Tuesday, October 08, 2019


A group of us walked to the woods with a class of two-year-olds from the Stekkjaras preschool here in Reykjavik, Iceland where I am participating in the annual Play Iceland conference. Most of them already already knew the protocol: they could run ahead but were expected to stop at certain predetermined points to allow the adults and less energetic children to catch up. These were the more experienced children, the ones who knew to anticipate the forest that lay ahead, but there were a few who were new to the school. These tended to be the dawdlers, the ones inclined to stop to smell the roses, or rather, pick up sticks, tug on tufts of fall grasses, and generally study the motes from which the world is made.

One boy in particular seemed disinclined to rush through the process. Occasionally, he would run with the others, his sort legs working as hard as those of his classmates’, but with the effect of moving forward at a pace not much greater than a walk. Frequently, he stooped to examine the ground. Regularly, he veered off the path. Often, he turned around and started to head back toward school, completely unaware of the general direction of our group.

We had been warned that this would be a long process, getting the little ones to the woods, and it was, but finally we arrived in the place that those of us who live where trees grow tall might not identify as a forest, but stands as one here in a land of wind and cold stunted trees. The leading mass of children stopped right there at the edge, suddenly no longer in a hurry now that they were at their destination. The dawdling boy didn’t bring up the rear, that role was left to another new child who simply seemed unenthused by the long walk, a common circumstance for children new to the school, the teachers assured us, “In a few weeks, he’ll be running with the others.”

I lost track of the dawdling boy for a bit while I observed the other children as they engaged with the trees and shrubs. They had declared their goal for the morning was to find animals and a dead bird, something that had happened on a recent trip. Along the way, many of them had stopped to collect small snails that they had picked out of the grass, so they were already halfway to completing their self-selected mission. I don’t think they were actively seeking out a dead bird as they played, although maybe they were, I don’t speak Icelandic, but it seemed that they were now simply enjoying their cold, breezy morning together under a lacework of barren autumn branches through which we spied a cloudy sky.

I would not be the first to describe the landscape here as “austere” although it seemed far from that as the children ran and climbed and foraged and bubbled over with observations, ideas, and discussion. Here, with the children, it was as rich and full and alive as any natural place on earth. 

After a bit, the mass of children headed off into a clutch of trees, following a path that they seemed to already know. This is when I discovered the dawdler again, completely uninterested in following the others. After a few steps into the trees he stopped to examine a trunk, patting it with his hand. He said, “Wow!” We could still see the others, but they were so far ahead of us that we could no longer hear their voices. I wondered if I should hurry him along, but decided to instead leave that job to his teachers. From patting the trunk, he turned to a stump that emerged from the carpet of decaying leaves and grass upon which we stood. He have it a good kick, again saying, “Wow!” He was not necessarily including me in his exploration, but I was there. He found a low hanging branch upon which some brown leaves still clung. Once more saying, “Wow!” he rustled the leaves with his hands. This is when he turned to look over his shoulder at me, including me for the first time. He pointed at the sky, drawing my attention up into the sparse canopy. “Wow!” He then returned to the tree trunk and patted it, making sounds like words, although if they were they were in a language I don’t understand. He then kicked the stump again before rustling the leaves and drawing my attention to the sky. For the next several minutes, he repeated the pattern again and again, varying it only slightly. 

By now, the others were quite a way ahead of us. I could see one of the teachers lingering outside the thicket, not too far away. I figured if he needed to catch up, she would let him know. I stood with this boy as he repeated his cycle again and again. I found myself speculating about why, about what he was trying to figure out, about what he was learning. It had to do with trunks and stumps and leaves and branches. At one point, while patting the trunk, he broke off a bit of bark, stopped for a quick study, then went back to his work. I was expecting him to move on any moment now, perhaps not after his classmates, but at least in some new direction, but after a time decided that I myself would move on, leaving him to the teacher who waited not too far away. 

I dodged past him, ducking and weaving to follow the child-sized path. I turned to check on the boy one last time to find that he was following me. I stopped to allow him to catch up. When he again stood beside me, he looked me in the face, pointing into the treetops and said, “Wow!” That’s when I realized that he had not been dawdling at all: he had been trying to teach me, this slightly dense, dawdling foreigner with whom he’d found himself in the woods. 

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