This week, the last sheets of ice froze on the banks of the creek and one last winter chill filled the air. While Monday dawned cold with a dusting of snow, Wednesday was filled with the smell of spring in the damp air and a vibrancy and energy that spoke to the changing season. In our last week of Winter Session of preschool, the winter fairies waved us goodbye as spring rode in on the backs of the geese and the forest awoke from its winter slumber. 

Chickadees

Monday morning in the Chickadee flock found us in the log circle around a collection of tracks. Plaster casts and track cards of the different animals we had studied this winter were spread out in an oval. Eli handed out cards with pictures of animals on them, and the Chickadees went around the circle matching tracks to creatures. From our very first animal, the squirrel, to last week’s beaver, we were reminded of how many creatures live in the world around us and share the forest with us.

The animals we learned about this winter:

Squirrel, fox, owl, raccoon, fisher and weasel, porcupine, black bear, beaver, and this week’s mystery animal… 

There was one track in the group that we couldn’t identify. We hadn’t seen this strange print before. It had three toes with webbed feet! The chickadees guessed all different animals – ducks, turtles, water birds. We’d have to wait until slunch to find out what it was. For now, it was time to sing The Wolf, the Fox, and the Weasel, and move like our favorite animal to our backpacks to head down to camp.

We made it halfway down the path to camp when Sarah stopped us. She had a special surprise for us. We needed to check the trail camera again! She had brought along her camera, and headed down the hill to retrieve the SD card from the trail cam to show us the pictures. We found many surprises, including a fox, a woodchuck, and a Nora! 

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When we made it down to camp, we noticed lots of ice lining the banks of the creek. Though it had been warm last week, this week was cold! We got to play with the ice, breaking it up with sticks and stones. We also continued our busy beaver project from last week, building the bridge across the creek with logs from our deconstructed shelter. This time we had a drill, and helped Eli and Peter tackle this big project. 

When it was slunch time, we were ready to huddle around the fire and fill our bellies with warm food. While we ate and watched the fire crackle, Nora told us the story of Gary the Goose, who learned why geese fly in the V formation that they do. He learned that it was because flying with the flock and using teamwork makes the flying easier for everyone, and that when they honk to each other it is to encourage the goose in the front to keep flying. Gary realized that by helping others and having his flock help him, he felt really good and was able to fly much farther.

With the coming spring, it is fitting that our animal for this week is a goose! The migration of the geese back into Ithaca could be heard in the skies above 4H Acres all morning as the flocks honked overhead.

After slunch, the Chickadees wandered up to the top of the climbing hill and explored deep into the brambles. We traveled under branches and across small streams of water, exploring the bank of the creek. We found lots of interesting plants and ice in the creek. At the end of our wander, Sarah called us over to a very interesting plant that had just started growing in the marshy area next to the water. These strange, red, tear-drop shaped plants were just barely peeking out of the ground. It was skunk cabbage! A sure sign that warmer weather is on the way.

In closing circle, we all sang our favorite songs from the winter and fall and expressed our gratitude for the day, opening up our hearts to the last week of Winter.

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On Wednesday, the smell of spring was strong in the air around the forest and the robins pecked and hopped around the front field. This cloudy day certainly felt like spring, and was a great way to end our Winter Session. We sang a song for all of the animals we had learned about, dancing like each one as we sang. We celebrated each creature and all that we had learned about it. Then, it was time to head down the path toward camp to see what was different today.

We stopped at the trail camera to see what other creatures we’d captured, and made sure to do a little dance to trigger the camera ourselves. Then we continued down the trail to find an iceless creek and bare leaves on the ground. We quickly raced to the creek and splashed around in the shallow water, throwing rocks and watching the water droplets jump into the air and onto our rain pants. We also helped Eli and Peter finish the bridge, setting up several stumps to support the base and lashing longer sticks across.

Though there was still a bit of a chill in the air, playing in the water and examining the rocks on the riverbed awoke our spring curiosity. There are so many changes happening in the woods right now, and our energy from the seasonal changes was palpable in camp.

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At slunch around our fire, we peered into our sap bucket as we warmed the frozen sap by the fire and drank some of the sweet, clear liquid from our cups. Then Nora told us about the most magical change of all with the beginning of spring.

    As Willa the Winter Fairy flitted around the woods in the middle of March, she realized that her favorite season was coming to a close. The snow and ice were beginning to melt and the air was starting to smell like warm earth. While she was preparing for her hibernation in the cold creek bed, she knew that something exciting was just around the corner. The Spring Fairies were returning to the land! Spring Fairies travel on the backs of geese, so when the flocks begin to return to the northern woods, the Spring Fairies return as well. The Spring Equinox was just around the corner, one of only two days of the year where there is the same amount of daylight as night time. The Spring Equinox marks the end of Winter and the beginning of Spring, and that is the only day of the year that the Winter Fairies and the Spring Fairies get to see each other. They are great friends, and so on this day they celebrate the change of the seasons by throwing a beautiful, vibrant party!

    On the day of the Spring Equinox, the Willa the Winter Fairy and her friend, Sylvia the Spring Fairy met for the festivities. All the fairies gathered around and danced and sang and ate good food for the entire day – all 12 hours. It was such a jubilant day, and the fairies spent the entire day together in celebration. Then, as darkness fell, the fairies made a fire and spent the entire night – all 12 hours – telling each other stories and growing tired around the warm hearth. And as the day drew to a close, they each expressed how much they appreciated the other, and how amazing they thought all of the jobs and help were that the Spring Fairies and Winter Fairies provided to the forest. 

    Nora wanted us to know this story because she wanted the Chickadees to know that Willa the Winter Fairy had already said goodbye to all of us. She’s left us presents of the last little bits of ice in the creek, and the sap in the trees as a thank you for getting to know her, and for being outside in her favorite season.

With dreams of the Fairy Equinox in our minds and so much excitement in our bodies, we raced back to the creek and enjoyed splashing in its waters, racing around camp as the day warmed and the sun came out, and finishing our wooden bridge in the damp dirt on the banks of the creek.

When the day was done and we danced back up from camp, our screams and laughter echoed off the first few buds on the trees. We ran around the Front Field in the sunshine, taking off layers of clothing and with it, shedding the chill and gratitude of spending the winter outside in the woods, communing with the trees and the creatures and exploring the natural world around us.

Nuthatches

Monday’s chill to the air reminded us that we weren’t done with winter just yet as we gathered in Opening Circle. Last week we’d started talking about signs of spring, and one thing we’d noticed in the forest around us was the sound of geese migrating back to the area. This week, our mystery animal is the goose! There are so many interesting facts and lessons that we can learn from geese, including how much they like to travel.

Just like a flock of geese, our Monday would be filled with travel, too! The Nuthatches found out that they’d be going on a special journey out to the Hemlock Grove. As we made our way out of the front field, down past the creek, and turned left at Turkey Knoll, the flock was full of curiosity about what this grove could look like. What were Hemlocks? As we made our way through the forest, we passed lots of trees without leaves on them and fallen leaves on the ground. We found patches of ice that covered up the leaves and grass – signs of the melting that had occurred last week. There were patches of green moss growing on the ground, but mostly the forest was brown – free of snow but also lacking leaves. Then suddenly, we came upon a strange darkness ahead of us. There was a wall of dark green ahead on the trail. 

The dense canopy of the hemlocks filtered out the sunlight, casting long, dappled shadows on the ground below. We discovered that hemlocks are evergreen trees, keeping their short, dense needles all through winter. The forest changed dramatically as we entered the grove. It was cool in the shade of the trees, and there was still snow on the ground. As we made our way through the forest, we came upon our camp for the day. A small shelter was leaning against a big hemlock, and there were so many fallen logs to climb on all around camp. After dropping off our backpacks, we got to work finding the best climbing logs and collecting firewood for slunch. It was even colder with the filtered sunlight underneath the hemlocks.

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We wandered past camp to the edge of the Beaver Pond, on the opposite side from where we’d gone last week. We jumped over ice puddles and found lots of good branches to bring back for our fire.

After the long walk to the Hemlock Grove, we were hungry and ready for slunch. Ian built a roaring fire, sprinkling it with magic fluff from cattails to feed it and make it do tricks. We sat and warmed ourselves, listening to the story of a curious young goose who was wondering why the flock had so many strange customs. The elder geese told the young goose that they fly in formation because it is easier to travel, just like humans walking in a single-file line through deep snow. It is challenging for the person in front, but easier for everyone behind, so they take turns in front and encourage each other to keep going by honking. By using teamwork and encouragement, the geese can fly farther together.

After we’d warmed up by the fire, we raced through the trees, playing Camouflage and hiding behind the tree trunks so that Nora couldn’t find us. We explored our camp more and found lots of great places to play and climb. As the day drew to a close, we gathered our backpacks and headed away from the dense, hidden world of the hemlocks, out of the dappled light beams and back into the sunny deciduous forest, awaiting the leaves to come back with the spring.

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On Wednesday, the smell of spring filled the air. The world felt damp and full of moisture, promising warmer temperatures ahead. As we gathered in Opening Circle, Nani showed us a strange object. It was a plaster cast of an animal print – but it didn’t look like any we’d seen before. This didn’t have the toes that a squirrel or a fox would have. It only had three toes, and webbing in between each foot. It was the track of a goose! Unlike the other animals we’d learned about, this bird likes to spend time in the water, so its feet are very unique.

The warm weather was filling us with energy, so we couldn’t contain ourselves and raced around the field. It was time to head down to camp, so we ran down the hill, past the creek, and up into Turkey Knoll. There was an exciting activity for us waiting there. We were going to practice throwing sticks! Nora and Astrid set up our Guardians, the lean-to of sticks that we were trying to knock over, and the Nuthatches patiently waited their turn to tackle the Guardians. With a big wind up, the sticks went flying through the air, knocking over the Guardians several times. The flock did a great job practicing their safety precautions and waiting their turn to throw.

After all that activity, it was time for slunch. We all gathered together around the fire to find a special treat waiting for us. A jar of popcorn kernels, a pan, and some oil were sitting by the fire. Pouring the seeds into the pan, we shared stories while we watched the kernels pop into fluffy white popcorn. There was also a sweet addition to our popcorn snack – we had honey and cinnamon sugar to eat on top! We drizzled the sweet flavors over our popcorn and devoured the sugary, savory snack. The sticky fingers were well worth it!

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After we had washed our hands and cleaned our spaces, we had a little bit of time to play on the logs around camp before Nora told us we needed to head back up to the Front Field. We were heading back early to reunite with one of our favorite instructors.

Elizabeth was waiting for us at the picnic tables! She had a mysterious bag and asked us all to sit down so she could tell us what was inside. She pulled out a pair of knitting needles and some yarn, and explained to us how she enjoyed knitting and the different stitches she could do with her needles to make all sorts of interesting patterns with the yarn. Then she told us the kind and thoughtful thing she had done for each Nuthatch – she’d knitted each person a scarf! She explained that she had picked some left over yarn for each person, then decided on a pattern, and started knitting. Sometimes, she’d make a mistake in her pattern. OOPS! She’d just have to keep knitting. She said if you looked closely at each scarf, you could see her mistakes. No one is perfect, and that’s what makes each scarf unique and handmade.

Then she reached into her bag and handed out each scarf in turn, showing the different colors and patterns she’d chosen. The Nuthatches unrolled their gifts and put them on, looking closely to find the little mistakes Elizabeth had described. Everyone was so happy with their scarf. Thank you so much Elizabeth!

To wrap up the exciting day, we gathered in a circle. Elizabeth asked us to think about a mistake we’d made recently and something that we liked about ourselves. Each Nuthatch shared as the sun came out from behind the clouds and bathed our circle in golden light. The day warmed around us as we thanked Elizabeth for coming to visit. As we raced around the Front Field, playing games together and running through the warming weather, our energy telling us that spring was surely right around the corner.

This winter was snowy and full of beauty. Being outside in such a cold season is always challenging but infinitely rewarding. You see things you can’t see any other time of year, like the movements of the animals in the snow. You hear things, like the silence of the leafless forest, and you appreciate each ray of sunshine that beams through the trees. This winter was full of mysteries and wanders, full of magic. As the seasons change and spring fills the air, the preschoolers are so excited to continue to explore the forest as it awakens and shakes itself back to life.

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Office Location:
Cornell Cooperative Extension, 615 Willow Ave., Ithaca, NY 14850
607-272-2292 | email Us

Preschool Location: 
4-H Acres, 418 Lower Creek Rd., Ithaca, NY 14850


Ithaca Forest Preschool is a program of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County and is run by Primitive Pursuits, a 4-H Program.