Thursday, March 1, 2018

The Obstacle Course

Deciding where to place materials

What can you do with a pile of logs, scrap lumber, and stumps in an empty parking lot? Well, if you're a child with a great imagination and the freedom to choose how to use the available materials, the options are endless. This group of children decided to make an obstacle course.

Working together

To begin, they worked together to haul the logs and stumps into the parking lot. Then they tried different layouts and arrangements of materials.They used the board as a ramp, propped up on the edge of a narrow log and placed a couple of bigger logs next to the ramp so they would have something to jump over. They had a starting line and a finish line as well.

"We need to add mud."

As they began to take turns testing the obstacle course, the children decided they needed a "post" at the starting line. They wanted to stand a log up on end, but it wouldn’t stay. Someone noticed small puddles and mud nearby and organized a team to gather mud to use as glue. They eventually stood the log up, packed "glue" around the base, and balanced it. Then they pushed another log up next to it to hold it in place while the mud dried.

"Look how far I can jump!"

During the process of creating an obstacle course, the children worked through many challenges. First, many of the logs were heavy so they had to work together to carry them or roll them in order to move them. Then they had to decide where to put things and explain their ideas to each other when there were disagreements. They also had to test the course and make adjustments so that it was safe and stable to use.

"We built this!"

This was done at a nature preschool but what city sidewalk or backyard wouldn't provide a perfect setting for a similar activity? What if we, as teachers and parents, let children choose how to use materials rather than tell them how materials are to be used? What if we resist the urge to "correct" a child's usage of a particular toy, or provide them with alternative toys such as rocks, logs, pinecones, or cardboard and just watch? I wonder what would happen...

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Learning With Children in Nature

I've been thinking a lot lately about how to help other teachers and parents of young children use the limitless resources of the outdoors to help children learn. Anyone, ANYONE, can take children outside. The natural world is out there, everywhere. My particular passion is urban environmental education because I grew up, was educated, raised my own children, and have taught in an urban environment. 

In April 2016 I had the privilege of presenting my work with my colleagues at Dodge Nature Preschool's annual Learning Conference. We talked about our work with children outdoors, how to use the natural world to spark their curiosity and engage sustained learning, and how to prepare to get children outside. I am sharing the handout we created, in the hopes that you find it useful in your experiences with children outdoors.

Learning With Children in Nature
Pay attention, be astonished, tell about it… -Mary Oliver

Dodge Nature Preschool Learning Conference, April 2016
Kari Ryg, Brenda Jerde, and Dani Porter Born

Small Moments, Big Opportunities in Your Work With Children
·      Nature is everywhere! Every site, urban/suburban/rural has some nature somewhere… wind, rain, sunshine, insects, birds, a plant growing in a sidewalk crack – look for it!
·      Relationships and collaboration: Be present and pay attention. It’s easy to miss those small moments if you are not looking for them. The learning is happening whether you notice it or not. Sharing an experience with a child is powerful for teachers and children.
·      Be prepared physically. Not every teacher will carry a backpack full of gear when taking children outside. We find it helpful to have at the very least a phone or camera to document moments (photo, video, text). If you can have things like paper and pencil, ziplock bags or a bucket for collection, scissors, rope or yarn, small hand lenses, fold-out field guides – wonderful! If not, think of ways you’ll be able to remember what the children were interested in and curious about so that you can support and extend that learning later.
·      You don’t need to be an expert about everything outdoors! In fact, you can’t be. But you can tell children that you don’t know something and then figure out how to learn it together. Every encounter in the natural world brings new experiences and new questions. Even if you’re revisiting the same places. Nature isn’t static.

Now what? How do I start?
·      Go outside.
·      Observe the children. Read their cues. Four little bodies gathered around something, heads down, means something interesting is happening.
·      Get close. Get right in there with them as a partner sharing in their discovery.
·      Ask questions! Promote inquiry and avoid the urge to give away the answers.
·      Document and reflect when you can. You will be amazed at what you learn later when you engage in the simple process of writing down an experience or conversation.
·      Plan for and revisit experiences and discoveries with the children to deepen or expand on their ideas.

Questions to Guide Inquiry
·      What does it look like? Or remind you of? Have you seen that before? What do you think it is?
·      How does it smell? Feel? Taste (when appropriate)? Sound?
·      How does it work? Is it changing?
·      What made that happen?
·      How is it like or different from something else?
·      How is it connected to something else?
·      How do you know?
·      How can we find out more?

Life Skills

One of my worries for children today is that as parents we do too much for them. We are so protective and indulgent that our kids are not developing character traits that will make them successful adults. 

I listened to author Paul Tough talk about his book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. Tough argues that qualities such as perseverance, self control, and curiosity are key to children's success in school and later in life. Similarly, author and psychologist Angela Duckworth writes about success being a combination of passion and perseverance. So as parents and educators, how do we help develop such characteristics in children? I'd say it starts early and it starts with backing off. 

Allowing children some freedom to explore, to ask questions, and try to solve problems is the process of inquiry. Young children have questions about everything. Sometimes we just want to give them the answers and move on. But what if we didn't answer their questions? What if we gave them just enough to follow their own interests and try to figure things out on their own? Would that lead to perseverance? Would that motivate and incite a passion to learn? 

Along with the inquiry process being useful in the discussion around success is the idea of risk. There are levels of risk involved with nearly everything we do. We, as adults, whether we know it or not, are constantly assessing potential risk in our environment. It's a survival instinct coded in our DNA. Think of Darwin, evolution, and natural selection over the course of biologic history. Our instinct is to survive and to be sure that our offspring survive.

It seems to me that we've gone way overboard with protecting our children when we schedule every moment of their days, constantly watch to anticipate their every need or possible misstep, keep them indoors and away from perceived danger, answer every question, and never let them take any risks at all. 

To illustrate what I consider acceptable risk and the inquiry process for young children, I share a piece I wrote for parents of one of my preschool classes. That preschool is set at a nature center and the example involves ice on a creek. It could just as well involve ice in a parking lot, near a storm sewer, or in an urban park.

Creek Ice and Risk
Our small group hikes at preschool offer a multitude of opportunities for young children to engage in inquiry and for teachers to observe and document what the children are learning. On a small group hike this winter, I spent time with five children as they suddenly veered off-trail and headed to the creek to look at the ice. On that day they noticed many changes and made a lot of observations around ice and water. Here are some of the things they noticed:

Child: This ice is safe – I hit it with my stick and it didn’t break.
Child: Look, there’s ice UNDER ice here.
Teacher: What does that look like, that shape in the ice?
Child: It looks like circles.
Child: Yeah, or bubbles.
Teacher: Yes! Air bubbles trapped in the ice. What happens if you poke at them with your sticks?
Children: They break! That ice isn’t so strong! Let’s call that bubble ice!
Child: The bubble ice is easy to break, and there’s more ice under it.
Child: This looks like a skating pond.
Child: The ice isn’t thick in places where it’s black. I can see water under there.
Teacher: Yes, when I jump on the ice, watch that black spot.
Child: The water moved when you jumped!
Child: Hey, there’s slush on top of the ice here.
Child: Look guys, more water!
Child: This ice looks like it can break because it’s dark.
Child: Look, there’s sticks here. Like a bridge.

The children spent about half an hour along the edges of the creek testing ice, breaking through weak spots with their sticks, and finding safe places to step on the ice and on branches to get to the other side. I think it’s important to note that for young children, the inquiry process doesn’t always start with a question they can verbalize. The process starts with curiosity, something they notice and want to explore. Sometimes they ask questions. Sometimes teachers ask questions to nudge them toward their own discoveries. Often children compare what they notice to something else, something familiar. In this instance the children learned about different states of water, solid and liquid. They learned that there are layers in ice. They learned about looking closely at the ice and testing it for safety. They learned that they can use their brains and their bodies to get themselves safely across the creek. What makes it all so meaningful is that I didn’t tell them any of that. I followed them to the creek, made sure they were staying safe while they explored, asked a few questions, and just let them learn. These children are well on their way to success.

Physical Challenges For Children in Nature

I wrote this post as a parent education piece a couple of years ago while I was teaching at a nature preschool. As today's weather in Minnesota oscillates between winter and spring, I think about the children navigating the ice, snow, and water out on the sidewalks. While the setting at the preschool I write about below isn't urban, certainly the physical challenges presented could be replicated in most any setting. Consider how your backyard, a neighborhood park, or an exploratory walk around the block could be used in gross motor development for your child, and how letting them take small risks can be good not only for their physical development, but for their confidence too.

Physical Challenges in Nature
Winter 2015
The natural terrain at our school provides children with physical challenges every day. Weather and the seasons continually change the environment. In this scenario, children do something that children everywhere do – they use their strength and balance to try to walk a straight line. Using the sandbox retaining timbers as a “tightrope,” children experiment with strategies for staying on the timbers and making it from one end of the sandbox to the other. They have walked these timbers many times, but today they are wearing boots and snow gear and the timbers are slippery and covered with snow.

One child (M) asks for help moving from logs to the timbers. She is given help at first. Others want to play this game. Soon we have many children testing their balance, trying out strategies such as putting their arms out, walking with slow, small steps, and asking each other for help. After walking with help, watching her peers, and the assurance that teachers are here to help if she needs it, M walks along the timbers by herself. “I did it!” 

We move our balance activity to another space just outside of the playground where the slack line is set up between trees. Here, children are about two feet off the ground and use a log as a step up to the
slack line.

Teacher: How is the slack line different from the timbers around the sandbox?
M: It’s the same because it’s really hard to do!
S: This one is more wobbly than the one at camp (another slack line). I can’t put my arms out like on the boards but I can hold onto the rope!
M: This is fun. I think I can do it myself!

Teachers always make sure children are safe, but encourage them to take small risks so that they can enjoy successes such as these.