Today is January 31. In Iowa. And, it’s 59° outside. When my family moved to Iowa from California, we were warned formidably about the long and inescapable winters. It will snow on Halloween and it won’t melt until Easter. In years past, we have found this to be true. And in my five year history in Iowa, most January 31st’s are so cold that your nose hairs freeze the moment you inhale the winter air. (True story! Unpleasant, but true.) But recent weeks have been the exception. I hesitate to rejoice, since I believe changing and erratic weather is an indicator of global climate change, yet at the same time, I will not take 59° on January 31 for granted!
Shame of all shame – I left my camera inside when we made our way out to the path behind the house, and I had to go looking for some stock photo to lure you into this post! I will rely on your active imaginations to fill in where the camera normally does.
During this morning’s breakfast planning session, we all agreed that we would spend as much time outside as possible — seeing as how it was shaping up to be a stunning day. As one child at the table put it, “I noticed something. It is a beautiful day outside. I think we should go for a walk today.” We have a wee one in our group that depends on his morning nap, so after Desmond awoke, we got serious about getting ourselves outside.
And it is at precisely this point – amidst the dressing and readying – that I, Educator, meet my nemesis. Her name is Caution. She serves a purpose and has a place in bringing balance and reason into dialogue, but she is most unwelcome for an outing like this. She likes to fret about the light gray carpet in the classroom space that, while not impossible to clean, shows every careless footprint. She becomes preoccupied with our impending lunchtime – the pasta still to boil, the veggies still to steam, the fruit still to cut, the baby food still to stir. She stresses over anticipated boots, socks, and pants caked with mud and dripping with melted snow, requiring stripping before redressing in time for the impending lunchtime. She anxiously surveys the nearly-capable crew who will require lots of help to shed boots, socks, and pants and don the new attire — all while suppressing grumbling bellies and squelching the disappointment at transitioning back inside. Caution tempts, Stay inside. Roll some more ping pong balls down those awesome cardboard tubes. Dump and assemble the fish puzzle again. Read another round of Piggie and Elephant.
But, Educator, determined, will not be worn down by the light gray carpet, impending lunchtime, boots, socks, or pants. You see, Educator has read enough about the developmental benefits of sustained, prolonged, frequent, and open-ended interactions with nature during the early years on a child’s life to know that Out must be our destination on a day like today. Educator has even dreamed about opening an exclusively outdoor program like many of the forest kindergartens of Europe! Admittedly, this would be a task in Iowa, but still, she dreams. And so, resolute, she boots, coats, and gloves the crew (only to discover upon opening the door that there is no need for gloves), and they march on towards the path.
The destination is a bridge about a block and a half away. We walk there on the days when time keeps us close to home or weather makes a full day of play at the park unpleasant. We watch for ducks, listen for water bubbling under the ice, throw sticks or rocks to test the strength of the ice, and we track and identify the animal prints in the dusting of snow that still blankets the creek where the shade keeps the warm sun at bay. Something stops us in our tracks. A giant puddle. Approximately 30 feet long and 3 feet wide, with a comfortable 2-3 inch bed of mud under the inch deep water. And, as a bonus, there is still some slick ice to be found in patches on top of the dirt below.
Caution pipes up: Keep walking, friends! Let’s make it to the bridge so we can really see what we came to see! Don’t get muddy. It’s almost lunchtime!
Educator counters: This is the essence of emergent, child-directed curriculum! What learning to be had from mud! What joy! What sensory experience! Don’t you dare stop this!
Caution is suppressed for the time being, and I — fully Educator — observe. Addie repeatedly sticks her foot so hard into the mud that a vacuum is formed and she wonders about how the mud makes her foot stick. Henry kicks his toes proudly through the water and stares intently at every dog that passes (there are a few). Christian runs a little too fast, and ends up bottom down in the mud, and takes some consoling and reassuring (we can get dry pants inside) before she can begin exploring again. Cadence and Tekoa discover that they can roll their pants up like shorts to keep them dry while they kick high and stomp hard – running fast in the mud. Simone tags along with Cadence and Tekoa, rolling her pants for a time, trying to keep up with her older friends. The whole crew is completely immersed in authentic play.
The boots are soaked when we go back home. Most of the six pairs of pants I remove are so wet, they could be wrung out. The same is true for the six pairs of socks, a few of the shirts, and at least one pair of boots. The crew is reluctant to transition indoors, and can I blame them? Still we manage to navigate the waters of disappointment by way of shared stories of the mud puddle over macaroni and cheese and through the nap time story that I make up on the spot which (not so coincidentally) involves a lizard and a giant mud puddle. As parents arrived this afternoon, almost all greeted their children, wide-eyed and energetic, telling stories of splashing, stomping, and sticking.
I am fully convinced that mud is one means to an Abundant Life. And I’m glad Caution took a back seat today.