Sunday, March 1, 2015

Toddler Engagement in Geography, Mapping, Habitats and The Naming of Animals - Part 1

I dreamed this dream where the continent work that I was so familiar with inside the Primary classroom was disassembled and then reassembled in such a way that very young children could roam from one continent to another with ease and agility and in so doing learn the names of a diverse population of animals and their habitats. Too, they would wander across landscapes in such a way that they would engrave upon it roads and trails which intersected with the pathways of other living beings via models of those.

Yet, first, before all of that, they would identify the tracks made by an animal and  then another. Simultaneously, this would be their first notion of beginning and ending; of movement via one marking and then another. They would differentiate between a split hoof and a paw. And they would create prints of said creatures while uttering their names.

This would be a reconfiguration of the narrative Where the Wild Things Are as it would replace fictional creatures with those named polar bear and  penguin; these were the first two. Later the list would grow and include harbor seal, baboon, racoon, cow, five types of bear (polar bear, brown bear, black bear, Kodiak bear and panda bear), pig, ermine, and so many more.

Another layer of the above would be mural painting. Yes, toddlers painting murals. Utilizing table lengths sheets of art paper, the children would collectively paint a landscape of colors and, in a similar fashion to the Montessori saying, "Take a walk with the chalk," they would stretch across this field of paper and mark it with the paints on their brush. These markings would swirl, arch, circle back onto themselves and, now and then, ebb into a wave that one could almost hear splash against the beach of white paper. Too, jazz music would whisper to them as they marked the world with their first inscriptions. Yes, I dreamed all of this too and then gathered the materials I needed. That gathering continues, as do the dreams.

I knew within my very being that as soon as the children where guided how to use these materials and given the language they needed to engage them, that I would soon be watching them act in a way that was so very natural to them that it would serve as a profound confirmation that there exits an organic connection between the very young and the natural world. I would soon see all of that and wonder to myself about so many things. I ask even now if children have their own mythos; if they have their own language. I have seen one child use a babbled language constructed of vowels and consonants that no adult could translate, yet another child sat and listened to in such a way that it spoke of comprehension.


In the beginning, I focused on one continent - Antarctica.  I brought two animals to school as noted above: the polar bear and the penguin. The children and I sat together. I introduced each of the two animals to my students and repeated their names, bear and penguin, many times. Next, I engaged all the children in making salt dough.

When the dough was made, it was broken into pieces and shared with each. This was an opportunity for the children to simply enjoy the tactical qualities of the dough. (I also dusted each piece with flour so that it wouldn't stick as much to the tablecloth and to their hands.)

Rolling pins were used to flatten the surface. Those flat, orb like masses would also serve as their first introduction to the land-form: island. 

The next day, I brought those first two animals to the table and taught them how to press their paws and flippers into the dough to make prints. They were amazed. There was visual evidence that an impression was made and that impression remained after the animal was moved to another area. Initial introduction to cause and effect, before and after.

They did it over and over - pressing and imprinting.

My mind now reminds me of Sumerian cylinder seals and the markings that were left when they rolled across clay.

This is what the children were creating too. An archive of textual / gestural markings that recorded the evidence of their work. Does it matter that their hieroglyphics were composed of the markings of paws and hoofs -  an image based narrative similar to those made by cave dwellers centuries ago?

Lascaux Cave Paintings – Prehistoric Art in the Dordogne, France 

Christmas was soon upon us, so the children made salt dough ornaments with the impressions of a bear paw and a penguin's flipper imprinted on them. When it came time to paint them, they too appeared to visually echo islands.

I spread lengths of paper across the tables. Too, I spilled small amounts of blue paint into art cups for the children to use for painting their ornaments. Also, for a visual reference to water and waterways when their brush swept across the "Antarctica" landscape. Again, we used the polar bear and penguin as inhabitants of this "ice" covered continent. I could not have anticipated what I witnessed as it was spell binding to watch. One of my assistants joined in the painting. Her ornamental illustrations in blue highlighted  their painted arches and markings.

I see an island studied landscape inhabited by a polar bear and a penguin. I see waterways and pathways. I see engagement and wonderment acted out with ease and agility. I see outstretch arms traveling the course of a white landscape. It was the first time I watched them engage this way with the materials. It was not the last. Far from it, actually. As the weeks passed, we added more animals and built habitats on the white field of art paper. Too, we made our own flags and we anchored those  into mounds of salt dough that visually represented mountains. Waterways that were once blue lines slowly shaped into rivers and gave birth to oceans.

Discoveries were called out  by one child or another that had examined the anatomical correct models of each of the animals so many times that they spotted similarities and differences. Behold a creature with utters on this animal and this one too, yet they are not the same! Toddlers didn't  speak these words but instead held up the models of a pig and a cow and said, "Milk." I laughed and rejoiced at their good findings and at how their great minds expressed themselves when they were provided materials which served their needs.

So very much and even more. Photos of the above discoveries will be shared in  Part 2. Soon...and then 3 & 4. Promise.


Nduoma said...

How old are the toddlers in your class?
I love your ideas as always.

Susan Y. Dyer said...

Thanks! My students are 16 months to 2.8 years old.

Susan Y.Dyer
The Moveable Alphabet Blog