I teach a Family Inventor’s Lab, a STE(A)M enrichment class for ages 2.5 – 7.
We have designed the flow of the class so we begin with letting the children explore and discover on their own, making their own connections, and discovering their own questions before we give them any answers. After that, we talk about some big ideas, then send them to play with those ideas some more, then re-gather to share their conclusions. The maps above show the relation of this class structure to the scientific method and to an engineering process. Let’s look in more detail about how this works.
Set-Up: Before class, the teachers have set up a variety of hands-on activities related to the theme. They always include: building projects, toys for free exploration, art projects, some big motor activity, imaginary play, puzzles or other small motor skills, a sensory table and/or a water table, and books on the concept. (Just click on any category in the right hand sidebar, and you’ll find plenty of examples of activities we have done on various themes.)
Discovery Time: The first twenty minutes is “discovery time.” We let the kids explore freely, trying things out hands-on, noticing patterns, and making their own connections and interpretations before we present the concepts of the day. Some children come in with a lot of prior knowledge on the day’s topic (like our resident paleontology fans on dinosaur day!) and quickly build on that knowledge. Others come in with virtually previous exposure to a concept, and are really creating connections from scratch. They are “gathering information.” As questions arise, instead of immediately giving answers, we ask more questions to stimulate their thinking. (See examples of questions that extend learning.)
Opening Circle: We then have an opening circle with all the kids combined (up to 24 kids, ages 2.5 to 7). We ask them to share what they’ve seen, we ask a few children to share what they have made. (During discovery time, the teachers watch for kids who are creating really good projects to illustrate some concepts – they ask those children if they will show their work during opening circle.) We ask them what they think the theme is and how the activities connect to it. After we’ve first grounded in what they’ve discovered, we introduce the key concepts of the day, and talk about the other activities we’re doing. Sometimes we’ll give them a challenge to work on during tinkering time.
Tinkering Time: They return to the activities with fresh information and interpretation, and have 30 more minutes to explore more, tinker more, and test out ideas.
Teachers encourage kids to test ideas, then adapt them a little, then test them again, to learn more about the topic. We let them know it’s totally fine if some of their tests fail. (Read about why the willingness to fail is the key to an inventor’s success.)
Outside Time: Our Rockets (older kids, age 4 to 7) go outside. We often have more ideas related to the theme that they can explore outside. But this is also a little time to just run off some steam, so they come back in better able to relax and attend to opening circle. (Learn about the mood and concentration benefits of outside time here.) [The Robots – age 2.5 to 4 have closing circle first, then outside time.]
Conclusions Circle: In closing circle, we talk again about: what did you observe, what did you build, what did you test, what did you learn? We do more activities related to the theme, often including a book on the topic to wrap up the day’s concept.
A few days after class, parents receive an email, which often has follow-up activities they can do at home, or pointers to this blog to learn about more activity ideas we had but weren’t able to fit into class time or logistics.
We find that beginning with hands-on discovery raises the children’s engagement. Kids are naturally curious, but this format specifically harnesses that curiosity as a learning tool. They arrive to the opening circle open and ready to learn more. If we started by “teaching” them, they wouldn’t learn as much.
Check out this great article: What’s Going On Inside the Brain of a Curious Child. (It’s from KQED’s Mindshift series which is full of fascinating stuff about how we learn!)