August 7th, 2013
As our Blogstitute — and summer — wind down, we bring you a post by Marcia Talhelm Edson that will help you as you think about your classroom for the coming school year. Her post is packed full of practical ideas for making each square foot of your classroom inviting to children to observe, question, learn. Marcia is the author of Starting with Science: Strategies for Introducing Young Children to Inquiry.
It’s August in New England, and that means it’s time for tomatoes ripening in the garden and the return of the Perseid meteor showers. For teachers it’s also time for back-to-school circulars and time to make plans for the new school year, plans for revising curriculum and assessments, and plans for reconfiguring the physical environment of the classroom. Designing classroom space can be especially challenging for pre-K, kindergarten, first-, and second-grade teachers who want an inviting, inspiring, and well-organized space for learning. There are so many materials, so many tables, and so many learning centers—where to begin?
As you settle into ruminations about classroom layout, why not start with your science center? Have you ever thought about expanding the idea of a science center? Instead of having a table labeled “Science Center,” what if you set up your classroom so that science happens throughout the room: in the book area, in the meeting area, near the sign-in table, and on the work tables? What would it be like to infuse science throughout the room?
That’s right: infuse science throughout the classroom, much like you already do with literacy opportunities. Think about the way children encounter science in their everyday lives. It isn’t limited to a singular place; rather, it surrounds them indoors and outdoors. For example, think of random summertime science experiences: following the beam of light during a game of flashlight tag in the yard, noticing the way popsicles melt on a hot day, watching the worms that emerge from backyard dirt and the way puddles disappear after an afternoon rain shower. Children may not extract the scientific theories behind these occurrences, but these situations confirm that science is part of our everyday lives. That disposition is something we can also promote in our classrooms. If we expand science beyond the science center, we can tap into a more authentic way of organizing science for children. By intentionally placing interesting objects, books, and experiences around the classroom, not just in the science area, we can develop children’s awareness of science and their expectation that science happens just about anywhere. It will also make science accessible to more children throughout the day.
This isn’t to say that a science center is a bad thing, but it can be limiting if it is the only place to look at interesting things and do science. Think about the way museums organize their artifacts. There are many exhibits, but often there is space for only two or three people at each exhibit. Rather than limiting science to the six seats at the science table, what if we had “smaller bites” of science throughout the room like the museum does—in other words, several spaces to look at interesting things with one or two friends. Picture a hornet’s nest and two magnifying lenses on the windowsill, a book on guppies propped up next to the fish tank, a flashlight on a tray with a question card asking “How does this work?,” an indoor/outdoor thermometer mounted low on the wall next to a graph of the month’s temperatures, a scientist’s backpack to take out to the playground, and nonfiction books on construction and simple machines in the block area. You probably already have some of these in your room, but because they aren’t in the science center you may have overlooked the rich potential for children to observe, question, predict, collaborate, and share their scientific theories about these interesting organisms or objects. Think about spreading some of these ideas around your room to make that push out of the science center. Here are some suggestions:
- If you have windows, use colorful tape to block off an area for cloud watching and mount a cloud identification chart on the windowsill. Tape a simple question on the window to catch the children’s attention, such as “What clouds do you see?” A pencil and a cloud notebook could also be placed on the windowsill for children’s observations.
- Instead of having one plant on the windowsill, put a few smaller plants around the room on tables. Small pots of thyme and mint have interesting leaves and smells to observe and talk about.
- Place classroom pet cages in a variety of spots around the classroom so children will notice them and stop to watch. Prop a nonfiction book next to the cage, open to an interesting section about the organism.
- Include a science backpack with the balls and jump ropes you take outside. Fill it with some magnifying lenses, a bug box, small clipboards, and field guides.
- Set out items from nature chosen for the variety of their texture, shape, or size, such as seedpods, bark, cross-sections of trees, and uprooted plants with exposed roots.
- Designate a special place—your classroom science museum—for displaying items children bring to school to share. It shouldn’t take up a lot of space. A tray on a bookshelf or small table works, with a clipboard for comments and a frame to hold a description written by the child. Work with the children to establish guidelines for managing and maintaining the exhibit.
- Display topical nonfiction books along with the organism, object, or phenomenon they describe. For example, in the blocks, include books on architecture, construction, and simple machines; near the water table, include books on flow, dams, and glaciers.
- Set up a tray for color mixing on a shelf in the art area with two eyedroppers and two small ice cube trays, food coloring, and a small pitcher for water. Two friends can play here when they have time.
Some exhibits may be part of an inquiry unit you are teaching, but even if you aren’t teaching a science unit, your classroom should have many opportunities for children to act as scientists. The idea is to provide children with a variety of interesting phenomena they can work with using the skills of science: observing, predicting, testing, questioning, collaborating, and sharing ideas and theories. It’s important to keep these exhibits simple and small, as well as relevant to the children’s interest. Keep an eye on their engagement. If you notice they aren’t interested in the hornet’s nest, refresh the display with something to rekindle their interest, such as a laptop or tablet with a link to an active hive. Or replace it with something new—something seasonal, a selection of rocks, your son’s turtle, something the children have asked about, and so on.
You can employ simple organizational techniques to ensure that the materials and display are taken care of by the children. You probably use these in other areas of the classroom already:
- Trays for display of materials
- Labels and outlines that give children a clear understanding of how materials are put away
- Small throw rugs that can be rolled out to establish an observation space for two children and then rolled back up
- A couple of magnifying lenses placed next to organisms or things that are worth a close look
Most of all, take time to join the children in their observations. Savor their curiosity and wonder. Listen to their comments and questions, bring those comments to group meetings, or use them as a source for writing workshop. You’ll be amazed at the connections you can make to science, literacy, and mathematics. By expanding science from the science center into the mainstream classroom space, we as teachers will experience a keener awareness of the kinds of materials and displays that can incite inquiry, interest, and immersion in science.
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