With the warmer weather, we have arranged it so that every day of the week, a group of 5 kindergarten students can trek with either a teacher or Early Childhood Educator to the Mud Lake bird conservation area across the field from our school. During the winter, when weather was less predictable, and often times uncooperative with temperatures plunging to -30 degrees celsius, or fields of sheer ice to navigate across with 4 and 5 year old students, we could not plan on going out every day. With the arrival of spring, however, everyone is happy to have the chance to move beyond the school building to do some outdoor learning.
For the first few visits, everything was wonderful with buds on trees, a small variety of plants coming up through the mulch and moss, and the Canada Geese filling the air and the waterways with their boisterous presence. Then it started to rain. The run-off and the rain soon created flood conditions that were catastrophic for some people along the Ottawa River. The flooding was so severe that the paths were impassable and our students and staff were prohibited from visiting the area because the water levels were so high. Birds that nest along the shoreline most definitely lost their clutches, and we are not sure how the female beaver, who a week before the flood could be observed proudly grooming herself on top of the fortified lodge, was managing now that the lodge was almost completely submerged.
The flooding offered to all the students at our school, not only an opportunity to observe the transformation of an area they had come to know very well in previous seasons, but also a goldmine of inquiry-based learning which was opened up as students wondered about how flooding affects animals and insect populations, where flooding happens, where the water came from and where it eventually goes. It also gave us a chance to explore around the fenced off, protected conservation area of Mud Lake. This meant that the children could climb the trees beside the bike path that lies between our school yard and the forest, and they could learn about a completely different collection of medicinal plants that grow best in disturbed soil with exposure to full sun, such as mullein (Verbascum thapsus), shepherd’s purse (Bursa pastoris), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), and the rather abundant and pesky, but with rich medicinal properties, dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), and burdock (Arctium lappa). We even found some stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) which irritates more than stings – and is not toxic like poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans). The students have been able to get up close and personal with these plants because the habitat they grow in is easily accessible. In the forest, we do not touch or pick anything because it is a protected area, and because there is so much poison ivy along the trails. However, in the fields and ditches which are frequently mown, these plants grow in abundance as long as there has been no pesticide treatment.
This Spring, the flooding of the shores of Mud Lake has really exemplified the benefits of the outdoor classroom which is neither static nor predictable like a classroom within a building can be. With the changing nature of the forest and pond that make up the bird conservation area, our students have been able to experience how powerful, dynamic, and full of life a small area in their neighbourhood is. As the waters recede, we will soon be able to return to the trails and waterside that the children have come to know so well, and explore the changes that have occurred over the past few weeks, but now we will add a stop on the way to climb a tree and notice a plant or two.