Studying pond life with primary-age children
In May, Morse’s 3rdgrade students usually display a growing interest in the outdoor environment, and she initiated the pond life project to capitalize on that interest.
“I believe it’s time for the pond life study,” thought Pam Morse as she left school late one afternoon in April. “The TAAS (Texas Assessment of Academic Skills) is behind us, and the children need something a little less structured for May. I’ll remember to schedule the Outdoor Learning Center tomorrow.”
Morse’s school district boasts an Outdoor Learning Center, which allows elementary through high school students opportunities to pursue scientific studies of nature in a setting that represents the region’s ecosystem. In May, Morse’s 3rd-grade students usually display a growing interest in the outdoor environment, and she initiated the pond life project to capitalize on that interest. She believed that, at this stage of the year, the 3rd-graders were ready for content that was less formal and more child-initiated. She was inspired to try project studies after reading texts by Katz and Chard (2000) and Chard (1998a, 1998b).
The project began with a typical K-W-L strategy. After the children brainstormed what they already knew about ponds (see Figure 1), the class took a field trip to the Outdoor Learning Center. Thus began a sequence of steps that motivated the children to spend the rest of the year seeking information about salamanders, water striders, tadpoles, snakes, algae, plankton, and other unique features of ponds.
Arriving early one morning to the center, the children began asking questions: “What’s there to do here?” “All I see is a big pond.” “Will we have enough to do all morning?” Nothing seemed obviously interesting to these 3rd-graders, who were more used to the excitement of ballgames, action movies, and running on their school playground. A few preplanned activities during Phase 1 of the pond life study piqued their curiosity, however, and they began asking questions about the pond. They gained an understanding of the “big pond” as they checked the water temperature around the shore of the pond and compared it to the water taken from a central location in the pond, estimated the depth of the pond, took samples of water from the shore, and determined that the water in the middle of the pond seemed to be clearer than that around the shore. These activities showed the class how much more there was to learn about a pond ecosystem.
Soon, the life that thrives in any pond became their focus-ducks, tadpoles, turtles, fish, algae, and snakes. The children even caught a frog that they took back to their classroom for the last few weeks of school. They were adamant that they saw many snakes, until the teacher pointed out that snakes slither on top of the water and these “snakes” were just poking their heads out of the water. Were they not, she asked, turtles?
The children did indeed find a snake skin; the discussion that followed about snakes shedding their skins added depth to the study. The children began jotting down their observations on note pads. These notes would serve as reminders to the children about what they learned, and what information they lacked, about pond life. After lunch, the children set about catching bugs for their class frog. Eventually, the pond life discussions led to investigations of the differences between living and non-living objects.
Back in the classroom, the children started working in pairs to develop mind maps (Chard, 1998b), a strategy that consolidates the knowledge they had acquired on the field trip. These maps also served as art objects that were hung on one wall in the classroom, along with the children’s writings comparing ponds and puddles. (The writing activity had been prompted by a fast-moving rain shower.) “You can swim in a pond, but you cannot swim in a puddle,” wrote Rachel. Blake noted, “One is [a] habitat; the puddle is just water.” Venn diagrams may also facilitate such comparisons (Katz & Chard, 2000).
The 3rd-graders then began their research studies. They again brainstormed to determine what they wanted to know (the W part of the K-W-L strategy), and Phase 2 of the project study officially began. Students in Mrs. Morse’s class selected such study topics as salamanders, water moccasins, crayfish, frogs, water striders, water boatman, ducks, the pond bottom, and algae/plankton. Once the students decided upon study topics, they gathered information from library books and from the Internet, using the school’s library and computer room. Figure 2 lists some of the Internet sites the children used to study pond life. In addition, copies of such magazines as Ranger Rick, Your Big Backyard, and Texas Highways were made available as classroom resources. (Note: Many states publish magazines similar to Texas Highways, and these publications can be located by calling a state’s parks and wildlife department.) Some of the book titles Morse’s students used for their study are shown in Figure 3.
Research is a natural extension of class projects that children propose, and enables them to represent their findings. While systematic instruction is necessary in states that have a defined curriculum and regularly scheduled examinations to determine student progress, opportunities to conduct group studies and present information through a variety of projects are also necessary to develop intellectual goals and children’s interests.
Katz and Chard (2000) write:
… documentation of a project makes references to children deciding something, arguing a particular point, explaining their ideas to their classmates, predicting findings and hypothesizing the bases for predictions, checking facts and details, interviewing persons who might be sources of needed information, initiating new directions in the line of inquiry, drawing from observation as well as from memory and imagination, and recording observations, reporting findings, giving each other suggestions, encouraging one another, trying things again, and in countless other ways, accepting and carrying responsibility for what is accomplished. (p. 5)
A few simple rules guided children in their research during Phase 2 of the project. They researched what they did not know, and they looked for connections to other concepts that had not yet been addressed in class. Morse did not allow the students to copy information directly into their reports from the sources they had studied. Plus, if they came upon words they did not know during their research, the children had to find the definitions. One youngster, for example, was called on during her class report to define the words “aquatic” and “terrestrial,” because she had included them in her poster project.
The projects children chose to represent their knowledge included dioramas, a large poster showing frogs’ developmental stages, a mural, an aquarium / terrarium composite, clay sculptures, and journal writing. The strength of project study is that children can work in pairs, in a group, or even individually, and that each person brings specific, unique strengths to the project development (Katz & Chard, 2000). The project work done by the students in Mrs. Morse’s class continued over several days. The children would add information to the projects as they were exposed to new knowledge.
The types of projects the children completed fit the investigative and constructive categories, as defined by Katz and Chard (2000). Dramatic play projects, which would be more appropriate for younger children, could include setting up a dramatic play area in the classroom, complete with fishing paraphernalia; constructing a boat from a large appliance box; and adding a water table to the classroom. Preschoolers also would enjoy a “let’s find out” table, which demonstrates such scientific principles as sinking, floating, and water absorption. Other representational ways of addressing the project theme would be adapting Bill Martin’s Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? (1967) by drawing pictures or writing stories (one class did a Green Frog, Green Frog class book); organizing a class photo album showing pictures of children and their families visiting a pond for a picnic or fishing trip; and collecting songs and finger plays for class or individual books to take home. Other field trip ideas might include taking trips to a fish market, a marina, or a bait camp.
Morse already has other activities in mind for next year’s pond study, such as: 1) measuring the circumference of the pond at the Outdoor Learning Center; 2) discussing, and observing signs of, the food chain; 3) making diagrams of animal parts and studying their functions; and 4) bringing in tadpoles and charting their growth over time (for two or three weeks). She also hopes to begin the study earlier in the school year, because she believes that this project added to the intellectual life of the classroom, just as Katz and Chard (2000) suggest that such projects do.
As the school year ended, the children focused on the L component of the project, as it relates to K-WL (what was learned during the study) (see Figure 4). To ensure that this study was conducted satisfactorily, Morse combined the K-W-L strategy, and the children’s reports and projects; she also closely observed how the children worked together. Overall, Morse found the pond life study to be the highlight of her school year.
Chard, S. (1998a). The project approach: Developing the basic
framework. New York: Scholastic.
Chard, S. (1998b). The project approach: Developing curriculum with children. New York: Scholastic.
Katz, L., & Chard, S. (2000). Engaging children’s minds: The project approach (2nd ed.). Stamford, CT: Ablex Publishing.
Martin, B. (1967). Brown bear, brown bear, what do you see? New York: Henry Holt & Co.
Laverne Warner is Coordinator and Professor, Early Childhood Education, Sam Houston State University, Huntsville, Texas. Pam Morse teaches 3rd grade at Cameron Elementary School in Cameron, Texas.
Copyright Association for Childhood Education Spring 2001
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