Thursday, August 23, 2012

The conveyer belt that never was....

We are getting geared up to enjoy another year together and I am collecting all sorts of items for our open-ended projects. I have no idea which direction our curriculum will take us but I am really excited to see what the kids and I come up with. Families who have been with us a while are somewhat familiar with the evolutionary way in which our projects move forward but for those who are new to daycareland I would like to recap on a project from last year to illustrate process based approach to teaching.

The project I am going to tell you about is a conveyer belt that the children never finished engineering. It is significant because it demonstrates how process based teaching occurs and why it isn’t even necessary for the original goal to be achieved in order for a project to be considered a success. 

Process over product

If we were to describe teaching in a very literal way and say it is the act of bringing children to a new understanding, then process based teaching would be described as following children’s interests on a beautiful winding pathway. In this case, the teacher allows the children to explore, run ahead, ask questions and even to wander off the path but always the group is moving forward in the general direction of understanding.

In process based teaching there may not be any “thing” proving that the teacher and her children ever walked on the path to understanding but if you watch the children work there is always evidence that learning took place. The children are reflective in their thinking and try new ideas rather than give up at the first failed attempt. These children have a unique ability to link ideas together so that  ideas give birth to other ideas causing an ever evolving stream of creative thoughts.
These children have a tendency to try things independently rather than wait on an adult to do things for them.

In contrast to process based learning is the product focused teaching model. Teachers have a a set course in mind with specific stops along the way to understanding. She leads the children forward on a linear path to her destination directing and overseeing each step of the way. When children get off task or become uninterested these teachers nudge them forward from point A to point B without stopping along the way. At the end of the path there is always some “thing” to show that the children have achieved the teacher’s set goal for learning. Children in these settings are good at following directions but sometimes find it difficult to be innovative. Likining ideas together in a meaningful way may be more challenging because they have not had as many opportunities for gathering interesting bits of information through trial and error. 

In both cases most of the children will get to where they are going but which teacher do you think they want to follow? Which teacher shows them that they are a valued participant in the learning process? Which teacher actively demonstrates the value of being a life long learner?

The following collection of projects illustrate how children scaffold little bits of information each day until they developed a greater understanding of how things work. 
This process takes time to unfold and far more in depth than typical thematic product based teaching practices. It also requires the children to try new ideas, reflect on past experiences, make connections and to see "failure" in any endevor as an invitation to change perspective or try something new. 

The Conveyer Belt That Never Was.

One day while we were at the grocery store the children asked me how a conveyer belt works. I did my best to describe how I imagined the process in my very limited, very girly understanding of all things mechanic. I told them that I imagined the conveyer belt has at least two rollers which must be anchored inside the counter somehow and that the rubber belt is stretched tight so that it wraps around them. Somehow a motor moves one or both of the rollers, which moves the belt, which moves the groceries up toward the cashier. 

They were all impressed with my AMAZING understanding of how conveyer belts work and they wanted to build one for themselves. I had no idea if I was right so we set off to learn something new together.

In order to even start work on our conveyer belt we needed to review some of the other simple machines and building explorations we had worked on throughout the year. We did this by reviewing photographs of previous projects and discussing what we learned from them. The photographs were a great tool for them to recall what they learned and apply that understanding to the new task at hand. 

Two simple machines that were of interest were a crank made from a ribbon with a bucket suspended between two chairs and a simple pulley system to move guys up and down in the window well.
We decided a crank might be a good way to move the conveyer belt so we looked at our crank projects for ideas on how to design a conveyer belt with a crank. Our previous constructions from PVC pipe and painters tape allowed us to add weight to our projects so we decided to start there. (Learning to cut tape was very tricky and took lots of practice!) 

This is one of the photos we refered to for our conveyer belt inspiration:

I added bells to draw attention to the movement of the pipes so littlest children could see the cranks and predict the direction the crank would move in. They learned when one side is up the other is down and that both sides of the crank move in opposite directions.

Finally we reviewed our study of PVC pipes, rods and cardboard tubes to come up with the design for half of the conveyer belt. Once it was finished we took a few days to see how it worked. We hung it from the ceiling calling it the spinning easel,

...then we took it outside to roll all over the concrete.

It fell apart by the end of our experiment and the kids decided full body painting with rollers was even more fun than working on the conveyer belt!

Our project was only half way complete as the school year was drawing to a close and the children dispersed for the summer. I tried to revive the conveyer belt exploration twice but the magic of that group of children coming together in that space for the purpose of building a conveyer belt was broken. 

In it's place full body painting dramatic play scenerios took over and oh what fun we had! 

Thursday, August 9, 2012

At the beginning of the summer I had cooked up a few fantastic ideas for investigating with water, tubes, pipes, crates and a wheelbarrow but the kids keep flocking to the outdoor easels, paint and bubbles instead. For the toddlers our outdoor painting projects have been a smock free, diaper only,  sensory free for all. The big kids have even gotten in on the body paint action by covering their faces and arms in paint too; when they finish experimenting they all hop in the kiddie pool with a little squirt of dish soap to wash it all away. It’s hard to tell whether they like making the mess or cleaning it up more. All the kids - big and small cant seem to get over the fact that they can paint on EVERYTHING, then they can get bubbly water on EVERYTHING because we just hose it off when we we’re done. 

This is the first time we have moved our art activities outside on such a grand scale and I am loving it. The mornings breeze by because the kids are happily creating and they can be as messy and loud as they want. Best of all our easels and outdoor art shelves are completely constructed from salvaged materials that the children helped clean and construct. 

I got the inspiration for these easels from some of the daycare magazines I drool over regularly. We have had these signs in the garage forever and I knew I wanted to do something daycareish with them but couldn’t imagine what it would be. One day I took the plastic piece out of the sign and stared at it for about an hour until I came up with at least five brilliant ideas but I will save the other four for another day.

If you should be lucky enough to come across some of these old signs this is how my awesome husband built ours:
Step 1: Remove the plastic advertising pieces and measure them
Step 2: Cut some Plexiglass from old storm doors, (buying it new is pricey) 
Step 3: Drill holes according to the ones existing in the frame, 
Step 4: Screw it all together
Step 5: stand the easel up  
Step 6: collect 6 adorable children, you are now ready for some serious fun.

Unfortunately one of the easels cracked when I tried to pound it into the ground, I discovered that it was easier to “pre drill” the hole by pounding a stake in the ground where the legs will go then push the easel into place. 
(An alternative idea is positioning the easel at the edge of a garden with soft soil, this also makes a great background for photos of painty kids.) 

Overturned milk crates or buckets from some bushes we put in last year make great “tables” for setting up paint supplies. The little ones also like to stand on these to change perspective while painting. I imagine climbing up on those crates to create a masterpiece at the top of the easel is pretty empowering!

Set up and clean up are a snap with our outdoor “teacher shelves” where I keep a small collection of art supplies. I happened to notice a set of metal shelves on the side of the road so I cleaned them up and propped them under the overhang of the garage. Right now I am experimenting to see if things will keep out there but so far it’s looking good. I put the things that shouldn’t get wet in a tote and store paint in hand soap pumps. It’s SO much easier to have a simple collection of art supplies and soap outside. 

I have a feeling we will continue our outdoor painting once all the kiddies come back in the fall.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Pendulum Painting

Pendulum painting
A few months back I came across this IKEA chair leg in a studio and thought of at least three things I could do with it so it has earned it’s keep as a useful object in daycare land. So far this little bit of nothing has been made into a fast food window, a puppet stage and a teeny fort for one by the wee ones during freeplay. Last night in a slightly intoxicated fit of creativity I decided I would use it for one of the original reasons I salvaged it from the landfill - Pendulum Painting. 

I set up the provocation for the project by tying paint sponges and funnels to the bottom of the frame. Then I positioned the frame on long sheets of paper then added 2x4s on either side so that the kids would have something to lean on as they worked. I was also hoping the wood would give a solid visual boundary of where the sticky paper was so the wees could keep from getting tangled up as they moved around. Next I set out some disposable plastic cups and paint in my up-cycled self serve soap containers. 
Naturally they all abandoned their previous projects and flocked to see what was going on with the strange contraption. I gave them some time to study the frame and swing the objects back and forth. Once they saw the paint cups come out all seven wanted to work together meaning we would have to do some serious negotiation for space and materials. 

The children found it challenging to fill their paint cups because the soap dispensers were very tricky to pump. The paint was much thicker than soap making it hard to push down and the direction the paint squirted as they pumped was difficult to predict. Eventually someone got smart and decided to unscrew the lid to pour the paint instead of pumping. 
The idea caught on and a fantastic pouring frenzy took place. As the paint supply dwindled I introduced some spoons so they could scoop up paint from the puddles to fill funnels. Pretty soon funnels and sponges were flying across the paper causing a lot of laughter, some tears and at least one full body painting experience.
After the excitement wore off they stopped the funnels to scoop in various colors and watch it ooze out the bottom creating thick marbled puddles. 

Some children opted to paint with sponges in the traditional way by loading them with various colors and swiping the paint in great rainbowy swaths across the paper others decided to forgo the paint tools all together to squirt the paint across the paper straight from the pump.

In the end the paper was soaked through and they didn’t really care about keeping their feet out of the paint; in fact the whole project was a great glob of tangled torn paper but we had a fantastic time making something out of nothing.