Enclosures Inquiry: A House for Snuffles

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Our second major inquiry of the year in M.S.I. was an inquiry about enclosures (you can read about our first inquiry on towers by clicking here.)

To introduce the idea of enclosures, I read my class the story Snuffles House by Daphne Faunce-Brown, about a hedgehog who sets out to build himself a new house after his house burns down. In the story, Snuffles experiments with different shapes and designs for his house, each with their own flaws (e.g., the round house rolls down a hill, the triangle house has too small of an upstairs) until he decides on a rectangle shaped house. As you can tell from the description, this story provides a lot of opportunities to talk about shapes. Snuffles House is out of print (so if you find a copy, grab it!), but you can find a video of it being read on YouTube. You can also tell the story orally by making your own props (I made a set of different shaped houses using brown construction paper). Alternatively, a story like The Three Little Pigs also lends itself well to this topic.

After reading the story, we talked about the problems Snuffles encountered and what features were important in the construction of his house. I then gave the children the task of building a house for Snuffles with blocks. To help the children, I provided them with a basket of small stuffed hedgehog toys to use for checking the adequacy of their structures. The children loved having a tangible “Snuffles” to work with!

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The instructions for our initial building time were sparse. I basically read the story and sent the children to “build a house for Snuffles.” The purpose of this initial building time was for me to gauge what ideas/skills/experiences the children had around houses and enclosures. As the children worked, many of them demonstrated some ideas about walls and doors. Still others worked on some kind of roof-like covering, though this proved to be a challenge for most children because of the size of their blocks. During reflection time, we pointed out these successes and challenges. Naturally, a brainstorming session began on how to solve our roofing problems. It was decided that a roof was an essential part of our enclosures in that it would protect Snuffles from weather and predators. But how could we make a roof when our blocks were so small? I challenged the children to look around and see if they could spot anything that might make a good roof material. Immediately, the children started shouting out ideas: “books!” “carpets!” “paper!” Suddenly, we had so many ideas for roof materials! We decided to make a basket of roof materials for the next M.S.I. lesson.

During our initial building, one student modifies her structure to add a roof. We talked about her decision during reflection time.

During our initial building, one student modifies her structure to add a roof. We talked about her decision during reflection time.

A photo showing a student who struggled with adding a roof to her structure.

A photo showing a student who struggled with adding a roof to her structure.

Throughout this inquiry, we explored so many important ideas around enclosures, almost always by examining more closely the children’s own structures. For example, many students built enclosures that the little stuffed hedgehog just barely fit inside. This got us thinking about space. We looked around our classroom and realized how high the ceiling was and how far apart the walls were. Why was space so important? What did having space in our enclosure allow us to do? How did space add to our comfort? These are some of the ideas we explored.

Snuffles seems like he needs a little more space!

Snuffles seems like he needs a little more space!

The idea of space really came to life when we added a Snuffles House provocation to the light table. With the window blocks and the light shining from underneath, the children were really able to get a sense of how much space Snuffles had inside his house – it was quite the breakthrough! The light table also gave the children an opportunity to collaborate and the enclosures that were created were amazingly elaborate!

A collaborative structure at the light table.

A collaborative structure at the light table.

Another idea that popped up during this inquiry was the idea of drawing up blueprints or making plans for building. In the computer lab, the children were given a chance to work with a partner to design a house for Snuffles using KidPix. After printing out their plans, many children continued to work on adding details to their drawings at our classroom writing centre.

Students continue adding to the plans they designed in the computer lab.

Students continue adding to the plans they designed in the computer lab.

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Enclosures also began popping up at the classroom big blocks centre:

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After several weeks of experimenting with different designs for our enclosures and talking about the important features for enclosures, the children were given one last opportunity to design a dream house for Snuffles (by this time, we had co-created success criteria for enclosures on the SMART Board which were reviewed and added to each week).

Our collaborative success criteria for Snuffles' house.

Our collaborative success criteria for Snuffles’ house.

Whereas in our Tower Inquiry the students sketched their towers after they were built, this time the children were encouraged to draw their plans first, label them, and then build. While building, the children were able to refer to their plans and make sure they had all their important elements covered.

This student focuses on using a variety of shapes in his design.

This student focuses on using a variety of shapes in his design.

This student adds labels to his design plan.

This student adds labels to his design plan.

"Inside Snuffles house are so many toys. I used the square blocks with the colours because you can see through them. They are windows."

“Inside Snuffles house are so many toys. I used the square blocks with the colours because you can see through them. They are windows.”

"First I made a square and I thought I could use blocks for the roof but it was too small for Snuffles so I made it so he can fit. It has 2 chimneys and a 2nd floor where he sleeps."

“First I made a square and I thought I could use blocks for the roof but it was too small for Snuffles so I made it so he can fit. It has 2 chimneys and a 2nd floor where he sleeps.”

"I put the bed upstairs and a kitchen downstairs. There’s rain outside but it won’t get in the house. I made 5 floors on mine!"

“I put the bed upstairs and a kitchen downstairs. There’s rain outside but it won’t get in the house. I made 5 floors on mine!”

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See, Think, Wonder: Developing Thinking Routines in the Classroom

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Today I thought I’d share a strategy I use to help my students communicate their thinking during the inquiry process. See, Think, Wonder is a thinking routine I use with my students to help them think critically about an object or idea and express their ideas with others. See, Think, Wonder is a strategy that developed out of Harvard’s Project Zero. It was originally developed with a view to help children think critically about art and artwork, though I use it across my program and have found it particularly effective during inquiry projects. If you haven’t checked out the Project Zero website, I highly recommend it! There are a number of amazing strategies and projects there which anyone working with early learners might find useful.

See, Think, Wonder falls under one of Project Zero’s “Thinking Routines.” Basically, the idea of a thinking routine is that you approach it the way you do any other routine you want to establish in your class, with lots of modelling, practice, and a gradual release of responsibility. As a kindergarten teacher, the idea of establishing routines is a familiar one. We have routines for entry, snack time, carpet time, etc. Why not have routines for thinking as well?

When I was thinking about how I would introduce this routine to the class, I knew I wanted to create a visual element to accompany the language prompts as I thought it might help my students connect to what I was talking about. I created the following template using both words and images. For “I See…,” I included an image of a magnifying glass (not just a picture of eyes, as I had originally thought, because I wanted to impart the idea of looking deeply at something); for “I think…,” I included a picture of a brain; for “I wonder…,” I put a picture of a thought cloud (this is specific to my class because I have a bunch of thought clouds on sticks that we use to communicate our “wonderings,” so I knew my students would connect to that and know what I wanted them to express). Here is the finished template I created – you can click on it for a pdf version:

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To begin, I use an electronic version of the template on the SmartBoard to model my own thinking. This year, I started by using a photograph from a recent nature walk we went on as a class so that the children would have their own schema for the event that I was talking about. However, you can just as easily use a new image or object. Over the coming days and weeks, I repeat the routine but gradually involve the children’s ideas. I always record our thinking on the same template.

When I feel that the children are comfortable with the template and the language, I place copies of the template at our discovery centre. Here, the children are given an opportunity to communicate their own ideas. Some children draw pictures to show their thinking, and others attempt to write their own ideas down with a combination of letters and familiar words.

Here are a couple examples from our butterfly inquiry last year:

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I see the caterpillars eating. I think the caterpillars are ready to turn into a butterfly. I wonder why they turn into a butterfly.

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I see it fell. I think it is frozen. I wonder why it is not moving.

What do you think about using See, Think, Wonder as a thinking routine for your class? Are you using any other strategies for encouraging deep thinking with your students?

Nests, revisited…

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One of the things I’ve noticed about inquiry projects is how everlasting the learning is. Our projects never really end; though we may “shelve” our thinking and ideas for a time, we often revisit our projects throughout the year – or even in the following year. Earlier in the fall I wrote about a nest inquiry we embarked on after one of my students brought in a nest she found on her way to school (you can read about it here: “Whose Nest is This?”). This Spring, students started thinking about an inquiry from last year where we studied the birds in our yard. As the weather warmed up, the children started noticing our sparrows territorially guarding the bird houses in the courtyard and began speculating that the birds might be preparing nests for their babies, as they had done last year. This created some interesting discussion and wondering about nests. Some of the questions that came up were:

Why do birds (and other animals) build nests?

How do they build nests? What materials do they use? How long does it take?

We really wished we could see inside our bird houses so we could see what the birds were up to! To that end, I found a clip on YouTube that showed a time lapse of a bird building a nest inside a birdhouse (some clever person had set up a video camera in the roof of the house to capture the whole process – boy, did my students think THAT was a genius idea!).

To capitalize on the students’ interest in nests, I created a provocation at the Art Studio. We had been working with clay over the last few weeks and I wanted to give the students a new experience with this popular material. Here is the provocation:

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Students were asked to sculpt a nest out of clay and make sure that it could safely hold at least one egg. Students were also asked to add “texture” to their nests using a variety of materials. Fitting an egg proved to be a wonderful challenge that encouraged the children to problem solve as they worked  – making their nests deeper, wider, or taller as necessary to safely hold the egg. When it came to adding texture, we spent some time holding real bird nests and describing how they felt – “rough,” “prickly,” “scratchy.” “soft,” “smooth,” etc. Children were given simple tools (popsicle sticks, toothpicks, forks, etc.) to add the texture they felt was appropriate. This was a new experience for my students, as our previous work with clay had required them to make their pieces as smooth as possible. Some children had a hard time scratching up their work – in their minds, the nests needed to be smooth because “that’s what clay should feel like.” I was fascinated by this line of thinking. It just goes to show that we often misinterpret the messages that children receive from us from our teaching.

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S.M: The inside of my nest is very big so all the eggs can fit and won’t fly out because of the wind!

Y.T: I made my nest with clay. First, I made a circle and then I put my thumb in and pushed. First the egg didn’t fit and then I pinched it more and tested it but it still didn’t fit, then I tested it again and it fit!

G.M: Nests are for baby birds. The nest keeps the eggs from falling out on the ground where someone might eat them.

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J.M.: Nests are very scratchy. I’m going to pinch it to make it rough. I really enjoyed making this!

J.K.: Nests have a bumpy texture.

S.M.: My nest has a rough texture on the outside and a smooth texture on the inside. It’s smooth in the inside because we don’t want to hurt the birds.

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After completing our nests, the children were given the opportunity to paint an egg to put inside. We read An Egg is Quiet by Dianna Hutts Aston and Silvia Long (one book of many in a wonderful series – definitely worth checking out!) where we learned about the different sizes, shapes, designs, and textures eggs can have. We also discovered that eggs can be laid by a wide variety of animals! While working on their eggs, the children were asked to imagine what creature might hatch from their egg – a wonderful, creative exercise that greatly influenced how the children designed and painted their eggs.

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M: That’s a crab egg. It’s red with black spots!

M.B. I knew he was making a crab egg. I knew it because he made it so red!

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M.C: I’m painting my egg black because there’s a black snake inside!

R.K.: Mine is a blue jay egg. It’s just blue because a blue jay is blue. Oh, I love my egg!

J.M.: I made my egg green with white, yellow, and blue. I put on black speckles and blue lines. There’s a little robin inside.

Our display of nests and eggs is in the centre of our classroom, at the children’s level. Our students can be found admiring their work daily (and they can’t wait to take them home!).

Are you working on a bird or nest inquiry at the moment? What kind of thinking is happening in your class? I’d love to hear what you are up to!

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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Spring Inspirations

When you dream of spring, what does it look like?

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Spring is finally here…sort of. Despite the fact that it is still chilly outside, spring has sprung at the Curious Kindergarten! This year, the children were particularly excited about the arrival of spring – doing their own countdown in the days leading up to March 20th. When the first day of spring arrived, some children were naturally disappointed that when they woke up that morning there was still snow on the ground, a chill in the air, and a winter jacket to wear to school. We wanted to latch on to the children’s natural excitement about the changes that were still ahead, so we created a “Spring Inspiration” table at our classroom science table.

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Above: Birds nests, birds, eggs, and early spring plants inspire the children’s thinking around the creatures we have already observed in our Outdoor Classroom.

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Above: Insects, a bug house, planting supplies, animals, and non-fiction books about spring changes help the children envision what they might begin to see and do outside now that the weather is changing.

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Above: These fairies and garden gnomes were a huge hit, providing ample opportunities for dramatic play, storytelling, and the development of ideas around how creatures respond to the changes outside.

The question we have been asking leading up to spring (and after) is: “When you dream of spring, what does it look like?” In order to support the children’s thinking, we have been reading a lot of books (both fiction and non-fiction) about spring and engaging in visualization exercises. Many of our classroom activities have been designed to help the children communicate their thinking in a variety of ways. For example, at the playdough table we created a provocation with green dough and spring-themed loose parts (mushrooms, flowers, butterflies, stones, wood chips, etc.) in which the children created their own “spring scenes.” At the writing table, children have been encouraged to write their own poems about spring, and at the art studio, children were given the opportunity to paint a still-life portrait of a tulip.

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M.F. and M.B. created a collaborative drawing that tells their story of spring creatures.

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“Hello Spring” is a poem written by one of our JK students at the writing table.

What an exciting time! It really does feel like there has been a “spring awakening” happening in our classroom. How have you marked the arrival of spring with your students? What kinds of inquiries and ideas are you talking about?

Math and Science Investigations (M.S.I.)

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Math and Science Investigations (M.S.I.) is a building program I have been doing in Kindergarten since I started my career. I first learned about it during one of my practicums in a Kindergarten class when I was in teacher’s college. Essentially, M.S.I. is an inquiry-based program that uses building materials to encourage the development of math and science concepts, creativity, problem-solving, perseverance, planning, and much, much, more. My original resource for M.S.I (a worn photocopy from a book that used to exist somewhere in the board) is long since lost; however, I found a great replacement in the book Building Structures With Young Children by Ingrid Chalufour and Karen Worth:

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Basically, M.S.I. goes something like this:

1) I teach a mini lesson on the day’s focus.

2) Each student gets their own bin of building materials (blocks, connectors, cups, etc.) and takes it to a table. The bin goes on the chair and the children stand at the table and build. I circulate and facilitate discussion, pose questions, take notes, take photographs.

3) Reflection. I post pictures of interesting structures for discussion and feedback.

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We engage in M.S.I. as an entire class, one period per week. That being said, the building bins are always available during discovery time and it is common to find children selecting them to continue working on an inquiry we are engaged in. We also often find ourselves setting up provocations that support the learning that is happening in M.S.I., due to significant student interest.

Here are a few questions I often get about M.S.I:

Q: What kind of materials do you use? How do you organize enough bins for each child to have one?

A: We use a variety of store-bought traditional building blocks and some found materials to make up our bins. Wooden blocks, tree blocks, better blocks (kind of like Duplo), foam blocks, cups (laundry caps) from the recycling depot, anything that will stack! I purchased some materials from school catalogues, found others at garage sales and recycling stores, and got some for free from the recycling depot in our school board. Anything that can stack reasonably well is a good material for M.S.I. If you don’t have enough for everyone in your class you could always run the program with children working in partners or groups, and we sometimes do this as well depending on the focus of the lesson.

Q: What about space? Where do you store your materials? What if you don’t have enough table space for each student?

If you don’t have enough table space for each student to have their own spot, children can build on the floor. The idea behind standing and building at a table is that children are initially encouraged to build up with their materials. Standing helps the children stack their blocks more easily, and see their structure from all sides. Placing the building bin on a chair frees up table space for working. We store our building materials in two large rolling shelves. The shelves hold about 36 bins. I have a small space, but it’s not overwhelming in the classroom. I saw another school where the three kindergarten classes shared their M.S.I materials on a rolling cart that was parked in the hallway and could be easily moved to each class.

Q: What kinds of inquiries have you done? How long does one inquiry last?

A: The resource Building Structures With Young Children focuses on two inquiries: Towers and Enclosures. This year we have completed a Tower Inquiry (which I will write more about soon) and are now working on enclosures. We have also done inquiries on bridges and castles. In one school year, we usually have time to complete at least 2 large structure inquiries through M.S.I.

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Q: How is M.S.I introduced? What does it look like at the beginning of the year?

A: At the beginning of the year, M.S.I. time is mainly spent establishing routines and working on basic concepts of space, balance, making a plan, etc. There is a lot to be said just for helping the children locate a bin, find their own work space, build, and then tidy up. A lot of time also goes into establishing routines and expectations for sharing and reflecting on our structures at the end of the lesson. The most important part of the initial phase of M.S.I. is exploration and helping the children stay focused on solving problems rather than getting frustrated if/when their structure falls down. The children are often encouraged to choose different bins regularly to get a feel for the variety of materials we have available.

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I have to say, the children are always excited to see M.S.I. on the schedule. I continue to be amazed at how reflective and thoughtful they are about their structures and how mature they appear when giving feedback and suggestions to their classmates during reflection time. Although when I started teaching I successfully ran an M.S.I. program without a lot of fancy technology (none, actually), the access we now have to iPads, a classroom camera, and an interactive SMARTBoard have helped me take our building program to a whole new level. Being able to take a photo of a child’s structure and immediately post it on the SMARTboard for us to discuss is an invaluable part of the program. We regularly use the SMARTBoard pens to label the structure in the photo, highlight shapes in the design of the structure or draw on possible ideas to add next time.

If you have any other questions about how M.S.I. works, please don’t hesitate to drop me a line!