Drew Harwell // Listening with Deer Ears

My curiosity and interest in learning more about Pathfinders Nature Mentoring emerged from recent conversations related to climate change. A colleague remarked that if we start working from a very different paradigm of learning and engagement from a young age, we are actually building a new system. MR

Q. Drew, you have such a rich background as a master gardener, permaculture consultant, and in your work related to the connection of food and environmental sustainability at Stanford University. What brought you to creating a children’s outdoor preschool program?

Drew: Studying abroad in Kenya, I saw how children were being raised in the villages — the knowledge they had of place, the comfort they had in nature, and the freedom they had. On walks in the woods, I would run into children out on their own. They may have been gathering things needed back home, but often times they were out playing. Kids were also connected to life on the farm — an 11 year old boy would be out with a herd of cows, learning about the land.

I’ve always enjoyed working with kids — their curiosity, passion and playfulness — and I find it easy to engage in that way. In 2007, I started working with the Tender Tracks after school program with Wendolyn Bird.  During that same time period, I also studied with Jon Young, a nature connection mentor, naturalist, and author.

After Wendolyn moved to Marin County, I started Pathfinders Nature Mentoring with a preschool program two days a week and an after school program one day a week. I will add another day to the after school program this coming year.


Q. Your program is entirely outdoors — how does your day begin and then flow into experiences in nature in larger environments?

Drew: We start the day here at Werry Park in Palo Alto. The children arrive in the morning — a few children are in the neighborhood and walk, and others come by car for drop-off.

The day really starts when I do the song-sparrow song. We play a lot of games around this song at the beginning of the year. The kids hide behind a tree and listen with ‘deer ears’, hear the song-sparrow song and come running back to me. It’s a game that becomes part of their memory. The children know, “When we hear the song, this is what we do”.

After we gather, Kendall and I help the children into the van. Each child gets a stuffed animal — something to snuggle and get comfortable with, especially in the beginning of the year. When we arrive at Foothills Park (or another park), we give time for free play, getting oriented, and getting their backpacks.

We do the song-sparrow song again to bring us into our circle. In the circle we sing a welcoming song. Kendall and I go over what the jobs are for the day — the children have the same job for the week and rotate jobs over the year.

  • The “guardian of the people” leads us on our adventure and makes sure we are all together.
  • The “guardian of directions” leads us back, paying attention to how we got to where we are.
  • The “weather watcher” helps to engage our senses. How does it feel today — is it cool or hot?  Do we feel any wind or is it a calm day?  Do we see the trees dancing?
  • The “guardian of safety” carries a little first aid kit (we also have an adult first aid kit) and is there to help.
  • The “snack helper” passes the snack and helps clean up.
  • The “earth keeper” has the trash bag, also reminds us to clean up, and asks, “Have we left the place cleaner than we found it?”
  • And there are the “scouts with deer ears” and the “owl eyes scouts” who look for birds and hawks.

These jobs give the children a sense of purpose and they are excited about certain ones. One boy can’t wait to be the guardian of safety — others like to be the guardian of people and have a leading opportunity.


Q. I appreciate both the welcoming and gratitude woven into the day and the responsibilities and leadership. I know stories and games are also part of the day — can you share more about those activities?

Drew: I usually tell stories that set the theme for what we are doing that day. Some stories are from books, but I also make up a lot of stories. One time, the children were playing in a creek, and we came across stinging nettle — and a story came to me about how stinging nettle got its sting. Another story is about rock paint and how the children brought color into the world. And there’s the story of how the red-tailed hawk got too close to the sun when she painted it, and her tail turned red. Sometimes Kendall and I notice that something is going on with the children, and we create a story around that.

After a story, there’s often a game that we’ll play — the stories are always tied into animals. We have three or four new games this year that have come out of the children’s play — one is called Buffalo Stampede. Some of the other games are Herron and Otter (from the Coyote Guide) and Deer and Coyote —  these are hide and go seek games.


Q. Tell me more about the children’s play and unstructured time.

Drew: With little ones, lunch is not far behind snack. We sing a song of gratitude and sometimes another story is woven in. After lunch it’s rare that we need anything — the children have undirected play.  Listening closely, we may hear, “ We’re making puddle soup with miner’s lettuce!” Or, “Let’s do fox walking and see how close we can get to the deer!”

Kendall and I create a timeless free space for the children. We are very aware of the children and their needs and make sure they are cared for while they are in nature. Although we’re giving them what feels like unstructured time, there’s really a hidden structure behind what we do — we arrive, we play, we have food, and we have stories.


Q. How does the day come to a close?

Drew: Eventually we call the children back from play to our closing circle. Each child shares their thank you for the day, something they feel grateful for. At this time of the year, the closing circle is getting long — they each have 4 or 5 things they are grateful for as we go around the circle. Then we have a closing song.

We come back to Werry Park to drop the children off, and we may do a couple of check-ins with parents.  Kendall and I also check in with each other about the day and what we noticed.

Q: How do you work with the parents?

Drew: During the year we have parent teacher conference and we go over questions. We also go over the protocol for coming home, particularly if the child may have been in poison oak — how you remove their clothes and wash them to remove the oils. It’s also a good time to do a tick check. A bath also has that calming and grounding that brings a child back after being out in nature, exposed to the elements. This is the completion of the full cycle of the day and the program.

It’s important for parents to feel connected to the program and what we are doing. I follow-up with parents by email and share what we did: where we went, the story we told, the game or activity — and just those sweet moments.


Q: You also do summer camps and an aftercare program — could you share more about those programs?

Drew: I love to play at the island in Foothills Park with the aftercare program. It’s all contained, it’s a place they can move around and hide. And also for me it is magical. I’ve been going there since I was a little boy — I remember playing games at this place. I know what it is like to be a child on this island, and to know all the great hiding spots.

Part of my idea for the Pathfinders Nature Mentoring program is to create long-term opportunities for these children through aftercare and summer camps. I walked with one boy down the trail, after making cordage with cattails together, and I noticed the comfort level that we had with each other — we were just doing things together. He was watching and we were checking in about a few techniques, but it was very seamless. How unique it is for both a child and mentor to have that ongoing time every week for three years — recreating what may have happened in a village every day over many years.

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