The DIY Subnivean Zone

By February 8, 2016newer posts no image

By Carrie Komesch, Educator

The forest is blanketed with snow, but that’s not to say that there aren’t signs of life to notice, examine and discuss. We’ve been talking a lot with the students about how life goes on under the snow—for example, when they are sliding their bodies down the small hill with the groundhog hole, I like to remind them that there is a sleeping animal right underneath them.

Groundhog hole hill in the fall:

groundhog hole 1

Groundhog hole hill in winter:


We also noticed small holes in the piles of discarded seeds under where we feed the birds, which I assumed were formed by falling water drops until I saw a small, furry black face poke itself out one day, and I realized that our local moles or voles (or shrews? Any local naturalists want to weigh in?) had tunneled to the surface and were availing themselves of that which did not get eaten by the birds or squirrels.

vole holes, maybe

Last week, we were reading Over and Under the Snow with our school-aged group. The book is written by Kate Messner and illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal with what the New York Times calls ” stunning retro-style illustrations.”

The story focuses on the different animals that overwinter in a forest like ours, and discusses how they use their environment and their unique physiologies to overcome the cold. The book has appealing photos, and a soft, slow narrative that provides a human character for the children to relate to alongside brief but accurate descriptions of what’s happening under the snow in each scene. The book talks about how these creatures exist in a magical kingdom under the snow, which truly captures the wonder of these small worlds. It also uses the term “subnivean zone,” which refers to the space between the surface of the snow and the ground beneath.


over and under the snow

As I was nearing the end of the story, some of the students had become restless in their blanket/pillow nests, and were wiggling and whispering to one another. I continued reading, and watched in my peripheral vision as five or six of them squirmed under two large blankets. And then, the giggling stopped and I heard one boy declare loudly,



Storytime has been sidetracked but I can’t even be mad. Our students are so hilarious and brilliant and everything they say makes my mind and heart swell with happiness.

I finished reading the book to those who were interested, while the rest of the group went outside to build a bigger subnivean zone to play in.

Which, after we offered them a giant white tarp, turned into this:

IMG_20160205_140232431_HDR IMG_20160205_135712438_HDR IMG_20160205_135111312

They stretched the tarp across the big log in front of the cabin, two pieces of a wooden platform, and a picnic table, securing it with ropes as needed. Once it was essentially complete (a couple children stayed tinkering with the ropes for the duration), most students took on the role of mice scurrying in and out of their little subnivean burrow. One or two students wandered in and out of the role of the fox, which eventually evolved into the role of a hunter, who was subsequently joined by his hunting dog. All three of these predators could only catch the mice that had ventured out of their tunnels. However, at one point, I had a short conversation with a student that resulted in him running back towards the group yelling,


And they quickly returned to the joyful entropy that often comes out near the end of the day. To the untrained eye, it might have looked like just another game of tag. However, there was an intellectual and emotional richness to this play that manifested in their vocabulary and in the complex social roles [ecological niches] they determinedly occupied. This play was entirely their idea, and it emerged from a situation that might not have been allowed to persist in a different classroom.

Our unique setting and underlying philosophies allow us to transition easily from one topic or activity to another. I am so grateful for this natural flexibility. By following the students’ interests, we as educators can reinforce with our words and actions that we believe the students’ ideas are important, and that they can make good decisions for themselves. If something in the story piques your interest and you want to act it out with your bodies, so long as it doesn’t interfere with those students who want to keep listening, then PLEASE, act away!

By trusting in the philosophies of emergent learning, I go into each day not knowing exactly what learning is going to happen. I believe that the students in this environment can collaboratively create opportunities for physical, cognitive, social and emotional learning that I never would have imagined without their input. And so it was with the DIY subnivean zone.


are you eating our birdseed?

Are you eating our birdseed?

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