ECO - Educating Children Outdoors - Winter Learning in Vermont

Frank the River Otter and 12 Kindergartners

Frank in  the classroom 

Who's your favorite river otter? FRANK!
Why do all these Vermont kindergartners love this member of the weasel family so much? Is it his extreme cute face and soft thick brown fur? How about those webbed toes and beady black eyes. And yes, he does have ears! "But,... there so small! Can Frank hear okay?" the children wonder.
The ooo's and aww's fill the classroom when Frank makes an appearance. No student ever wants to see him go. They have even written him Valentines and "we miss you" notes.
So lets go back to the question, why do small children almost immediately experience empathy with Lontra canadensis? Children love animals, especially ones that have similar characteristics to their own. Children are natural caretakers of living things when adults model this behavior. I also believe it has to do strongly with children's innate connection to play and the river otters as well.

It is a brisk winter morning and a 12 kindergartners are eager for their ECO (Educating Children Outdoors) day. The school children burst out the back door and scamper up a snow covered hill. It doesn't take long for one adventurous being to figure out if you lay down on you belly, head pointed down hill, give a little push with your arms, you'll be sliding with increasing speed to a certain destination.
 As a teacher and a naturalist, I capitalize on the moment for extended learning during play.

12 young river otters

"Hey! You all remind me of my favorite Vermont weasel!"
'"What's a weasel?" a child shouts as they slide away from me. I reach in my back pack and ready at hand is a mammal guide and a photo of a river otter. Children gather round in between sliding to glance at pictures and make comments. Here we are creating a culture of questioning and learning through exploratory play.
It doesn't take long for the children to create a river at the bottom of their slide, scraps of cloth turn into fish. A den is being dug in the hillside with fast hands turned paws. With a little help from the "adult otters", we learn that by clasping your feet together behind you, your legs turn into a powerful otter tail perfect for steering and propelling forward. I mention to my friends that a coyote may be interested in their small fish cache.
"A coyote? Where?" the children become increasingly concerned, their eyes darting across the landscape. Some stand up on two webbed feet and sniff the air. These kindergartners immediately come up with a system to watch over cached fish and a warning system for an incoming coyote. Hmmmm,... all of sudden these children are the wisest humans I know. They work together as a family to protect what they have. These children are totally engaged. Mind, body, and heart.

The scenario of river otter play continues and I make the very adult comment that we should move on to the  next part of our morning. A small river otter turns to me and barks, " No way! We're gonna slide all day! Plus, we're such good hunters, we already got all of our fish for snack!"
Slide on river otters! Slide on!

A 6 year old masters the river otter slide


Inspired research and writing

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