These last two weeks the Oaks made me think a lot about framing – about knowing yourself and knowing the children you teach, about how to find the right angle and choose the right word to light the right spark. It’s one of the key skills to scaffolding children’s play and learning.
We started out last week building fairy houses. At least that’s how we first described the activity. I spent my childhood building these houses in the roots and hollow places in trees. It’s one of my favorite things to do, still. Though some of the Oaks had built a few other small world creations, including fairy playgrounds, it wasn’t an activity that ever took off like fort-building or potion-making. But with the Fairies and Gnomes unit going strong in Saplings, it was time.
The girls took right to it. There was a hollow tree at the entrance to Hilltop that had been begging all year to be a fairy house (at least to me!). We scavenged some great bark and an empty knothole and even a coconut shell bed; they made a throne, tables, bedding, a toilet and a shower. The house had multiple levels and a pretend elevator. It was homey upstairs with space for a ball in the entrance hall. They left notes asking about fairy water and food sources and fairy families and fairy locomotion. Exactly what I imagined.
A few of the boys groaned. They had BIG forts to build and holes to dig. So I said, “What if it were a Fairy Fortress?” “Wait,” they asked,”are there Elves here too?” Soon a super secret fortified Elven city was under construction. Part of it was underground. It had sharp stakes for protection. It was so secret, we had to promise that if we teachers mentioned it, we’d say it was, “100 miles away from Audubon.” Key words changed the framing. Fortress. Secret. Elves. On it!
Then the fairies, gnomes and elves WROTE BACK! This was gender-neutral magic. Tiny handwritten scrolls on aged paper were found tucked into both fairy and elf homes. Children who had not yet built anything joined in writing questions.
Why all the magic on top of this already magical place? Magic touches the heart. And this is the age of magic and make-believe. Amping up the excitement and wonder is like extra fuel for their emotional connection to the natural world and to each other.
We looped back to our cartography exploration by introducing a big laminated map of Woodend. The Oaks had been fascinated by the map in My Father’s Dragon, and were equally drawn to the modified Woodend map. Maps have magic too.
Some key landmarks were on the map, including the waypoints to Hilltop we mapped the week before. But many were intentionally missing. The map now travels with us, so the Oaks can add in their points of interest. So far, they’ve added the Outdoor Classroom and Playground, the Campfire Circle, the Workshop (their name for the area full of bush honeysuckle past the campfire), the Ultimate Climber, the Castle Climber, three fox holes and the new nature see-saw. We’ll continue to add to this map until it truly represents the Oaks’ Woodend.
This week we introduced the concept of protected areas. What if the fairies, gnomes and elves wanted to visit a park? How big would it be? What would they do there? What would they see? We led the children through an activity usually called Micro-Parks or Micro-Trails – but we had to call them Fairy Parks. With toothpick flags, yarn and lots of imagination, the children worked on their own or in pairs to design miniature protected areas. Each needed to have boundaries, trails, a viewpoint, a flora/fauna point of interest, a water feature, a physical challenge, a bridge, and a picnic area.
Again, the Oaks divided themselves into girls and boys. The girls laid out beautifully designed parks with swimming holes and cicada shell interpretive stops and bridges to picnic area view points.
The boys chose the tangly rooted end of a giant fallen log. It’s a favorite play spot, because of the tunnel underneath and the nice loose soil you always find around root balls. It would also look pretty exciting if you were fairy-sized. Having learned my lesson the first time round, I re-framed my description of the activity slightly. The key term to engage the boys was “physical challenges.” Their park had a dark cave, high narrow promontories, rope ladders, an ice waterfall, and of course a ranger station in case of inevitable injuries. There was also an avalanche zone, which sparked discussion about the difference between a hazard and a challenge. A second park (also on a root mass) had an active volcano, steep cliffs, and a thorny vine to climb. Either way, they used up all the red and yellow flags. Those parks weren’t as pretty to look at, but they were treasure troves of imagination and language.
The next step was to make a map of their parks, using a key to show all the points of interest. We were lucky to have a few warm finger-friendly days for outdoor drawing and writing before winter returned.
Even with scaffolding, not all of the children built houses or parks or made maps. But they watched, shared ideas, and asked questions. Participation is a continuum, not just in or out. Making a map or sounding out words is intellectual risk-taking. Just like climbing up or into a tree, some children are ready to jump in right away and others need to observe from the edge until they are ready.
At the end of the week, we set off to explore one of the edges of Woodend that is new to us and off the beaten track. It is wondrous to me that we can spend every day exploring these woods, and still find something new and AMAZING. We had been calling this area the Far Corner (there is magic in names too) and had been meaning to head that way to find some “hidden” fox dens, but somehow never made it that far. This week, we found the dens (fox and groundhog), and much, much more.
It was epic nature explorer MAGIC. It blew our minds. There is no other way to describe it. I’ll let the photos tell the story.
Then there was this…
And it gets even better…right next door we found a giant hollow tulip poplar.
We’ll be back. And we might even make you a map!