Unifying Knowledge and Reflecting on Experience

During camp the children routinely came together to share their observations from the day. They gathered together on the tarp and each child that wished to do so added something to the Nature School Floor Book--a collectively-produced compendium of the knowledge and experiences garnered over the course of the weeks. The following photos are of the pages specifically illustrated by the Nature Camp crew:

Physical Challenge

“Move out of the way. I'm jumping."

The forest constantly invited the children to explore the limits of their physical abilities and to increase their overall confidence in their bodies. During Nature Camp this took the form of wielding large tree branches and palm fronds, to climbing and running up the Chips of Mountains, throwing rocks, and running far ahead as quickly as possible on the path. Many of the children first approached these tasks with trepidation; and yet with encouragement from one another and thanks to the confidence garnered by previous experience, each child was able to nurture a sense of accomplishment at camp’s end thanks to experiences ranging from walking through gooey mud without holding a teacher’s hand to walking across and turning around on the smooth bark of the Jumping-Off Log--before, of course, jumping off of it.

Learning in and through (Inter)Action

Repeated exposures to the forested environment laid the groundwork for deep exploration and learning through both action and interaction over the course of the five days. On day two, as they built fairy houses at the base of the Live Oak in Base Camp the children engaged their capacity for mathematical thinking. After all, too many or too few sticks may lead to an unstable structure. Naive physics and geometry also entered the scene as one child attempted to discern the best angle at which to position a large vine so that the pulley system can successfully lift a bucket of water. Similar learning domains came into focus when a group of children applied themselves to the task of building levees in tractor tracks filled with fresh rainwater. “How high do the sides need to be?” “How much force does it take to knock through a thick wall? A thin one?” The children investigated relationships between height, width, and sturdiness.

Connecting with Nature and Peers

Each child’s experience in Nature Camp was rooted in relationship. Particularly in their relationships with one another and with nature. It was interesting to note the pervasiveness of the children’s intuition that the creatures in nature have feelings that mirror their own. When some of the children, for example, realized that these creatures could be scared and hurt they became especially protective. In these scenarios (protecting tadpoles from flying sticks or a spider from the underside of an excited shoe), the children begin to identify themselves as protectors and preservers of nature. They also make connections between life in the forest and their own daily experiences. For example, they understand creatures as making friends with whom they play (“Maybe those dragonflies are playing tag!”), as having homes and greeting visitors (“A little spider said ‘Hi’ to me!”), and as looking for food and having family (“I think [this roly poly] is looking for food! That’s the daddy.”)

In addition to building relationships with creatures in the natural world, the forest lends itself in a particular way to collaborative experiences that foster relationships among the children themselves. An oft repeated phrase throughout the entire week was “Look what we--or ‘she’, ‘he’, ‘I’--found!” This was always followed by a rush of children to the scene. After all, identifying a strange-looking mushroom along the edge of the path requires at least one child to notice the mushroom, another (or many others) to validate and praise the observation, and still others to look with magnifying glasses, retrieve guides, to ask follow-up questions and to simply admire. These sorts of multilayered group interactions allow each child to occupy a vital place in the instances of investigation and wonder that are in constant supply in the forest. Such shared experiences are central to the solid community in the Nature Camp and Nature School as a whole; a community which was evident by the second day of the summer week.

Forest as Classroom

The first day of Nature Camp was dedicated to acquainting the children with ‘The Forest’--the Couturie Forest Trail in City Park. This began with naming the landmarks along the way to the classroom, landmarks that included a leaning tree, a fallen log, and a fork in the road, a grove of benches, a pier, and a hill with a log on top. Immediately, the children were immersed  in a shared language unique to the forest trail that helped to solidify a sense of definite place in an area without the traditional bounds of walls and doors. That day the children also worked on sound maps: in two groups they set out along the forest paths to look and listen closely and to record those observations. The pause and reflection occasioned by this activity allowed the children to look forward to returning to a particular spot the next day. The children quickly learned to embrace the ecological and topographical diversity of the forest. Below you can find some of the language of the forest that has come to figure widely in our day-to-day discussions as well as their significance in the children’s day-to-day.

The Classroom (or Base Camp): A sizable lakeside clearing anchored by a large live oak. Features a picnic table upon which snack is served and art activities are presented as well as a large blue tarp where we begin and end our time in the forest.

The Pier: A pier overlooking the lake that provides views of the bridge, lake, and trees on the other side of the lake. This was the site of the children’s first alligator spotting and frequently affords views of turtles, herons, and egrets gliding over the water (and water hyacinth).

The Jumping-Off Log: A small hill with an old log on top that provides an unobstructed view of the lake and the trees and golf course beyond. It is an excellent spot for rock-throwing that is also home to beetles and roly polys. Features a large log that is used for sitting, balancing, and as the name suggests, for jumping off of.

The Secret Pond: A vernal pool obscured by a line of saplings a stone’s throw away from the classroom. Filled with frog eggs and tadpoles that the children enjoy revisiting. Small animals such as frogs and spiders also are also found here.

The Chips of Mountains: A group of three mounds: the largest made of pruned branches and the other two made from red and dark brown mulch. The children climb on these and use them as foundations for structures, pulleys, and other projects. They also make fantastic slides.

The Pirate Ship Tree: A large fallen tree along one of the paths not far from the Secret Pond. A few brave children have walked through it. Could do with more investigation.