This year, I visit different early childhood classrooms almost every day. This past Friday, I had the thrill of being present as a group of 3-5 year olds explored "birds," and I thought I should share it with you. It exemplifies my favorite kind of teaching, wherein the teacher intentionally sets up some exploratory fun and then steps back and watches the children work with it.
The teacher set up three different activities on individual tables...but it's this one here that I love:
A tray had a variety of bird-like foods - birdseed, water, popcorn, raisins. There were several tools to imagine as styles of "beaks" - drinking straw, tongs, tweezers, clothespin, and spoon. The children were asked to think about what it is like to have a beak, to use that beak to gather food. There was even a timer on the table, for the children to imagine what it must be like to have to move quickly to get one's food, before a predator came on the scene.
As the children worked, the teacher asked them thinking questions, which beak works best for our foods here? Why might beaks be different shapes? What kinds of things do birds eat? Do all birds eat the same thing? She pointed out that different shape beaks allow birds to catch different types of foods - worms, bugs, seeds, other. The children learned this by doing.
The children worked diligently, exploring all the different beaks, calling out additional questions to the teacher and one another, "thinking" out loud. Many minutes went by, some 45 total; one little girl never left this table center. It was time for snack and she said to me, "But, but! I never went over there!" (and pointed to another table activity).
This is the power of hands-on exploration. This is what engaged learning looks like.