The Pumpkin Project

Thursday, 29 June 2017

You might be surprised to see a post about pumpkins in June! Yet this project began way back in October when I brought in pumpkins and gourds for a math lesson and for the children to explore at the science center.

By November, the children noticed that the gourds were starting to change color, shrink, and harden.  One child knew the word for what was happening (decomposition) and we talked about this process and read two great children's books Sophie's Squash by Pat Zietlow Miller and Pumpkin Jack by Will Hubbell that illustrated this process well.

I challenged the children to predict which pumpkin would decompose the fastest (pumpkin 1 or 2)? 

Then, they forgot about them - for a loooong time!  And there they sat, until one day in April! Somebody noticed how much the one pumpkin had changed and suddenly all the children were gathered around.  Their interest was renewed! 

We talked about the differences and the children shared their ideas on why one of the pumpkins had changed so much, while the other was only now just starting to soften a bit.  Theories included that it could be that one got more sun, that the difference in the size of the stem had something to do with it, or the fact that one was just a bit bigger than the other.

Later that month, we observed the pumpkins again. Pumpkin 1 was finally starting to soften a bit and the children noticed the change.  We talked about other foods that might or might not decompose.  They wondered about apples, carrots, water, fruit punch, salad, gummy bears and more! I asked if we might test some of these out to observe the changes and had them each write one food on a post-it note.

I brought in the foods and passed them around for children to observe.

It didn't take long for the children to notice changes. 

And Pumpkin #1 was finally starting to show signs of decomposition!

We continued to check in on the foods every few days and shared what we noticed, thought, and wondered about them.  There were a lot of opportunities for description as the children described color, shape, size, and texture changes.  They noticed that the water was evaporating, that the popcorn had not changed at all, that the gummy bear was getting harder and made a sound when you dropped it, and that pumpkin #2 was very hard and not showing any signs of change anymore. 

Some children also used great science words in their descriptions like dissolve, disintegrate, and deflate but were misusing the terms so I brought in some objects to help us explore these processes further.  

I passed them around and told them to think about which one deflates, dissolves, and decomposes.  They were easily able to identify the one that deflates and decomposes, so we spent some time talking about what dissolving might mean and how the lollipop might dissolve.

I placed it in some water and the all-day sucker dissolved in a matter of minutes!  I let them use the stick to explore the liquid that was left and they were surprised by the muddy brown color of the water.  One child explained that this is what happens when you mix all of the colors together.  

In the midst of all of this, I found these green bags at the grocery store and brought them in to show the children.  This product advertises that they keep fruits and vegetables fresher for longer periods of time.  We decided to test it out to see if that was true.  So we got two bananas and put one inside the bag.  

Here's what they looked like after 3 days.  

The children were excited that the bags really worked and so I asked them HOW they thought they worked.  They had a difficult time answering this, but one child commented on how the bag was closed and that no air was inside of it while the other banana had air.  It would have been great to repeat this experiment, using a regular bag vs. the green bag, but I didn't think to do that at the time.  

At this point in the project, a worm showed up!  I was leaving my mother's house one rainy Sunday and there he was on the driveway.  His timing was right on cue, as we were studying soil as part of a Plant Project, while also exploring decomposition.  He fit in perfectly!

So I brought him into the classroom and the children spent time doing worm observations and recording what they saw, thought, and wondered.  

We also did a little research and wrote a nonfiction All About Worms Book about him.


With only two weeks left of school, I brought the children together and asked them what we should do with all this decomposing food.  I thought for sure they would tell me to throw it all away.  Instead they wanted to give it to the animals. Then, one little guy said that we could make it into compost like he had seen on Caillou.  So we watched the Caillou video, that was perfect for learning about compost, and decided to divide the food in half and give some to the animals and put the rest into the compost.

So we began with some of our remaining planting soil, took turns adding in food and water and mixing it all up.  We even added the leaves from a flower bulb we had grown in the winter and the soil from seed pots that never sprouted.

Then we added the worm, because we had learned from our research what a perfect home this was for him as well as the important role he would play as a decomposer.

On one of our last days of school, we headed outdoors to place the remaining food near the woods for the animals we knew lived there.  This class has seen deer, but in past years there has been turkey, fox, and coyote sightings.  

The only food we threw away was the gummy bear which the children said was just sugar and decided should not be given to the animals or compost.  

While I'm sure our maintenance crew often wondered why I was keeping bad food in the room for months on end, they couldn't have known how much learning would come from a couple of rotting pumpkins.  And not just the children's learning but my own as well! 

This experience was a turning point for me in learning about project work.  It showed me that the path of a project is often recursive and not a straight point from here to there.  In November, it wasn't a project at all, just a provocation that seemed to have led to a dead end.  Yet, in April new life was breathed into it and it gained momentum.  

I also came to understand my role as a facilitator through this project.  I've heard it described as a negotiated dance between children and teacher, one where the teacher "dances" with his/her curriculum document in hand.  With this project, it wasn't all planned out ahead of time.  Instructional decisions were made as we went along and I listened to and watched the children.  Each time I met with the kids to talk about this project, I'd always leave the conversation knowing what needed to come next.  Every single time! I came to trust the process and know that worms will show up, just when you need them!

Have you tried project work?  What have your experiences been?

Thanks for stopping by!

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