On the day we planned to have science class in the woods, it was a muddy 50 degrees in January.
What do we do with all this mud? Should we postpone our outdoor session? I decided to use the weather to my advantage and we went out anyway.
“Nature is always teaching, as long as you are paying attention.” I learned that from the wilderness school where I used to teach at the White Pine Programs in Cape Neddick, Maine. At SCH, our outdoor education program, Science in the Woods, provides students with ways to learn about natural history and, of course, science—but also respect, thoughtfulness, decision making, preparedness, resilience, courage, and self-reliance.
On this particular day, I used mud, water, and the cold to teach these lessons.
As part of a unit called “Designing Mixtures
,” we’ve learned how to make glue (cornstarch, flour, baking soda, salt, and water) and talked about consistency and texture. If something is too dry, we discuss 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. I decided that the boys’ assignment in the woods would be 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), and the other to make “mud paint.”
Every outdoor assignment really just becomes an excuse for kids to explore the outdoors and connect with nature. They remember everything I teach them from these sessions and relish every minute. We learn things about beechnuts, red oak leaves versus white oak leaves, and how you can eat white pine needles. 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 seems to increase how much children are able remember.
After the kids have made their "mud men" and "mud paint," I give them a “Samurai Challenge." This challenge is optional, never unsafe, always fun, and often difficult at first. The main rule for the Samurai Challenge is that you must have the courage to agree before knowing what you will be asked to do and, if you do agree, you can’t go back on your word. After some hesitation, all of the boys decide they wanted to participate.
First, I instruct them to hold both hands above the water in the creek. When I count to three, everyone will 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 once they succeed—especially the ones who weren’t so sure at first. They know they can stop at any time; they know it is cold, but they also know the cold will soon 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 smear mud on their faces (okay, 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.
After we return back to the classroom, we talk about our mud/glue science project and the choices they made. What choices made turn 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 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 will get wet and, if you forget to bring an extra pair of socks, you will be uncomfortable. And then you will be okay. Perhaps next time you will bring extra socks or different shoes. Kids learn how to plan ahead better and prepare themselves if they are allowed to fail first.