The first day of school is always exciting for students, teachers, and parents. Many of us can still remember the energy and nervousness that we felt as we walked through the doors of our kindergarten classroom for the first time, carrying our shiny new Holly Hobby or Superman lunch box. Kindergarten marks the beginning of a lifetime adventure of learning marked by telling stories, building castles, painting pictures, making friends and learning to share.
Teaching methods in kindergarten have undergone several dramatic changes over the years. Up until recently, there has been a gradual shift in focus away from play-based learning in kindergarten, with students spending more and more time filling out worksheets and drilling facts. In short, kindergarten has been becoming more like the rest of school.
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According to several OACS kindergarten teachers, that pendulum is beginning to swing back in the opposite direction. Mary-Jane Tigchelaar, the junior kindergarten teacher at Providence Christian School in Dundas, has spent time researching the studies that have been done in universities—where professors are recognizing the need for education to shift from feeding students the information they need to know, back to asking the students what they want to learn about. In short, the students need to learn how to learn. And that, according to Ms. Tigchelaar, already begins at the kindergarten level.
“Inquiry-based learning is huge right now,” she shared, “and the model of learning that it represents—being curious and asking good questions—is a natural fit at the kindergarten level.”
“For example, in the past, when a child would find a stone outside and say, ‘Look what I found! Look at the sparkles!’, a teacher would respond, ‘That’s nice—but the stones stay outside.’” However, Ms. Tigchelaar is becoming more and more convinced that what teachers should be saying is, “Oh, how pretty! I wonder why it sparkles. Why don’t you bring it inside? Let’s find out together!”
Newly retired kindergarten teacher Laurie Tuckey, who was assigned the task of implementing the school’s first kindergarten program at Trenton Christian School in 1981, couldn’t agree more. “I have never been more excited about education!” she shared. Ms. Tuckey, who currently serves as the Director of Learning at Belleville Christian School, is actively involved in supporting her kindergarten teachers as they begin to cover curriculum through authentic and engaging learning experiences.
“In kindergarten, you can follow the childrens’ interests, design the day based on the childrens’ needs, and integrate all of the learning with active and engaging experiences,” Ms. Tuckey related. “You can take each child from where they are when they enter the classroom, and move them forward in their learning, honoring the unique way that God has designed them. So in a very real sense,” she concludes, “already in kindergarten we are creating leaders who are responsible for their own learning!”
[aesop_quote type=”pull” background=”#282828” text=”#000” width=”15%” align=”right” size=”1” quote=”In essence, we are honouring our children’s ability to drive their own learning; we are placing student questions and ideas at the centre of the learning process” parallax=”off” direction=”left”]
An inquiry-based approach to learning involves a process that begins with an initial engagement or provocation by the teacher. The learning begins with a child’s natural curiosity and their desire to make sense of their environment. The teacher then guides the student thoughtfully and intentionally through exploring and investigating their topic of learning, and helping them to communicate the things that they’ve learned.
“For students, inquiry-based learning often involves open-ended investigations into a question or problem, which requires the students to participate in finding problems and then discovering how to solve them,” described Ms. Tigchelaar. “For educators, it involves being responsible to the learning needs of the students and facilitating the learning by introducing the students to new ideas that help them move forward in their learning inquiries.”
“In essence, we are honouring our children’s ability to drive their own learning; we are placing student questions and ideas at the centre of the learning process,” added Ms. Tigchelaar. “I marvel at the fact that at four years old, children are already competent and capable of building their own theories of the world around them!
“I love that teachers are embracing this discovery approach to learning,” shares kindergarten teacher Catherine Timmerman from Laurentian Hills Christian School. “It means that I am able to gear my lessons towards things that students are interested in learning about, and it allows the students to become so much more engaged in the learning process.”
“I’ve come to value learning that results from questions arising from the learner rather than the teacher,” shared Mary Ruth Downs, kindergarten teacher at Community Christian School in Metcalf. “It’s just like the old adage, ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.’ My desire is to instill a love of learning, and not a collection of facts.”
[aesop_quote type=”pull” background=”#282828” text=”#000” width=”15%” align=”left” size=”1” quote=”It’s great to get together and ask questions like: What are you doing in your classroom? What is working for you? What things are you struggling with?”” parallax=”on” direction=”left”]
For many kindergarten teachers, collaboration amongst educators has been invaluable as they’ve sought to adjust their classroom environments to incorporate a more inquiry-based approach to learning. Ms. Tigchelaar has been encouraged by the seasonal gatherings that several kindergarten teachers in the area have begun to attend.
“We’re like our own little community, trying to figure out this inquiry-based learning together,” she shared. “It’s great to get together and ask questions like: What are you doing in your classroom? What is working for you? What things are you struggling with?”
This encouragement provides a foundation for teachers as they experiment with the changes that they are making in their classrooms. According to Winnie Wiebenga, kindergarten teacher at Calvin Christian School in Hamilton, it takes a lot of work to listen to the children, to their ideas and what they want to learn, and then to expand on these ideas through exploration and investigation. “It also means slowing down—a lot!” she exclaims.
Ms. Wiebenga embraces the challenges but also celebrates the joys of learning alongside the children, rather than solely teaching them information. “I love it that my students are now using the term ‘I wonder’ when they have a question. I wonder right along with them, because I don’t have all the answers. Even when I do, at times, I still don’t tell them the answer. We find out together what things we already know, what we still want to learn, and how we can find out.”
To make room for these types of learning opportunities in their classrooms, kindergarten teachers are becoming more intentional about the way that they set up their classrooms for learning. They are starting out the school year with less on their walls and bulletin boards, so that students can have a role in what things they will be learning about and displaying on the walls of their classroom.
“I’ve really toned down my classroom in terms of colour,” Ms. Wiebenga reflected. “I have taken away the bright bulletin boards and posters that I think I only hung because I thought they were cute. My room begins much more simply and less cluttered so that I can hang things that the students create or things that they are interested in as a provocation for them to learn more.”
[aesop_quote type=”pull” background=”#282828” text=”#000” width=”15%” align=”right” size=”1” quote=”Already at four years old, they get to have an opinion—and I want them to know that their opinions matter.” parallax=”off” direction=”left”]
“When I first changed my classroom, a fellow teacher came into my room at the end of August and thought that I hadn’t set up my room yet.” laughed Ms. Wiebenga. “I told him that I actually had, and that I was waiting for the students to come and make it theirs.”
Ms. Tigchelaar has also limited the amount of bulletin boards she creates for the students ahead of time, leaving more open space for them to exercise their choice about the learning that is displayed on the walls. She is also excited that as part of the school’s renovation plans for the summer, her bulletin boards in her classroom will be lowered to reach all the way to the floor, so that students can be the ones designing the boards.
“My students get to decide together what we’re going to put up on the walls,” she shared. “Already at four years old, they get to have an opinion—and I want them to know that their opinions matter.”
As a provocation for her students to begin to wonder about winter, for example, Ms. Tigchelaar read a book about a place where it’s winter all year round. This led the children to wonder about Antarctica—where it was on the map, what it looked like, what kind of animals lived there, and so on. Rather than answering their questions, Ms. Tigchelaar asked them where they might find some of the answers, and her students ended up transforming an entire corner of the classroom into their own Antarctica—a snowy white area with blue water, paper glaciers, shredded paper ‘snow’ and arctic animals—all completely done by the junior kindergarten students as a response to the things they’d discovered together.
“You have to be prepared to let the learning be messy,” she emphasized. “It wasn’t easy for me at first to let the students take a bag of shredded paper and dump it on the floor, but it was their brilliant way of creating snow for our learning corner. Sometimes, when students are learning, the teachers just have to get out of the way.”
“Our Antarctica corner was really fun because we got to make all the things that we learned about,” shared one of her students.
Another learning opportunity that many kindergarten teachers are exploring, in connection with inquiry-based learning, is setting aside time for outdoor education. They recognize that many of the discoveries that students make are outside, and that they can bring the outside in for learning.
“The learning definitely gets messier,” admits Ms. Wiebenga. “Children bring in so many things that they have found in God’s creation into the classroom—rocks, snails, cool sticks, insects, interesting leaves, and many more things they want to learn more about.”
Taking the students outdoors for learning is a way for the students to discover and explore new things in the creation that they’d like to learn about. Often the students will find things and ask questions, which leads to further discussion and learning opportunities back in the classroom.
[aesop_quote type=”pull” background=”#282828” text=”#000” width=”15%” align=”right” size=”1” quote=”Children bring in so many things that they have found in God’s creation into the classroom—rocks, snails, cool sticks, insects, interesting leaves, and many more things they want to learn more about.” parallax=”off” direction=”left”]
“I like being outside the best,” shared 4-year-old Anna, who is excited about joining the senior kindergarten class at Calvin Christian School in Hamilton in the fall. “I like the things we can see and touch, and I like it when I can run and not have to sit still all the time.”
“Our school property has several acres of ground,” said Ms. Tigchelaar, “so our goal was to have every child explore every part of the property this year. We’ve been out in the rain, and we’ve been out in the freezing cold … and students still find things they’d like to learn about.”
“I liked it when we were exploring and looking for insects,” shared one of her students.
“It was fun to watch that the trees change in the different seasons,” another student commented.
A third student shared that she liked taking care of God’s creation by picking up garbage while exploring.
Ms. Tigchelaar said she has also learned that sometimes, when she believed a specific teaching opportunity was not available, it turned out to be exactly the opposite. For example, on the day that she had planned to take her students outside to learn about shadows, she was discouraged by the clouds that covered the sun. “I realized that I had to turn around my teaching and ask, ‘There aren’t any shadows—why is that?’ It was still a teaching opportunity!” she remarked.
“As you are playing and discovering and exploring, you are learning all the things that you are supposed to be learning,” she continued. “You’re learning numbers, measurement, adding and subtracting—but it’s just not in a defined space of time with a specific title, like Math class.”
Ms. Tigchelaar is the first to admit that she is being stretched by this emphasis on inquiry-based learning, compared to the traditional theme-based approach that she was accustomed to using in the past, but she has seen how well her students in junior kindergarten have been responding to the learning approach, and that is encouraging to her. “The students love to explore and ask questions,” she said. “They aren’t just out there trying to follow a bunch of rules, or learning things that are not necessarily engaging. We give them shovels and we expect them to get dirty—we want them to get dirty. It’s how they’re learning!”
“Integrating inquiry-based learning into the kindergarten classroom has allowed us all to learn together,” adds Ms. Tigchelaar. “Not only are the children learning things that are relevant to the thoughts running through their heads, but I have been learning new things as a result of their queries as well! We, as a class, are expanding our knowledge together, based on our natural curiosity, and we are having so much fun learning more about each other, and about our creation. We’re making new discoveries every day!”
She continues to relate that as the students of all ages are playfully exploring their surroundings— “creating stories and building castles”—they are developing and refining their abilities to think creatively and work collaboratively, to share their ideas and creations with others, and to reflect on their experiences—precisely the abilities that are most needed to achieve success in the 21st century.
Ms. Tuckey is equally excited about the positive impact that this learning approach is having on students, and it is her hope that teachers in all grades will aspire to design and facilitate experiences that inspire curiosity and enhance learning through authentic and engaging learning experiences.
“Perhaps we can all teach like kindergarten teachers,” she encourages, “where learning is driven by a student’s curiosity and sense of wonder.”