Branching out with tree planting

From the Spencer Daily Reporter – Monday, Oct. 24, 2016

A Spencer Early Head Start classroom, together with volunteers, planted a tree at the program’s playground last week. Laura Bussel, of Busy B’s Cupcakes, donated an Autumn Blaze Maple. “I was happy to jump at the opportunity to present the children at Head Start with a Maple Tree they could plant and watch grow,” she said. The classrooms of Kaelah Balmer and Valerie Lowe were doing a project approach connected with nature driven by the children’s interest in the world around them. The project began when a child noticed pods on a tree this fall. This led to the children’s interest in other trees and what is growing on them. This hands on approach gives children the opportunity to find and collect interesting objects. The children and their parents have collected pinecones, acorns, leaves, bark and much more. These items are then used in the classroom. They have been sorted, counted and classified contributing to observational and inquiry skills used every day by the children. The tree was planted on the playground at Jefferson school. Volunteers and children were involved in all aspects from digging, planting and watering. (Photos submitted)

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Young Investigators Program Connects Nature and Students

Saturday, November 28, 2015


PHOTO SUBMITTED / As children investigate they learn how to generate questions, conduct investigations, collect and study artifacts closely, generate more complex questions, represent what they learn by drawing, painting and construction, writing and even through play, and share their findings with others beyond the classroom.

How does water change into snow? Why do worms crawl out of the ground? Why do trees have so many branches? What helps a seed grow?These are but a sampling of student questions that develop into full scale nature investigations each year in nearly 100 classrooms in Dickinson County and across northwest Iowa, thanks to an Iowa Department of Natural Resources Conservation Education Program (REAP CEP) grant.

The grant is a major funding source behind Young Investigators, an innovative, nature-based early childhood teacher training program that began in 2012.

YI is provided by Nature Connections, a collaborative of early childhood professionals, teachers and naturalists made possible by Iowa Lakeside Laboratory and Regents Resource Center and the Friends of Lakeside Lab. The YI training is targeted at meeting two critical needs: “Nature Deficit Disorder” — or the growing concern about children’s disconnect with nature and its impact on their social, emotional and intellectual development — and the need for high quality professional development for early childhood teachers. The REAP CEP grant allows the Nature Connections team to address both needs by providing an affordable and high quality professional development for early childhood teachers that, in 2015, is impacting over 1500 students in nearly 25 northwest Iowa school districts.

The training location on the 140-acre Lakeside campus, also managed as nature preserve, provides teachers with the opportunity to practice using the outdoors and nature in their curriculum development.

Young Investigators uses the Project Approach, a child-centered teaching method that follows student interest and builds STEM and literacy readiness in young learners. The trainings are provided by Dr. Judy Harris Helm, an internationally recognized educator and expert on Project Approach, and author of numerous books and publications on the topic. While projects can be conducted on any topic children find interesting, Dr. Helm recommends teachers conduct at least one nature project a year because nature topics provide ample opportunity for children to conduct investigations, learn to ask questions, and represent what they are learning. “And,” she adds “if children learn to love nature at an early age, they will grow up to become good stewards.”


PHOTO SUBMITTED / Research shows that teachers are more likely to adopt new teaching methods with administrator support and involvement. The Young Investigators training involves early childhood administrators and includes special breakout sessions to discuss challenges and successes.
Originally a three-year training program aimed at reaching as many northwest Iowa school districts as possible in a series of three cohorts in five years, the Nature Connections team added a fourth cohort and an optional fourth year in 2015 due to teacher request and program success. “I have found it really does take three years of implementing this approach before you really feel confident using it,” commented Julie Bates, a pre-school teacher at Estherville-Lincoln Central School. “The three years allowed me the time to focus on improving different aspects of project work each year.”

School districts apply as teams of teachers, associates and administrators to support implementation of project work. After each of the seven training sessions, participants immediately implement what they have learned and receive follow up coaching by the Nature Connections team. The on-going sessions allow them to share challenges and successes, deepen their understanding of project work, and learn about new neuroscience research on the relationship between project work and brain development in young children. In the optional fourth year, teachers develop leadership and strategies for sustaining and adding rigor to project work in their classrooms.

“Trees and Things That Live In Trees”: Three Children with Special Needs Experience the Project Approach

The authors report on research conducted during a project investigation undertaken with preschool children, ages 3–5. The report focuses on three children with special needs and the positive outcomes for each child as they engaged in the project Trees and Things That Live in Trees. Two of the children were diagnosed with developmental delays, and the third child expressed strong dislike of school and exhibited challenging behaviors. The authors document pivotal experiences for the children during their participation in the project and note transformations in four areas: initiated learning experiences, increased engagement, increased prosocial skills, and the use of graphic arts for inquiry and representation.

If you have benefited from free access to ECRP, please consider making a financial contribution to ECRP so that the journal can continue to be available free to everyone.
Early childhood classrooms are generally inclusive of children at many ability levels. Often, young children with disabilities have not yet been evaluated or identified and have not received special services. Ideally, then, the preschool classroom is designed as a least restrictive environment that supports many different levels of learning with a child-centered pedagogy and assures that children with disabilities have “access to the general education curriculum, along with learning activities and settings that are available to their peers without disabilities” (Division for Early Childhood & National Association for the Education of Young Children, 2009, p.5). This is especially true in the context of an emergent curriculum such as the project approach (Helm, Beneke, Scranton, & Doubet, 2003; Helm & Katz, 2011).

Project work values all children’s intelligence, strengths, and innate desire to learn, recognizing that they learn through experience and interaction/collaboration with others (Malaguzzi, 1998). A key component of project work is that the teachers follow the children’s lead in choosing a topic to study and in developing the curriculum and experiences (Forman & Fyfe, 1998; Katz & Chard, 2000). The teachers closely observe the children’s interests and current understandings each day and then build curriculum for the next day or week based on those observations (Katz & Chard, 2000). Another important component is the focus on symbolic representation. Children use a variety of materials to discover and communicate what they know. The forms of symbolic representation might include writing, painting, drawing, sculpture, or collage (Cadwell, 2003; Malaguzzi, 1998).

Project work can facilitate the learning process of a classroom of children who are at many different levels of development and have varying interests and needs. It fits the definition of universal design for learning in that it gives all children equal opportunities to participate and contribute by offering content in different ways and encouraging a variety of approaches to representing knowledge (Meo, 2008). Teachers scaffold and support the children’s learning by asking questions and offering many different ways to explore a topic that is worthwhile and of interest to individuals as well as small groups (Katz & Chard, 2000). During projects, individualized education plan and individualized family service plan goals can be met through meaningful and naturalistic opportunities (Division of Early Childhood, 2014; Donegan, Hong, Trepanier-Street, & Finkelstein, 2005). Projects facilitate collaborative work among children and teachers, focusing on the strengths and assets of individuals and their contributions to the work at hand (Helm et al., 2003). Children challenge one another to think about the topic from different perspectives. Parents are involved naturally in a variety of ways and may be recruited to share their knowledge (Katz & Helm, 2000). Components of inclusive practice such as engagement, flexible learning environments, data-based decisions, and building a sense of belonging to the classroom community are all supported in project work (Harte, 2010). Formal research on project work suggests that children with disabilities demonstrate increased positive interactions with peers, engage longer in project activities, and express themselves through means that fit their personal style of learning (Donegan et al., 2005). Additionally, these children often initiate research during the project and show leadership capabilities (Edmiaston, 1998; Elgas & Peltier, 1998).

In this article we share the story and outcomes of a project conducted with 16 preschool children, ages 3–5, with diverse learning abilities, cultural backgrounds, and socioeconomic levels. The ethnographic study was conducted over 10 weeks in a university-based, Reggio-inspired classroom in a metropolitan area of the Midwestern United States. The researchers took the role of participant observers, dialoguing with children during the project (Spradley, 1980). Children’s work was videotaped and photographed, and field notes were kept for each day’s observations. The researchers’ documentation of children’s project work through photos, videos, and notes also provided a unique set of data on the children. (Project documentation differs from formal assessments, and from many informal ones, in that it is ongoing and includes multimedia observations that produce a more complete image of the child.) Data were transcribed and analyzed using domain analysis to discern common themes and relationships between project work and the children’s behaviors (Spradley, 1980). (For a more complete analysis of the data, see Griebling, 2011).

The research team consisted of the classroom teacher, two faculty researchers, and a graduate student. This article focuses on three children with disabilities and observed outcomes of their engagement in project work. Two of the children were diagnosed with developmental delays and the third exhibited challenging behaviors. These children were chosen because of the dramatic and profound transformations the researchers observed in their participation as the class engaged in project work.

The Project: Trees and Things That Live In Trees
As spring emerged in late March, the children became interested in the changes in nature around them. Although the school is in a metropolitan area, there is a tree on the playground and a large area of green space near the school. In the following section, we use Katz and Chard’s (2000) phases of project work as a framework for describing the specific aspects of the Trees and Things That Live in Trees project.

Katz and Chard (2000) discuss three phases of a project. In the first phase, teachers observe the children and listen for emerging interests. Also during Phase 1, teachers decide if the topic is appropriate and practical for the classroom. Phase 1 of our project began when the children noticed a log the teacher had placed in the classroom meeting area as a side table. A small group of children began looking at the rings in the log and a long conversation ensued with the teacher regarding their observations. They generated many questions, such as “How long do trees live?” and “Is there anything inside of trees?” That first week we continued to explore this topic with the children to determine what they knew, what they wanted to know, and whether we should continue to facilitate their exploration and discovery. Their ideas about trees appeared in their art and in their conversations. They were taking notice of the tree on the playground as it started to bud.

The second phase of a project is the investigatory phase, when children actively study the topic (Katz & Chard, 2000). As children made observations of the tree on the playground, they noticed that ants, birds, and other creatures lived in trees. These interests became part of the project. To facilitate their research, books about trees, insects, and birds were made available. Because of their interest in birds, the teachers brought in chicken eggs so children could observe how a bird hatches from an egg. Children had opportunities to observe caterpillars and watch them form chrysalides and emerge as butterflies. In anticipation of a visit from a park district naturalist, the children prepared questions ranging from “How old are trees?” to “Does money grow on trees?” Observations of the tree on the playground continued as it flowered and then developed leaves.

To build on this interest in trees, teachers took the class to the city garden where they could physically explore and sketch numerous types of trees. After the visit, children initiated the creation of a garden center in the classroom dramatic play area where they constructed spider webs, hung flowers, made nests, and created homes for caterpillars. An additional field trip was made to a local butterfly show where the children observed many species of butterflies and released the butterflies they had observed in the classroom.

The final phase in project work is the culmination. This is usually an event that gives the children a time to reflect on and celebrate what they have learned and to share the story of the project with their parents and the community (Katz & Chard, 2000). As the school year drew to a close, the teachers asked the children how they would like to share their work with their families and friends. The children proposed a party to be held in the classroom, which also quickly became a celebration of the lives of the animals they had cared for and observed—a birthday party for the birds and the butterflies. The children spent weeks decorating the classroom, preparing invitations, and making gifts. Documentation panels created throughout the project were displayed, and the children enthusiastically described their work to their guests.

Purpose of the Study
Three children were chosen for more focused observation and analysis of their participation in the project. Before the project began, each one’s classroom behavior presented some challenges for the teachers. At the onset of the project, we wondered how these children might be involved: Would they show interest in the study or would their individual needs overshadow the potential of the project work?

Patrick was a typically developing 5-year-old child from a family with three boys. Before the project began, Patrick often displayed anger and irritation about coming to school. He told the teachers that school was dumb and he wanted to go home. Throughout the year, the teachers had worked to help Patrick develop friendships and interact with the interesting materials in the classroom. However, even toward the end of the school year, he would kick the furniture in frustration when his mother brought him to the classroom. He displayed similar frustration in his interactions with his peers and had ongoing difficulties making and keeping friends. With the exception of one boy he played with regularly, Patrick would often leave classmates confused and startled as he vocalized his frustration and impatience with the members of the group.

Soon after the project began, the teachers brought in tree bark for the children to explore and provided crayons and paper as an invitation to create bark rubbings. While the other children worked, the teacher engaged Patrick in a conversation about what he wanted to do at school. Patrick expressed feeling upset he could not bring his Power Rangers to school. The teacher explained that she was sure they could find something he might like to do. However, as Patrick rubbed the crayons on the bark, he said he was “bored, bored, bored.”

After a short time, Patrick noticed moss on some of the bark. He suggested to the teacher that they paint the bark and moss instead of doing rubbings. The other children enthusiastically agreed that this would be a good experiment. Patrick and the other children had questions: “What would the paint do to the moss on the bark? Would the moss come off when painted? Would the paint kill the moss? Would it change color?” As is typical during a project, the teachers followed his lead and allowed Patrick to choose paint for this experiment. The children spent the rest of the morning engrossed in painting the bark multiple colors while they discussed how it felt, noticing the characteristics of the moss and the texture of the bark. Painting the bark offered an exploration of trees in a way the teachers had not considered. Maggie remarked, “This is the most fun we have ever had!” and others agreed with her.

The next day the children and a teacher revisited the painted bark experiment. They remarked that they could not see the moss. Patrick and Mark proposed washing the paint off the bark so they could see if the moss was still there and if it had changed. They spent most of the morning diligently washing the bark and discovered that the moss was still there. The paint had not changed it. Patrick declared that he was having so much fun he “didn’t even want to go outside.”

A few days later, a shift occurred that seemed to change Patrick’s outlook on school and on himself as a learner. This was the day the naturalist visited the classroom. She brought materials to show the children, answered questions the children had prepared, and started a conversation about things that live in trees. As part of her demonstration, the naturalist brought in a screech owl for the children to see and to hold on their finger. All of the children seemed fascinated with this small creature. We took several photographs of the owl so the children could review them the next day and have them as artifacts for their study.

At the end of the next day, Patrick was angry and upset. In an effort to help him, one researcher was showing him the photos of the screech owl when his mother arrived to pick him up. The researcher asked Patrick if he would like to take the photo of the owl home to draw a picture of it, then bring the picture back the next day. Previously, Patrick had primarily expressed his ideas nonrepresentationally, which is more characteristic of children younger than 5. However, the owl drawing he brought back the next day (Figure1) was detailed and colorful and showed the use of form rather than just lines. His mother expressed amazement; she had never seen him do more than a scribble drawing.

Figure 1
Figure 1. Patrick’s owl drawing and a photo of the owl

This was a pivotal moment for Patrick. He seemed to see himself and school in a different light and to view himself as an active learner and researcher. He found he liked school because he was interested in the current topic of study. He became a leader in many of the events and investigations that followed. Instead of gaining empowerment by playing Power Rangers, as he had previously, he seemed to feel empowered by doing meaningful work. Patrick made a serious study of the tree on the playground. He drew pictures of the ants and spiders he observed on the tree. He engaged in meaningful conversation with peers and adults about them. He spent weeks making homes for the caterpillars and creating an “energy machine” (Figure 2) for the birds, butterflies, the other children, and teachers. The changes in his demeanor and attitude toward school were especially apparent in the energy machine work. He began work on the energy machine with Mark (his preferred play partner); over the course of several days, however, Patrick invited other children to help with construction. He also provided scaffolding and encouragement to children who had difficulty completing work and maintaining appropriate social interactions in small groups. If children became frustrated with or disappointed in their work, Patrick encouraged them to continue, assuring them that they could “fix” their work. If they needed further assistance, he would physically help them.

Figure 2 Figure 2. Patrick led a group creating this “energy machine.”

Observing these events, the teachers and research team began to view Patrick as a creative boy whose strong intellect needed to be challenged and empowered. We realized that he was trying to understand the concept of power. This was most evident in his work on the energy machine, which he described as a device that gave you power when you put your hand over it. The more materials the children added to the machine, the more powerful it became. They shared the machine with the recently hatched chicks and with children who were having a difficult day. While having power was important, sharing that power also became significant for Patrick.

Dominic was a 5-year-old boy who displayed angry and aggressive behavior. Regular routine situations were difficult for him. During free choice he would hit the other children and take materials away from them. Transitioning and sitting in circle time were especially difficult. As children transitioned from free choice to cleanup, Dominic might become frustrated and engage in destructive behavior, such as throwing blocks. He was from an urban environment where, his mother reported, he did not often play outside because it was not safe. Dominic spent most his time indoors watching television and videos. Although he received support from the teachers and mental health intervention specialists to develop impulse control, positive communication strategies, and other prosocial behaviors, he still had difficulty making friends because of his unpredictable behavior.

We began to see another side of Dominic as the project unfolded. He became very interested when the project expanded to include “things that live in trees.” His affinity for animals first became apparent when we observed him playing with small plastic animals in the sensory table. He identified all of the forest animals and the sounds they made. He played for long periods of time with other children and these animals. He demonstrated and shared his knowledge of the forest animals with the teachers and children. During these times, Dominic exhibited prosocial behavior with his peers and a concentrated focus on the activity.

Building on the naturalist’s visit to the classroom, the teacher introduced a collection of stuffed-animal birds to the class at group time. As the teacher squeezed each bird to demonstrate the call it made, Dominic accurately mirrored the sound pattern of each bird with the small accordion he had brought with him to group. In many preschool classrooms, Dominic’s musical accompaniment may have been viewed as an interruption. However, the teacher altered her original plans and incorporated Dominic’s contributions. Her encouragement of him also helped to change the other children’s perceptions of him. Instead of his unpredictable, aggressive behavior, the children saw Dominic’s positive interactions with the teacher and his new understandings of the project topic.

Dominic had a surprisingly vast knowledge of animals as well as an emotional connection to them. He showed the animals a level of caring that he seemed unable to show his classmates. He made a nest for the stuffed birds by drawing with multiple colored markers on construction paper, then placed a bird in the nest (Figure 3). He created flowers for the classroom garden center that became a home for the animals. He spent long periods of time quietly reading books about animals with the intervention specialist. Although Dominic still had difficulties interacting with some of his classmates, we saw during the project work that he could make positive emotional connections, which the adults were then able to support and nurture.

Figure 3Figure 3. Dominic drew a bird nest and placed a toy bird in it.

When the chicken eggs hatched during the final weeks of the project, Dominic spent as much time as possible observing the chicks each day. He asked the teacher if he could use some special metallic paints from her storage cabinet. After choosing paints, Dominic spent a considerable amount of time and concentrated effort creating a painting. When the painting was complete, Dominic took it to the chick’s cage, turned it over, and placed it picture-side-down on the cage so that the chicks could enjoy it (Figure 4). This seemed to be a thoughtful and caring gesture from a child who had struggled with social interactions.

Figure 4 Figure 4. Dominic created a painting for the chicks and set it on their cage.

The teachers were delighted to see and encourage this social engagement that emerged during Dominic’s project work. With the curriculum structured around a topic that interested him, his aggressive behavior diminished and he cooperated with the other children to create the garden center and care for the “things that live in trees.”

Joy received support in the classroom from a team of specialists, including speech, occupational, and physical therapists who addressed specific IEP goals for encouraging communication, social interaction, and cognitive development. While Joy was an integral member of the classroom, her cognitive and communication delays sometimes left her on the periphery of the classroom social network. She played alongside other children but rarely engaged in interactive play with them. Through adult support and the use of basic sign language, which the teachers and children had learned, Joy experienced periodic success communicating with teachers and peers. Joy was 5 years old; there was discussion about what would be the most beneficial kindergarten placement for her—an inclusive classroom with typically developing children or a self-contained classroom for children with disabilities.

Joy displayed interest in the project through her engagement both with the materials and other children. Her interest in the caterpillars was especially apparent; she spent long periods of time carefully observing them. Although fascinated, she was somewhat afraid of them as well. Because they were in a cup inside a mesh cage, she could safely observe them and did so each day. She also positioned herself closely and listened intently to the enthusiastic conversations that occurred among other children in this area. One day, as a researcher and Audrey (a preschool classmate) discussed the caterpillars, Joy joined them. Each time Audrey commented and looked at the caterpillars, Joy followed her lead and observed them. Watching Audrey hold the container of caterpillars emboldened Joy to do the same. However, when they suddenly moved, it frightened her. She screamed and indicated through gestures that she was worried they would crawl up her arm.

Joy was equally interested in looking at illustrations and photos of caterpillars and ants in reference books. When a researcher discussed the illustrations of the caterpillars with a small group of children, Joy participated nonverbally—pointing, making hand gestures, laughing, and making utterances to indicate her excitement. This was clearly a part of the project that interested Joy, and she seemed highly motivated to communicate about it with her peers.

Joy also drew a picture of the caterpillars (Figure 5) based on her observations, another indication of her level of engagement in the project and her understanding of caterpillars. Throughout the project, Joy frequented the art center where she observed other girls creating collages. Working beside her peers, Joy began to create collages by layering materials such as leaves, sticks, and flowers on paper (Figure 5). As she worked, she smiled and made eye contact with the other girls.

Figure 5
Figure 5. Joy made an observational drawing of caterpillars and a collage.

Joy’s speech and language delays made it difficult for the teachers to formally or informally assess her cognitive and social developmental levels. Observing her in the context of small group work in particular provided another perspective on her development and a more complete sense of her cognitive and social skills. Small group project work gave Joy numerous opportunities to observe more advanced peers using materials and then follow their lead. She reacted and interacted enthusiastically with her peers and remained intently focused on the tasks in which she was engaged. Participating in the project seemed to bring new depth to her process of learning by observing peers.

Our data analysis found that the social and cognitive changes observed in Patrick, Dominic, and Joy were related to four categories of participation in project work: initiated learning experiences, engagement, prosocial skills, and use of graphic arts tools for inquiry and representation. In each category, either participation increased in a positive way or a new behavior was observed.

Initiated Learning Experiences
Patrick, Dominic, and Joy each initiated learning experiences that enabled them to explore concepts related to the project, directing their learning with support from the teachers and the materials in the classroom. Patrick led the class in painting the bark to see what would happen. His morning of observing the tree was self-initiated, as were the design and creation of the energy machine. Dominic also initiated several activities, including making flowers for the garden center, making a nest for the toy bird, and mimicking the birdcalls with an accordion. Joy initiated observation and discussions of the caterpillars.

For each of the three children, we noted an increase in ability to focus and sustain engagement; this seemed most evident when they were involved in experiences they had initiated. Patrick spent long periods of time painting, then washing, tree bark. His solitary observation of the tree and the ants and spiders on its trunk represented a degree of engagement the teachers had not seen before. The development of his “energy machine” took days of focused work alone and with others.

Dominic carefully and methodically worked at project tasks, often alongside or with other children. He spent long periods at the sensory table interacting with classmates and the plastic animals and long periods of focused time observing the hatching chicks. Joy closely and intently observed the caterpillars and had conversations focused on caterpillars with teachers and other children.

Prosocial Skills
The three children also showed evidence of increased prosocial skills and positive interactions with peers, often demonstrating behaviors their teachers and classmates had not seen previously. Patrick not only worked cooperatively and collaboratively with small groups, he masterfully coordinated the group’s efforts as they worked toward a common goal. During work on the energy machine he was observed encouraging other children’s work and sharing the machine’s “power” to help children who were feeling sad. Dominic’s impulsive outbursts were replaced with more controlled, socially appropriate, and inviting behaviors, such as sharing knowledge of birdcalls at group time and creating a painting for the chicks. His peers subsequently began to view him as a contributing member of the classroom and one they would enjoy having in their play group. Joy also demonstrated her interest in and capacity for social interactions. She carefully observed her peers and could imitate their work as well as create unique products. She joined in small group discussions using signs and gestures and created collages alongside the other children.

Use of Graphic Arts for Inquiry and Representation
All three of the children had used art materials previously for exploration and self-expression, but during the project, they used these materials for the first time as tools for inquiry, representation of knowledge, and communication of ideas to others. The practice of representing ideas during projects seemed to naturally advance their skills related to drawing, painting, and construction. For example, Patrick’s observational drawing of the owl communicated his interest in the topic being studied and revealed his current understanding of his subject. His process of making observational drawings of ants and spiders also enhanced his understanding of trees and things that live in trees. His energy machine and home for caterpillars showed his ability to construct complex three-dimensional works for purposes that he considered real.

Dominic shared his knowledge of bird habitats by making a nest for them in the garden center. He created an entire wall of highly abstract flowers for the garden center, which took time, energy, and planning, much as an installation would in an art museum. Joy’s drawing of a caterpillar demonstrated that she had acquired knowledge of caterpillars through her focused observations. Her collage work also communicated some of her ideas to her peers.

Project work is rich with opportunities and experiences that facilitate children’s success in the classroom; it can empower children as they see that their ideas are valued and are part of the fabric of classroom life. Children consequently feel ownership of the curriculum and are more invested in the topic of study. As they act on their ideas and interact with peers throughout the project, they have opportunities to view themselves as intellectually and socially competent. We found this to be true with Patrick, Dominic, and Joy, who all made gains socially, emotionally, and academically during the project Trees and Things That Live in Trees.

Project work allowed these three children to participate at their ability levels and at their own pace. It provided a context in which they could challenge themselves to reach higher levels of knowledge and understanding without fear of failure. This can be especially important for children who are struggling with classroom expectations. In project work, mistakes are viewed as a part of the scientific process as children test out their hypotheses. Small group work encourages children to support each other in their investigations.

Having multiple opportunities to successfully participate in activities related to the project may be the most important aspect of project work as evidenced by the experiences of the three children highlighted in this article. Children such as Patrick, Dominic, and Joy who struggle with meeting myriad school expectations can “find their voices” in project work, contributing in unique, novel ways to the classroom community.
Members of the research team were amazed and delighted to see how the three children actively participated in and contributed to the study ofTrees and Things That Live in Trees. Our perceptions of these children were transformed; by observing their involvement with the project, we were able to see more clearly their competencies rather than their needs.

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Author Information
Susan Griebling is an assistant professor of early childhood education at Northern Kentucky University. She researches teachers’ and children’s experiences of project work investigations and mentors teachers who incorporate project work in their classrooms.
Susan Griebling, EdD
Northern Kentucky University
1 Nunn Drive, MEP 272
Highland Heights, KY 41076
(859) 572-7686

Peg Elgas, PhD, is associate professor of early childhood education at the University of Cincinnati. Her research focuses on social competence in preschool children and children’s learning in Reggio-inspired classrooms.

Rachel Konerman is a Reggio-inspired preschool teacher at Arlitt Child and Family Research and Education Center at the University of Cincinnati. She is especially interested in facilitating project work and the use of graphic arts.

Article courtesy of Early Childhood Research and Practice.

The Tools of STEM

Where are the innovators, engineers, surgeons, and scientists of tomorrow? Today, most likely, they’re constructing dangerously high towers in your block corner, getting drenched at the sand and water table, or tinkering with the volume control on the CD player. Scientific investigation is, in the end, really just a continuation of the play and exploration of childhood.

STEM skills are not learned by sitting at a desk but by hands-on, real experiences.  How can we do a better job encouraging this passion for creativity and experimentation in our early childhood classrooms?

There is hardly a better piece of equipment to foster such tinkering than the work bench. Once a familiar noise in preschools, the sound of kids using real tools to construct and deconstruct various creations has all but vanished from classrooms. Now, with the renewed emphasis on teaching STEM skills in the early years, it’s time to bring back the woodworking bench. See the article below.

The Power of the Woodworking Bench


Clunk, clunk, zzzz-zzzzz—thunk!”

These are sounds of kids using tools at a woodworking bench. Sounds once familiar and pleasurable to me during my teaching days. I no longer hear those sounds during my visits to schools, nor do I see woodworking benches as part of the classroom environments. When I talk to teachers about the importance and value of woodworking for young children, they are astonished and incredulous that I would even suggest that young children use real tools such as hammers and saws. They often laugh at such an idea and say, “Do you know what little children are like?”

Oh, but I do know what little children are like.

In the school where I taught for 25 years, every classroom had a beautiful woodworking bench inhabiting a special space in the room. Along the back of the bench, carefully arranged on pegboard within easy reach, hung the tools needed to experience the satisfaction of building, constructing, and creating with wood. The children used real saws, hammers, hand drills, nails, screwdrivers, sand paper and pliers. They became adept at using the vise, winding it backward to open it and forward to close it. They understood the importance of safety and always wore their goggles.

In our school, every classroom, from the three-year-old room through first grade, was equipped with one woodworking bench, along with a vise, safety goggles, two hammers, nails, wood, and a saw. This was the basic equipment. Both boys and girls used the woodworking bench with equal fervor. In 35 years, except for an occasional sore thumb due to a slip of the hammer, we never had a serious accident.

Three-year-old children spent most of their time hammering. Sometimes we gave them short tree stump discs to hammer and they would pound away. They also learned how to remove the nails by using the claw of the hammer and that alone seemed to be an interesting challenge for them. Their hand-eye coordination improved and developed. They exuded confidence and I imagine they were thinking, “ I am hammering! I am a woodworker!”

Older children used the hand drill and screwdrivers, along with the basic tools. They eventually built things—boats, birdhouses, and all kinds of constructions. Some children painted their constructions or used glue to adorn them with buttons, twigs, paper or whatever they found in our collage bins. Other children built part of a construction one day and then continued into the next, thinking in between about what they wanted to do. Kindergarten and 1st grade children often sketched their designs on paper before starting the actual woodworking.

The children became adept at using the tools. They learned how to stand when sawing a piece of wood so that their balance and strength aided in the most efficient cut, usually left foot forward, right back if right-handed and vice versa for left- handed children.

The smell and feel of wood, the clunk-clunk-clunk of the hammer, the zzz-zzz-zzz sound of the saw, the use of their muscles, the rhythmic movement of their bodies—all of these combined to make an experience for children which other kinds of play could not. Children gained a sense of power and competence while learning about tools and the physical properties of materials. Nothing could beat the look on a child’s face, after spending a long time and hard work on sawing through a piece of wood, when it finally landed on the floor with a “thunk.” It was a look of wide-eyed astonishment and pride, as if to say, “I made this happen!”

Kids today and behavior challenges

Occasionally teachers complain that children today are more troublesome than in the past and their difficult behavior prohibits schools from providing this sort of equipment. They deem it dangerous and too risky. I have been in many schools. Children are no different now than they used to be. Unruly behavior is often due to a lack of active, interesting play or an overemphasis on academics and under-emphasis on intellectually challenging experiences. There have always been children more difficult than others. I’ve been kicked, spat upon, yelled at, and I had to deal with tantrums colossal. This is all part of working with young children who are rapidly developing. But you know what? Those same children used the woodworking bench. They handled hammers and saws with no incidents. In fact, it provided a way for them to feel strong and competent without being aggressive toward others. When two children worked at the woodworking bench, they were completely immersed in their work. They concentrated on having the hammer meet the nail, the saw continuing its rhythmic path. They were much too busy and engaged to even notice each other. Besides, when children feel competent and happy, they rarely bicker or argue with each other.

Woodworking benefits:

It is easy to list the benefits from woodworking for children. Here are a few:

  • Emotional/Social: Sense of competence, confidence, responsibility, respect for self and others, respect for materials and safety
  • Physical: Eye-hand coordination, strength, and fine-motor control
  • Cognitive/Intellectual: Mathematical thinking (size, shape, volume, measurement, directionality, geometry), engineering skills, creativity, and inventiveness
  • Esthetics: The smell and feel of wood, the dusty friction of sanding something smooth, the contrast of warm wood and cold metal


The initial investment in providing a workbench and tools can be costly but you will have them for a very long time. Instead of ruling them out because of cost, eliminate other nonessentials and provide the highest quality materials that benefit children the most.

  • Good quality woodworking benches and tools are expensive but, since they are designed to be hammered and nicked, they last forever.
  • Wood can be difficult to find. Try to work out an arrangement with a builder or contractor who can provide you with “leftover” wood pieces. Also consider using low tree stumps.

A natural for STEM activities

With the emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) in early childhood classrooms, the workbench provides preschool and primary school children a means to become makers, tinkerers and engineers. If we are serious about helping children master science concepts, then we need to provide children with real experiences, not artificial substitutes. If we want children to be confident about pursuing interests in STEM, then we need to give them materials that are open ended to foster the use of their imaginations and creativity. If we respect children’s modes and ways of learning and thinking, then we need to give them opportunities to experience meaning and joy in the work and play that they do.

As children become more skillful at using tools, they solve problems, become flexible in their thinking and doing and confident about their abilities. The woodworking bench provides the potential to help children develop important skills in science, engineering, and mathematics and gain a sense of power, satisfaction and accomplishment so that they can shout, “I made this happen!”


Judith Pack After 25 years as teacher and then director at a school for children from the ages of two and a half through eight years old, Judi Pack began working with teachers of young children. She taught graduate courses in early childhood and worked for a childcare resource and referral agency as their early childhood specialist. Judi has presented workshops at local, national and international conferences. She now works as an independent consultant encouraging early childhood professionals to listen carefully to children and to build on their ideas and interests.

8 science-backed reasons for letting your kids play outdoors

Courtesy of Parent Co.

playoutsideThe average American boy or girl spends as few as 30 minutes in unstructured outdoor play each day. Only 6% of children nine to 13 play outside on their own in a typical week.

But if you’re reading this, you probably already know that outdoor play is essential for children’s health and well-being. Here are eight science-backed reasons that prove you’re right.

1. Better vision – Multiple studies show that sunshine and the natural light of outdoors lowers the chance of nearsightedness and improves distance vision in children. Kids who spent more time outside had better distance vision than those who prefer indoor activities. A recent study from Ohio State University College of Optometry says that 14 hours a week of outdoor light is effective for better vision.

2. Better resistance to diseaseMultiple studies show that playing in the dirt (soil) outdoors helps kids stay healthy. Bacteria, viruses and other gross things in the soil actually help the immune system, and brain develop. Playing the dirt can also improve a child’s mood and reduce anxiety and stress.

3. Increased Vitamin D – It’s difficult to get enough of this nutrient strictly from food. 80 to 90 percent of our vitamin D actually comes from sunshine. Sensible unprotected sun exposure of 10 to 15 minutes will do it. After the first 10 – 15 minute exposure, it’s best to cover up with sunscreen.

4. Less Stress –  More than 100 research studies have shown that outdoor recreation reduces stress. This comes from a combination of factors producing positive physiological and psychological responses.

Also, in this poll, 90 percent of kids who spent time outside said being in nature and taking part in outdoor activities helped relieve stress.

5. Better attention spans, even for kids with ADHD symptoms –  Several studies done by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign show that natural settings and green outdoor activities reduced ADHD symptoms in children. Activities outdoors specifically had greater positive impact than other settings. These positive effects are measured in children as young as age five.

A 2008 study at the University of Michigan found that memory performance and attention spans improved by 20 percent after subjects spent an hour out in the nature.

Likewise, 78%  of educators in a large survey reported that “children who spend regular time in unstructured outdoor play are better able to concentrate and perform better in the classroom.”

6. Better physical fitness – Outdoor play increases fitness levels and builds active, healthy bodies. One in three American kids who are obese. Running around, climbing, walking, exploring, and getting dirty burn calories and strengthen growing bodies.

Bonus: there’s ample evidence linking physical fitness and academic achievement.

Likewise, there’s evidence that simply taking a stroll outside increases creativity.

7. Better physical coordination –  Another way to say this is  better sensory skills. Playing outside involves uneven surfaces, rocks, branches, holds and unstable surfaces like gravel, sand and mud. Playing around these elements takes balance, agility, dexterity, and depth perception.

8. Better classroom performance – Multiple studies show that kids who spend time outside (including during the school day) do better in all academic subjects.

Exposure to environment-based education significantly increases student performance on tests of their critical thinking skills.

Factoring out other variables, studies of students in California and nationwide show that schools that use outdoor classrooms and other forms of nature-based experiential education produce significant student gains in social studies, science, language arts, and math. For example, one study found that students in outdoor science programs improved their science testing scores by 27 percent.


9. Spark curiosity & imagination – As kids grow, indoor environments become known, understood, and familiar. However, outside environments are dynamic and ever-changing. They are outside our control. As such, they invite the mind to wander, looking, observing.

10. Better nature literacy and local understanding – From TV, movies, books and apps, many kids know a lot about dinosaurs, pandas and sharks.  Bringing them outside lets them explore and learn about their own local ecosystem. Kids take immense, healthy pride from learning the names of the plants and animals in their own neighborhood.

Pre-Schoolers Visit Secondary Road Department

Story courtesy of Dan Voigt Emmetsburg News

Project Approach Brings Students Out Into Community


In a time when talk about education revolves around topics such as the Iowa Core and Minimum Standards, a new concept in education is providing our youngest students with a new way to learn about their world. But what makes this even more exciting is that these students are learning a lot more at the same time.

The new method goes by the name of “Project Approach” which describes a new melding of teaching and learning styles for younger students. Sherry Bredehoeft is the teacher of the four-year-old pre school class at Emmetsburg Catholic School, and implementing the program has provided new and exciting opportunities for her young charges.

“Project Approach came about when several Nature Centers all got together and wrote a federal grant for what they call the Young Investigators program,”?Bredehoeft explained. “Through the program, learning opportunities are designed to be very hands-on and interactive for the students. They actually decide what subject it is that they want to explore and then we do just that. We’ve been studying snow, and one student wondered what happened to snow when it would get loaded into a dump truck – snow removal.”

Through the study of snow in the classroom, the pre-schoolers had chances to see what happened when snow would melt or freeze, but one thing they’ve been cheated on so far is building a snowman.

“I have a little snowman kit hanging here in the classroom,”?Bredehoeft said, displaying a carrot nose, corncob pipe, and a black hat and scarf for the creation to wear. “Now, if it would just snow!”

Irregardless, the question about snow removal got Bredehoeft thinking. She made contact with Pat Corley, Foreman of the Emmetsburg Secondary Road Department shed, and went out to visit the facility to talk to Corley.

“I went out there and was just floored by the equipment and how interested Pat and the workers were in doing something. So, I took some pictures of some of the equipment when I?was there and brought those back to the classroom.”

The reason for taking the pictures was simple.

“It’s called Teacher Provocation – with the photos of those machines, it sparked their interests and made them want to learn more about how those machines removed snow,” Bredehoeft explained.

In preparation for the class visit to the County Shed, the students came up with a list of questions about snow removal, The questions were varied: “How does the snowblower move without wheels?” “How did you learn to drive a snowplow?” “Do you sometimes knock over things like mailboxes? What do you do if that happens?”

Those questions, among others, were answered Thursday morning when the 16 members of the pre-school traveled to the County Shed. All of the Secondary Road Department employees based in Emmetsburg were on hand to greet the visitors, with Pat Corley and Larry Joyce welcoming the group.

The student’s questions were answered through their visit, with the various county workers providing the answers – “Very carefully!” was the response on how one learns to drive a snowplow.

An acknowledgement that once in awhile, a plow will knock a mailbox down, was followed with an explanation by Corley. “If we do, we go out and put it back up for you.”

Corely led the group to the large snowblower mounted on a front-end loader, answering the question of how it moved without wheels. When the question of how it started and stopped was asked, Corley pulled the remote control for the unit from a pocket and started the machine, drawing squeals of delight from the children.”

In the course of their visit, the students were able to climb inside the large front-end loader, watched a motor grader start and saw how the blade and wing blade operate, and then were able to climb into the grader’s cab. The wing blade and snow plow on a tandem dump truck were demonstrated, and the students got to sit behind the wheel of the big truck and honk the horn.

The students also saw the sign truck and ventured into the mechanic’s shop, where Pat Madsen demonstrated the large hoist by lifting a dump truck as the class watched.

But after seeing the various pieces of equipment, each student was given a clipboard to draw a piece of equipment they’d seen – all part of the educational aspect of the trip.

“Drawing is the way four and five-year olds write,” Bredehoeft explained. “They use shapes, draw in perspective and they will eventually use these drawings to help them build a model of the snowblower they saw at the shed, out of cardboard boxes back in our classroom. It’s all about developing problem solving skills – they have to figure out their drawings to build their model, and it also teaches them perseverance, too.”

According to Bredehoeft, the concept behind Project Approach is to get kids out of the classroom and into their communities, where they can learn from their environment.

“Studies have shown that nature studies are an excellen learning tool for students might be autistic or hyperactive,”?Bredehoeft explained. “There’s something about getting them out and they become much more enganged because it makes them think.”

The program has been a three-year process, according to Bredehoeft, who noted that it has been funded through the Voluntary State Pre School Program, in colloboration with Head Start and the Emmetsburg Community School District.

So what did the students think of their visit?

“I liked the snow blower. It was loud!”

“I liked the yellow truck I?got to sit in. The guy honked the horn!”

“I liked the snow blower because I know my dad would love to have one just like that!”

“I liked the thing that made the truck go up.”

Needless to say, the students were impressed, and surprised with the cookies and juice boxes the Secondary Road workers provided to the youngsters before they left.

“The men at the shed were so accomodating and so welcoming to the students,”? Bredehoeft said. “They kept the answers very simple for the students, went out of their way to make sure the students got to see things and how they worked. Their hospitality was incredible!”


Young Investigators tailored to children’s interests

Story courtesy of Brandon Hurley, Dickinson County News


Does a turkey fly? Why does that millipede have so many legs? How do seeds turn into plants?

Nature has its share of mysteries and many of them can be solved through the Young Investigators program.

The new curriculum approach is led locally by Lakeside Lab in conjunction with funding from Friends of Lakeside Lab. It is designed for early childhood educators and dozens of teachers from northwest Iowa have been through the program.

Educators draw on a student’s sense of curiosity by allowing them to help develop lesson plans and steer their learning. The program stresses the importance of getting kids out-and-about through hands-on learning.

“The Young Investigators program was created (three years ago) to provide teacher development for early childhood educators,” said Lisa Roti, executive director for Friends of Lakeside Lab.

The three year program is meant to have the teachers continually implement what they have learned in their everyday teachings.

“High quality development is something that needs to be repeated and developed over time, it needs to be practiced,” Roti added.

The teachers participating in Young Investigators are taught to heavily rely on the students. Past projects local teachers have incorporated include the life of a turkey and how they survive or holes and which animals use them for shelter. Students also investigate seeds, trees, water and insects. To further nature learning, Roti said it is vital to call on outside resources.

“We really encourage the use of experts, such as Jane Shuttleworth at Lakeside, Charles Vigdal or Karess Knudtson — the naturalists at the Dickinson County Nature Center,” Roti said. “One of the topics a teacher used was birds. And their school janitor happened to be a wood worker so he came in and taught the students how to build birdhouses.”

The Young Investigators program is a significant commitment, but Roti has been impressed by the response from teachers. On average 70 people attend the sessions — including faculty members from schools including Okoboji, Spirit Lake, Algona and even Humboldt.

During the first year of the three-year program, teachers, administrators and assistants attend four different training sessions at Lakeside Lab. The second year they return to Lakeside Lab for two more sessions and in year three they come back for one more refresher course. They learn about the curriculum and what advantages there are in changing their approach. To make sure the educators are using what they learned from Lakeside, they are required to produce two nature units a year and journal their successes. Young Investigators pushes teachers away from relying on the course plan they have created.

“The educators really perfect the project approach (during the program), which is child-centered, not teacher-centered,” Roti said. “The project approach focusses on the children’s perspective. It’s a way for children’s interest to drive the curriculum. A lot of the common cores are still accomplished through this training but it’s not created all by the teacher.”

Roti, who is a former teacher in the Spirit Lake School District, understands the challenge of keeping students engaged. She believes practice makes perfect.

“It’s an amazing program, (as a teacher) I can truly appreciate how effective it is, but you’re are not going to be proficient in it if you aren’t practicing it,” she said. “Because it is kid-driven, the projects will come from them. A lot of the times as teachers, we automatically teach the four seasons, and it’s usually teacher-directed and sometimes that’s OK. But at least two times a year they should take an idea that comes from the kids themselves.”

Nature is the main focus of the training. Roti tries to get kids outside the four walls of the classroom — a concept she feels is escaping the younger generations.

“Educators will go outside and sometimes they aren’t all comfortable teaching outside of the classrooms,” Roti said. “The Young Investigators program helps them get over their discomfort and get outside. Even in a day when its snowing, there are so many things to learn about and the kids are tickled about it.”

The faculty teams draw from the teachings of national speaker, Judy Helm, who was one of the originators of the Young Investigators. Young Investigators operates under the umbrella of the Nature Connections program at Lakeside Lab. A group of faculty members and local educators work together to improve nature education. Nature Connections is funded by the Friends of Lakeside Lab and a REAP-CEP grant that has provided $40,000 in funding.

At the moment, the Young Investigators program is primarily focused on Pre-K educators but the future of the program is bright, Roti said. The more success they see as a result of the training the better they can adapt it. Roti has been pleased by the response of the area educators.

The next step is to take the training even further and expanding its reach, Roti said.

“Now our question is, do we go further out of Iowa to continue this training? Do we go into kindergarten?” the Friends director said. “We’ve been contacted by the University of Iowa and ISU so there is a lot of interest there. It keeps growing.”

Young Investigators is something that Roti has seen make an immediate impact in just three short years. The input from children helps it succeed.

“There’s a great deal of research that shows kids now have a nature deficit,” she said. “Some children may never go outside, we have a whole generation that may not know nature and here is a way for them to learn the value of it.”