Reflections by Naturalist & Walk Leader Andrea Higgins
Photos courtesy of HCT Volunteer Photographer Gerry Beetham
What a gift to be in the presence of childhood curiosity and surrounded by the autumnal beauty of the Coy’s Brook Woodlands on Tuesday morning. We were enveloped in dense fog, high humidity, and temperatures reaching 70 degrees. HCT Preschool Explorers and their caregivers greeted me and each other with smiles.
With inquiring spirits, we headed down the leaf covered path to begin our exploration. I shared the plans for our morning and handed each adventurer a board with different colored circles and clothes pins so we could go on a color search. Admiring the forest floor, we sought out nature items in red, yellow, orange, brown, dark green, light green, gray, and white, attaching them to our boards as we went.
We discussed white items around the forest that we were not able to clip to our boards including clouds, fog, spectacular white mushrooms, and abundant dew-covered spider webs. Dark green leaves of the wintergreen decorated our boards alongside light green lichens and leaves. Additional discoveries included beautiful bright green leaves of the beech tree, roughly textured gray bark, and brown oak leaves. We spied stunning maple leaves in reds, yellows, and oranges and clipped those to our boards too. What keen senses of observation our HCT Explorers demonstrated as they described and named their colorful finds.
Further down the path, the forest opened up to a different habitat with tall pitch pines and knee-high golden grasses. This field looked like a patch work quilt with square-shaped webs on the forest floor appearing white with the moisture clinging to each strand from the high humidity. We were in awe of this arachnid artwork and wondered if these designs were always here but only now visible with the condensation revealing the patterns.
We settled onto mats I had placed in a half circle to enjoy some naturalist chat and stories. I shared clues about today’s animal of study and our inquisitive preschoolers quickly determined that we would be learning about the gray squirrel. This common mammal is found in forests, backyards, and cities in the eastern United States and Canada. They can be gray, brown, black, white, or reddish. A very fluffy tail is used to help them balance, communicate, keep them cozy in the cold weather, dry in a drizzle, and cool in the bright sun by providing some shade! Gray squirrels make their nests in tree holes and build dreys high in treetops. These omnivores eat nuts, berries, flowers, insects, bird eggs, and mushrooms, and often steal seeds from bird feeders. Gray squirrels usually have two litters a year, with their kittens/kits/pups born in late winter and summer.
I started our story time with Squirrels Leap, Squirrels Sleep by April Pulley Sayre. This storybook contains lyrical text and beautiful bold illustrations sharing the world of this fuzzy, button-eyed acrobat’s daily activities. HCT Preschool Explorers are avid readers and it is so precious to see their sweet and curious expressions and smiles as I share stories with them. I read two more books as my wonderful audience sat surrounded by the silence and splendor of the forest. North American Animals: Gray Squirrels by Christina Leaf and In My Backyard Squirrels by Lindsy J. O’Brien both contain facts and awesome photos of squirrels.
I next shared an owl pellet discovery… squirrel bones, including the jaw, teeth, and more! With just four toes on their front paws, we contemplated a squirrel’s dexterity. We folded our thumbs into our palms and imagined life without this opposable finger. I handed each Explorer a crisp apple and asked them to hold it and then eat it with just their four fingers, keeping their thumbs tucked into their palms. Smiles stretched across their faces as they met the challenge.
Embracing our inner squirrels, we next tried eating whole shelled peanuts with just our four fingers. Such fun to hear mamas giggle as they played along. As our kittens (baby squirrels) enjoyed their snacks of apples and peanuts, I read Adam Rubin’s very amusing children’s book Those Darn Squirrels! Children and their mommas laughed along at the clever, entertaining story with cute illustrations and a sweet message.
Next, I handed each Explorer a small paper bag to fill with acorns they found on the forest floor. I had placed three boxes at the base of trees to represent squirrel cavity nests and invited the children to visit the nest as they searched for acorn snacks.
Pretending to be squirrels ourselves, we each used a bunch of phragmites (common reed) with their fluffy flower heads becoming our bushy squirrel tails. We walked across a fallen tree and used our tails to help us balance, then practiced leaping with our imaginations taking us soaring from treetop to treetop. As I pretended to be a drizzling rain cloud, then the cold and howling north winds, and finally the bright, hot sun, my wee little squirrel kittens raised their tails over their heads to stay dry, tucked them around their bodies to stay warm, and held them high overhead to create shade. We also had a whole conversation by flicking our tails back and forth just as squirrels do!
We took our tails back on the trails to wander back to our first gathering spot, where I wished all those sweet kits a wonderful day. Thank you so very much for such a fun and delightful Tuesday morning.
I am looking forward to our next adventure.
If you and your preschooler would like to get outside and learn with Ms. Andrea, please follow the link below to sign up for a November Preschool Explorers Club outing: