Following the Child: Giving Preschoolers Input in What They Want to Learn.


When I was a public elementary school teacher, I used a three-column graphic organizer called a KWL chart to engage students in learning about each new theme. When we began a new theme, we charted what we already “know” (the K) about that topic. Then, students shared what they “Wanted to know” (the W) or questions they had about the topic. As we worked through the unit of study, we used the last column to record what we “Learned” (the L) or the answers to their questions. The chart gave structure to our lessons and gave children input into and a visual record of what they were studying.


Activating prior knowledge and giving children genuine input in their course of study is important at any age. Since most preschoolers have difficulty with abstract tasks, even if they come in the form of a graphic organizer, and often cannot differentiate between a statement and a question, engaging children in a new theme needs to be as “hands-on” as the rest of the curriculum. Therefore, after our Wildwood Nature School children decide on a new topic for investigation, the teachers bring out the “Talking Box” to find out what they already know and what they want to know about the new theme.


In last month’s blog post, I noted that Wildwood Nature School’s preschoolers had decided that they wanted to study “mud and dirt” for their next investigation. To narrow the topic a bit and focus our inquiry, I used the Talking Box to set the stage. I learned about Talking Tubs from Claire Warden, a long-time nature preschool educator based in Scotland. I encourage you to find out more about Talking Tubs from her Mind Stretchers Academy website. I call ours a Talking Box simply because it looks more like a fancy silver box than a tub.


For the mud and soil investigation, I placed tangible items that I thought related to the topic of “dirt” into our Talking Box. The box contained a jar of soil, a cube of clay, a clay mug, a clay figurine my child had made in elementary school, seeds and acorns, vegetables (carrots and potatoes) that grow underground, acrylic animals that burrow or live underground (worm, rabbit), photographs of other underground animals, a chart showing different layers of soil, fossils, and two matchbox-sized construction vehicles.




Our entire group gathered in a circle around the Talking Box for the discussion. Each child, in turn, chose an item from the box to talk about. We went around the circle twice. There was no requirement to choose something different than anyone else. Every child could choose the same item if they wanted. If a child said something that sparked the other children, we let the conversation play out before having the next child choose an item. While the group conversed, I recorded their words in our Floorbook (also a Claire Warden innovation), separating their thoughts into “What We Know” and “Questions” for them.



As our conversation progressed, it became clear that the children were very interested in the animals that lived underground, which was not a surprise as the mud theme had sprung out of our previous investigation of “bugs.” Additionally, they were drawn to the construction vehicles, also not surprising since the land was being cleared very close to the preschool for a new house. A number of children had questions about how the clay mug was made and a few were drawn to the picture of soil layers, wanting to know more about what it represented.

After our conversation, I read my notes aloud to the children to let them know I was listening and give a summary of their thoughts. I also read the questions I had charted and relayed that it looked like we had a few lines of inquiry we wanted to pursue – the components of and different kinds of dirt, animals that live underground, digging machines, and how people make art with dirt. These lines of inquiry will become our “curriculum” for the next couple of months.


Talking boxes can be created for any topic children and teachers wish to pursue. They help early childhood educators “follow the child” and their interests when designing learning opportunities. In next month’s blog post, I’ll take you through one of those “learning opportunities” as Wildwood Nature School’s preschoolers follow a line of inquiry concerning the components of and different kinds of dirt.

Nicole Fravel Wildwood Nature School 408-656-6916 www.wildwoodnatureschool.com
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