This year, as I've experimented with contracts, centers, and self-directed research, I've worked to find a balance between "covering" curriculum and exploratory learning. I don't think that these two approaches are mutually exclusive--in fact, I think that they can complement each other. Consider the story I've watched unfold.
Water Bead Crystals
We experimented with water beads in the classroom a few months ago. Like many new items, they were popular for a time and then slowly faded away. I started drying them out and putting them away, until only one bead in a plastic cup was left.
I thought that was the end of the water beads, and I've been trying to introduce other interesting items for experimentation and observation, like mealworms.
But the story wasn't done. The bead in the plastic cup, sitting on the windowsill, was observed by two students who were trying to purify salt water. They started to wonder--could they make a climate for a water bead?
Over the course of their experimentation, the bead changed. It became a crystal, but didn't shrink in size as the water beads usually do. For some reason, this got some kids very excited.
The students requested to have more water beads. One student even brought in some from home. Working together at recess, a new group of students emerged--students who hadn't worked together much before, but were interested in the crystal.
They pulled together lots of resources from the room, using a box from the "Cool Cardboard Pieces" area, various recycled plastic containers, and other science items. We already had the microscopes out for mealworm observations, so students started looking at the water beads with the microscopes. They created multiple experiments in different places in the room. To the outside observer, their work would have looked a lot like play. They were completely committed to their work. I was listening in but not interacting except to get requested materials (or look in the microscope when they wanted to show me things).
The teacher-ly part of me was wondering--what science lessons could be learned from the water bead? Were they looking for meaning in a place where they would not find it?
Moving to a Curricular Lesson
During arrival time, students continued with their work until it was time for our regular science class. I was teaching one of my favorite lessons (decomposers! Awesome!) in which we set up a mold experiment. This is an experiment that we do as a whole class, and I have scaffolded it so that students have to fill in the names of the experiment parts (testable question, hypothesis, procedures). We set up our mold experiment and talked about what we thought would happen.
Regular Curriculum Impacting the Experimentation
Without any prompting from me, the science lesson changed the water bead play. In the next work session (students from two different classes, choosing to stay in at recess), suddenly words like "hypothesis" were floating around. "We didn't make a testable question!" one student said, and the talk turned to what their testable question was. At library class, several students checked out books about crystals.
Now there are several containers of water beads in different locations, with students sharing their hypotheses and testable questions. The core group of students doing the investigations have talked with others about their work during transition times and dismissal.
Play, Science, and the Regular Curriculum
I was so interested to see the words from the science lesson move into the water bead play. It clearly showed how standard lessons can enrich student-led experimentation. In this case, students had a rich context that worked perfectly with the words from the lesson.
At first I thought it was lucky that this happened at the right time. But luck has nothing to do with it! Building a classroom culture of collaboration and experimentation will lead to these moments.
So the questions that I am thinking about:
-How does play impact science learning for older elementary students?
-How can I strengthen ties between play/experimentation and the regular curriculum?