The Amaryllis Inquiry…a reflection on clustering expectations

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What can you do with one Amaryllis bulb? It turns out, quite a lot! One of the questions I often get about choosing an emergent, inquiry-based program is “How do you make sure you still cover all the learning expectations laid out in the Kindergarten curriculum?” This inquiry turned out to be a great example of how an inquiry-based approach to learning can help you cluster learning goals and expectations with effective results!

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In the fall, our students made an exciting discovery in the courtyard: seeds! Our beautiful Rose of Sharon bush had gone to sleep for the winter and left behind some interesting pods which, when the children opened them, were found to contain “little fuzzy seeds.” This discovery led to many wonderings about plants, seeds, and growing things. At the science and nature table, the children tried planting the seeds from the Rose of Sharon, orange seeds, and apple seeds. Anything they could find! I happened to have received an Amaryllis bulb as a gift, and I added it to the collection of “growing things” on our table.

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Our initial exploration of the bulb led to some interesting observations from the children, a skill I was looking to develop at this early stage of the school year:

“It looks like an onion!”

“It looks like spaghetti!”

“It looks like it has hair and skin!”

“Is something really going to grow from that?”

“Maybe that spaghetti stuff is the roots!”

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We planted the bulb and excitedly waited for something to happen.

After the weekend, we noticed something green poking out of the bulb! The children were encouraged to record their observations and make predictions about what the Amaryllis would look like.

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At the same time, we had begun to learn about measurement. As our plant sprouted, we asked the children: “How can we measure our Amaryllis?” Very few tools were given to the children; rather, they were encouraged to problem solve their own ways of calculating the plant’s size.

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M.F. : “I’m tracing the leaf on the paper and cutting it out to show how big it is.”

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E.A. : “I’m measuring the leaves with crayons and pencils. The leaf is as tall as my pencil!”

As the Amaryllis grew and we learned more about using non-standard measurement tools such as cubes, links, and string, the children began to try more precise ways of measuring. To support their desire to measure with different objects, we added the cubes, links, string, paper clips, and measuring tapes to our centre. The children were encouraged to record their thinking and learning on paper and share their ideas during reflection time.

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The day our Amaryllis bloomed was truly an exciting event! The children were very interested in touching the flower, looking closely at it (with magnifying glasses and the class microscope), and drawing it. We set up a still-life provocation at the Art Studio for the children to record their observations and creative representations on paper. Many children returned day after day to paint our Amaryllis as it continued to change and bloom.

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The children were given black permanent markers to first sketch the flower and watercolour paints to fill their sketches with colour.

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From start to finish, our Amaryllis inquiry touched on learning expectations in literacy, mathematics, science and technology, and art. I was able to gather information and assessment on the children’s ability to make observations and predictions, communicate their thinking orally and in drawings and art works, demonstrate their problem solving skills and knowledge of measurement, and learn about the needs of living things and how plants grow. Because our exploration originated from the children’s natural interest in seeds and how things grow, there was a high level of engagement throughout the project.

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Growing an Imaginary Garden

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Today I’m back with another of my most treasured children’s books to recommend: The Imaginary Garden by Andrew Larson. In this story, Theo and her Poppa share many special days in Poppa’s garden. When Poppa downsizes to an apartment with a windy balcony, recreating that garden becomes a creative inspiration! Instead of plants in pots, Theo and Poppa set about painting an imaginary garden on a large canvas.

My students really responded to this book. We have been anxious for signs of spring, but since it has been a rather slow start to the growing season this book is just what we needed to tide us over until the warm days arrive. After reading the story aloud, the children were immediately interested in creating an imaginary garden of our own. We did a group brainstorming session and decided we wanted to begin where Theo and her Poppa began: by setting the stage for the garden by creating the soil, a garden wall, and the sky.

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Our class compilation of ideas for the garden, generated after one of our read-alouds

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The children get to work on painting the garden wall – they wanted the bricks to be in “an A-B-C pattern.”

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A group of students work on painting the soil.

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The children work on painting the sky. They really enjoyed mixing the paint to make different shades of blue.

Last week we continued our garden planning by setting up a planning station at the classroom writing centre. Along with a copy of the book, clipboards, planning sheets, and markers, we also included whimsical objects such as small gardening tools, pots, gloves, and real plants to get the children inspired. We also put out some books about different kinds of flowers. As the children completed their plans, we clipped them to the hanging display at our science centre. Throughout the week, children were invited into the hall to add their ideas to the mural.

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Our Imaginary Garden provocation

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Each student planted a seed in the garden and labeled it with their name. The children were asked what kind of seed they were planting/what they hoped their seed would become:

J.K.: Mine is going to grow into a Lego flower!

Y.T.: My seed is going to be a sunflower – a GIANT one!

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Some children were interested in the idea of painting sprouts, just as Theo and Poppa had done. ‘”These are our baby plants.”

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F.I.: “I’m planting wheat in the garden because I just love bread so much!”

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J.M.: “We are painting vines. I got the idea of doing it when Poppa said, ‘The vines are reaching for the sun.'”

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This is how our garden looked on Friday before we headed home. I can’t wait to see what will appear this week! The children have already established that next week our Art Studio will be dedicated to “painting flowers for the garden.” I’ll be sure to post an update soon so you can see how our garden has grown!

*Update

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The spring bulbs popping up in the courtyard outside became a source of artistic inspiration for our students. Along with photos of our flowers outside, we also added pictures of spring flowers and some real potted plants I brought in from home to the Art Studio. The children had access to any colour of paint they wanted (and many decided to mix their own colours!). Many children visited this centre daily and waited anxiously for their painted flowers to dry so they could cut them out and “plant” them in our garden mural.

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Our flower painting provocation at the art studio.

Below is a picture of our completed Imaginary Garden. After our project was complete, we reflected on our work as a class. As one student said, “Our garden gives us happy tears because we love it so much.”

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A Map of My Heart

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What is love? What are the things that you love the most? If we could see inside your heart, what would we find there? These are the questions we examined in our class through the Map of My Heart project. All of this really began when we noticed the children showing an interest in making maps at the writing table. To support and challenge their thinking, we added special “map paper” and an amazing book called My Map Book by Sara Finelli to our writing centre. In My Map Book, Finelli inspires us to think about maps in a whole new way with wonderful images of maps including: “A Map of My Dog,” “A Map of My Day,” “A Map of My Stomach,” and yes, “A Map of My Heart.”

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With Valentine’s Day approaching, I wanted to discuss the theme of love and friendship with my students. To get them thinking about love, we focused on Finelli’s heart map and talked about what we might find in our own hearts. At the Art Studio, we offered the children an opportunity to continue thinking about these questions by making their own heart maps (see the original idea from Playful Learning here: http://playfullearning.net/2009/01/map-of-my-heart/). I felt it was important to give the children as much thinking time as possible for this activity, so rather than having them dive right in to the drawing and painting process, we provided them with planning paper so they could jot down their ideas first. This also had the added bonus of creating some lovely opportunities for dialogue between children as they shared their plans with each other. I found that throughout the art process, children routinely referred back to their plans to help them include all their original ideas in their art piece.

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After planning, the children set to work filling in their heart maps. We used permanent black markers for the drawing process and watercolour paints to add colour when the drawings were complete. As part of our evaluation and discussion of Finelli’s heart map, some children felt that some things would naturally take up more space in our hearts (e.g. more love for my family = a large space in my heart vs a little bit of love for flowers, which would = a smaller corner of my heart) and tried to represent this in their work. Overall, I felt the finished pieces so charmingly represented all of the things my students hold dear – and I learned even more about what kinds of things/experiences are really important to the children in my class.

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Art and Fine Motor Instruction: Snowflakes

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This year I added a new lesson format to our weekly schedule: Art and Fine Motor Instruction. During these weekly lessons we focus on enhancing the children’s fine motor skills through guided instruction. I choose our focus based on the children’s interests and needs or match our drawing practice to the inquiry projects we are working on. During the lesson, each student has their own 9 x 12 whiteboard and whiteboard marker with an eraser. I find that the non-permanence of the whiteboard is especially wonderful for this type of practice because it is totally risk-free. If the children draw something they don’t like, they can simply erase it and try again without getting frustrated. The format is completely accessible for all my learners – even those that are still learning how to grip a writing utensil correctly. I have to say, our weekly art lesson is probably my most treasured time of the week. The children are so engaged, focused, and excited. They always leave the lesson feeling more confident as artists than they did when they began.

This week, our focus was on drawing Snowflakes. I had noticed that snowflake designs were beginning to pop up everywhere – at the light table and in the children’s art and writing. I found this wonderful video on Youtube that provided some wonderful inspiration for the students and teaching points for me:

After watching the video a few times, I was able to pause it at certain points and, using the pens on my SMARTBoard, highlight the lines and shapes that are used to create a snowflake design. The children immediately began trying to create their own snowflakes on their boards. They noticed shapes and designs (diamonds, webs, dots, etc.) and experimented with symmetry. We stopped on several of the snowflake designs so the children could try them out. At the end of the lesson, the children excitedly held up their boards for all to see. They were so proud of themselves as artists!

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Our Wonderful Tree: A Collaborative Art Piece

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This week, two projects we have been working on came together at the Art Studio: The Dot Project and our Tree Study. I could easily tell you all about it, but instead we asked the students to write about what they created, how they made it, and how they felt about it. Here is what the children wanted to say (they even came up with the title!):

Our Wonderful Tree: A Beautiful Art Piece
We made art at the Art Studio – something we’ve never made before! We used Plasticine. Plasticine is like Playdough except it is hard. We had to rub the Plasticine with our hands to warm it up. Some of us blew hot air on it or put it on the heater to make it soft. We made a tree trunk and tree branches. Then, we each made a leaf in the shape of a dot. Some of us put our leaves on top of other leaves. We used all the colours of the rainbow (and the colours of fall). Some of us mixed up the colours to make swirls of colour. Our Kindergarten helpers helped us add grass and a butterfly and a flower to our work. Our work makes us happy because it’s so big! We are surprised that we made something that we’ve never made before and it turned out so nice. We are proud that we made such nice art. Some of us are sad that we are finished because we wanted to keep doing more!

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The Colours of Fall Inquiry

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In October we went on our first nature walk of the school year. In the weeks leading up to our walk, many children had begun to notice the changes that were happening outside. Leaves were being brought in to school, the children were wearing warmer jackets, and our special Maple tree out front had started to turn red.

Before our walk, the children were given a job to do. They were asked to look for evidence of the colours of fall. While we were outside we took pictures and collected samples of the children’s discoveries. The next day, we put all our leaves, pine needles, maple seeds, and pine cones in the middle of the carpet and talked about the colours we noticed. We decided to sort our items by colour to make it easier to see what we had found. The children identified the colour piles we would need and we placed coloured construction paper mats in brown, red, green, orange, and yellow down on the floor. Then we sorted! Each student was given an opportunity to sort some leaves. It was quite interesting to see how the leaves were debated amongst the group. Here is a conversation that arose during the process:

S: “I’m not sure about this leaf. Is it red?”


[some children say no, others say yes]


J: “Put it on the red mat and see.”


S: “It doesn’t look like the other red leaves”


Ms McD: “What does it mean when we say something is red? Is there one kind of red?”


[the class thinks there is one kind of red]


J: “Turn it over. The back is red. The front is just dark. It’s still red.”


[some children are satisfied with this]


W: Yes, there is more than one kind of red. There’s red and dark red.


E: And light red too.

The children were debating each leaf and from those debates were emerging concepts about colour and categorization. We decided to save our sorted colour piles by gluing our artifacts in place and pursue the children’s thinking further by creating a colour provocation at the Art Studio. Here is what our colour provocation looked like:

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At this centre we placed our colour-sorted leaves, photos from our nature walk, paint chips from the hardware store, and paint for mixing. The children were encouraged to look at the objects on the table and create their own special fall colour. After mixing, the children were asked about their process: What colour did you make? What name might you give your colour? How did you make it? Where might you see this colour outside?

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When it came to naming their colour creations, the children were quite inspired by the variety of names we read off the hardware store paint chips – names like “brilliant sun,” and “orange fiesta.” These descriptions helped the children come up with their own unique names such as, “swamp green” (J.M.), “Dark, dark, orange corn” (J.K.), “twirly brown” (W.W.), “dark super purple” (A.F.) and “jewel pink” (A.A). An important part of this project was documenting it. We decided to place the children’s paint samples (which they painted on small canvasses) along with their colour names and descriptions on the wall ‘gallery style’. We included in our documentation all of the artifacts and photographs that gave us inspiration for the project. The children love to look at the work they created. They particularly enjoy seeing the beautiful range of colours their classmates created. We can definitely feel that the idea of colour will be something we will likely revisit throughout the year.

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Has your class embarked on a colour inquiry? I’d love to hear about your experiences!

In the Art Studio: Still Life Portraits

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This experience is another gem that comes from Ann Pelo, author of The Language of Art: Inquiry Based Studio Practices in Early Childhood Settings.

Here is what Ann has to say about still-life portraits:

“In creating still-life portraits, children form an intimate relationship with their subject. They spend time looking closely, aligning themselves with the subject of their work. Then they translate their understanding of the subject to paper, first sketching with black pen and then adding colour.”

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In my classroom, I refer to still-life portrait experiences such as these as “dainty painting.” ‘Dainty’ refers to the fact that the children use fine tipped markers and fine brushes to create their artwork. I have never understood why Kindergarten children are always given large, fat brushes to paint with. Large brushes are incredibly difficult to manipulate with small hands, hold more paint than is often needed, and are not useful for adding small details. In the pictures below, you’ll notice that we use only the smallest of brushes for this activity. If the goal is for the children to notice the finest of details in their subject, we need to give them the proper tools for them to recreate what they see.

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Before painting, the teacher spends time with the children looking closely at the gourds. The children are encouraged to talk about what they notice about each gourd’s size, texture, shape, and colour. Interesting markings or designs are also noted. When the children have had time to get acquainted with their subject, they are given fine black markers to sketch what they see. At this point the teacher may offer suggestions on how the children can add more details to their work. Finally, the children use watercolour paints to add colour to their sketches.

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J: I got a beautiful gourd. I notice it’s green on the bottom and yellow on top. It is a beautiful gourd. It has lots of bumps on it too.

E: I made lots of bumps because it is bumpy. My gourd is orange and yellow. It looks like a pear. The stem is green – actually, it’s a really dark green.

G: There are lines on the pumpkin so I drew them. The lines help me keep my painting neat.

W: This one is hard because it has two colours. I can’t make it the right colour. When I added more green it turned the yellow green too and I can’t fix it.

Y: It’s a fluffy one. It’s green, yellow, and orange. It has so many bumps. It looks like a melon.

K: The stem is kinda wiggly!

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Dainty painting is an art experience that we revisit often throughout the year. Over time, the children become expert at using their senses, describing what they notice, and using their art skills to recreate what they see on the page.

Leaf Man: “A Leaf Man’s got to go where the wind blows…”

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If you haven’t had the pleasure of discovering Lois Ehlert, award-winning author and illustrator of over 20 children’s books, then I highly recommend that you take a trip to your local library and check her out! This month I was reading one of my favourite Ehlert books, “Leaf Man.” For weeks the children have been bringing in leaves they have discovered on their way to school and I wanted to find a way to celebrate and encourage their discoveries. “Leaf Man” is a story about a man made of leaves who blows across the sky over several other leaf-composed creatures (birds, farm animals, etc.). After reading this book with my students, I created a provocation of leaves, stones, and sticks and asked the children if they could create their own leaf creature. In addition to composing pictures with found materials, I was also looking for children to express a connection with/understanding of the story we read as well as demonstrate some story telling/imaginative skills when talking about what they had made. Here are a few samples of the students’ work and thinking:

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R.K: My leaf man is doing a cartwheel just like I can do on my trampoline at home!

A: This is a portrait of a Leaf Man. It’s about a Leaf Man that flew away, up, up, up, and his leaves fell down on him because he was blown away by a storm.

A.F.: I used rocks for his eyes and nose. His mouth is a smiling leaf. I used sticks for the legs and ripped the leaves to make his hands and feet. My Leaf Man will fly over lots of things!

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E.A.: My Leaf Girl only has one leg because no other leaves can stand still. My Leaf Girl is flying over chickens! The wind is blowing her.

J.M: My Leaf Man is lying down and looking at the clouds to see what shapes they are. He saw a special cloud that looked like a house!

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Our class quilt of leaf creations:

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Beautiful Stuff

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Maintaining a variety of supplies at the Art Studio can be a challenge on a limited budget. I often have visitors to my classroom ask me where I get my materials. One simple way to stock your studio is to involve the children and their families in setting it up. This year we stocked our studio by embarking on a “Beautiful Stuff Project” – an idea I read about in Beautiful Stuff: Learning with Found Materials by Cathy Weisman Topal and Lella Gandini. Just like the book suggests, we wrote a letter to the parents with the children. Here is what the children said:

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Each student received a large paper bag with a clothespin on top. They were told their stuff must fit in the bag and should be clipped shut to ensure their materials stayed top secret until sharing day.

Along with stocking our Art Studio, I was also interested in creating an authentic opportunity for the children to sort. We have been working on sorting as one of our Math goals. One of the questions we have been asking is: “How does sorting the materials in the classroom help us with our learning?”

On sharing day, we asked each student to talk about one special item from their bag in our sharing circle. And then…we dumped our Beautiful Stuff out on the the carpet. After a few minutes of excited exploration, we got down to the business of figuring out what to do with our collections.

Some children thought we should put our stuff back in our bags and share as needed, but it was decided that it would be too hard to know what we had and besides, the idea was for everyone to put their stuff together. We decided the materials definitely needed to be sorted…but how? By colour? By size? When we thought about how we were going to use our stuff (at the Art Studio to make creations) the children decided it would be best to sort our stuff by type of material. After all, sometimes you might just need a straw or a button and you want to know exactly where to find it! We proceeded by making a list of categories on the SMART Board from the stuff that we could find: buttons, straws, paper, tissue, wooden things, metal things, caps, small boxes, beads, etc. We ended up with over 20 different kinds of materials! Finally, we sorted – adding materials to different containers that we had gathered at the carpet. Our Art Studio is now brimming with materials just waiting to be turned into beautiful creations!

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Here is the first creation that came out of our newly stocked Art Studio:

E: “I made a ‘Beautiful Maker’. It’s a machine that makes things beautiful.” 🙂

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In the Art Studio: Working with Wire

For anyone who is interested in adding more inquiry-based learning to their program but isn’t sure where to start, I highly recommend starting with Art. Art involves creativity, problem solving, making choices, discussion, and is generally open-ended. An excellent resource for dipping into art-based inquiry is: The Language of Art by Ann Pelo.

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This week at the Art Studio we were working with wire. The goal was to work the wire into a sculpture of a tree. We have been doing a tree study and I was interested to see how the children might apply what they already know/have learned about trees while they created their sculptures. Wire is not an easy material to work with, save for the fact that it generally stays in the shape that you put it in, so I was also looking for the children to demonstrate some problem solving skills as they completed their pieces.

Here is the provocation I placed at the studio. I happened to have a small wire tree sculpture at home that my husband had received from his former student. The children were quite inspired by it.

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Here are some of the comments the children made during their wire exploration:

“I’m making my branches silly by twisting them up. It’s twirly swirly!”

“So my tree is kind of wiggly at the top because I saw some trees have branches like that.”

“I am twisting my wire all around so it can stay up. I had to twist the wires some more to help my tree stand.”

“My tree is dancing!”

“I did it! I got my tree to stand up!”

“Wire is good because it doesn’t break. I need some more wire down here because this part is a little loose.”

Most children wanted to create a tree that could stand on its own. This proved to be quite the challenge, but I was encouraged to see that the children really persevered at the task and were incredibly proud when they achieved their goal.

A sweet moment I was able to capture was between two boys who were working alongside each other at the table:

F: “This is so hard. I can’t do it.”

J: “You have to do it like this!” (modelling twisting the wire)

F: “No, I can’t even do it.”

J: “Look, I’ll show you. You just have to do this (twisting). See? Try again.”

F: “ugh…” (keeps working on it)

J: “Yeah! That’s it! Keep twisting it until it’s nice and strong!”

F: “Like this? Oh, I can do it now! I made a tree!”

Sometimes we all just need a little encouragement from our friends!

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