The sun is shining, mosquitoes are buzzing, and blossoms are bursting open everywhere we look; it could just as easily be June in Seattle, but the calendar still tells us it’s winter no matter how incongruous that may seem. Students at the Fiddleheads Forest School are taking full advantage of the seasonal changes. The warm weather has meant that we are continuing to discover lots of mushrooms and fungus in and around the forest grove classroom. Stout slimy red-capped mushrooms and skinny stemmed little brown ones abound, but we are still uncovering occasional surprises here at the Washington Park Arboretum, like the astoundingly bright burst of buttery yellow caps we discovered off Azalea Way with the Magnolia class or the bulky purple mushroom we discovered growing under a spruce in the Mountain Ash Meadow with the Cedar class.
We have also noticed an uptick in bird activity in and around the forest grove. Children in both classes spent a week in late January mimicking bald-eagle calls and behavior and incorporating it into their play. The eagles were going through a courtship phase, right on track with last year when we noticed the same sort of activity. Many of the children are remembering and looking forward with excitement to the time when the owls will hatch their little ones. Sarah recently uncovered a roosting spot for one of our barred owl friends, and we now stop to peek in on our sleepy owl friend whenever we take the trail to the stone castle. We’re anticipating the moment when those baby eagles and owls to start fledging in just a few months and have our fingers crossed that mama and papa owl will bring their little ones back to the forest grove again this year!
In science, we started out the year with a unit on our bodies before delving into the vertebrates theme that we will be continuing throughout the winter and spring. In early childhood we teach from the concrete to the abstract, and work to make new concepts as accessible as possible by relating it to the direct experience and world of each child. Therefore we began our study of mammals by examining humans specifically. We introduced numerous materials to the classroom for different learning levels and interests. We started by learning the major external parts of the body with a 3-part card matching activity. To complete this material, children matched the picture and then the word to a card featuring both. In this way, students not only learn the parts of the body, but also strengthen the discriminative ability that is a perceptual underpinning of early literacy development. A picture-to-picture body-part matching work gave the children the opportunity to name and match the body parts with the rest of the body. Games and songs like “Simon Says,” “Head, Shoulders Knees and Toes,” and “The Hokey Pokey” help to reinforce kinesthetic as well as cognitive awareness of body parts and helped to our hearts pumping and our bodies warm on the cold, wet days.
Our unit on bodies segued quite nicely into discussing difference during the week of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. After drop-off, each of the children used a stamp pad to make a thumb print on a card with their name. We laminated these cards and used a magnifying glass at to examine them at circle. After taking the time to look at each Kit asked the class what they noticed about the fingerprints. In both the Cedar and Magnolia classes the immediate answer was “They’re different!” The children learned that indeed every human has his or her very own special, unique fingerprint and that no two prints are the same. We discussed the many ways in which our bodies our different, our voices are different, our needs and interests are different, and our families are different.
Children naturally approach the concept of “difference” in a very straightforward and earnest way; as they see it, difference is interesting and remarkable and important and very worthy of discussion. It is, after all, what makes each of us unique, and how we define ourselves in relation to others. In both classes the children agreed that different hair, or skin, or eyes is just that—different. It doesn’t make us any better or worse than anyone else, they noted, it’s just who we are. The children also felt very strongly as a group that difference is important, and that if we were all the same “we wouldn’t be able to tell who anybody was from each other!” as one student exclaimed at circle.
We continued the conversation about difference as we learned about our internal organs and the important jobs they do. The children appreciated that no matter how different we are on the outside, we all have the same organs inside our bodies, and remarked upon it as they completed different activities. We used a model of the human body in an object to picture matching work where children learned the names and functions of the brain, lungs, heart, stomach, liver, kidneys, and large and small intestines. A giant puzzle of the human skeleton and musculature offered us an opportunity to work together and problem solve as a group. The favorite new material by far was a felt work with which the students built a person from the skeleton up; personalizing it with different skin, clothing and hair.
Throughout all of this we reinforced an awareness of the many things that our bodies are capable of—climbing, crawling, jumping, and running through our forest surroundings. The increased awareness of our bodies allowed us to develop new extensions in other areas as well. For example, we recently began engaging in mindfulness practice before heading to our magic spots, and one of our favorite new activities is to use our “mind flashlight” to think about and focus on how different parts of our bodies are feeling. This sort of understanding helps children to develop a heightened awareness of themselves and their own needs.
After spending a month learning about human bodies, the transition into our current mammals unit has been fairly straightforward. We began by learning the characteristics of mammals with the first verse of a song about animals that we’ll continue to add to throughout the spring:
Mammals have lungs that breathe the air
Warm blooded bodies that have skin and hair
Mammals give birth to their living young
Mothers feed milk to their daughters and sons!
We accompanied our lesson about characteristics with the chance to see and feel the fur of a real mammal, a very old Peruvian Jungle Cat pelt that Kit brought in. We learned that almost all mammals have some kind of hair or fur; even whales and dolphins. As a group we worked together to sort pictures and objects representing animals. Many children have taken the time to do the work on their own, and then color and complete an accompanying worksheet of mammals of the Pacific Northwest.
In and around the forest grove we’ve been actively searching for and identifying mammals and looking for clues that mammals have left behind, such as middens of dove fruit scraps left by squirrels, or muddy tracks and scratched tree branches from raccoons. We’ll continue learning about mammals and how they are alike and different from ourselves, as well as the sort of homes they occupy, their life cycles, and their prey and predators. Sarah will be teaching us all about animal tracks, and we’ll focus on finding and identifying different mammals that we might encounter on a daily basis here at the arboretum.
In our social and emotional curriculum, we have been continuing to build upon our knowledge of zones and feelings with a “Zones Check In” chart. Children have the opportunity to put how they are feeling up on the chart each morning they are at school. The chart reinforces the children’s awareness of the Zones and offers an opportunity for the children to discuss their feelings with the group. We’ve also replaced the old zones necklaces with new ones that feature feelings on them. These further reinforce the connection between different zones and feelings and have created renewed interest in the material. We are continuing to work on developing executive functioning skills by practicing setting goals, making and sharing plans, and using flexible thinking. Throughout the day children are encouraged to work as a team, and when something goes awry, we remember that by “working together, we can make it better.”
As we move into the second half of the school year the children are approaching friendship in new and increasingly developmentally advanced ways. We have been incorporating a number of different activities, materials, and discussions that explore and reinforce the concept of friendship in preschool. As a group we have been singing songs about friendship including “The More We Get Together,” and “I Think You’re Wonderful.” At circle we read and discussed the books “Join in and Play” by Cheri Meiners and “How to Be a Friend: A Guide to Making Friends and Keeping Them” by Laurie Krasny Brown.
Valentine’s Day was a perfect opportunity to practice looking outward, and we introduced a friendship bracelet activity where children practice braiding and then give away half of what they made. We recently read the book “I am Generous” by David Parker, and are continuing to introduce new activities that focus on making our friends feel good. As teachers we are modeling and highlighting and reinforcing that doing something for another person often feels better than simply engaging in an activity for our own satisfaction.
In the coming weeks we will continue to focus on activities that support the development of empathy. In addition, we will begin building an inventory of tools that we can use to help navigate unexpected situations- our social skills “toolbox.” We’ll also be continuing to expand upon our mindfulness practice and take it out into the wide world around us. The sights and sounds and smells of spring are here, no matter what the calendar says, and we are looking forward to following the progress of fiddlehead fronds, sniffing stinky skunk cabbage, and spying new sprouts and saplings as they surge out of the mud. As weather allows we’ll begin documenting more of what we are seeing by nature journaling as a group. February may just have ended, but already it’s shaping up to be a spectacular spring here in the forest grove.
Kit and Sarah