"I was in the forest today. I figured out how we can get to the dragon tooth rock! When the creek freezes we can walk to it! It would have to be a hard freeze and it's been a long time since I've seen the creek frozen through and through, but it could happen. Maybe it will this year."
The children's imagination went right to the creek, to that great pointed rock rising from it, and right to what they know of ice, which is a lot right now. All the water is frozen on the playground. And so much of it unbreakable! Right when you walk through the gate, you see the rainwater trapped in great, frozen tendrils against one of the rain barrels. It is a very impressive sight. The water inside the tires is both frozen and smelly. Regardless of the smelliness, these curved amber chunks get dragged around, "Go ahead, smell it!" Every single one of the bottle babies are frozen, many splitting, offering up glitter trapped in bottle-shaped ice. That glitter ice, in case you are worried about the stock market crashing, holds the highest value on our playground. You can trade that glitter ice for anything you could ever want (but not the smelly tire ice).
First, I told the morning class about this ice walk to the dragon tooth rock. The 3s and 4s are going into the forest the next morning. They jumped right in with "Yes!"
They are certain the creek will be frozen! Then later, I told the 4 and 5-year olds. They had only just visited the forest the week before on a warm day so they needed a moment to adjust. Many had spent the long weekend out and about in the dropping temperatures and the ice they had walked past to come inside the school held most of their attention, but the creek in their estimation, should still be running ice-free. They still had loads of ideas to offer, like the idea of ice skates, but perhaps a log bridge would still be in order! This class likes the icing on the cake. Ice skates would be great, but they still really want to build a log bridge to the dragon tooth rock. Nothing needs to be left to the simple adventure of a frozen ice crossing. There is always more that could be in store for them. They could make this bridge thing happen. If not, there will be ice skates.
In the way of experiential learning, you hold it, you turn it upside down, you look at it in the light or under water, you shake it, you break it, you fix it. You are in it. This is the way children learn. The idea that the children could build a log bridge and even build ice skates from the bits and pieces they find along the creek's banks is a thing they can easily imagine doing.
The question is, will they be given these opportunities?
The idea that children will wreck things is very much part of the adult-world view (not all adults, of course, but many). This is something that trails us when we visit the adult-world of art museums and it also follows us into the forest. The message is quite clear. Do not go off-trail, stay on the playground or inside the school. Keep to your place.
Now, we have met some lovely people in both venues. This idea of "go outside and play" or "come inside and connect with art" is embraced by these generous adults, and to a one, they are very imaginative, adults. Yet, every time we venture out into the forest, I am especially worried that our adventures "off-trail" will be cut short. We know that too often children are cut off from the very thing they need that will shape them into future stewards.
A relationship is formed during those moments of "go outside and play." The relationship is one that is founded in sense of place. Imagine the children building a log bridge to a great boulder. Dragging great branches across the banks of the creek, leaning them over and letting the branches drop with a great splash, piling them higher and wedging them in for stability, all of this brings a profound connection to place. This is something that so many adults have tucked away into distant memories of their own childhoods. These very stewards of the park, will move children back onto the trail and away from adventures of their own design. This is done with good intentions -- by learning to leave it alone, we learn to value it -- is the thinking behind this, respect is learned by viewing something from a distance. But this actually just leaves children disconnected from the natural world.
Where will the future stewards be found, if the children are not left to explore and drift along the waterways? Where will the future stewards find their inspiration? Their connection? Without these adventures with ice, branches, and with a great rock that is always out of reach, children will lose their connection to Earth. They will be set adrift.
So with kindness may I ask the rule-bound, constrained adult to step aside to let the children explore. Trust that they will learn by doing and yes, by making mistakes, by leaving a mark, by reshaping their worlds, in order to learn to care for the Earth they live on. And it is with gratitude, I thank the adults who have made room for us on the trail and inside museums. Thank you. Your kindness has not gone unnoticed.