Sunday, May 27, 2012

All about cars

I'm taking some time, this Memorial Day weekend, to write about the fun we have been having with our "Auto Repair" theme for the past many weeks.  All year long, the children have shown a lot of interest in cars, and, since spring break, I have been weaving this car theme into everything we do.

I want to document how I threw myself into 
this exploration, 
this theme, 
this inquiry, 
this emergent curriculum topic, 
letting the children's interests be my guide.  
Additionally, I hope to show how, throughout the fun, I intentionally wove in math, literacy, science, and social skills.  I am more convinced than ever that this is the way children should be taught - with their own interests at the core of their learning.

Now, I am wrestling with my longest blog post ever!!!

Thanks to my college pal Dale and her Chevy dealership, we had some awesome display signs for the dramatic play corner!  Add in a trip to a thrift store, where I spent $20.00 on a multitude of small toy cars, and the Big Cats Auto Repair had begun.  

The children were delighted with the bin of small cars (believe it or not, we had upwards of 100 small cars!).  For days, they made sets, patterns, groups, lines...all the while counting, how many did they have in all?  We look for patterns – all cars, all racecars, all trucks, all SUVs.  

We tried to count all our cars.  We put the cars end to end and went around the circumference of our large table; we had enough cars to create a second ring. 

For a couple of weeks, there was sand in the sensory table, and exactly 20 cars, with a taped parking spot on the table’s edge, for each car.  The children have loved counting these - and often wouldn't let us put the lid on the table until all the cars were back in their places.  As is true of most three and four year olds, some of the trickiest numbers to remember are 11, 12, 13, and that elusive number 15 (I believe it is the most forgotten number of all).  Our abundance of cars has allowed the children to work, work, work at understanding these larger numbers...over and over again, in an authentic, playful way.

Another math activity has been measuring the distances our cars go.  This has also included a lot of science fun, as we set up ramps in various locations and compared the distances the cars went.  First, we used skateboard ramps to test speed and distance of our cars, making predictions and measuring the results.

We also designed our own ramps using wood moulding, blocks,  and other odds and ends. We played around with the slant or angle of the ramps and the driving surface (carpet versus tile).  All the while, the children would tape off which car went how far, and measure the distance in various ways (their footsteps, small blocks, and measuring tapes).

One day, we painted our small cars, detailing them just as we liked.
I was impressed with the focus and attention each car received.  

We had many sensory explorations - including taking these very same newly painted vehicles and introducing them to an impromptu car wash in the sensory table!  So long, tempera!

Regularly, we are pressing small cars in Gak.  Can we cover the car entirely?  Can you guess how many cars are hiding in our Gak?

It wouldn't be my classroom, if we didn't try a bit of engineering!  This time, our influence was the book If I Built a Car by Chris Van Dusen.  Here, the narrator imagines the super powers and extras he would design into his dream car.  We set out to do the same.  First, we drew our designs:

We spent several days engineering our own small cars with special powers, and each of us wrote our own descriptions.  [In a separate post, I'll share the children's engineering efforts and their vivid descriptions of the powers that their individual cars have - there's no way I should add any more length to this post!]  Once again, engineering provided a playful, engaging opportunity for the children to challenge themselves cognitively, literately, mathematically, and physically (fine motor). 

There have been so many great opportunities for increasing literacy with this theme.  Certainly, our engineering efforts involved a lot of literacy as the children told great stories to describe their car's powers.  Additionally, we've been reading lots of great books about cars, including - 

The Life of a Car by Susan Steggall,

Joyce Slayton Mitchell, and

Cars and How They Go by Joanna Cole.

In my last blogpost, I shared how we went on a walk through the neighborhood to look at traffic signs and then came back and created our own.  The children loved this exploration.  You can see so much about a child's fine motor and literacy skills in these playful efforts.  

One on-going effort in our room is our alphabet wall about cars and auto repair.  We brainstormed everything we knew about cars on a large whiteboard in the classroom, sorting the words by their first letters.  The children are really excited by how many words they were able to brainstorm - and we continue to add to the word list with each new book or discussion that we have.  Truly, auto repair has continued to make our classroom "literacy rich"!

Try as I might, there is no way to list all the fun things we have been doing with cars.  One on-going activity is “tape roads” that we make all over the Gathering carpet, and then the children race small cars on these.  The children are mapping out the roads - thinking about how cities are made.  They build homes and city buildings all over.

Every day, they build many, many houses for our cars, all shapes and sizes, all sorts of stories to go along with them.
This is where the Green Lantern lives.  
This is a police house.  
I have lots of cars in my garage.
A princess pony lives here.

In the midst of all these cars, blocks, and creativity, we've had some tremendous social-emotional learning.  At one point, the big box of cars led to frequent arguments over who got which car, who had too many cars, and other contentious preschooler issues.  To the children's surprise and chagrin, I put the bin of cars away for a couple days.  During this time of deprivation, we brainstormed ways that we might use the cars more successfully.  These were great discussions!  For me, this is the heart of teaching at the preschool level - helping children develop the self-regulation skills to get along with one another.  At one whole group gathering, we did a "guided discovery" with the cars and the ramps, working together to see how they might be used best.  We playfully dramatized some of the arguments and sharing struggles that might occur.  The children suggested:
  • if someone throws a car, ramp, or other thing,
  • if someone hurts somebody else, or
  • if someone is yelling loudly,
then, that child will take a break from the cars.  They have lost the privilege of playing with the small cars for awhile.  Since this group problem-solving, we have had very successful days with the cars, ramps, and blocks.  I've overheard children tell one another, when someone grabs a toy - "You need to take a break." These preschoolers are amending their ways!  This is great social learning.

But let's not forget how much true fun and dramatic play the preschoolers are having!  As detailed in an earlier post, we made one large classroom car – which we can get in and out of.  

[We still haven’t figured out the roof, but we’re trying.  This past week, we painted the car a multitude of colors - "like a rainbow."]

I originally hoped to suspend this large car from the ceiling in our auto repair corner, to pretend to fix it.  However, we are enjoying playing in the car much too much!  We have pretended to drive to California, North Carolina, and New York City.  We bring our laptops, our “playstations,” our cell phones, our money.  We've have pretended to be Mom, Dad, Uncle Doug, baby sister.  The stories go on and on. There is so much to do with a make-believe car!  

The learning will continue for a couple more weeks...our school year ends on June 15th.  I think it is clear that a lot of academics have occurred through this emergent and playful theme.  It bears repeating, I am more convinced than ever that this is the way children should be taught - with their own interests at the core of their learning.  Why teach any other way?


  1. My school's philosophy, which I may have told you by now, is based almost completely on choice for each child. There are some exceptions, but even when some umbrella theme is teacher chosen, each child has lots of personal choice within that. This is a wonderful post, Maureen, so much detail and evidence of engagement and learning and just play, so important to the smallest up. Thanks Maureen. (I love the big car!)

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