By Peckie Peters, Head Teacher
Most people familiar with Bing Nursery School know to ask, “What project are the children in this classroom working on right now?” What may be less clear, however, is where these projects actually come from and how they develop into full-on investigations. For an example, look at the bread project undertaken in West AM this past winter.
Late in the fall quarter, family members were invited to join us in the classroom to share a favorite recipe from home. Cooking was an almost daily activity at the art table as children helped to create kugel, banana bread, and muffins and had the added pleasure of consuming their creations. With the arrival of the holiday break, we teachers wondered whether the children’s interest in cooking would continue after the almost three-week hiatus. The first day back we got our answer when Ellie asked, “How come we aren’t cooking today? Could we make some banana bread?” Christian was nearby and commented, “I remember that cinnamon bread we made before.” The teacher who overheard these remarks shared them with the rest of the team. Someone suggested that bread might be a topic of interest in our classroom, and the team discussed the viability of bread as a research topic. Would there be enough interest from children to sustain a project? Were the teachers interested? Was the project broad enough to allow children to pose questions and do an in-depth investigation? Would we be able to make significant connections between home and school? We thought it was worth a try.
We first wanted to get a sense of how much children already knew about bread and what their personal experiences with it were. At snack time children described what kind of bread they ate at home. “White bread. It’s gray inside and the top and on the side it’s brown. It’s kind of flat.” (Charley) “Bagels, gingerbread, brown and white.” (Morgan) “Cinnamon raisin toast and wheat.” (Meredith) “Wheat.” (Peter) Discussions followed about what people like with or on their bread, including strawberry jam, peanut butter, melted butter, just plain, and even marshmallow. The children were excited to share their own experiences and to hear their friends’ ideas.
To broaden the children’s repertoire of knowledge, expand their vocabulary, and stimulate further interest in bread, Beth Wise, Bing music specialist, wrote a song about bread. Throughout the quarter children could be heard singing or humming the catchy tune: “Bread, bread, different kinds of bread, oh so many different kinds of bread.” The song helped children realize that they eat more kinds of bread than they originally thought. As we sang “tortillas, pita, and pizza dough” or “pretzels, breadsticks, and gingerbread,” children could be heard commenting, “Oh, I eat that kind of bread.” Every day children had an opportunity to bake and eat bread. Teachers brought in examples of bread that children might not normally see for them to touch, examine, and smell. Words like croissant, lavash, baguette, and pumpernickel began to float freely from children’s mouths.
To take the investigation to a new level, teachers added a variety of new materials to the classroom. On the patio we set up wheat, rye, and blue corn flour for the children to sift. Library books placed throughout the environment showed wheat growing in fields, being processed in mills, and being ground into flour in preparation for its transition into bread. Doris Welch, a teacher in West PM, brought in her grinding stone so that the children could use a rock mallet to crush flakes of wheat. Play dough with food coloring was added to the dramatic play area. A letter was sent home asking parents and children to bring in samples of bread that the children could introduce to the class, tell about, or just display for others to investigate.
A shift occurred in the room. Children’s chatter contained numerous references to bread. “I’m making bread for my baby,” Eliza said to a passing teacher as she flattened play dough rolls and placed them in the muffin tin. Ellie and Caroline illustrated bread books containing examples of bread we had talked about. As they shared their books at story time, it was clear that the girls were beginning to see themselves as experts, knowledgeable about the topic they shared with their peers. In the outdoor area, children became scientists examining new materials. They pounded wheat flakes and sifted flour, alone, in pairs, and even in groups of four or five, passing and sharing tools and watching as the friends explored the material. The children began to realize that flour is a primary ingredient in bread and that yeast is the white stuff you add when you want the bread to rise. This latter concept was reinforced by Mary Arnone, a parent, who spent several mornings experimenting with and discussing the function of yeast.
As the children manipulated materials, they made exciting discoveries. One day Erik R. experimented with putting wheat into the sifter before he had ground it. As he determinedly cranked the handle, nothing happened. “Why do you think the wheat flakes are getting stuck?” a teacher asked. “Oh, I need flour,” Erik said aloud, adding a handful of flour to his wheat mixture. He was surprised to see that flour came though the sifter, leaving the wheat flakes behind. “Oh, now I see,” he exclaimed as he threw down the sifter. “The holes are too little for the big stuff to go through.” Minutes later he ran to the swing area, ready to play and to share his discovery with anyone who would listen. Another day Sasha noticed that the flour he was sifting did not match the color of the flour in the book he was studying. A teacher suggested that he try grinding some wheat flakes to see if they might be the same color. Sasha recruited Erik S., and the two proceeded to grind the wheat and sift the flour. “Let’s makes some bread,” exclaimed Sasha, and the two created their own recipe. Erik joined Sasha’s snack table to share their delicious creation, and the boys told their story to a very interested group of classmates at story time. The next day several others wanted to attempt their own recipes.
Concurrently, we again asked parents to share favorite recipes, this time for bread. The offerings sounded like items from a multicultural baker: focaccia, Russian rye bread, Vietnamese banana bread, fry bread, and nan. Parents were surprised to see how much children already knew about making bread. “You have to carefully measure ingredients.” “Yeast makes the bread get taller.” “The sifter makes the flour feel really light.”
James Evans, Ruth’s father, brought in an electric wheat grinder, and children could watch the grinding stone turn as it crushed the wheat into flour. We then used the flour to make tortillas, pizza dough, and even waffles. One day, the pizza dough took longer than expected and the pizza wasn’t ready in time for snack. No problem. The patio was transformed into a post-snack pizza restaurant complete with hot pizza and Motown music. Requests to make pizza came frequently after that day.
We wondered how long the children’s interest in bread would persist. Should we schedule time to visit a bakery? Could we examine other cultures more closely to understand why they eat certain breads? This time the answer was no. Warmer weather brought excitement about spring and a desire to be outside and on the move. Cooking had less appeal than finding bugs in the back forty. The teachers closed the project by compiling a book with the children’s bread recipes and the songs sung throughout the quarter. The book gave children another way to share their learning with those at home and provided a memento of the time when they were bread experts.