by Sarah Sivright
Nature is an amazing teaching partner for many reasons. It provides opportunities for just about everything—math, science, art, beauty, literature, imagination, pretend play, large and fine motor movement, friendship, cooperation, problem-solving, building, observation, stewardship—the list seems to have no end. One of the best parts, and the first reason the outdoor world is such an effective partner, is that children don’t need convincing or cajoling to join up. They can’t wait to get out there and see what’s waiting.
And when the seasons start to change, a lot is waiting. There is literally excitement in the air. As the temperatures warm, snow and ice melt, sap runs, insects appear, smells seep out of the warming ground, puddles appear, and, of course, glorious mud. Today we went to “The Swamp,” a small wetland area across Allen Way, the road in front of Inver Glen. On Wednesdays, we have a longer stretch of outdoor playtime for this trek (it feels like the other end of the world to a three year-old). A narrow spit of land stretches between two small ponds. One pond is filled with young willows and grasses, and both will be filled with frogs in a few weeks. The peninsula holds intriguing burrows and tracks, and the first couple years it sheltered a nesting Canada Goose pair. At the other end of the land is a small woods with pine trees, where we find deer tracks and scat. From the tip of the spit of land to the opposite shore (five feet) are several bridges made of long branches and found planks. These transform into space ships, the Billy Goat Gruff bridge, pirate ships, horses, etc. A culvert pokes out from the bank along Allen way, with ice or running water adding to the excitement. The banks on either side are steep and a wonderful climbing and sliding challenge. The culvert spills into a pool in the spring, and then dries up for different play.
Watching the play that takes place in this magical world is revealing. With a sufficient and stimulating area to explore and no shortage of materials to use, behavioral issues and conflict we might otherwise see are absent. The pace of play is leisurely and uninterrupted, with teachers nearby to share discoveries or join in the play or just watch with pleasure. No environment needed to be set up, materials purchased, activities planned—a gift, pure and simple.