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Early childhood education has been my life for over 40 years. I have taught all age groups from infants to 5-year-olds. I was a director for five years in the 1980s, but I returned to the classroom 22 years ago. My passion is watching the ways children explore and discover their world. In the classroom, everything starts with the reciprocal relationships between adults and children and between the children themselves. With that in mind, I plan and set up activities. But that is just the beginning. What actually happens is a flow that includes my efforts to invite, respond and support children's interface with those activities and with others in the room. Oh yeh, and along the way, the children change the activities to suit their own inventiveness and creativity. Now the processes become reciprocal with the children doing the inviting, responding and supporting. Young children are the best learners and teachers. I am truly fortunate to be a part of their journey.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Rock science

I have been writing about the importance of rocks at the sensory table.  Two weeks ago I wrote that there is a primal connection between humans and rocks and by providing rocks for children, some of those primal connections emerge like making tools and making marks.  Last week I wrote about how children use rocks to do foundational math.  Today I want to write about the importance of rocks in fostering scientific inquiry at the sand table.

Children use rocks to carry out self-directed experiments.  Even a toddler is able to create his own experiment.  In the video below, a one-and-a-half-year-old works very hard to see what happens when he drops a rock down a small cardboard tube.  First he has to pick up a rock he can't even see because the pegboard makes him turn his head in order to reach the rock.  After grabbing the rock, he steps up on a stool to better reach the cardboard tube.  Once there, he has to negotiate his turn with a much older child using the same tube.

Down the tube from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

I am struck by how intentional this child is.  He seems to know what he wants to do and figures out how to do it each step of the way.   Are his actions too simple to be called a scientific experiment? 

The experiment created by an older child using  a rock and the same cardboard tube becomes a little more complex.  This child seems to be asking the question: Can I figure out the trajectory of the rock coming out of the tube so it drops in the bowl?

Aiming the rock from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

Again, I am struck by the intentionality of this child's actions.  She wants to get the rock in the bowl by using the tube.  Her first two attempts are not successful.  On her third attempt, she figures out exactly where to position the bowl so the rock hits the target.  When the rock falls in the bowl, she squeals with joy.

Some experiments children create do not have the intended result.  In the video below, two children try to plug a funnel with rocks.  After adding rocks to the funnel, the sand still flows through the bottom of the funnel.  One child brings more rocks so the funnel is completely full of rocks.  However, when he pours sand in the top of the funnel it still flows out the bottom to his consternation.

Plugging the funnel from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

When I asked him why the rocks do not plug the funnel, he said he does not know.  At this point, they no longer pursue this investigation, but move on to other explorations with the clear plastic tube and sand.  Scientists reach dead ends all the time, but like these two, continue to explore new veins of inquiry.

Some experiments have an unexpected outcome and a child is able to come up with an elegant theory as to why.  In the video below, the child plops two rocks on to a balanced structure of branches lying across the sensory table.  When he does that, he knocks off a stick that is keeping the whole thing in balance.  As a consequence, a rock at the end of one of the branches drops to the floor as the branch tips under the weight shift.  The child explains that the rock fell because the branch "jumped."  And that the branch "jumped" because the "weight was too heavy." 

The weight was too heavy from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

At the end, he gives marvelous demonstration of what happens when the weight shifts.  He pushes down on another stick to show how a weight exerted on one end makes the stick "jump."

One of the hallmarks of scientific inquiry is testing how different objects react using the same apparatus.  In the video below, the child has created a ramp out of a piece of tree bark.  He takes one rock from a nearby bucket and slides it down the ramp.  The rock hits a crack in the bark and starts to tumble until it lands in the sand at the bottom of the ramp.  He then takes a second rock which is a little bigger and slides it down the ramp.  This one also hits the crack, but does not tumble.  Instead, it continues sliding down the ramp to the end.

Sliding rocks from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

The child continues to slide rocks down the ramp.  What is he learning?  One of the things he learning is to hone his observation skills which is essential to good scientific inquiry.

Within the field of science, researchers try to replicate experiments of others to test an original hypothesis.  In the two videos below, the children play out that exact process.  In the first video, the child strikes two rocks together.  The result is a rock powder that drops into her bowl of sand.

Rock powder from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

This second video shows a child trying to replicate the very same experiment by striking two rocks together.

No rock powder from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

He does not get any powder.  The children now wonder why.   When there is not definitive answer, the inquiry continues.

Too often we think of science only in terms of content to be taught.  In an early childhood classroom it has to be lived.  Children have to be able to ask their own questions and search for their own answers.  In a way, it is pure scientific inquiry the purpose of which is simply to know what works and what doesn't work.  Content has its place, but may best be preceded by what David Hawkins calls "messing about." 

And when children mess about with rocks, that is rock hard science!

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