Old Man Winter has really been digging his heels in for the past week or so. While we haven’t been pounded with blizzard after blizzard like the beleaguered residents of the Boston area, or slammed with ice storms like the southeast, it has been very cold here in Madison, with temperatures and windchill readings well below zero most mornings. Crestwood students weren’t able to go outside for recess most days last week, and this week the forecast isn’t a whole lot better!
Obviously, other outdoor activities like woods walks have been on hiatus as well. While we wait, however impatiently, for the latest arctic blast to pass through, it’s time to pour a cup of hot tea or cocoa and plan for the spring planting season! The garden committee is brainstorming and gathering ideas. Some activities are so popular we repeat them every year, like planting spring ephemerals in the woods and the salad garden with the KG and first graders. Other activities evolve from year to year depending on the needs of the soil and what fits best with the science, math and/or social studies curriculum by grade level.
Soil health has been a concern the last few years. Every year 4th graders study soil science with curriculum developed by Peter Plane (retired 4/5 teacher) and Barb Handa (current 4th grade teacher). In October, classes went outside and dug samples from the main front garden, the back K/1 garden and the apple orchard (see pictures below).
Over the next few weeks they tested the samples for nutrients and pH level. This year’s test results show that the gardens are once again low on nitrogen, especially the plots out front. We are currently discussing the best course of action - plant another 1200 peas? Buy a lot of compost? Teach a unit on crop rotation? - so be sure to keep checking the blog and the volunteer page!
When people ask about our outdoor education program at Crestwood, it's easy to talk about the Big Stuff. K/1 plants a salad garden for the whole school! We have a Lantern Walk in November! The whole school participates in a winter scavenger hunt in the woods! Every student plants spring ephemerals in May!
Of course, coordinating these events or any large-scale activity is pretty intense; you have to make sure your event doesn't conflict with anything else going on that particular week, you have to communicate with teachers and find volunteers, and when students are involved in making artwork or writing clues or what-have-you, there's an extra layer of coordination and time commitment. Then when the time comes you cross your fingers and hope the weather holds out, with no thunderstorms or subzero temperatures that could blow the whole thing.
These events and activities certainly have an impact. They raise the profile of our school and give us something to brag about (however humbly), and the kids experience the excitement and community-building of large, coordinated outdoor activities.
But today I want to bring your attention to the advantages of being outside in natural spaces in a different way. Many classes go outside on a regular basis. For example, just about every Wednesday, third grade classes go out to the woods behind the school for short observation activities. They call it "Woods Wednesday" and it has become routine.
Students might look for bugs under logs, find different-sized leaves in the Nuthatch plot, look for animal tracks in the snow, or stand [ostensibly] silent listening for birdsong. These are simple activities, but the true value isn't what, precisely, the kids are assigned to do, but the fact that they are out there as part of their regular weekly routine. They know the woods so well by this point, and many of the kids have their favorite spots. They know the rules and expectations for being outside (and follow those rules, if not perfectly, much better now than at the beginning of the school year!).
And then, every so often, if a class has done an especially good job in the woods, they might, just might, get 5 minutes on the snow pile all to themselves.
Since the excitement of the all-school Mousekin hunt a couple of weeks ago, outdoor activities at Crestwood have slowed down a little. The end of the second quarter meant some extra time off for students while teachers focused on getting report cards out. We've also started planning for spring; it's not too early for that!
Last week's winter storm provided fresh snow for finding animal tracks and replenished the sledding hill behind the school, which was looking a little bare! This past Friday students were out of school while Crestwood teachers teamed up with the staff from John Muir Elementary for a day of PD, during which a whole hour was devoted to sharing our outdoor spaces and exchanging ideas for outdoor learning.
We bundled up and split into groups. Mrs. Farrell strapped on showshoes and led her bunch down the trail into the woods, following the tracks where she had done the same with many of her P.E. classes at Crestwood last week. A group of second grade teachers met in the classroom circle for a listening and orientation activity. Our art teacher led a tour of the area where we will build a living stage with funding from our Art-in-the-Garden grant from Community Groundworks. Other groups toured the front gardens and orchard.
Honestly, I think the fact that all of our teachers were outside sans students was more important than the particular observation activities they were doing. The Crestwood forest is truly a special place, in no small part because of the many, many hands - large and small - that have helped in its restoration. If you stand in the classroom circle now and really look around, you can see the entire forest, covered with a layer of quiet snow, bare trees lending geometry to the landscape, and white plastic tubes topped with colored tape marking the hundreds of saplings that young hands have planted since the restoration project began. Last Friday morning, I heard several comments (some through chattering teeth!) about how beautiful the forest is in the winter, and how valuable it is for the students to have access to it.
It's such a contrast to the beginning of the school year, when students return to school and are re-oriented to the outdoor learning spaces. At that time, when the view is obstructed by 6-ft jewelweed enveloping the trails, and the garlic mustard pops right up where you swear you yanked it all three days ago, and burdock burrs burrowing into your socks threaten to ruin your next load of laundry, and the mosquitoes send everyone running for cover, it's easy to feel overwhelmed at the enormous work it takes to keep our woods accessible. There are weeds to pull, trails to mulch, ephemerals to plant, burdock to smother. But that is then. Right now, teachers, students and volunteers can just walk outside - maybe with snowshoes on - with eyes and ears and minds open, looking and listening and just being a part of it.
SEEDS stands for Student Environmental Education Defense Squad. Upper grade-level teachers extended the invitation for students interested in leadership opportunities to volunteer for SEEDS. The students meet on a regular basis to plan outdoor activities and help spread the word about them to the rest of the students and teachers at Crestwood. It's amazing to me how enthusiastic kids can be about these opportunities! No lack of creative energy, that's for sure.
The woods scavenger hunt/word search activity introduced in the last blog post represents the culmination of a month's work of at least a dozen people, including students, teachers and parent/community volunteers. If you think that coming up with a half dozen clues, painting a few animal pictures, and building a snowman really isn't that big of a deal, then, well, you'd be wrong! Consider not only the work of meeting with kids and helping them narrow down ideas, planning the scavenger hunt, and writing the clues, but also coordinating times for every single class to go outside over the course of a week and finding volunteers to help out! Not to mention building that snowman when there was hardly any snow (hard to imagine after the 6+" we got today, but never mind!)...
In any case, I want to acknowledge the tremendous amount of time and work that goes into coordinating an outdoor activity like this one. The kids had a fabulous time going outside and finding clues; from all accounts the Mousekin activity was a resounding success.
I also want to mention that the Crestwood forest is really beautiful in the winter, with the stark, bare trees, the snow packed on trails, and animal tracks all around. It's important that the kids experience their school forest in all seasons; in some ways they know the terrain better than anyone.
Cardinal Plot - upper loop
Mouse kin wanted to get the stash of seeds it had hidden at the base of a sideways tree. Do you remember what type of tree this is? (Boxelder). It saw an animal lumbering across this tree using the long fingers on its sensitive paws. Mousekin remembered having seen this animal dip its food in water to clean it! It waited to see if this animal went into a den it had made in rocks or trees or the ground nearby.
Robin Plot - along the main trail
As Mousekin neared the green bench along the main trail it heard the warning call of a friend. Mousekin lay down, frozen in fright, at the thought of a predator nearby! As Mousekin looked up it saw two large eyes peering down from a perch in the red oak tree. Up in the tree there was an odd-looking nest! What could it be made of? (wooden basket). Mousekin would not have known this silent flying hunter was watching if it hadn't been for the call of his friend.
Mousekin scurried down the trail, past the classroom circle, and around the Chickadee loop. Mousekin was looking for the black-capped, feathered friend. This creative is active during the winter days looking for seeds, insects, and fruits to eat. One of the calls it makes sounds just like its name! Mouse kin spotted this bird in a tree that is losing a lot of bark. This tree is shaped like the letter Y.
As it continued to look for food it had hidden, Mousekin ran down the Nuthatch loop trail. Although there were not many trees, there were stands of dried plants and piles of branches. These were good for finding seeds to eat and places to hide. Again the friend's warning call sounded. Another predator was nearby! An animal with red fur and a long, bushy tail was hidden in a brush pile between the path and the field, on the eastern edge of the loop. This animal is known for being sneaky and clever.
Blue Jay Plot
Mousekin remembered hiding food under a fallen log in the Blue Jay plot. It looked like an animal had hopped from under the shelter of the fallen log to a red twig dogwood tree that Crestwood kids had planted. There Mousekin sw a long-eared, short, bushy-tailed creature eating the bark off a stand of bare twigs. Food is scarce in the winter of for these creatures that eat mostly plants. Mousekin did not know if the animal was a doe or buck but was sure that it was not a deer.
(Eep! Somehow I neglected to take a photo of this one...can you guess what animal it was?)
Before retuning to the nest in the pine Mousekin wanted to gather one last cache of food. At the top of the main trail, Mousekin again stopped in fear. There was a creative it had never seen before - a giant made of snow and wearing a red cap! Mouse kin slowly realized this creature was not a threat and went to investigate. There were a lot of seeds, nuts and other treats for the woodland animals to eat!
What creature did he find? Who left the food for the animals?
Word scramble fun! Every day there were different letters attached to the animal paintings in the woods. See how many outdoor words you can unscramble below:
(WINTER, NATURE, FOREST, TRACKS, TREATS)
Crestwood's OE committee is dedicated to outdoor learning for all students.