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Thursday, December 11, 2014

Before the Wind Arrived

"The child builds his inmost self 
out of the deeply held impressions he receives."
Maria Montessori

Being outside today was magical.  After weeks of cold, early freezes, some days of ice, an unusual amount of wind, and plenty of rain, on this mid-December day we all stepped outside to find a sweet and sunny stillness.   It was quite literally the "calm before the storm."  As I write this now, later in the afternoon, the anticipated high winds have arrived and the day has changed dramatically.

All of the countless, ineffable experiences of this fall - running in wet rain pants, fussing about muddy hands with cold fingers, holding a sheet of ice from the birdbath, chasing friends through the forest, perching high on a stump, soaking up glorious moments in rare sunshine - all these experiences become part of the child in ways that we cannot know.  He "builds his inmost self out of the deeply held impressions he receives."  

So it was magical, this day, and I grabbed my camera, determined to re-start my blog by sharing some glimpses.   The children with the chickens were my inspiration. Parents never see this particular part of Chickadee, and might not believe how their little ones fare in the world of the chicken pen.

We headed out the door in the requisite boots and rain pants; jackets were really not needed today, some wore them, some didn't.  A small cluster of children - today it was Eleanor, Ellie, Henry, Sydney, and Ella - usually head straight for the chicken coop when they go outside.  They love to throw out scratch, check for eggs, and try to pick up chickens. They've been watching Starry Night, Cuckoo, and Velvet, our three September chicks, become pullets, now almost as big as the full-grown hens. The children follow the "girls" around, and a few of them, including Ella, our youngest, have become quite proficient at catching them.

After a short visit, I often let the chickens out for some free roaming, which gets both children and hens moving down to the forest, one following the other, the children clutching some bird seed in their hands, and the chickens hoping for a feast.

This morning we had lovely patches of blue sky; the low solstice sun shone over our roof at just the right angle to light up the sandbox.    Doesn't it look like a spotlight here?  In the summer the sandbox is shaded; on clear winter days, in the late morning, we have this.

The sand is damp from all the recent rains, so once I uncovered the sandbox, a major fest of sand castles and sand cakes ensued.  Look closely here at Noriko.  Sydney gave her two sand cakes to hold while she worked on making some more.   Noriko held them patiently for quite a while, tending the children with her hands occupied by sand cakes!

Further down in the forest Henry sat happily on a low stump in our small "peace circle" of old, broken pieces of stumps and wood; the circle is currently filled with a bunch of sticks which the kids are calling their campfire.   Henry and Ellie watched Noah with some awe as he climbed the giant stump next to it (see top photo).  When Chickadee started here in the fall of 2010, we didn't even know this magnificent stump was hiding down there, it was so completely covered by ivy. Now it is showing the changes of slowly rotting wood, the wear and tear of 4+ years of kids climbing, but it has plenty of time left to give itself away. Climbing the stump for the first time remains a notable feat, and it provides a wonderful place to view the whole scene.

Nearby is our new jumping spot.  If you look closely in this photo, you will see that Ethan has just jumped off that stump; he is holding onto and swinging out gripping a very thin branch.  I realized we could set this up just a few days ago, after the kids rolled it over there for another purpose.  I doubt that the branch will last long, and they only swing out a few feet, but it's very much an adventure spot right now.

Isabel is in mid-flight!

Meanwhile, just below the jumpers, Julian and his buddies have been crouching or lying down in the mud and digging this hole with sticks for days now.  I am still not quite sure what the story is.  Once again, look closely - Seamus, who was watching Julian, had a mask on.  It's the felt mask he sewed for our play last spring, and he brought it back today and wore it for quite a while outside.  Noriko reported that he remembers his lines perfectly all these months later!

A little later I found Brady and Seamus sitting somewhere else, on the ground, in a quiet conversation.  From their hand movements and a few words, I gathered it was something about nerf guns.    Always, there is an ebb and flow of movement, play, interchanges, quiet personal time, actions and reactions, wild running, conversations, upsets, and imaginary games, as the children play outside. No two days are the same. Every moment is new.  This moment with Brady and Seamus was brand new, and never to be repeated.

And what is the moment holding for Mikaela right here?  Utter exuberance! Exuberance that she found herself playing in the sandbox, in the sunshine, barefoot, jumping with joy, in mid-December.   I was thrilled to have caught her feet in the air!

"One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself, 'What if I had never seen this before?  What if I knew I would never see it again?'"     Rachel Carson

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Insects Inside, Insects Outside

"The environment must be rich in motives which lend interest to activity 
and invite the child to conduct his own experiences."
Maria Montessori

Parents only hear or see bits and pieces of our curriculum, so I like to give you the big picture now and then.   This summer our special theme has been insects, spiders, and invertebrates.   Amidst all the swirl of life and learning at Chickadee - experimenting with water and growing our garden, telling stories and inventing games, playing in the forest and sawing at the workbench, making new friends and enjoying familiar buddies - and yes, working with classic Montessori materials -  through all this, a strong thematic thread has been this focus, using many materials and activities about these most amazing, indispensable fellow creatures.

I start these blog posts with a relevant quote from Maria Montessori, but this time, the quote I really want to emphasize is this one, from E.O. Wilson, the great naturalist:

"If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos."

Such a striking statement and reminder for us as adults.  Given this interdependence, and given the perilous state of bees and other insects in our world, learning about them is a natural and important work.  For the children, we begin at the beginning.  We strive to cultivate the children's interest, deep respect, and understanding in a fun way, and as much as possible, we dispel those feelings of bug annoyance or fear which are all too common.

The good news is that this is easy to do with children. They have a natural affinity for small creatures, and they love to learn.  How many times have we heard a voice cry out, "I found an ant!"  So we did exactly what Maria Montessori advised in the quote at the top: we created an environment rich in motives which lend interest to activity, and invited children to conduct their own experiences.

Here are some glimpses of those motives and experiences....

The butterfly life cycle is most familiar. We put out these classic cards, with plastic models, and the children make booklets.  I ordered the painted lady caterpillars from Insect Lore, and watched them form their chrysalises (as it happens, they emerged over a week-end - I saw it coming, fourth of July week-end, and sent them home with a family.)  The five butterflies came back to us on Monday morning, and on Wednesday we released them out in the garden, where they lingered for a while (the top photo).

For a whole year I had saved a wonderful new collection of life cycle models with a big mat to lay them out, a set that I found at the Montessori Congress last summer.  Ant, bee, meal worm, and ladybug, along with the life cycle of bean seed and frog - these models have been used daily. Here you can see the ant and bee part of that mat.

I brought in a bag of 1000 ladybugs, which led to a wonderful morning of watching, holding, and releasing ladybugs.  We searched for and found some aphids, their favorite food, in our kale plants. "Stay with us, ladybugs!"  We looked at the model of the ladybug larva, and the children painted ladybugs.  They too lingered for a while.

These hands-on materials, books, and living insects led the older children into making "reports," a project often seen at Chickadee.  Children of 4, 5, or 6 do their best with careful drawing and big writing, sharing something they have been learning about, something they care about, and they feel well-deserved pride when they are put up for all to see.  Here are five of them:

 the morpho butterfly has blue wings that are brown underneath
(written by Cara, our oldest child)

scorpions are poisnus
(Brady's drawing took a whole morning)

bumblebees make bee bread
(Rex learned so much more,
but this was his limit on writing)

grasshoprs yoos their powerfl legs to get away
[Charlotte showed a grasshopper sitting and flying)

praying mantis
(working from a big picture in a book, and with my grounding and guidance,
 Seamus could hardly believe he drew such a magnificent creature)

Meanwhile, out in the forest, the children went on bug hunts, looking under stumps and logs, finding black ground beetles, centipedes, and other small unidentified creatures, and of course, slugs.  For a while, we set out a big plastic bin as a temporary home for invertebrates.  It was quickly populated with banana slugs, and some little land snails appeared out of nowhere, along with black ground beetles and a few other mystery insects.  After a week or so I was concerned about their survival, and we returned them all to the forest.

We read lots of books about spiders and insects, most of them factual.  Just last week at the library I found this treasure, The Secret Life of the Wooly Bear Caterpillar.  Great illustrations, lots of new vocabulary, and we learned so much about this caterpillar often found in the fall.  I hope we find one soon!

Yes, summer is the best season to learn about insects and spiders, because it is their time.  From the native swallowtails we see flitting at the edge of the forest, to the bees buzzing in the clover, to the random insects which make their way inside through our open doors, to the spiders who are now spinning their webs everywhere, these creatures are all around us. Kids started bringing in bugs they found at home, alive or dead, each one important.  And in a gift of pure lovelieness, last week these girls found bumblebees sleeping overnight on the speckled zinnias in our flower garden. As it warmed up in the morning, the bees slowly began to move, and then when the sun hit the flowers, off they flew on their day's adventures. For a while longer, we can look at them up close and personal, every morning. 

So the summer rolls on, and we shifted some shelf work over to ocean invertebrates to ignite fresh interest, but the living encounters with insects continue.  May the children's hands remain gentle, their hearts open, and their minds inquisitive, as they share life with these, the earth's most abundant life forms.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Children and Wild Water

"The child, making use of all that he finds around him, 
shapes himself for the future."
Maria Montessori

I led seven of Chickadee's older children and two mothers on a Columbia Gorge adventure on Friday.   It was splendid - Latourell Falls, Wahkeena Falls, and Oneonta Gorge - an outing I have done every summer for many years now. Each time it feels like a miracle.

And then I left for a week-end writing workshop on "Earth Verse" with Kim Stafford at the Sitka Center for Arts and Ecology, a birthday gift from my daughter Eloika.   I felt utterly humbled sitting in that group, and yet words flowed onto my paper. And sure enough, my heart, imagination, and writings were full of children, water, rocks, and light.

So here today I have gathered some few photos from Friday, and two of my rough verses, written for myself, and now apparently for you, shared in the innocent spirit of the children who inform my life.

Latourell Falls

We began with Latourell Falls, the western-most falls in the Gorge.  First we walked down the trail, getting up close and personal with the plunging falls and the rushing water.  The kids scrambled over rocks at the edge of the creek until the spray was blasting us and I said, go no further. Then we hiked up the curving trail which climbs above the top of the falls.

With Children at a Waterfall

Slip inside the water, I tell them.
Let your eyes follow it as it falls.
When it hits the pool, stay with it.
Become spray.
Bring mist to the hillside, glistening yellow flowers.
Flow and tumble over rocks.
Move, swirl, dance, down, down.

Within water lies the great mystery.
Never created.
Never dying.
Lying hidden.
Flowing open.
Free of clinging.
Connecting us all.
Slip inside the water and be free.

Oneonta Gorge

We stopped at Wahkeena Falls for a comfortable picnic lunch, but could not give this cascading falls the time it deserves as a wonder of its own. We needed to move on to Oneonta Gorge, a side chasm that opens into the larger Columbia Gorge. (For those who know Oneonta, I don't climb the logjam with these kids, leaving that challenging adventure for children with their parents.) We stayed in the lower part of Oneonta Creek, still running wide, clear, and cold in late July, with towering green walls on either side, an utterly pure adventure and experience for these young children.


Rocks sing under over.
Water moves ever on.
Secret voices speak story.
Loud voices call delight.
Trout swim silent witness.
Salamander snaps moving food.
Sun tracks eastern cliff.
Shadows cloak western wall.
Where is time held?
Gorge follows different master.

Kim Stafford used some lines from a Leonard Cohen poem to set the tone for our workshop.   They rose up in my mind, ringing loud, as I finished this blog post.

Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There's a crack in everything.
That's how the light gets in.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Seeds. Leaves. Plants. Life.

"We shall walk together on this path of life, 
for all things are part of the universe, 
and are connected with each other to form one whole unity."
Maria Montessori

All year long the children are immersed in the plant world at Chickadee, and with the irrepressible, rising energy of spring, even more so.  Writing this one sentence recalled in my mind the great lines of Dylan Thomas' poem:  "The force that through the green fuse drives the flower / Drives my green age...."  The children's "green age" is happening now!  So it is natural that, while we are immersed in the driving forces of spring, we focus a beam of light within our curriculum on the green and growing plant kingdom.  We have been weaving in and out of seeds and flowers and sprouts and trees, and all the while the children have been embracing their unique and daily encounters with nature outside our doors.

Where does it begin for a child, this sense of connection with nature?  What does he first notice?  When does it start to come together as a conscious awareness that humans and animals live alongside plants in this world, that we depend upon plants for life itself?  How does the inherent joy and beauty of being in nature connect with their developing intelligence?  I know I do not know.  I can only offer some small and beautiful possibilities, and let the children's unique spirits unfold on their own timetable.

Perhaps for some it happens out in the forest, as a group of friends lean against trees and create and re-create their stick fort masterpieces?

Maybe for some others it comes more deeply or easily with putting fingers and hands into the earth, planting seeds, and then witnessing their growth?


Or could it be that a quiet and solo encounter with one growing thing in the forest or garden, be it a mushroom or a trillium or a daffodil, first kindles the child's sense of connectedness and wonder?

For some children the magic may happen most powerfully in the inviting branches of a tree, the very act of climbing generating their awe.

Or might this secret of childhood lie hidden in the work of planting a vegetable that will be with us all summer, sharing its bounty?

Because we are so connected with one another within this children's house, might it be that all of these experiences combine together, so that we each become enriched by everyone else's consciousness?  I like to think that is so.  I talk to the children as if that were so.  And I give botany lessons as if that were so. The whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts, and each child becomes greater than her own individual experiences.   We weave it all together in this shared life of ours. 

One of Dr. Montessori's brilliant insights was that the children benefit by breaking down the whole into its parts.  Botany is a perfect example:  we have cards and puzzles to learn about the parts of a plant, a tree, a flower, and a leaf, so part of this weaving is a very careful set of lessons and materials.  We do seed experiments and look closely at each stage of sprouting.  We pick flowers and learn some simple science that drives their beauty.  This child has put out the cards which illustrate the parts of a flower, matched up the puzzle pieces, and now she is looking at a single flower with a magnifying glass.  Many children have done this now, and more will in coming weeks.

Then I showed Cherry how to dissect a few flowers into their parts. And here is the result:  her careful layout of stem, sepals, petals, stamens, and pistil.

We also have a set of cards for learning some simple leaf classification, demonstrating with pictures the basic shapes, vein patterns, and leaf margins. Once they get the idea, this work involves their heading outside to look for different kinds of leaves, which is always a cause for delight and excitement. Fern, big leaf maple, duck's foot, Oregon grape, coltsfoot - so many possibilities so close at hand.  And the children really are learning to identify them.

Most of these activities are done in small groups or individually.  But also running through these weeks have been large group lessons on some of the awesome impacts of plant life, facts such as these (lest we adults forget):   We are eating plants all of the time, even when we're eating eggs or milk or meat.  We are eating the sunlight that plants turned into food.  Our houses are made of plants. We are breathing the air that plants help create. 

Recently, the older children wrote some small/big "reports" to share some of this budding knowledge. Each report began with the children spelling out the words as best they can, with a movable alphabet, then pencil on paper, then the illustration. This is a big work for 4-, 5-, and 6-year-olds.  Big truths put into few and potent words.

"a leaf is green"  
I told them about the amazing green pigment called chlorophyll,
which takes the energy of sunlight  and turns it into food for the plant.
Think of it - making food from sunlight!  We can't do that!
Cherry brought in a big leaf maple leaf from the forest and traced it for this one.

"leafs have Many shapes"
So very many shapes, just within our mini-ecosystem.
Leaf hunts are satisfying and fun.  
Drawing different leaf shapes was a lovely project for an artist like Cara.

"the Sun makes plants gro"
Roots bring up water, some minerals, and plant nutrients, but the sun is the source of all plant energy.  Rex was intent on showing a small plant and then a tall one, reaching for more sunlight. What happens when a plant gets no sun?  
That's our next plant experiment.

"the leaf veiNs carry foob(d) to the plaNt"
Noah had a plant lying next to his paper, so this is a real nature sketch,
and for him, a lot of written words.

"fern has spores"
The sword ferns dominate our forest understory, 
and we notice that they don't make flowers.
Isabel knew that they have spores instead, on the underside of their leaves.

"a leaf iz a solr panel"
This one was a scientific leap of imagination!  Collin excitedly noticed the parallel between a leaf and a solar panel, both collecting energy from the sun, 
and then he drew it - sunlight on leaf, sunlight on solar panel.

"Plants make oxijn"
We talk about the great circle of life, plants releasing oxygen for animals, 
and animals including us breathing out carbon dioxide for the plants.
Brady was uneasy because he knew that oxygen was invisible, 
but he had to show it somehow.

The circling of the seasons brings us new and renewed experiences with the plant kingdom, again and again, and the learning deepens and evolves over time.   Some experiences are one-time adventures. This is the western hemlock that fell from our neighbor's place across our fence back in February - talk about being immersed in plant life!  The kids thought that was a great day, and indeed it was.
Kids and plants = Joy.