Turn 'em Loose!

One of my favorite activities to do with a group of kids is just let them go for an explore, with me there to answer their questions and guide their discoveries. 

We recently had a group of second and fifth graders out for a Discover Nature Hike, and we couldn't have had a more perfect autumn day for it!  The sun was out, the sky was blue, the leaves were changing color and drifting to the ground.  It was just warm enough that the possibility of seeing snakes basking on the pavement, or turtles on logs at the pond, was real. 

The students I had in my group were second graders, and they were full of curiosity and in full explorer mode.  We first headed out to an old stone wall that runs along part of the driveway.  Armed with hand lenses, they checked out seeds, mosses, lichens, tree bark.  One girl turned to me to ask me to identify the insect she found - and it was a tiny red and black wasp, which was crawling on her hand.  Kudos to her for not freaking out when I said "Oh, it's a wasp!"  She was completely unfazed by it.  We talked about how it was likely an important pollinator and possibly even parasitic on other critters, like caterpillars.  A classmate joined our conversation, and both were very serious in their investigation of this insect...and reassured when I told them that the odds of it harming them were pretty slim.

Checking out the seeds on the Canada Wild Onion.

Checking out the seeds on the Canada Wild Onion.

Nuts are still all over the place (hickories, walnuts and acorns), although there are significantly fewer than there were a month ago.  We found the mother load of acorns by the picnic tables on the island in the middle of the parking lot.  Could it be that because cars drive around it that the squirrels hadn't gathered these nuts yet?  Whatever the reason, it was a boon for us, as each child learned to make a top and a whistle from their finds.

Then we were off down the trail...but only for a short distance, for they saw a "clearing" in the woods that was so tempting that they eagerly asked if they could go check it out.  What the heck - why not!  So off the trail we went, on a genuine "explore" into the unknown. 

We found ourselves in a little hollow under a fallen tree that just made the best exploration spot for second graders.  They looked at the logs, pulled off bark, jumped over the dry "stream" bed, pet some moss (after admiring the way the sun shone through the russet sporophytes).  

After bushwhacking back to the trail, they saw the deer exclosure (cage), and said "can we go there?!?!"  Absolutely - I'd never explored it myself, so it was new to me, too.  We discovered that the cage also had fencing over the top...once upon a time.  That fencing has now sagged and collapsed into the cage.  The kids found a "door" on the back side, so of course they had to go inside.  We talked about the purpose of the exclosure, but second graders aren't really concerned about browsing pressure.  They were intrigued, however, when I mentioned the Severson Dells legend of Humphrey the Dragon, who supposedly uses the cage as a home.

We completed our walk around the trail, stopping at the pond to look for turtles (none), frogs (nope) and dragonflies (zero).  And then we went to The Grove, where running and climbing were the order of the day.

I know I certainly had a great time exploring the unknown with these students, and I think they did, too.  I worked with a volunteer once who said that everyone needs to "step off the sidewalk" from time to time, which is exactly what we did this day.   The next time you go out, take a chance and step off the sidewalk in your explorations - even if only for a few steps (and watch where you walk - be aware of your surroundings).  You might be amazed at what you find.