Here’s a wild one for you.
As an outdoor guide for the District School Board of Niagara, I was deployed out of the woods, and into a Niagara Falls elementary school to assist with the pandemic reopening.
I could write scores of articles about what I did, saw, and experienced during these past two weeks. I was on the frontline of the very situation that we’ve all been talking and hearing about. I promised myself I would be there for the kids and teachers in the best capacity I could, during a transitional time.
Although I was no longer socializing with oaks and maples, I felt welcomed and comfortable within an instant at this school. The staff and students made the building feel like home, with a seamless transition. I feel both spiritually and professionally fulfilled by these two weeks.
It seems my hours logged in the woods have stuck to me, and the woods follow me from time to time. I was curious to see how I could make the most of nature within an urban schoolyard, and hopefully leave a lasting impression on some kids during the two weeks I had there.
While I was spray painting the lines that separate the cohorts of students out in the soccer field for recess, I noticed some divots in the ground. Some of the younger kids had taken to digging into the grass. There are no trees, sports toys, or games of tag going on. So, to the soil they go.
The little kids call me over to the chunk of soil and grass they’ve carved up. They pull it over. A few worms and a beetle larvae (grub) lie exposed on the dirt. Their curiosity is ramped up for such a simple but creative discovery. It made me happy to see this moment unfold.
While they gaze upon the closed playground and gym just yards away from where they play, the kids get inventive with their environment. It’s probably been a long time since kids dug up bugs in the soccer field and found it fascinating.
“Mr. B, why does this worm have . . . legs?” asks an excited student.
“It’s not a worm. It has those little legs and mouth parts because it’s actually a baby beetle, basically.”
A couple shrieks, a couple oohs and aws, and they learned something new.
As I wear a mask and walk back toward the building for indoor duties, and I see some kids looking at these “super giant mosquitoes” on the side of the school portables. We’ve all seen them without knowing what they are. They show up in showers, corners of the barn, and on the cottage dock. These are totally harmless crane flies.
I tell the kids, “these flies aren’t even related to mosquitoes. They just look like huge mosquitoes, but they’re not, and they can’t even hurt people. Look at how tall and skinny they are, like a crane. Mosquitoes can’t even get this big, ever!”
If you Google crane fly, you’ll be surprised how many times you’ve seen this harmless “super giant mosquito” in your own house.
I go outside to my van in the parking lot, remove the mask and sip some coffee on my break. The radio tells me how many COVID cases were reported in Ontario today, but my heart tells me to focus on what matters, the next generation. Heading back indoors once again, I see a giant praying mantis on the wall of the school. It’s just out of reach. I could catch it and do the ultimate show-and-tell for these kids. I kind of have to.
Imagine me, masked up and leaping up and down the wall like a cat chasing a fly. Looks like Spiderman gone wrong. I gently swept the five-inch insect off the wall, and from there, the praying mantis walked around on my hands and coffee cup while I showed it to all the kids at recess.
I must have showed 100 people, the praying mantis seemingly understanding its universal truth that it can be part of an important educational moment.
A few kids hover around when I visit their cohort. The praying mantis leaps off of my hands and then flies. Did you know they can fly? It’s rarely witnessed, but they are more than capable.
The visually terrifying creature then landed on the face of a Grade 2 kid. He goes cross-eyed and bug-eyed at once — the look of surprise and unsureness equally as pronounced. Within one second, he tried to swipe it but chickened out. I reached out and grabbed it in an instant. The boy then proceeded to run a few laps within his area, laughing and shrieking about the wildness of that experience.
Phew! He handled it like a champion.
I later saw the same kid talking to his vice-principal about the experience with that classic story-telling grin.
I’ll never forget the visual of walking up the invisible hallways in the soccer field. I had helped spray paint these fields, kids on my left and right leaning in to see the praying mantis with maximum interest, their toes up against the white lines.
As I walk between the rectangular cohorts, I notice a peculiar phenomenon. Only two of them have access to a tree.
It was a remarkable observation to see how much physical activity and curiosities centred around the one tree. It’s a little tree, too. Kids would meet there and chat. They’d hang off the one or two little branches, fan the leaves, and make leaf or grass “hats.” Let’s remember, the closed playground and gym are just yards away, out of reach, but not really.
My takeaway from this experience is that kids are truly meant to be with nature.
When they aren’t allowed to play tag, they resort to ripping up grass and throwing it at their friends. I was really impressed with the creative approach.
The symbology is at the fingertips of the youth when they rip the grass up from the earth. Even when field trips and singing and playgrounds are denied, nature is always going to be there as an effervescent source, even during these strange times.