Winter! (?)

…I have found no exact duplicate. In this inexhaustible storehouse of crystal treasures, what a delight is in store for all future lovers of snowflakes and of the beautiful in nature.

W. A. Bentley – “Snowflake” Bentley

“It’s too early. I never eat December snowflakes. I always wait until January.” – Lucy Van Pelt

“They sure look ripe to me.” – Linus Van Pelt

Okay, so Mother Nature did not necessarily provide an over abundance of snow this winter, but RVNS made the most out of what we did receive.

In the classroom, we read several books about snowmen. We explored snowman with art and language.

One small snowflake fluttering down…that’s all you need for a snowman…except…two more snowflakes, three flakes…four…five…six…seven thousand…eight million more.

All You Need for a Snowman by Alice Schertle, illustrated by Barbara Lavallee

Snowflakes are the main ingredient needed to make a snowperson. We investigated snowflakes using books, loose parts, pencil, pen, paint, and paper. Friends were given the option of using a outline of a snowflake structure or creating one free form. When an expedition friend asked about how to make the outline, we had a wonderful geometry discussion about hexagons and the number of degrees in a circle. Even younger friends experimented with the concept of radial symmetry.

We turned our round table into one big collaborative snowflake which was almost as ephemeral as a real snowflake!

We encouraged the snow fairies by making our own version of a blizzard. Friends enjoyed using the ladder to make it snow inside.

Winter is not a season; it’s a celebration.

Anamika Mishra

We are incredibly grateful to have celebrated this winter together!


“If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.” Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder

It’s a little past one in the afternoon. I call out, “Expedition Friends…time for our reading expedition.” Friends leave their play for a familiar routine. We head out the long trail that traverses the length of the farm’s property. We walk this trail nearly every day we are at the farm.

A friend walks up beside me as I lead the way. They slip their hand into mine and say, “I wonder what we will see today?” Even as the adult in this group, I never get tired of walking this path. I, too, wonder what we will see each day.

Each day there always seems to be something new to draw in our attention and to make us wonder…

a flock of bluebirds in December

two circling hawks

reflections in a water drop

a bald eagle

a fox

a feisty garter snake

the fire tree, which turned out to be a lone sugar maple on the hill

an illuminated stump

a millipede

a tiny little toadstool

a dead shrew

a white-tail deer

footprints in the snow

a blue heron hunting in the pond

a downy woodpecker

a feather

It is a gift to visit the same place over and over, day after day. There is a comfort you get from visiting a place in nature repeatedly, a comfort that allows you look more deeply, to rest more completely. To see the changes subtle and large. To see favorite spots change through the seasons. After a while, you start to notice more… and then of course you wonder more too.

“Those who comtemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.  There is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the migration of the birds, the ebb and flow of the tides, the folded bud ready for the spring.  There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature—the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”  Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder

Weaving, Webs

When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.
John Muir

This post follows a thread (pun intended) that upon reflection, had its beginning in the fall when one morning, we added the card game Into the Forest to the classroom offerings.

It’s a simple card game. Each card has an illustration of a plant or animal. If the card represents an animal, it has a list of what that animal eats and a list of what eats that animal. The game is played like the card game of war. Older friends helped younger friends read the cards as they all began to learn about food webs. The conversations went something like this: ” I’m a skunk. I eat berries. I eat you!” “I’m a frog. Is anybody an insect? I eat insects. I hope no one is a snake.” Friends learned about producers and consumers and that there are many more plants and animals toward the center of the food web than on the outer edge. The Death and Decay card was the most feared and coveted as it claimed all cards for that round. Sometimes in a round of play, no one was eaten. “Oh good! I didn’t get eaten.” “Yeah, but we didn’t eat either. I’m hungry.” This was simple introduction to food webs and interconnection.

We continued food web exploration with some collaborative storytelling, first with the younger friends and then again with all friends. One friend held the end of a ball of yarn and “became” something at the base of a food chain. In our first go around, the beginning of our web was Asian honeysuckle, an invasive plant found in abundance in our outdoor area. We had a difficult time thinking of something that ate this shrub, but a young friend suggested a hairy tarantella. Although we know this is not a creature found in our area, we accepted the suggestion in order to move the story along 🙂 Friends quickly caught on, creatures were named, and the yarn was passed and connected. Soon the web was complete with every friend representing a part and holding the yarn. I tugged on one section of the web and asked “Who felt that tug?” Those two friends tugged on the yarn, and so on until all friends felt a tug. Then we told a story beginning with the first plant, weaving the tale and winding the yarn until all the creatures had their time in the story.

All friends were part of this story telling!

At the Farm, we continued web weaving. Each student was given a small ball of yarn or paracord to tie and weave around trees and shrubs to create a huge web. This was a wonderful opportunity to practice tying, wrapping, and twisting. Friends also had to estimate. “I don’t have enough string to reach that tree.” “Is there a tree closer?” “This one might be closer!” After the web was completed, friends enjoyed moving through it trying not to touch the strands. This is an activity friends asked to repeat! In later play the stands were lasers!

Teacher Elizabeth introduced a large loom, and friends took turns learning the pattern of over, under, over under. Such wonderful concentration!

In the classroom, we supported and continued the exploration of weaving, first with ribbons, paper, and fabric woven on paper looms. Later, we worked with yarn on cardboard looms.

In December, we continued weaving using sticks we collected at the farm, this time the using cool colors of winter.

Our final weaving was a large scale collaborative piece. We wrapped a hula hoop with tulle fabric, then created the warp with twine. Unlike our other weaving, where the warp was straight and parallel, this warp was organically formed as friends continued passing the twine back and forth across and around the circle.

Next, friends wove a variety of material into the piece. Some continued the over under pattern that was used before, others knotted and tied ribbons to the edges. They worked together to fill the circle with interesting patterns and color!

The finished piece!

Learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.

Leonardo da Vinci


Leaf currency

Since the first days of school, the children have been interested in currency.  Having a currency to buy goods (sticks, stones, etc.) was important as they established different stores in the nature mall.  We were most delighted when they began using leaves as currency because there was such an abundance of leaves, and that provided inherent equity among our friends.  Anyone could get the money they needed by reaching down and collecting it off of the ground. The nature mall went through various transformations, and sometimes it transformed into an amusement park with rides that require tickets.  

The children are always excited to try a new ride made by a friend from logs and boards

In the classroom, we observed that children’s favorite currency were glass gems.  Sometimes they were used as treasure or currency for buying meals at a restaurant. They have also been used to purchase tickets for various carnival games that have been created by the children. 

One of many games created from Magna-tiles

At some point, a child decided to start making money from paper in the classroom.  Paper was cut up into rectangle-ish pieces and numbers were written on it. Then it seemed like many children were interested in making money, that is, cutting up paper into rectangles and writing numbers on it.  It was great number writing practice and fine motor skill practice, and it was natural jumping off point for introducing money math into our math activities.

We started by working on automaticity with sum of 10 math facts.  We used our portable 10-frames (egg cartons with 2 sections cut off) and sometimes wooden counters or crabapples or whatever we could find to practice these math facts with manipulatives.  We use the cards from the game Tiny Polka Dot to play a make 10 matching game. We used our fingers and played a make 10 game with partners. Finally, we started working with play money 1s, 5s, and 10s.  In this way, our work with the play money supported our sum of 10 math work.

I gave the children several ones and fives and their job was to make 10

As a culminating project for this unit, I arranged for the children to go to Mondragon bookstore to buy used books as presents for family or friends.  The students each brought 10 dollars. I thought it would be helpful for the children to have a wallet to put their money in and to keep it organized so we sewed up some simple wallets from felt and yarn that morning.  In the afternoon, we set out on an icy walk to the other end of town to do our shopping. We noticed that different surfaces were coated with ice and some surfaces were not coated with ice. It was fun to slide on the icy surfaces!

Our icy walk to Mondragon bookstore across town

Once we arrived at Mondragon bookstore, we were warmly welcomed by the owner, SJ, who explained where different kinds of books were in the store and showed us where to look for the prices inside the cover of each book.  While the children shopped, they had to make choices about who they would buy books for, what kind of books to buy, and how many they could buy. “If I buy this hunting book for my dad, I will still be able to buy these 2 books, but if I buy this one, I can only buy one more because it cost 6 dollars.”  Before they purchased their books, they told me the total cost of their purchases, and if they were getting change back, how much change they should get back. SJ was super generous with her time and gave the children bumper stickers and gifted the school a beautiful, huge book from Life Magazine published in 1955 called The World We Live In

The children loved this experience and the empowerment they felt buying presents with their own money.  As a teacher, it was rewarding to see how this curriculum emerged so naturally from the children’s play and natural interests and provided the children the opportunity to learn important and practical math skills.

“Curriculum should help children make deeper and fuller understanding of their own experience.”

-Lilian Katz, Ph. D.

Welcoming Winter

We have been noticing the changes occurring in nature and in our towns and homes as fall slips away and winter approaches. We pondered what we do to get ready for winter cold. “We wear coats!” “And mittens.” “We dress warm!” We discussed how our forest friends also prepare for winter, and we read books to extend the discussion.

Where, oh where, do the caterpillars go when the winter comes and the cold winds blow?

Inside their cocoons so tightly wound, waiting for spring to bring green to the ground.

When Winter Comes by Nancy Van Laan

At the farm, we noticed how delightfully warm the sun can feel even on frosty days. We also noticed shadows. One friend observed his long shadow saying, “Look how tall my shadow is. It’s bigger than me!” We played shadow tag, running, jumping and stooping low to make our shadows harder to catch. Our shadows disappeared when we stepped into the large shadow cast by the barn – “This is base! It’s where our shadows can rest.” Another young friend was amazed that his shadow “left” his feet for a moment when he jumped; he repeated this action a few times observing the result. Later, we worked together to create a huge, eight armed creature!

On our last day at the farm, we gifted our feathered friends.

We are a new learning community, and we desire to create new traditions that are meaningful and relevant to the children. With that in mind early in December, we had a class discussion about changes friends observed in their homes and in their towns. “What do you notice happening?” “Trees!” “We have a tree in our house.” Many friends celebrate this season with evergreen trees. “Lights!” “LIGHTS! We have lights inside and outside!” “There are lights everywhere.” This lead into a wonderful discussion about how dark it is this time of year and how welcome and beautiful lights can be.

We added rope lights and little battery candles to our classroom for play and experimentation.

In our discussions about light and dark, sun and shadow, we introduced the winter solstice, the reason for the shorter hours of sunlight during the day.

Elizabeth used an orange as the earth and a flashlight as the sun to help us understand the Winter Solstice event. Friends took turns being the sun!

In one of our readings, we learned that the Winter Solstice was and is often celebrated with lanterns. We created our own simple lanterns using a palette of cool colors; these are the colors we noticed in the illustrations of some of the books we have read.

As part of our welcoming winter celebration, we encouraged friends to think of a special wish for the season. Each child spoke a wish and blew out a candle.

This was a beautiful and personal way to welcome the winter season!

A little bit of light pushes away a lot of darkness.

Jewish proverb

BIG Loose Parts

The natural materials of our outdoor location offer an abundance of “loose parts” that friends can use, move, put together, and change to become whatever their play or imagination requires. Some of these loose parts are BIG. Friends have built big with logs and planks.

The logs are not uniform. They are large, heavy, and challenging to move. Placing these materials in the way friends envision requires strength and determination.

“Look, I made a big ‘I.'”

This is meaningful, physical work that tests muscles and builds persistence.

One friend loved making obstacle courses. She set, practiced, and demonstrated the course for her friends. Elements of balancing, jumping, counting, and sequencing were always included. Not only did she encourage her friends as they tried the course, she took into consideration the abilities of her friends, adjusting the challenges as needed so all friends could succeed!

ROLLING! This is pure fun! Many friends have enjoyed this sensation. In addition to being fun, the process of repeatedly rolling back and forth aids in the development of a child’s vestibular sense. This sense is necessary for balancing when moving and attending to learning.

Friends worked together to create a bridge, and soon there was an impromptu retelling of The Three Billy Goats Gruff.

Placing the plank on one log created a pivot point. Friends walked up the plank and then found that sweet point of balance! For me, as a teacher, this has been the most challenging activity. We support children taking developmentally and situationally appropriate risks. It was obvious that our older friends were quite capable of deciding if and how to navigate this activity. I wasn’t quite as sure of the younger friends, but of course, nearly all wanted to try it! We certainly didn’t want to discourage them. As each young friend had a turn, I offered, “I am here if you would like assistance.” Those that needed it, took my hand. One friend began walking up the ramp saying, “I don’t think I need your help.” He got closer to the pivot point and said, “Hey, Denise, can I have some assistance? I’m a little bit scared.” I continued offering assistance as needed. Soon friends began saying, “I think I can do it myself.”

This friend tried again and again, until he mastered the challenge- such quiet persistence!

Thinking on this one activity in particular causes me to consider how and when I choose to step into their play. Reflection is always a good process!

Running down the ramp or running up it and jumping was another engaging activity. Because of the previous learning, friends were mindful about how much of the plank extended beyond the log. “Look how far I can jump.”

Seesaws were incredibly addictive for friends. While creating their own play equipment, they were unknowingly exploring mass, levers, cause and effect, and also social skills of taking turns, being kind to one another and keeping each other safe- all within meaningful play.

Imaginative play with these big loose parts has been the most recent development. Friends love to play family. They worked together to create a place that was the nature school for the children of the family. “Come on, kids. It’s time to go to school!”

“I think the one thing which truly makes children safe is their own competence, their own capability, their authentic skills in meeting the asymmetry, irregularity, and unpredictability of life. How do they come by their own competence? Only by the practice of it.” Jay Griffiths

Kith, The Riddle of the Childscape by Jay Griffiths

When dragons come alive…

We are reaching the end of the Expedition Friends read aloud book, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin.  One of the characters in the book is a dragon who cannot fly.  

In the story, the dragon begins his life as a painting, and comes to life when its eyes are painted. I read the description of the dragon to the students, and they drew the dragon with beeswax crayons. I dared them to draw the eyes… “maybe your dragon will come to life!”

I love seeing the different ways that the children interpreted the description, and especially that many included someone riding the dragon.

Well, dragons didn’t come leaping off their papers, but dragons became a fascination and emerged as a major theme in their play.  Some of the older students were reading the Dragon Masters series by Tracey West which feature dragon tamers. They became dragon tamers in their play at the farm and a fallen tree became a dragon they could ride just like Minli, the main character in Where the Mountain Meets the Moon.  

Riding a dragon through the forest
Dragon Tamer

To support their interests, I got some really beautiful dragon books from the library.  We decided to teach the song “Puff, the magic dragon.” We learned how to decode messages in draconic script.  We did dragon Qigong and played a game called dragon’s tail.

Draconic script
Dragon’s tail
This required a lot of communication and teamwork

The expedition friends created their own dragon together, and using metaphor and simile they described its characteristics.  To me, it is clear that the children have been inspired by Grace Lin and her mastery of writing in a way that transports the reader into the story. They named the dragon by writing one letter on a slip of paper, and then we worked together to rearrange the letters into a name that everyone liked. These activities gave the students more opportunities to work together collaboratively, and they did a really nice job communicating and compromising with one another. Here is the description of that they created as a group.  

Ocaddas, the dragon, had scales that shimmered like silver, but its skin was as rough as sandpaper. He was as cold as an iceberg. On his tiger shaped head he had two elliptical eyes as red as fire. His nostrils were like two shining emeralds, and his teeth were as yellow as gold and pointy as knives.

On long serpent legs, the dragon had paws like a human’s hand but with nails so long and sharp they looked like swords. The dragon’s flaming red wings were thin and as delicate as a baby’s skin, but its tail was long and spiky like daggers.

Ocaddas the dragon

The children are now working on a puppet show that will feature, a dragon tamer, and a mermaid.  Watching this theme emerge and supporting it has been an absolute joy! I’ll share more about the puppet show in a future post.

It simply isn’t an adventure worth telling if there aren’t any dragons.  -J.R.R. Tolkien

Three Sticks and Learning Together

“To the uneducated, an A is just three sticks.” – A. A. Milne

I found this quote a few weeks ago while I was looking for something that might describe some of the magical stick play we were observing in the woods. While it wasn’t what I was looking for, it did get me thinking. Of course an “A” is more in meaning than just three sticks, but can three sticks be more than just an “A?”

One rainy morning, I asked friends to gather three sticks and join me under the tarp shelter. I posed the challenge, “What can you do with your three sticks?” Friends began arranging. It wasn’t long until someone said, “Look! I made a triangle.” Then nearly everyone used the sticks to create triangles. C- had one very long stick and two very short sticks. “I can’t make a triangle!” Friends looked at the sticks she had arranged. I affirmed that indeed those sticks will not make a triangle. C- said, “But I want to make a triangle!” J- kindly suggested, “You need two longer sticks.” C- bounded off and returned with two longer sticks to replace the short ones and completed a triangle.

“What else can you make with the sticks?” N- worked with her sticks, placing two vertically and one across the top. “This is a door!” she announced. J- tried to rearrange his sticks to match his friend’s creation. J- said, “Hey, Denise, I want to make a door like N-, but I don’t know how.” “You can ask N- how she made it. Maybe she will tell you,” I suggested. J- turned to N- and asked, “Hey, N-, how do you make a door?” N- said, “Like this,” and she picked up her sticks and replaced them one at a time demonstrating how she had created the door. J- carefully followed each step. “I made a door. See?”

Now it was J-‘s turn to create. He stacked his sticks rotated around the midpoint to make an asterisk symbol. “Look, I made a star.” N- carefully looked at the star and tried to arrange her sticks to match, placing the ends of the sticks in the center of the star. N- said, “I can’t make that. J- has six sticks, and I only have three.” “Does J- really have six sticks?” I asked. N- counted the ends of the sticks. “Six,” she stated with a hint of frustration. J- counted, touching each stick, “There’s three. See? One, two, three. They’re on top of each other.” N- picked up her sticks and stacked them to make the star.

A few days later, I offered the same activity. Repeating open ended activities allows for skill practice, confidence building, and creative extension. Friends eagerly began to see what they could make. We were gathered around a rectangular mat; therefore, friends were sometimes seeing images rotated 90 or 180 degrees. They quickly noticed that the letter I on its side is the letter H, an N on its side is a Z. Here are some of the images friends made with three sticks:

Some friends brought really big sticks to the activity- because bigger is sometimes just more fun! Teacher Colleen worked with these friends as they created BIG shapes.

They made big triangles. Then, they wanted to make a big square. “We need another big stick!” After that was accomplished, they turned the big square into a big circle, gathering just the right sticks to complete their plan. What do you do with a big circle? You play the game “Dancing in the Middle!” then have lunch.

“To the creative, three sticks can be an A…..also the letters I, H, T, K, F, Y, N, Z, and a triangle(but not always), a door, a star, the number 1, and a penguin’s foot.” -Nature Explorers of RVNS

Water Water

A few weeks ago, the weather promised to be delightfully warm. We took advantage of our freedom and flexibility and traveled to R.B Winter State Park to experience the waters of Rapid Run and Halfway Lake.

We began and ended our day with a song by Matthew John Dorman called simply, The Water Song. Here are the first and last verses:

Oh, water, water
flowing down the stream,
into my thoughts
and into a dream.
And in this dream, I am a fish,
swimming freely wherever I wish.

Oh, water, water
flowing down the stream,
into my thoughts
and into a dream.
And in this dream, I am free,
being what I am,
being me.
At the park, friends enjoyed exploring the large fallen trees along the trail to the creek.
The water of Rapid Run was beautiful, clear, and cool!
Some children explored without hesitation, while others chose to slowly test the waters- each experienced in a way reflective of their personality!
The mud squished and squelched and claimed a few boots!

We moved on to the lake with the warm sandy beach. Such joy!

Back in the classroom, we read books about streams, rivers, and water. We offered loose parts to invite collaborative expressions of the idea of “water.”

The following week, students individually used the materials to form patterns, designs, and sculptures. Some told a specific story, while others experimented with balance and stacking or symmetry – the results, but more importantly the processes demonstrated beautiful creativity! “These are the trees along the stream.” “These could be bridges. They are hard to balance!” “Look! I made R.B. Winter Park.”

“The wider the range of possibilities we offer children, the more intense will be their motivations and the richer their experiences.” – Loris Malaguzzi

Learning numeracy skills

There are some very easy ways to weave in numeracy skills into whatever the children are interested in as they play and explore.  As a teacher, my challenge is to pay attention and look for those opportunities.

An important foundation for math learning is developing a strong number sense.  As concrete learners this is most practically done by using manipulatives. Using whatever the children are interested in at the moment makes working on math skills very practical.  

We can count walnuts.

We can count leaves. 

We can count sticks.

We can count felted balls.

Learning to skip count is foundational to learning math facts.  We practice skip counting together in different ways. Some of the younger students only go so far, and then they can listen to the older children as we count by 2s, 5s, and 10s. 

We can keep a score by skip counting how many times we hit a target with a walnut when each hit is worth 5 points.

Or, calculate a score by subtracting the number of squares back from the target in a carnival game made from magnatiles.

We can calculate the change for a purchase at the rock store or the stick store.

We can measure the diameter of a tree and compare one tree to another.

We can make fractions from sticks and discover that as we go from 4ths, 5ths, 6ths, 7ths, 8ths, 9ths to 10ths the stick gets smaller and smaller.

We also play games with dice and dominoes and work with spatial puzzles.

The expedition friends are reading two math books right now.  One is called Math Fables by Gregory Yang which is helping us learn our addition facts using stories about animals.  This inspired us to work in groups to make our own math fables about a magic trick, sister tigers, and leaves.

Another book we are reading is called The Best of Times by Gregory Yang.  The older expedition friends and a couple of the younger expedition friends are learning some tricks for multiplying with this book and using these tricks to solve some really challenging math problems.

The children are learning that math is practical, and that math is fun!