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Thursday, March 20, 2014

Kindergartners Track Mammals Into their Classroom

Tomorrow is Spring Equinox. The lengthening daylight hours tell a different story than the two feet of snow on the ground. It is often this way in Central Vermont - and this year I reflect on how the temperature outdoors this March is welcoming to a 6-year old tracker, unlike many of the past weeks of winter. How does ECO (Educating Children Outdoors) happen when the ambient temperature is zero degrees or lower? This winter, we faced 6 weeks in a row of this temperature reality with the kindergartners at Waitsfield Elementary. We spent snippets of our day together outdoors, but mostly, it allowed us to sink into the art of tracking comfortably right in the middle of the kindergarten classrooms! It was as though we were sitting on a sandy lakefront beach during a perfect 68 degree day. 

Students moved their bodies in the four common tracking gait patterns. Students divided into four groups and practiced either walking, waddling, hopping or bounding. We set out four yoga mats, with a template of the gait pattern drawn on it in marker. Afterwards, they created journal entries of the gait pattern different local mammals most often used to move comfortably through the forest. I was amazed to see how accurate their drawings of the four gaits were as they illustrated their understanding of the tracking lesson they had just embodied in class. 

A few frigid January weeks later, we learned about tracking animal sign in the woods from the front lines of the circle rug. Students used plaster casts they had made of mammal tracks (from rubber molds) to

create a story in a long sandbox including two animal signs. The signs we were introduced to included: bed, den, midden, scat, and browse. In these sandboxes, I saw stories that included snowshoe hare tracks hopping to a pile of scat and a browsed upon raspberry patch. I saw red fox tracks walking to his den to bring food for his young, and marking his territory just outside of the den. Students embodied the movement of the animals with the plaster casts and recognized that many different signs are left along the way by each animal. It is all a part of the science and art of tracking.

In retrospect, I am so thankful for these indoor days of “tracking”. Six year-olds learn best with play based and kinesthetic experiences. In order to have fun, their basic needs must be met. Our best bet is that if they are having fun, they are also committing what they are learning to the long term memory bank. Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of need reminds us that our basic needs must be met before we can expand beyond them to higher needs on the hierarchy. Lower on the hierarchy are security of the body and of resources. These lower needs were met indoors on  frigid Vermont days. When these and other basic physiological and safety needs are met, children are able to advance up the scale to problem-solving, creativity, self-esteem and confidence, all factors in play-based learning. I’m hoping that this "Spring's" weather welcomes our students’ big curiosity, now that they have had all of that time to play with the tracks inside! 

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