Classrooms for young children, for example preschools or kindergartens, are often organized into ‘learning centers’ where children can explore arts, science, building blocks, writing, drama, and etc. Here is a picture of a science learning center in a kindergarten classroom for children ages 4 to 6. Natural materials, plants, manipulatives, books, and various tools are inviting children to pause, explore, ask questions, seek answers, and discover.
But, 20 kindergarteners responded differently to this center. None of the children became deeply interested in spending time in this center and engaging with the materials. Hmm, strange. What’s missing? What can be changed?
Perhaps the materials are representing nature out of its context; the table is blocking the children’s access to the plants and the window; the center doesn’t seem to offer many open-ended opportunities to explore scientific concepts…
But there is a big window facing a grass hill, a tall pine tree, and the neighborhood streets … a window to the world outside the walls of the classroom, a bridge to the real world … to observe and wonder … about the birds, the squirrels, the pine tree … and the people and the car traffic.
What if we move the table away from the window to give children an access to the window … but the window is high and the children are not at the same height as adults … they need something to climb up to better see the outside … Is it okay to put a bench under the window for them to climb up? Let’s take the risk.
A bench and an open window was all the children needed to get motivated to come to the ‘science learning center’, spend time there, bring binoculars to spy on squirrels, take photos, draw pictures on the window sill, feed the birds, and get engaged with the natural world … not for a day or two, but for the rest of the school year.
At this new design of the science learning center, Nature is located in its context; it’s real: fresh air, cool breeze, wind, rain drops on the window, flying birds and busy squirrel, and many more. Plus the people, the cars, the children’s homes across from the street, and the neighbors.
Sometimes, a simple change can make a big difference in getting children’s attention. Let’s think outside of the box when we imagine the nature in the big cities.