I decided to make use of my tag-along trip to San Diego by seeing whether I could observe a Californian forest school in action. Less than a week before leaving, I emailed Patti Shields, owner and teacher extraordinaire of At Home in Nature, San Diego's first (and only!) outdoor preschool.
She replied with enthusiasm and even invited me to her place for dinner. She told me that I could accompany the group on Friday to the urban canyon where they've been spending time lately.
"What's an urban canyon?" I asked.
"San Diego is full of them - it's built around canyons," Patti replied.
Before the children came, I met the teachers. Then the children arrived one by one, backpacks ready, sunhats on.
Together, we walked down to the clearing to find this friendly face:
We explored a bit more before gathering as a group. Scat sightings led to pulling out field guides from the supply wagon. It looked like there had been a bunny there, as well as a coyote or a dog.
One teacher called out, "A gift of the earth! A gift of the earth!"
Everyone scattered, picking up a treasure and coming to sit in a circle on the blanket. We each showed our gifts and put them into the special woven Kumeyaay basket. I looked around as the basket was passed - taking in this very different forest setting - with prickly pear cactus, palm trees, eucalyptus, and chaparral shrubs. The land was very dry. There were paths leading down to a valley, with trees and shrubs lining each side of the canyon. A tiny hummingbird perched in a nearby tree, its squeaks letting us know that we were in its territory.
We listened to Miss Libby tell a story about rain (it had rained the night before - a rare gift here in a 3 year period of drought), then the children negotiated a plan for the day:
1. go through the tunnel
3. have lunch
4. see our parents!
We were ready. We set out into the urban canyon forest. On the way, we stopped to look at some sap on a eucalyptus tree.
"That tree's not native," one boy told me.
"What does native mean?" I asked.
"Means it belongs here from a long time ago," he answered.
Mud! A rare sight here, so we had to stop for a bit. We wondered aloud: How many raindrops made this puddle? What floats? What sinks? How long will it take for this puddle to disappear into the earth? Do I have an extra pair of shoes along to stomp in the water?
One group did some exploring down the path from the mud puddle.
Then we were on our way to the tunnel!
But on the way, we saw some clouds. A man with a big beard who's laughing! A dinosaur! A dog! A crown! Santa Claus! A teddy bear's head! What do YOU see in these clouds?
We arrived at the long tunnel and began our dark journey:
Here we are on the other side!
Here's a little man that was found in the woods. Who was he? Shakespeare? A skinny Santa who liked to read? He went into the puddle (didn't float), then came with us through the tunnel and stood guard there for the rest of the day. I wonder where he'll be tomorrow!
The photo below is a view from our snack-eating place. The red seeds hanging from this tree are peppercorns! I had no idea peppercorns grew on trees.
We set up camp for a time of exploring and creating. Lots of things took place during this time: negotiating, digging, identifying plants, tasting plants, running, painting with watercolours and sticks, working with clay, drilling, identifying scat, listening for nearby birds, dressing up as princesses, building sandcastles, making a red carpet runway to welcome royalty, and hiding in the shrubby bushes.
A snow storm! They thought that I would appreciate it, coming from our Canadian wintery weather.
Along the path, the children showed me fennel plants. They picked some seeds - high enough where coyote pee wouldn't affect them.
"Taste it! Try it!" they encouraged me.
I reached out to pluck some.
"You have to ask the plant first," one boy cautioned, a little anxiously.
My hand froze in mid-air, my eyes automatically looked down. I paused.
"It said yes," he told me.
So I took some and ate the yummy-spicy seeds.
They showed me other plants too, and encouraged me to smell them: black sagebrush, scrub oak, California sagebrush, primrose flowers, and others I can't remember. :)
In the 4 hours that I spent with these children, the Kumeyaay people were mentioned many times. This practice - of asking the plant first - comes from honouring the traditions of these people who lived on this land long ago. It made me think more about how we can incorporate wisdom from the Six Nations people who used to live on the land we use in our area of Canada - this is something we want to do.
Too soon, it was time to go back. It seemed like they could relate to what we feel every week at our forest school in Canada: that the time just flies by; and that there is never quite enough time. We returned to the first site - where we had collected the gifts of the earth - and one child was chosen to return them.
After the children left, I had the opportunity to chat with Patti and Libby. They are both seasoned educators, and I greatly admired the way that they facilitated the children's learning. They were gentle, flexible, and encouraging. When there was a problem between children, they both worked to facilitate a resolution that was imagined and followed-through by the children themselves. If someone needed help, a teacher would call out, "A friend needs help!" This encouraged the other children to come running to that child's aid - reinforcing the idea that children can do so much to help each other, and to help themselves - and don't need adults to intervene and solve all of their problems for them. They encouraged responsibility, working as a community, and independence.
They gave the children the freedom to explore, but were always within sight. If any child got a bit too far away, they used the "owl call" to make everyone freeze like mice. This kept the children within a safe boundary even as they explored multiple sites.
Patti and I discovered that not only do we share a love of connecting children to nature, but also a love of chocolate! Over cinnamon masala hot cocoa, coffee, and a sea salt-caramel-lavender cupcake (not pictured here - already devoured) we shared ideas and inspirations, questions, contacts, and resources. It was a fruitful day, and I'm so thankful for Patti's hospitality. I returned truly inspired and excited to put new ideas into practice.
Thank you, Patti and At Home in Nature for a wonderful experience!
Hammers, Huge Swings, and the Freedom to Play