By Kristin Kumar and Margaret Sculti
Our school community embraces a love for learning and creates an everlasting educational journey for our students.  We support a child-centered curriculum where we value our young students and what they bring to the classroom.  As Co-Directors, we feel inspired and excited by the rich and meaningful learning that takes place throughout the school.  Please enjoy this RPNS "Spotlight" focusing on experiences in our four-year-old program.     
The Project Approach: Four-Year-Old Researchers
In our four year old classrooms we use the "project approach" to teaching. Through the project approach, the teachers guide the students through in-depth studies of real-world topics.

At RPNS, we have learning goals for each age level and these learning goals are based on the common core curriculum. We know the skills our students are working on and the goals they need to meet to prepare them for Kindergarten. Our teachers integrate these learning goals into the subject their class is studying and because the students are studying a topic that interests them, they are more motivated to meet these goals.

In addition, the project approach to teaching builds self-esteem as it shows children their ideas and questions are important and valued. Teachers do not just give children answers, but instead work with them to research and learn more about a topic. As the teachers take a journey of learning with their class, the students see that adults are learners too and this fosters an appreciation of life-long learning.

"All thinking is research." (Examining the Reggio Emilia Approach by Valarie Mercilliott Hewett)

While engaging in in-depth studies on a particular topic, the children are given many opportunities to gain more understanding and expand their knowledge. Children are natural researchers; as they learn, they question, experiment, and reflect. Giving the students the chance to interview "experts" in their field of study allows them to access new and meaningful information.

Please enjoy highlights of children as researchers from three of our four-year-old projects:
Project: Hawks
While on a nature walk at the Rye Nature Center one day, Mrs. Fiore's and Mrs. Scher's class spotted nests high up in the trees and noticed hawks flying overhead. Four red tailed hawks circled and swooped during the better part of their trip. The children were fascinated by these birds of prey and the conversation about them continued back in the classroom. 

The students were very interested in why the hawks were circling up in the sky and many of the children thought they were looking for food for their babies. The class researched hawks using books from the library and they learned about the wingspan of a hawk, where hawks live, what they like to eat, and how they find food. The teachers enlarged beautiful photos to offer the children opportunities to see hawks up close. The children observed their physical features closely while painting pictures of hawks, and they began creating mini hawks using recycled cardboard. The class worked together to create a three-dimensional representation of a hawk beginning by tracing the shape of a hawk on fabric. They wanted to include the internal body parts of the bird, as well, and used items gathered in the school's materials closet to represent the heart, blood, bones, and, most importantly, the brain of the hawk. Once all the organs were inside, the children sewed the back and front of their hawk together. 

In order to give the children a real-world experience with birds of prey, RPNS invited falconer, James Eyrwing of the Pace University Birds of Prey Center, to visit the school and talk to the children and their families about hawks. The falconer brought four birds of prey along and gave a presentation on the Great Lawn. The children paid close attention while he answered their questions and introduced each of the birds. The children were amazed by the unfriendly "welcome" the visiting hawk received from our neighborhood red tailed hawk!

The children have been using the new information they learned from the presentation in their classroom. The words "beak," "talons," and "swoop" are on their word wall, and the children have been writing about hawks in their journals. Together, the class wrote a thank you letter to the falconer, each adding his or her signature. The class voted on which stamp to place on the envelope, and then walked together down to the mailbox on Milton Road to mail the letter. 

Project: Bridges
An in-depth study of bridges has been an exciting part of Mrs. Bonner's and Mrs. Richardson's class this year.  The children began using blocks to build bridges in the block center.  They had a great interest in connecting one area to another. The teachers noticed that the group was creating bridges with magnets at the light table, with paper at the art studio, with natural materials in the sensory table and even in the sandbox on the playground!

Over winter break, families were invited to photograph any bridges they saw while traveling. The children shared their photos with their classmates at meeting time. One student who had traveled to San Francisco knew all about the Golden Gate Bridge! The George Washington Bridge was a popular bridge that many of the students had driven over before. Together as a class, the students created a replica of the George Washington Bridge using tape, pipe cleaners, and cylinders. They used their measuring skills to cut the pieces to proportion and tested the properties of balance and stability as they figured out how to hold it together. 

The students conducted research using books to learn about how different kinds of bridges are built. They now understand the different characteristics and uses of beam bridges, arch bridges, cable stay bridges, suspension bridges, and truss bridges. The teachers used the overhead projector and transparencies to display large images of these bridges for the students to explore with their whole bodies. Each student in the class has created a portfolio of bridge sketches and they have been practicing writing their new bridge vocabulary words.

The class has also been learning about the current construction of the new Tappan Zee Bridge. An architect and engineer who are working on the new bridge visited RPNS and treated the students to a detailed presentation of the project. The students learned about the installation of this cable stay bridge as they watched time lapse videos of the bridge being constructed. The visitors brought real materials from the bridge construction for the students to hold and the children tried on some of the gear that bridge builders wear. The students asked the experts questions about the bridge and the visitors were impressed by the children's knowledge! The class is planning on taking a trip to the look-out area to get an up close view of the new bridge being built.

Project: Gardens and Fairy Houses
The children in Mrs. Szamborski's and Mrs. O'Keefe's four-year-old classes have been on a wonderful journey together exploring gardens and the magical world of fairy houses.  The project began with an investigation of natural materials in the outdoor classroom and the students' knowledge of gardens from home (experiences planting in gardens with grandmothers and hearing enchanted stories about fairies in gardens from parents and siblings).

The children looked at natural materials on the light table with magnifying glasses and used their senses to dream up the different types of houses they could create. Combining research and observational drawing and fantasy, they sketched designs and worked collaboratively to create detailed structures of their choice. The class took a walk over to the Rye Nature Center, where they explored the woods and collected natural materials for their creations, including sticks, leaves, moss, mushrooms, bark, pine cones, pine needles, and berries. The fairy houses were named and the children wrote the descriptive names on sentence strips, identifying letters and sounding out the words.

To bring further life to their Fairy House project, the children wrote stories about their houses and added illustrations. Literacy goals such as identifying the beginning, middle, and end of a story were incorporated and the children were encouraged to use rich vocabulary and details in their stories. As storytellers, the children used their imaginations, combined their prior knowledge with the new information they had learned, and practiced many pre-reading skills.

Each child designed their own individual fairy puppet using wire and natural materials to live in their fairy houses. The classroom teachers and Studio teacher, Mrs. Walter, set-up a surprise magical Fairy Land for the children to explore. There were lights, plants, and garden materials surrounding the houses. The children were very excited by the surprise and used their creations for dramatic play. The teachers sent videos home to the parents recording their interactions in this enchanted setting.

In order to extend the children's understanding of gardens, the class designed and planted the garden beds inside the bike track, which are now in full bloom! Afterwards, they went on a field trip to the Greenwich Audubon where they participated in a program about the life cycle of plants.  The children learned how plants and animals need each other.  Birds, insects, and animals help move seeds from place to place and aid in pollination, while plants provide food and habitats for animals.  The class enjoyed exploring the nature play trail, which included a sensory garden for pollinators, a rain garden, and a teaching pond!  It was an interactive and educational experience for the class.

Look for PART TWO of "The Project Approach: Four-Year-Old Researchers" coming soon.  We will be highlighting the studies in three more of our four-year-old classrooms.
Rye Presbyterian Nursery School | 914-967-2073
 | www.rpnskids.org