How children see their space and place is always intriguing to me. Recently, as I was walking in my neighbourhood, I stopped to observe two children who were about four years of age, exploring a pile of rocks that were adjacent to a path just outside of the family yard. I was drawn to the language that the children were using. I heard words such as sparkles, glitter, diamonds, and magical. They looked at the big rocks and commented on how the little ones probably came from the big ones.
As I observed the children exploring the rocks, I was reminded of how such simple materials such as rocks add such value and diversity to children’s play, language, and their thinking patterns. When children are given the freedom to explore rocks of all shapes and sizes, they are acquiring core principles of art, math, science, creativity, language, and engineering. It was obvious that the rocks attracted the children, and this was probably not the first time they had explored them. Inquiry-based learning was occurring.
There are many definitions that describe inquiry-based learning. For me, I view inquiry-based learning environments as those outdoor play environments that provide children with time, materials, and opportunities to exercise their sense of curiosity, and embark on explorations that support them in posing questions, creating ideas, making observations, manipulating materials, and making discoveries.
Through the process of inquiry, children seek information and insight about their questions and interests in things that matter to them in their world and lived experiences. They construct meaning and resolutions about their area of curiosity rather than being focused on the right answer. As outlined in Figure 1.1, I view the role of educators in inquiry-based environments as creating opportunities that support children in generating and discovering new knowledge. Educators are responsive to children’s needs and ideas. As part of this process, adults listen, observe, and understand when, why, and how to change the environment to trigger children’s new options for creating questions, problem thinking and problem solving. Educators recognize that at times, children need blocks of time in the space without any adult intervention so that they can explore the materials and environment based on their desire and ideas.
Figure 1.1 Role of educators in supporting inquiry-based learning in outdoor environments.
After observing the two children in my neighbourhood, I became interested in learning if other children might have a similar interest in rocks. I wanted to bring my interest in rocks to the children. As a result, I placed several rocks in a variety of places outdoors in a preschool program environment. As the children entered the space, I waited to see if and how children would react. When two children first discovered the rocks, I heard them ask an educator “How did these get here?” The educator responded by saying “I am not sure. How do you think they might have gotten here? Are there any tracks or signs that might give us a clue?” As the children pondered those questions, I saw their sense of curiosity, learning ideas, thinking patterns, and strategies unfold in very different ways from what I had experienced with them in their indoor environment. They began to run and look for tracks. They came back to report to the educators what they saw and what they were thinking. They got other children involved by asking “Do you know who put the rocks in the space?” When they found a second pile of rocks, they began to combine the piles. As a third pile was discovered, they returned with the question “How did the rocks get here?” They went to other places to play but came back with questions about the rocks. The next morning, the children returned to the space, only to discover that designs had been started with the rocks and nearby there was a design in the mud. One child asked if it could possibility be the clue of who was putting the rocks in the space. Some children suggested that it was not a person putting the rocks in the space because the design did not look like a footprint, and they could not decide what would make such a design.
Over a period of two weeks, I learned so much from the children about rocks, art, math, and their ways of knowing. As the children continued to discover rocks in different places in the play space, I engaged in discussions with the children about why someone or something might be placing the rocks in the space. For example, I casually asked a group what they knew about the rocks being in the space. I envisioned that they would discuss who they thought was placing the rocks in the place. But the children didn’t. One child indicated that some rocks are smooth, while others are rough. Another child told me that bugs sleep under them. As I expanded my questioning, children began to connect the relationship of rocks to sand and pebbles. As they explored the rocks more, I documented questions that the children posed, where they found them, and how they used them. We collectively took photos of their explorations and creations to make their learning visible and in supporting them in telling their stories about the rocks.
I was very careful in my questioning and discussions with children as I did not want to direct their interest. As noted in Figure 1.2, the depth and breadth of questions used by educators are intended to support children in their thinking and in them taking action in their exploration. I wanted to balance the free-flowing play of the children with when, how, and where to pose questions about the rocks. Too many questions become more of ‘testing the knowledge’ of children than of using the questioning process to scaffold opportunities to expand their thinking, observations, making predictions, testing their ideas, or designing models that help them put the pieces of learning together.
Figure 1.2 Questions that Promote Inquiry-based Outdoor Play Experiences
As the children engaged in exploring the rocks, I had three key roles as outlined in Figure 1.3. – Inviting children to explore the rocks, encouraging children to use the rocks in new ways, and having discussions with an individual child or group of children.
Figure 1.3 Roles of Early Learning Professionals in Expanding Children’s Explorations of Rocks
As I reflected on the children’s engagement with rocks, I recognized that they learned so much about them , such as weight, colours, what it takes to balance rocks for high structures, versus long structures, patterning, types of rocks, sensory characteristics of the rocks such as smooth and rough, where rocks come from, the relationship of sand, rocks and pebbles, and what happens differently when rocks are thrown in puddles version on the ground. Think about rocks. Imagine the other values that children acquire from using them in their play and explorations. What happens when they combine rocks with wood pieces or blocks? What could occur if the children use rocks for creating mandalas – how might that change their creative skills and experiences? How might reading the story Stone Soup by Ann McGovern encourage children to create such a magical soup? How might painting rocks provide a different canvas for children to work on? What might they learn from that experience? How might rocks be used to support children in developing an understanding of seriation from a self-directed experience in their play, rather than a teacher-directed experience? How might you help children use “I Think, I See, I Wonder” concept as they explore what they will find under a rock? The possibilities are endless.
Educators and children benefit from outdoor environments that have been designed to be inquiry-based. Such environments support young children in building on their prior experiences while triggering their curiosity to extend their options for new exploration and discovery. As outlined in this blog, rocks, although perhaps thought of simplistic at first with limited learning, offer children a venue for complex exploration and learning. Playing with rocks add great value to play and many aspects of learning, all of which are conductive to later academic learning.