A Kindergarten Inquiry: Investigating Fall

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Our class has been participating in a year-long inquiry that explores the changes that occur in animals, plants, weather, and people across the seasons.

fall leaf walk

The goal for this study is to help children see the patterns, cycles and interdependence of the natural world.

Building Background
We began with a few schema-building activities to support our understanding of the cycle of the four seasons. 

This four seasons mat was used to help children visualize and understand the Earth's movement around the sun.  
four seasons birthday circle mat

The mat is also used for each child's birthday circle, which is the name given to our classroom birthday tradition. 

We read books such as, How Do You Know it's Fall? by Ruth Owen to help us identify signs of the season.

picture book entitled how do we know it's fall

We brainstormed what we thought we might see on a Fall Walk in these four areas: plants, animals, weather, and people.
anchor chart created for fall nature walk

We read Nature Spy by Shelley Rotner and headed outdoors with our "spy kits" to explore the season.

children's book titled nature spy

fall nature walk

Kindergarten Inquiry: Investigating Fall

kindergarten child observing and sketching during fall nature walk

We sketched what we saw and added the drawings to the chart after the walk.

observational drawing during fall nature walk

collecting signs of fall during autumn nature walk

We collected various "signs of fall" and completed observational drawings.  

observational drawings of fall pumpkins

observational drawings of fall leaves

Establishing Research Groups
Once the children had some prior knowledge about the season, we formed research groups. 

choosing kindergarten research groups

Children chose to research fall changes in either plants, animals, weather, or people. 

Recording Children's Inquiry Questions
As I met with each group for the first time, I read a book about their specific topic (i.e. Animals in Fall) and asked each child to share their questions.  

I wrote their "wonders" on our inquiry board.

kindergarten inquiry board or wonder wall

I noticed some interesting things about their questions:

  • Most were high level (how and why).
  • Many I could not answer and became curious about as well!
  • It was a lot to ask a 4-5 year old to come up with a question about a season AND a specific topic (i.e. fall weather) when many don't even know what a question is.
  • All but one child was able to come up with a question. 
  • Reading the book, prior to eliciting questions, was a crucial scaffold and an essential step.
  • The children took ownership of their questions.

Making a Plan
Next, I ordered the questions to match the timing of seasonal changes in our area and brainstormed experiences and resources that could be used to help children with their research. 

I met with our librarian and shared our questions with him in hopes that he might want to collaborate or offer resources.

Then, I scheduled time to meet with each group during discovery workshop.  Each "meeting" would focus on one of their questions.

Accessing Prior Knowledge
I found it to very informative to begin by having children share their own ideas about the answer to the question before jumping into research.

Sometimes children drew their ideas and sometimes we just talked.  

I discovered so much about their prior knowledge from this step. Some children had an incredible amount of scientific knowledge while others had very little. 

exploring what we know about apples
Plant group drawing their ideas about how apples grow

Noticing Misconceptions
As they shared, I noticed many misconceptions, which became great opportunities for learning. 

For example, with the question, How do squirrels know winter is coming?, most children thought it was because the squirrels felt the cold.  Yet interestingly enough, we had an unusually warm fall and we wondered how this might affect the squirrel's preparations.  

This really got them thinking and some of the children suggested that it had something to do with the sun. When they learned about the lessening hours of daylight, there were children in that group that said, "I knew it!"  

Noticing and addressing children's misconceptions taught me how important it is to remain flexible in my planning as this step can sometimes take you in a new direction.

My Role as Lead Learner
I realized through this inquiry, that sometimes my role was just to help children build upon their existing knowledge like in the case of the question, How do pumpkins grow?

At other times, with more complex questions, I had to guide them toward a very basic layer of understanding, knowing that at this age they might find it hard to fully grasp the complete answer to a question.

For example, many of the questions presented by both the animal and weather groups involved understanding the Earth's movement around the sun and the lessening hours of daylight as we move toward winter. 

These were difficult concepts for kindergartners and I struggled to find ways to help them understand this.  Acting out and providing hands-on models offered the best support.  

But since these concepts are inherent to seasonal change and would not be unique to this particular group of students' questions, I knew we would continue to explore this concept with each new season.

Locating resources to answer their questions was sometimes challenging.  We used Youtube videos and nonfiction books when available.  

When not available, I thought of ways to help children "experience" the information.  Sometimes, I gathered hands-on materials and asked children to think about what the objects represented and how they could be used to answer the question. 
kindergarten children exploring inquiry question how do clouds move
Weather group exploring the question, "How do clouds move?'
Different Kinds of Research
Some questions led to other forms of research. 

While exploring, "Do people cook hotdogs in the fall?" a survey was created and the children used the information gathered to answer the question (yes they do!). 

"How do squirrel's find nuts?" led to an experiment.  After watching a video of another child's experiment, the children set out acorns in different types of containers (some open and some closed) to see which senses the squirrel used to find the nuts.  The nuts were gone when we returned after the weekend and the children concluded that they use their sense of sight and smell. They also learned that the squirrels don't eat the caps as these were left behind.

kindergarten fall acorn experiment
The children  wrote, "No touching. Experiment going. Kindergarten."
The focus of the conversation with "How do people rake leaves?" centered around the rake itself as a necessary tool. 

I challenged children to design and build their own mini rake and then test it  with some artificial leaves.     

design challenge to build a rake

Sharing What We Learned
After a group researched their question, they were asked to share their learning with the rest of the class during Discovery Workshop share time.

The children were limited in their ideas at first and I found I had to make some suggestions. 

Sometimes they used graphic organizers to show their learning and I tried to match the learning to the specific organizer (i.e. sequencing, cause/effect, etc.).  

Other times, the children just drew a picture and wrote a few words.  

kindergarten children sharing what they learned about chipmunks
The animal group sharing their learning about how chipmunks climb trees.
One of their favorite ways to share was to act out what they had learned.  

The plant group watched a video on how popcorn was made and then wanted to act it out for the class. A lot of good thinking went into planning this.  

They first had to think of the sequence of steps and then assign parts.  They then had to come up with gestures/movements for each part.  

I could see how getting their whole body involved was also very helpful to those in the group who had not quite solidified the concept they were presenting.  

At the end of the season, I met with each group one final time and asked each child to name a way that plants, animals, weather, or people change in the fall.

They drew a picture to illustrate this and created a poster.  We then shared our learning with another kindergarten class.

kindergarten children sharing what they learned about the season of fall
"Flowers die" and "pumpkins turn from green to orange," were a couple of the ideas the plant group illustrated on their poster.
What I Learned
While the children learned a LOT of content throughout our studies, my focus was more on teaching the children how to ask questions, find information, and share their learning with others.  

Guiding each research group to answer their own questions was definitely the most challenging part for me.  I often found it difficult to straddle that fine line between disseminating information and guiding the children to find their own answers.  

Late in the season, we went for a pine cone walk.  During the walk, they began to ask a lot of unsolicited questions and I took this as evidence that we had made steps toward becoming more curious learners.

child collecting pine cones and asking questions about the needles
Do pine cones grow out of the needles?
I'm now looking forward to our winter studies. New research groups will be formed, new questions will be asked, and new learning will take place in the minds of both the children and this teacher.  

Welcome winter!

Thanks for stopping by!

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