In the classroom, we’re making glue (cornstarch, flour, baking soda, salt, and water) and talking about consistency and texture, as part of a unit called “Designing Mixtures
.” If something is too dry, what can we add to make it less chalky and more of a glue-like consistency? Mud is perfect for a lesson about glue, as mud and glue share similar properties. The boys’ assignment in the woods was to make two different textures of mud: one that would make good “mud men” (three spheres stacked on top of each other, like a mini, muddy snowman); the other to make “mud paint.”
Every outdoor assignment is really just an excuse for kids to explore the outdoors and to connect with nature. We call it Science in the Woods, but they are learning so much more than science. They remember everything I teach them from these sessions and they relish every minute. They know about beechnuts and red oak leaves versus white oak leaves, white pine needles and how you can eat them; they think about the worms and what would make them happy; they wonder about the animals and what they are doing right now; they can recount details—that I’ve forgotten—of every story I’ve told them out there. There’s something about being outdoors in nature that causes children to remember.
After they made their mud men and their mud paint, and rinsed their hands in the stream, I gave them a “Samurai Challenge” (also learned from WPP). This challenge is optional, never unsafe, always fun, and often uncomfortable or difficult at first. The main rule is that if you agree to partake in a Samurai Challenge, you must have the courage to agree before knowing what you will be asked to do, and you can’t go back on your word. A few vacillated, but soon all of the boys decided they wanted to participate. I instructed them to hold both hands above the water and when I counted to three, they would plunge their hands into the cold water and hold them there for as long as they could stand it. I see the smiles erupt on their faces after they’ve succeeded, especially the ones who weren’t so sure at first. They know they can stop at any time; they know it is cold, but that soon the cold will pass and their hands will be warm again. This is resilience in its most physical, basic form. Discomfort is okay and you will recover.
Throughout the afternoon, some kids let themselves “accidentally” fall in; some smeared mud on their faces (OK, I encouraged that); some went into the water higher than their rain boots allowed; some hadn’t worn rain boots but went in anyway; some sat in places with mud puddles; and some rolled up their sleeves allowing the cold air in. Afterwards, we talked about our mud/glue science project, yes, but we also talked about the choices they made. What choices did you make that turned out to be mistakes? What would you do differently next time? What good choices did you make? The children were honest and vulnerable as they reflected.
“I’m glad I wore snow pants because I have After School later and even though I was hot, it meant I didn’t get my pants dirty.” // “I would not have gone as deep into the water because now my socks are all wet and getting cold.” // “I’m glad I did the Samurai Challenge because it was fun!” // “I made a good choice by not bringing my coat, because it was warm enough and I would have had to carry it.”
Nature is always teaching, as long as you are paying attention. It does the work for you, as long as you can get the kids to reflect on it. Yes, you got wet and you forgot to bring an extra pair of socks; you will be uncomfortable. And then you will be okay, and perhaps next time you will bring extra socks or different shoes. Kids are better able to plan ahead and prepare themselves if they are allowed to fail first. What does it feel like, viscerally, physically, when I’m unprepared? Can I prevent that uncomfortable feeling next time? Mud, water, and cold temperatures are some of our greatest teachers.