By Carrie Komesch, Educator
We had arrived at the Rocky Mossy Place with the loose objective of building shelters out of ropes and tarps. I was perched on a rock, observing the various fronts of construction and social learning. At some point during the first hour of frenzied building, O., a 9-year old boy, separated himself from the group. He sat down on a rock as the shelter went up next to him, and didn’t seem to be at all engaged with the play happening around him. His attention was focused on collecting acorns/acorn pieces from the ground around him, filling his ball cap and piling them up at his feet. And then suddenly, he spoke up.
“Does anybody want to buy an acorn?”
If he had asked if anyone wanted to have an acorn—well, that was a less enticing offer. All of the students could see that the ground at their feet was scattered with the things. But to buy an acorn—why, an acorn would have to be special in some way if it were to be worth buying, and thus, upon the perpetuation of this belief, an acorn-based economy emerged that day.
Having gotten the attention of a few of the boys nearby, O. explained the terms of trade: regular acorns/acorn pieces could be traded in at a 1:1 exchange rater. However, “improved” acorns—those consisting of two empty caps which O. had connecting by inserting the smaller of two acorn cap bases into the larger one—could be had for between five and ten regular acorns/acorn pieces (buyer’s discretion).
What immediately struck me about this emergent activity was how effortlessly O. was able to answer any question and maintain consistent, logical standards even as the game progressed. Either he had really, really thought this system through, or he was extremely skilled at improvising answers that were consistent with the pre-existing narrative (or, more likely, a combination of both). And as more and more students were drawn to “the acorn shop,” he was able to communicate the expectations of the game to students older and younger than himself.
The acorn shop was soon given the official name of “Go Nuts for Nuts,” and from my rocky perch I watched it expand as more students were drawn into the activity. Eventually, O. realized that his shop couldn’t support the growing demand. His solution? To begin enlisting “workers,” whose job it was to collect acorns/acorn parts in exchange for being paid in, what else, other acorns. I overheard one boy hashing out the terms of his employment with O.
“So I get a break after ten acorns?”
The two youngest girls, whose lean-to shelter was located adjacent to the main fort, eventually joined in. They expressed an interest in playing, but with an apparent decreased level of commitment. It seemed like they would be happy to “play” if it meant accumulating their own pile of acorns and interacting mainly with one another. In a kind and conciliatory gesture, O., as arbiter of The Acorn Shop and the power it brought him, agreed to let the girls set up their own shop. Some of the other boys protested (“Why do they get to set up their own shop? That’s not fair!”). I sensed that the girls’ game would likely remain self-contained and separate from what the boys were doing, and I didn’t want these protests to disrupt the flow of either shop, so I chose this moment to intervene. From my rock, I asked O. and his crew whether they knew what a franchise was. O., who was being exceptionally accommodating to everyone in the group, immediately replied, “Yah it’s okay because it’s a franchise,” and I later heard one of the boys say to another, “It’s a franchise. You know, like Sears!”
The boys brought a ballcap full of acorns back from the Rocky Moss Place that day, and in the afternoon, politely asked for baskets or similar containers into which they could sort the different denominations of nut. They set up shop first on one of the Arboretum Festival platforms in the forest, and later moved to our stump circle, where they built tables and benches and a waiting room that featured non-acorn attractions (“you can look at these bones while you wait!”).
And this activity, Go Nuts for Nuts, persisted throughout the rest of the week.
I saw the Acorn Shop as the perfect anecdote for illustrating how a nature-based, emergent curriculum can impart/support a student in acquiring skills and knowledge relating to social, cognitive and emotional development. “Go Nuts for Nuts” was a manifestation of creative leadership and collaboration within a diverse group who had only met the day before. These students ranged in age from 4 to 9, and brought with them very different lived experiences in terms of self-regulation, learning styles and communication skills. And yet by themselves, having been given nothing but the open-ended playthings that nature has to offer us, they built a functioning economy literally from the ground up.