When people come to the woods for the first time and are introduced to forts, they are often puzzled.  They look around at what is usually a jumble of sticks, a pile of monkey brains, or a seemingly random assortment of rocks, and ask, “What makes this a fort?” I understand – they expect a classic walled and roofed shelter, a more rigorous fortification, a clear territorial boundary. Sometimes this happens. maxbook A group of kids, usually with one or two dedicated designer-builders, will gather materials and construct something that is clearly a shelter, attracting considerable attention and admiration from other children.  Usually they spend no time in it.  Once construction is deemed complete, the fort is often abandoned, having served its purpose.

A fort in the Jemicy woods, as I’ve heard old kids explain to a new, puzzled cohort many times in the fall, means a place to call your own.  It is less about the structure that you build, and more about the affordances that attract you to that particular spot: on the stream, overhanging spicebush branches, near the buckeye tree, by an old brick dump. A chosen spot is officially flagged (with a strip of cloth or surveyors tape) and remains “owned” until abandoned – which might mean ownership lasting a few weeks, or a few years. The flag might be the only sign that a spot is a fort.

bricksAffordances are interactive.  They invite action of a particular kind, which very often involves organizing, or arranging theseemingly disparate jumble of objects and people in the woods into meaningful order. For some kids, it is this act that creates a lasting bond to the spot that they have chosen as a fort.  Some middle school boys unearthed a pile of old bricks and set about paving an area beside their fort. They told me that they expect this to remain long after they have graduated, and pointed to a stone wall constructed years ago by some other inhabitants of that fort. “And probably if we have kids they’ll have dyslexia and come to Jemicy, too.  So they can keep working on this.”

A younger boy asked me the other day to come look at his fort in the pine woods, where the younger aftercare kids play. “I’ve just spent a day organizing my fort.”  His tone was excited and proud, but once we arrived, he sighed with the weariness of heavy responsibility. “It took so much work to get all of this cleaned up, because someone sold me his fort and everything in it, so I had to organize all of that too.” He gestured to a meticulously arranged assortment of glass, rocks, and other objects under a teepee-like stick and bamboo structure.pinewoodsartifacts “This is the living room, and this is my garage in the back here,” he pointed out, and then scowled as he studied the garage area. “This is still a mess.  I need to make room for more storage.”  He turned to look at another bamboo branch lying nearby.  “That… I guess I’m going to sell.” He studied the fort for a moment and then dashed off to consult with a friend about his furnishings.

What do kids like this do when they don’t have opportunities to organize their own spaces?

The ecosystem of an experiment

Do birds prefer popcorn or sunflower seeds?

M Group is in the middle of conducting their annual seed preference experiment. They each make a simple bird feeder from a plastic container, count out equal numbers of popcorn kernels and sunflower seeds, and hang it with a suction cup from a window at school. Every day for ten days, they check their feeder to count the remaining seeds, record and replace the seeds taken.

This experiment on preferences had its genesis in a grad school ecology class.  We were required to devise some kind of quantitative study where we could practice field work and data collection.  While my classmates studied coyote foraging, tree cover, and dragonfly mortality, I decided to embed the study in my class focus on oaks – specifically, whether certain weights of acorns are preferred by gray squirrels.  We designed and built squirrel feeders and filled them with a 50/50 mix of red oak acorns that had been cadata1refully weighed and sorted into “heavy” and “light” categories. As with the bird feeders, they did daily counts of remaining acorns and replaced those that had been taken.  The statistical analysis of our data showed a small but significant preference for heavier acorns.

But these results were insignificant in and of themselves.  They were simply one by-product of a vast array of interwoven learning experiences engendered by the experiment.  Just by following required procedures, the fourth graders learned how to set up a scientifically sound experiment, the importance of controlling variables, how to measure, to record data, and how to make sense of a set of numbers.  But beyond this, the experiment expanded in ways I could not have foretold.  The kids began to ask questions like, “Well, if squirrels take and bury more of the heavier acorns, won’t more of those grow into trees?  So won’t oak trees make heavier acorns over time?” This intuitive grasp of natural selection stunned me.  I also saw kids starting to spend their recess time “staking out” their feeders, in an effort to determine whether other animals such as blue jays and chipmunks were visiting them.  More than once, a child reported that, not only had no acorns been taken, but there were MORE acorns in the feeder than had originally been put there!  What was up with that?  The interest in animal behavior sparked by this experiment continued well beyond the fall and into the winter, when the kids saw that I had hung bird feeders and wanted to know – of course – what kind of seeds the birds preferred.  And could they design their own bird feeders…?

The acorn experiment has since been shelved, but the experimental bird feeders remain a popular, easily maintained, and adaptable project.  Invariably, when the students are presented with the question of seed preference and are asked to make a hypothesis, most predict that more popcorn seeds will be taken. After all, the kids rationalize, each seed is slightly heavier than a sunflower seed, it takes more work to shell a sunflower seed that to swallow a popcorn kernel, you often see flocks of birds like crows and geese in corn fields, and more people eat popcorn as a snack (albeit not in kernel form).

It is precisely these kinds of inferences that science loves to challenge, test, and revise.  The more qualitative test that I relish is whether I will observe another transformation accompanying the empirical challenge.

birdbookOne fourth grader has been bringing a field guide to the woods during recess.  He sits by the stream near his fort and studies it, then accompanies me up the hill when the lunch bell rings, asking me questions like, “Is a purple finch the same as a house finch? Do we have them here? Why don’t they show a house finch if they live here?”  He asked his parents for a bird guide of his own. Because, he explained, “I’m fixing up an old feeder that a teacher gave me, and I want to see what kinds of birds come.  Maybe they will be different than the ones we get at school.”


Gliders, dogs, tennis balls, crossbows, inviting packages, blowguns: just a few of the mechanisms devised by the M Groupers to meet the annual Seed Dispersal Challenge.  After the class studies different means of dispersing seeds through wind, water, animals, and propulsion, students create their own way of getting a bean seed to travel at least 3 meters away from themselves.  Use of their own muscles is restricted to one small movement of the fingers – as in, drop a seed or glider, or release a trigger. The seed has to land on a surface where it could potentially grow, and a logical argument must be made for how the next and future generations could use the same technique to disperse their seeds as well.  Attaching a seed to a ball and letting gravity roll it down a hill, for example, only works for one generation, as the next will not have the same gravitational benefit. maggieOver the years, I have witnessed countless ingenious solutions, including loosely taping the seed to the top of a 3-meter long pole, then letting it topple over to release the seed.  This seed would then ostensibly grow into another tall pole-plant, which would disperse its seed in the same way. Or there was the seed attached to a soccer ball, which was left on the grass and eventually kicked away by a passing child who was unaware of the challenge, but who couldn’t pass up the obvious invitation.

During aftercare today, I noticed a dozen or so familiar-looking saplings growing under the canopy of the pines: golden rain tree.  A large, non-native ornamental now considered invasive, a single tree had been planted about fifteen years ago, succumbing to an unknown disease just last summer.  In those fifteen years, it had produced prolific pods bearing wind-borne seeds, but until now I had never seen its offspring.  So many inadvertent plantings, and these were only the visible ones. The saplings were just beginning to reach above a thick growth of other introduced, invasive plants: garlic mustard, wine berry, and burdock. Osage orange and yellow buckeyes, prized in the Jemicy fort culture, are not native to this region either. They join the golden rain tree and other introduced plants in that enormous pantheon of species that humans decided, for one reasonparkerseeds or other, to bring here.  And once established, facing no native controls, most take over dispersal responsibilities with the utmost success.

“Are all introduced species bad?” “Are all native species good?” “But don’t we want more species for biodiversity?” These are questions from students that I can’t definitively answer. What I can say is, “Look around you. Which kinds of plants are there the most of? Which kinds are there very few of? Does it seem like some are growing “out of control”? And then we look for the stories of how certain species got here – why humans decided they wanted them, and the effect that they have on others. I hope from this they will take away at least one message: dispersal doesn’t end with the single seed that we successfully launch; it is just the beginning.

Kinda gross, kinda cool

At the end of the day during aftercare, someone came running, shouting my name with such urgency that I was sure a child must be hurt.  Instead, it was “Snake!  Eating something!” I followed him to the pine woods where a ring of kids had formed.  In the middle, writhing slowly among the leaf litter, a garter snake gripped the posterior end of a large toad. The snake’s mouth was already distended, as if it had been working on consuming this meal for some time, yet the toad moved only slightly, holding three of its legs (the fourth wasn’t visible) firmly planted as it faced forward with an incongruously placid expression.  There was blood, and what might have been intestines leaking from a wound in the toad’s belly.

I braced myself for the kids’ reactions; this is about as grisly as it gets, and there was something so pathetic in the toad’s utter calm, its bright eyes, its living consumption. But there were no squeals or gasps of horror, no begging to help the toad or to force the snake to let go.  There were questigartersnaketoad2ons: “Is it using venom to kill it?” “How long do you think it will take to swallow it?” “Is that the same toad that we found last week?” “Could it hurt us?” I wondered at the kids’ apparent acceptance of this process.  Was it because they have helped me feed mice (frozen and thawed) to classroom snakes, and we casually talk about which end gets eaten first, and how fast they get to “the spaghetti part,” where just the tail is sticking out of the snake’s mouth? This protracted live-toad-eating seemed very different to me somehow.  After we had watched for a few minutes, it was time to leave for carpool.  I followed them out of the woods and saw several relating the snake-toad tale to the other teachers. “Oh no, how terrible!” one exclaimed, to which a child responded, “Well, snake’s gotta eat.”  And another added, “Yeah, it’s kinda gross – but also kinda cool.  Mostly cool – at  least for the snake.”


Entering a first grade classroom to pick up my students yesterday, I was greeted with a chorus of “Look what fairies and elves did to our desks while we were gone!” Sure enough, all of the desks were strewn with gold glitter, and the kids were beside themselves with excitement and consternation. “We need to catch them! But how?” The teacher turned to me and said, “I bet Emily has some ideas.”

What is a science teacher to do? As we walked to my classroom, I asked questions. “How big are elves, do you think?” “Can fairies fly?” “What do they like to eat?” “Do they collect things?” By the time we were in the classroom, I had learned that elves prefer green, unless they are rainbow elves, in which case they like all colors. Fairies come in different sizes; the tooth fairy (who is definitely not implicated in the glitter case) has to be very tiny to fit under a pillow, but some fairies are bigger so they won’t blow around in the wind. Both elves and fairies carry magic wands – thus the glitter. They like candy and shiny things, so these should be used as bait in the traps.

This was not the lesson that I had intended for this day, nor ever really. My plan that day, which we moved into eventually, was one of my early fall standards for the younger grades. Kids use wooden blocks and a large assortment of plastic animals to create imaginary zoos. Sorting animals into groups of their own choosing reveals a great deal about their knowledge, experience, and perceptions. Some approach the task by applying predator/prey filters, while others sort by color, size, species, or habitat. The cage constructions are also telling: some are elaborate buildings, and some are expansive fenced fields. I visit each zoo and ask questions, trying to figure out sorting strategies: “I see this area has horses and zebras. Could you add a cow to it?” “Why does a bat belong with stingrays and chickens?” (wings, of course).


Young children figuring out science often appear to recapitulate the long – and ongoing – story of humankind figuring out science. It begins with phenomena that demand explanation, creates a narrative of logical explication, and arrives (usually) at a solution that makes sense. We constantly talk about testing ideas, obtaining measurable and meaningful results, and yet the whole process of figuring out the answer to a scientific mystery can still feel beautifully magical at times.

At the end of class, I announced that it was time to take down the zoos and return animals and blocks. In five minutes, all traces of zoos were gone except for one small, square block structure on the floor that two boys had vigorously protected as the others were cleaning. “What’s that for?” I asked, seeing no animals inside.

“Fairy trap,” they answered. “Do you have any candy?”

Last call

It had been dry and cloudless for many weeks in Maryland when the earth finally spun into equinox. A tiny spring peeper was discovered clinging to a wall, and a large toad took up residence in the hollow climbing log on the playgfroground.  Both had swollen bellies, as if they were maintaining their body moisture from within. The kids found an imperial moth caterpillar moving sluggishly under pine trees and brought it to be photographed.  In the garden, a black swallowtail caterpillar munched its way along carrot leaves, along with the tiniest isabella moth caterpillar I’ve ever seen.

When I teach a lesson on winter adaptations, it’s hard to impart to kids the simultaneous urgency and inevitable slowing-down that these creatures must experience at this time of year.  This week, early fall storm systems have brought drenching rains and cooler temperatures, reinforcing the cues of diminishing day length and angle of sunlight.  Torpor, the entry into  suspended animation of body systems that cold-blooded animals rely on to survive freezing temperatures, will begin to occur – ready or not.  Many of the young mammals who are my students continue to race around outdoors in apparent disregard of metabolic challenges. Some decline to wear extra layers for insulation, claiming – and who could refute it but the animal herself? – that they don’t feel cold. They will happily go about their normal, carefree play activities while others (including their teachers) huddle nearby in heavy coats or abandon these flimsy insulation efforts to seek heat indoors. It is a season of differentiation, a time when human perception of affordances includes a new array of sensory information and leads to a self-sorting at different levels of resilience and opportunity.

mouseOn one of those last warm days of September, a cry went up from the pine woods: “A mouse!” By the time I arrived, a protective barrier of rocks had been placed around the pile of stones and leaves where a young deer (or white-footed?) mouse sat hunched and quivering.  “It’s cold! We should take it inside!” one child offered. Another replied that she thought it was just scared, and a third commented that it couldn’t be cold with a fur coat.  We watched it for a minute, talking about how well it could manage on its own out here.  They concluded that if it had to remain outside, they could at least provide it with some better shelter, and set to work constructing a mouse house from sticks nearby.  20 minutes later, when I dropped by to see their progress, I was informed that the mouse had disappeared, but that they intended to complete the house anyway, and to keep it stocked with seeds from the sunflowers in the garden –“So it can choose what it wants to do.”