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Acorn Time

The acorns are dropping by the bushels around St Louis. We’ve had a lot of wind come through recently which I think accelerated the process. It also knocked down ripe persimmons, larger branches for fort building and a fresh blanket of orange pine needles under the pines that serve as homebase for Forest School. I guess wind blowing stuff around isn’t all bad? The colors warming in the landscape give a cozy new feel feel to time outside and new visual interest to take in wherever you look. The air is crisper, and the sunlight much softer. I come with anxiety out of the loud, busy, Covid- tainted metropolis on these Tuesday and Thursdays mornings but upon arrival at the park Pines, find a magical, natural wonderland with the children there and feel immediate restoration and peace.

Why do Oaks drop so many acorns? That will remain a question forever in my mind. The variety and multitude of these strong little seeds is mind boggling. I remember reading somewhere that a large Oak tree can drop something like 10,000 acorns in a year. They are often used as a symbol for schools, in books or for educational endeavors. Acorns are such a common occurance on the sidewalks and streetsides of urban & suburban ecosystems I inhabit and yet I’ve spent very little time “sitting” with them over the course of my 38 years. How did I never play with them as a child? Collect them? Or take a few minutes to try and crack one open? The kids in Wilderkids Urban Forest School won’t have to worry about that!

I’m getting my chance now too. It’s nearly impossible to overlook the acorns when meandering at a 3 year old pace in Oak-laden Tower Grove Park with those same 3 year olds who want to see and hold nearly everything within reach. We’ve come across acorns that were light brown, dark brown , yellow (yellow!), two-toned, small, large, smooth, capless, doubled-up, misshapen, elongated, cracked, smashed, as well as perfectly intact.

With kids in this setting, the impulse to grab our favorites and hold on to them for some reason can be infectious! My fanny pack gets loaded up with stuff kids want me to hold on to but forget about almost as soon as they hand it to me. Do they want to show their moms or bring their treasures home to store somewhere? The ABILITY to grab stuff in nature freely without any regulation of what should be done with it IS quite a nice luxury! There’s a joy in the abundance and renewability of natural phenomenon. It’s a gift! So I treasure the treasuring (as long as I have enough pockets!)

As we piddled with the acorns by the walking path (rolling them, stomping on them, peeling off the outer shell of them, etc) I started munching on the nutmeat which a child had carefully extracted for me. I had jokingly mentioned to him “you know you can try eating the acorn if you take the outer shell off?!” and was therefore obliged to eat it when he proudly offered it to me after he did just that. After gingerly munching a few moments it started to occur to me that I was EATING the stuff that these large, beautiful, quintessential neighborhood trees are MADE of! In essence, I was EATING a tree! I had tried an acorn before but this time it tasted like nothing I had eaten before. Yes a bit bitter (I’ve had much worse though), but this time, in this place, with these children in October, the bitterness had a deeply satisfying flavor! I felt deeply that it was very GOOD. This is the food that had sustained Native Americans, that feeds creatures like squirrels, deer, and insects, and that propels a giant Oak tree skyward which has fed me with shade to cool off in summer, Oxygen with which to breathe, wood to build my house and to make a fire with in the fireplace to keep me warm. How good is that?! It was an amazing spiritual moment that I stumbled upon all while playing with kids at the park!

Nature Play 101

Spring is a fantastic time to be home and able to go on walks together outside. There is so much to see! Every day will bring new changes and delightful surprises. A very important thing to keep in mind when going outside with kids (of all ages) are the benefits of tapping into our SENSES. It’s ALL about the senses! Not only can you see cool things on a walk but you can also touch, taste, hear and smell cool things too. Welcome and encourage one another in using the senses. Our senses provide so much information!
Gardens are especially great places to taste-test (if you aren’t yet familiar with local wild edibles)

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“Take a whiff!”

There are so many different and interesting smells out there. Is it dead or decaying? Is it a flower or a fruit? The smell of something can help us identify what it is but also help us remember what it is next time we see it.  But mostly, it’s just cool finding things that smell good where you least expect them! This is one time you CAN stick your nose into everything!

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“Touch it!”

Fortunately, nature is one thing that is not like your mom’s antique lamp -breakable or expensive to replace. Kids can be encouraged to touch and feel most everything and anything that looks interesting to feel or hold. Bark, leaves, a seed pod, sap, cones, nuts, flower petals and even bugs are all wonderful things to feel. Are they slimy? Hard? Smooth? Soft? Prickly? Dry? Wet? Describing a thing specifically can really help build up a good vocabulary for language and writing skills. Sometimes parents & teachers need to touch something first to prove to kids that it’s ok to do so!

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“Want to hold it?”

Remember that finding nature “treasures” and taking some things home (even if they’ll get thrown back or end up in the trash) is a way kids and all of us connect to nature and really make something our own. Gaining confidence and familiarity with holding living things – even bugs- can be a very important skill which could come in handy later as a future Farmer, Biologist, Archeologist, Scientist, Researcher, Doctor, Veterinarian, or Conservationist! (Try your best to hold your tongue if you want to scream or squeal in disgust)

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Sounds… so many beautiful ones! And interesting ones! Sounds that are often crowded out by people talking or cars driving on the road. Outside walks help expose us to different sounds that we wouldn’t hear indoors – things like the rustling of leaves, the wind in the trees, squirrels chattering, birds singing, a bee buzzing by.  Being keenly aware of the sounds around us help us be more street smart and bring us peace. (Best of all if you’re lucky enough to walk near a big river, after a freshly fallen snow, or to some secluded place you can catch the rarest sound of all – the awesome sound of SILENCE!  Ahh..!)

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(The Mississippi River near Jefferson Barracks Park)

I often try to see if kids can imitate animal noises heard when taking a walk – birds obviously but also squirrels or even neighborhood dogs. It may sound silly but it’s fun!
This could come in handy one day if you ever go out hunting wild game (or maybe end up doing voice overs for a future Disney film?!)

Lastly, SIGHT. “Can you see it?” “Ooh look!” “Where’s…??” And “How many Robins/worms/tulips… can you find?” A walk outside through the neighborhood is like a real Where’s Waldo or Can you Spot it. Why look around for stuff on a page when you can look in real life?

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Movement and spatial “feeling” – is the last way to sense the properties of the natural world around us! Jumping, balancing, climbing, swinging, throwing, or running any chance you get can bring another level of excitement and learning to outdoor times. Even a boring suburb has nooks and crannies where new and different play can happen. Parents can give helpful hints to stay safe without killing kids’ enthusiasm to be adventurous and daring.  This way, homeschoolers won’t have to build PE into their schedule!

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Have fun and see you outside!! (Last one out’s a rotten egg!)

Plant Identification Tip:

Henbit (left) & Dead Nettle (right)

These are different plants but grow together and look alike from a distance! Can you spy the differences?!

BOTH of these plants are edible and highly nutritious! They can be used like any other greens-in salads or soups and in teas, etc. They are in the mint family. Whether or not you choose to take a munch, I must say these guys are BEAUTIFUL in a field or lawn! Keep your eyes peeled!