The differing experiences a walk in the woods with children provides, depends on children’s ages. Here at Lakeside School, we seek to meet each child where they are developmentally. For an infant, every day outside brings a new experience. A 4-year-old might become a pirate off to seek treasure, and an 8-year-old might search for different kinds of birds. Looking at the developmental stages that children go through helps us meet the child where they are and foster learning, joy, and growth.
The tickle of breeze on an infant’s face can invoke joy or uncertainty as she drinks in the play of light and color of the autumn foliage, the crunching sound of leaves underfoot, and the closeness of a caregiver. The infant drinks all this in as sensory experience. Children’s senses are attuned to what they are exposed to. Nature provides rich sensory stimulation without being over-stimulating. Though the infant is not yet speaking or moving, she takes in all that is around. These experiences also feed her later development.
With a toddler, this same hour hike through the woods might leave the caregiver still in sight of the school. Parents of toddlers know the joy is the journey, not the destination. Having set goals for accomplishing anything with a toddler at hand can lead to frustration. Yes, the toddler is enjoying and learning from the exploration and discovery. As an infant, she drank in the sensory impressions. As a toddler, however, she is mobile and inquisitive in new ways. The toddler is beginning to make sense of the world through sensory experiences. The more varied and diverse the experiences, the more learning opportunities the toddler has. The toddler is not interested in the why and wherefore of the world; she is interested in touching, tasting, smelling, moving, and immersing in the world. The toddler wants to explore the entire world with her body and senses. New physical skills of balance emerge daily. Negotiations and explanations with toddlers can often lead to meltdowns and frustration for everyone. The toddler wants to explore! So, though the “hike” may leave the caregiver just 200 yards from the school, the toddler is content to learn and play with no end goal in mind. The toddler is also gaining physical strength and independence. The classic two-year-old, “I CAN DO IT MYSELF!” is an important step. Toddlers are learning to master their physical bodies. Natural consequences of, say, tumbling off a log onto moss (and perhaps being scratched by a stick in the course of the fall) allow children to gain mastery of their physical bodies and develop self-regulation. Allowing a child to take small risks leads to self-control and appropriate risk-taking in the future.
When a child moves out of toddlerhood, at approximately 3 to 5 years old, they continue this exploration with their bodies and senses but begin to make new connections. An autumn hike to a rock cliff may bring on a memory of that same hike in the spring and a memory of the Dutchman’s britches that carpeted the forest floor. Children’s memories at this age are sense-based. Rich outdoor sensory experiences are very important for the child to begin to make independent connections. For children of this age every stick, rock, stream, or log is an imaginative adventure. Young children have more stamina than toddlers and can explore further into the woods. Often a storyline or “adventure” holds a 4-year-old child’s interest and allows her to go further into the forest than she thinks she can. Frequent stops for imaginative play stimulate and engage the child. A downed log might become a train, or space ship, or fairy house, or store. Explorations further away from parents allow the child to explore the world on their own, but they want caregivers to be close by as well. Children this age, like toddlers, are strong imitators. Saying, “Let’s be frogs,” and then jumping and calling out, “Ribbit,” redirects a grumpy child and gets things going again.
Six-year-olds swing between immersion in imaginative play and sensory experiences and being “bored.” This boredom is not due to lack of stimulation or opportunities, rather it is a changing conception of the world. The 6-year-old is in transition. The immersion in the sensory world and ability to be stimulated into play by a stick or rock is waning. The child is entering into a new phase where the inner initiative of the child must take over, so as to aid in his ability to decide what to do and create in the world. This is also a time of bodily growth. A hike this same child did six months ago may have him now breaking down in tears because his legs hurt. This growth and developmental stage is the beginning of adolescence and all the changes that ensue: physical growth and limb lengthening, emotional unfolding, shifting perception and conception of the world. Allowing a 6-year-old plenty of physical challenges, like log walking, tree climbing, rock hopping, longer hikes, rock climbing, time alone and close by parents, opportunities for sensory experiences and self-directed play, as well as more fine motor skills, such as weaving willow branches into baskets, braiding grasses, and creating balanced stick shelters, allows the 6-year-old to continue to engage in the natural world while facilitating his inner unfolding and physical growth.
The 7-year-old tends to be in a balanced place. She experiences physical and emotional competency. She has more stamina and stability. She encounters hikes and climbing experiences that were challenging in the past as easy. Children this age fully enter into life and play directed from their inner interest and imagination. They can also slip back into the life of a young child, completely immersed and one with the world. Seven-year-olds can go on longer hikes. Story lines and imaginations continue to engage a child this age, but they also like goals. For example, “Let’s see how many different kinds of birds we see or hear,” or, “Let’s hunt for mushrooms or search for acorn trees.” If children have been engaged in the natural world in early childhood then, at this point, they will experientially know that this is a walnut tree because of the texture of the bark, the smell of the rotting leaves, the walnut husks, the golden leaves falling in autumn. At this age children’s memory and intellectual development is inspired through personal perspective and experiences. Lengthy explanations do little to aid this age group. Allow this child to make her own connections, learning to be a learner from sensing the world around her.
The 8-year-old, having mastered the physical capacities, is ready for more challenges and to go further afield. He loves to be trusted with responsibility: “Run ahead to the 7th cat’s paw sign and stop.” Imaginative play continues to engage, as do projects and goals. The 8-year-old’s inner unfolding is one of polarity. One minute the 8-year-old exhibits the highest qualities of humanity, compassion, humility, willingness, and positivity, and the next minute he’s the trickster and animal from the fables—greedy, hateful, angry, jealous, proud, slothful, and lazy. The 8-year-old is seeking examples in order to shape his own inner moral compass. At this age the natural world provides great examples of both of these extremes from adults worthy of respect and loving authority. While on a hike, for example, an 8-year-old might appreciate a nature story made up on the spot, and he may also wish to get to the top of the ridge. He’s becoming goal-oriented.
For the 9-year-old, the world of early childhood is quickly slipping away with the awakening of questions of mortality (also a question for a 6-year-old), the realization that the world isn’t given (no longer being immersed in the world around), and the fear of not being safe and secure. Nine-year-olds are literally thrust out of paradise. They are lost and wandering. So on hikes and adventures into the woods, building practical skills is important. How do you build a shelter, start a fire, find food, navigate the forest, and make clothing? These skills help the 9-year-old find safety and security in the world which used to provide it as a given.
Here at Lakeside, our job is to allow the connections and concepts to develop and form from rich sensory experiences in a way that allows the concepts to not become fixed. In other words, how do we facilitate a child’s understanding of the world without creating a rigid “this is how it is always and forever” outlook? For example, we often tell kids the sky is blue. While this is true under certain circumstances, it’s not always true. The sky under certain circumstances is purple, red, orange, magenta, turquoise, slate gray, maroon, yellow, golden, black, etc. How do we allow children to create flexible concepts that can change and grow as their experience and understanding changes and grows? Can we learn to perceive like a scientist? My father, an experimental nuclear physicist, on the first day of his PhD program was told to forget everything he had learned, because it was wrong and to look at each question with new eyes.
Lakeside School at Black Kettle Farm strives to allow the scientific mind of observation, questioning, and experience to lead each child’s development. Our aim is to allow flexible concepts that can grow and change as the child does the same. The same sneakers won’t fit a 2 and 19-year-old, so why should we form concepts in a 2-year-old that won’t serve them as a 19-year-old? Rich sensory experiences from an early age allow children to form their own connections and concepts, instead of forcing upon them fixed answers and solutions. The children today will need to develop creative solutions to the problems of tomorrow. Let’s start them young!