One of the best ways to warm up in the winter is a long walk in the woods. While there are less colors in the winter, the lack of leaves and often muddy ground offer exciting opportunities for exploration that are not possible after spring foliage hides portions of the trail or after the ground has hardened.
Last month’s nature in school blog post focused on the special opportunities for learning afforded by cold winter weather. This month, I’ll continue to discuss winter weather learning, but focus on activities to do during winter walks. Don’t worry if children don’t have access to a forest trail. A walk through the neighborhood or just a close observational walk around the perimeter of your school works just as well.
Look for Tracks
The rain-muddied ground offers an excellent canvas for animal tracks. On a recent walk, we found raccoon tracks, deer, little teeny bird tracks, and tracks from either a coyote or someone’s dog. After we realized that some tracks were our own boot prints, we had fun making our own tracks and guessing whose shoe they belonged to.
We were also lucky to have a few snow days, which are even better for finding and making tracks. We mimicked Peter from Ezra Jack Keats’s “The Snowy Day,” who “walked with his toes pointing in, like this” and then “with his toes pointing out, like that” to make tracks in the snow.
Look for Signs of Animal Life
One of the questions children often have is “where do all the animals go in the winter?” While you may not see any animals on your walks, there are many clues to where animals might be “hiding.” Under logs, under moss and in tree stumps are great places to find insects and worms that have burrowed for warmth. Holes in trees and in the ground are also good warming zones. The children like to guess, based on the size of the hole, what type of animal might fit in each burrow.
And, of course, there is always scat. When we came across deer scat in the woods a few weeks ago, one child excitedly exclaimed, “I never saw deer poop before!” We carefully stepped around it, but the scat prompted a thoughtful discussion about the lives of animals in the woods. We pondered the question of how animals go about the daily business of life without houses, indoor plumbing, a stove to cook food or other conveniences that humans have.
Listen to Nature
Winter is a quiet season. Listening carefully to nature’s sounds is another way for children to discover life in the woods. Birds are often easier to hear than to spot visually, so listening can give the children a clue where to look. Various species of sparrows can be seen year-round in Oregon. Some birds, like the snow bunting, geese, ducks and swans migrate south to Oregon for the winter. The Audobon Society has a handy picture identification guide to backyard birds in Oregon that children can use to help with their identification.
Measure the Forest
We often compare own bodies to the plants we find in the woods. Sometimes we hunt for all of the plants smaller than we are or ones that are the exact same size as each child. In the picture accompanying this article, children are wrapping their arms around a tree. We hopped along the trail, looking for bigger and bigger trunks, using the “how many children can hug the tree” method of deciding which trees were the biggest. When one trunk was so skinny that a child could wrap her arms around it and still reach back to her own shoulders, we brought up the concept of halves.
Go on a Color Hunt
I mentioned that winter may not have the magical colors that spring, summer and fall give us. However, if you know where to look, you can still find color. One of the children’s favorite things to look for right now are mushrooms. We have found mushrooms in white and all shades of yellow, orange and red. The children have a hard time finding the brown ones, which brings up an excellent opportunity to talk about camouflage.
It can also be fun to catalog and graph the colors you do find. Then, after everything blooms in the late spring make a second graph to compare the colors found in the two seasons. We sometimes use painted egg cartons to collect and sort the different colors we find.
No matter what focus you choose for the walk, it is important to remember the attention spans of preschoolers. I usually start out with an idea and pursue it as long as the children are interested. Sometimes they focus for 10 minutes; sometimes it’s forty. Very often, children will start focused on our “main idea” and then drift in and out. We’ll stop to build fairy houses or scramble across logs or explore something exciting that has popped up in our path. When our attention refocuses, we’ll return to the color or mushroom hunt. Walks are more enjoyable – and more successful learning opportunities -- when a teacher’s plans co-exist with the children’s interests and curiosity.
Audobon Society Guide to Backyard Birds in Oregon http://audubonportland.org/local-birding/kids-guide/backyard-birds