Then Pierre introduced us to the study of bird language, based in indigenous practices of deep nature awareness and connection. This is a whole new way (for me) of observing birds. He explained how birds convey so much information about what’s going on in the landscape- what predators are on their way, whether a fast-flying bird-of-prey from above or a hunting mammal from below, where the deer are etc.
Our Field Day for Schools program started yesterday with a visit from the Senior K class of Good Shepherd Catholic School. 24 kids, 3 nature mentors, 3 parent volunteers, and 3 teachers made up our village for the day, so we divided into three groups, each led by an Earth Path mentor, to explore the forests, meadows and creeks around Just Food Farm.
We mentors had a blast! And we were happy to hear that the children and other adults enjoyed themselves too! Here’s an email we received from parent volunteer Erika Coghill, reflecting on her time spent with the group led by mentor Isabel (a long-time friend and guest mentor at Earth Path, Isabel also runs Les Arterres in Wakefield, QC).
“I was so happy to be able to join the class in exploring nature! You guys have such a great gig at Earth Path! I thought I would pass on some comments I had about the program as I really enjoyed it and thought Isabel did such a great job! It was exhilarating being in the forest all day and, as I discussed with the teaching staff, the children seemed to feel the same way. Our group busied themselves the entire time with working on their shelter, finding treasures and playing games. We had no incidence of behaviour in any of the kids in our group, and all of them seemed to have an intrinsic sense of boundaries and safety. Here are some points that I really appreciated about the day:
- Incorporating sound and movement into the circle at the beginning of the day as well as the story using puppets. It really captivated the children’s attention.
- Isabel took us off the beaten path, through the field, and along the way encouraged us to connect with what was beneath our feet. We learned about gall flies and it was really interesting! The children were fascinated and amazed and loved being able to identify the galls on the goldenrod stems. This started our day off with an inquisitive mindset.
- I love how Isabel let the children lead the way and discover. Initially, I was sort of nervous to have them all going down the somewhat steep hill toward the creek! If she hadn’t been there, I would have stopped the kids from going down for SURE but I trusted her experience so down we went! The kids did just fine! It was a lot of fun. We worked as a team to determine which direction we wanted to go (North, South, East, West) to set up camp.
- Once we found a spot to set up camp, Isabel encouraged us to find things to make our ‘home’. The kids loved this! They worked together to make a shelter with bed and even a toilet. She encouraged the kids to get their hands dirty and work together. They loved it.
- We let the rhythm of the day dictate what we did. At one point we were collecting kindling for a little fire but, because the kids were so busy running and playing, we didn’t end up having that fire – and that’s ok! Throwing any semblance of a schedule or ‘to do list’ out the window and just rolling with it is refreshing.
- Isabel explained to us adults, during a game of “Owl Eye” when the kids were camouflaging, the benefits of children hiding in nature – how it’s important for them to have a spot in nature that is their own that they visit frequently in every season, and that being still and quiet in nature helps quiet their mind. When hiding with Jack during a game of hide and seek, it felt good to be close to the earth and keeping silent; we could hear the birds and the wind in the trees and the voices of the group trying to find us. After some time, we let out a coyote ‘yip!’ to give them a clue of where we were.
- I loved the use of animal sounds to communicate with the children. It’s a fun way to keep them safe without having to yell after them ‘COME BACK!’ or “WHERE ARE YOU!?’
I was trying to think if there was any constructive criticism I could offer, as far as my experience with Earth Path goes, but I couldn’t think of anything… I appreciated that Isabel encouraged the children to explore with their senses to instill a deeper connection with the world around us. At the end of our time together, we sat in a circle and took turns expressing our gratitude, before heading back to the parking lot.”
Our Wednesday group (ages 6-11) created a village of their own at the Oak Camp, setting up services like a tool-making shop (“Flash Tools”), an herbal apothecary/tea shop, and a bakery. Just Food Farm has dozens of crab apple trees, so picking and preparing crab apples every which way became a weekly interest. We tried roasting crab apples over the fire, making crab apple sauce, and drying them out in the sun. Preparing crab apples was an opportunity for our “bakers” to practice safe tool use as they chopped the apples in half or used the apple peeler-corer-slicer. The children discovered early on that our camp was littered (in a good way!) with thousands of acorns, so they decided to use them as a kind of currency in their village, which got them counting, adding, subtracting and multiplying! Eventually we gave most of the acorns back to the animals of the forest. Each week we spent some time exploring away from camp – visiting the deep squishy clays of Green’s Creek; finding wild edibles and medicinals like red clover and elecampane root; and meeting animals like a bobolink, green frog, and red-bellied snake. Sometimes our explores led to tree climbing and rope swinging, slope sliding and shelter building, after which the children returned to camp excited to share their stories. Our village time led to a variety of creative projects of the children’s design, such as building small tables with hammer, nail, and saw; making maps; and weaving sticks to make a fence for the cooking area. As the weather cooled, we enjoyed the heat of the campfire, singing songs, and playing active run-around games like Camouflage.
Our Friday group spent many classes setting up a “survivors’ camp”, imagining they were lost in the woods with only a few tools/resources at their disposal. They found an amazing refuge in a thicket of spruce saplings, where they set up beds with a layer of pine duff, and made little trails between their different quarters. A lot of skill-building happened here as the children practiced using pocket saws, tying knots, and seeing how a bow-drill is used to make fire. They also became enthralled with all the possible uses for milkweed pods- some made herb pouches with them, and we made little paintings on the inside of others. Also excited by the fall apple harvest, we spent time picking apples, and one day came across some bear scat full of apples!
Our Saturday group similarly took full advantage of the season’s gifts. They made milkweed pillows and stuffed animals out of the fluffy milkweed silk, and they brought my mittens back to life by stuffing milkweed seed insulation into its holes. They even came up with a song to honour the milkweed that may be catchy enough to be an Earth Path hit single some day…
In addition to all the projects, explorations, and free play that the children did, they did a lot of growing. Nature is the container in which we deepen our empathy and social skills, learn to take care of the natural world and each other, and practice expressing ourselves in a kind, clear and constructive way. It is a place where we learn to be patient, observant and receptive, understanding of people’s differences, and proactive in solving problems. And nature is the basket full of simple gifts that we can appreciate everyday.
As we wind up the year, here’s a fun stat for Earth Path 2016: through the programs, kids spent a total of 3,836 face-to-face hours in nature- way to go friends! Thank you children and families for a wonderful year!
Special thanks to Shabana B Photography for your photo contributions.
And many thanks to all our partners in 2016:
– Just Food – our host at the Just Food Farm in Ottawa
– Eco Echo – our host at Minnes Farm in Wakefield
– Ottawa Field Naturalists Club and The Wild Garden – our partners for the Spring Ephemerals field walk
– Nature Connections – fellow nature mentors and partner in summer camp delivery
At the end of the game the children were excited to divulge their animal and their strategy for avoiding the Fire. As we caught our breath and rehydrated, we had a brief conversation about our community agreements- how to treat each other well and how to express our needs in a constructive way. They understood well, providing some good examples, so we set off to the forest feeling upbeat about the day ahead.
Our first stop on the way to camp was the pine grove, a lovely area with soft ground padded with golden pine needles, a small slope down to a stream (now but a trickle), and a huge culvert that we can walk through. As we had built mini animal shelters here the previous week, Raya and Shanti resumed work on theirs, inviting Anika (a new student) to join them. They patched it with clay from the ravine and adorned it with a few additional plants; a few kids tied a rope to a tree to help climb down the slope. Damon, Jamie, and Charlie said they were having difficulty climbing up the steep bottom section of the slope. Damon proposed one way up, and Jamie objected, “No that’s too hard! We need to find a way up that everyone can do.” So I asked what they could build or make to assist their ascent. One of the boys exclaimed, “We need steps!” I heard a conversation ensue about how they could build the steps, and they ended up agreeing that they needed to carve out footholds from the dirt.
“Bryarly, could we use your knife?” one asked. I explained that we use knives for whittling and carving wood, “So what else could you use?” “A stick?” Damon asked. I agreed- a nice robust stick could do the job. They each found one and after 30 minutes of persistent digging and scraping, they had their steps. “Yay, our steps work!” they exalted. Their faces were beaming with pride, having solved the problem and created something useful out of the simplest parts: sticks, dirt, and determination!
While the footholds and shelters were being built, Raphael and Charlie took out their journals, and began documenting our morning thus far. Charlie said he wanted to remember everything that had happened so far and began sketching a map of where we had been and what we had discovered. It felt good to see all the children happily immersed in a project of their choosing, wherein they were practicing skills such as collaboration, sustained focus, problem solving, and turning loose parts into tools.
Soon, stomachs began to grumble and it was snack time, so we regrouped beneath the pines for snack. During snack, I decided to tell the group a story about why it’s a good idea to learn at least one awesome, fool-proof knot. We had been tying ropes to trees, and I wanted to teach the children how to tie a secure knot, so I thought the story about how I lost my uncle’s favourite canoe when I failed to tie it up properly, would be a motivational springboard to that activity. After snack a few children showed an interest in learning the Mooring Hitch, so we practiced that for a little while until we decided to make a move toward camp.
Our camp consists of a small clearing and a tarp shelter nestled in the dappled shade of a young white oak forest. The forest floor is carpeted with long grasses, clusters of sensitive fern, and patches of meadow flowers such as goldenrods and asters. It’s a pleasant place to be at midday.
Before settling in for lunch, we played a running/sneaking game called Camouflage, and unfortunately near the end of the game my ankle twisted in a hole, so I hobbled to camp to administer first aid. The others circled up for lunch, and Auramarina suggested that we go around and share something we feel grateful for. Someone said they were grateful for their food; another said for the Camouflage game; another exploring the culvert; and Raphael appreciated chatting with Raya about an imaginary Minecraft mod that they would create. Auramarina and I were amazed at the openness and sincerity of everyone’s sharing, because sometimes when we first introduce gratitude sharing, all we hear are the crickets chirping, or a shy peep.
As the children ate, I brought out the first aid kit, tensor bandage, and ice pack, and Charlie took note. He piped up and said, “I can help! Can I help? I know what to do and I’d kind of like to be a doctor.” “Okay thanks Charlie.” I said, handing him the tensor bandage and ice pack. I showed him where it hurt, and he wrapped up my ankle carefully as we talked about the benefits of the RICE response (Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation) for sprains. He then said, “Actually, we’re going to need a doctor and medical clinic here in our village, so can I go set one up?” “Sure, let’s put our lunch bags away, then you can, “ I said, wondering whether I’d have to abandon my original plan for the afternoon, which was to suggest building a group shelter.
Well, as soon as Charlie started assembling materials and choosing a spot for his clinic, magic started to happen. The other children were inspired by the idea of creating a village and ran with it. Lee and Damon decided to set up a bakery, and set about collecting and sampling different varieties of crab apple, double-checking with us that they were in fact crab apples; Raya and Anika started creating a nook for their herbal café and apothecary; Shanti asked Charlie if she could be a doctor too, to which Charlie (who is a few years older and a gentle soul) replied, “Sure, I can give you some training.” Raphael queried his classmates about how people were going to pay for their services, to which someone replied, “How about with acorns?” We then noticed that shiny green acorns were abundant beneath the trees with leaves that had finger-like lobes, the good ol’ white oaks.
This led to a frenzy of acorn collecting and a closer look at which trees were the oaks and which were the maples and elms. A few kids discussed whether the brown acorns were worth more or less than the green acorns. Someone proposed that the brown ones be worth $5 and the green ones $2, to which the others agreed. After a few minutes of collecting, everyone brought their handfuls over to the ground tarp and calculated the value of their pile. Some were counting in twos, others in fives, and as they exceeded 100, Auramarina and I thought, “Wow, they’ve created an economy, and now they’re doing math; this is awesome.”
At first I was worried that the use of currency would spawn greed or unfair trading, but it flexed the children’s problem solving abilities: when someone didn’t have enough acorns for something, they negotiated to pay later or would barter one of their items.
For us teachers, this spontaneous village activity was ripe for supporting interdisciplinary learning and sharing locally relevant knowledge. We had the opportunity to explore with Anika and Raya a few local plants that are edible or medicinal, which they could use to make tea. Anika also discovered that milkweed seed fluff could make a good absorbent material. Charlie, Shanti and I collected plantain to treat bug bites and small scrapes. Lee and Damon had a lesson on knife safety and cutting crab apples. And finally at the end of the day, we gathered in the shade of the oaks, and we told the children a story about how the oaks came to be here. It’s a story that starts at the end of the last glaciation 10,000 years ago, and involves the northward march of trees and animals as the climate warmed, and the survival strategy of our friends the squirrels, who grow an oak tree when they forget where they’ve hidden an acorn.
This was place-based education at its best – better than anything we could have planned – and it has led to weeks of extension activities, building on their experience and knowledge of the place. I smile when I think that it was catalyzed by the children’s rich imaginations and a simple twist of fate (or ankle).
Author: Bryarly McEachern
Note: Names have been changed for anonymity.