Preschool Explorers: Playing ‘Possum
Reflections by Naturalist & Walk Leader Andrea Higgins
Photos courtesy of HCT Volunteer Photographer Gerry Beetham
Tuesday was a beautiful, almost spring-like morning with temperatures in the 50s, fragrant fresh air, and the sweet melodies of songbirds. The sweeping view across the Robert F. Smith Cold Brook Preserve was reminiscent of entering a stunning landscape painting. We observed brilliant blue skies with elaborate cloud formations, perky brown cattails releasing their seeds into the breeze creating a swirling snowfall effect, plus pops of red, glimmering golds, and different textures from a variety of vegetation on this 66-acre Preserve.
I always enjoy time spent at this property, especially when I share the experience in the company of our bright and curious HCT Preschool Explorers and their caregivers. Our morning started with a slow ramble down the path as I identified the plants along the way. As children pointed out the birds flying by, we simultaneously noticed the berries of honeysuckle, poison ivy, catbrier, and winterberry. Those berries will provide food for the birds in the upcoming winter months. We paused at the brook traveling underfoot and listened to the calm, burbling sounds of the flowing water.
Arriving at the bench, I displayed a wonderful variety of books about opossums and laid out mats for our Explorers to sit on. We huddled in a circle to discover interesting facts about North America’s only marsupial. I shared information and photos from North American Animals: Opossums by Betsy Rathburn and Scholastic Opossum by Tom Jackson with our preschoolers.
Opossums have a prehensile tail that can grip and grasp objects, which is like having an additional hand. These nocturnal creatures like to make their homes comfortable by lining their dens with grass and leaves to make it warm and dry, and changing out their bedding regularly. They are covered in white to grayish fur except for their ears and tails, which are hairless. About the size of a large house cat, they can grow up to 3 feet long from nose to tail and weigh approximately ten pounds. These omnivores have 50 sharp teeth to eat fruit, insects (including ticks), and small animals. Their pregnancies last just 12 to 13 days before they give birth to up to 20 babies that are the size of houseflies. Once born, they crawl into mom’s warm pouch and nurse for 3 months.
We next learned about their interesting defense mechanism. When threatened, they faint and involuntarily enter a catatonic state. Its body goes limp, its breathing appears to stop, and its eyes will either be closed or staring off into space. By all indications it appears to be dead, which confuses its predators. It can take anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours to become mobile again.
Time to create an art project! Recycled cardboard tubes, black and white paint, crayons and markers, heart shaped white paper cut-outs, and pink pipe cleaners were transformed with tremendous care and creativity to resemble opossums. I had a bucket of branches for our Preschoolers to choose to wrap their pink pipe cleaner prehensile tails to.
Tomorrow is the last full moon of the fall, so it was the perfect time for me to read Possum’s Harvest Moon: Words and Pictures by Anne Hunter. The story takes place in autumn by the light of the full Harvest moon, when Possum kicks off a celebration with his friends, illuminated by the moon’s glow. As animals busy preparing for winter pause to celebrate the season’s last hurrah, they admire the beauty of the moon and the joy of gathering together in community and friendship. This is a beautiful story with ethereal illustrations of nature, the moon, and a grand party. Preschoolers listened attentively and one mama even cheered aloud as the animals in the story paused to admire the beautiful moon shining during their celebration.
I next shared an image of an opossum track from Lynn Levine’s Mammal Tracks and Scat Life-Size Pocket Guide and Richard Wolniewicz’s Field Guide to Skulls and Bones of Mammals of the Northeastern United States (one of the texts from my wildlife tracking course), alongside a real opossum skull. We admired its teeth and the size of the skull using gentle touches to examine the specimen.
Handing out an additional pink pipe cleaner to each preschooler to add to their clothing, they too now had a prehensile tail! Sauntering along the trails of the Preserve, we took a moment to pretend to climb and swim like opossums. At one point the preschoolers curled up on the path, eyes closed, smiles wide, pretending to have just fainted in fear. We continued on the path and a hawk flew low right over us… a predator of the possum! We all froze while also admiring its graceful silent flight over the trail and into the woodlands.
Another wonderful Tuesday morning of walking, playing, creating, listening, and learning together in one of the spectacular spaces in Harwich. Thank you for sharing the morning with me, Explorers and caregivers. I am so looking forward to seeing you next week as our adventures continue.