Early Childhood Education Environmental Inquiry: Puddles of Opportunity

By Diane Kashin, Ed.D, RECE. I have been doing a lot of thinking about inquiry lately. In my capacity as the chair of the York Region Nature Collaborative I was invited to take part in a pilot environmental inquiry project with the York Region District School Board, which involves two different full day kindergarten classes. The first experience was in a school located in an urban area with a large population of English language learners. The aim of the pilot was for the children to spend the two whole days outdoors. I wondered on the first day how this experience while wonderful was inquiry? On day one the children painted outdoors, did a forest school experience with pulleys and rope, played with loose parts, began the creation of a three-dimensional map representing the outdoor area and they made clay creatures. All of this was amazing to do outside but all of it could have been done inside. The next day however, the children seemed more focused and calmer. In addition to the same activities, a selection of bug specimen jars were added and there was a lot of interest from a group of boys to find some mini beasts.

Looking for worms

I am not sure how I ended up with this group, as I am not the biggest lover of mini-beasts. I found it intriguing that at first the children were reluctant to dig in the dirt so I took a stick and started to move the soil around and lo and behold something was squirming and one of the lads gently picked up the worm. So much excitement ensued … “I want a worm too”, and they looked to me to find the worms for them. I encouraged the boys to find sticks and showed them that by moving the dirt and looking closely they would discover the worms for themselves. I left the group but they stayed by that the same small patch of dirt for hours. Later in the day we came together before the children left for home. They were asked about their favourite part of the day. Each one of the boys involved in the worm discovery agreed that finding the worms was the best part of the day. I was thinking that if I were staying with these children beyond the two days, a logical next step would be to initiate a worm inquiry. I was thrilled when their teacher looked towards me and said, “I think we are going to do a worm inquiry”! This to me made so much sense as it was an environmental inquiry spurred by discovery and wonder.

Discovering worms

I love social media because days later when I was wondering whether these children and their teachers had embarked on an investigation of worms I got an answer to my question. Much to my delight I received a notification on the York Region Nature Collaborative Twitter account and there was a picture of a child holding a worm. This wasn’t one of the original group of boys who spent hours digging for worms but one of the girls who initially reacted to these slimy and intriguing creatures by screaming and running away. These worms sparked so much wonder in the boys and they had many questions such as do worms have two heads and how do worms move? I can’t wait to hear about the worm inquiry and all the children’s reaction to it, the questions they continued to have and the direction of the inquiry will take.

Touching worms

I don’t usually work with children directly but I am asked often about how to start an inquiry in the workshops, presentations and classes that I teach/facilitate. I have written a guest blog post on The Sunflower School’s new professional learning blog about my experience at these two amazing sites in Orangeville, Ontario which focuses on the discussion the director, Heather Jackson and I had about inquiry. My role for the week I was there was to help Heather and her teachers look for the deeper meaning in their documentation. I was also there to encourage the sharing of documentation through social media. I was able to show the teachers that many early learning professionals had Twitter accounts and class accounts. It is wonderful to see how the #ReggioPLC community has welcomed The Sunflower School to Twitter and I look forward to hearing more about Reggio inspired inquiries and documentation from each of the classes at these two amazing locations.

The Sunflower School Blog

As I am still coming to terms with terms and inquiry is a relatively new term for me I am still wondering about what it all means. I have used the term project before, and I love the term Progettazione and Heather uses the term investigation. It has only been in the last few years that I have become so aware that so many educators use the term inquiry and now I have become inquirer of inquiry. I am coming to terms with that term. I have so many questions. What is the inquiry process? How does an inquiry begin? How does it end? What are the questions that lead the inquiry process? Who decides on the topic and direction of an inquiry? As I am a collaborative learner I look to others to learn. If I was asked to choose one quote that defines my practice it would by from Lev Vygotsky, the social constructivist theorist.

It is through others that we develop into ourselves.

Vygotsky, 1981, p. 181

So recently when someone shared this article on inquiry; The Many Levels of Inquiry it helped me in my understanding. Although this article was meant for older children, it has applications to early childhood education and the description of the continuum of inquiry is a good starting point to recognize that it is the open inquiry that is developmentally appropriate for younger children. The inquiry begins with their questions about something they wonder about. The children’s questions become more scientific and more thoughtful with the careful questioning of their teachers. Debi Keyte Hartland continues to inspire me with her thoughtful musings on Reggio inspired practice. In recent blog post on questions Debi wonders about how questions and provocations can be used to expand the range of possibilities of ideas in a group of children rather than to recall what is already known, or to explore just one singular idea. I am realizing that I am a work in progress and that I have much to learn about inquiry, questions and early childhood education. I am going to look to questions that explore the edges of ideas and the inside of an idea and re-consider the use of the why question.

The why question can also just hark back to known causes, already identified ways of thinking and being that are not new, that are reductionist and do not hold the possibility to think about ideas in a different way.

Debi Keyte Hartland, 2015

A good way to avoid asking “Why” is to replace it with “How” and “What for”. So now I am not wondering why I am thinking so much about inquiry, I am exploring how I will continue to address my musings. As I am Reggio inspired I love to look for inspiration from the educators from Reggio Emilia as they lead me to think deeply. I read and re-read the writings of Malaguzzi, Vecchi, Gandini and Rinaldi over and over again as each time something else will make me think and wonder. Recently, a tweet came through my newsfeed from an inspiring educator Anamaria Ralph and she shared documentation of a puddle experience.

Puddle Documentation from Anamaria Ralph

This triggered something in my brain and I thought that somewhere I had read something really deep about puddles. I did a Google search and was delighted to find this image, which reminded me to find the joy in the every day and to play.

Jumping in puddles

My thoughts did not end there as I kept thinking more about inquiry and puddles which I thought was a bit of an odd connection so I took a chance and looked up puddles in the index of Vea Vecchi’s book, Art and Creativity and there they were in all their glory. When Vecchi (2010) says that puddles are “one of those subjects, or fields of investigation, one could propose with children without fear of being mistaken” (p. 121) I am fascinated and read on. When she calls puddles “an upside down fragment of the world” (p. 121) I relate to the words. According to Vecchi (2010) puddles are:

A micro-world we can enter and if we are alone or adults allow it, splash in with hands and feet. We can throw stones into them, float twigs and leaves. When we are on the edge of the puddle and a friend arrives, at first only a head appears in the water’s reflection, then the image grows larger and larger until a whole person can be seen, and in reverse order the same phenomenon gets repeated when the person moves away. The landscape in the reflection changes when I walk around the puddle. If it is sunny, a double image appears in the water; reflection and shadow. This double image, the result of different phenomena, is always quite difficult to understand and not only for children. It is interesting to take the time to investigate it (p. 121).

The outdoors environment holds some much wonder that is worthy of investigation from worms to puddles. I am happy to announce that the next #ReggioPLC global chat on May 2nd at 4 pm EST will focus on learning outside or environmental inquiry. Suzanne Axelsson usually co-moderates this chat with me but as she will be exploring the Reggio Children exhibit in Milan’s Expo 2015, I am thrilled to announce that Kathryn Petro a colleague and friend who is constantly inquiring about inquiry will be a guest moderator. We will be looking at how playing outside and the outdoor environment leads to learning and inquiries worthy of investigation. As Ontario’s Full Day Kindergarten program states:

Children learn best when dealing with topics they can explore directly and in depth. Abstract topics (e.g., rain forests, penguins, planets) are difficult for children to conceptualize. The topic of any inquiry should be drawn from things that are familiar to children in their daily lives (p. 17).

From puddles to worms the outdoor environment will provide endless possibilities for inquiry. Jump in, explore, inquire, investigate, wonder and question.

8 thoughts on “Early Childhood Education Environmental Inquiry: Puddles of Opportunity

  1. Diane – Once again, a wonderful read! I always learn something, or am pushed to reflect on what I do with my students and why. Like you, I think of myself as an inquirer of inquiry. That is the journey I am on. So happy to share the path with others….I will try out the world of blogging soon! Nadine

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    • Thank you Nadine and it was a pleasure meeting you at the beautiful Swan Lake Centre … I hope you’ll write a blog about your student’s tree inquiry – it sounded so amazing when you described it to me and would love to read more!

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  2. This was lovely to read, Diane! I particularly appreciated your thoughts on what makes outdoor learning distinct from things we could replicate indoors, and how inquiry ties in. I’m volunteering at an outdoor kindergarten this year, and as teachers we are constantly talking about whether the outdoor time in the schoolyard can ever be as rich as the weekly trip to spend time in the ravine. It’s difficult to avoid just bringing indoor play out at times, and yet all the true curiosity and seeds of inquiry seem to be generated in the ravine. It is definitely worth continuing to strive to make the outdoor playground time as provocative and inspiring as time spent in more natural environments, and your description of the difference between the first and second days spent outside is a wonderful motivator for us to keep at it!

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    • Thank you Heather! Next week the pilot continues at another location and this time the children will be outdoors for five days! I will have more to report! I am inspired by educators like you Heather who understand the importance of learning in and with nature – of going beyond the fence to more natural environments. It should be the place where all inquiries are born 🙂

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  3. Thank you for linking me in with your thinking here! I have been knee deep in a cross cultural project between exploring children’s relationships with ecology, especially around the concept of growth in the UK and Sweden . It has at its heart this unpicking of ideas and terms about enquiry/inquiry and how it is in relationship with the values of Progettazione. I think our understanding of these terms are always shifting as we read and encounter new things. As soon as we define it, or try to pin it down like an elusive moonbeam, something else comes into the frame. I actually worry if we try and pin it down actually…however we do at the same time need to have some shared understandings if we are to be in dialogue and exchange over such things.

    I am fascinated at present with questions and the kind of questions that are helpful in an environment of enquiry – the kind of poetic invites that permeate the work of the Reggio Educators in Italy. It isn’t just a matter of asking the right questions though, it’s a case of being able and open to listen, to hold a rich image of the child and to be able to feel the co-existing modalities of imagination, fantasy, science and logic as they make- meaning and express what they know about the world in which we are all part. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of children’s lives in this way? Thanks again!

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  4. You are welcome Debi! There is so much to think about with regards to the questions we ask and have! It goes well beyond “open-ended questions” … I’m on my way to Sweden tonite!

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