Nursery school children standing on a stumpA round the end of September last year, the Nurseries found a little bird lying on the walk in front of the OG west windows. Was it sleeping? Its eyes were open. Was it dead?

There were many theories and ideas. It wasn’t moving. They thought it was dead. But how? Two children said that birds crashed into a window at their houses and were dead. Maybe it crashed? One child thought we should get it a drink of water. Another child, straightforward and gentle, said, “ Well, we could, but it probably wouldn’t drink it.”

They wanted to DO something. I asked, “What should we do?” They all thought and then in unison they said, “We should cover it with grasses and leaves.” A few seconds passed and there were grasses and leaves beginning to cover it.

Thinking practically, I said, “You know, I think we should find it a place where no one steps.”

They were ready to pick it up and carry it. I suggested a scoop. A few seconds later and there was a red scoop with many hands wanting to carry. We carried it off.

There were several suggestions about where no-one-steps would be: near the tire swing? under a packing crate? next to the tree stump by the sand box? Still being practical, I suggested, “What about a place that’s so bushy that no one could step on it?” Okay, they decided, but it had to be in a place where they could see it and visit it.

They found the spot at the top of the stone wall near the old flower planter. Nurseries brought leaves and grass. One child wanted to put on a blanket to help it be warm. We could look for a piece of cloth in our room to be a blanket. Since this was something in which time was of the essence and I did not have a ladder handy to dig into the high storage shelves, what we did find was colorful tissue paper that we tore into pieces to cover the bird. They thought it looked like flowers and then people went off to find real flowers.Nursery children bury dead bird/

At about that moment, in some mysterious Antioch School way, Younger Group (YG) children began to appear asking to see the bird. We uncovered it to show them. In what seemed like just moments, they returned with their own offerings of colorful constructions and flowers.

Then Lucy from the YG came running up with a bird identification booklet followed by Older Group children. Was it a nuthatch? Carter decided, yes, it was.

Finally it was covered back up, and as the people left, several OGers added their own leaves and flowers to the mound.

Several Nurseries wanted to find a way to tell other people about the dead bird: the Kindergartners were off on a walk in the Glen and didn’t even know. They decided that they would write a note, not just on paper, but on wood — so it would be strong.Sign to keep people from stepping on grave.

We found a dead bird. We put some leaves and flowers and paper on it. We put it in a place where it won’t get stepped on. Love, Nursery

Later on we read The Dead Bird by Margaret Wise Brown for afternoon stories. The Nurseries were struck by what was the same and what was different in our experience and the children’s in the book. As far as differences,  they decided that the bird they found had its eyes open, but the bird in the book had its eyes closed. Nurseries decided to put grasses and colorful paper and flowers on their bird, and the children in the book decided to bury theirs. Nurseries commented that they wrote a note, but theirs was on wood, not on a rock like the other children.  And they decided to put it in a place that they could see, not far away in the woods.

Adding paper and flowers to the grave.

In the story, the children sang the bird a song. Struck by that, Nurseries decided, “Oh, we could do that too. We could sing the little bird a song.” But then a few seconds later, their energies had shifted, and they were off to other things. Which is as it should be.

In many ways, young children write their childhoods in sand and water: temporary media. Admiring adults often make a record in photographs and written down conversations, or save the products of the work that appeals, but, for children, for the most part, it is the process and the experience that matters. If they were doing the saving, it might be something very different from what an adult would choose. It might be a funny looking stick that took on life in play with a friend, a marble they spent time digging out of the ground, or tiny blue, pink, and green stones saved in a paper cup to be arranged and rearranged as the urge comes.

The little bird is a pretty story, the kind that adults often like to hear. But in March when our hard, cold winter began to ease, the children found a dead squirrel. It suddenly appeared one afternoon up on the stone wall, melted out of a snowdrift with the temporary warm weather we were having. It lay just a few yards from where they placed the dead bird all those months ago. 

“Ann, come quick. We found a squirrel,” they called.

“Oh, no,” I thought, realizing what it probably was.

The squirrel had melted out of the snow and looked pretty melted itself. By the time I had arrived there was already a complex reaction from the Nurseries:

“Yuck!”

“Eeeuuw!”

“It smells like poop.”

“Don’t touch it!”

Disgust, sorrow, giggles, and concern.

“Oh, no, poor little squirrel,” I said, “What should we do?”

One person proclaimed, “Well, we can’t leave it here. My brother likes to walk here!”

“Where should we put it?”

“Not around here!”

“Really far away.”

Some stayed with the squirrel. Others came in with me to get a trash bag. (Actually three trash bags they decided!)

After I bagged it, we took the squirrel over on the other side of the building to the out-of-bounds place where the natural area begins — just beyond the swings. I was instructed to take it into the bushes.

Now what? What should we do? Then in an instant, they collectively looked around and immediately found solid chunks of wood: the hefty lengths of branches from some of our ash trees. Each child worked to carry them over one-by-one to the bushes — a big and satisfying pile. We tossed them in until the bag was covered thoroughly.

Then, just as quickly, they were done with it. Energized by the log tossing, they decided to finish their afternoon playing on the Cycle Circle Side.

Their experience shifts in interaction with a good night’s sleep, food in the belly, the weather, what has come before, what is happening now — and with the other temperaments around them. Their process changes in response to the energies and hungers that drive them as individuals and in interaction with the group.

It repeats and repeats. The learning is always there. Sometimes it’s so subtle that it can seem stagnant or stuck to adult eyes.  And then there will be a huge leap in understanding and confidence and mastery. It’s the process. As you look on, sometimes it appears messy, and sometimes it is postcard pretty.

It is all learning.

This article was written by Ann Guthrie and printed in the 2014 Active Learners Journal published by the Antioch School.

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