Every Tuesday evening I facilitate a zoom meeting of early childhood educators where we discuss a different chapter of my book, Choice Time: How to Deepen Learning Through Inquiry and Play, and we share our stories from our classrooms. It’s a wonderful group of educators consisting of teachers and administrators from across the United States, Newfoundland, Taipei, Taiwan and Bolivia, South America.
Last week Lauren Monaco, a wonderful kindergarten teacher, who works at P.S. 89, a NYC public school,shared a study that she did with her kindergarten class in an East Harlem charter school a few years ago. The children’s interest in trees fostered curiosity about squirrels and inspired them to advocate for their East Harlem community. This wonderful study began in September but, taking a variety of loops and turns, continued until the end of the school year.
At the beginning of the year, as a means of supporting children in developing a sense of classroom community, Lauren began a study of trees by creating tree inquiry groups. Each group “adopted” and named a tree that grew in the school community garden.
The children began drawing leaves from their trees, comparing how their leaves differed from the leaves of other inquiry group leaves. They looked at their leaves on a light box and examined the veins by looking at them through the hole of a “detail finder”, a piece of paper with a small circular window cut into it. They went outside and studied the bark of their tree.
Lauren introduced many books on the topic of trees and leaves to the class. A favorite book was Lois Ehlert’s Leaf Man. The illustrations inspired many leaf men being created as children engaged with natural materials at the art table during Choice Time.
Some of the children had an interest in creating a forest during Choice Time. To do this they had to experiment with paper so that they could figure out how to make trees that would stand up straight.
While the class was busy exploring trees and leaves, one child, Naima, began her own inquiry study. Naima became obsessed with figuring out how to lure squirrels to the classroom window. The children had noticed some squirrels in trees outside the third story classroom window. They wondered how they could get them closer so that the class could study them. Naima began to attach acorns to string and hang them outside the window, but couldn’t manage to lure the squirrels up to the third floor. Children are inventive and during Choice Time Naima began to create an elevator out of cardboard and tried to fit it through the narrow opening of the window. Naima’s interest in squirrels spread throughout the class.
Children developed a strong interest in squirrels, fascinated by how they moved and how they played. They read books and watched videos. They even found Youtube videos of mazes that were created for squirrels!
The interest in squirrels led to an interest in all the creatures that lived in or near the trees.
From a science catalog, Lauren purchased a “rotting log”. Children now were able to study the creatures that help decompose wood: snails, centipedes, pill bugs and beetles. This was a very new experience for these children who lived in the inner city!
The class took an exciting trip to the New York Botanical Gardens in the Bronx. At writing workshop they shared their research with each other.
Lauren documented the direction of the study by posting the children’s work in the hallway. Rather than creating a “cute” display, an authentic story of the study, in the children’s own words, was created and the class shared their explorations with the school community.
The children’s focus turned to the question of how they could create houses for the squirrels and where they could build them. They looked at photos of houses for squirrels and they began drawing their own plans.
Home Depot donated wood pieces to the class and at Choice Time children began experimenting with constructing squirrel homes. First they sanded the wood and then they used duct tape and tape to hold pieces together.After they were satisfied with how their houses looked, they glued the pieces of wood together.
The children wondered where they could put their squirrel houses and decided that the school community garden, the site of their trees, would be the perfect spot.
At this same time the kindergarten classes in the school were doing an inquiry study of playgrounds. Because the school did not have a playground of its own, they visited other playgrounds in the neighborhood and also took a bus to Central Park to explore the playgrounds in the park. Of course an important part of their playground research included playing in the playgrounds!
“Let’s make a playground for our toy insects and our real snails!”
They began to create models for both squirrel homes and also play equipment.
An exciting day was spent painting the squirrel homes.
It was time to add more documentation.
Zoltan Sarda, the science coach, brought the children out to the garden and helped them get their constructions completed. It was particularly exciting for the children to use real, adult tools and to work on constructions in groups under Zoltan’s guidance
What began as Naima’s dream of creating an elevator for the squirrels became a reality! Look at the ecstatic expression on her face.
Now the focus shifted to the playground that the children wanted for themselves. Other schools had playgrounds and they wanted one too! They began to plan for the equipment that their playground would need.
They wrote a heartfelt letter to the Mayor and to other local politicians, explaining why they needed a playground. The letter received some interest at first. Then, unfortunately, the administration of the school changed and it went from being a child-centered program to one that focused on standardized test-taking and collecting data. Alas, as usual, it was the children who suffered. It was so clear (just look at their faces and the work that they were doing), that when children are engaged, interacting, playing and exploring in an environment that values joyful learning, they will flourish.
There was an exodus of progressive educators after the administration changed. Teachers were no longer free to teach to the child, but were expected to teach to the test and to a standardized curriculum.
This all makes it so obvious that we, the professionals and the community , must stand fast and push for the education that children deserve. Deborah Meier, the founder of Central Park East and Mission Hill School, recently told me that it is clear to her that we know how to provide a successful school experience for children. We only have to look towards the expensive, progressive private schools where there are small classes, art, music, dance, and play in a nurturing environment. That’s what all of our children need!