Safe and Brave in the Wild Dark

Posted March 2, 2017

by Sarah Sivright

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As families know well, nature education is part of our three-part mission at All Seasons, along with our intergenerational connection and art program. The evidence often comes home in the form of wet, muddy, or grass-stained outdoor gear, burs imbedded in clothing and hair, or the occasional wood tick that has escaped our daily examination. At least to our faces, parents are good sports about the messy children that get strapped into car seats at the end of the day.
Growing research supports what we environmental educators have known for a long time, that children’s knowledge and all developmental domains are expanded and deepened by time in nature. So it’s probably no surprise that all of our major school parties are focused on time outdoors—the Fall Campout, Kid’s Night In, and our Earth Day celebration. A week of discussion preceded Kid’s Night In, along with books related to the activity—Owl Moon, South, Over and Under the Snow, Owl Babies.   The day of the party, several owl pellets were found on a hike to The Swamp. (Owls swallow their prey whole and then cough up the indigestible fur and bones). A couple pellets were previously found in our own Pine Tree Forest, so we planned to check that out during our night hike, as quietly as we possibly could.
Each teacher had a small group entrusted to her for the evening. In my group, I had several of the younger children, which affected our itinerary in interesting ways. We headed out to The Pines, and even though it was till dusk, this familiar play destination looked spooky in the semi-darkness. Added to the diminishing light (and no Mom or Dad) was the notion of being quiet so we could listen for owl sounds. I was wishing I had four hands for all those who needed them. “Do owls eat people?” “When can we go back to the school?” “Where are the other kids?” The older children were excited to remember where we had pitched our tents for the Fall Camp-out and actually slept there all night. We could see the lights of our building and even the light from the pop machine on the golf course tee, offering comfort.
We looked for golf balls and checked inside the bluebird house. Hands gripped onto mine relaxed a little and even let go for a few seconds. The older children’s excitement at being outside in the dark seemed more comforting than my enthusiasm for the adventure.

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We stopped at The Boulders to roast marshmallows and rejoin our friends. Then the fun really started for my little group. Once we moved to the playground all was well, even though by then it was truly dark. A familiar space with no wildlife and all their friends set them free, and off they went to run and dance, roll down the hill, shining flashlights*—a wild gathering of winter fireflies. I actually had a moment of anxiety as I stood in their midst, about some headlong collisions in the darkness, but none materialized. Even children I expected to hunker down in one place out of the fray, were swept up in the swirling fun.

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So now they all have a memory of hiking in the dark at school, revisiting places that look very different in the night. They have images of firelight, the taste of marshmallows, the pleasure of reuniting with classmates whose voices they had heard somewhere out in the darkness, the power of making their own light and fun on the playground. And somewhere in there will be a memory of having been safe—and brave—in the wild dark.

*We had extra flashlights for those who hadn’t brought one.