Most of the children are new to our walks this year. As with last year’s group, their initial task is to get to know the plants and animals that live in the grassy woodlands heritage park adjacent to the Centre. Right from the moment we set out, there was a palpable sense of eagerness and anticipation to do this.
We had barely arrived in the parklands, when they children started running to find the wildlife, exclaiming ‘there’s a rabbit hole’ and ‘look at the ants’. The ease with which the children shifted their attention from running through a large space, to focussing upon the micro-worlds of other lives around them was a pertinent reminder of how often it is the children who draw us (adults) in to notice things that might otherwise escape our notice.
According to the routines we established last year, we stopped first at the Indigenous sculpture: Ngaraka: Shrine for the Lost Koori. We talked with the children about how the shrine can help us to remember that others were here before us, and that we walk on Aboriginal land, the land of the Ngunnawal people. The children repeated ‘Ngunnawal’ several times and seemed to enjoy the feel of the sound rolling off their tongues. It was as if repeating this word marked the beginnings of the processes of remembering.
The kangaroo bones scattered under the shrine immediately drew the children’s attention. Following the lead and routines of the two children from last year’s group, they picked up the bones and began gently rubbing them up and down the shrine’s upright rusty poles. The marks left by the crumbling white bones reminded the children of chalk. ‘It’s just like chalk’ they remarked several times. Something about handling the crumbling bones and the rhythm of the rubbing seemed to be also part of the embodied process of remembering.
We noticed straight away that the ants were very active and spoke about why this might be. Several children noted that this was because it was sunny and we discussed how they like to come out of their holes in the dry, warm weather. One child wondered ‘what do ants eat?’, and for the rest of the walk we looked for clues that might provide an answer.
Under the trees, we found an ant that was carrying something round in its pincers. One child suggested it might be a little pebble. Eventually the ant dropped it and we picked it up and looked at it closely. It took a bit of handling and close scrutiny to work out that it was a seed of some sort. We also spotted ants crawling up a nearby bench, clustering around something red and sticky. The children figured this was ‘jelly’ or ‘jam’, no doubt left by a previous human visitor. From these observations, the children gleaned that ants like to eat seeds and sweet things.
Before we left, we had asked the children to look out for the plants and animals that live in this place. But they were actually doing a lot more than just looking. They were continually reaching out, touching and smelling the multitude of living things around them. They were getting a sense of the place in very hands-on, engaged and sensory ways.
One child called us over to look at a ‘cactus’ which on closer inspection turned out to be a prickly scotch thistle. ‘Can we touch it?’ several of them asked. They reached out gently, wanting to feel the spikiness of the plant while also taking care not to get hurt.
We stopped at a big sheltering peppercorn tree, which looked enticing and promised to be housing all kinds of living creatures. The branches were hanging low to the ground, at child’s-eye level. One child immediately picked a leaf frond, rubbed it between his fingers and then lifted it up to smell. There was lots of interest in what was making the strong smell, and soon all the children were touching the low-lying leaves and spotting bunches of green ‘berries‘ hanging amongst them. After picking them, rubbing them between their fingers, inhaling the distinctively peppery smell and offering them around to each other – ‘smell this one’ and ‘this one smells very strong too’ – they came to the conclusion that they were not berries but peppercorns. One of the educators pointed out that these berries might have been ‘bush tucker‘ for the Ngunnawal people.
Venturing further under the tree, the children spotted dried insect shells stuck to the lower trunk. ‘Maybe they’re lobsters’ one child speculated, but another corrected him ‘no they’re cicada shells‘. One of the children who was very familiar with cicada shells told the others ‘you can stick them on your t-shirt’ but we decided that we’d leave them there.
When asked what sounds they thought cicadas might make, the children spontaneously joined together in a loud chorus of high pitched buzzing sounds.
The children were only just starting to get a sense of the life in these grassy woodlands when it was time to go back. It was hard to leave, as there was so much to more see, touch, and smell. We headed back to the Centre with the promise that were many walks ahead of us, when they would be able to explore the rocks and the lakes edge that they could see at such an enticingly short distance away.