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Night Forest Project

A good classroom project has a beginning, middle, and end, and as we finish the ninth week of our woodland and night forest project we are beginning to look for a way to share our work and find closure.

Back in October, we saw a strong interest in forest animals and the changing season. We stimulated the children’s thinking with a side table featuring seasonal leaves, pine cones, bark and twigs, and forest animals that children used to create pretend games. It seemed that even with many other activities and classroom investigations present, strong interest in this side table continued to grow.

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As we listened in on the pretend themes in the forest, we heard a variety of stories about animal families, animals looking for food, and animals looking for warm spaces. It became clear that we could connect the children’s interest in forest animals with storytelling experiences, and with our own relationship to the changing season, with its shorter days and cooler temperatures.

There were many informal opportunities to make connections, and we were conscious to use many. When children brought in a warm coat to play outside, we thought together about how animals might stay warm. We watched leaves change color and then fall from our playground trees. When we raked leaves outdoors, we thought about who might live under a pile of leaves and what that might feel like. We watched Canada geese flying overhead when we were on the playground, and thought together about where they might go. And we encouraged children to think about whether it was starting to be darker when they woke up in the morning or when they went to bed as we head towards the shortest days.

As children thought more about Halloween, walks in the dark, and worries in the night, conversations shifted a bit towards night time animals. What happens outside when we go to sleep? Which animals come out and which ones sleep when we do? Where do they sleep?

Flannel board and felt stories offer children a wonderful, and physical, way to focus their stories, so we used felt day and night time forest scenes at science to encourage storytelling. It became clear that the interest in night was strong. One child, who is a wonderful storyteller, created story after story about animals outside in a night time forest, and we began to see owls featured in many of the children’s stories.

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A visit from a local naturalist, who brought a great horned owl in for us to observe closely, stimulated an even stronger interest in owls and other nocturnal animals. We decided it was time to offer children an opportunity to create their own representation of a forest.

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We brought in a large box (thanks to the parent who donated it!) and asked the children what we might do with it. Children were fairly quick to agree they wanted to make a forest. Our storyteller stated that it should be a night time forest and our collaborative plan began.

Our first step was to ask children what they would need to do to change a box into a forest at night. We collected ideas over a few days:

  • We could paint the box black
  • We could use cardboard and sticks to make trees
  • We need leaves, feathers, grass and ground
  • We need stars and the moon – very bright white stars
  • We’ll add animals to the forest. Some will be in their homes. Some will be out in the forest. Some will be sleeping. Some will be out at night.
  • When the animals go home some will be in the ground, some in the trees, some in bunny holes, and some in a cave
  • Birds, squirrels, bumble bees, ladybugs, spiders and other insects will be sleeping
  • Owls, fox, skunks, raccoons, snails, and opossums will be out in the night
  • The animals should be with their families

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We’ve been working on our box – painting the inside and outside, adding stars and the moon, deciding how to build trees, over many days. Lately we’ve used the box with the same forest animals we used in October, and will be making some of our own animals soon. We may not realize all the ideas shared through our planning process, but when we all feel finished, we’ll invite our friends and family to celebrate our forest and our growing collaborative skills!

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Ramp Play

Children in every classroom have been deeply engaged in the physical sciences and engineering through use of ramps. We’ve found that large groups of children have designed, solved problems and worked together for extended periods of time every day when ramps are available. For some, ramps are spontaneously designed as part of a block construction or city scene. This exploratory stage is an important one, and gives teachers ideas about the kinds of questions or problems we might pose to children as they play. First by joining play, describing what we see, and posing informal challenges, and then later by proposing specific problems for children to consider, we encourage children to form hypothesis, make predictions, observe, and reflect, and connect experiences to deepen knowledge.

To quote Betty Zan’s Article, Physics in Preschool? (https://www.communityplaythings.com/…/teaching-stem-with-ra…)
“Classroom activities such as these engage children in actively exploring their environments, making sense of them, and using what they learn to design things. Although to a casual observer, these experiences may look like mere child’s play, to a knowledgeable early childhood educator, they are rich learning experiences. Children are learning how to engage in important scientific and engineering practices, such as how to ask questions and pursue the answers, identify and solve an engineering problem, plan and carry out an investigation, make close observations, construct explanations based on evidence, and communicate their conclusions with others. They are also engaging with important science concepts, such as cause and effect (when I make the ramp higher, the marble rolls faster), patterns (when I alternate the direction of the blocks, the base of the ramp is more stable), systems (when I move one segment of the ramp, it affects the entire structure), and energy (the heavier marble will knock down a block at the end of the ramp, but a lighter marble just bounces off). ”

To support this play, we connect ramp play to other materials which with objects are in motion – for example, marble painting, water play, using scarves, small parachutes or streamers in the wind, etc. And we connect our discussions of ramps to some good reasons to use them in design. For example, our school ramp makes it possible for someone in a wheelchair to access our space, and in block play a good ramp system can assure that our dolls that use wheelchairs have access too. And if children are designing a harbor system we have to find a way for boats to move off the trucks or cars that carry them so that they can access the water.

Right now there are extensive investigations of ramp systems and velocity among some of our older students, who spend long periods of time, often in teams of 2, experimenting and discovering. The interest in ramps for these children began when children took materials from a sink and float experiment and began using them in different ways. They used a Styrofoam container and a marble to roll the marble back and forth and were very interested in how the marble moved. They noticed that they could rock the Styrofoam to make the marble move slower or faster. When ramps were introduced, children were encouraged to make predictions and hypothesis about how the marbles would move down the ramps. They have been working on ways to change the angles of the ramps they use in their designs to see what would happen. A next step was to create traps for the marbles to get caught in.

We know that this rich play is only beginning, and will take different forms over the course of our year together. We’ll continue to observe, ask questions, pose challenges for the children, and offer a wide range of materials, including materials with which to create new ramp systems, so that this deep engagement in understanding how things work continues.

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Connections and Curriculum

As we start our school year together in a classroom of very young children that we don’t know well yet, we are looking for interests everyone shares that can give shape to our developing curriculum and can help children make connections across many experiences. We want to encourage children to engage with materials and learn more about how to use classroom tools and media and we hope that children will begin to connect socially at the same time – talking together, helping each other find what’s needed, sharing ideas and experiences, and beginning to notice the things children have in common as well as the differences in approach or experience that we can all learn from and appreciate.

Teachers often think about very open-ended themes or projects to get his process started – looking at the environment, thinking about color, making a mark, telling stories all offer beginnings that can unfold in multiple ways over time.

An example this year has been color as an organizing idea around the classroom. We began by encouraging children to use primary colors at the easel and at collage as we introduced these classroom spaces to the children. When we used glue at collage with a variety of colorful circles, would children notice colors? Sort colors? When children created their first paintings, would they keep primary colors “clean” or would they begin mixing experiments right away? Would line or filling a whole page be the primary interest or would color be an organizer? When we introduced children to classroom puzzles or color cubes what could we observe about the children’s understanding of and thinking about color as they constructed? Our observations inform decisions about experiences to offer next, and help us understand how children are thinking about the experiences we share, even when they might not be ready to tell us much about their ideas yet.

Right from the beginning of our year, we’ve had children very interested in using color as an organizer as they sort, create patterns and construct. We’ve had children interested in naming (labeling) colors And we’ve had many children mixing, experimenting, and investigating the multiple shades that can be created when colors are combined. With these approaches and interests in mind, we could offer a wider variety of classroom experiences that we knew would be engaging and offer rich opportunities for the children to connect.

At the easels, we’ve encouraged children to focus their interest in shades of color by changing the color combinations offered. One week might focus on yellows and blues so that a variety of greens could be easily created. Another week might focus on yellows and reds, or reds and blues. When the primary colors returned, we observed a more purposeful investigation of color mixing, and the conversations about shades of color have engaged more and more children. At our weekly paper day, when children share work with classmates before it travels home, many children describe the ways they thought about color to create as they painted.

We offered a variety of books that feature color, so that conversations could continue in a new way. Books featuring fall leaves, and books like Mouse Paint by Ellen Stoll Walsh or Mix It Up by Herve Tullet have been read and re-read often. Mouse Paint became so important to the children that we decided to extend its themes into our first fingertip and hand painting experiences and for collaborative retelling and drama experiences.

When we were ready to cook our first recipe using tomatoes, we made sure that we investigated many kinds of tomatoes – with different colors as well as sizes. We used these investigations to introduce documentation to the children, encouraging them to talk about, observe carefully, and then draw the varieties they were interested in.

At the science table, we’ve been mixing colors in muffin tins filled with water. Primary watercolors are in 3 of the tins, and children used a pipette to move colors in and out of the water, so that they can create a variety of shades and colors. Including transparent color viewers, mixing tools, and seasonal vegetables at the table enriches the conversation about shades of color, mixing color, and seasonal changes. A favorite activity is to take a viewer and look at the classroom and classmates through yellow, or blue, or red.

And now that the leaves are changing, we are well prepared to look for color in nature. We’ve offered a bed of leaves for pretend woodland animals to shelter in on one of our side tables, encourage children to look up and out of our classroom window often to notice the changes outdoors, and are beginning to investigate changes outdoors as well.

This is one example of how in a busy classroom informed by child interest one thing leads naturally to another. The same process is unfolding in storytelling, making a mark, looking at the environment, thinking about letters and words, and in many other rich investigations that are on-going every day.

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Beginning Observations and Investigations

At Learning Circle Preschool, we teachers are very interested in discovering ways to encourage children to develop their capacity to take time to look at the world carefully, investigate, and document what they see, think about, or feel. We may share our own observations as we join children in theirs, encouraging conversation and shared perspectives. We offer a variety of materials in the classroom and outdoors that we hope will inspire children to take some time to investigate on their own or with other children. And we introduce a variety of media and tools that over time we hope children will learn to use to document their observations and their understanding about what they experience.

We’ve just completed our second week of school, and this process is well under way in each classroom. We’ve watched children in their second or third year at Learning Circle begin to apply their past experiences with these approaches and tools to represent their current understanding and interests. And it hasn’t taken long for children new to these approaches to join in.

Children have investigated different types of heirloom tomatoes, comparing size, weight, color, and shape together in small and larger group meeting discussions, and then spent time with magnifiers and drawing tools to record their observations. Others have talked together about the parts of plants as they observe fall flowers, and draw or paint details and colors as they talk with teachers about their observations. Outdoors, children find a variety of leaves and seeds, and spend time drawing them. Children observe a crab in our saltwater tank, and draw details of what they see.

A few children with a keen interest in ocean life used books to research and talk about sea life, and then spontaneously painted important details of those animals at the easel.

And some children have begun the process of thinking about their own play through drawing, as they document their processes and ideas after constructing with blocks.

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We teachers work hard to create an environment in which children will find the rich materials I’ve mentioned, among many others, and feel the freedom to experience these materials directly, making their own connections, drawing on their previous experiences, to learn about nature and themselves in a deep way.

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Beginning a New School Year

Fall, 2016

It’s common for children to experience some anxiety at the beginning of a new school year, even if they are returning to a school and to people that they know well. There are so many adjustments to make – summer activities are ending, daily routines may change, there may be new teachers and children to get to know. And the children themselves have grown and may be thinking about their upcoming school experiences in new ways.

Some children adjust to change very quickly and others will need more time. Many experts suggest that it’s not uncommon for children to experience typical separation anxiety for up to ten days before routines settle in.  Your consistent positive support can make a big difference as children form deeper relationships with their teachers, who will be their primary supports while they are here at school. Remember that it’s ok for children to take the time they need, and that each child’s feelings need acknowledgement and understanding. And while acknowledging feelings, family members can set up consistent routines, kindly but firmly remind children when you’ll be together again, and develop strategies together that help ease the transition period.

Here are some practical tips to think about:

1. Look for the special ways your child handles the transition time comfortably; take your cues from your child.

2. Support your child – try to be positive. Children are very sensitive to your ambivalent feelings; these can represent doubt to your child, and add to his or her sense of insecurity.

3. If you enter the classroom and choose an activity to aid in your child’s transition, choose something that has a definite end (puzzle, book, etc.). Let your child know that upon completion of this activity, you will be leaving. Then stick to it.

4. It is helpful for some children to bring something from home – a favorite stuffed toy, book, photo of a family member, note, etc. This connection to home can be very reassuring.

Here are some helpful phrases you might use when it’s time to say good-by:

“I know it’s hard to say good-by.” “Mom and dad will always come back.”

“This is a special place, just for children.” “Will you make me (daddy, sister, etc.) a special drawing today?”

“I’ll be back to pick you up at lunch time.”

“Have a fun day.”

I’ve included some links below to articles on NAEYC’s “For Families” website with more tips on handling transitions into school:

A Few Thoughts on Separation Anxiety

Tips for Easing School-Time Anxiety from a Mom Who’s Been There

13 Tips for Starting Preschool

Have a Concern about School? Tips for Talking to the Teacher

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