By Beverley Hartman, Head Teacher
I saw every red rock from here to Kansas!” exclaimed teacher Sue Gore on the first day of school last fall after returning from her summer road trip. Her newfound enthusiasm for rocks sparked a classroom journey that lasted all year.
Gore had thoughtfully collected a variety of rocks and brought in a children’s book with engaging prose and beautiful photographs, If You Find a Rock by Peggy Christian. The East AM team decided to set up a “provocation” at the discovery table with interesting rocks, images and books for the children to inspect. The children noticed the rocks right away, holding them and commenting on colors, patterns, shapes, weights and sizes. Picking up on the children’s fascination, the team brainstormed ideas for presenting this natural material as a curriculum topic. After identifying opportunities for innovation as well as for expanding ongoing activities, East AM started their journey: discovering rocks.
The discovery began with a two-tiered erosion table designed by teacher Quan Ho and built by carpenter Wilhelm Grotheer. The table was positioned on a hillside in the sand so that the children could build a landscape with pebbles, stones, rocks and sand. Water pushed the materials, and the children observed, changed elements and experimented with the process of erosion. Creating their own scientific method, they made predictions, described changes in the environment and drew conclusions based on their investigations. Statements by the children over a several-week period indicate their engagement and level of thinking:
ANDREW Z.: The river tumbles rocks to the ocean and knocks the edges off.
ASHLYN: It [a white pebble] looks like a tooth.
BEN: Water is melting the mountains… it’s making a dam.
Another innovation, sparked by one child’s interest in rock climbing, was a special rock wall for the children to climb. With authentic hand and foot holds, Ho set up a board in the yard for our own mini climbing wall. Andrew Z.’s father, Jared, demonstrated climbing gear and assisted children with a child-size harness. Our in-depth study was taking us to new heights.
Experimentation continued as we embarked on a long-term project polishing rocks. Children were eager to find out whether we could change regular rocks into the smooth and shiny ones that they admire. The rock tumbling machine—with its motor, moving parts, and rumbling sound—kept their attention as they helped replace the water, soap, and grit. Observing the subtle changes over time, the children expressed their theories about rocks.
OLIVIA D.: Rocks come from the beach and ocean. Water crashes into them and makes them medium and then small.
TALIA: Rocks wash down the river. They roll and get smaller.
ANDREW T.: Rocks come from all rivers, lakes, streams, and oceans. Sometimes it looks like a snail, but it is really a rock that looks like a snail.
VIJAY: Hot lava exploded out of the volcano. Then the hot lava runs down the mountain. There was a puddle of hot lava and then it turned into a rock.
Teachers wondered if this topic could lead to spontaneous play. When teacher Betsy Koning set up a table with tubes, pebbles, and water, the children engineered their version of a rock machine, so we knew that the theme was becoming their own.
Engineering a Rock-Water Machine
MAC: I’m connecting up all the tubes into a machine.
ANDY: Yeah, it’s a water machine.
BRANDON M.: It’s a rock cleaner.
ANDREW Z.: It’s also a water cleaner. It’s a filter. We’re cleaning dust out of the water.
JAKE: Then you should take the rocks out so you can put water in.
BRANDON M.: No, the rocks need to stay in too. They go in this pipe and water can go in the other.
ANDREW Z.: Actually, you can put both because the water isn’t solid so it can fit down in the little cracks between the rocks.
ARI: It’s cleaning water for sea turtles. They need clean water to live.
ALEX: I need rocks in my cup, but I can’t see them.
ANDREW Z.: It’s because the water is cloudy from rock dust and that’s why we need to clean it out.
ANDREW G.: We clean out the rocks so they don’t have dust.
Rocks in literature serve as a strong base for learning and dramatic play. Teachers introduced songs and stories such as Stone Soup, retold by Heather Forest; Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, by William Steig; The Salamander Room, by Ann Mazer; and Tillie and the Wall, by Leo Lionni. The children incorporated the storylines into their dramatic play. Stone soup is always delicious, whether cooked in the sand or as a wonderful real vegetable soup.
The children continue to fine-tune their ability to investigate rocks through extensions of conventional curriculum. Teacher Meghan Olsen scanned samples from the polished rock collection to create a matching game. Matching the actual rock to the life-size scanned image was difficult at times and required differentiation beyond what we had anticipated. The children looked closely for the attributes that distinguished the rocks from each other and developed their own schema for categorization. In other activities, the children created rock designs, conducted science experiments, and went on rock hunts. To extend the Discovering Rocks project to the children’s homes, an activity guide was developed to assist family members in creating their own rock hunt.
East AM has enjoyed this adventure of innovation and extending the curriculum. We invite you to look closely in nature and find a stone to start your own journey discovering rocks!