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Early childhood education can be a learning laboratory, a place where children and teachers share the intellectual joy of exploring answers to active meaningful questions.


At the Nature School at Willowbound Farm a variety of self-selected activities are planned for children each day based on their strengths, abilities, and energy for learning.  From these activities particular relationships and questions emerge. A preschool teacher is assigned to pay close attention and carefully record conversations, questions, and the actions of children. Teachers collaborate and interpret the childrens’ day to form new questions and interpret what might make up the next step or learning challenge in the context of play for the following learning day. 

A Big Idea Emerges

Using the cycle of inquiry looks something like this: Several children were talking about what they had cooked outdoors on family camping trips and pretended to camp and cook in a dutch oven in a nature themed dramatic play.  Based on this observation, teachers prepared to cook in a dutch oven with the children by reading stories about the ingredients for stew during a whole group story telling. The ingredients were gathered, washed, and prepared in small groups.


The next day each group shared stew ingredients and the stew was cooked over a fire in our wild area. The children enjoyed the smells, sights, and stew, and a project of interest emerged in a direction the teachers hadn’t anticipated. 


One group of three-year-old children spent the next day making bowls full of stew in the mud kitchen. A teacher recorded conversations about how mud bowls were and weren’t leaking the stew. Interpreting some of the children’s conversations, we discovered that the children after eating stew wanted to know how to make “a strong pot that don't break”. 


The Project Begins

Teachers added ceramic pitchers, water-based-clay, and cooking and ceramic tools to the mud kitchen. Several children raised questions about the properties of clay, tools that shaped the clay, and how water affected the consistency of clay. From here clay was also brought into the art center without tools and children constructed theories on different actions (rolling, pinching, pounding) that changed the shape of the clay and teachers planned questions to challenge their thinking, “What can your hands do with the clay?” “How many different ways can you manipulate or shape the clay?” “What shapes can hold water?”


In the mud kitchen teachers designed a related set of questions with a slab of clay, a chunk of clay, a tall hallowed cylinder, and more questions. “What can you do with a clay cylinder, a clay ball, and how does the water affect or change the slab clay? After playing with clay “that melts in water” a few children “put holes” in the middle of the clay ball and others added “pushing the sides up” to the slab to make dishes that held water. 


Threads of Study

Teachers evaluated the children’s conversations and noticed they were interested in several questions including, “What causes clay to harden?” “How can we change the state of clay as liquid, malleable, and solid?” Another strand of inquiry continued to grow. “What are different techniques to build pottery?”


To guide their answers, we collaborated with a ceramicist who was invited to further the children’s inquiry through careful questions. She showed the children some of her mugs, bowls, pictures, and pots with lids. The children handled the ceramic dishes and asked her questions, “How did you make colors?” She told the children about a liquid glass paint called glaze. She asked them,  “How are the gray and white pot different?”  After comments about hardness, the visiting artist asked the children “How do you think a soft clay pot becomes solid with no leaks?”


The children argued between whether heat or cold would harden the pot. One child excitedly suggested “Let’s put it in a fire!” The artist then told the children about a very hot fire oven called a kiln and we visited the kiln at Willowbound Studio. She then demonstrated how to make a simple pinch pot, and a coil pot, (roll it long, forward and back like a snake) and the children were given an opportunity to build any way they could or wanted with clay.


This process continued with experimentation in the mud kitchen and art area on the next school day. Pots dried in the classroom and children took their “bone dry” dishes to the kiln. Their solid “fired” dishes were compared with “greenware” and these children took home not just an imperfect pot, but a real life understanding of the properties of clay, and the process of hand building pottery. 

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