50 Ways to Wonder: Science kits for the playground

50 Ways to Bring Wonder into the Classroom

In an effort to bring curiosity and joy back into the elementary school classroom, I decided to start a series called 50 Ways to Bring Wonder into the Classroom. I hope to keep these ideas simple and easy to implement for the time-crunched teacher. Most of these ideas come from other teachers, blogs, and books – so I don’t claim credit for them! Click here to see previous posts in the series. And without further ado, here is the next idea!

8. Make science kits for the playground.

I don’t know how recess works at your school, but at mine, it’s complete chaos. All kindergarten classes have the same recess times, so there are usually about 65 kids running around on one tiny playground. Despite their best efforts to institute rule-following, the poor recess teachers spend their whole time fielding complaints about hitting, tackling, and going the wrong way on the slide. It’s not the recess teachers’ fault though – most of the kindergarteners, especially at the beginning of the year, don’t have the social skills or the independence to organize games together, or do anything except run around like recently-freed monkeys in a zoo.

Don’t get me wrong, I really value recess and think it’s incredibly important for kids to get outside and have time to move their body. If it were up to me, we’d have a recess at the end of every hour of learning (well, ask me that question in the middle of winter, and I would NOT be as excited to facilitate putting on of snow clothes at the end of every hour…)

But when my kids come in after recess, they are mostly just sweaty, and more hyperactive than before they went outside. The environment of five dozen kids running around screaming is not exactly rejuvenating for them.

So rather than complaining about recess (I need to save my complaining time for even bigger problems in public education), I decided to slowly work on this problem, starting with something very small – science kits. The idea came from the nature center where I work in the summer – small bags that kids can take out into the field to investigate the natural world. I figured if kids can use them out in the woods at the nature center, why not make something similar for the playground?

So I went to Michaels, bought four cheap canvas bags, and filled them with magnifying glasses, small notebooks, and a bug catcher. It took me less than an hour to put them together.

They turned out to be a huge hit. Kids were so excited to have something to do besides run around on the playground, and the bags were filled with enough items that 3 or 4 kids could share each bag. Every day I pulled name sticks to pick four people who would be in charge of bringing the bags out to recess. I thought I would have to make a big deal out of not forgetting the bags on the playground, but the kids felt so much pride in bringing them out that they almost never forgot to bring them back in. (I think it was also because they played with them for the entire recess time – instead of just discarding them after a few minutes, and forgetting about them by the time the bell rang.)

The science kits also had the benefit of engaging students who love to investigate the natural world. I saw students working together to create bug homes, identify (often imaginary) animal tracks, and use notebooks to sketch leaves and rocks.

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Using a bug catcher to capture ants crawling on a tree

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Working hard to create a bug home

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Look at these kids at recess! No running around screaming here, just good old fashioned exploring

Below is a photo of what I included in my science kits, as well as a list of other ideas. In the future, I’d love to create other playground kits, including a reading kit and a nature journaling one.

TeachRunEat - science kits for the playgroundIncluded in my science kits:

  • Bug identification cards
  • Small notebooks
  • Bug catcher (actually just a cheap craft box from Michaels)
  • Magnifying glass
  • Pencil
  • Animal track identification cards

Other ideas you could include:

  • Field guides
  • Binoculars
  • Compasses
  • Butterfly nets
  • Flashlights
  • Nature log (for recording animal and plant sightings)
  • Colored pencils
  • Nature journals
  • Maps
  • Jars or boxes for building collections of rocks, leaves, etc.
  • Nature scavenger hunt checklists

Here’s a few more links on creating science kits for the playground: Fun Field Bag Supplies for Kids, and Scavenger Hunt Bingo.

Science Weekly Five for K-2 teachers!

Science! I love teaching it, and I know many teachers do too. But isn’t it so stressful to organize?? Compared to the rest of my day, science time is total chaos.

My district uses the FOSS curriculum, which means a lot of open-ended, exploration type activities. This is great for the kids, but it’s a nightmare for me! I’m always running around trying to make sure the whole group is following directions, has enough materials, and isn’t just throwing pieces of wood at each other!

After my third year of teaching, I finally decided to rethink how I do science this year. There are two things to think about – the content I teach, and how I manage the hour. As far as content goes, I have been trying to make my science content much more inquiry-based (you can read more about my thoughts on teaching inquiry-based science content here). But that is only half the battle. I also struggle with whole-group science, because it turns into behavior problems, confused kids, and an inability to differentiate for kids’ needs!

Enter my newest solution! This was inspired by the amazing Science Penguin, who blogs about teaching science to older kids. She has tons of cool resources on her blog, so make sure you check out her entire website. One resource in particular stuck out to me – the Science Weekly Five. It uses the Daily Five model (or as she calls it, the Weekly Five) to organize your science block. If you teach older kids (3rd grade and up), I highly recommend her Science Weekly Five!

But her brilliant station ideas don’t quite work for younger kids – kids who can’t read directions, or write in a journal, or work in partners, without their omniscient teacher helping them 24/7. So I decided to make my own version of the Science Weekly Five for K-2 teachers!

Science Weekly Five for K-2 teachers

This has completely changed how I teach science, for the better! It has you break kids into five groups (or let them choose their own groups, if you are brave). Then they can rotate between five independent science areas that really allow for hands-on, inquiry-based learning! The rotations incorporate a lot of what we don’t seem to have time for in other parts of our day – creativity, engineering and problem-solving, inquiry-based research, technology, and hands-on investigations.

3 of 5 stations Science Weekly Five

Included in the packet are an overview of the K-2 Science Weekly Five, “I Can” posters for each station, implementation tips, signs for your classroom, parent letter, and several other resources. If I left anything out, please let me know and I will be happy to send it to you!

Science Weekly Five overview

As soon as I started teaching science this way, I saw huge gains in my kids’ engagement during science time. I was also SO much less stressed. This allows me to work with small groups on our investigations, while the other kids are engaged in authentic science learning. It also incorporates literacy and math – which is awesome, because cross-curricular learning is the best for kids!

You can purchase this packet on my Teachers Pay Teachers store here, or by clicking any of the photos above!

Here are some photos of my students hard at work in their Science Weekly Five centers! I hope you enjoy teaching this as much as I do.

Research

Research – learning all about winter animals!

Engineering

Engineering – using pattern blocks 

Create

Create – making winter scenes with paint and packing peanuts

Investigate

Investigate – learning all about snow!

Extend

Extend – using Chromebooks to read and learn

50 Ways to Wonder: Have a Wonder Table.

50 Ways to Bring Wonder into the ClassroomIn an effort to bring curiosity and joy back into the elementary school classroom, I decided to start a series called 50 Ways to Bring Wonder into the Classroom. I hope to keep these ideas simple and easy to implement for the time-crunched teacher. Most of these ideas come from other teachers, blogs, and books – so I don’t claim credit for them! Click here to see previous posts in the series. And without further ado, here is the next idea!

6. Have a Wonder Table.

Kids are constantly bringing in things from outside to show me. I used to say “oh thank you” and just put the items on my desk. Then I realized that kids were bringing them in because they were interested in them, and wanted to learn more! So I started a Wonder Table. It was basically a plain table with a sign saying “Wonder Table.” The rules were that kids could bring anything they found outside or at home that made them wonder. We brainstormed examples, including items from nature, interesting toys that made them think, or books that taught them something new. I also sent home a letter to parents explaining the project.

After that, the items just started flooding in! Nests, dead bugs, leaves, rocks, all sorts of natural items that the kids were fascinated by. (I put each new item in a small basket so it didn’t get super messy.) I also left magnifying glasses and our science journals at the same table. It was a favorite place to go during free choice time, and I like to think that it also helped place more value on wonder and curiosity.

Click the image below to download a sign that you can print off and tape to one of your tables to start your own Wonder Table!

wondertable

Education for Sustainability: a bit more on what it means

Education for Sustainability

A few days ago I shared with you my definition of Education for Sustainability (EFS). Of course, EFS can look like different things to different people, depending on who, what and where you teach. But in general, it’s a whole new way of looking at how we teach. As the Sustainable Schools Project puts it, EFS is learning that links knowledge, inquiry and action to help students build a healthy future for their communities and the planet.

Here are a few more ways to describe Education for Sustainability.

EFS 1

Education for Sustainability is place-based.

  • Many districts (including my own) ask teachers to use prescribed curricular programs, written and sold by companies far removed from local classrooms. While these curricula are often research-based, they can leave both students and teachers bored and unchallenged.  Teachers approach their subject by saying: “on Day 1, we will do this; on Day 2, we will do this,” no matter what their students seem to need.
  • In contrast, EFS asks teachers to approach their subject by saying: “What is happening in our classroom or community? Can I use any of it to meet learning standards and benchmarks?”
  • Here’s an example. My reading curriculum has as one of its benchmarks “Great readers ask questions as they read.” It then asks the teacher to read aloud the book Baby Talk by Joy Cowley. This is a book about animal babies of all kinds. Instead of teaching this book automatically, I could make note of what students have been wondering and discussing in the classroom lately. Have kids been asking about why the leaves are falling? Find a book on why trees lose their leaves, and use this to stimulate questions as we read.
  • Teachers can look at what is going on in their wider community as well, and listen to students’ conversations to help determine where to steer their lessons.

EFS 2

Education for Sustainability integrates the curriculum.

  • One of the biggest take-aways I got from the EFS Institute was the importance of having a wider theme that threads throughout your entire curriculum. Research supports integrated instruction. It’s better for students’ brains and their interest level.
  • A de-emphasis on having separate times for social studies, science, math, and reading makes sense. In the world outside of school, whose job requires an employee to do math for 45 minutes, then completely stop what they are doing and switch into reading mode? This isn’t how students will think and learn when they are out of school, and it shouldn’t be how we teach them in school.
  • To tie your curriculum together, the EFS Institute suggested that teachers come up with a “Big Idea” that threads throughout the year. Here is a list of Big Ideas that relate to sustainability. Having a Big Idea will give meaning and purpose to your curriculum. It will make sure that everything you teach is related in some way to the bigger idea of sustainability and understanding one aspect of how the world works.
  • Here’s an example. Let’s say you decide that your Big Idea is Cycles, because you want your students to really grasp the idea that every organism/system goes through different stages. From here on out, every time you begin a unit or delve into a lesson, you can start by saying “How will this help them learn more about cycles?”

EFS 3

Education for Sustainability empowers students (in several ways).

  • First, it encourages students to ask questions. When you are not stuck to a prescribed set of activities, you can really listen to kids’ questions and use them to steer your teaching. If kids are really interested in where water goes after you flush the toilet, you can use this curiosity to delve into understanding our water supply. If kids are really interested in why some families are homeless, you can use this momentum to explore the root causes of poverty.
  • Second, it helps them understand how the world around them works. Because Education for Sustainability asks students and teachers to look at what is going on in their community, they will leave these investigations with just that – a better understanding of their community. For kindergarten, this might be a better understanding of their classroom and how to be a good friend. For fifth grade, it might be an awareness of how climate change is affecting their city’s food supply. For high school, it might be knowledge of how the country’s political system.
  • And last, it teaches students that they can make a difference. Instead of just learning about problems in the world, EFS asks teachers and students to come up with solutions for these problems. Instead of just tallying the number of cars idling in the parking lot, it asks students to put up signs reminding drivers to turn their cars off when not in use. Instead of just discussing the number of homeless people on the street, it asks classrooms to raise money for local homeless shelters.

Now I know that is a lot of information. But hopefully it gives you a slightly better understanding of Education for Sustainability. The Sustainable Schools Project has TONS of great resources, including some curricular examples, if you want to read more.

And while all this is really exciting, I know there are lots of teachers who will say “But my district requires me to teach exactly what is in our teacher manuals.” Have no fear. As a teacher from just such a district, I’ll talk next time about how I am going to implement these huge and amazing ideas into my classroom – one tiny, manageable step at a time.

Scientist of the Month!

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Seriously, how did teachers do it before the invention of Pinterest and Teachers Pay Teachers? If you are a teacher that has not discovered the wonders of these two websites, I urge you to go explore them! You will probably develop a ruthless addiction to both sites, because they offer endless ideas and teacher-made resources, often for free!  There have been so many times that I think “man, it would be so cool if I had {insert awesome idea} for my classroom, but I’ll never have time to make it!” And then, I type the words into Pinterest and voila! Another brilliant teacher has already made the exact thing I was hoping to have. Amazing.

Here’s an example. This spring I talked to my kindergarteners a lot about being a scientist when they grow up, but I realized that I never really explained what that meant. So in a frantic attempt to give them a better understanding of what it means to “be a scientist,” I read them a book by Jane Goodall. Well then for several weeks they thought that being a scientist meant living in the jungle with chimpanzees! While that is certainly one option for scientists, there are obviously many more routes that science-inclined people can take.

So, I decided the best thing to do next year would be to have a featured “Scientist of the Month.” During the first week of each month, we could read books and watch clips about this scientist. This will be a great way to get more nonfiction books in my kids’ hands (you’re welcome, Common Core) as well as get them exposed to all kinds of scientists – including female ones!

Well, it’s not enough to have a brilliant idea like Scientist of the Month. Turns out you actually have to make a plan for which scientists will be featured, and put together some info for the kids on each one. Thus, “make Scientist of the Month packet” got added to the bottom of my supremely long list of summer projects.

But wait! Thanks to the miracle that is Pinterest, I learned that another teacher had the same brilliant idea, and is giving away her Scientist of the Month stuff for free! She did all the work of choosing scientists, finding pictures of them, and putting together biographical information on each one. So awesome.

Scientist bios

So if you want to do the Scientist of the Month idea too, go on over to The Teacher Garden to get pictures and bios on each scientist. And for a lovely title poster for your bulletin board, click on the image below to download it (or click here if the link doesn’t work). Hooray for the internet, and teachers who make my workload easier!

Scientist of Month

50 Ways to Bring Wonder: Mystery Bag Monday

50 Ways to Bring Wonder into the ClassroomIn an effort to bring curiosity and joy back into the elementary school classroom, I decided to start a series called 50 Ways to Bring Wonder into the Classroom. I hope to keep these ideas simple and easy to implement for the time-crunched teacher. Most of these ideas come from other teachers, blogs, and books – so I don’t claim credit for them! Click here to see previous posts in the series. And without further ado, here is the next idea!

4. Have Mystery Bag Monday.

Mystery Bag Monday is such a fun way to introduce a new topic or review an old one, and kids LOVE it. I just took a simple brown bag, glued a Mystery Bag picture on it, and voila! Instant Wonder And Mystery. Here’s how I do it:

When I’m starting a new unit, I choose something that represents the topic, such as a leaf for a Trees unit, a mini pumpkin for a Pumpkins unit, you get the idea. Then I pass the bag around the circle and let each student touch, hold and smell the bag. Just don’t peek inside! I write one clue at a time on the board, and call on a few kids to make predictions after I reveal each clue. Then, after all three clues are given, they take their science journal back to their tables and draw or write what they think is in the bag. We each share our predictions, and then I do the big reveal!

mystery bag

This is so much fun, takes very little time, and is a great way to gauge your kids’ understanding of the new topic. You could do the same thing as an assessment, giving them three clues about something you’ve already studied. And most importantly, it brings a little bit of curiosity and wonder into any unit of study!

Inspiration for the weekend

allthegoldenlandsI travel to feel lonely…on purpose. What farm-to-table got wrong.

A fascinating idea of how we need to cook with the whole farm. (Farmers spend years making healthy soil by growing cover crops, but most of those cover crops just go to animal feed. If there was a market for buying those crops, farmers would make more money.)

What you think “organic” means may be different than what it actually means. (Basically, it means the food is only 95% pesticide-free. For the other 5%, they can use any chemicals approved by the USDA. Of which there are quite a few.)

40 of the best science podcasts for mobile learning. Having never studied science, I’m always looking for ways to improve my science knowledge so I can teach it to my students.

My current obsession for lunches: Kale avocado wrap.

One of my favorite radio programs has two awesome shows this week: Rethinking Schools and The Secret Language of Plants.

I used this book a lot when I was teaching at a nature center, and I forgot it existed! So now I want to get it. Growing Up Wild: Exploring Nature with Young Children.

50 Ways to Bring Wonder: Teach the word “hypothesis.”

50 Ways to Bring Wonder into the ClassroomIn an effort to bring curiosity and joy back into the elementary school classroom, I decided to start a series called 50 Ways to Bring Wonder into the Classroom. I hope to keep these ideas simple and easy to implement for the time-crunched teacher. Most of these ideas come from other teachers, blogs, and books – so I don’t claim credit for them! Click here to see previous posts in the series. And without further ado, here is the next idea!

3. Teach the word “hypothesis.”

It’s a common misconception that young students shouldn’t be taught big words. Who hasn’t met a five-year-old that can’t tell you the difference between a brontosaurus and a stegosaurus? Kids are drawn to big, complicated words, and they are often ready to handle the big, complicated concepts that come with. Early on in the year I teach my students the word “hypothesis,” defining it as something like “your best guess answer to a question, based on what you already know.” I then make an effort to pose lots of questions that allow them to form a hypothesis.

My favorite way to introduce new units is by posing a question or two, letting the students form hypotheses, and then giving them time to look in books to find the answer. For example, I kicked off my unit on turtles by writing the question “Why do turtles have shells?” on chart paper. I asked each student to draw or write a simple answer to the question, then gave them time to browse through lots of non-fiction books to look for evidence that proves them either right or wrong. I usually ask them to search with a partner, in order to stimulate dialogue on the topic.

teachthewordhypothesisIt’s amazing to see kindergarteners scrutinizing photographs and captions to find evidence that turtles use their shells for protection. I hand out sticky notes to each pair, suggesting that they mark any evidence they find in the texts. After about ten minutes, we come back to the rug and share what we learned. I usually follow up by reading a simple non-fiction text that will give us a definite answer to the question posed. But sometimes I leave it open for debate!

50 Ways to Bring Wonder: Use science journals

50 Ways to Bring Wonder into the ClassroomIn an effort to bring curiosity and joy back into the elementary school classroom, I decided to start a series called 50 Ways to Bring Wonder into the Classroom. I hope to keep these ideas simple and easy to implement for the time-crunched teacher. Most of these ideas come from other teachers, blogs, and books – so I don’t claim credit for them! Click here to see previous posts in the series. And without further ado, here is the next idea!

2. Use science journals

Science journals are a cheap and easy way to give your students somewhere to write down all their questions, observations, and thoughts about the world, without you having to manage lots of papers or activities. I just bought cheap notebooks and used rubber cement to glue these covers on the front. They have lasted all year. You can have students use science journals for all kinds of science-related activities, including:

  • making KWL charts at the beginning of a unit
  • recording observations about animals or plants
  • drawing what they see on a nature walk
  • writing down questions they have
  • recording results from science experiments
  • writing new facts from non-fiction books
  • reflecting on what they learned at the end of a unit

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I keep my students’ science journals where they can easily access them , and encourage them to use them however they see fit! Some teachers do very involved science journaling, which I admire and wish I had time for! I keep it simple, though, and basically use them for my students to record what they observe about the world.

Here are some places to find more info on science journaling (also called science notebooks).

The Science Penguin
Science Notebooking
Kristen’s Kindergarten
Little Miss Hypothesis
Kindergarten Kindergarten

Making room for joy and wonder in the classroom

teachingjoyandwonder

As a kindergarten teacher, I find that most people are surprised when I tell them how much is expected of five-year-olds these days. Most of us remember kindergarten as a place for coloring, playing with playdough, and taking naps. The majority of our time was spent running around the recess playground and learning how to make new friends.

Nowadays, the majority of time in kindergarten is spent in academic pursuit. In one seven-hour day, my kindergarteners get exactly 20 minutes of free play and 20 minutes of rest time. That is 40 minutes of unstructured play, out of 420 minutes, each day. The rest of the time is spent on academics – reading, writing, phonics, spelling, math, computer, library, music, art, gym, and a small bit on science and social studies. (That doesn’t include 20 minutes for lunch and 40 minutes for recess each day – but lunch and recess are a chaotic whirl of overcrowded, yelling groups of children, which hardly counts as downtime for a kid.)

While I am a firm believer in the importance of learning throughout the day (I am a teacher, after all, and I love teaching Writers Workshop and Guided Math and everything else), I am also constantly frustrated with how much is demanded of these little guys. By the end of the school day, my students are visibly exhausted, both mentally and physically. And many of them go home to even more structured activities, like gymnastics and soccer practice and piano lessons. I know this is a much lamented problem, but the level of concern doesn’t seem to be changing our expectations of kids in school. As a public school teacher, I can attest to the fact that what is expected of my kindergarteners (from my district administration, from state standardized testing, from Common Core standards) is unreasonable, and is too much.

Think about what you remember most from elementary school. For me, it’s the weeks we spent studying the rainforest in third grade, learning about beautiful animals like quetzals that require our protection. Or the time in sixth grade that we dressed up and acted out the Greek myths, turning over our desks and building props out of cardboard and paint. What will kids remember from my kindergarten class? If I followed the required curriculum to a T, they might remember lots of time spent writing and editing personal narrativesidentifying the number of vertices and sides of a 3D shape, and learning the difference between plywood and particle board.

Don’t get me wrong – these are important endeavors in learning. But I think they need to be balanced with time for free play and exploration. There is so much evidence out there already on how children learn best through play, but play time is decidedly NOT written into the curriculum.

I realize that most of what I’m expected to teach is currently at the whim of politics and corporations. I am fortunate, though, to teach in a school with a very supportive principal who trusts teachers, and gives them room to use their professional judgment on the best way to teach children. Therefore, I have made it my goal this year (and all the years in the future) to make as much room for free play and exploration in my classroom as possible. I’ve decided to start sharing some of my ideas, since there’s not a lot out there on how to bring more joy and wonder into the classroom. I’ll start by listing some of the resources I’ve used when learning how to create space for exploration and guided inquiry in the classroom, and later share lesson ideas, both large and small.

Here are some resources that have inspired me so far:

Websites by Teachers

Books

Pinterest Boards

I’ll end with a quote that has been floating around out there that gives a nod to our need for balance between exploration and structured learning. More ideas for how to find this balance will come!

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