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Friday, November 28, 2014

A Classroom Without Walls

A field of golden rod and a green forest canopy greeted students upon their arrival at Forest Preschool this Fall.  A landscape, covered in a soft blanket of snow, offered a frosty goodbye at the end of our session. In a classroom without walls, children intimately connected to their natural surroundings and witnessed the wild world around them shift from summer, into fall, and then into winter. Over the session, I and my teaching assistant witnessed the children thrive outdoors while guiding them through their own developmental seasons. The children joyfully played and directly engaged with their natural environment, enthusiastically learning about themselves, others, and their world. Play is central to early childhood development and to our Forest Preschool Program. Play in natural spaces coupled with the room and ability for children to be active in their own learning process forges a strong combination. It stimulates wonder and excitement, allowing for possibility, and sets the stage for students to develop into citizens of our planet.

There are several newfangled phases to describe children being active in their own learning process. I have unabashedly used one in the title of this blog: child-driven. Another term is emergent curriculum. I have used this term to describe the curriculum we use here at Forest Preschool. But, really, this fancy word means that our curriculum is not contained by a specific plan but, rather, is attentive to each child, their interests, and what the natural world has to offer on any particular day. Although we model simple ideas for play and provide art and natural materials to stimulate curiosity and imagination, it is the interest of the children that drives their activity and potential projects. I would like to take you on a tour of some of the highlights from our session this Fall.

One morning we laid out many sticks from shortest to longest. We did so in order to provide inspiration for children to arrange sticks by length if they were drawn to do so. What happened next, when a child joyfully skipped over, was unexpected and interesting. The child immediately picked up another stick from the ground and stroked along the arrangement to see if the different sized sticks made sounds similar to a xylophone. Because this child and several others are drawn to make music, work with their hands, and sort natural items, we embarked on a multi-week adventure, making a musical instrument out of varying lengths of sticks.

The first step in our project was to introduce the idea of using a saw to assist in cooperatively creating a musical instrument. A discussion about using saws safely ensued. I asked the group if anyone would like to saw sticks in order to make an instrument. Several hands were eagerly raised. Once the children passed a safety test, and with proper supervision, we set to work sawing sapling tree trunks into different lengths of sticks. 

The next week, during circle time, I asked if anyone was interested in arranging our previously cut sticks from shortest to longest, then threading p-cord through drilled holes, and tying them on to a larger and thicker length of a branch. Again, several hands eagerly raised and waved with enthusiasm. P-cord was threaded, knots carefully tied, and a chiming instrument was made. Many children were eager to experiment with the newly made instrument and explore the different sounds each length of stick made. Through the entire process, children worked on developing their fine motor skills and ability to work cooperatively. 

Mud Kitchen is a hot spot for child-driven play and learning. We have a wonderfully wet and muddy place in the woods at our base camp that has been transformed into a Mud Kitchen. With simple kitchen tools such as pots, pans, ladles, wire whisks, etc., Mud Kitchen ignites imaginations and provides a rich environment for exploration and learning.

After we finish our circle and snack time, children can choose where they would like to be and what they would like to do in the forest and fields. Many children are drawn to Mud Kitchen, where they become scientists conducting experiments and chefs baking up a storm. A myriad of delicious concoctions are made using a variety of natural material and offered to fellow students and teachers. Birthday and pizza cakes are favorites. While engaging in this play, imaginations are developed. But also, soil science, chemistry, water flow, and skills for cooperative play are learned! Really, the learning is endless. Through an inquiry based style of teaching, children learn where water goes when the rain water dries, who lives in this habitat, what happens to the water when it's cold. When the temperatures drop, but before ice forms, children build resilience and develop self care skills, learning how to regulate their warmth and comfort level.

When parents and caregivers arrive at the end of the morning for pick-up, they are often met by happily dirty and muddy children - evidence of a good day. Through their play and child-centered learning in natural spaces, the youngsters at Forest Preschool are developing foundational life and learning skills with joy, excitement, and a sense of wonder. The soil in the forest is rich, growing endless possibilities in a classroom without walls.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Birding Plum Island and Cape Ann

Barred Owl at Plum Island
It was cold but beautiful for the North Branch Nature Center’s trip to the Massachusetts coast this past weekend. Seven participants scoured the seashore of Essex County, MA in search of ocean birds and discovered the surprising diversity of birds that are around in late-fall. As one season ends and another begins, birds of both fall and winter can be found along the New England coast in mid-November.

Winter birds complemented winter temperatures in our birding adventures. Snowy Owls had just begun arriving from the north over the past week, and one was seen at Plum Island. Loons, scoters, and others were seen migrating south along the coast. Snow Buntings and Horned Larks were active in the dunes at both Newburyport and Salisbury. And a variety of winter birds were seen off the coast, including Long-tailed Duck, Bufflehead, Horned and Red-necked Grebe, Harlequin Duck, and others.

Greater White-fronted Goose in Newbury
While many species of ‘winter birds’ were seen, a handful had not yet arrived to the wintering grounds. Iceland and Glaucous Gulls were notably absent. Common Goldeneye, which can be fairly common in winter, was represented by only a single individual at Brace Cove in Rockport. And Short-eared Owl sightings so far this season have been sparse; we weren’t able to locate any during our dusk attempt.

Snowy Owl at Plum Island
Yet other species we observed were species more typically associated with warmer weather. A Hermit Thrush was observed in Rowley and a Yellow-rumped Warbler in Rockport. An American Bittern put in an appearance at Plum Island and a Great Egret was observed in Salisbury. A few lingering shorebirds were also seen, including Black-bellied Plover and Greater Yellowlegs at several locations.

Perhaps the most unusual sighting was a Greater White-fronted Goose in Newbury, mixed in with a flock of about 250 Canada Geese. This one was a lifer for most of the group. The Eurasian Wigeon seen at Plum Island was another highlight. While not unusual in Vermont, the Barred Owl seen at Plum Island was a pretty atypical species for that location.

American Bittern at Plum Island
When all was said and done, a total of 84 species were observed during the three days of birding (and 1 day of scouting by trip leader Larry Clarfeld). In addition to all the birds, a trip to Cape Ann and Plum Island is enjoyable just for the ambience. The glowing sunsets, scenic vistas, and historic downtowns of the coastal New England towns we visited were all fantastically beautiful. NBNC will be back to the Massachusetts coast in January to participate in the Superbowl of Birding, where we’ll spend a day with youths and adults, participating in this birding competition for the seventh consecutive year.

Complete Species List

Greater White-fronted Goose Sanderling
Canada Goose Dunlin
Mute Swan Purple Sandpiper*
Gadwall Razorbill
Eurasian Wigeon Black Guillemot
American Wigeon Bonaparte's Gull
American Black Duck Ring-billed Gull
Mallard Herring Gull
Northern Pintail Great Black-backed Gull
Green-winged Teal Rock Pigeon
Ring-necked Duck Mourning Dove
Greater Scaup* Snowy Owl
Common Eider Barred Owl
Harlequin Duck Red-bellied Woodpecker*
Surf Scoter Downy Woodpecker
White-winged Scoter Hairy Woodpecker
Black Scoter Northern Flicker*
Long-tailed Duck Peregrine Falcon*
Bufflehead Blue Jay
Common Goldeneye American Crow
Hooded Merganser Horned Lark
Red-breasted Merganser Black-capped Chickadee
Wild Turkey Tufted Titmouse
Red-throated Loon Red-breasted Nuthatch
Common Loon White-breasted Nuthatch
Pied-billed Grebe* Carolina Wren
Horned Grebe Hermit Thrush
Red-necked Grebe American Robin
Northern Gannet Northern Mockingbird
Double-crested Cormorant European Starling
Great Cormorant* Snow Bunting
American Bittern Yellow-rumped Warbler
Great Blue Heron American Tree Sparrow
Great Egret Savannah Sparrow
Northern Harrier Song Sparrow
Cooper's Hawk White-throated Sparrow
Bald Eagle Dark-eyed Junco
Red-tailed Hawk Northern Cardinal
Rough-legged Hawk* Red-winged Blackbird
American Coot House Finch
Black-bellied Plover American Goldfinch
Greater Yellowlegs House Sparrow

*Seen only during scouting