Friday, April 8, 2016

Barefoot Education

So our barefoot day started like this. It's always easier to climb a tree barefoot... the contact of our skin against the bark gives us traction, and while our feet are out of sight we can feel our way around the trunk and branches to find the best and safest footholds.

Once they were down from the tree, they left their boots behind and happened upon a patch of mud. The fragrance of the mud as it squished slightly grainy between their toes was powerful - compared by the kids to poop and compost.

And the feeling of the grass, all dry and sunny but with a soft spongy wetness as the kids' weight pushed water up from beneath to rinse the bottom of their muddy feet.

We thought we'd go check out the flooded forest we'd explored last January, and the kids took a little detour to access it via the creek. (You know... because the other route was too dry!) Getting to the creek required the kids picking their way between prickly salmonberry and holly on the ground, watching carefully for dog and deer poop, and maneuvering between hard branches, sharp reeds and soft muddy holes.

The previously-flooded forest is now mostly dry, but green all over with the soft cool leaves and pungent blossoms of skunk cabbage (AKA swamp lantern, though we don't bother with that term). There was a near injury here, as one of the kids stepped hard on the point of a buried stick in the mud. Luckily it was a bloodless injury, and the play continued.

Platforms, shelves, shops, mats, and all manner of other things were built, mostly composed of sticks, skunk cabbage, and mud.

Various interesting footprints (both human and animal) were discovered, as well as frogs, fresh water shrimp, caddisfly larvae, water beetles, a centipede, and many varied textures and fluidities of mud.

Did I say mud? Wet mud and dry mud.

Truffle-like mud.

And even some beaver-made chips, with a dry wavy texture and a crumply kind of feeling when you happen to walk across them in your bare feet.
There was everything a person could need for exploration and discovery. This is a place this group has visited at least a couple of times this year (and the meadow and creek before it, many, MANY times...), but it changes every day; the sights, the sounds, the lives of plants and animals, and the feeling of it all between our toes.

 Going barefoot is something I find very important. Maybe not in the coldest months, but absolutely when the weather is (barely) warm enough, and we're on a mission of exploration. Has it ever occurred to you how many things we miss as we walk over them with the thick soles of our shoes, unaware? How many insects and plants do we crush? How many different types of mud to we pass over without a second thought? We are missing out!

I often remind the kids to think of all the types of life that are under their feet at any moment, but I see my words drift by them like breeze. The feeling of the world under their feet - mucking and squishing and poking and scraping - doesn't drift by. It's a sensation they can't ignore. Exploring the world in bare feet makes it necessary to be engaged with the rich diversity we're walking on. Even in the city, bare feet make us aware of the various types of man-made surfaces we traverse, and the many activities that may have happened there (is it really clean enough to wear bare feet?). Our bare feet literally get us down and dirty with the world. And that, to me, is the best place to be for learning about the world.

Dr. Kacie Flegal explains that "Feet are one of the most sensory-rich parts of the human body. The soles of the feet are extremely sensitive to touch, and there are large concentrations of proprioceptors in the joints and muscles of the feet. In fact, the feet alone have as many proprioceptors as the entire spinal column! ... It is never too late to encourage the proprioceptive and vestibular systems in our own bodies as we continue to grow new neural connections, even as we age. Often, it is the proprioceptive and vestibular systems that become inhibited as adults. We lose balance and focus in our bodies and our lives and, as a result, may lose profound connections to our environment, ourselves, and other people."

So take off your shoes and run outside! Maybe climb a tree - maybe jump in a creek or a gloriously muddy spot. Maybe walk all tickly through the long meadow grass. The world is so richly beautiful, and just waiting for us to know it!

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