As most early childhood educators know, children are inspired by the variety found in natural environments. Waterfronts are uniquely suited for learning because they present different kinds of materials that are of interest regardless of a child’s personality, temperament, age, or skills. This natural setting appeals beautifully to all young minds, which require consistent, evolving engagement.
This is why the program where I work in El Cerrito, California, went to the Richmond marina for a day trip. When we arrived, teachers observed how the setting served the children’s cognitive, social, and emotional needs. Some children were fascinated by the crabs floating in the shallow water, and others examined the similarities and differences between the crabs and a dead manta ray found on the shore. While some children were deeply curious about the wildlife, others were only somewhat interested—which is to be expected in a diverse group. The children gathered materials to measure, role-played with their classmates, and filled and emptied containers. They noticed weight changes in their containers, tested their muscle limits, and creatively solved issues of spillage and transport.
I do, you do, we do
At first, I sat down in the sand, watching children buzzing around in small groups, engaged in solo play, and doing other activities. After a while, I picked up a plastic cup, filled it with sand, and began to build sand towers. I could feel the curious eyes of the children taking notice. I made one tower, then another, and another. Aiden asked, “What are you making?” I told him that I hadn’t really thought that far ahead. “I’m just doing one thing at a time to see what it looks like.”
I asked if he would like to join me in what I called my “undetermined project.” He didn’t say yes, he just sat down. His curiosity was communicated perfectly in his expression.
Aiden looked at what I had done, scanning how I’d arranged and placed my towers. He repeated this pattern without any direct guidance (revealing some very advanced pattern, sequencing, and spatial knowledge). By mimicking me, it was apparent that Aiden had internally measured my towers to decide which container I had used to form them and how far apart they were. He recognized that I had arranged the towers in a curved line and arranged his towers the same way.
Building on interests
Once we had made a complete circle of towers, I began carving paths about two inches deep connecting one tower to another. Still working on the last of his towers, Aiden noticed that I was adding complexity to our design. When he asked what I was doing I replied, “I was thinking it was a moat. You know, like the kind we talked about the other day when we wondered why castles have moats. We did some research and decided it probably was to protect the people inside from catapults and stuff.”
Aiden smiled, remembering our discussion. He then began framing his sand project in this medieval light. He talked softly to himself and to me. It was a castle “that needed protection! How are we going to do it!?” he asked. I told him that I didn’t know. “Let’s just see what happens.”
We gestured, signaled, and used subtle facial cues to coordinate building an elaborate moat. Once we finished, I asked, “What do moats have in them?” Aiden paused before answering “Water!” He grabbed a bucket and ran to the water’s edge. I joined him.
We filled our buckets and on our way back to the moat, he learned about weight and spillage. “I think I might have put too much in. It’s spilling!” I shrugged and replied, “It happens. No big deal.”
Our project was built on a slight incline. Aiden began to pour water from his bucket into the moat. We watched the water travel down the moat and break one of the walls.
“Whoa! What happened?” I asked him.
He answered, “It broke the wall and some got sucked up into the ground.”
Aiden squinted his eyes—he didn’t understand why the moat didn’t hold water. I asked if we should repair the wall. When he agreed, I asked him how we could make it different so that it would hold water. We decided to make the moat thicker and taller. Without any verbal negotiation, we began this work on all of the walls—not just the broken one. He understood that if this problem had arisen with one wall, it was going to happen elsewhere.
The next time we tried to fill the moat, the water flowed around the bends of the circle. Most of it got sucked into the sand or rested in a pool at the lowest point at the bottom of the moat.
Seeing that the walls of our moat were still intact, Aiden exploded with excitement and joined me in filling another bucket. His outburst led other children to watch, and some began to fetch their own buckets of water to help us fill the moat. The more we poured in the moat, the more standing water remained in the channels. The standing water required us to keep repairing the walls, but the children knew what to do. They maintained the structure without direction and even instructed me and another teacher on the techniques that would be the most successful.
When I saw the children’s energy levels begin to wane, I suggested that we channel the moat into the bay, explaining “When we pour water in from the top, it will first circle the castle. Then it will find its way back into the bay.”
Bang! They were reengaged. We ran this experiment for quite some time. Onlookers and classmates stopped by to try it out a few times before returning to their investigative play.
At the end of the day we collected our tools and looked at our project. Aiden asked, “What do we do now?” Knowing that, for children, construction is second only to deconstruction, I suggested that we squish it. We both grinned. Jumping over and over, we turned our project back into a pile of sand. Others joined us in destroying the castle.
I said, “We should do this again sometime.” Aiden, wearing a large smile, said “Yeah!” TYC