits of students being able to calculate their own risk and do their own risk analysis in active play (Jean likes to call this active play instead of risky play as it is not inherently unsafe). Children are able to actively use their bodies and negotiate how high they can climb, how far they can jump, and if they can they walk across the log without falling off.

Jean says, “Instead of constantly saying, be careful, be careful, it’s icy! I would sing – ‘Ice is slippery, ice is fun!’ We would just sing that when we got near ice and that would cue them up to notice that. Saying what we notice, instead of telling them what to do.” 

Just as her class follows the footprints of deer, rabbit, and fox to simply see where they lead, Jean is open to what students are drawn to and follows their lead. 

Natural History Mystery

Winter starkness allows us to bring attention to what can be hidden in the flurry of colors, sounds, and textures of other seasons. My daily walking route revealed a previously hidden mystery this winter. Can you spot three curled leaves hanging onto this young ash tree?

It seemed odd for a tree to have three perfectly rolled leaves remaining through winter. I took a closer look. The connection of the leaf’s petiole (stem) to the branch was reinforced with silk – telling me this was the work of some creature wanting a secure winter hideaway. This elongate shelter hanging on through winter was two inches in length, with a valve-like opening on one end – who do you think could be inside?

The pupa of a Promethea moth nestled in a silken cocoon! In the fall, the pale lime caterpillars with red and yellow knobs wrap a leaf with silk for a snug winter home. In the late spring, they emerge from their cocoon’s opening as winged adults. Search for and mark branches with Promethea cocoons now, and then later this year, after the trees leaf out, watch for the adult moths to spread their wings (or you might see wasps that have parasitized the cocoons!).

The deep red color of the female’s wings could have given the moth their name.
In Greek mythology Prometheus was a Titan who stole fire from Zeus to share with humankind.

Birch Secret

These dangling fingers decorating the bare branches of gray birch trees hold a secret. Four Winds Naturalist-Educator Chris Runcie has shared their magic with the students at Robinson Elementary School. She says to roll some in your hands and see what happens. Give it a try!

An explosion of seeds! These are the mature female catkins – clusters of flowers that have gone to seed – of gray birch trees. Each catkin is packed with seeds (referred to as winged nutlets) tucked together with bracts (three-lobed modified leaves). Can you pick out the flying bird-like bracts and the smaller butterfly-like seeds in the photo?

The gray birch seed is outlined in a square and the bract is outlined with a circle.

Birch seeds are moved by wind and can scoot across smooth snow to disperse, traveling over 250 feet from a parent tree if the conditions are right. Try releasing the seeds to the wind yourself and see how far you can make them travel! 

Challenge: Different birches have differently shaped seeds and bracts. Can you pick out the larger yellow birch bracts and seeds from the smaller gray birch bracts and seeds in the photo below? 

The gray birch seed is outlined in a yellow square and the bract is outlined with a yellow circle.
The yellow birch seed is outlined in a purple square and the bract is outlined with a purple circle.

Go out and follow the lead of the kids

“I grew up on a small farm, and we were outdoors exploring all the time. My parents gave us a section of the barn for our playhouse. We could do anything we wanted—play with mud, scour the barn for furniture, sleep in there—it was about freedom. We could go to the barn, pastures, pond, woods, and Mother Nature just called. There was so much there to see! So being outside, that’s what I did from the start at the center. 

In the summer, we’re outside for most of the day, except a couple of hours for rest time. In cooler weather, we try to get two hours outside each morning and then another hour in the afternoon. We take the kids right into the play yard and talk about what’s there: sand, water, leaves, pine needles, grasses. 

A lot of the time the kids are free to play with whatever they want. Sometimes we will play games around a certain theme that’s being used in morning meeting, like hibernation. One teacher is the bear, the kids are berries and nuts, and she goes around and finds them before hibernating. 

My advice for other providers is to just go out and follow the lead of the kids. My kids will ask— can we go for a walk? To the pond? Find a small thing that interests you outside, and go from there. Kids will go from there. You don’t need a lot of stuff to play with. The one thing that does help is water suits. We use them year-round. But mother nature provides pretty much anything else you need! Sometimes we band together with another provider nearby, to take a walk together. Lots of people don’t like to go out when it’s cold. For providers, getting good snow pants and mittens (try visiting used clothing stores!)—that’s a huge thing. You need to be comfortable yourself.” 

-Meri Saladino, My Second Home, Bradford, VT

Snowball Science

“We’re making a snowman as big as we can! Put the snowball in snow in the sun to make the snow stick. The sunny snow is shiny. The shininess makes the snow stick,” explained students at North Branch Nature Center Forest Preschool. 

You can tell the quality of snowball snow through the squeeze test: pack a snowball tightly and observe. If water is released, the snow is too wet (it will turn into a chunk of ice and could hurt someone). If you can’t form a snowball, the snow is too dry. If you can pack together a snowball without water being released, the sticky state is just right!

The pressure (not the heat) from your hands packing the snowball can melt some snow when temperatures are just below freezing. As you release the snowball, that liquid water refreezes and welds the snowflakes together into a snowball. If the temperature is too cold, you won’t be able to pack with enough pressure to form this snow glue.

Surface moisture is the most important factor for snowballs. So if the snow is too dry, finding snow that has melted a bit in the sun or from the heat of a building is a good place to start!

Natural History Mystery

Here’s a winter natural history mystery, found about five feet from a tree in the woods. What do you think the story is? Below are some more clues:

In deeper snow, a set of two tracks (slightly offset from one another) were followed by more sets of paired tracks. Each set of tracks represent four prints, as the hind feet directly register on the tracks left by the front feet. This gait is called a 2×2 lope – a slinky-like pattern common for the weasel family. (See 7:19 in this video for this 2×2 lope gait acted out)

The tracks ended at a tree (entering from the bottom right, another animal left tracks across the middle of the photo). The tracks picked up again after the mystery depression in the snow. It seemed that this animal had jumped from the tree into the snow and left a body print with a long tail mark! Who could that be?

Fisher Face Snow” by is licenced under CC BY-SA 3.0 us

The fisher! Also known as fishercat, pekane (Abenaki), pekan (French), otchock (Cree), otshilik (Ojibwan), wejack (early European settlers), and furred snake, they are the second-largest member of the weasel family found in Vermont, after the North American River Otter. Fisher are agile climbers and can turn their hind feet up to 180 degrees, allowing them to move head first down trunks (when they don’t jump down!). Their climbing ability also makes them adept porcupine hunters, able to force porcupines to fall from tree branches where they can then attack their unquilled faces. In Vermont, fisher are the only predators who deliberately target porcupines as prey.

Habitat loss and unregulated trapping led fisher to practical extinction in Vermont by the turn of the 20th century. Consequently, the porcupine population proliferated and seriously damaged Vermont’s second-growth maturing forests. The fifty cent bounty for two porcupine ears during the first half of the 20th century was not effective population control, and so the fisher was reintroduced as a natural check on porcupine numbers. Between 1959 and 1967, 124 fisher were brought from Maine and released into 37 Vermont towns. Today, the porcupine/fisher equilibrium has been restored and fisher are common in the state, even in urban areas (check out where they’ve been seen in Burlington and South Burlington through the  Burlington Mammal Tracking Project).

Still and patient

Emma Hallowell’s Guilford Central School Pre-K class began noticing and wondering about winter birds. The students decided to make a scarecrow, and prop it up on a tree sitting down with bird feed in the scarecrow’s lap. Once the birds were comfortable feeding from the scarecrow, children began sitting where the scarecrow was. After a month of the children being so still and patient, the birds were feeding from their laps, hats, and mittens!

This spun into a whole other direction of inquiry when students noticed scat on the scarecrow’s lap. They wondered – who has been here? They did lots of hypothesizing and wrote a letter to naturalist Mary Holland, along with sending a sample of scat. Turns out it was eastern cottontail scat that had been deformed by a sleet storm! Emma says, “Children are full of questions …. not necessarily interested in an answer. Approach time outside with children with curiosity. We’re so quick to give a name. Instead, grown-ups can pose interesting questions.”

Nurturing a Child’s Sense of Wonder Project

New Year’s Resolution: More Time Outside!

Make a resolution this year to spend more time playing and learning in nature! Let’s make nature-based play and learning part of every child’s childhood. Time outside deepens both our sense of wonder towards the world around us and our sense of self looking inwards. Need some sparks of ideas?

Introducing Nurturing a Child’s Sense of Wonder

Students at Little Peaks Preschool in Keene, NY

Nurturing a Child’s Sense of Wonder is a Four Winds project to share stories of nature-based play and learning in action throughout Vermont and beyond. We will be publishing a weekly blog and seasonal eNewsletters focusing on ideas for spending time playing and learning outside with children and sharing stories from folks who do. We invite you to join us to see how the benefits of nature-based play and learning for children’s well-being and healthy development can snowball!

This project was made possible by generous support from the Canaday Family Charitable Trust.

Beginning with Patience

“I don’t know how to play without toys,” was the response of students when Katherine Brown first began a forest day with Little Peaks Preschool. Katherine was a bit discouraged, thinking the magic would just turn on simply by being in the woods. After listening to the kids who said it was “too pokey” in the prickly balsam fir tree grove, they moved to a more mature forest with fallen logs, big rocks, and a stream.

Slowly, Katherine says, “the kids started to really connect with that place and they started naming places in the woods and making their little forts, they really felt like it was their place, their space by the springtime.”

Patience is Katherine’s message to those wanting to spend more time outdoors with kids: “It’s not like you’re going to snap your fingers and the kids will be dancing around in the woods making fairy houses. You have to trust and give them free space to do it. It’s not going to happen all at once, but it happens bit by bit, and each time is better than the time before. They start to spend a minute at sit spots (which I always prefer to call quiet spots). And by the end of the year they’re lying there, looking up at the leaves and noticing all kinds of things, and they really enjoy being there. So it’s just taking baby steps and trusting in the power of nature to resonate with kids.”

2019 Photo Contest Results

The 2019 Four Winds Photo Contest results are in!

We received many wonderful photos for this year’s “Kids in Nature” photo contest, and our team of judges has selected their top choices!

It was difficult to choose just three photographs from the submissions, all of which illustrated creative and curious kids outdoors, investigating, playing, and adventuring.

Thank you for your submissions, and we hope to see you out enjoying nature with the children in your lives!

Grand Prize

Submitted by Erin Ruble

Second Place

Submitted by Tristan Von Duntz

Third Place

Submitted by Erin Ruble