Heart thumping, legs stretching, a forest preschooler slides into the den between two trees at deer camp, narrowly escaping a friend in pursuit. Safe…for now. The fox stalks outside, sniffing, searching, but the mouse is out of sight.
At Forest Preschool this fall many engaging games emerged around the predator/prey relationship. Camouflage, in particular, was a favorite activity on our morning walk through the meadow. Some days the children became coyotes and rabbits; other days they transformed into hawks and mice or into a flock of hungry crows in a farmer’s field. The children invented multiple scenarios and never tired of sneaking and hiding and being chased.
Along with the familiar Vermont animals, there was another creature that accompanied us on our journeys: this one larger and hungrier than all the others. Dinosaurs metamorphosed almost daily out of predator or prey; a hunted mouse could easily transform before our eyes into a fearsome t-rex that then became the hunter.
Excited to explore the activities and habits of the animals that actually share our home with us, I initially resisted the persistent appearance of this bygone reptile in our adventures. What do dinosaurs have to do with where we are right now, I wondered? So I kept watching and I began to understand that the dinosaurs are very much a part of the ecology at NBNC, that is, the inner ecology of the children who play here. Dinosaurs are the allies of young children who, due to their size and age, inherently face new situations that can be scary and challenging on a regular basis. As growing, developing human beings, children desire and need to take risks…healthy risks. And that is where the dinosaurs come in. T-rex’s are fearsome creatures but unlike wolves and bears (or zombies), they are undeniably extinct and therefore, safe. There is no chance of bumping into a stegosaurus in the goldenrod. The only thing that gives it life is imagination and the children are fully in charge of that. Healthy risk – climbing trees, sliding down hills, balancing on logs – can be scary, but like the dinosaurs, just scary enough…for growth and learning.
At Forest Preschool, the children learn to calculate and navigate manageable risk in their play. As their teachers it is our job to enable that stretching process and ensure their safety. It is through their own self-chosen exploration that they will develop the resilience and self-reliance so important to life.
Learning is exciting. And risky. And the dinosaurs are there to help.