Thursday, December 19, 2013

Flying Deer Nature Center: Visit to Central Park

Flying Deer Nature Center is a wilderness school and empowerment program based in New Lebanon, a few hours north of New York City. The teachers work with students of all ages (young children through adults) to teach wilderness skills, and nurture a "deep connection to nature, self, and others." Pono (the school where I'm interning), had booked a day in Central Park with the founder of Flying Deer, Michelle, a talented and experienced educator. It was magical.

Michelle introduced herself as "Dandelion," and told us all that we would all soon have nature names as well. Plants and animals can choose humans to speak to, she told us, to ask for protection and care. After sharing some of the beautiful natural materials she had brought, she began a story. A little girl, after sitting by herself for a long time in the woods, had a mouse come to her and tell her that the Willow tree had chosen her.... Would she now look after Willow trees everywhere, care for them, and teach other people about Willows? She would!

The children practiced walking silently across a stretch of the park to a tree with a young woman sitting beneath, a cluster of turkey feathers fanned out in her hands. She introduced herself as Willow, and I saw in the faces of my students the magic of a mythological creature come alive. She gave each of them a feather, and told them that she was going to teach them how to enter the magical forest. (One student turned to me, eyes big: "An enchanted forest!!").

After being taught the proper way to enter the forest (wait until everyone's gathered, then run, howling like wolves, underneath the bridge that led from the grassy lawn into the wooded area), we began a trip off the beaten path. Following the dry creek bed down a slope, the kids were challenged with some balance skills, and I was reminded of the research I've read about the importance of giving children uneven surfaces on which to walk-- the expanses of smooth, inorganic surfaces that most of us spend our lives walking in straight lines don't work the fine balancing muscles, among other things.

Michelle shared a legend of How Fire Came to the People as she began to gather materials to build a small fire. After a crow carried a piece of the sun down to warm the people, the ball of fire rolled around looking for a home before the cedar tree offered to host. The redness of the wood reminds the people of the fire inside.  She built a small "nest" of little twigs, lined with cattail fluff and bits of bark, and showed the children how to use a bow wrapped around a dowel to create a small coal. After carefully transferring the coal into the nest, Michelle asked the children blew on it together until it burst into flame, then placed it into the teepee structure of larger twigs the children had gathered.

We waved cattails around like magic wands, painted faces with dark red chokeberries, cut bamboo canoes and floated them down the stream. We made a giant circle to ring a tree, were given nature names by a "magic hat" hidden by our guides in the forest, and practiced our balance, walking on an enormous fallen tree.

At the end of the day, our host gave each child an acorn to remember the day and dubbed us the "Red Oaks." We all shared our favorite moment: "My favorite was building the bridge over the stream!" "My favorite was building the fire." "My favorite was playing in the dirt!" One of my students told Michelle that she could have an acorn as well and be a part of the Red Oaks.

Before we left the forest, we gathered in a circle and called out our new nature names. "Bumblebee!" said Bumblebee. "BUMBLEBEE!" We all cheered in response. "Robin!" "ROBIN!!" "Red Clover!" "RED CLOVER!!" The kids were a pile of giggles by the end of the go-around.

We gathered our things and walked back toward the tunnel. One of the children asked Michelle why we needed to howl to enter the forest. Michelle paused, then, "It's the magic words to get into these magic places!" said Wild Blueberry, with certainty. Riding the bus back to Pono, the children looked like wild things: faces stained red with chokeberry juice, cattail fluff clinging to their clothes, red windswept cheeks. So much happiness and magic this day.

I'm so enjoying all of the learning that comes out of outdoor education programs. There's so much for children to learn & experience, and all of it by default full of meaning (as opposed to textbook learning that is often terminally divorced from real life). 


  1. It's great that these teachers exist and you've found them, and show their work/play to us.

  2. Hi Dorna,
    Wow, glad to find your blog (and you again), [We met at a NC weekend a year or 2 ago, played music & sang together,] I yearn for the kind of human-to-nature connections you're building between kids and the (vanishing) wild world. Something about exploring with kids intrigues, delights me. Sounds like you're having as much fun as the kids. That's a big wow! I'm exploring a place in MA for eco-education and retreats. - jas

    1. Dear Jas, thank you for reading! Yes, it is really amazing work-- so glad I got to be a part. Hope you're well! best, Dorna