Taking Flight in Center AM

By Parul Chandra, Head Teacher

During this past fall quarter, a father visited Center Room and set up a paper airplane-making station. He brought books that showed how to fold paper to make different styles of airplanes, and paper in different sizes, textures and colors. A group of children responded very enthusiastically and they designed airplanes by folding paper in a variety of unique ways. They shared their planes, made planes for each other, discussed how to fly them and went into the yard and flew their paper versions. Their conversations revolved around air travel—how to fly a plane, experiences on planes, how to rescue paper airplanes from tree branches, the aerodynamics of planes, how far each paper airplane flew, and how various shapes, sizes and types of paper made the airplanes fly differently.

A few days later, the classroom teachers responded to the engagement of the children and their airplane making by providing materials such as yarn, tongue depressors, small cardboard boxes and triangular pieces of cardboard. The children used the materials to design even more complicated airplanes. The teachers noticed that children who were not part of the initial group also began to design, fly and talk about airplanes. This enlarged group was invited to share their unique creations at story time and during play.

At this same juncture, children noticed that when they added more materials, their planes were no longer as aerodynamic as they were when they were made just out of paper. They began asking questions, noticing the different styles of airplanes and sharing theories about how and why planes fly. Teachers brought in books about airplanes and read them to children during snack time.

Children were very interested in the books about airplanes and how they fly—so much so, that they went back to redesign their own paper airplanes. They talked to one another and to the teachers about why they were modifying their designs. Some comments were that, “It’s too heavy,” “It’s falling because there is too much glue on it,” and “Thinner paper works better.”

Over the next few weeks, the excitement over the airplanes was contagious, and the teachers continued to encourage it. Not all children were interested in designing planes with paper, so the teachers facilitated other modalities. Children played with clay airplanes; represented air travel with building blocks, unit blocks and big cardboard boxes; and engaged in dramatic play, storytelling and painting about air travel. Teachers provided other materials and opportunities for children to build, express and create using both their imagination and what they learned about airplanes, launching pads and sky travel.

At this point, teachers wanted to know what children knew about the mechanics of flight. So at each snack table, the teachers started a discussion and provoked children’s thinking by asking, “How do planes fly?”

MAYA: “They bring you to far places.”

EVAN: “An engine and five wings, because the tail and two wings out back. The wind takes it up when it goes fast down the runway.”

AMALIA: “First it rolls slow on its wheels, then it starts going fast on its wheels, then it starts flying.”

EMMETT: “Airplanes are loud. The engine was loud. Even before entering the plane, I could hear it from the window coming in.”

ELLA: “It’s the motor. It’s in the front of the plane. The pilot controls the motor.”

THEO: “Wings make them fly. Rockets go straight so they don’t need wings.”

JACK G.: “The plane rolls backward, it moves really fast, this way and that way. It soars like a bird. It tips side to side. On their wheels and then it drives in the air.”

FINN: “The captain drives it to the air.”

SUMMER: “When the plane stops to a place you are there.”

ZOYA: “When it goes down and lands it freezes. It waits till all the people get out of the plane. Then it goes up to the sky and flies to go where it has to go.”

JACK S: “You see the ocean and houses from the airplane and they look like ants.”

Sharing these theories with the larger group at story time generated more conversations and discussions about air travel. Teachers enhanced interactions and expanded the amount of materials available, such as recycled paper rolls, Mylar, plastic and more. This led children to design an airplane gallery on the patio displaying the airplanes and rocket ships they were making. Some children focused on designing airplanes, others on the aesthetics of displaying the airplanes and others on making tickets to view the airplanes.

By this time, every child in the class had a role to play in an activity relating to airplanes. So it’s no surprise that they had begun using airplane language in their play, such as “red eye,” “turbulence” and “layover.”

Later, teachers used a globe and maps during story time and focused on travel to different countries, sang songs about travel to different countries, and encouraged children to imagine their own travel.

Here are some other children’s stories about planes and flying:

After making her plane with unit blocks Alyssa said, “It’s going to Hawaii and it is landing. This is where the pilot sits. These are the passengers’ seats.

This plane does not fly to Hawaii in the winter. It only flies in the summer.”

EVAN: “A red eye is when you go at night and you get red eyes because you can’t sleep.”

MAITA: “Planes go so fast you can’t see them sometimes. They go very high very far away in the sky.”

FINN: “ My mommy and daddy get my bags and put them under the seat, get a ticket and then try to go all the way in. You need tickets to get into the plane.”

To culminate the project, teachers created a mock airplane using room dividers and hollow blocks. Children made paintings to show what they would see if they were looking out an airplane window. There was assigned seating. A real pilot in uniform, Jeff Portusach, visited the classroom and the children gave him a tour of their airplane gallery. At story time, Portusach sat at the front of the mock airplane and discussed his job and the actual flying of a plane. He answered children’s questions. The children’s questions and understanding of air travel had grown and they had refined their thinking. The visit ended with an imaginary safe landing in Hawaii, and children were greeted with leis as they disembarked.

The play surrounding airplanes continued after the pilot left. Children looked immensely satisfied as they redesigned and refined their airplane creations until the airplanes actually took flight.

Obviously, children learned a tremendous amount about airplanes, airports and air travel. But from an early childhood development perspective, they learned many more important things. Their learning experience went beyond simply gaining knowledge about the topic.

Through this process, children learned to recognize and identify their passions and their interests. They experienced collaboration by learning to listen and respect the ideas of others. They were investigators, able to gather and access information. This process enabled them to sustain interest in a topic and thus experience self-regulation and divergent thinking.

The children’s feelings and emotional growth during this project were also very important. Through a shared interest, they experienced a sense of belonging. They also developed confidence as they talked and worked together, sharing their ideas in small and large groups. They gained confidence telling stories and flying their planes. Teachers observed that children were feeling pure joy as they followed their passion for air travel.

In this instance, the catalyst was a parent’s visit. It sparked collective interest in a topic. Teachers use interests such as this to facilitate and enhance learning. Many situations can be catalysts and it is the teachers who observe, respond, promote and enrich this type of enhanced learning experience.

The key to the success of the airplane classroom experience was the teamwork, sensitivity, responsiveness and resourcefulness of the classroom teachers. For example, by bringing in real-world recyclables to supplement the classroom supplies, teachers enhanced the children’s creative opportunities and enabled them to experiment and discover new principles. The type of educational framework known as “project-based learning” or “emergent curriculum,” succeeds when teachers work as a team to ensure that children experience a stimulating environment that challenges their imaginations and allows learning and growing in the broadest terms imaginable.