This post supports the 2015 network read by Jewish early childhood professionals involved in the Jewish Outdoor Environments & Education Network. But anyone can read along with us. This is the first of many posts that is inspired by each chapter in the book, Nature Education with Young Children, edited by Daniel R. Meier & Stephanie Sisk-Hilton.
Chapter 1 – Science, Nature, and Inquiry-based Learning in Early Childhood, Stephanie Sisk-Hilton
Probably the most memorable part of this chapter for educators will be the opening scene itself – 12 children from an urban preschool playing at a nearby beach during a 3 hour “field trip”, that actually takes place more routinely for these children than the name of the excursion would suggest. The chapter begins by bringing us down to the beach with the mixed-aged children from this home-based preschool. We can hear the sound of the water crashing on the shore. And we can feel the children’s exhaustion as the author describes them running back and forth between the shoreline and the place where they’ve set up their important “build” for the day. The children, we learn, go on these types of nature excursions often.
Sisk-Hilton details the conversations, interactions and actions of each of the children. She’s noticing the children as a group, “Post snack, children disperse to find their next projects. Suddenly there is a cry of excitement from the sand castle crew. They have created a path for water to travel from the top of one of the castle turrets down to the bay.” And she’s cognizant of each individual child as well. “Stella, too little to follow the pre-K kids, disparately wants to go deeper into the water. She figures out that she can squat down and create the feeling of being deeper.” Through her story we get a sense of the incredible dedication the children have to discovery and the critical role the teacher plays in fostering their inquiry to higher levels.
Sisk-Hilton feels it’s important to share the setting in which this whole scene takes place. She describes the immediate surrounding of the school itself, “Located in a small house adjacent to a public transit station.” She gives us a glimpse of the leader who makes all this possible, “Diana Bickham, the founder and director of Willow Street Schoolhouse, has spent years finding ways to connect children’s lives to the natural world, even in this urban setting. …Nearly every week, all twelve children travel two blocks by foot, tricycle, and a six-child stroller to a local farmers market, where they talk with the farmers.” And she ponders about her own choice for bringing her daughter to this school, “Why is this the environment that I’ve chosen for my own children’s early school experiences?”
But it’s Sisk-Hilton’s scientific mind and attention to research-based ideas that we are intrigued with most. As an observer she wonders, “What learning is happening in a place like this?” and “What does this focus on exploration of the natural world accomplish in terms of children’s learning and development?” And then offers resent research to help explain how children, like adults, develop core skills and knowledge in domain specific ways. Which I interpret to mean their direct experiences have more impact on their ability to construct understanding and make predictions than does any other attempt we might offer them. And she uses the children’s experience on the beach from the beginning of the chapter to emphasize the point. “A preschooler who has grown up playing by the seashore can both describe and predict how tidal movements will affect the sand castle she is constructing on the edge between the compacted sand at the high tide mark and the dry, fluffy sand beyond. A same-aged or even much older child without this experience will be mystified when one once far away waves begin eating away at his creation.”
The takeaway here for us is this. Nature changes all the time. This change reveals patterns. When children are provided repeated experiences in nature, and are able to predict and test out their theories, they begin to understand better the world in which they live. And this is supported even further when they have ample time to reflect on their experiences, engage in conversations with other children, and are in the company of adults who support them and model asking questions.
Sisk-Hilton also emphasizes the role educators play in those play experiences; what she calls the dance between child and adult-mediated experiences. When I consult with educators who are first becoming more child-centered in their classroom or they begin to think more deeply about nature experiences and “free play” outdoors, I find they struggle to know exactly what their role is. They ask questions like, “When do I interject? How do I interject? How can I help move them from provocation to investigation? What can I say that doesn’t lead them in any one direction too prematurely? How do I peak their continued interest?” And these are ALL great questions.
Lucky for us, as Sisk-Hilton notes, preschoolers love wrestling with possible answers to the problems that present themselves to them. But those problems must be present for them to engage. If we set the stage for their experimentation, they will begin to experiment. Its our role then, suggests the author to provide “gentle prodding toward new ideas”, and to renew energy that may begin to wane. The educator can also provide the children with a comfortable and safe space to experiment and offer different materials so they can continue their investigations. One way to look at this, suggests Sisk-Hilton, is to view the adult role similar to that of a veteran researcher working with a fresh set of recruits who are part of a research group. While the children explore their own ideas, the adult helps to provide an overall framework and the vocabulary when needed to explain their ideas.
Questions for educators to think about:
- When was the last time your students had ample time to investigate one of their wonderings about something in nature? When was their focus as a group? When was the focus more individual?
- Knowing the impact repeated activities in nature can have on children’s ability to understand the natural world in phenomenal ways, what can you do to create repeated activities that let children see and investigate changes over time, all the while bringing in new ideas?
- Recall a recent activity with children. What role did you play? What did you say? Did it contribute positively to their interests? Were there other things you could have done like create a safe environment for risk taking, support vocabulary, provide energy when energy was waning, offer more materials so their investigations could go further?