Experiential learning at the Natural Learning School
By Kandra Kolehmainen
Picture a beautiful, fall day. All around you the world is filled with movement and life. Looking up, you see a sky full of trees, branches bending back and forth, propelled by a strong, invigorating breeze. Leaves are falling to the ground in unique patterns, sometime smooth and beautiful, other times in a zigzag rush. On the ground, leaves are blowing across the yard as bushes flutter and the grass lies gracefully down. Your ears are filled, not only with the sound of the wind dancing through the branches, but also the dead and crumbling leaves rustling across the sidewalk. Your senses are full of the moment. You can smell fall in the air, and if you try hard enough, you can even taste it.
Now imagine a four-year-old on her way to school on that same day, at that same moment. She takes in all of the newness of the moment: the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes. But, unlike you, she is compelled to touch it as well. Her eyes are as big as saucers as she holds a yellow and green leaf and looks up at all of the life in the sky. Her mind full of discovery, beauty, and wonder that is growing exponentially. Experiential learning is taking place.
As she goes inside, she is full of questions: why are the leaves falling, how do they hook on to the trees, why are the leaves different colors, why do they make a crunching sound? The teacher has a few options: gathering information about trees from books or the internet, directing the child to look out the window and watch, answering the questions that the child has asked, or realizing that what the child really needs is hands on discovery. She needs to go back outside and investigate.
At this point the Reggio teacher seizes the opportunity to gauge the interest of all of the students and announces that they will be going outside to look at the day. Back outside real life experience continues, as our four-year-old, as well as many other students, are able to make connections between trees and leaves, live leaves vs. dead leaves, the effect of wind on both trees and leaves, and how trees and leaves are joined. They study what leaves look and feel like, as well as the differences and similarities between them. They look at all the different colors. They listen to the different sounds that stomping creates on both dead and live leaves and (one of childhood’s greatest pleasures) what it feels like to roll in a pile of them.
At the end of the day, the Reggio teacher creates a web (a type of flow diagram) laying out not only all of the directions the project might take, but also which skills can be taught along the way. This is not guesswork but rather a thoughtful examination of the subject matter. The project may not go where a teacher thinks it will, but all avenues are prepared for so that learning does not have to wait for materials or the environment to be prepared.
With leaves as an inspiration, learning continues both inside and out over the next two weeks. Children experience leaves on dry days, windy days, wet days, and calm days. They go on walks around the neighborhood and to the local park. They notice other indications of fall: the change in temperature, the fact that it gets dark earlier, and the pumpkins on every porch. They notice the nuts on the ground and the squirrels chasing each other up and down trees while collecting the nuts. They take containers on their walks to fill with fall “treasures.” The teachers are constantly challenging the children with questions and focusing their attention on things they may not have noticed.
Back in the classroom children draw pictures, create clay sculptures, paint leaves to make stamps, and use rollers to make prints. They make leaf garlands, necklaces, and belts (art). They write stories and poems as they are able and read them to teachers and other students. They dictate stories to teachers which can then be acted out (language arts). Some children count, sort, and compare the leaves by color and shape and order them according to their quantity. They learn positional words like over, under, up, down, beside, above, and below. Quantitative words like more, less, fewer, add, take away, heavy, light, full, and empty (math). Others create beautiful displays and use leaves as instruments, props, and costumes in a musical play (dramatic play and music). Through questions and books, the teacher helps students answer their own questions and the questions that teachers pose: why are some leaves dry and cracked while others are smooth and pliable, why do they fall from the trees, why do we only see pumpkins in fall (science). Many students work together with yellow, red, green, and brown blocks, Lego, and with recycled materials glue and paint to construct trees and leaves. Together, Reggio students and their teachers have taken one inspiring moment and turned it into a project that includes math, science, art, music, dance, theater, costuming, construction, and language arts.
Although most adults can see how much fun and how interesting a project like this can be for preschoolers, many doubt that this approach can be used when “real” academics need to be learned. The truth is direct experience combined with high interest equals successful learning at every age. To quote Albert Einstein, “Learning is experience. Everything else is just information.”
To see how this works in an elementary setting, look for our article next month.