If you’ve attended Seedlings, you know well that it is not your typical STEAM professional development workshop. Yes, many are hands on, fun, and fabulous opportunities for growth. But there are several characteristics of Seedlings that we believe make it truly unique: The focus on collaboration with colleagues, learning about local resources that could enrich student learning, and creating integrated curriculum that helps children make connections not only across disciplines (and beyond STEAM), but to their own personal lives and interests.
Jen Wilson, kindergarten teacher at Cook Hill School in Wallingford and SEC alumna from 2017, embodies this ethos. This year, she and the school librarian, Anna O’Brien, were awarded a grant from the Wallingford Education Foundation to develop a program they are calling KinderTinker. Modeled after a program started by teachers at Moses Y Beach Elementary School called KinderWoods, Jen and Anna are bringing the learning outside. Each month, Jen’s class of kindergarteners are playing and learning in different natural spaces around Wallingford or on their own school grounds. In these outings, the children have time for extended free play and exploration, as well as structured STEAM based activities that tie into the kindergarten science units.
On a beautiful fall day at the end of October, I was lucky enough to accompany Jen’s class on their trip to Wharton Brook Park. This trip was designed to further delve into and extend the class’s study of weather, one of their science units for the year. Hurricanes had become a big topic of conversation after children had heard about the extreme weather affecting different parts of the country in September and October. In the classroom, students learned about factors that contribute to the formation of hurricanes, but Jen also wanted to address the children’s questions and concerns about the human impact of such events in a meaningful way. This was an opportunity, she realized, to connect her students with Wilfred Velez, a bilingual teacher at the school with whom Jen has worked closely in the past, and who is from Puerto Rico. She invited him in to talk about Puerto Rico, his family’s experience with Hurricane Maria, and share photos of the island from before and after the hurricane. They talked about humanitarian efforts to support communities affected by the hurricanes, and specifically about the challenges of transporting supplies to an island such as Puerto Rico. This subsequently led into a design challenge to construct a boat that could float and potentially bring aid to those in need in Puerto Rico.
At Wharton Brook Park, students were again presented with a similar design challenge, except that this time, they would be able to use only twine and the natural materials they could find in the park. Wilfred helped students establish purpose in their work by reminding them of the stories he shared about his friends and family in Puerto Rico, along with a quick review of how hurricanes form. Anna shared two non-fiction texts – one about hurricanes, the other about rescue boats – that elucidated the connection among the science, social studies, and engineering components of the project. By the time that Jen introduced the design challenge to her students, they had a clear sense of purpose and understanding in their work, and – as you would imagine a group of 20 five and six year-olds about to be set loose in the woods would be – they were highly motivated to get started.
The rest was all magic. What were some of the outcomes from this morning?
- Joy: Children were joyful in their work, in exploring their environment, and in making discoveries. They were especially full of joy when they saw their boats floating.
- Pride: Watch the children march down to the water to test out their boats. They could not wait to share their accomplishments with peers and teachers.
- Collaboration: Students naturally collaborated while constructing their boats. I often saw children dividing up the work so that one would go get string, another would gather sticks; one would hold the boat steady while another helped him attach a leaf for a sail.
- Appreciation for nature: Children were amazed at by a bug’s highly effective camouflage; they took pleasure in the softness and “tingly”-ness of a kind of fungus; they noticed the bright chartreuse color of lichen and shared in this pleasure with their teacher.
- Lack of “behavioral issues”: Not a single child was disruptive of any other child’s work; children were safe and responsive to adults.
- Focus and determination: Relatedly, every child was highly engaged in his or her work. Finding ways to attach the natural materials together was certainly a challenge for this age group, but each student stuck with it with fierce determination.
Language, Communication, and Literacy
- Wilfred invited with him two ELL students from different grade levels whose families have only very recently arrived in the United States. Both children had very little English. These children had an opportunity to engage in the STEAM work in their primary language, while also being exposed to new English vocabulary through hands-on experiences.
- Lev Vygotsky wrote extensively about the language development that occurs as a result of social learning. When given opportunities to collaborate with peers, students are put in the position of needing to use listening and speaking skills. Throughout my morning with Jen’s class, children were engaged in constructive, two-way conversation with one another and adults.
- Desire to write. Among the items included in the exploration kits that Jen put together was a small lined journal. Several children took the initiative to use these journals to record their work in pictures and words. This child excitedly suggested to his partner that they should write about their boat-making process.
- Science: Children made guesses about what would float and sink, and tested their hypotheses through trial and error.
- Technology: Children fashioned tools to help them make holes in their boats or to scrape off bark, and used leaves to create wind catchers.
- Engineering: Students used their knowledge of the properties of natural materials and how they behave to design something that could be a solution to a human problem.
- Arts: Some students added embellishments to their rescue boats, such as leaves, flowers, and pinecones, in order to make them more aesthetically pleasing.
- Mathematics: Children counted the number of strings and sticks they used; considered balance as they added floatation devices to their boats; and created and used their own non-standard units of measurement.
Fine and Gross Motor
- It’s not uncommon to hear teachers and occupational therapists who have been in the field for longer periods of time to talk about an increase they have seen in students’ difficulty with motor planning and coordination, and inability to sit still. One possible theory that explains this beyond the “kids these days” explanation is that as children have become more removed from nature over the last several decades, they have lost out on opportunities to develop gross motor skills. Rather than walking across fallen logs and climbing up trees, children increasingly only have experience with flat surfaces. When children pick up big sticks, how often do you hear adults telling them to put them down? Notice Jen’s students climbing trees and picking up sticks in this clip (and note the adult reminds them to “be safe” rather than to “be careful” or telling them to put them down), and imagine what this is doing for their proprioceptive system!
- Have you been in a classroom of kindergarteners recently and watched them try to tie their shoes? Not an easy task. Notice the fine motor skills displayed by this individual, motivated to construct a successful boat.
Developmental Appropriateness and Trust in Children:
- We are all probably familiar with that term coined by Vygotsky, the “Zone of Proximal Development,” or ZPD. This describes the difference between what a child can do independently, and what s/he cannot yet do. This zone between the two is the ideal learning environment in that – when provided with the proper scaffolding, or support from a more capable peer or adult – it stretches the child’s abilities to achieve a new task and ultimately be able to do it independently. When Jen first introduced the boat design challenge to her group, I admit thinking to myself, “Do they not need more guidance or explicit instruction on how to construct the boats?” Rather, Jen and her colleagues had simply established the real-life purpose for the challenge, introduced the goal of creating a boat that could float and carry supplies, then told the children they would be able to use only materials they could find in nature to construct the boats. She gave them a chance to brainstorm what materials might be appropriate, then sent them on their way. I was taken aback by how much the children were able to achieve on their own. Where I had thought I might hear a good deal of “I don’t know what to make,” and getting frustrated with how to connect the materials, the children came up with their own visions and were able to do much of their own problem-solving. At the same time, Jen had planned to have enough adult hands on deck to make sure that when children did get stuck with a fine motor skill or a question of design, there would be someone there who could scaffold the child. I heard Jen and Anna asking children how they thought the sap on a pinecone might affect the boat, what would happen if a stick were turned in a different direction, and all the adults (including the parent/family volunteers) offering to hold sticks steady while children worked to tie twine around them. Jen knew what would be the appropriate ZPD for her students such that they were pushed beyond what they might be able to do on their own, without getting so frustrated as to shut down from the task.
- Trusting in children’s abilities and not needing to over-structure a project is a sign of a skilled, seasoned educator in my book. Another way in which Jen demonstrated real trust in her students was in her giving them the time and space to approach the project in their own fashion. Ultimately the children had about 30 minutes to complete the construction phase of the design challenge, but this timeline was never shared with the group, nor was there a great deal of pressure to hurry up and finish when it was announced that the group would be going down to the stream to test the boats. Some children jumped right into the design and construction phase, while others observed and explored for some time. Over time, every child engaged at a pace that felt natural to him or her and completed the task within the given amount of time. Those who finished early spent time sharing about their boats with anyone who would listen, or playing freely in nature. Those who took more time to get started worked diligently right up until the end. No one was rushed, and no one complained, “I’m done! Now what can I do?” Because she trusts in them, Jen gave her students the gift of time and space – true luxuries in the traditional school environment.
We don’t all have the ability to rent a bus and take our students into an idyllic wooded setting. (Though nor does Jen have these things given to her – remember, she applied for and received a grant to support this work.) But the lesson falls beyond this extra bonus of taking learning outside and off campus: Jen looked for ways to make required curriculum (weather) relevant to her students’ lives and interests by making use of resources available to her (i.e. bringing Wilfred in as an expert on Puerto Rico; using natural materials), collaborating with colleagues to develop a richer curriculum, and integrating other disciplines to help connect with children’s lives, interests, and needs. These are not easy feats by any means, but they are achievable in the traditional classroom setting and the results can be astounding.