With our weekly walks in the woods, I’m trying to come to terms with having a planned lesson versus just letting my kindergarten students explore the space in their own way. On the one hand, presenting a challenge to them as we enter the forest is a good way to target curriculum expectations and to focus their attention on things they may not yet have the literacy for, i.e., certain kinds of plant characteristics, the change in seasons, or evidence of animals, even the habits of relatively common ones such as the beaver, woodpecker, or wood duck. On the other hand, it is so true that real learning can happen when the teacher steps out of the way. We often think we are doing our students a favour by helping them inch towards enlightenment with guided questions, but sometimes, it is much better to turn our voice off and turn up our listening skills to hear what is being said without interrupting. While our responsibility is to make sure everyone is safe, we don’t always have to be in charge of learning – letting the students lead their learning is a rich experience we need to foster as much as possible, even if we feel to do so is not really teaching.
So, the obvious choice for me is to do a bit of both with some teacher-lead learning, followed by me following the students. With the hour that we spend in the forest each visit, we have a goal upon entering that helps remind the students that they are there to use their senses as ‘Nature Detectives”, after that, comes the free-association part of our forest ramble. As we start on our visit, I am ready with one teacher-lead activity that draws their attention to some new aspect of the forest that they might not have noticed before, such as, “Find a yellow flower,” or “How many different colours can you see in the forest?”. As we walk along and they point out the yellow flower, that gives me the opportunity to talk about the plant’s (goldenrod) properties, or when they notice different colours, it opens up the discussion about why leaves are not staying green any more. With the natural environment all around us at that time, it is amazing how much deeper students listen and how much more they remember. They are relaxed, it is calm, and there is just a small group of them, so learning comes a little easier because they are, in a sense, using all of their body to learn.
After a few minutes of teacher-lead learning, I am ready to follow their lead about which paths to trek down, or which fallen tree trunk to climb under or over. I look forward to hearing what they notice and listening to their talking. When we take the time to stop and just hang around in one spot for a bit, they are quiet at first, taking everything in. Some wander a bit and focus on the ground just at their feet, others crouch and look under branches. While it would make sense for me to point out the big things like the beaver lodge, or the dead birch tree full of holes made by various woodpeckers, the Kindergarten Nature Detective draws my attention to the smallest orange and black, fuzzy caterpillar on a leaf about 2 feet off the ground. Or crouching down, in a mess of mud and twigs, someone spies one red berry, or a toad stool the size of a fingernail. Our perspectives are completely different – I am taller, look farther into the distance, and know the space and what can be typically found there. With the 4 and 5 year olds, some of whom are very tiny, the forest they see is new and the area they are comfortable exploring is on the ground around their feet.
When we are walking back to the school, I try to recap some of the things we experienced so that they can write or draw it in their journals, share it with their classmates or talk about it with their families when they get home. Do they readily remember the yellow flower they learned about? Sometimes. But the student who found and gave a pat to the fuzzy orange and black caterpillar easily recalls every detail.