Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Transformative Power of Animals

In a prior post we published the transcript of the children reacting to the discovery of two small squirrel babies that we found deceased in the garden after watching them play ten minutes earlier. It was a difficult afternoon but we unpacked the experience with our eighth grade reading buddies and then began a long process of trying to make sense of what we witnessed and also prepare for a ceremony to say goodbye.

I recently purchased a book entitled A Country Called Childhood Children and the Exuberant World written by Jay Griffiths. I recognize so much of what I read in the book as the truths I have been privileged to observe in early childhood. The author devotes one chapter to the primal connection young children have to animals.

Animals matter to children as companions, as consolers, as comprehenders. A child's psyche leans to the animal world and talk of children brought up by animals exert an uncanny fascination. Animals, though, are important to children in a further sense: they are guides to thought. They lead children to leaps of imagination. 

Wondering what a wasp is thinking or what a tree might feel in the wind is a part of the mind's development, practicing the quick spring of empathy. Children ascribe meaning, intent and emotion to animals. Faithful to  the anthropomorphism until they are ridiculed out of it, children nurture a relationship with the animal world  whereby they become party to extra sensitivities, to other stories and a diversity of viewpoints.

These truths about the relationship between children and animals required that we listen carefully to the thinking of the children and honor their intentions regarding the baby squirrels.

The children felt strongly that the squirrels should be buried in the garden where they lived. Shayna felt that we should bury them and place a marker so we would always know where to find the squirrels. Zoey shared that she wanted to  bury the squirrels with acorns and a blanket so they would be ready for their next life.. Kenny thought it might be a good idea to make a tombstone.

Collectively, the children felt it was important to make cards and express our feelings to the squirrels. As cards were created  in the school studio with Anna,  several Kindergartners  made crowns for the squirrels. Another group of children accompanied Pippin into the garden to look for the perfect location to bury the squirrels. When they returned to the classroom they reviewed the options and drew a map to document the possible locations.  

Pippin and his group led our class to consider the possibilities. We knew it was important that the site was quiet and private.

 As we were studying one of the locations, the Kindergartners realized that there were two empty shelves built into the brick wall. We felt that this would be an ideal space to place commemorative statues of the two baby squirrels.

Anna worked with a group of children to sculpt these statues using clay in the school studio. The sculptures are currently in the kiln and  will be unveiled at a later date.

We also had some big questions that continued to plaque us. The children wanted to understand  how the squirrels died. What made them fall from the tree? Were they dead before they fell or after they fell from the tree? Was another wild animal responsible for their death. Bryce expressed an interest in making a book to document his theory. Several children wanted to be involved in this process.

Shayna: When they were not looking the squirrels stepped one foot off the branch and they fell out of the tree, hit the ground, hit their heads and started bleeding.

Kenny: This is a picture of a snake chasing one of the squirrels. The snake caught the squirrel and bit the squirrels and they fell off.

Bryce: The squirrels fell out of the trees and then they were bit by fire ants and they died. Fire ants are something that bites you and it has fire in it and dies.

Caroline: The squirrels were playing the tree and then they fell down and they got up and saw a bunny. The bunny attacked them to eat them and then they died.

Shayna: The two squirrels were on either side of the tree. Two Kindergartens were also on either side of the tree raking leaves. I think that the Kindergartens accidentally raked the squirrels and that's how they died.

Kate: One side of the picture is the good side and the other side is the bad part. The squirrels are falling and the snake got them and he killed them because it has a rattlesnake.

Often when we are working in the Kindergarten studio, conversations unfold. In this particular conversation the  children discussed the concept of death. What happened to the squirrels after they died?

Sydney: They will come back alive.

Zach: The get buried under their grave stone.

Penelope: They come back alive again as a baby squirrel.

Zoey: Right after they die their should go up to heaven and they are still alive.

Zach : We still need to tell the family because their babies never came home.

Sydney: God takes them up to heaven. God is invisible and he is inside of us. He can break into little pieces.

This thinking provoked the idea that squirrels might need additional supplies as they move forward in their journey. Each morning Cheri is in the Kindergarten studio. Several children expressed their intention to  sew items for the squirrels to either comfort them in the grave or in their after life. Each child began with a pattern prior to sewing. 

Renditions of the squirrel babies were crafted and many soft and cozy pillows,too.

Beds and sleeping bags were made  to keep the squirrels comfortable and warm.

A few days prior to the Squirrel Ceremony we brought  the sewn items, the cards and the crowns to the children in circle. We shared several burial customs of  indigenous people as well as ancient civilizations. They seemed to favor several of the stories. One talked about a South American group of people who create effigies of their lost ones and keep it close as a remembrance of their life. It is very similar to the Mexican Day of the Dead. 

We offered the option of finding a permanent home for the effigies of the two squirrels in the classroom as well as their sewn items of comfort. This generated many thoughts and reactions. 

We will publish the transcript of the conversation as well as the ceremony in our next post. 

This story is not finished. There are still so many feelings and deep thinking that continue to ebb and flow and seep out. Animals and the love they generate in children  have a transformative power.

Stay tuned........

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