Sunday, January 12, 2014

Nature + Creativity = Inquiry

Baby Rock
I'm currently at work on a presentation for the annual MNAEYC (Minnesota Association for the Education of Young Children) State Conference.  I'm speaking with my colleague, Joey, from 12:30-2 on Friday, January 31, if you want to stop by and say hello.  So here is the title, "Creativity & Young Children:  The First Natural Catalyst for Inquiry."  And here is the write-up I submitted last summer when January seemed so blissfully far away:

"Here at Dodge Nature Preschool, we believe that hands-on, sensory experiences with nature and the imaginative manipulation of "loose parts" discovered in the field, are the most age-appropriate, autonomous, exciting and valuable ways for young kids to embark on a relationship with their world.  From humankind's first cave paintings, it seems that people in general are driven to respond to the world they share with plants and animals; observing kids out in the field, teachers discover that children come to creativity naturally and spontaneously-- in fact, the drive to create seems to emerge very early in childhood, and, if nurtured, can be sustained and developed.  Creativity is, for young children, the most natural place to begin inquiry, the intellectual life and scientific thinking.  Please join Dodge Nature Preschool teachers as we look at some typical, and not-so-typical, means for teachers and naturalists to inspire and sustain creativity and inquiry out in the field and in the classroom."

Okay, I've got to start somewhere, and so it seems to make sense to organize some of these "means" into categories.  How about the elements?  What follows is a fast and furious, down and literally dirty look at the link between nature, creativity and scientific inquiry:

stone spiral on Tipi Hill
Rocks are a great catalyst for creativity and inquiry in early childhood.  Kids at Dodge love to tote and throw rocks.  Eventually, this leads to piling, and then patterning.  Sometimes play with rocks leads to study and examination, which in turn lead to differentiation and classification.   Sometimes, simultaneous with play and inquiry, sometimes as a result of play and inquiry, work with rocks leads to more refined creative expression, such as collaborative sculpture.

more formal rock study
splitting rock with artist-in-residence, Peter Morales (see former posts)
learning how to use feathers and wedges to split rocks in the field
weighing found rocks
working together on turtle sculpture

sticks can be antlers
Sticks are gifts from the tree gods.  We love sticks.  Sticks are in the toy hall of fame with very good reason.  Sticks teach young people so much.  They are a handy, ready loose part.  Everyone can have their own stick.  Every stick is different.  Once a stick is in the hand, it begins to transform.  It becomes a tool, the original tool, if you will (sticks became clubs, atalatls and arrows, after all.  Chimps use them to fetch termites out of holes.  Birds use them to build nests.  Fisherman weave them into weirs.  Sticks became spoons.).  Sticks become food and shelter, not just for people, but for all manner of living things.  Sticks, in the hands of children, also become tools for experimentation, right across the board.  Sticks can measure the depth of water or test terrain you plan to traverse.  A stick can poke a dead mouse when your naked finger cannot.  With a stick, you can experiment with self-expression, with who you might be, when you begin to play with a stick.  Playing with a stick is a creative act.  It is a first step toward art and inquiry.  A stick is an arrow, a sword or a gun.  A stick is power.  A stick is a pen in mud or snow, a way to bring what is in your mind out into the world.  Sticks can make noise, music even.  Sticks can be manipulated to look like letters or numbers.  Children love to choreograph physical, imaginative play with sticks and they love to build with sticks too.  Fort-building is architecture and art.  Architecture is physics in action.  Sticks represent ideas and they also are themselves, providing rich lessons in comparisons and classification, giving us clues about the life of trees.

stick fighting lesson
finding just the right stick
sticks can be letters
sticks aid exploration
researching a stick
measuring depth (of water main break!)
working on a stick fort

birthday cake
Clay is a bridge between earth and water and the fact that clay can change states (wet to dry, liquid to solid), is a teaching opportunity and wonder in and of itself.  Clay presents a tactile sensory experience that is hard to beat.  And, it supplies what early childhood educators fondly refer to as "resistance," meaning you can squeeze and squish it really hard and this satisfies very deep physical, and self-regulatory needs in developing nervous systems.  Manipulating stuff that resists is generally calming.  Have you ever met a jumpy and hyperactive potter?  Clay teaches us lessons about the physical nature of things, about our own physical nature and provides us with a medium for experimentation and expression.  So much the better if you can find where clay naturally occurs in your neck of the woods and harvest it yourself.


clay ofrenda for Olivia Dodge (see "Ofrenda for Olivia" post)

stump sculpture; blending elements
sticks and clay
clay and repurposed technology

investigating a water main break
Kids develop in water, so it is no wonder that they largely love it and cannot resist being part and parcel of it when it is in proximity.  "Stay out of that puddle," is not a warning that a child is inclined to heed.  Why?  Because water is so ripe for experimentation.  The motion of water is beautiful and entrancing.  Good thing too, because water is an excellent first teacher.  When your baby is born, the pediatrician tells you that a daily bath is good for her development.  Our nervous systems get a lot of good input from water.  Warm water is soothing, cold is bracing.  Water, like clay, presents us with opportunities to explore solids and liquids, with the added bonus of a gaseous state.  Water can be manipulated in a variety of ways.  Splashing is the child's first creative introduction to water.  Splashing is exciting, and it is creative.  Things happen when kids splash in water.  Carrying water and transferring water is an intensely pleasurable and engrossing activity for children.  Filling a bucket and dumping it, in the same place or in a different location teaches the child so much, and it requires effort and skill.  And then water has weight, it can be used to move bigger things, and!  Water tells us about the properties of other things!  Does it sink or float?  Water is an excellent tool.  It can be an agent of change too.

Ice is more than nice.  Kids love to find out what happens when you pour water on ice.  Ice can be colored with tiny eyedroppers of liquid watercolor.  It can be moulded into shapes.  Objects can be suspended in water.  Bring ice inside, and it quickly begins to change.  Leave it out and, to kids' amazement, if the weather holds, it doesn't change much at all.  Ice can become a stage for play.  A frozen pond focuses attention and provides an arena for play.  Kids will find all manner of ways to enjoy pond ice without any extra toys at all.  Boot skating, sliding, rolling, lolling, pulling one another across the slick surface. Ice thickness can be measured.  Ice fishing can be done.  Ice can be sculpted.

coloring ice inside
icicles, snow and color
ice and color on light table
kicksledding on pond ice

nature's canvas
Snow is a canvas and a medium kids can manipulate.  Snowmen are self-portraits; so are snow angels.  Some snow refuses to be sculpted and this itself provides a lesson.  Snow can be colored or patterned.  Snowflakes can be observed, documented and replicated.  Snow can be eaten.  Snow can be made into a shelter.  One shelter may be a quinzhee.  Several quinzhees become a village.  Quinzhees can be shared and decorated.

snow hut
quinzhee village
ice decorated quinzhee
remembering a stone spiral; making a snow spiral
mapping a hike in the snow
giant snow balls
snow person; 3D portrait
sliding in snow trains; community & companionship
snow angel self portrait
ephemeral snow drawing
snow family

bagel roast
Snow can hold fire, for a while.  Try making a tall platform of snow and then build and light a fire on the top-- pretty soon you'll have a glowing chimney of snow!  Fires can become the center of gatherings and parties.  Fire can seem a destructive rather than a creative force.  Any naturalist worth her salt will gladly correct this viewpoint.  Fire is a life-giving sustaining force in the cycle of things.  Fire is a big idea and making a fire with children is a creative, and a meaningful activity.  Fire can be dangerous and it provides all sorts of opportunity for lessons about serious things.  Children begin to dip their toes into mortality when they consider fire and its consequences.  Fire changes the state of things in dramatic ways.  Dodge conducted a prairie burn last spring.  Dodge preschoolers were on hand for the transformative experience.  In a matter of minutes, an entire landscape went from over-your-head grasses to scorched, smoking earth.  Fire is a catalyst for change.  Eggs fry and cold hands get warm.  Fire makes a marshmallow taste much better and it teaches children about life cycles.  Fire provides one of the fastest lessons about a big idea:  transformation.  It is hard to understand how sunshine eventually becomes a hamburger, but it is easy to see how wood becomes ash, and easier still to feel the transformation of energy in heat.  Cooking, on a fire, at a stove or in an electric frying pan can become a very creative and scientific endeavor with kids.  And cooking things that you forage or harvest by hand is likely the most rewarding of all.  Fire and food are inextricably linked.  Experimentation with each of the elements serves to underscore our relationship to these elements.  These big scientific ideas and relationships are implicit when we share a fire with kids; there is plenty of time for them to become explicit as children mature.  The hands-on, real time experience comes first, and makes later inquiry much more meaningful.  Fires create a focus for gatherings and social learning too.  Most major social events here at Dodge include either a campfire or a bonfire, with good reason.

prairie burn
instant transformation:  grass to ash
preschoolers at prairie burn
preschoolers exploring after the burn
puffball mushrooms for the fire
peer instruction while roasting mushrooms
roasted puffball:  a grand (and perhaps failed!), fun experiment

singing "The Wind Song"
Air may be the most esoteric element for exploration with young children.  The wind is less visible than water.  Like water, it is air's relationship to other things that helps us understand what it is.  The windmill on the farm makes the wind nearly real.  The wind in a child's hair makes it more real.  The wind throwing dust into your eyes makes it very real.  Discussion of the wind with children always seems to approach poetry.  A favorite book of ours here at Dodge, is "Gilberto and the Wind," by Marie Hall Ets.  We have scientific books about the wind, but "Gilberto," makes much more sense to young scientists than those analytic publications.  In "Gilberto," the wind is personified and the protagonist of the title has a relationship with it.  "Gilberto" has a kite of course.  Kites make the wind real for children.  For most very young children, it makes no sense to explain that the sun helps make wind.  It makes much more sense to engage the wind as a partner.  Can you run as fast or faster than the wind?  How far will the wind carry your leaf?  Can you make a kite or a plane to sail the wind?  Will the wind push the sail on your toy boat?  Will the wind flap your flag?  Will the wind make music with the things you hang in a tree?  Can you fly like a bird in the wind?  And, of course, the wind can be less esoteric and much more concrete.

making wind with paper and turkey wings
Tornadoes have inevitable appeal, especially to three and four year-old-boys.  I was reading about an opera that a local company is staging.  "Griffelkin," tells the story of a young devil sent to earth to wreak havoc for a day.  Whirling Dervish comes to mind.  I believe that young children like to imagine being the tornado, the dervish, and through this vicarious act, they once again approach ideas of mortality as they contemplate destruction and devastation.  Tornadoes make great copy in the first simple stories that children tell and dictate to grown-ups.  A child's imagination is caught, spun around, held and nearly ravaged by the idea of a tornado in a strange developmental version of synesthesia.  Kids have to dare themselves to consider being Dorothy, to consider the power and consequence of the wind, when they take on tornadoes.

being the tornado
cutting wire for tornado sculpture
contemplating power; at work on the wire tornado
note the animals and people trapped in the tornado; his face tells the tale
constructing a city for tornado devastation
a tower in Tornado City becomes a tornado
it will be destroyed in moments
It seems to me that nature, in its most basic elemental or necessary (to survival) forms, teaches young children very well.  Children begin to learn as soon as they observe and handle the natural world.  It seems foolish to ignore the impact of early hands-on experiences with nature or to try to replace vital hands-on experiences with media about nature and the world.  When children experiment with the stuff of the earth, they are first finding out what it really means to be human and they are embarking on a relationship with the earth that will take many forms.  Eventually, formal schooling will explicitly follow-up on ideas first embraced implicitly when the child was very young.  Math, science, literature and art will all spin off of these experiences.  The stuff of life provides endless catalysts for cognitive development, inquiry and human endeavor.  The natural world can easily provide the first lessons about the physical world, and lessons about the physical and emotional self too.

I think I'll include even more photos...and now I've got to work on supporting literature.  Any ideas?