March in Portland, Oregon means unpredictable weather. Snow, hail, sleet, rain, balmy sunshine are all possible. At Wildwood Nature School, we head outside no matter the weather. In fact, spring rain provides an abundance of science learning opportunities.
Collect and Experiment
Like many preschools, we have an outdoor water table, which the children enjoy. However, nothing they do at the water table elicits as much joy as collecting rainwater that drains from downspouts or pools in various bins around the yard. The easiest way to explore the science of rain is simply to provide tools for its collection, transportation and exploration. Buckets, scoops, funnels, tubes, cut and sanded gutter pieces, pots and pans, and pool noodles all make excellent rain exploration tools.
Our children sometimes use the gutter pieces as “slides,” for rubber duckies or
natural items, testing how changing the slope of a gutter effects the speed at which the items travel down the slide. Even scooping and pouring give children an opportunity to observe the special properties of liquids as they move and change shape and to explore quantities as they fill and empty containers.
Observe and Build
Teachers can encourage children to think about the rain and find ways to
explore their questions. A question that pops up frequently at Wildwood Nature School is where the animals go when it rains. When this question arises, we spend time on our forest trail looking for places animals might find shelter from the rain. We also look for animals that stay out in the rain and think about the adaptations that keep them warm and dry.
Recently, a question about how and why beavers make dams led us to start constructing one of our own near a creek on our trail. Most preschools do not have access to a creek, but children can attempt to block water in a kiddie pool or sand box. At our preschool, children often dig trenches in hills in an effort to create their own rivers, waterfalls and lakes.
This active construction enables children to experience and understand physics in a hands on way. One year, the children spent weeks digging a trench down the side of a hill, running water through it, and adding various tunnels, bridges and trucks to the mix. At a later date, a book led to a discussion about the different ways people and animals use rocks as tools. Remembering the time spent building trenches outside, the very youngest three year old in the group offered the following, "Sometimes when people want to stop a waterfall, they can use rocks to make a dam." And later that same day, I saw one boy standing with his legs on either side of a puddle while a friend stacked logs and rocks next to his feet. When I asked what they were doing, they answered that they were trying to keep the puddle from going away.
One result of constant rain is a lot of mud. We have a little area of our yard thatstarted out as a “zen rock garden” one year when the children were studying Andy Goldsworthy’s natural art, but it has since morphed into a mud kitchen. Pots, pans, spoons, muffin tins, long stirring sticks and a bit of imagination help the children turn mud into food and magic potions. This year “dragon soup” is a popular menu item.
Last year, a few children harvested their own mud “clay” and used it to make sculptures. We followed their interest in mud with an investigation of its uses for plants, animals and humans. The investigation culminated in a trip to a pottery studio where the children learned the art of throwing pottery and made some muddy hand-prints that were kiln fired to make some special keepsakes.
Children are curious about all of nature – the rain as well as the sunshine, the mud as well as the flowers. With a few easily sourced tools and a willingness to follow the children’s lead, teachers can guide that curiosity to help children explore important mathematical and science topics.