Collaborative Construction in East PM

By Adrienne Lomangino, Head Teacher

Children entering each of the nursery classrooms at Bing join a large social world with children who vary in age from 2 years, 9 months to 4 years, 9 months at the beginning of the school year.

Within this expansive social environment of 36 mixed-age students, children can pursue activities of interest with peers of the same or different ages and return to them for repeated exploration. In East room this year, the children’s interests repeatedly returned to building big. Their focus on large-scale construction activities has highlighted the value of mixed-age classrooms with many students.

The “building-big” focus began with children constructing long segments of stackable pegs and examining their length. The plastic pegs are 2 inches long with a hole at the top for stacking. After using all the pegs in the classroom the children still wanted more. Once the teachers found more pegs, the children kept stacking them. The line was soon too long to keep at the table, so teacher Mark Mabry suggested to Evan (4 years, 10 months), William (4 years, 4 months) and Alex B. (4 years, 5 months) that they move it to the carpet. Their repeated exclamations over how long the “tower” was led to the question of how many pegs they had used. The teacher assisted the children with counting the pegs up to 90. When Alex B. found more pegs, Evan wondered whether now they had 100. Alex B. reported however that they did not have that many, the additional 3 that he found gave them 93.

Their joyous comments about how long the “tower” was included the assertion that the peg line was longer than teacher Amanda Otte. So teacher Mark took the children outside to teacher Amanda in the yard and cut a length of string as long as she is. The children then laid the string along the line of pegs inside to confirm that it was indeed longer than teacher Amanda. (During this activity, Amanda became the standard of height, one that children referred to throughout the rest of the year.)

The building activity has illustrated the value of mixed-age classrooms for young learners. Research comparing mixed-age and same-age classrooms has revealed benefits for young children’s cognitive, social and communication development when they have the opportunity to observe and interact with older peers (Bailey, Burchinal and McWilliam, in Child Development, 1993, volume 64). Although the peg “tower” building was instigated by several older boys, children of varying ages joined into the activity. Younger children assisted with adding on pegs and listened to the conversations about length. Thus, the experienced players modeled and organized complex play that allowed for varying forms of participation and learning. During later sessions, younger learners returned to the pegs to create lengthy segments.

Within a mixed-age setting, younger learners gain exposure to ideas that support them to engage in more complex play than they would with same age peers. The older children have opportunities to take on a teaching and mentoring role in which their expressive language and perspective-taking skills are fostered as they describe and explain their ideas (Katz, Evangelou and Hartman, The Case for Mixed-Age Grouping in Early Education, 1990).

The three initiators of the tower building returned to this activity several times. After recreating the line of pegs all the way across the block area and out the door on another day, Alex B laid double-sized unit blocks along the peg “tower.” He counted the 20 blocks along its span. He could then not only attest that the “tower” was taller than Amanda, but he also was able to give a specific measurement.

Children have revisited this interest in height with different materials, including unit blocks, duplos, woodworking, magnetiles and sand. As an example, Alex B. and Evan built a tower in the block area by alternating layers of long blocks and boards. Once they ran out of boards, Alex B. suggested using two smaller boards instead. Onlookers stood next to the tower to check whether it was taller than they were. The following excerpt from their play reveals the collaborative nature of their building and their focus on height:

EVAN: Now it’s almost… it’s at it’s at my hair now… it’s almost as tall as me… it’s at my face now… we’re running out of long blocks.

ALEX B.: No. We haven’t… I got more longs here.

EVAN: I’ll get short ones. Now let’s switch, Alex, again… let’s switch again, Alex.

EVAN: I got all these… I got the whole stack of them!

ALEX B.: And how many we need… we need more than one. Evan… no, that’s not enough Evan… Now we need two more.

EVAN: I got two more… more than two more.

ALEX B.: Now let me do the two longs.

Evan: Let’s measure. Oh it’s taller than me, it’s taller than me now!

ALEX B.: It’s taller than Evan’s head now.

EVAN: Wow, we’re all done.

ALEX B.: No we aren’t! It have to be taller… now you have to do it. You’re not tall enough to be done.

Bing’s nursery school class sizes allow for both cross-age and same age interactions. While the younger children engaged in more complex play with the influence of older learners, the ideas for the building-big play were generated and elaborated through interactions among more experienced players. The 4-year-old boys supported and challenged each other as the tower project emerged during play. While some studies of mixed-age settings with small groups have questioned the value of these experiences for the older learners, the children’s activity in East room demonstrated the importance of having a large enough class size for the older learners to be cognitively challenged and inspired. While in many cases, same-age peers will provide such challenge, in a large class of children with varying areas of interest and expertise, a younger learner may also be the source of knowledge and motivation for an activity.

Kenji (4 years, 6 months) explicitly referred to such inspiration during a woodworking project. As he set out to connect pieces of wood, using peg board bridges and nails to attach them, he had the following exchange with a teacher:

TEACHER: Why do you want to make it so long?

KENJI: In order to make it big, you have to make it long.

TEACHER: Why do you want it to be so big?

KENJI: Because I want to see what it looks like. Momin made one that was big the other day. You know how I know how to make this so long? Because Momin taught me to do it.

The project has offered many opportunities for positive collaboration. At the woodworking table, Evan connected pieces of wood until he built a linear project that was longer than teacher Amanda. This woodworking evolved into a collaborative class-wide project as Evan elicited more help to make it as long as possible. Children of varying ages and skill levels added pieces to the meandering construction until it was over 140 pieces long. While younger children often create woodworking projects using only a couple of pieces, in this case they were able to participate in the creation of an elaborate group project.

During the final week of school, the building-big idea resurfaced. Alex B. (5 years, 2 months) and Allison (4 years, 1 month), a mixed-age pairing, built the biggest project of the year together. They started out on the patio, intending to see how long a line they could make with the blocks. When they reached the edge of the patio and still had some blocks, they extended the line into the yard. Once they used up the hollow blocks, they turned to the unit blocks, hauling them out in carts to make a line that extended over the hill and around the sand area. Several other children joined in the construction, adding on blocks until snack time.

Throughout the year, children have revisited the idea of building big through collaborative construction projects. Across repeated experiences they have explored the advantages and constraints of varying materials. Although the 4-to-5-year-olds provided much of the focus and inspiration for the building efforts, the younger children joined in and picked up on the goals and ideas. Their voices and expressions revealed the excitement and satisfaction that infuses joyful learning.