By Carrie Komesch, Educator
Our Friday school-aged students consistently return to a game they call “Wolves.”
The cast of players and the location are flexible, but there are specific aspects of the game that remain consistent through each new iteration. There are certain students who are core drivers of the game, which usually starts with one of them inquiring of another, “Do you want to play Wolves?” From my mostly outsider perspective (this is a game they can play for HOURS on their own), the play seems to be founded on an anthropomorphized version of a wolf’s family-based social structure, which the older students model and explain to the younger ones. There are dedicated roles within this society, wherein the adult wolves teach skills such as hunting to the baby/child wolves, while the teenager wolves roam further and support the pack by hunting and helping with childcare. The students usually establish a den or dens, and an implicit territory, and I will observe them running back and forth, conversing one-one-one or as a larger group to communicate about their individual and collective needs. It sounds very sweet and idyllic, and it is certainly beautiful to watch the depth of peaceful play that can unfold free from adult intervention.
However, you know wolves! It’s not all social grooming and practice hunting. There can be in-fighting between wolves, which I’ve grown used to but I imagine might unnerve an educator less accustomed to the game. Picture two students circling one another on hands and knees, yapping and growling like young canids before engaging physically in a rolling, tumbling attack. There is also the occasional involvement of a student or students playing the role of prey animals, which never ends quietly!
Two weeks ago, we hiked to a “rocky mossy place” that has a different feel than the other two where we spend a lot of our time. This one is perhaps the flattest, with the widest expanse of open space. The students seemed to recognize something Savanna-like in this place. One child remarked that it looked like the set of a play she was currently acting in (which I happen to know is the Lion King). Another child pointed to a patch of dry, rippling grass across the rocky space and said, “That’s hyena grass.”
- Students run towards what they have identified as “hyena grass.”
The students started a game of Wolves, but in this space, they were inspired to change the focal species from wolves into a different communal- or semi-communal-living predator that better fit the landscape. The main family group was thus, alternately, lions and cheetahs. There were also students playing the role of hyenas in the same territory. Occasionally a student would become a preyed upon gazelle or the like, before rejoining the game moments later as the same or a completely different animal. I think there were vultures, and I know for certain that late in the game, I overheard one student in a tree remarking to no one in particular that he was a dragon. Ahh, biodiversity!
The students assess the space and the possibilities for interspecies encounters.
I love observing how inclusive and adaptive their play is. As with most times I’ve seen them play Wolves, the age of steady participants ranged from 4-12 years old. It’s also interesting to observe how the students play at enforcing social structures and role expectations through anthropomorphized (but still relatively science based) versions of animal societies.
- A group of cheetahs and hyenas attempts to take down the dominant male lion.
While Wolves was being played, there was a separate group of younger students who stayed in an adjacent space open to the savannah, playing slower, quieter games in more localized way. I was watching the Wolves when E., a four-year old student, came running over to me and exclaimed, “I have money in my pocket!” She was smiling with huge excited eyes, and I asked her what kind of money. She pulled out a few acorn caps and grinned at me. She told me she was using this money to buy sticks at a “stick store” being run by A., another four-year old girl. E. led me to the store, which was situated at the edge of a clearing, behind a fort that the younger students had been intermittently constructing, lean-to style, against a large conifer tree.
I inquired about buying a stick, and to indicate that I understood the local currency, I showed the proprietor the acorn caps in my pocket. (Fun Fact: There are ALWAYS acorn caps in my pockets. Perk of the job!) She did not have any sticks in stock, but allowed me to leave some money as a deposit. About a minute later she brought me a short stick that I ceremoniously added onto the fort that was taking shape nearby.
The four to five students in this area continued to play and build with varying degrees of involvement in each other’s narrative arcs, although they were sharing the same functional space. There was some tension between those who wanted to weave an imaginative world out of this shelter and its inhabitants (“We are a family and I am going to cook us all dinner on the fire!”) and those who just wanted to work on the fort without having to play a character. The two groups managed to see through their differences, however, and these students co-existed happily in the vicinity of their shelter until it was time to round up the wolves next door and head back to the cabin.
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PLEASE NOTE: Over the next couple of weeks I will be posting a photographic reflection on the last four months at the Ottawa Forest and Nature School–less analysis, more pictures! We have collected so many great photos and anecdotes, and I will try to share as many as possible so that our entire community can appreciate what our students and educators have been working on!