Now that summer is winding down and we are turning to the season of back to school, let’s take a look back on the four weeks West Coast Forest School spent with some amazing kids at Layritz Park. As always in Forest School, every day was a bit different as interests change with the different seasons and group dynamics. That being said, there were certainly some standout highlights of the camps, which we wanted to share. Not everything we did made the top ten list; honorable mentions go to pine cone basketball, playing nature card games, sitting under the willow trees in the dried up pond and climbing trees. Without further ado, here are our Top 10 Highlights of Summer!
10. Rock Climbing
I was sitting with a few kids whittling when one of the girls came up to me and said “Can we have some green rope?” Intrigued, I wandered down the hill to see what they were up to. Turns out, one kid had whittled a handle and they had attached it to a length of twine to use as a belaying rope. The twine wasn’t strong enough, so they needed green rope. Of course they did! It was truly a beautiful example of problem solving, collaboration and trust, watching them figure out how to use the rope to help each other up the rock face. A harness and a harness holder was added, then a spotter and a safe route was chosen (mindfully, in order to avoid pulling down the moss from the rocks), and soon enough the whole group was waiting in line for their chance to belay up and down the rock face. Amazing!
9. Hiding Games
Camouflage, commando and sardines. Hours spent hiding or sneaking on our hands and knees through the tall grass of the fields or up the side of the hill. Tapping into the primal instinct to hunt and hide. Need I say more?
8. Making Rope
The open fields and Garry Oak meadows of Layritz Park are peppered with Scotch Broom, one of the most invasive species in Victoria, but incredibly useful for forest school. Not only did they give us lots of wood for our various projects, but the inner bark can be separated from the outer and woven into very strong cordage. It takes a good amount of fine motor skill and patience to strip and weave, so it wasn’t for everyone – but those who liked it, liked it a lot.
7. Exploring the Cycles of Life
OK, that’s really just a nice way of saying playing with dead stuff.
Together we dissected a snake that had probably been run over by a bike. We wanted to see if we could find out what it ate – we couldn’t. Whether because it hadn’t eaten recently, or because of my inability to perform surgery on a tiny snake with a Buck knife, we will never know. In the end, we took out all of the guts and let the snake skin dry in the sun. (To my wife’s chagrin it is still in my car).
We also found a recently dead shrew (COD unknown) and the kids were so excited to give it a burial that I never saw it again, and to this day don’t know where they buried it.
The most interesting find was the entire body (minus the gooey bits) of a rabbit. The circumstances of this poor little guy’s demise was extremely intriguing. At the scene of the crime we also found a feather and hair wrapped around a spiky plant. Was it killed by the bird? Did the bird find it when it was dead? Was it chased and then tangled in the spiky plant? These were some of the enthralling questions that came up during our CSI investigation.
Finally during the last week, someone found an old bone in a place we had been sitting in every day, for many days, then another, and another, until we had a whole Ziploc bag full of bones (raccoon maybe?). What do you do with a bag of bones? Make necklaces out of them, obviously. Their idea, not mine.
Highlight? Lowlight? Somewhere in between? Our July camps certainly faced our fair share of adversity dealing with these buggers. There is nothing like being attacked by a swarm of wasps to make you feel humble and respect your place in nature. If nothing else, it certainly made us more observant and aware of our surroundings at all times. Luckily, there is a healthy supply of plantain growing in the grass at Layritz,, so we just chewed some up, slapped it on our stings and on we went (more or less…). There was a great deal of satisfaction in watching the guys from the Parks department come and spray them down.
Thankfully, August camp, week one, was saved from additional wasp attacks on the first day. As we walked around an area, which we had used a lot in July, looking for hazards, one kid found a huge nest in the ground that someone would have undoubtedly stepped on. My hero.
5. Making Beads and Pea Shooters
In August I packed around a bag of dry Elderberry stick I had harvested from elsewhere. The inner pith can be hollowed out easily with a sharpened stick and sawed into beads or pea shooters. Add a little sandpaper and you could sell these things on Etsy.
4. Whittling; a Forest School Standard
Whittling is always a popular activity for the kids, as they love to learn how to safely use knives to create something of their own. I’ll always remember when the soccer camp from the field below took a hike up the hill to where we had our base. As they jogged through I heard “Whoa, they have knives here!” Yes, yes we do. How else would we make our hunting weapons or other tools? Bow and arrows were a very popular bushcraft this summer, along with spears, fishing rods for the creek (more on that later) and even a couple of atlatls (a primitive spear throwing device). Building confidence through training and trust is the forest school way and the pride these kids took in their creations was really awesome.
3. Berries Galore!
The quickest way to a child’s heart is through their belly (likely true for adults as well, at least for me). The July weeks were blessed with a wide variety of berries to forage for. We tasted native Trailing Blackberries (sweet), Thimbleberries (seedy but delicious, and a first for most kids), Saskatoon Berries (good but seedy), one random Salmonberry (wasn’t me), Indian Plums (gross), Oregon Grape (tangy), and Huckleberries (first spotted by a veteran Forest School camper). Another memorable moment came when some of the kids were picking Oregon Grapes along one of the concrete paths and a Tech Park worker, out for a lunch break stroll no doubt, stopped, looked a bit awkward and then said “I don’t think you can eat those.” One of the kids turned around confidently and said “this is Oregon Grape, they’re edible.” In my mind I said “its working!” with a huge smile.
In August it was an all you can eat buffet of our other favorite invasive species, Himalayan Blackberries.
What better use could there be for a yucky Indian Plum, a tart Oregon Grape or an unripe Blackberry than… paint! What a great experience watching them work together to figure out how to filter out the seeds and add water to get the right consistency they wanted.
2. Hunting (Humanely of course)
Hunting and capturing critters for observation started with the grasshoppers. On day one we caught three grasshoppers, which the kids named and observed over the course of the morning before we released them back where we found them. Later in the season, there were days when there were so many of them in the critter cage you would loose count of them.
The first snake catch of the summer was epic. In a great display of team work and patience, completely unprompted by me, the group from the first week stalked and waited out a snake hiding in a rock up the hill. They spent a good ten minutes all perched around the hole, whispering to each other to be quiet. Then, one pounced and grabbed the tail and another grabbed the head (so as not to get bitten of course) and it was out; the first snake of the season. That heart thumping, nail biting chase opened the flood gates for snake catching. The record was five in a day. Once we learned where they preferred to live and the time of day they were most active, it was all but certain that we would catch at least one a day to observe and release.
Even a couple of froggies made it into the critter cage for a short spell!
All in all, hunting season was good to us this summer and we made a lot of new critter friends.
And now for the number one highlight of Summer 2018 Forest School..
1. The Creek
When the fields were scathingly hot and overrun with wasps, where did we turn? The creek. When the hill was too dry and exposed where did we go? The creek. When everywhere was covered in wildfire smoke and smelt like camping, where was the air clean? The creek. The magic of playing in water and mud was in full force. Few kids went home this summer with dry feet. From damming the little stream, to catching water striders and fish, to play fishing off the log or exploring knee deep, the creek always delivered when we needed it to.
There you have it, the Top 10 Highlights of our Summer Forest School at Layritz Park. I am grateful to Saanich Rec for allowing us to use this wonderful spot, to Chris Filler in particular for helping make it all happen, to the birds, plants and beasts who shared their space with us, and to all of the parents who gave their children these experiences and ultimately had to clean them up at the end of the day. Most of all, I am grateful for the kids whose creativity and enthusiasm never cease to amaze. We look forward to more of the same at Spring Break, but with fire and tea!