Destruction or creation?

Loose parts are an essential part of any play environment for young children. The materials are open-ended so children can play with them in infinite ways. Nature provides plenty of loose parts outdoors: sticks, pinecones, leaves, rocks, etc. We also provide a few other loose parts on our playground such as planks, crates, and tree cookies.

picking apart a rotted log

Many of these materials can be used in the winter until they are covered in snow. Then snow becomes the main open-ended material on our playground. Children can scoop, sculpt, throw and eat the snow. We have a four-foot high berm that the children sled down.

This winter we haven’t had very much snow. The last two weeks have been very cold and the snow is packed hard on the ground or has turned to ice. We can still sled, but it has been hard to play with other materials. It’s hard to run or roughhouse when the ground is hard and slippery. It’s hard to use materials when your hands are encased in mittens.

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Last week we got hit with cold. We had several days where it never got above 0 Fahrenheit (-17 Celsius). I knew it was coming so I had used buckets and other containers to freeze water. I used different colors in the water. I even used some smaller ice chunks to add to larger molds to make a few multi-colored chunks. The process took a few days. I couldn’t wait to see what the children did with them.

 

 

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On Monday I had the ice chunks spread throughout the playground. A few children called them “magic crystals,” which they quickly collected in a crate. Lance found a large ice chunk about 6 inches across. I was curious what he would do with it. I followed him across the playground. Lance lifted the ice over his head, and threw it on a tree stump.

 

 

He spent the rest of our outside time trying to break the ice chunks. He tried throwing them against stumps, tree trunks and the ground. He tried hitting them with sticks and shovels. I hate to admit that my first reaction was to tell him not to break them. But I held my tongue and watched.

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I was curious why he was so determined to smash the ice. I wondered if it was some sort of destructive impulse. Then I realized that Lance never smashed toys. He understood that the ice could be broken. I think he was testing his strength. Could he break the ice?

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He ended up breaking several of the ice chunks into smaller pieces. The children have pretended the ice pieces were food, power crystals, and other items. They have been collected in various containers, arranged in several ways. It has now been two weeks since I introduced the ice chunks and the children are still finding new uses. Lance helped turn a handful of larger ice chunks into loose parts that all the children could use.  He wasn’t being destructive, he was creating.

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Curiosity, Observation and a Buick

My class just finished an investigation of a car, specifically a 2003 Buick Le Sabre Custom owned by one of my co-workers. It may sound funny to be so specific about what we were investigating, but it’s a very important part of the experience.

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Our investigations are in-depth studies of something the preschoolers in my classroom are interested in. Each investigation lasts about 6 weeks. We usually only spend about 10 minutes a day on the topic. But the children start applying their new knowledge throughout the day. Sometimes they incorporate this knowledge into their pretend play. Sometimes they notice things in their daily life that they usually don’t notice.

removing the headlamp assembly
removing the headlamp assembly

 

The investigation can go deeper if I focus on something specific. 10 years ago I did a “car investigation.” As I look back on my documentation, the kids focused on the various colors cars came in. They categorized cars into minivans and cars. They also focused on the steering wheel and radio.

 

The Le Sabre investigation involved looking at the whole car, inside and out. Early on we did observational drawings

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jacking up the car

where the kids drew details from the car. We checked and added oil. We added wiper fluid, and tested the wipers. We tested the lights and changed a bulb on the turn signal. We jacked up the car and took off a wheel.

 

We did another observational drawing at the end. One of the interesting changes that happened involved the dashboard. The first drawings had lots of circles for buttons scattered across a rectangle. The second drawing had a distinct radio, vents, controls for the air and the turn signal (with the control for the wipers). The children clearly had a broader knowledge of the car.

 

 

At the end of the investigation we made a Le Sabre out of cardboard. It was interesting to see the details that they chose to represent. We had the four wheels, but now the kids drew the hubcaps on the circles. They cut out yellow paper for headlights and red paper for the tail lights, and orange for the turn lights. Someone made a radio with buttons and lines (for the CD player). One child put a small box under the hood for the engine. The next day, another child drew squiggles on paper and then copied “10W 30” from the photos of us adding oil. She taped the drawing of “oil” on top of the engine.

Our Buick Le Sabre
Our Buick Le Sabre

My hope is that each investigation makes children take a closer look at something around them, something they see every day. During the investigation they look closer. They focus their attention, first on the subject of the investigation (the Le Sabre in this case), but then their attention focuses on their environment. They start noticing the control for the windshield wipers in their own car, for example. It starts with looking closely at one thing, but it allows them to see the whole world differently.

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It’s the Journey Not the Destination

Just as early childhood educators emphasize the process, not the product for art, we should also emphasize the journey, not the destination.

looking at construction sign
looking at construction sign

 

 

Too often teachers take children on walks outdoors to get to a certain place. Every effort is made to make that walk efficient. Children are often made to walk in a straight line or hold a rope. This can keep the children from stopping to look at things along the way, but that is exactly the problem. We should be encouraging children’s curiosity, not stifling it.

 

 

 

There is so much learning that can happen in the neighborhood. I think the neighborhood (or surrounding area) should be thought of as an extended classroom. Obviously the type of learning will depend on the setting. If the program is in the country, children can visit a special place. Each child could even adopt a tree that they check on regularly. If the program is in the suburbs, the class might visit an elder (or a park or library). If there is construction nearby, visit regularly to watch the progress. In a dense urban environment, you might visit stores.

My center is in an urban neighborhood. The neighborhood is mostly made up of single family homes with front and back yards. We are two blocks from the Mississippi River. Since its inception over forty years ago as a parent cooperative, the center has been part of the neighborhood. One of the first teachers put it this way, “The neighborhood was the curriculum.” That is still true today (or at least it is part of the curriculum).

 

clean up crew 008

We have our own playground, but we venture out regularly. On our walks we often have to stop when children find ants on the sidewalk. The same is true for flowers or leaves or walnuts. I also always have a garbage bag so we can pick up trash along the way. It is part of our third classroom guideline, “We help our community.”

 

 

There is a parkway we call The Giving Tree named after a giant willow tree. The area is wide enough (more than 50 feet ) to

the giving tree
the giving tree
picking apart a rotted log
picking apart a rotted log

 

bushes become a hidout
bushes become a hideout

play on without being near the roads. There are dozens of trees, which also means an endless supply of sticks, acorns, walnuts and so on. On our block, there is a neighbor with a small pond. We check on the pond throughout the year to watch the progress of the water plants, the fish and (later) the ice. We have a park we walk to that takes us under a highway overpass, which also has sloped concrete that presents a small challenge to children who try to walk on the incline to the park. We also visit a grocery store. Most importantly however, is our neighbor Barbara who has gardens lining the sidewalks on her corner lot. The gardens are full of flowers, but also lots of ornaments and objects. She has a whole section of gears from some ancient machine, another section with figurines of animals.

 

 

 

The children love passing Barbara’s garden. In fact, we can often spend five, ten, even fifteen minutes just walking by her house. One time, a child, Dale, came up with the idea to take pictures of some of the objects in the gardens. The next day we brought the pictures with us and kids had to find the object. A few months later, Barbara was notified by the city to “clean up” her yard. She appealed. The children brought her the photos. I had written their comments about the garden on

the photos as well. Barbara used the photos (along with testimony from many neighbors) to win her appeal and her garden is still a magical place of discovery.

In fact anywhere we walk can be a magical place of discovery if we just take the time to look.

a fairy house in the neighborhood
a fairy house in the neighborhood

 

Disruptions Don’t Always come from the Kids

Reading books to preschoolers is one of my favorite things about my job. If the classroom is getting a bit too rowdy for me, I know I can pick up a book and start reading out loud. By the time I turn to the second page, a few kids gather around. Soon, most of the class is sitting around me listening. I love the way kids this age become so engaged with the story that they call out when they see something in the illustrations, or they anticipate some of the lines in the book.

A teacher sitting crisscross applesauce
A teacher sitting crisscross applesauce

 

One of the most gratifying things as an author is reading my own books to kids. Now I hear kids call repeating words that I wrote. There is a child in another classroom at my center who has to point out each character on each page. “There’s Rita. There’s Johanna.” After pointing out everyone, he sits back down. When I turn the page, he stands up and points out everyone on that page. It’s great to have someone so excited about my book.

 

One time I was at another childcare center to read. As I turned the page, the illustration shows Bree holding up a worm. A child rose to his knees and pointed and said, “Look, a worm!” I was just about to say, “You’re right. She does have a worm.” I was thinking I could ask how many of the kids have found a worm. But I didn’t say anything because a teacher scolded the child telling him to sit quietly so I could read. I read the rest of the book, but I didn’t have any other enthusiastic kids calling out.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter the book I asked the kids questions and they asked me some questions. The kids had a lot to say, but every time they became a bit animated (kneeling, talking over each other) a teacher scolded them. It was hard to have a conversation because the teacher kept interrupting us.

On my walk to the bus, I realized none of the teachers commented on my books with the kids (or me). They thanked me for reading to the kids, but otherwise the only time they spoke was to scold the children.  It seemed that for the teachers the main learning experience was learning how to sit and wait for a turn to speak.

 

I find this often happens in preschool classrooms. More attention is spent on obedience than on the learning experience. Children are often told to sit “crisscross applesauce.” This refers to sitting on the floor with legs crossed.

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I think one of the reasons children are asked to sit that way is so they don’t disrupt the attention of others who are listening to someone speak. I don’t think there is anything wrong with telling children that they need to make sure everyone can hear or see. But there are many ways to sit without disrupting others. It can even include children leaning on each other.

 

In my classroom, I let children choose to sit or stand the way they want when I am reading a book. I do ask children to make sure others can see, so fairly quickly the kids and I find that the higher up you are, the further back you need to be. For example, if you want to stand, you go in back. If you want to lie down, you need to make sure no one is in front of you. I do have to remind children occasionally, but certainly no more than in classrooms where they are supposed to sit crisscross applesauce. The difference is, the kids in my room can look around and see the other kids and realize why they are moving. It is not because the teacher said so, but because the child behind them is saying, “I can’t see.”

 

I think this issue of enforcing compliance can lead to teachers scolding children more harshly. Rather than giving children a gentle reminder that someone behind them can’t see if someone stands in front of them, the teachers react as if the child is disrespecting them for not obeying. The child is just being a child who can’t sit in one position for long (just like many adults). If there is any disrespect happening, I think it might be coming from the teacher.

Police dog
Police dog

Science is Wonder

The best way to teach science to preschoolers is to inspire them to wonder.  Let them be scientists.  In my book, All In One Day, the teacher, Walter hands each child a box that is taped shut.  There is something inside and each box has a small hole.  The children need little encouragement to try to figure out what is inside.  They immediately find some clues.  They can hear that it sounds like metal.  They can see the size of the box and infer that the object is smaller than the box.  I imagine that some children would stick their fingers in the hole in the box and try to feel the object.  Some would look inside although it turns out to be too dark to see anything.

At this point the children are using listening skills, as well as differentiating materials (metal, plastic, etc.).  They are problem solving.  What hey are, in essence, are researchers.  They have a question to be answered and they will come up with several hypotheses.  They will test those hypotheses and they and their “colleagues” will narrow down the possibilities.
Sooner or later, one of the researchers is going to think of tools that will help the investigation.  I imagine someone will get a pair of scissors and try to cut the box.  In the book, one of the researchers decides that a flashlight would help.  As it turns out Walter had flashlights ready anticipating that someone would come up with the idea.
Too often in Early Childhood programs, science comes out of a box.  Each year children watch caterpillars in a butterfly tent make chrysalises and come out as butterflies.  The activity is good, and is quite dramatic.  Certainly teachers can still have children ask questions and make predictions.  Most children have read books about butterflies and know the basic story line, but a good teacher will help them focus on the details that can only be discovered by observation.

What’s missing from the butterfly activity is the power of the ordinary.  Science is mostly about the things we see every day, but don’t notice.  Most of us probably couldn’t explain why the sky is blue or what part of the branch leaves grow on and what parts they don’t.  We need to help children ask those questions about the every day things and then help them figure out how to answer those question.  Science is about wonder.