By Sarah Wright, Head Teacher
For a good project one must have, above all, an expectation. If that expectation can also be felt by the children, this is of vital importance. The expectation helps adults’ attentiveness, their choices and methods of intervention and their focus on the relationships in the project. The choice of project is important. We must listen as children continuously suggest what interests them, what they want to explore deeply. After much negotiation their different intelligences will produce a convergence, a great blooming of ideas, that become sharper and more selected. They construct a story that penetrates deeply toward the solution. This provides an objective which gives children extraordinary energies because they know where they must arrive.
Loris Malaguzzi, Founder,
Preschools of Reggio Emilia
The preschools of Reggio Emilia, Italy, are well known for their unique approach to early-childhood education, as described in The Hundred Languages of Children. Bing Nursery School is one of many American institutions to share much of the Reggio Emilia philosophy. We believe that children must be allowed to take some responsibility for their own learning, that they develop rich and complex theories about their world and possess the skills to represent their ideas in many different media. We negotiate a curriculum with the children, based on their interests, that allows them to test their ideas, expand their knowledge, and revisit their theories. We seek projects that promote collaboration amongchildren, teachers, parents, and the community.
In East PM this past year, the flight project was launched during a windy day. The teachers observed the children chasing, catching, and sending leaves into the air to make them float down again. We watched as children jumped and released the leaves only when their arms were fully extended. We followed as children ran to the top of the hill, releasing leaves as they ran. We documented the different launching areas the children explored in the yard. At this point we teachers were observers, a role the children invited us to assume: “Watch mine.” “See how it goes up.” “My leaf went up forty feet.” “Look. It’s spinning!” “I’m going to the top of the hill to fly it.” Based on these observations, the teaching team hypothesized about the children’s interests, skills, and ideas, discussing what direction to take. Analyzing the children’s conversations, we noticed the recurring theme of levitation and decided to challenge the children to design a flying machine that would actually fly for a short time over a short distance.
A supply of popsicle sticks and masking tape on the table in the Neighborhood instantly motivated many children to explore and investigate the properties of the materials and promoted them to design and make flying machines. Bobby observed that one of his flying machines “spun around just like a Frisbee and flew eighty feet into the air!” Kylie discovered that her helicopter “only flew down. I need a high place to fly it.” She climbed to the top level of the tree house to drop her helicopter. “See, it flew down!” Nathaniel H. noticed that his plane “always went up and then down, landing on its nose every time.” Paperclips were supplied the following week so the children could explore weight dispersal.
As days passed, the children became more skillful at launching airplanes and flying machines — sometimes so skillful that the machines became entangled in tree branches. This presented a new problem to investigate. After a long discussion, everyone’s ideas were put to the test. Our first effort to retrieve a plane involved using a ladder, but it was too short. Next, a large group held and directed a long stick to nudge the plane out of the tree. Ultimately, the most successful idea involved knocking the plane out of the tree with a soccer ball.
The manufacture of flying machines expanded both outdoors and indoors. At the self-help table many children used a rich array of found materials to make simple kites. Their desire to make these kites fly higher with more control led to the making of paper airplanes. With adults helping on design, the children estimated, measured, and eagerly discussed how far and high their planes would fly. They discussed, practiced, and modified their own techniques for launching a plane and invented social rules for regulating safe launches.
Airplanes being launched on the hill triggered much interest in how and where flying things land. The children decided to construct a landing place for “airplanes, other people’s helicopters, and other things that fly.” Throughout the course of the week the children added what they considered to be the essential components of a landing place, including a fixing station for the broken airplanes, numerous takeoff areas, gas stations for both big and small planes, a parking garage for the cars that drop people off, and even an airport castle.
The flight theme was integrated into our language curriculum. The children created flying felt animals and then described the animals’ physical attributes and their imaginary habitats. As a further extension of this process, the children presented their animals to the class during story time.
Parents got involved in the project too, volunteering their time and expertise. One parent project entailed the design and construction of a control panel. Under close adult supervision, the children used handheld power tools. The control panel was used for an airplane flight deck, a spaceship control panel, and a helicopter’s controls.
As with any good project, the focus on flight taught the children much about themselves, each other, and their environment. At the same time, it allowed the teachers to gain a deeper understanding of how each individual child gained knowledge, developed critical thinking skills and acquired a better understanding of his/her world.