Monday, November 24, 2014

Where Am I Going To?

My own kids are obsessed with the soundtrack from the musical, Evita. We recently found a vintage vinyl recording of the Broadway show with Pattie Lapone and one song is stuck in my head. The plaintive refrain from "Hello and Good-bye," is "Where am I going to?" The subtext is kind of complicated and a bit adult and I've spent some time discussing all this with my twelve-year-olds, but that question, "Where am I going to?" reminds me so much of my work with young kids.

Dodge kids go outside every day, and most days we "go for a hike" together in smaller groups-- usually one teacher and six kids (a great, and unusual in early childhood ed, ratio, by the way). We often hear the same question, "Where are we going?" To which teachers often respond, "Where do you want to go?" This is a big question, in both literal and figurative ways-- Dodge is a big place and deciding about all sorts of things is a big job, but it gets easier to answer this question as the year progresses. Kids get to know Dodge Nature Center in a variety of ways. They learn about our playground, and then our immediate trails, and then those that are farther afield, and they also spend time navigating less trammelled wilderness, off the trail.

Each time a child traverses familiar and new terrain, they are growing and changing. They notice different things and use their bodies in different ways. This fall, I am particularly struck, not only by the kids growing abilities to navigate and understand where they are  relative to other spots around the Nature Center, but by how their hiking experience changes when we leave the trail for uncharted territory.

All the hiking they do, creating physical pathways through space and time, accruing experiences, not only develops childrens' muscles and coordination, it helps children establish and strengthen physical pathways in their brains, connecting hemispheres and helping the various parts of the brain integrate and function faster and better. When children spend time hiking trails, we see signs of growth and development in these areas:

-control and regulation of their bodies (physical)
-control and regulation of feelings (emotional)
-forging connections and building attachments with place and peers (emotional & social)
-awareness of spacial relationships, emerging mapping skills (math)
-memory, recall, association and building context (general cognition)
-noting, interpreting and documenting experiences with teachers and peers (literacy)

When children leave the trail to explore, following fresh deer tracks in the snow, for instance, they lose familiar way markers and references and their focus changes. Kids hiking on a very familiar trail tend to run (if the snow isn't too deep) or chat away with each other in a pack. Kids going off trail, through trickier terrain, tend to fall into single-file, following a leader.  The physical challenges are greater, and their focus moves outward to their surroundings. There is less chatting and no running. Chatting and running are, of course, great things to do, but going off trail seems to heighten the child's powers of observation in stunning ways. Kids become more aware of their own physical bodies as they negotiate thick foliage, pokey stuff, burs or fallen logs. They also become much more aware of their surroundings and they seem to notice much more minute details.

After the first snow, I set out with a small hiking group. Their bodies were a little disorganized and they were playing a game of bumping and pushing. I elected to try a session of Dodge wrestling, but kids quickly abandoned that project. Someone started complaining about cold feet and another child didn't like the bunchiness of her new snow pants. With a measure of desperation, I drew their attention to a big deer track. I worked up a lot of enthusiasm about the track and said I thought it must belong to the big, goofy buck--Mr.Buck--we'd seen lately. A boy perked up, "Mr. Buck?  He made you almost pee your pants!  Remember!  Where'd he go?" I looked around, "Well, I dunno, but he must be around here somewhere!" Then my little friend with cold feet took the bait, "How do we find him?" I threw up my hands, "I dunno!  Where should we look?" "Follow his tracks!" said the boy. "That sure was funny when he surprised you. I told my dad you almost peed your pants!" Cold Feet said, "He went this way." And off we went, following her through the raspberry canes, across the frozen stream and under the pines.

On and on we went. I kept asking, "Where are we?" and "Which way is the classroom?" or "Where is the Lab?" I wasn't lost of course, but I wanted to know what they were thinking, what they were seeing. Kids looked back the way we had come. Wheels turning, they looked around, searching for something familiar. "I see something up ahead." Turned out to be a familiar bench and I watched and listened as the pieces of the puzzle fell into place. "We're close to the drinking fountain." "The Lab!" "And that's were the letters are." We nearly lost Mr. Buck's tracks when we crossed other deer tracks and kids had to discern the difference between Mr. Buck's tracks and the others. We followed him through the marsh and its long, tricky grass. We saw tiny, frozen mushrooms, and even smaller frozen fungus. Kids noticed that the old puffballs had lost their puff. We heard crows and speculated about owls. We saw chickadees and a cardinal. We followed Mr. Buck through many kid tracks and then over dead trees. Kids spotted buck scrapes and then we wound our way through a dense stand of burdock and out, across the Farm Road. We tracked Mr. Buck through the little orchard and the kids talked about the lack of apples. We followed Mr. Buck's tracks to the edge of the prairie and then we stopped. Someone said, "He went in the prairie." By then we were far from school and needed to budget time to get back to base camp. "How should we go back?" "Let's follow our own tracks," said Cold Feet. And so we retraced our steps, following Cold Feet, all the way back to the bridge where we began our tracking adventure. The kids seemed to feel puffed up and powerful, elated with a sense of victory. "We made it!" Nobody was complaining and everybody had something to say. "That was a big adventure." "We went far." "Mr. Buck went far.  He's hiding." "Those burs were tricky." "Next time we play on the ice some more."  "Next time we follow another deer!" said Cold Feet.

Monday, November 10, 2014

What Was I Scared Of?

scary monsters
Well, here we are on the heels of Halloween, squaring our shoulders to November and anticipating the challenges of winter. I actually love this "shoulder" season of November, the no-longer-autumn, almost-winterness of it. The trees are naked, the bones of the earth are revealed. We are starting to see owls now and squirrel nests are increasingly apparent. Most things are preparing for sleep, or flight. Not everything though. The people, turkeys and deer of Dodge are getting ready for the long haul. The tone is quiet, but there is an undertone of transition and change, a subtle excitement. Turkeys, scratch for the last easy pickings, chickadees seem positively frenzied and deer are of course entering the rut.

favorite big log
On Halloween Day, I had a close encounter with our resident young, goofy buck. He's no spike horn, but he seems a bit inexperienced.  Colleagues and I first spotted him from the windows of the Willow Room at DNP, the day before Halloween. He was strolling along the fenceline of the playground, munching grape leaves and getting his antlers tangled in trees and vines. It's always exciting to be chatting and then spot charismatic megafauna over your friends' shoulders. So the next morning, Halloween morning, I was heading out with a group of our enthusiastic preschoolers. Kids had just started climbing their favorite big old log, and I was telling them about the buck that visited our playground. I pushed my thumbs into my temples and wiggled my fingers, a-la-antlers, and pivoted to show the kids standing behind me. That's when I got my big surprise, the surprise that one of my young friends says, astutely, "almost made you pee your pants!" Mr. Buck, as the kids now call him, was standing right behind me, literally an arm's length away. I've never been that close to a white-tailed deer (key deer are another matter), and I was speechless. The kids looked from me and my fake antlers (yes, I still had my hands on top of my head), to the big boy with the real rack. The buck looked from me to the kids, and then he stepped even closer! Down went my antlers and down we went, sinking slowly and instinctively to our knees. Mr. Buck blinked at us and sniffed us and for a second I thought he might actually lick one of us (or maybe, just maybe gore us), but then he walked carefully around us in a half circle and then slowly, very slowly went on his way. This kids were quiet for about thirty more seconds and then the pent up energy and excitement burst forth.

the vagaries of duck weed
Was I scared? Maybe a little. I was more thrilled than anything. And so were the kids. They watched me to check my interpretation, as kids always do, and, being a nature geek, I admitted to being very surprised, but I think my enthusiasm was the thing that struck them, and it was a happy ending after all. This week, the same kids set out on our hikes intent on seeing Mr. Buck again. And Mr. Buck, in all his goofiness, has complied. The kids are so enthusiastic, and so non-plussed by Mr. Buck's largess, that I have now resorted to emphasizing his size and power. I now caution the kids to enjoy watching him, but to keep an eye on him and to maintain a respectful distance, "Look at those big antlers. He's so handsome, but he's a big guy."

slack linging
Kids have varying degrees of experience with risk, danger and cause and effect. We cannot rely on young children to have sound judgement all the time. They are really not supposed to have great judgement at this point in their development. Human beings' brains, current research says, are engineered to inhibit an amount of caution in order to develop properly, to know and learn limits through experience. Recent brain research points to the idea that people are engineered to take big risks right through young adulthood. It falls to parents and caregivers to help with boundaries, as there seems to be such a thing as too much natural selection. Eating deadly nightshade, falling into the pond or out of a tree, poking your eye out with a stick--  these and more constitute unacceptable risks here at Dodge Nature Preschool. Left to their own devices, children might fall prey to these risks and more. It is our big hope that here at our nature-based school, we are ultimately safe, but that we are also helping children access knowledge and growth through natural risk. In other words, risk is actually inherent in growing up, and sometimes children and adults court risk in order to grow and understand who they are and who they might become.

tree climbing
So, we don't celebrate Halloween per sae at DNP, but it is inevitable that the "spirit" of the season haunts our classrooms during that time of year. Halloween is a great excuse for children to have fun courting a little risk. Through dressing up or watching others dress up in costumes, children can learn some flexibility:  first something unpredictable or exciting happens and then there's a happy ending and an normalcy returns. There can be some great lessons about personal potential and reliable outcomes and safety. When kids know, on the macro level, that they are generally safe and loved, their own confidence can help them push the envelope to attain new skills. During the week of Halloween, we read a book that is beloved my most kids. It is called, "What Was I Scared Of?" and it is my favorite Dr. Seuss.

fascinating fungus
The story follows the plight of a fuzzy little fellow who tries to go about his daily business of fishing for "doubt-trout,"  fetching spinach in Grinitch and picking a "peck of snide." The trouble is, the little guy keeps running into a disturbingly vacant pair of pants. The pair of pale green pants "with nobody inside," nearly knocks him down in the road, they zealously row toward him while his on the Roover River and then they show up right in the middle of snide bush and the protagonist actually--horrors!--touches them. Just when my students are about to clap their hands over their eyes in fear, the pale green pants begin to cry.  Awww. "Poor empty pants with nobody inside...they were just as scared as I!" The tables turn and now the reader finds empathy for something she feared. As I said, most kids love this story, even kids who might be a bit anxious. The tale allows the children to play with fictional fear, to have a quasi experience that closely mirrors their daily experiences with fear of the unknown.

getting dirty
Readers of this blog know that Dodge Nature Preschool subscribes to the view that play acting is very good for children. We believe that children access power, and confidence, through all kinds of pretend play:  superheroes, princesses, ninjas, ninja turtles, bad guys, sharks, tornadoes, volcanoes...the list is limitless. We not only support role-playing (complete with the use of pretend weapons), we encourage it through the keeping of kid journals. These journals are places for kids to illustrate and document their ideas and imaginings. A kid typically draws in her journal, and when she is ready to tell the story of the drawing, or verbally interpret or label her thoughts, teachers sit down and dictate her ideas. We dictate verbatim, preserving kid diction and grammar. While the child dictates, they watch us write the words alongside their drawing. We repeat what the child says just after they say it, and, while we preserve grammar errors in print, we repeat the words with corrections. If a child says, "The guy goed up into space and blasted hims ship," we write just that but we repeat, "The guy went into space and blasted his ship." Then we read through the dictation with an eye toward acting, asking the child to designate their own role and to tell us how many of each actor she needs. If there are trees, for instance, we say, "And how many trees will you need?" The journal illustrations are shared at group and then the author directs her classmates to act out the story. It is not only great fun, but it is a great practice for cognitive, social and emotional development.

Challenge Hill:  a Dodge tradition
Last week, after reading, "What Was I Scared Of?"  We informally poled our students:  "What are you scared of?"  Some answers are nearly universal,  "monsters under the bed," "something in my closet." Some answers I consider a personal challenge as a nature educator, "wuffs," "foxes," "coyotes." I myself am inordinately worried about great white sharks (and paying my mortgage and sending my kids to college, but mostly great white sharks). Perhaps the answers that interest me the most, and those that I find most telling of the young child's experience sound something like this:  "Nothing.  I'm scared of nothing, especially not a monster under my bed, especially not spiders or tornadoes.  Especially not bears." Especially not. The poignant mix of bravado and wearing one's heart on his sleeve is simply vintage preschool. The child is telling us exactly about his experience fear:  I'm brave, and this is the stuff I'm trying not to be scared of. I can do it. One recent journal story tells a similar tale of bravery and fear and of a commitment to conquer fear.

A child who is growing by leaps and bounds socially and emotionally, took a big risk to illustrate and act out her journal story last week.  Here is what she drew and dictated:

"Once upon a time there was one pink door. It had something behind it. There was a princess on the other side that wanted to figure out what was on the other side. And there was a friendly dragon, and another green door. It had a crack. The princess and the friendly dragon wanted to see what was behind it. And then they saw a friendly tiger. The friendly tiger and friendly dragon looked and it was a friendly monster."

up close and personal
This child directed peers and acted in the story too. She smiled and she laughed throughout the experience. And then, instead of leaving group time, which she sometimes does if she's worried about the book we are reading, she sat down front and center and remained riveted throughout. Perhaps you've already guessed what the book of the day was.  It was indeed, "What Was I Scared Of?" If I was a gambler, I probably would have bet my young friend would not have stayed for that book. But she did. And you know what?  Our copy of "What Was I Scared Of?" has the added bonus of glowing in the dark; the reader has the option of taking a kinda scary book into a totally dark room! Guess who chose to up the ante and try out this thrilling option with her peers? My little friend found joy in running into our bathroom and shutting the door with a shrieking group of peers. I have a hunch, come spring, my friend, like so many of her peers, will be in a position to ask herself, "What was I scared of?"

friendship can be the biggest and most rewarding risk of all
For more information about story dictation, check out what the Queen of Story Dictation, Vivian Gussin Paley, has to say.  Many thanks to Vivian's friend and our colleague emeritus, Kris Rollwagen.  Kris was Dodge's Queen of Story Dictation.