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“Supporting Preschool Children’s Inquiry.”

The past couple of blog posts have covered how to let preschool children determine the themes they study and how to guide them to create lines of inquiry within that theme. In January, the children at Wildwood Nature School decided that they wanted to take a closer look at “mud and dirt.” The teachers used a Talking Box to zero in on the children’s interests and their specific questions about mud and dirt. From those talking box discussion, the teachers discovered that the children had four areas of focus – the components of and different kinds of dirt, animals that live underground, digging machines and how people make art with soil.

Our first inquiry tackled the questions about the different kinds of soil. Each inquiry generally follows three steps. Step one is coming up with a question. Step two is the investigation -- the reading, experiments, and observations that allow children to look for the answers. Step three is a reflection on and/or celebration of the learning.

The steps of an inquiry are not always linear. Sometimes an investigation, or even the reflection, leads to more questions, and the inquiry cycles back to step one. For example, as part of learning about how worms move, we investigated worm anatomy. The children discovered that worms do not have any teeth or lungs and have five hearts. This discovery led to new questions about how worms eat and whether or not they bleed, which we added to the list of things the children wanted to investigate.

For the soil inquiry, the children had already come up with a number of questions they wanted to investigate during our Talking Box discussions. The teacher’s job is to guide children through the logic of planning and carrying out the investigations. I usually start by gathering as many resources as I can, and stocked the class library with fiction and non-fiction books and articles about soil.

Of course, in order to study soil, the main thing one needs is … a bunch of soil. The teachers led the children to brainstorm where they might find different kinds of soil and recorded their ideas in our Floorbook. (See last month’s blog post or check out Claire Warden’s Mindstretchers website for more information about Floorbooks.) Their ideas in the picture accompanying this article.

The children remembered from a book we had read that clay could be found on riverbanks. We decided that one of our collection sites was going to be a long walk to the creek that is part of our school property to see if we could collect some clay. After we collected the samples, including some possible clay from the creek bed, each sample was placed in a separate vial and labelled so that we could compare them.

Each child took ownership of a different vial, dumped its contents on a white piece of paper and looked closely at their sample using a magnifying glass. After they recorded their findings in their findings in their nature journals, they walked around to observed others’ samples. Comparing the samples led to a number of new questions -- Why weren’t there any seeds in the sample from the sandbox? Why did the topsoil contain more leaves and twigs than soil excavated from deeper in the ground? These discussions are not so much about coming up with the right answer as encouraging children to think logically and develop reasoning skills to back their questions and conclusions.

Based on the questions that arose from the soil observations, the children needed to take a deeper look at soil layering. We placed topsoil and soil from deeper in the ground in a large mason jar, filled the jar with water, stirred and put the jar aside to settle. After about 20 minutes, we could see layers in the jar – rocks on the bottom, sand above the rocks, a layer of mud or clay, topsoil and then some bits of leaves and moss floating on the top of the water.

The children very quickly concluded that the heavier items (like rocks) fell to the bottom while lighter ones (like moss) stayed near the top. However, it was more difficult for the children to think about how the size of grains and space for the water to filter also helps determine the layers. To understand how sand and clay filters into separate layers than topsoil, we returned to our collected soil samples, comparing and contrasting just the sand and clay.

I had decided early on that how people make art with soil would not be a separate investigation, but instead would be woven into other topics as the opportunity arose. After we found clay by the creek, we read about the pottery making process and created sculptures. And when I serendipitously came across a Smithsonian article about creating watercolor paints from soil, I knew it would make the perfect reflection and recap of our section on the components of soil. I read excerpts from the article so the children could understand the artist’s process and how the minerals in soil create different colors. We took our soil samples, along with some charcoal from the fire pit and some yellow and grey clay from our art supplies, and placed them in palettes (ice cube trays that we use for mixing paints). Armed with eye droppers, water and vegetable glycerin, the children mixed the samples to create their own colors and make a soil painting.

The other final reflection piece we did was an entry in our nature journals. Each child was given (regular) watercolor paints to enter their memories of our soil investigations. For many of the children, finding clay at the creek was the part that stood out. Others remembered the layers of soil in the jar or took pride in “being a real scientist” investigating soil.

Each step of our soil investigation stemmed from the children’s ideas and led organically to the next step, with the children as equal partners in determining what came next. All inquiries follow a similar process of questioning, investigation and reflection. The teacher’s role in each one is to guide the children to develop their own observations and conclusions.

Nicole Fravel Wildwood Nature School 408-656-6916


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