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Halloween is over—the witches and ghosts are being put away. The candy is almost gone. And the Jack-o-lanters fold in on themselves as they grow old and become one with the earth. These events cue another tradition in the Explorer’s classroom—the reading of a favorite book about a charming mouse and a friendly Jack-o-lantern.
Mousekin’s Golden House, written and illustrated by Edna Miller, is a great post-Halloween read. One moonlit night, Mousekin, a little mouse, travels down a path and walks right into a jack-o-lantern. He finds the big-faced pumpkin interesting—so interesting that he forgets to watch for danger and he’s almost snatched by an owl. Luckily, the jack-o-lantern provides him with shelter. Mousekin finds many benefits to living in a jack-o-lantern.
Miller does a wonderful job giving voice and personality to this little mouse while staying true to the facts of nature. Playful illustrations nestled on the pages add visuals to this sweet story. A wonderful read with a very cozy ending.
Stephen and I had just arrived at my cousin Shannon’s farm to help her weed some garden beds. Stephen asked, “Which ones are weeds?” Shannon and I paused for a moment, both realizing the complexity of that question. Then we arrived at the same solution. We pointed to a tall, easy-to-identify plant that was also easy to pull out of the ground and said, “Pick this one.”
Stephen went to work. Occasionally, he would stop and ask, “Is this the one?” We would stop weeding, look up, say, “Yes, that’s it,” and then return our attention to the weeds before us. Stephen finished pulling “his weed” in one area, so Shannon gave him another bed to work on.
Shannon and I hadn’t planned Stephen’s part in the weeding task but it worked out well. Stephen felt connected, helpful, and learned to identify one “weed. As we worked Stephen asked Shannon, “What makes a plant a weed?” She explained, “A weed is a plant growing somewhere we don’t really want it.”
Merriam-Webster dictionary says: weed (noun) – a plant that is not valued where it is growing and is usually of vigorous growth; especially one that tends to overgrow or choke out more desirable plants
The Oxford dictionary says: weed (noun) – a wild plant growing where it is not wanted and in competition with cultivated plants.
After we had weeded two flower beds, we walked over to the vegetable garden to see what was growing. There were beans, eggplant, cucumbers, lots of varieties of tomatoes, squash, soybeans, and yes, Stephen’s weed. He spotted them immediately and asked if he could pull them out. In the vegetable garden, this weed had the same identifying features, but it was much taller—over 5 feet tall. Stephen felt strong and accomplished as he recognized his weed and removed it from the vegetable garden.
Next time you head out to the garden to remove pesky weeds, invite a child to join you. Introduce them to one weed you would like removed from the garden. Talk with them about the features that distinguish that “weed” from the other plants—tall and thin, oval leaves, spiky seedpods, etc. and then get to work.
It was a fitting end to our time with this adventurous group of children. They were always ready to hit the trails and make discoveries. Some days we would only make it to the front of the school because the birds at the feeders or the caterpillars on a nearby tree were so interesting. On those days, we would watch, talk, investigate, and play nearer to home. On other days, the Explorer’s would be ready for distant explorations. They would pick up giant oak leaves, sparkly rocks, acorns, sticks in the shape of Y or 7, curly pieces of bark, etc. while hiking to Berry Berry Island or the Cedar Swamp.
Cedar Swamp became the class’s favorite destination. We’d follow the white trail until it reached the blue trail, then hike the blue trail past a vernal pool to the top of a small hill. At the top of this hill is a Stone Circle built to mark north, south, east, and west. The Explorer’s love to climb the rocks in the circle. On the other side of this hill is the Cedar Swamp with a new boardwalk running through it, courtesy of a boy scout and his eagle project.
The swamp contains huge straight cedar trees with bark so soft and smooth that we all feel compelled to pet them. In early spring, the Explorer’s like to watch the skunk cabbage poke its way out of the mud. “There’s some skunk cabbage. There’s more skunk cabbage. I see skunk cabbage. Why is it called skunk cabbage? Here’s more skunk cabbage.” This is the running commentary as we walk through the skunk cabbage.
Further down the boardwalk and deeper into the swamp, we see frog and salamander eggs in the water. And we see and hear frogs, lots and lots of frogs. The commentary changes. “Look frog eggs. I see salamander eggs. (Yes, the Explorer’s can tell the difference.) Here are more frog eggs. I hear frogs. They are so loud! There they are, I see frogs. Look! Frogs!”
At the end of the boardwalk there is a root-filled clearing lined with benches. This spot became the Explorer’s favorite playground. We named it Rootsaboxen, after reading the book Roxaboxen to them during one of our visits to this area. The book is written by Alice McLearran and illustrated by Barbara Cooney. Check it out. Great book.
When it came time to plan an end of the year celebration, Melissa and I wanted to include this special spot in our plan. We decided to create an Explorer’s letterbox and hide it at the end of the boardwalk in the land of Rootsaboxen. Melissa wrote clues that would lead the class from the school, through the Cedar Swamp and to the hidden letterbox.
By the time everything was in place, it was the last day of school and it was raining. We continually checked the forecast through out the morning, looking for a break in the rain. No break. After lunch we checked on the class’s rain gear. We were able to outfit everyone with rain boots and raincoats. Melissa and I convinced ourselves that the rain had let up a bit and it was time to head for the Cedar Swamp. The Explorer’s happily followed us out into the rain. I could feel their trust and enthusiasm. The rain hadn’t really let up, but it didn’t stop us. We were all on a mission to find the surprise hidden near the Cedar Swamp.
Many times this year I have said, “This class hiked further the first week of school, than other classes hiked on their last days with us.” I wonder about this. How did we cover so much ground with this class? I think the answer is that it isn’t only the Explorer’s who are learning in our classroom. Melissa and I have learned that four and five-year-olds can and want to be out on the trails. They enjoy the freedom to make discoveries and investigate new territory. They love being outdoors in natural settings, where they can pretend and play what children pretend and play. We have also learned to read the group—whose tired, who needs support, when to add a song or game, and most importantly, when to make tracks for home.
As we set out for parts very well known to our class, I smiled at this new twist—rain. Another first for all of us to experience together—hiking in the rain. Their trust and enthusiasm a gift that I gratefully accept. Thank you Explorers for a wonderful year.
“I channel Emma Gatewood when I find a challenging section of trail.” That’s what a fellow hiker said to me during an Appalachian Mountain Club sponsored hike. “Have you heard of her?” continued this 70+ hiker walking beside me. “She hiked the entire Appalachian Trail in sneakers and a skirt at 65 years old. So when I’m hiking a tricky section of the trail I think, ‘If Emma Gatewood could hike this in sneakers and a skirt, I can hike it too.’ ”
He then told me about a recently published book by Ben Montgomery called Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail. I just finished reading it. It turns out she didn’t hike in a skirt, but it makes for a good story. She did thru-hike (hike a long-distance trail end-to-end) the Appalachian Trail (AT) twice, the first time in 1955 at 67-years-old. This achievement made her the first woman to hike the entire trail, from Mount Oglethorpe in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine, 2050 miles. She hiked the AT again in 1960, and again at age 75 in 1963. The completion of these hikes made her the first person to hike the trail three times. Her final hike was completed in sections, and all her hikes were done in sneakers.
If you’ll go with me to the mountains
And sleep on the leaf carpeted floors
And enjoy the bigness of nature
And the beauty of all out-of-doors,
You’ll find your troubles all fading
And feel the Creator was not man
That made lovely mountains and forests
Which only a Supreme Power can.
When we trust in the Power above
And with the realm of nature hold fast,
We will have a jewel of great price
To brighten our lives till the last.
For the love of nature is healing,
If we will only give it a try
And our reward will be forthcoming,
If we go deeper than what meets the eye.
by Emma “Grandma” Gatewood
This is a beautiful spring picture, don’t you think? The bright billowy clouds and their reflection on the water, the lily pads just starting to appear, the red buds on the branches, and the muted tones of the trees at the water’s edge that just hint of the green leaves that will come—it all says SPRING. Yet when I took the picture I didn’t see any of it, I was focused on another sign of spring.
While driving by this scene, my eye was drawn to a small mud flat in the middle of the pond. There was a lot happening on this little island. Eleven turtles were enjoying the warmth of the afternoon sun on one of the first warm days of the year.
When I showed my friend Caryn these two images, it reminded her of a film by Ray and Charles Eames. Take a look.
Put on your mud boots and take a walk to a pond, swamp, or vernal pool. Go outside and listen. It’s noisy. The frogs have spent the winter hibernating in the mud and leaves of ponds, swamps, and vernal pools everywhere. They are now awake and calling to each other. In Connecticut we have bull frogs, leopards frogs, wood frogs, tree frogs, pickerel frogs, and everyones favorite spring peepers. Each type of frog has its own call. These calls are used to attract a mate during breeding season and to mark their territory.
These sounds of spring don’t last long. Once the frogs find each other, mate, and lay their eggs they will stop singing. So listen, listen now, listen carefully. Tune into the sounds of spring.
This statement was in response to me saying, “You guys are so not fun.”
On a recent snow day, I asked Stephen and Aurora if they would go snowshoeing with me. Mother Nature had kindly given us over a foot of snow and we were able to snowshoe right outside our kitchen door.
I did not make this offer lightly. I knew I was signing up to help find and put on hats, gloves, boots, coats, and snow pants for two children. I would then fasten three pairs of snowshoes on three pairs of feet. My final task would be to choose an attainable destination and cheerlead and referee us to that destination.
“Why would anyone sign up for this?” “Why bother?” “Wouldn’t watching a movie together be easier?” These are questions I ask myself sometimes, and was starting to ask myself, when I said, “You guys are so not fun.”
Stephen, Aurora, and I were heading for either the old foundation or the vernal pool. Both sites are in the woods a short distance up a hill from our backyard. We were at the edge of our yard and starting to make progress in our trip up the hill when Stephen “fell” (sat down) in the snow. Aurora stopped to “help” him up, just as he was getting on his feet, she pushed him back down into the snow. He laughed, she laughed, and I said, “You guys are so not fun.”
At that moment, I had forgotten something important. My grown-up self wanted to go snowshoeing—travel from point A to point B, get some exercise, enjoy the snow, take some pictures, and listen to the quiet of the woods. But that was not what I had signed up for when I asked Stephen, 8 years old and Aurora, 11 years old to go snowshoeing with me. And Aurora reminded me of that when she said “Mom, you are not embracing the moment.” This excursion into the woods was about us spending time in nature, getting Stephen and Aurora more comfortable on snowshoes, and having fun together.
It was clear something needed to change, and it was my expectations. So, I looked up at the snow covered trees, took a deep breath, smiled to myself, and turned around. I met the Stephen and Aurora where they were, back down the trail, sitting in the snow. When I reached them, I sat down in the snow with them. We talked and listened to the birds and the wind. It was fun and peaceful.
After a while, I suggested we go the the vernal pool, which was closer than the old foundation. Then I mentioned that we could travel to the pool by way of the creek bed. Stephen and Aurora liked that idea, so we set off. Traveling up the creek bed added an interesting and challenging twist to our journey. The rocks and water were mostly covered with new-fallen snow. This created a soft, pillowy trough. Stephen climbed up onto a rock that had a foot of snow on it. From the top of the rock he looked for his next step. It was going to be a big one. He was a little apprehensive, but with a little encouragement he took the leap and landed in the soft, fluffy snow. Success!
A few minutes later we made it to the vernal pool. Stephen and Aurora immediately sat down in the snow at the edge and started throwing snowballs into the water and onto a layer of ice on part of the pool. We all enjoyed watching the snow spread across the ice and dissolve into the water.
Our excursion was going well. Stephen and Aurora were having fun and were engaged with the natural setting and its possibilities—walk on a log, lie in the snow, throw ice chunks in the pond, break ice with sticks, hit trees with snowballs, hit sibling or mother with snowballs.
1. Set the intention to be in nature with your children, and let the rest evolve. Keep them safe and meet them where they are: if they like to throw snow chunks in the water, throw snow chunks in the water; if they want to walk along a log, help them walk along a log; if they want to sit in the snow, sit in the snow.
2. Set your sights on an attainable destination, and don’t be afraid to shorten the end point if the children look tired, cold, or just plain done.
3. Dress for the weather. Warm, dry children are happy to be outside in most conditions.
4. The following are great tools (use them wisely and often): Sing songs (ex. The Ants Go Marching, etc.): Pose small challenges (“Do you think you can reach that big tree in 15 second?”); Issue words of encouragement (“You are strong, I know you can make it to the top of this hill!”); and Promise hot chocolate at the end!