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Thursday, May 23, 2013


"We shall walk together on this path of life, 
for all things are part of the universe, 
and are connected to each other to form one whole unity."
Maria Montessori

We've "left" Africa now, and I thought it would be good to remind you of our journey.  Every year at Chickadee we dive into an exploration of one continent.   Where do we begin?  With stories and picture books.   Then, over many weeks, we introduce different aspects of the land and culture, using music, pictures, animals, food, 3-part cards, maps, arts and crafts, and so on.  The children begin to develop some idea of another culture, different possibilities, the infinite variety of life on earth.  Last year it was Asia; last summer, Australia.  This spring it has been Africa.

We realize that we can't give children of this age anything like a real grasp of the size and the incredibly grand array of life on any continent.   Our mission is simply to plant seeds of awareness, and to nurture their budding sense of connection, wonder, and respect.  They are, after all, both present and future citizens of the global village.  

So we begin, again and again, with the globes and the puzzle map of the world.  We sing the song of the continents.  We match key animals to each continent.  We play bring-me games to help them firm up the vocabulary.  We connect cards and pictures and folders to the colors of the continents.  And slowly, slowly, over their years with us, with lots of repetition, the children begin to know and name earth's continents, biomes, and some countries.  

Here is Cara on the day she finished her pricked map of the world.  She labeled the continents and framed it with animal stickers.   She is bursting with pride; her finger points to the panda in the corner.

For this year's cycle, we focused on Africa.  The rest of this post shares some of the activities that the kids were doing (or if not doing, at least watching)  during this time.

Rhythm, movement, sound.  Ah music!  It offers a direct line to our consciousness.  Julian's mom brought in this great drum which she got during her own adventure in Africa.  These several ethnic instruments were in constant use; in the sunny weather the children took them out to the grass.  We also played a CD of African acoustic music, given to us by Lucas' dad Rob, and we are still singing an African lullaby.

Biomes.  Earlier in the year we introduced the biomes, part of every year's curriculum.  Here Noah is using the biome puzzle map of Africa, and we notice that Africa has lots of desert and lots of grasslands.  

Accompanying this map were sets of 3-part cards of animals for each major biome in Africa, and the simple biome readers, which are popular with every single child.  (Even though we have "finished" Africa, I left the biome readers out, because some children still use them every day.)  

Morgan traced, painted, and labeled that Africa biome map, a solo project that no one else chose to do.  Then each child in our "extended-day" group created chalk pastel images of different biomes or natural features of Africa.  They each chose a picture they liked in one of our books of narrative photographs - Mount Kilamanjaro, Sahara Desert, a beautiful waterfall, savannah....  Seen all together, this bulletin board was a teacher in itself, so we kept it up for several weeks.

The grand array of African animals. Every child loves African animals, and everyone used this collection.  It includes those iconic animals most children learn as toddlers - such as elephant, zebra, and lion - as well as some that are less familiar - kudu, meercat, wildebeest.   They read the labels, or had someone read them; they sorted them by the biome they live in; they drew them; they played "I Spy" with their initial sounds; and they played freely with them.  Lots of play.

The puzzle map of African countries.  The political map is a complex puzzle with so many countries (I still need the control map to put it together; several children do not.)    Often an older child would invite a younger child to do the puzzle map together.  We also put out 13 flags of Africa, and we have a flag book that tells about each one.  The older kids matched the flags to the countries, and started drawing flags. They would ask us to read to them from the book, to find out what the colors and symbols meant.  

Here you can see Ava holding the flag of Liberia (it was formed by freed slaves who returned to Africa, thus its similarity to the US flag).   She also noticed that Sudan is one piece in our puzzle map, but the paper map she was coloring had it split in two, so we talked about how the people there recently decided to divide the land into two countries.   (For obvious reasons we talked very little about present-day political Africa, so much suffering.   I did find a nice book on Nelson Mandela.)

Leo created this impressive paper map of Africa.  In the last two years he has repeated all the puzzle maps so many times, and mastered them all.  He started pricking some African countries on his own, when we were still doing vertebrates, and no focus on Africa had been suggested.  He worked on them on and off, in the midst of all his other activities.  When the countries were all done, he glued them all down from top to bottom; then he carefully pricked out the countries too small to have their own puzzle piece, noticing every single detail he could find.  He felt such well-deserved pride and satisfaction from accomplishing this big work.

Village life.  Along with the many books we found at the library, we used a set of hand-made cards to show rural African people and many different aspects of their lives.  These little cards inspired drawings and writing. Above is one child's stylized rendition with the green cards she used laid out on the paper.  On the right is another. To go with her scene, this child wrote, "mom cooks bred in africa."  The idea of an outside clay oven heated by fire made a big impression.  

Throughout these many weeks, related arts and crafts were happening. Simple things like the noodle necklaces, or these African masks, which didn't turn out very "ethnic" but were lots of fun.  We told the kids they were really more for hanging than for wearing, and some of them could tell stories about what their masks symbolized, like, "This is plants, and earth, and rain." 

Here is Lucy's vibrant zebra.  She used an Eric Carle picture card as a guide.   She drew the parts of his body with very little help, cut them out, and cut and glued down every stripe.  She was so proud of how the legs made him look like he's really moving.  

We closed the Africa cycle with our "paper people." Creating them is such a sweet process.   We might marvel at all the beautiful browns of their skin, asking, "Which color of skin do you want to use this time?"  Referring to one of our picture books, one of us might say, "Look at all the bright fabrics in their clothes!" or,  "The desert people cover themselves with white to stay cool and protected,"  and then ask, "Which clothes do you want to use for this person?"  As the last step, the child draws the person's face, two eyes, one mouth, always such a genuine expression of their pure experience and ability right in the moment.   We hope you love the African paper people who make their way home to you!     

"I dream of an Africa which is in peace with itself."   Nelson Mandela