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Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Stone Soup

On a Tuesday and Thursday morning at Forest Preschool two weeks ago, water and a stone were settled into a suspended pot and a fire was lit below. Then, the story of Stone Soup, an old folk story about cooperation, was told. Forest Preschool is a place where cooperation grows. The fields and forest lend themselves beautifully to the many possibilities and benefits of cooperation. Cooking outdoors over a fire is no exception.

And so, on a November morning, children brought in vegetables from home and made a meal together. With some special stone magic, they learned about cooperation and tasted the outcome of their combined contributions.  "We're going to cook soup outside?" asked a child. Yes, we are and we're going to do it together.

Forest Preschool is also a place that embraces fire as a teaching tool. Fire warms us in the woods when we're greeted by chilly autumn mornings. It is also a necessary ingredient for cooking stone soup.

Once water was put on to boil, an outdoor kitchen was assembled and the chopping of vegetables ensued.

Listening to the story of Stone Soup as water and stone came to a boil in the pot.

The outdoor kitchen. They could have chopped all day!  

"What can I chop now?"
Many children were very interested in chopping and preparing the vegetables. Others played in the mud kitchen or engaged in imaginary animal play in the woods. Those interested in becoming a chef used preschool appropriate cutting tools. Some were forlorn when we exhausted our cutting opportunities. Excitement flowed again, though, when it was time to add the cooperatively prepared veggies to the pot.

"Look at my potato!"

Is the soup ready yet?

While the pot boiled, some children used the compost from veggie prep to create another version of stone soup, complete with mud and pine needles.

Almost ready!

Look at the colors!

Soup is served!

Enjoying the fruits of our labor. "Stone soup is good!"
Nearly every child ate the soup we made together and many asked for seconds. Food that you help prepare seems to taste extra good, especially food that is made over a fire outside, together. 

Enjoy the food that you make or is made on Thanksgiving! There is so much to be thankful for this fall!

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

A Parent's Perspective

A letter Cassie Bickford, a parent and proud ECO supporter in Marshfield, wrote in support of a grant for ECO: 

Three years ago the ECO program was introduced to the students at Twinfield Union School and at first the program seemed unusual and daunting. My first thoughts were about exposing children to the cold as it began in late fall and some days were frightfully chilly. I fretted just as much about how to keep their soup warm as I did their bodies. The packing list for warm clothes seemed just as overwhelming to remember as to afford for a family with multiple children participating. The program immediately proved itself worthy of the cost and fret.

The first day of ECO, my youngest participating child came home so excited that he could hardly sequence his thoughts in a fashion in which we could understand them. Luckily, the glow on his face spoke louder than his jumbled thoughts. The next oldest told me exciting things he was able to learn and that soon they would be learning to build a fire. My oldest had similar tales and the same glow shining through.
I fully support the ECO program at Twinfield.  The children have learned many things, although I assure you they do not see it as learning but more as a fun exploration. Over the past two years my children have taught me many things about the animals around us, the vegetation around us, what is edible in the woods, and which plants you can make tea out of. In fact, the youngest says his favorite part, next to catching his own “claw-fish” (a crayfish) with his bare hands (see photo above), is making pine needle tea.
When my second oldest is asked his favorite thing about ECO he says “everything, but especially the warm fires and building structures”. My oldest was not participating last year due to her grade level and expressed a longing for the program. 
Not once have my children complained that it was too cold or their soup not warm enough, they are having too much  fun to have noticed either way.                                                                                                          

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Ways of Learning: it's all about the Questions!

Whenever a class goes out into the forest for an ECO day, our goal is to learn about the natural world around us.  There are different focuses, of course, and during this session with an East Montpelier 2nd/3rd grade class, the focus was to learn about decomposers.  The classroom teacher and the ECO teacher share teaching responsibilities and and here is the classroom teacher reading A Log's Life.  

This book demonstrated how different animals, insects, fungus, and weather all work together to decay logs in the forest.  

Mrs. Fitch's class at rapt attention.

Singing can be a powerful teaching tool for all ages, so we used a roiling, fun song about decomposers to extend the learning from the book.  Check out the lyrics and a recording for "Decomposers" here.  All of this: the reading, the conversation, the song, was to get us primed for looking for decay happening in our small square of woods.  The class divided into partners and each small group scoped out their own tree for signs of decomposition in action.  

A student investigating an interesting fungus at her log.
Part of the objective of the decay investigations was for students to observe logs, and the other part was to ask questions.  Check out the spontaneous questioning that this student, pictured above, remarked:  "I wonder what this is.  Wow, it's sticky!  Can we bring it to the group so they can see it?"

Then, as she pulled some bark off and noticed something that looked like dirt she said, "Hey, is this the dirt that decomposers make?" Good questions!

A pair of students recording observations at their log. 
When checking out their specimen, these two students found that one of the branches was springy.  "Hey, this is like a trampoline!"  This playful exploration showed them that the log must be older, as newer logs would have more brittle branches that would snap under pressure.

Sticks can be tools to help feel the "squishyness" of the log.
 When the teacher asked this student and her partner what they were doing, one replied, "We're just banging around looking for insects.  Basically, we're helping the tree decay."  Nice observation!

One team's scientific drawing of their log specimen.  

The hands-on investigation of the log was a vital part of the learning.  When kids literally get their hands dirty and use their senses to learn about the world around them, studies show that they are more likely to retain the information they learned.  So when children felt the give of a tree with their thumbnail or the sliminess of a fungus, that will prompt memories and hopefully questions of what else to learn. Check out this list of questions that the class generated after their time investigating the logs:

I wonder how fungi grows?
How does a free fall naturally?
How do mushrooms feel?
What is this bug?
What are these eggs?
What is this white stuff?
Where does wood come from?
How did trees first grow if there was nothing to make them?
How long have these logs on the ground?
How do these kings get these stuff in them?
What happens to all these leaves on the ground?
How do leaves get holes in them?
Why do down trees not have leaves in the winter and some do?
How did animals first exist?

This is an impressive list of questions and really shows the curiosity and wonder of these students.  We could have gone on for a long time with the questions, but we had to stop due to time constraints.  It is these questions that drive learning and when children get to follow their own curiosities, that is where real learning happens.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

A New Path in the Forest

Children in central Vermont schools have had many ECO outings at this point in the school year. The routines of getting dressed and backpacks packed with snack, water and scientific journals are established. The children are now familiar with what it looks and sounds like when we get to the open field at the edge of the forest. We stop. We listen with deer ears. We smell with our bear nose.
"Did you hear that bird?"
"I hear cars."
"What's that I smell? Is it wood smoke?"
 "I smell winter coming."

Kindergartners and 1st graders at Northfield Elementary and Twinfield Elementary enter the forest and know exactly where to go.
 "Base camp is this way!"
Northfield Elementary 
 Follow the path covered in White Pine needles. Go up the hill through an old apple orchard. When they arrive, they hang up backpacks on The Backpack Tree. These students have been building a working memory of the natural landscape around their school. They walk the same way to their ECO base camps every week, yet as the seasons shift so intensely here in Vermont from autumn, to stick season, to winter, there is much to observe and inquire about along the way. The five senses are totally engaged in this simple routine of moving through the forest and thus creating new neural pathways. Simply put, the students leave the worn path of the school hallways and step foot on ground they have never been on before. Each week the new path to the forest gets more defined and clear. Students pick up on other animals that travel these trails and the changes along the way.
"Look at this deer print! The deer are traveling to our camp!"
"This puddle wasn't here last week! Do you the water in the creek?"
"It's sad. The leaves have no color. Now they are brown on the ground."
"I think the wasps won't be on the apples this week,..it's too cold,..but we should still be quiet."
The forest welcomes them, but asks that what they find they leave there. Every time we go back to the forest,  the students are strengthening their knowledge of place. This new place is full of learning and discovery and it's very exciting!

In October we experimented with creating our own forest recipes.  We asked the students, what does it take to make a healthy forest? Trees, dirt, sticks, leaves, rocks!
Then we asked about the animals. Do animals live in this forest? What do they need? Food, water, shelter!
Children were soon off gathering ingredients to make a forest recipe. With the guidelines of not collecting living things, children searched for water, collected the tiny seeds from pine cones and dug into rotting logs. They also wondered if they could gather the sun and some oxygen,..can we do that?!
In small groups children opened up their own forest kitchens equipped with bowls, measuring cups, spoons, spatulas and of course muffin tins! Errands were being run back and forth across the forest and with that new pathways were being formed. More questions were asked and more discoveries made.
"Water! Water! We found water! We need it for our forest!"
Gathering the water became a whole group task with problem solving around how to transport the water back to the kitchen.

Carrying water very carefully

Soil and  water make MUD! Cupcakes? 

Children easily transitioned from a concrete lesson to producing an imaginary forest laboratory with their minds set on preparing for a larger feast. In preparing for this feast you can hear the children using scientific language and applying new methods of learning. They are experiencing cause and effect based on their own curiosities and fascinations. Concoctions? Potions? This is where science and art blend together, beautiful! In the forest kitchen children are:

We continue to follow the paths the children create in the forest. The path to wonder and inquiry. 

Forest Soup
Examples of the forest, different RECIPES! 

Chefs in action