Wondering and wandering at the early learning center

A favorite learning experience for our early learning center students is a “wander,” a walk to a different part of the Singapore American School campus where they can observe, marvel, and ask questions about what they see. Some wanderings have taken our youngest students to the eco-garden, the rainforest, and the sports fields. In each place, students have discovered what plants and animals live there and learned about how humans can affect them. While wanders don’t take place every day, connecting students with their environment in and out of the classroom is one of the four curricular foundations of our program.

Inspired by the preschools in the small town of Reggio Emilia, Italy, the SAS early learning center program embraces the idea that, along with adults and other children, the physical environment is the child’s “third teacher.” A Reggio-inspired approach sees both the outdoor environment and the classroom environment as crucial to creating in children the wonder, excitement, curiosity, and joy that should be integral to all learning experiences. Learning about the environment also teaches students citizenship, as caring for our surroundings is part of being a responsible member of any community.

“We are very intentional in using our outdoor areas as fully as possible and infusing natural elements throughout our indoor spaces,” says early learning center director Jo McIlroy. “We see that exposure to nature enhances our students’ appreciation of beauty, piques their curiosity, allows them unique sensory experiences, and promotes calmness and tranquility.” She notes that early learning center teachers worked hard as a team to maximize nature-based learning opportunities during the 2015–16 redesign of the early learning spaces, and they continue to focus on the environment as a “provocation” for inquiry, play, and creativity.

The center’s renovation included a number of changes to increase students’ engagement with their environment. Now, large windows allow more natural light into hubs, classroom furniture incorporates natural materials, and potted plants give students calming greenery and let them observe how light and water affect plant growth. The center’s three outdoor learning spaces include more natural materials, such as water, sand, and planters, and entryways that encourage flow between indoor and outdoor areas. Sticks, leaves, and other “found” natural objects serve as decorations, toys, and inspiration for indoor exploration through art, drama, and writing activities. Outdoors and indoors, children collaborate, communicate, question, and explore in response to an ever-changing environment.

The emphasis on concept-based and inquiry-driven learning means classes develop their own projects, guided by their teachers, who design lessons and activities around students’ interests. These learning journeys can evolve through months or even the whole school year, and it is no surprise that many, if not most, eventually include an environmental connection. In one hub, questions about why man-made materials end up in waterways has sparked a year long research project on protecting the oceans, while in another, playtime with dinosaurs led to a fascination with volcanoes. Projects develop as students learn more and then ask more questions; with teachers as guides and classmates as collaborators, inquiries blossom to include lessons about history, language, culture, literacy, numeracy, art, and science.

An ongoing inquiry in pre-k hub two, for example, began with students playing “dogs and cats,” which led them to think about pets. Some built a pet hotel, and others told stories of real and fictional animal adventures. Group discussions led to questions such as, “How do we keep pets healthy?” and “What can we do for animals who don’t have a home?” Students read library books, and then someone remembered seeing a cat on campus. The class went on a wander to find him, and had plenty of time to observe, draw, and, of course, pet him! Over time, this inquiry included class visits by parents and their pets, a visit to the high school art teacher to learn animal-drawing techniques, discussions about animal anatomy and behavior, and lots of creative projects. “By thinking, feeling, questioning, communicating, and making connections, the students are engaged in a meaningful and relevant learning experience,” writes teacher Lynsey Howitt. “I look forward to seeing how this project is propelled forward by our students.”

Connecting nature with the classroom doesn’t just lead to student engagement with the subject matter. Research shows that other benefits of encouraging children to experience nature—whether through a field-trip, plants in the classroom, or even a view of greenery from a window—include improved cognitive abilities, academic performance, and discipline, as well as more developed social skills and enhanced creativity. Incorporating nature into everyday learning also helps students manage stress and maintain focus. And of course, it’s a lot of fun!

In the early learning center, each of the seven SAS desired student learning outcomes— character, collaboration, content knowledge, creativity, communication, critical thinking, and cultural competence—can be furthered through nature-based learning experiences. As we look to the future, we are excited to incorporate new opportunities for our students to engage with their physical environment. We have installed a number of new planters for gardening, and we hope to give pre-k students, in particular, more flexibility in moving from indoor to outdoor environments, as our preschool students currently have. We are also excited to tap into the knowledge and experience of our community by inviting staff and parent experts to help the children with their investigations. Wherever they wander, our youngest Eagles will take with them the lessons learned during their early learning center adventures!

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