"Salt Hands": Forest School Canada Edition

There’s a children’s book called Salt Hands by Jane Chelsea Aragon. It’s about a little girl who wakes up in the middle of the night and looks out her window to see a deer standing by a pear tree in the moonlight. The little girl creeps downstairs, pours some salt into her hands, and then goes outside where she kneels quietly and waits for the deer to approach her. It is a beautiful book, told from the perspective of the child in short, simple sentences. It perfectly evokes that excited, hold-your-breath, whispered magic of seeing a wild animal.

This morning at Forest School, we had our own Salt Hands experience. A buck wandered very close by our cabin where C., our student teacher, and O., a three-year-old student, were reading stories on the porch. I’m going to try here to describe the experience like Aragon does, from the perspective of O., who sat in stillness and silence for nearly half an hour, mesmerized by the deer.

It was morning, and the sun glinted on the frost on the ground. I could see my breath.

In the forest, a flash of movement caught my eye.

It was a deer – a young buck with small antlers. I sat like a statue, and held my breath.

I tiptoed closer to the trees. The buck moved towards me. I don't think he saw me. His head was down. He was looking for food. I saw his ears twitch.

Suddenly, he looked up, right at me. I could see his black eyes and black nose. He waited, watching. I waited, watching.

He started to wander through the trees. For a while, I couldn’t see him anymore, but still I waited, hoping. The air was cold on my cheeks.

Then the buck reappeared. He was even closer than before. So close, now, I could see his breath, too. We watched each other again for a long time.

After a while, the deer turned his head, and picked his way carefully into the forest, deeper and deeper, until I couldn’t see him anymore.

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Now, if I did manage to evoke some of the magic of this morning here, I’m about to bring it right down into the reality of the Ontario Kindergarten Curriculum (OKC), in an attempt to translate – as promised here – what happened, what elements of the curriculum were (un)covered, and why it matters.

 Here, in the order they occurred to me, the curriculum connections:

Self-Regulation

From page 7 of the OKC: “Self-regulation is central to a child’s capacity to learn. It is “a cornerstone of development and a central building block of early learning” (Charles Pascal, Every Child, Every Opportunity: Curriculum and Pedagogy for the Early Learning Program, p. 4). The ability to self-regulate, or to set limits for oneself, allows a child to develop the emotional well-being and the habits of mind, such as persistence and curiosity, that are essential for early learning and that set the stage for lifelong learning. Self-regulation involves attention skills, working memory, and cognitive flexibility – qualities that provide the underpinning for essential skills needed throughout life, such as planning and problem-solving skills (ibid., p. 4). Self-regulation allows children to have positive social interactions and sets a pattern of behaviour that will benefit them throughout their lives.”

Demonstrating self-control is specific expectation 2.4 in the Emotional Development section of the Personal and Social Development “Learning Area” (p. 65). O. sat still and silently – except to whisper, “Did you see that?” – for close to half an hour. He sustained interest in one thing for close to half an hour. He is three.

The OKC states: “children are connected to others and contribute to their world. Children have a strong sense of identity and well-being” (23). What I think this really means is, children’s sense of identity and well-being depends on their sense of connectedness to others and to their world. The experience of watching and being watched by the deer most definitely fostered a sense of connection for me between myself and it. I can only imagine the same is true for O. When the deer finally walked away from us and was fully out of view for a few minutes, O. and I looked at each other and said nothing, but smiled. O. threw his arms around my neck and gave me a huge hug. We are connected. “Nurturing relationships support children’s development of self-regulation” (OKC, 7).

 

Environmental Education

The OKC quotes the “Acting Today, Shaping Tomorrow: A Policy Framework for Environmental Education in Ontario” on page 43: “The first goal [of Environmental Education] is to promote learning about environmental issues and solutions. The second is to engage students in practicing and promoting environmental stewardship…” The order in which these goals are listed suggests that stewardship behaviour results from learning about environmental issues. Perhaps that is not the intention, but I feel it’s important to note that experts in the field of Environmental Education such as David Sobel contend that stewardship behaviour does not, in fact, begin with identifying environmental problems. (See Chapter 2 in Sobel's book, Childhood and Nature.) Rather, it begins with children identifying with the natural world, with witnessing, being in awe of, and building relationship with it. There was a profound moment of wonder and awe this morning for O., setting the foundation for future stewardship behaviour, a desire to learn about environmental issues, and generate solutions. 

 

Observation

Observation is “the beginning of inquiry” (OKC, 15). It is also central to the scientific process. Today O. practiced the patience, self-control, care, and persistence necessary for close observation, and in doing so, uncovered overall expectation 1 from the Science and Technology Learning Area in the OKC: “demonstrate an awareness of the natural and built environment through hands-on investigations, observations, questions, and representations of their findings” (114), as well as overall expectation number 3: “demonstrate an understanding of the natural world and the need to care for and respect the environment” (121).

Once the deer had left and we finished hugging and smiling at each other, our student teacher C. suggested that we draw the deer. This lead to us uncovering the “representing our thinking” part of the Science and Technology expectations, as well as elements of the visual art curriculum.

 

Art

Participating in and responding to appropriate arts experiences gives children opportunities to reflect on their own experiences…” (OKC, 17). Making art is also categorized as “constructive play” (OKC, 14) which fosters the development of  fine-motor skills, the symbolic thinking necessary for literacy, as well as the ability to plan (a higher-order thinking skill) (OKC, 14).

O. was really excited to draw the deer, and also to draw himself watching the deer. In other words, he met overall expectation V1 in the visual art section of The Arts learning area: “demonstrate an awareness of themselves as artists through engaging in activities in visual arts” (151). He made many decisions throughout the course of representing the experience of seeing the deer, accepting some of our suggestions and rejecting others: he wanted only one antler, not two, and he wanted to glue down sticks to be like the trees through which we saw the deer. At the end of the day he was, of course, really excited to show is Mom his work. He thus met specific expectation V1.1, “demonstrate an awareness of personal interests and a sense of accomplishment in visual arts” (151) and also overall expectation V3: “use problem-solving strategies when experimenting with the skills, materials, processes, and techniques used in visual arts…” (151).

 

Language

While watching for the deer, C. and I whispered to O. about the specific names for male, female, and baby deer: buck, doe, fawn. (He also learned the words “male” and “female”!) This connects to overall expectation 1 in the Language learning area:  “Communicate by talking and listening and speaking to others for a variety of purposes and in a variety of contexts” (72) and to specific expectation 1.7:  use specialized vocabulary for a variety of purposes” (76).

When O’s Mom came to pick him up, he met specific expectations 1.9: “describe personal experiences, using vocabulary and details appropriate to the situation” (78) and 1.10: “orally retell simple events and simple familiar stories in proper sequence” (78).

Other Language connections could be made as possible next steps. We may read Aragon’s Salt Hands, thereby opening up the possibility of meeting specific expectation 2.6: "use prior knowledge to make connections (e.g. to new experiences, to other books, to events in the world) to help them understand a diverse range of materials read by and with the EL-K team (83). We could also have O. try to tell his own version of Salt Hands, scribing for him, and in doing so, providing him with the opportunity to notice conventions of print and letter-sound correspondences. 

 

Learning in Real-Life Contexts

And finally, “Using real-life contexts for activities in the Full-Day Early Learning–Kindergarten program is a highly effective way of motivating young learners. Children grasp ideas more easily and more effectively and maintain their interest in school when they have an educational program that enables them to connect their learning to their own lives and the world around them" (16).

If you’re still reading, congratulations! And thank you! I hope you’re convinced of the pertinence of our Salt Hands magic this morning to the OKC, or, if you were already convinced, that you've got some concrete examples with which to persuade those around you who are unsure!