May Dispatch from the Forest Grove

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      Who doesn’t love spring? It’s the earth’s bright green answer to winter’s dreary grey; when all the world begins to grow anew. If autumn is a time for introductions and winter for exploration, then spring is the season for culmination. In autumn we ground the students in the important, fundamental lessons of the forest grove: clearly identifying the boundaries (both figurative and literal) of the classroom; teaching an awareness of self, social expectations, and emotional responses; guiding newfound interest in the natural world. Throughout the winter we build on these lessons through experiential learning, and when spring comes they have already taken root. So now it is May and already we’ve begun encountering the result of all this preparation—new tendrils of independence, exploration, and self-direction emerging from a solid foundation of confidence and respect. The children know what their needs are and they know how to get those needs met.

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     Confidence and self-control empowers the students to engage with the environment in new ways and overcome unexpected challenges. When the tree nest was accidentally dismantled, the children approached it as an opportunity and not a setback and have worked on it as a team almost every day during the weeks since. And now that the kids are adept at managing transitions, we get to spend more time exploring the surrounding area in small groups and taking short “field trips.” Currently, we are making a point of getting down to the garden at least once a week with the help of our wonderful interns and volunteers, but we look forward to adding in a story time or two at the library come June and possibly even a trip to the Center for Urban Horticulture. When Sarah and I left to speak at the BGCI Education Congress the children felt excited to have Joanna, Kate, and Alicia in the classroom and were able to continue to learn and engage and not feel overwhelmed at the change in teachers. From an adult perspective, these steps may seem small, but in early childhood they are huge accomplishments, reflective of many months of hard work and cooperation. The underlying self-regulatory skills that propel these achievements will play a crucial role in the success of both graduating and returning students next year as they encounter new peer groups and personal challenges.

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     Cognitively, the preschoolers in both classes are at point where they are considering the lessons in a more abstract way, making connections between ideas and experiences and considering the implications of what they are learning. Over the past few months we have begun gently encouraging the children to strive to engage in more extended exploration and study on a particular topic, and to stay regulated and attentive throughout circle. In addition to being empowering, this level of concentration and control is allows the students to gain a deeper understanding of the topics we are learning about.

Learning to associate numeral and quantity with reptile countingOur natural science theme this year is “vertebrates” and the students are enjoying connecting their lessons at circle with their experiences in the field. We moved from mammals to birds and over the past two weeks began studying reptiles and more recently, amphibians. The children learned that reptiles are cold-blooded, lay leathery-shelled eggs, and have scales. We discussed and read books about common reptiles including snakes, lizards, and turtles. A number of the children built their own reptiles from the bones up, adding scales to cover the body and using materials from the forest floor to make a nest. A “Reptiles of Washington State” matching work provided fodder for discussion and gave children the opportunity to match pictures as well as words. A sensory tub with sand, eggs, and reptiles became a center for socialization and imaginative play. At circle time the children learned silly and informative songs about turtles and boa constrictors. A walk to the Azalea Way pond allowed for some first hand experience with reptiles here at the arboretum. Upon our return from the Education Congress the children shared their delight at discovering two painted turtles swimming around a large koi fish! We hope to return there soon for more discoveries.

     Last week our wonderful stand-in teachers Joanna and Kate introduced our new amphibians unit. The children listened to stories about amphibians and enjoyed a new amphibian sensory tub with water. Over the next week and a half we will continue to learn about amphibians and their life cycles and contrast their characteristics with those of reptiles. We will keep our eyes peeled for salamanders both in the water and out and are hoping that we can find some chorus frog tadpoles to examine as well. In addition we will be further exploring camouflage among amphibians and reptiles and do some experiments to help us better understand why clean water is essential to the life of a healthy frog.

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     Another new material in the forest grove is the beautiful scrapbook Joanna started last week with the help of the children. Since then drawing pictures of our classroom and areas we visit around the arboretum has become a hugely popular, collaborative effort. It is a wonderful way for the children to reflect and remember and it helps us grown-ups better understand how the students perceive their world. We look forward to continuing this project throughout the rest of the school year and in the coming years as well, and see it as an important tool for documenting the learning that goes on up in the forest grove.

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     When Sarah and I returned from St. Louis we brought with us a new book, the aptly named How to Find Flower Fairies by Cicely May Barker. We chose to introduce it because of the creative way the authors use the pop-up book format to encourage children to peer into, under, and around objects in their environment. It immediately became an incentive for engaging with the environment in precise, very thoughtful ways. In small groups, the children enjoy discussing their own perspective on fairies and whether they are real, and these conversations provide an opportunity to practice listening to and respecting different opinions.

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     “Are fairies real?” is a common question in the forest grove, and more than just encouraging imaginative play it has provided the children with a basis for using scientific principles to develop hypotheses, gather evidence and arrive at conclusions. We encourage the students to explore and experiment and come to their own conclusions, and the group is about equally split on where they stand in this regard. Too often in early childhood education we try to inhibit debate among young children, but Sarah and I believe it is impossible to teach conflict resolution without allowing the students to practice differences of opinion. When children freely express their own opinions and are encouraged to consider other’s, they develop a sense of self while simultaneously building empathy. Whether or not they “believe,” the process of searching for, discussing, and constructing elaborate new dwellings for these imaginary creatures wherever we go is enthralling. It is the shared journey, the tiny discoveries, and the potential of the unknown that lie at the heart of this experience and make it so compelling. Both Sarah and I consider the experience of magic during childhood as a provision for the grown-up conviction that anything is possible, and so it is wonderful to watch our little fairy scientists questioning and engaging with the natural world.

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    Over the next few months there is still much more to do, more to learn, more to explore. We will finish our vertebrates theme by studying fish before moving on to an in-depth study of wetlands and habitats here at the arboretum. The garden will continue to play a central role in our natural science curriculum. Students will study plant life cycles, learn about native plants and noxious weeds, and come to understand the role of different insects on plant health. We will take our time learning and make sure to follow the children’s lead whenever possible. The depth of their learning is so much greater when they guide the process themselves.

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     As an educator, I try to take the time to step back and just observe when I can. When the opportunity arises I will sit back on my heels for a moment and watch the kids at work; hands digging in the dirt, eyes peering intently into the undergrowth, lips curled into a faint smile. From this vantage point, it is clear that the past two years of learning and living in the forest grove have culminated in a group of children who are capable and empowered to do anything they set their minds to. At moments like these, I am absolutely certain that it is going to be an absolutely wonderful spring.

Tune in next time for more news of Fiddleheads and the Forest Grove….

All the best,

Kit and Sarah