A Fall Highlight: The Ice City

Just before the holidays, a small group of us headed down the “Forest Root Trail” behind the cabin. There wasn’t much snow yet, just a thin layer, yet we kept sinking and tripping the way one does in deeper, icy snow. Almost where the Forest Root Trail meets the main trail, after one more trip and fall, we finally took a closer look at the ground to see just what was going on. What we found were amazing ice crystals, like the stalactites or stalagmites that grow in caves. The crystals had grown between the ground and the leaves, raising the leaf layer up in an icy crust – that’s what we kept sinking through and then stumbling over. 

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When V. pulled out a chunk of crystals that had been dislodged, M. exclaimed, awed, “It looks like a castle!” A whole city emerged from there, extracted from underneath and then carefully situated on top of the snow: a theatre, a river, a bridge, a mall, a restaurant, a school, a hotel, and parliament buildings. Can you see what’s important to have in a city for an 8 year old?!

In all seriousness though, this was an amazing opportunity (and one I unfortunately didn’t get to follow up on) to prompt some comparisons of her city building priorities to those we see in real-world urban planning. Indeed, it was an authentic, age-appropriate way to enter into thinking about the notion that there even exist priorities in city planning, to examine what evidence we see around us of whose voices and needs are privileged, whose are marginalized, and how.   

There are many Ontario curriculum connections that can be made from this starting point – from the completely accidental discovery of the ice crystals and the ensuing constructive/imaginative play in which our students sustained interest over what ultimately ended up being two afternoons. On page 3 of The Ontario Social Studies Curriculum (the 2013 revised edition), for example, it states: “…today and in the future, students need to be critically literate in order to synthesize information, make informed decisions, communicate effectively, and thrive in an ever-changing global community.” To me, being “critically literate” means being able to “read between the lines”, to infer the implicit messaging not only in texts, but in the world around us, including, even, those hidden in the very physical infrastructure we inhabit.

And this gets to the heart of the stated vision (on page 6 of the same document) of this area of the curriculum, which is to “enable students to become responsible, active citizens within the diverse communities to which they belong.” The curriculum document goes on to outline its “Citizenship Education Framework”, one of a set of “tools and strategies” with which this vision can be “achieved” (page 7).  As part of this Framework, teachers are to “ensure” that students “develop an understanding of how political, economic, and social institutions affect their lives” and “develop an understanding of power dynamics” (page 10). To my mind, building an imaginary city, comparing it to the city in which we live, and asking students questions that reveal and make real to them the fact that in order to build a city decisions are made according to priorities that privilege some and leave others disenfranchised – that is instilling an understanding of power dynamics in an authentic, meaningful, child-led way.

There are more concrete Grade 3 (the grade in which M., the student who really led the charge in this play situation, would be), Social Studies expectations that could be uncovered from this playful starting point, but I’ll get back to the playing, now!

As the Ice City grew, a whole back-story emerged: the citizens of this place were so accustomed to the cold that they would have been able to go outside in only light jackets when we would need heavy parkas. Also, everything they ate or drank was in popsicle form!

As we left the Ice City to go home that afternoon, we wondered what would happen to it if it rained or snowed (more opportunity for curriculum connections – this time to Science and Technology, maybe?), and it did indeed snow in the few days following. When M. arrived back at Forest School the next week, she was intent on visiting the city to see what had become of it. I have to admit to two things here: one, I was really hesitant to do so, and two, part of the reason for that that it was a cold, damp day, and even though I am a Forest School educator, I am not always a great lover of winter!

The other part of my hesitation was fear that we wouldn’t be able to find the Ice City, or that, if we did, she would be disappointed with what had happened to it. Boy am I glad that I did the right thing and followed her interest, because we ended up opening a whole other area of play and learning that I had not anticipated at all. The Ice City was indeed buried when we got to it, but as we uncovered each piece, carefully dusted off the snow from all the cracks and crannies, and tried to remember exactly which building each ice chunk had been, we became archeologists, the first to discover that there had been an ancient ice civilization, and theorizing about what our discovery would mean to our current understanding of human history.

We imagined that we were dusting the snow off of the buildings with as much care as had been shown by those archeologists who dusted off the mummies and treasures in the pyramids in Egypt and the city of Pompeii. We wondered what kind of art the ice people would have made and hung in their homes – what was important to them? Would they have represented hunting scenes, like the earliest cave drawings in France? Or would they have represented scenes from a warmer time before the Ice Age, suggesting that their lives hadn’t always been frozen? We imagined the Ice City being transported to and preserved in a museum, and that we would become very famous for our discovery!

This fantasy became so involved as we exhumed, dusted, and recreated the city, that M. stopped, looked me right in the eye and asked, “But do you think it’s possible that we really have discovered an ancient ice civilization?” She was so engrossed that the line between fantasy and reality was blurring. I think she knew we were still playing, but the play was so vivid, there was something really exciting about brushing up against that line.

The Ice City was a real highlight for me of the fall term at Forest School. I hope to share a few more highlights from the last few months even as I try to keep up with the weekly updates from this term. Thanks for reading, and thanks V. for the photos and input!