A Wonderful 20 Minutes

Wonderful things can happen in short amounts of time. On Tuesday, I had about 20 minutes to explore the rain garden next to our community center with three second grade boys. We started at the pond to look for frogs. We didn’t find any, but the boys quickly spotted some water striders moving across the water. We talked about how they “floated” on top of water, but what I really wanted to show them was a picture in a book. Note to self: Pur together a nature backpack with field guides, magnifying lenses and collection vials for these kind of short trips.

Of course, the kids started to throw rocks immediately when we got there. Rocks + kids = kids throwing rocks.  One boy even started tossing them inside a drainage pipe that fed the rain garden. This led to a conversation about the pipe and where it might lead. I don’t know if the concept of rain gardens sunk in with them, but they seemed curious about where the pipe led to so we followed the pipe to the fence that stands between our property and railroad bed. 

We didn’t find where the drainage pipe came out, but upon inspection, we found a large culvert under the tracks. One boy commented that his mother once explored one of those and told him about it. Part of me wanted to let these kids explore this culvert, but a fence and giant grate prevented that, as well as a healthy dose of common sense. The kid part of me did want to explore it further. Perhaps I will another day and then find a safe alternative to take kids. There are places in Madison where you can safely walk under railroad tracks and roads. These are great places to talk about drainage and run-off. 

We then walked to where we could safely cross the railroad tracks. The railroad bed is covered with rocks and we found some good ones today. One boy found a piece of chert (flintrock), a hard limestone found west of Madison near Blue Mounds State Park. This rock was commonly used by native people to make tools and spear points.He seemed genuinely thrilled by his find. He also found a beautiful piece of quartzite, all shimmery in the sun. 

The third boy identified garlic mustard growing along the railroad tracks. This impressed me. He had gone out with his mom and she told him about this noxious plant. The other kids got to smell it and Joey, a compulsive and eager child, took a big bite out of a leaf and took some home with him (I had to remind him not to eat plants without asking an adult first). When I told the the boys about alien species and why they aren’t good for native plants, they wanted to pull all the plants out! Wow!  They just started pulling them up. That’s the fastest I’ve ever seen anyone move to tear up this plant. I was impressed by their enthusiasm, but also cautioned them to not pull up plants without being sure of what they were doing. 

All together, I thought that was a productive 20 minutes. The kids got hands-on lessons in groundwater regeneration, run-off, geology, plant biology, and even a bit of entomology, all in 20 minutes. 

I look forward to developing these hikes into formalized lessons and welcome opportunities to explore the area around the center. However, I do not want to make these trips too academic. A sense of wonder needs to present to truly enjoy nature and too much emphasis on structure can destroy that. I really like just letting the kids explore and seeing where their interests take them. Perhaps setting up stations and tools for learning may be a better way to go. Regardless, the rain garden and railroad tracks are a gold mine right outside our door. 

Last winter, we even slip-slided on the ice here. Kids explored different kinds of ice and rode their sleds down the snowbanks onto the ice. They chipped at it; held it up to the sun; sat on it; looked into it; slid on it; laid on it; wondered about the air bubbles in it and lots more.  But I digress.

It’s spring and that was a wonderful 20 minutes.

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