By Joseph Horn
Co-Founder/Co-CEO and Naturalist Educator
While some mammals of the Maine woods spend their winters hibernating in a warm den, 25 of Ella Lewis School’s intrepid 3rd-6th grade after school students did just the opposite this winter. As long as school wasn’t cancelled due to one of our many Nor’Easters this year, no amount of ice and snow could keep these kids inside as they unceasingly pursued an answer to winter’s persistent question: How do animals survive despite the frigid temperatures and scarce food?
Students used science, art, observation, and (most importantly) play to unlock winter’s secrets. First, this insatiably inquisitive group combed through the woods behind their school identifying challenges to life in the winter as well as animal tracks. Life abounded back there in the form of red squirrels, foxes, snowshoe hares, and beavers despite the ice, cold, limited shelter, and meager food sources!
While they enjoyed creating art using found natural objects and loved playing round after round of "camouflage" to study predator-prey interactions, one activity clearly stood above the rest as their all time favorite: constructing DIS. The acronym DIS stands for Dry, Insulative, and Strong—three features that ensure a shelter is suitable to keep an animal safe and comfortable through the dark, cold days of winter. To make DIS shelters, they constructed them using sticks, bark, and leaves. The activity also helped the students suss out the distinction between behavioral adaptations (what we do) and physiological adaptations (how we are) to the cold weather.
Though the theme of this eight-week series was on winter ecology and animal survival, one lesson stood out above all: a small patch of Downeast woods is all that kids need for hour after hour of play, learning, and excitement filled with wildlife, mystery, and adventure. As one enthusiastic Ella Lewis School student described, “If you want to find a fox, you must be the fox!”
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