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Sunday, April 20, 2014

Dipping our Toes in Europe

"The teacher's task is not to talk, but to prepare and arrange a series of motives for cultural activity in a special environment made for the child."
Maria Montessori

We've held a soft focus on the continent of Europe for the last few months.  When I found this quote, it seemed perfectly relevant for this blog post, because that is what I did - I made available a series of activities for the children.  And then we watched what caught on, who was interested in what, and where the children led us with these materials and projects.    Now we're nearing the end of this cycle, and I cannot honestly tell you what they "learned" about Europe.  What I can tell you is that the children have been engaged, expressive, and creative, as they have dipped their toes into the rich culture of Europe via maps and flags, music and art and story.  So here are some glimpses of the trail we followed.

The Europe puzzle map, with its 40-odd countries, is quite a challenging work in itself, not for the faint of heart!  Rex and Seamus spent a long time that morning putting together this puzzle, and again on other days too.

Plus we had 15 flags of Europe on the map cabinet, and I made little slips with the names of the countries, color-coded to their color on the map.   A few of the older children began to connect the flags with the countries, and we used our great flag book to learn what the colors and patterns on the flags meant.  So a week or two later, Rex worked with Collin and they started matching up the flags to their countries.  I would step in to read to them about one flag at a time.  Then they tried drawing some flags too.

Concurrent with these classic map and flag activities were the materials and lessons about the biomes of Europe, and animals of different biomes.  This was really quite wonderful, because Europe is not known for its animals, is it? And yet here were these three sets of cards - animals of wetlands, forests, and mountains - with all kinds of animals and their unique lives, so much to learn about, so much to love.  Here Brady was working with Evangeline.  He  laid out the whole card set of animals of the wetlands, and told her about the animals he was most interested in.  

These cards were the inspiration for the marvelous chalk art project which all the older children did in March. They chose one animal, from one of these sets, and set to work.  First they drew the animal on black paper - usually with some coaching on where to begin, how big, and so on, but we never draw for them. Then I traced their drawing with school glue.  The next day, when the glue was dry, they could set to work coloring with chalk pastels.    This is Isabel's bittern. Priceless.  They are all priceless.

Another part of these great materials from Waseca are the biome readers - little six-page booklets which each tell about one animal in one biome. The three-year-olds love these booklets as much as the older children do, because we always sit down and read to them, and then they get to figure out which picture goes with which page. Ethan has just finished "The Red Deer," which is now an endangered animal because its forests are disappearing.  Another favorite was "The Water Spider," the only spider who lives underwater; it makes a bell-shaped web under water and carries air down to it with the hairs on its body.  All kinds of wonders!

The children used the biome cards to write many story pages. Just last week Cherry drew a pond skater and copied the words from one card:  "The pond skater feels the ripples from across the water."  There really are endless possibilities that arise out of these cards, with just enough information to pique their interest and lead them onward.  So now your children have formed a connection with this continent through its animals - hedgehog and ibex, polecat and graylag goose, Alpine hare and snow finch.  They know that they share this earth with them all.

Meanwhile, people!  A few weeks ago I pulled together one of my traditional, favorite crafts - "paper people."  I like to put these out for every continent we learn about. Some of the children were so excited when they appeared, and made one paper person after another. Others  never did get into it.  Even with the pre-cut clothes - supposedly showing different cultural costumes - every single paper person turned out unique.  Hey, I love these so much I have two sets of them from past years framed in the office.

On a more elevated cultural level, I found a calendar with some of the stunning and famous buildings and structures of Europe.  I rotated them on the wall, we talked about them, and a few children tried their hand at drawing them.   Here you can see the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben and Westminster Abbey, Mont St. Michel, and the absolutely stunning St. Basil Cathedral in Moscow.  The children are willing to try, they draw freely, they experiment, they give it their best.      

Finally, a really rich and ongoing part of these last months has been this collection of art postcards, "Child-Size Masterpieces," a curriculum developed by Aline Wolf, a long-time, stellar Montessorian. They encompass a carefully planned, sequenced series, which the children explore one folder at a time.  Most of the art is European.  The folders start with simple matching of identical paintings, then similar paintings by the same artist, then four paintings by artists whose names we begin to teach, then themes, and schools of art.  We encourage the kids to take them slow, and to imagine these works in real life. We might tell them when one was painted, or how big it is in real life.  We might ask, "Which one do you like the most right now?" or, "What do you think the artist wanted to express?" or "Would you like to try painting one of these?"

Matching the identical and similar cards works beautifully for the youngest children.... well as for the oldest.  The whole series of postcards becomes quite a remarkable journey for a child who is interested in art.

Our first group project taken from the art cards was based on Mondrian, whose stark geometric paintings appear in one of the first folders; his style is perfectly suited to the children's interest and skill level.  No one was unwilling to do this one.

Seurat's pointillist art was the inspiration for the dot paintings. Collin was totally focused and silent the whole time he painted here, and he had such shining eyes when he was finished.  When Seamus completed his glowing, dotted tree, seen in the center of this display, he looked up at me and exclaimed, "This was the best day of my life!"

At the top of this blog is Charlotte's blue pony, which she painted after being inspired by Franz Marc's "Little Blue Horse."  She was so thrilled with this horse.  And this is Cara's interpretation of Fragonard's "The Swing."  She was enamored with this wonderful, soft, glorious painting, and totally satisfied with her own swinging girl. 

While some of the Europe materials are put away now, these cards stay out, and these explorations with the art cards will continue on for as long as the children are interested.  Some kids have done most of the cards, a few are just beginning. None have yet discovered that the last set is a whole collection of transportation art - from foot travel to boats to trains to automobiles.  I know some kids who might discover their first timeline if and when they get there!

Another central aspect of our cultural journey in Europe has been music, but that has just become a separate blog post.  For now, I will let Brady's little bearded reedling, a bird of the wetlands of Europe, sing you its simple farewell song.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

We're back!

"The child builds his inmost self 
out of the deeply held impressions he receives."
Maria Montessori

Cara is sitting in flowers.  How perfect is that, for the first day back! 

After a long and mostly rainy Spring Break, the children all tumbled outside today, rejoicing that it wasn't raining and that they were all together in their Chickadee land again.  Ten days away, and the visible signs of our new spring are all around. The "protected areas" in the forest are filled with green, mostly the abundant waterleaf, but many other plants are emerging too. These protected areas have worked out better than I dreamed. The first two I circled with stumps.   Since then I've used whatever branches fall, following the children's natural paths, and now we have a network of different protected areas and running paths and open space.   

So the Indian plum has leafed out - it's always the earliest  - while the big leaf maples are in bud. Sprinkled throughout these areas are trilliums and the first native yellow violets. This green, unfolding, and flowing life is what surrounds your children as they play, and as Montessori wrote in the quote above, the impressions they receive become part of who they are.

Each child has his or her own individual experience, every single day.  Here are some glimpses ..... 

Evangeline found one little mushroom, and she stopped to say hello.  I don't know if anyone else saw it.  More mushrooms will be appearing soon.

Collin greeted the earth by playing with sticks, beating and digging - it was as if he were drumming, saying "Hello dear friendly mother earth, I'm back!"

Cherry found the big yellow dump truck filled with muddy water, and she stirred and stirred for at least fifteen minutes, totally engrossed.  She didn't get a bit of mud on her princess dress either.

As soon as I pulled the tarp back off the sand area, Joey and Eleanor plunked down in their favorite place.
Moving wood and branches and building things is a constant enterprise around here.    Ever since the top half of our neighbor's western hemlock fell across the fence last month, and we were rewarded with a bounty of new branches, the forts have taken on a whole new level of elaboration.  Rex is working on one of them; he told me he was "Bob the Builder."  

Seamus is hauling wood from one place to another. I have resolved to bring in more scrap wood and building materials, after reading a powerful article from The Atlantic, called "The Overprotected Kid."  (Link below.)

Meanwhile some other children discovered the camellia tree by the chicken coop, where the ground is now covered with flowers.  They named it the "Pink Land."     Brady and Cara both climbed up in the tree - imagine the beauty of climbing a tree where flowers fill your eyes.  Julian loves to poke little sticks through leaves and flowers and make little umbrellas and other wonders.  

A fantasy game began, complete with a princess and a wedding.  After lunch the game continued, and Joelle, our new assistant, sent me this photo of Cara in the tree with Evangeline looking up at her, just as I was finishing this post. She too was enthralled.  A pink wonderland!

At our morning circle, Collin had announced that he learned how to ride a two-wheeler during Spring Break. So after playing under the trees for a while, he and Rex headed for the bikes, and helped each other with helmets.    The bikes are the speedy way to move through the forest.

Collin is heading down the side road.  This little hill provides a perfect level of challenge for these biking adventurers.  In this case, the bike and he went down a second later - no upset, he got back up and kept going - he explained that, yep, he needs to practice the foot brake some more.  

Another part of every day are these other members of our community.  We let them out to scratch and explore on their own, and they run about as fast as the kids do when they are set free.  If only I could teach the chickens to stay in the forest and out of the flower and garden beds, they would be out more.   It's quite striking how they like to be close to the kids when they are outside  - I don't know if it is familiarity, or if they feel safer with them around, but the hens will stay down below much longer when the children are playing around them.   They behave differently when they are out and the children are inside, or when no one is here but me.    Then they head for the raised beds and the flower gardens, and scratch scratch scratch....

while the kids run run run ... and climb climb climb ... and dig dig dig ... and build build build ... and grow grow grow.

Here is the link to the article "The Overprotected Kid."  It's long, potent, and thought-provoking (though it seems I can't make a live link....)