Kindergarten teacher shares her class’ bird investigation

Talking with other early childhood educators enriches my understanding of how children learn and I often learn good ideas for teaching about particular science concepts. I had an online conversation with Mary Myron who I met at the 2013 annual conference of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Mary has held several positions in early childhood, has a Master of Education in Early Childhood and is a National Board Teacher in Early Childhood. She is now the Mentor Kindergarten Instructor at the East Tennessee State University’s “University School” and an adjunct faculty member, with a wealth of experience as a lead teacher in early childhood programs.

Welcome Mary!

Peggy: At what age should children begin learning science and engineering concepts?

Mary: Children start on their own at birth! They are curious scientists and use all their senses to figure out how it all works.

Peggy: Can you describe an “ah-ha!” moment for you as a classroom teacher when you noticed a particularly effective technique for helping children understand science concepts?

Mary: I don’t remember the exact moment but I do remember when I was working with fellow educators to explore and absorb Reggio experiences. The projects that the Reggio children were involved in went in so many different learning directions—I wondered how will I manage this? It was shortly thereafter when I realized that I was a co-learner and co-researcher with the children and could joyfully participate with them. For me the ah-ha discovery was really listening to them and respecting their questions…then facilitating their search for answers and understanding using the scientific process (on their level of course)

Peggy: What is a memorable, or current, science investigation that your preK or K students took part in?

Mary: I would be happy to begin with a memorable one, the Bird Project. It has been to date the longest and most in-depth project I have been involved in. This does not in any way diminish others that are not as long but it was such an amazing experience that I love to share it. If I may, I will just describe what happened.

For curriculum planning purposes, I use an over-all umbrella theme for a period of weeks or even months. It is always a science related theme and usually has to do with the changes that are occurring out of doors in our northeastern Tennessee environment. I select these themes because they are meaningful and relevant to young children as curious scientists.

Eastern Grey Squirrel on a branch eating.

Photo by Tom Friedel, BirdPhotos.com

For this project the question was, “What changes happen outside during autumn?” We took our cameras outside and our clipboards with paper and pencils to record our findings. We were sitting outside on the lawn in our fall jackets being quiet observers. The children took no time at all in noticing the squirrels running around. “Why were the squirrels running?” some asked. Others with lots of prior knowledge (these were big kindergartners after all!) said they were gathering nuts so that they could hibernate (I noted the misconception but did not jump in with the correction…let the children have time to discover this!). Photos were taken, sketches made.

One child looked in the sky and asked, “Why are those birds flying like that?” (This was the V-formation). Photos did not happen…we were not fast enough, but sketches were made.

bird project 2The next day, and in days to come, we continued with collections of questions, photos and sketches. Some of the children were very interested in the trees and the different shapes of the leaves. Others were interested in the animals and their habits (the hibernation and getting ready questions). A group of children was still very much interested in those birds. We searched in books for children and books for adults and did a lot of reading. We did do some research on the internet but did not have a lot of access at that time. We looked in old encyclopedias. We went to the Library. 

bird project 5The Bird Group learned that those birds were migrating—going to fly all the way to Florida! We consulted a map and talked about families flying on planes to Florida and driving for days to get there. This brought more questions. “How do wings work?” Wow…how to facilitate discovery of this answer? The children provided the way to this knowledge discovery. They suggested that they would make wings out of several different materials and then test them to see which would work best! The children discussed during their project meetings just how this would happen. It was decided that they would make wings out of paper, cardboard, and fabric. The wings would be big enough to fit on a child’s arms and be able to flap freely. The children would fly down the long hallway wearing the wings. A rating scale was devised. The criteria of ease of movement, strength, and amount of wind they produced would be the determinants as to which was best. They worked diligently for days to construct the wings. Finally the testing day came. They found that the paper ones ripped too easily. The cardboard wings were too bulky and did not move easily. The fabric wings were miraculous. They were strong yet moved easily. They produced a lot of wind. This was the winner! The children then decided that their wings were not representative of all the work so they engaged in a search to find a bird they would like to “adopt” as their own. We went back to the encyclopedias, internet and “birder” books. They found a beautiful Macaw and decided that was It. I brought in a yard or so of red felt and the children colored and cut out fabric of other colors for the wings. The wings were not only beautiful but also worked wonderfully for flying down the hall when the mood struck. They were a fixture in our classroom for a long time until they wore out!

The group then turned their attention to the feet of the birds they had been researching. They were very curious about the differences they noticed. Joyfully back to the resources (these included encyclopedias, trade books, and even books used by adults. We invited a grandfather in who was a “birder” and he helped the children learn about the different types of birds and why their beaks and their feet were so different. They were truly fascinated with the talons and learned about all the different birds that had these. This, of course, led to the children learning about the diet and feeding practices of the different kinds of birds. The children speculated on the diet of a bird just by looking at their beaks and feet!

bird project 4Another group exploration involved those birds who were flying in the V formation. It was a big surprise to the children to learn that the birds fly all the way from Canada to Florida. This involved pouring over big maps and drawing lines to map the routes. They learned that not all birds flew to Florida or even south for that matter, that some of the birds stayed up here in the cold with us. The children wanted to know which birds stayed and wondered how they could help them find food. We were well into winter by now. Some of the students wanted to make bird feeders for the birds. A meeting was held with this group. They discussed various types of birdhouses that they had made in school last year and decided on one that seemed to work best…a plastic milk jug with a cutout. This was hung outside our classroom window as close to the window as we could get it. The children made a recording sheet to chart the different types of birds that visited the feeder. They cut out pictures of the types they knew would be staying and wrote their names alongside the picture. A watcher helper was assigned for different periods of the day. Much to the children’s surprise, they discovered that squirrels were eating more than the birds! This called for action! The group called a meeting and it was decided that a bird house/feeder was needed.

bird project 3The children decided that the house needed to be made with holes that would accommodate only birds. The children drew wonderful plans/sketches. They were amazingly detailed. One child told of houses their family made out of gourds. Another told about the wooden birdfeeder that their father made. 

The “gourd” family brought in one gourd for each child with the hole already drilled. What excitement…the children each decorated their own with paints. The children then hung these from trees, fences, wherever they thought would be best.

bird project 1My teacher candidate’s husband, who came to help, provided wood and expertise for making the bird house/feeder. Wow…what excitement. The children actually did the sawing and hammering themselves. We made two of these, which were quite large. The children painted them. It was decided that they would hang outside the window where our original milk jug feeders hung. That way the children would be able to observe the birds feeding. Another fantastic discovery! The food was placed inside the feeder but the position of the hole made entering the feeder very difficult for the birds. “WHY?” One child loudly and excitedly explained that what was needed was a perch! The house came back in and these were installed….success!

This study of birds lasted from late October through April. It culminated with a trip to an aviary. The Rangers at the aviary gave a lecture on birds of the area. The K-Kids were amazing with the depth of questions they asked and answered. The Rangers were impressed!

I may not have not have communicated the wonderful joy of the science discoveries here or the (way above grade level) amount of math, reading, research, writing, social studies and community involvement that were part of this investigation. The inquiry process was the seed of this wonderful learning adventure. Children asked questions; they collected evidence (using sketches and photos); conducted research using reference books and trade books and people from the community; came to conclusions and communicated and shared their findings.

Peggy: Are there any particular science or classroom organizational tools that supported the investigation?

Mary: To support this type of learning, an attitude of openness to inquiry must be present. Listen to the children and respect their questions. Respect their ability to conduct inquiry and pursue answers to their questions. There also needs to be a willingness on the part of the teacher to find ways to weave this into the teaching schedule. I have found that having children work on their inquiries in small groups can free me up to work in small groups of children in reading or math. Certainly, there is a lot of reading and math that integrates with their projects, well as engineering! I have to emphasize that science makes the classroom pop with excitement for learning and the students are eager to read and write about their discoveries!

Peggy: I understand that the University School kindergarten classroom is inspired by the Reggio Emilia Principles. Do these principles support learning science and engineering concepts?

Mary: My classroom and approach is inspired by the Reggio Emilia approach. It is not a curriculum but rather a philosophical approach. This approach is very sensitive to where you are teaching in the world….so that what happens in Northeastern Tennessee would not happen in Florida.

It is child centered and collaborative, and as you can see from my previous answer, it supports learning science and engineering concepts. I could go on forever but I am not an expert, just a believer! By the way, I have an engineering center in my classroom.

Peggy: Thank you, Mary, for sharing your ideas and experiences!

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has many resources for beginning and experienced birders. The Project Feeder Watch page has information about food and feeder preferences for the birds in your region.

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