In the last week, I’ve run my first couple of youth-oriented outdoor education programs. The first was as an assistant with the Community School in Tamworth NH, and the second was School of the Forest’s first session of our “Family Nature Walk” series. In each of these, I got the opportunity to see kids interact with the outdoors, and that’s what this is all about, isn’t it?
The most fascinating aspect of this for me is seeing the incredible variation in what gets a young person excited about the experience. That little bit of information, or the sight of a particular plant or animal that makes the gears in the kid’s head start turning. It’s not always what you’d expect either. Just in these first two sessions, I got to see a beautiful contrast in personalities and what draws them to open the door and ” throw a loaf of bread and a pound of tea in an old sack and jump over the back fence.” as our old friend Muir said.
In my time at the Community School, we focused on vernal ponds. Hiking through the woods to where the overflow of streams had created said pools the kids caught me up on what they’d been doing so far in their outdoor course. This group of middle schoolers had already started digging into topo maps, building three-dimensional models of local peaks. They’d even gone so far as to color coordinate them based on changes in terrain, and place markers for campsites, trails and other landmarks. When we reached the pools we talked a bit about the ecosystem that sprouts up in these short-lived bodies of water, and then the fun began. There is no joy like mucking about in mud and grime, and flipping stones looking for things that slide and crawl.
The longer you sit and look at anything in nature the more you see. As Margaret, the instructor from the school and I talked about the easy stuff to spot (Caddisfly larvae, frog and salamander eggs etc) the kid’s eyes were unfocused and bouncing around the pool as little motions and ripples hinted at things not yet seen. After the initial schpiel, the kids got turned loose with sifters and buckets, pulling up all manner of living things from the pools, and as we all sat on our haunches more and more of the tiny ecosystem in front of us started to become visible. Frogs that had been sitting still in the grasses were spotted, a salamander meandered its way across the pool’s floor.
One young man in particular simply sat quietly on a log, not really drawn to the pool as the rest of us were. However as the afternoon stretched on, he started to speak with fascination about ticks. It started an entire discussion among the kids, with opinions following the full range of “I thought I saw a Deer Tick on me, and it was terrifying” to a simple “EEEEW” (read at the highest vocal register possible). The previously mentioned log sitter passed through these two stages and came out on the other side with questions about a tick’s life cycle, and why they were currently in such abundance. As we talked about “the hatch” that was going on as the weather changed towards warmth those gears and cogs in his mind started to supply questions. Questions I could not answer but have been assured he’ll be able to very soon. Ticks. Arguably the most reviled of crawling things had ignited that first ember in this kid and sent him down a path of wondering.
So onto the next one. School Of The Forest’s nature walks are each centered around a specific subject. This week’s was tree identification and an introduction to the art and process of pressing samples from plants. I had sort of set in my mind certain “cool” little bits of trivia about each plant we talked about that I thought would artificially light that spark we keep talking about. The kids (and parents) found these interesting, but the whole “close but no cigar” trope was pretty applicable.
So I was incredibly surprised when the youngest kid in the bunch was drawn in by the idea of making pine needle tea. Something about this just burrowed into his happy little soul and I watched him drop each of his other clippings one by one as he filled his and “Pappi’s” pockets with pine needles to make take home for tea. It didn’t end there either, every five minutes as we walked from spot to spot, he’d walk up to me with a leaf or twig and ask about it’s chances of making his tea better.
If I learned one thing from this kiddo, it’s that I need to up my knowledge of wild teas.
While building School Of The Forest, I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do, but as I work more and more with young people I’m learning to ease up on the reins of each class a bit and let kids just flip rocks looking for Efts (pictured above), and pick potential tea leaves. It’s not about a strict outline, followed point by point. It’s about that spark, and how best to add air and fuel to turn it to an ember that will smolder into something more. Apparently, Ticks and Tealeaves make pretty good fuel.