Featured Article: Seeing the Playground for the Fish
Reed flipped a page in his notebook and adjusted his posture. I took a moment to look at some of the things around the office. There were file cabinets marked “Salmon Education Curriculum,” an entire wall of stinky hip waders, and a giant fiberglass sculpture of a phase of the Salmonid life cycle that I conveniently forgot during my interview.
“OK. Sorry about that,” said Reed. “So, which aspect of the position are you most interested in?” Without hesitation—and relieved he didn’t ask me about the sculpture— I said, “Working with kids. I really enjoy working with elementary students.”
A couple weeks after my interview with Reed Aubin, Volunteer and Education Program Manager at NOSC, I started my AmeriCorps position. Week one found me inside a pair of those smelly waders plucking scales from even smellier fish carcasses; on the edge of a creek freeing trees from the strangling grip of ivy; and on the other side of the desk where my interview was held, learning how to find the money to fund all of this fun work.
My first chance to work with kids came at an afterschool program run by the Jefferson County YMCA called Chimacum After The Bell. After The Bell is a weekly program that introduces Chimacum Elementary students to a variety of interesting topics such as acro-yoga, cooking, archery, and—my favorite—salmon.
I walked into the classroom one Wednesday afternoon and was greeted by the program instructor, Trevor Smith of the Y, and two little people with big smiles and a lot of energy.
“Who are you?” said a kindergartner with a blonde mop as he lifted one of his Hot Wheels from the track.
“I’m Larry. I’m the salmon guy. What’s your name?”
“And I’m Rylee 2! There’s another girl in the class named Riley. She’s Riley 1.”
Trevor walked over and dropped a peanut butter sandwich on a purple plate in front of Rylee 2. “Hey Larry. Nice to see you. Would you like a PB and J?”
“Definitely.” My philosophy on education spawned right then and there, and it was this: in order to teach children, you need to think like them—and to think like them, you should eat like them.
A few minutes later two more kids, Riley 1 and Reid, ran into the room and threw down their backpacks. Once Trevor had the whole crew enjoying PB and Js on white bread, he announced,
“Larry, we can get started whenever you’re ready.”
I shuffled the stack of papers I brought with me and asked the group if they were interested in playing a board game.
“What’s the game about?” asked Johnny.
“Take a guess,” I said with a big grin.
Being an expert in the world of play, Johnny was clearly unmoved by my attempt at humor. He shot me an apathetic stare. “Salmon?”
“Hey, I told you I was the fish guy!” I said. “It’s a game about the salmon life cycle. It’ll be fun, I promise.”
I laid out the game board on the table and we all gathered around to go over the rules. I explained to the kids that each of us would take turns rolling the di and moving our pieces over the board accordingly. The object of the game was to be the first salmon to make it all the way around the board and back to the spawning grounds. As in real life for a salmon, there would be many challenges to overcome along the way: floods and low water events, oil spills in the estuary, hungry herons and orcas, and commercial fishing nets out at sea.
We played for a half hour, taking a moment to discuss our plight each time someone landed on an obstacle. By the time the first two salmon made it back to their spawning grounds, the sun was low enough to spill into the classroom window, and I could see that the kids were looking longingly outside at the playground. I was confident everyone understood that a salmon’s journey from little Chimacum Creek to sea and back again was no small feat.
“Alright,” I said. “Do we want to keep swimming upstream or would you all like to go outside?”
The kids rushed the door and hurried to the playground. Trevor and I lagged behind and discussed the board game.
“What do you think—did they get anything out of that?” I asked.
“Yeah, I think so. I think they got the gist of it, at least. It’s hard to keep them engaged indoors after they’ve been in school all day.”
The kids were already sweating when we reached the playground. I stood on the gravel admiring their impulse and freedom, and contemplating more effective ways of keeping their interest during the next lesson.
Suddenly, Johnny yelled out from the top of the wooden playhouse. “Hey! Let’s play a game!”
“What’s the game called?” asked Reid.
“Salmon!” Johnny responded proudly, adding, “Quick—follow me up the fish ladder! It’s the only way over the dam.”
My eyes peered across the set of large, plastic steps Johnny had ascended to reach his promontory. Wow, that really looks like a fish ladder, I thought.
“Come on, Larry! Follow us back to the river!” Johnny called from the top.
I jumped up the steps then followed the group down the fireman’s pole on the other side.
“Watch out for the fish net!” warned Reid. I glanced at where he was pointing and, sure enough, there it was: a wide rope ladder leading to another playhouse. “Don’t get caught in the net! Here—follow me up the waterfall.”
Opposite from the rope ladder were two blue slides cascading from the top of the playhouse. The kids and I fought our way up the waterfall and across a narrow ledge to the foot of the jungle gym.
Excited for what they were going to come up with next, I waited patiently for one of the salmon to speak. I looked up at the rings hanging down from the monkey bars, and at the platform ten feet away from where we stood. I wondered: Can these kids really pull themselves across to the other side? Better yet, can I pull myself across this thing?
A few seconds passed before Rylee 2 took command of the group. “Everybody swim underneath! Don’t get caught by the swatting bear paws!”
The kids ran across to the other platform, but I stood motionless and in awe at the breadth of their imagination. I looked again at the dangling rings and instead saw giant brown paws careening into the water—our creek. At that moment, I’m sure I summoned a smile from my own childhood, back when the playground was anything and everything I wanted it to be.
We finished our journey by digging redds in the shade and protection we found under the playhouse. The gravel substrate of the playground made the adventure feel even more real and afforded the students a tangible example of something salmon use in the wild.
But in their own wild world, I learned that the four young salmon I spent the afternoon with use every object in front of them as a clue to help them make sense of things. It is this innate power of wonder that many of us long to retain throughout our trying passage into adulthood. It is a power possessed by children and salmon alike. It was also the lesson I learned the day I tried to teach a group of salmon about the epic adventures they lead every day.
~Larry Montague, Education and Outreach Assistant/AmeriCorps Intern