With the heavy rains last night, everything in the woods was soaked. We had planned an activity where the third and fourth graders would be crawling around on the ground, but it was too wet for that.
As we walked over to the Grove, we passed a running stream of water that had been a dry ditch yesterday. I said: Let’s clean out some of these sticks so the water flows better. Some of the active boys jumped down and started pulling out sticks and even small logs. The girls and other boys weren’t far behind. We dropped sticks and and watched how fast they raced downstream.
I asked: Where does the water go? “Down there!” Let’s follow it and see. They all ran off downstream, stopping to clean out a few more snags. “It flows into this hole!” That’s called a culvert. “It keeps going over here!” We ran over to a ditch by the side of the main road. The children discovered that the water seemed to disappear under the road.
We carefully crossed the road to see if we could follow the water down to the ocean, but there was no water on the ditch on the other side of the road. We crossed back over to look again. Where does the water go? The children imagined all kinds of things that might happen to the water. But what really happens to the water? Who could we ask? The children thought about that, and one of the children who has returned year after year said, “We could talk to the guy who runs the campsite.” So we walked over to the garage, where we found Ed.
I said, Ed, the children want to know where the water goes. Ed explained that it runs into a sewer under the road, and then is pumped up to the sewage treatment plant where they process the water to make it clean. “They take all the poop out of it!” “Yes,” said Ed, “and at the end the water is so clean that you can drink it.” That was a novel concept to the children, and we talked about that for a while. Then it was time to follow the water upstream, to see where it came from. “Thank you, Ed!”
We ran back to the stream, and followed it the other direction this time. “I know where streams start, they always start in a spring in the mountains.” Well, let’s see how far we can follow this stream.
We came to a place where the bottom of the stream was sand. The sand looked orange. The children and I pulled sand up off the bottom, but when we pulled it up the sand was white. That means the water is orange: why? “It’s the leaves, they make it orange.” “And the pine needles.”
The stream got wider and wider, and flowed more and more slowly. Soon there were interconnected puddles everywhere in the woods — in the same part of the woods where we had walked dry shod yesterday. I suggested that maybe the stream started with all the puddles. But the children weren’t yet sure. So we kept going deeper into the woods.
“We should go this way!” said one child. “No, this way!” said another child. I asked, Which way does water flow? “Up–” “No, it flows downhill.” So which way is uphill? We figured out which way was uphill, and went that way to see if we could tell where the water started flowing. There was water everywhere. If you slipped on a root, you’d get wet. All of us got our feet at least a little bit wet.
Finally we got to a place where there were no more puddles. But there was no stream, either. Finally the children figured out what was going on: The woods turn into a swamp when it rains, and the streams drain the water out of the stream. I told them that the streams were actually ditches that people had dug in order to drain the swamp.
We stood in a circle, and went over what we had figured out. At the end of that, one child said, “I think we should always learn like this — being outdoors, and not having someone just tell us.” I said that I believed that children could figure things out for themselves (with adult help and direction).
It was time to head back. I said I’d try to find a dryer path for us to follow back. But there was water everywhere. Eventually, we had to turn around and head back the way we came. We got a little wetter, and we were fifteen minutes late for lunch. But the children had learned a lot more about the woods, and water, and what happens when it rains, and where water goes. They’ve learned about the water cycle in school, but this time they really got to see it in action.
And this was completely unplanned: spontaneous programming, arising out of the interests of the children, and their interactions with their surrounding environment.