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Trackers Earth School - Portland, Oregon

There's nothing quite like buying new wellies! That is exactly what I did for my day at Trackers Earth School. I excitedly put them on along with a warm fleecy jumper and rain coat and several other layers, complete with packed lunch. I was ready. Ready to go the forest with three teachers and a group of sixteen 4 and 5 year olds. On a yellow school bus!

Now Trackers is not your average school establishment. It provides summer camps throughout the summer holidays, it has a forest school for children to attend regularly, it provides adult learning and also provides extracurricular programs for children to supplement their other education, whether it be public, private, Montessori, Waldorf or home schooling. The group that I attended was formed of the latter. These were children that may come 1-3 days a week. Trackers offers a hands on experiential learning in nature and the outdoors and it is fair to say that, along with the children, I learnt a lot during my day with them.

The shared space at the school. The children all go to their separate class zones when they arrive.

The meeting space where the children met in the morning to talk about the events of the day.

I arrived at Trackers with parents and their children and along with the children I found my area and group in the big shared space. To begin the session children had a morning meeting where they discussed what they would see in the forest we were visiting. The season and weather were discussed. The children identified that the weather was rainy and together the group discussed the need to look for shelter when we went out. The children talked about the different ways that they might find shelter. Trees and specifically which types of trees, a roof and tarpaulin were all suggested. It was then time to get ready; to get suited and booted. The children were encouraged to dress themselves independently and appropriately for the weather and to put their back packs on. Then it was time for the bus. The bus was a time to tell stories about the wilderness and teachers told exciting stories about chasing deer and meeting black bears! We learnt that if you ever meet a bear, not to run but to walk away slowly and calmly always keeping your eyes on the bear. The children were captivated and it was a great opportunity for them to practice their audio processing skills and to follow stories without pictures. What was noteable both in the stories and subsequently throughout the day was the detail that teachers spoke about identifying fauna and flora. Children learnt not about animals and trees in general but about specific species and about particular animal calls and alarm calls. We travelled to a local forest park and the children had some snack before we split up and went adventuring and exploring in the forest! My group of six were encouraged to take note of the directions they went, noticing a fire hydrant in the woods for use in case of forest fires.

Such fires are a real threat to wildlife and nature here and during my few weeks stay in Portland there has been a 48,000 acre forest fire in Eagle Creek in Oregon. Some days the smoke has travelled over 40 miles to Portland, affecting air quality and visibility. The forest fire in Eagle Creek is believed to be started by fireworks and at the time of writing is still only 46% contained. The children spent time on the walk looking at and identifying different trees and looking at what makes them unique. They learnt that Native Americans called cedar trees the tree of life and used it's needles for making tea, and used the bark for lighting fires and carving out boats. The children were so excited to explore the forest, finding sap from trees, finding a huge 'chicken of the woods' fungus, moss and trees they could shelter from raindrops under neath. Before we turned back around to the bench area where we had left our lunch boxes the children played in the forest and made a fairy house. The children were highly motivated and excited to add to their creation using English Ivy for a fairy slide and Big Maple leaves for a roof!

The fairy house. It was very carefully constructed by the children.

The children were excited to find these snails and waited until they were confident enough to venture out of their shells!

Sap from a tree - it makes for very sticky fingers!

After navigating their way back to the picnic area the nature trackers all sat and ate their lunch at the picnic benches, had a play in the trees and then headed back to the bus for more bear stories and to recap what they had seen on their forest exploration.

When back at the centre the children had a final story and were free to play in their learning zone. They eagerly got busy drawing, doing leaf rubbings, building bricks, creating elf homes and reading books together. It was interestjng to note that quite a few of the children were keen to talk about their day and independently recreated and reflected on their trip to the forest in their play, drawings and talk.

It was inspiring to spend a day with such excited and motivated children and educators who cared for the world around them. The thing that stood out about Trackers was the sense of freedom, independence and risk-taking that was fostered in the children's learning opportunities. I am very thankful for this experience and it has given me opportunity to reflect upon about the life long skills and intrinsic motivation that such real outdoors experiences provide children with.

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