Our project focused on environmental inquiry-based learning in Full-Day Kindergarten and Grade One. As educators, we know that children learn by asking questions, exploring and investigating. Our project built on the natural curiosity and sense of wonder that children possess about the world around them.
Our goal was to develop and extend the inquiry skills of our youngest learners. We aimed to provide students with a rich, stimulating classroom environment and varied opportunities to plan, observe and gather information about topics that interest them. We worked at deepening our knowledge and ability to effectively interact with students in order to clarify, extend and help articulate children's thinking as well as to encourage students to share findings through oral, visual and written representations. In essence, our goal was to make student thinking visible through the inquiry process.
The Capacity Building Series publication "Getting Started with Student Inquiry" states: "There is growing consensus, both provincially and internationally, that greater student engagement leads to greater student achievement."
- increased student engagement
- increased understanding of a problem, topic or issue
- development of a community of co-learners (students and educators learning together)
- development of inquiry skills (exploration, investigation, communication)
- development of self-directed learners
Where We BeganOur journey began when we visited the Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study Laboratory School in Toronto. We chose to visit this lab school because of its inquiry approach to learning – children learn by doing.
Front entrance of Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study Laboratory School
Highlights of our learning:
- Focus on teaching children, not on teaching the curriculum.
- Children have theories. They are naturally curious and natural researchers. As educators, start with their theories.
- Don’t undermine what children are capable of and don’t make acquiring information simple for them.
- Design experiences where children feel safe to ask questions, state ideas and take risks.
- Create an environment where children learn for themselves and the community of learners in the classroom. Work on building collective understanding.
The school’s publication Natural Curiosity: A Resource for Teachers – Building Children’s Understanding of the World through Environmental Inquiry was our guide and inspiration throughout our project.
Science Big Idea - Kindergarten:
Children are curious and connect prior knowledge to new contexts in order to understand the world around them.
Science Overall Expectation - Grade One:
Students assess the impact on people and the environment of objects and structures and the materials used in them.
Key Concept: Growth and Change in Trees and Our Relationship with Trees
Subject and Skill Areas: Science, Visual Arts, Math, Language, Oral Language Development, Personal and Social Development
Focus of Inquiry: Trees
The Early Years:
After reading the document“Natural Curiosity” and visiting the Eric Jackman Institute in Toronto, we knew that we wanted the focus of our inquiry to be on the environment, but more specifically, the study of trees. We chose the topic of trees, as we felt that every child could relate to trees because of their experiences with them, particularly because of our geographical location –
Northwestern Ontario, where forestry is a big industry. We began by creating a planning web – we, as the educator team, put on paper our ideas for how we thought this inquiry could unfold. Our ideas came in handy when we needed a new hook – a way to get students thinking about trees in a different way.
Early in the year, the children began noticing the changes that were occurring with the onset of fall. They were particularly interested in a tree on our playground that was losing its leaves after the leaves changed colour. We did the standard ‘leaf activities’ – collecting, observing, sorting and visual arts activities. But we needed to make the learning deeper,
with a focus on trees. We started by assessing the students’ prior knowledge by asking them: “What do you know about trees?” We compiled the students’ knowledge by facilitating a Knowledge Building Circle about trees. We also invited them to draw a picture of a tree.
Fall was now turning to
winter and we were contemplating which student ideas to explore further, when it happened by chance. While playing outside, a student asked “Why do some trees have no leaves and other trees are green in the winter?” Rather than attempting to answer the student’s question, we brought the question to the students. Their responses were interesting:
“Some leaves blow off.”
“Too cold for leaves to stay on.”
“Maybe the snow is too blowy.”
“Some trees don’t have leaves and some trees do.”
“Some trees are called evergreen and they stay green forever.”
“What kind of tree is the Advent wreath? Why are the leaves not falling off?”
We proved and disproved their theories by studying coniferous and deciduous trees – perfect timing since many homes had a shining example of an evergreen in their living room.
During this brief (because of approaching Christmas holidays) but important study, the children learned that they can gain information from library books, the internet or by asking others. More importantly, students realized that their original thinking was based on their background knowledge and therefore, was accurate. In the New Year, to refocus students on the topic of trees and to establish a personal connection with trees and each other, we sent home an assignment for students to complete with their parents:
Each student shared their work with the class and it was interesting to see the variety of tree types (including some invented ones) that are ‘special’ to the children. There were no right or wrong answers and the questions were designed to be open-ended.
Science Centre – We sent home a second homework piece on trees. Students brought their
branches to school and they were housed in our Science centre, along with paper, pencils and magnifying glasses, to encourage close observation. We told the children that scientists, or
people that study nature, write down their observations, and make drawings to help them remember or to show the information to others. Student drawings were posted in this centre. One student brought in a branch with needles on it. As the time went on, the needles were falling off. A Knowledge Building Circle about why the needles are falling off, resulted. Most students thought that a tree needs water and that a cut-off branch can’t get water. The question “How does a tree get water?” was then asked. The question lead to a study of tree roots using plants that the students grew. Students were finding seeds (i.e., in an apple, a sunflower seed on the ground) that they wanted to plant. They asked questions such as, “Will an apple tree grow?” The following chart was helpful in questioning students during the experimental process.
Before the Experiment
During the Experiment
During and After the Experiment
“What do you think is going to happen?”
“Why do you think that is going to happen?”
“What do you see happening?”
“Look closely. Has anything changed?”
“Is everything the same?”
“Why do you think that happened?”
“Did you expect that to happen?”
“How is what you saw different from what you thought would happen?”
“What does this mean about ______?”
We had several clear cup containers in our classroom, each with a different seed type. As some started growing, students were still interested in the root systems. We had already established that trees have roots, so we decided to examine how trees and plants are the same and different.
“They both grow on the ground in soil.”
“Plants have leaves and trees have leaves.”
“Plants and trees both need water.”
“Plants and trees grow flowers and fruit.”
“They both need sunshine to grow.”
“Plants and trees both grow by seeds and they take a long time to grow.”
“Trees have sticks (wood).”
“Trees can grow bigger than plants.”
“Trees can give you shade and plants can’t.”
“Trees change, like the leaves fall off.”
“Trees change their colour of leaves when it’s a different season and flowers just die.”
The students always heard us (the educators) remark that our playground had very little shade on a sunny day. This discussion on lack of shade came up many times throughout the year. The students decided that they would like to plant a tree on our playground. During a Knowledge Building Circle, the students were asked about why it is a good idea to plant a tree:
“So we know how to plant stuff.”
“Give us oxygen.”
“Grow vegetables and fruits.”
“Give us shade when we are hot.”
“Beavers eat the trees and build dams.”
“Squirrels make homes.”
“Spiders make webs.”
“Birds make nests.”
“Animals eat off trees like giraffes.”
“A bear can live in it.”
“Owls peck in the tree and make a home.”
“Acorns for chipmunks.”
“Deer eat leaves.”
“Monkeys get their bananas from trees.”
We went on a field trip to our local garden centre to browse their selection of trees and determine which type will be suitable for our playground.
The students were asked:
How can we raise money to purchase a tree? Student ideas were plentiful and included having a yard sale, reading books for money, making lunch and selling it and giving money from their piggy banks. In the end, the children voted to have a family BBQ (complete with a lemonade stand) and set up a donation jar at the event.
Parents sent in food items and cooked at the event. The children were involved in all aspects of preparing for the BBQ, such as menu planning, writing invitations and signs, making cupcakes and setting up a lemonade stand.
After the BBQ, the children shared that it was “good” because their families came, the food was yummy and we made “a lot” of money to buy trees. We actually raised enough money to buy 4 trees for our playground.
Learning Goals: We developed our critical thinking skills about a text. We learned to think about the author’s intent or message. We learned to respond to teacher prompts by talking, writing and/or drawing.
The students acted as literate learners when they analyzed the author’s message by answering the following question: “If you were the tree, would you be happy?”
Some of their responses were:
“No. I don’t like it for someone to cut down my trunk.”
“If they take my branches, yes. I want people to be happy.”
“Yes, if someone picked off all of my apples because they could give them away so poor
people could have food.”
We also studied Picture a Tree by Barbara Reid. As a way for students to make meaning by accessing prior knowledge before reading the book, students were shown the following image and asked “What do you see?
What do you think? What do you wonder?”
One saw a grave and another saw a shed. One said it makes her think of an elephant doing a hand stand. Another said it reminds him of when he goes ice fishing with his family because one of the branches looks like an ice auger. One student wondered why the ‘trees’ are tangled up.
Two seedlings were given to our class and we used them to develop the concept of measurement. We worked on measuring using non-standard units. The focus questions posed to the students were: How can I find out the length of the seedling? Is there a part of your body that you can use to measure? We extended this concept by making comparisons between the seedlings and the mature tree on our playground.
“We can use our legs and arms to measure. The cedar goes up to my elbow.”
“Use a shoe to measure. The tree is as long as Jake’s shoe but on Nyssa’s shoe, it’s two of Nyssa’s shoes long.”
“I can use my head. It goes from my neck to the top of my head.”
“It fits all the way around my neck!”
“It’s 5 inches long.” (Student demonstrated an inch measure using her fingers and then used that measure to check the length of the branch.)
“I used my wrist. My wrist is bigger than Payton’s wrist.”
Students also explored and counted the money raised from the BBQ. They started by putting it into groups (e.g., all the quarters in one group, all the dimes in another, etc.). Three or four students were assigned to a ‘money group’. Within their groups, they had to count the number of coins or bills and report back to the whole group with their findings. From there, we (the educators) figured out the final total. One student decided to make her own 'money' to buy a tree. She cut out circles from paper and wrote numerals and drew people on them.
Surveys – When questions came up, we encouraged students to try to find an answer by conducting a survey (as they already learned that asking others is a way to gain information). Student survey questions: Are there vegetable trees? Do bears use trees to live in? Do chipmunks live in trees or in the ground? The students asked the adults in the school as well as the grade 7/8 class.
We went on a nature walk and each student was given the opportunity to take a close-up picture of some part of a tree on our school ground. Back in the classroom, we looked at the pictures using the SMARTboard and talked about the question “What do you see?” The intent was for students to look closely at the photographs and notice the details. Students were given the task of choosing a photograph and drawing it using any of the following mediums: pastel, crayon or pencil.
To consolidate learning, students were asked:
“Why are trees important?”
Parent Survey: http://goo.gl/forms/e1fgkeRQJl
Once we purchased the trees and positioned them on our playground, we realized that we didn't have room for four trees. We brought the dilemma to the children.The class unanimously agreed to give the tree away. Ultimately, it ended up being planted on the grade 1-4 playground for other students to enjoy.
The Grade One students were asked to draw a picture of a tree and write about what they knew about trees. The students had a very good understanding about trees and the parts of a tree but were not engaged in further learning. At lunchtime, as students finished eating, some were placing recyclable plastic bottles in the paper recycle bin in our classroom. I had mentioned that we can only put paper in the bin. We had a discussion about what we do with the plastics, tin and paper at home. Some students mentioned that they placed recyclable plastics and tin cans in one container and paper in another. (Our town recycling collection centre collects plastics 1 and 2 and tins together, and paper separately). The class thought everyone could bring the used recyclable containers home to be recycled but then decided it would be easier to have a bin for those items at school. We set up a separate bin for plastics and tin in our classroom.
We put the bin at the front of the room and students made a conscious decision not to put anything but recyclable plastics labelled 1 and 2, and tins in the bin. We discussed how to identify if an item is recyclable. After a couple of weeks, someone put a pizza crust and a paper plate in the bin. A few students spotted the waste and the class determined that we should create a label for the recycle bin so then everyone would know that the bin was for recycling and not garbage. After researching recycling through the reading of books, we discussed what reduce, reuse, and recycle means.
The students were pleased with how successfully they were recycling the plastics and tin in their classroom. They wondered if other classes recycled plastics and tins so they wanted to conduct a survey in the school. Each student took a clipboard with paper attached and a pencil to record their findings. Students visited classes and tallied the classes that had a recycle bin for plastics and tins. Students discovered that all classes recycle paper but they didn’t have a recycle bin for plastics 1 and 2, and tin.
We brainstormed what we could learn about our environment:
We picked up garbage in our school yard and participated in a community clean up organized by our school staff. Students wore green and blue clothing on Earth Day to celebrate the special day. The students planted Marigolds to give as gifts for Mother’s Day. Mrs. Richard’s class donated a tree for the grade 1 to 4 playground. The students started using the other side of recycled paper in the recycle bin.
The class felt that other classrooms in the school would be able to recycle plastics and tins in their classroom if they had another recycle container. We asked our custodian if there were containers available for each classroom to use for recycling and if the school had a large recycle bin for the school lobby. Our custodian brought us enough containers out of storage for each classroom and a big blue bin for the school lobby. Using a computer, the students made recycle labels for each container. The students proposed that class helpers in each class could empty the class recycle bin when it is full into the large blue bin in the school lobby.
Below is a picture of a recycle bin that the class delivered to classrooms throughout the school. We noted that it is being used along with the paper recycle bin in the classroom.
The students throughout the school are using the recycle bins as evidenced by the large blue recycle bin in the school lobby that is being filled on a regular basis.
In May, an opportunity came to further our learning about trees and their importance to our environment. Every Spring, a student’s family taps trees in Southern Ontario for several weeks. The student and his father shared their knowledge of how to make maple syrup with a Power Point presentation to the class.
Our class learned about the tools and equipment needed to take the sap from the trees. The students learned how the sap is processed in the sugar shack. After the presentation, the students loved sampling the syrup.
Our learning about the making of Maple syrup:
In June, a Park Naturalist from Quetico Provincial Park visited the classroom to present a Power Point presentation to students about frogs and a toad in the surrounding area. The students explored living things in a sample of water from a creek. They found that spotting the tadpoles was easier than the smaller organisms.
We followed up with a nature walk with the Park Naturalist in Quetico Provincial Park to further our learning about our environment. At the park, students also had an opportunity to explore the creek with a small net, locating a toad and organisms.
Written by Shannon Richard (Full-Day Early Learning Kindergarten Teacher) and Margaret Cunningham (Grade One Teacher)
Here's the link to the original blog post in TeachOntario: