The Arctic: A Child-Led Reggio Project

I've mentioned a couple times this past winter that Silas was working on his first real Reggio-inspired project. When he was very little we did explorations of garbage trucks and faces, but his ability to communicate and the sophistication of the questions that he asks has grown by such leaps and bounds since then, it has made this most recent investigation really, really exciting.

So much came out of the time that we spent on this project. He learned a lot of new vocabulary (animals, geographical features, plants, etc.) and he discovered the relationships between different animals as well as between animals and their environment. And beyond what he learned about the arctic itself, he learned so much about his own process of learning. The observational drawings that he's made since completing this project are so much detailed than they were before and he is more verbal about making his interests known and expressing his desire to follow up and find answers to his questions. 

I'm still learning too...while reflecting on this project I've internalized a lot about how to really listen, about how to hear the overt questions as well as those bubbling under the surface that he hasn't quite accessed yet. I've learned what, for us, are fruitful (and less fruitful) ways of exploring an interest. I've learned how to phrase questions to encourage him to come up with his own answers. I've learned to bite my tongue when I want to give answers so that he can find them for himself. I've learned to embrace the twisting road that this type of learning takes and to abandon any notions of planning.

I thought I'd share some of what I journaled during this time. I know that I am intensely curious about how other parents document their children's learning and find much community and inspiration in what I've read. So, I thought I would put a little of what we have done out there in the world as well.

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After reading several books about animal migration, including stories about godwits and caribou, Silas began to show an intense interest in the Arctic Circle. It became a regular theme in his creative play and worked its way into his block constructions and artwork. 

I wanted to pursue it as a formal project, but didn't really know how to proceed. So one morning when we were talking about the arctic (as we always were) I asked him if he wanted to write down what he knew about the arctic. He responded with a list: 
Arctic Foxes
It blows hard
It snows hard
There’s a lot of snow
It rains hard
I then asked him if there was anything that he was curious about. To which he responded:
How much rain?
How many polar bears?
How many arctic foxes?
How many caribou?
How many godwits?How many birds?
How strong is the weather?
How fast can it rain?
And then I got stuck. All of those things were pretty straightforward fact-type questions. I wondered how to find a way to jump start at least one of them into a more in-depth investigation. I think that directly asking Silas what he was interested in put him on the spot a bit. So, I decided to try another tack. I set up an invitation for him to explore to see where it would lead.

I opened up the large format photography book World of the Polar Bear by Rosing to an intriguing image and set in front of it a pan of cloud dough with a toy polar bear in it. When he saw it, Silas was immediately drawn in and spent 45 minutes burying the polar bear, squishing the dough between his hands, and quietly talking to himself.

Later, we sat down and looked through the photographs in the book together. I encouraged Silas to take charge of turning the pages so that he could set the pace. I tried to encourage a moment of quiet with each picture to give him an opportunity to share his thoughts and observations first. When he did so, I asked follow-up questions and/or pointed out details. This was a much more effective way to find a window to where his interests lay.

We spent a great deal of time talking about a series of photos of the bears’ den – how it was constructed, where it was located, how they got in and out, etc. I asked him if he would like to build a polar bear den and he enthusiastically said, “yes.” I asked what he might need to build it. “White paper,” he answered.

Other than building with blocks and toys, we had not yet done any 3-D creative projects, so I guessed that he might not be thinking of anything other than drawing as a possibility. I got out our toy polar bear and suggested that we build a den that this polar bear could actually crawl into and that we should check out the recycling bin for possible materials.

He selected a few pieces of cardboard, several plastic containers, and white tissue paper. I suggested that we might need a scissors and some tape.

I set up the photo of the polar bear den for inspiration and then asked him how he thought we should proceed. My only contribution was to cut the plastic where he told me to cut and to assist in taping the pieces down to the cardboard. The design and process was his own.

He ended up using a square of cardboard as the land and a series of plastic tubs with the bottoms cut out (except for the last one) taped together to make a tunnel. The whole thing was then covered in white tissue paper to simulate snow.

One of the key components of Reggio is representing and then re-representing ideas to see what new things that we can learn. I wanted to give Silas the opportunity to translate his three-dimensional den into a two-dimensional image, so the next day I set out an invitation for him to draw.

And this is what he drew...

He spent all of two minutes on it. I asked him if he would like to add more detail to his drawing or if he would like another sheet of paper. He said “no” to both suggestions and said that he was done. I asked him to tell me about his picture. He pointed to the circle and said, “that’s where the bear goes in.” He then asked me to write on his picture that this was a “Bear Home.” He then clarified that it was a “den” and wanted me to note that it was a “huge, long, big den.” 

On another day we talked more about polar bear dens. I invited Silas to consider the idea of digging a den in the snow outside. He was very enthusiastic about the thought. We looked at the photos in World of the Polar Bear again as well as his model and drawing of a den. We talked about how the bear makes the den – by digging with his paws. This led to a discussion of the similarities and differences between bear paws and human hands. We used an ink pad and a sheet of paper to make a handprint of Silas’ hand so that he could look at his handprint right next to a bear’s paw print.

He noted that the bear had longer and sharper claws/nails and that both bears and humans have five “fingers.” We got ready to head outside to start digging. He asked to take his handprint with us, so we slipped it into a plastic page protector and I printed out an image of a bear paw that we could do the same with and he consulted both of the images with a great deal of focus before beginning to dig outside, counting the claws repeatedly.

Once he was ready, we started trying to dig with our hands.

He noted that it was really difficult to break through the crusty snow with just our hands. He also noticed that his hands (even with mittens on) became cold and wet almost immediately and so we pondered what about the bears’ paws would let them dig in the snow without getting cold. Returning to our challenges in breaking through the snow crust with just our hands, I suggested that we look in the garage for possible tools that we might use to make our hands more like bear paws.

He experimented with both a long-handled rake as well as two small hand cultivators. He preferred the small hand tools and proceeded to excavate his den. When he started to show waning interest, I asked him if he thought he could dig a hole big enough to fit his entire body inside. He laughed and said that would take all day! Then we talked about how the polar bear, who is much bigger than us, digs a den big enough for mama and her babies to all share. At this point I brought out our small polar bear miniature and suggested that we might not be able to dig a den big enough for us to fit into, but that it was plenty big for the toy polar bear. He played briefly with the polar bear, having it climb in and out of the den that he had dug. He took a break to do some shoveling elsewhere in the yard, but returned to the den at least twice to do more digging.

On another day I introduced the book Polar Bears by Gail Gibbons. While looking at it with him I asked if he had a favorite picture in the book. He turned to an illustration of a polar bear waiting patiently at a seal’s breathing hole, ready to pounce. I asked him what drew him to that picture and if he was wondering anything about it. He answered that he wondered about how the polar bear caught the seal and pulled him out of the hole. I suggested a trip to the Natural History Museum to look at a polar bear up close to give him a chance to come up with some ideas about how to answer his question. I told him we would be bringing clipboards, paper, and pencils so that he could draw anything that caught his eye about the polar bear.

While drawing he commented, “He has teeth…maybe that’s how he catches the seals.” He spent a brief time drawing and then asked me to label his drawing. The vertical lines he described as “teeth,” the circle amongst them is the “tongue,” and the two concentric circles above he described as the “head.” I asked if there was anything that he would like me to draw for him so that he could remember it. He asked me to draw the nose, which he said was “big and black.”

Polar bear "teeth, tongue, and head" - Silas (age 3.75)
Later, he used play dough to translate his drawing of "teeth, a tongue, and head" into a three-dimensional representation.

It seemed like we were branching off into a new area of interest in regards to polar they hunt seals at their breathing holes. To help Silas explore this, I set up a small world play invitation for him to discover. I filled a 9x13 pan with water and froze it. But, before doing so, I put in a jar so that there would be a hole in the ice that I could fill with water (to serve as the breathing hole). Once frozen, I added some fake snow, plastic chunks of “ice” and a miniature polar bear, walrus, and seal and I opened up World of the Polar Bear to a page featuring a harp seal lying on the ice and a ring seal popping up out of its breathing hole.

He played with this, despite freezing cold hands, for about an hour. I tried to keep my distance so that he would feel comfortable enough to become lost in his play but I kept my ears open and heard some of his play themes, which included the polar bear catching and eating both the seal and the walrus as well as putting the fake snow on top of the polar bear as “camouflage.” 

In a later conversation I asked him what he knew and what questions he had about the arctic and polar bears. He talked about polar bears catching seals from their breathing holes, but wondered what it is that seals eat.

To find an answer, we read the picture book See What a Seal Can Do by Butterworth and the nonfiction book Who Eats What? by Lauber, which prompted an exploration of the concept of food chains and food webs. There was a bit more discussion and exploration about food chains and the conversation about all things arctic continued (even now), but the project, as a focused study, was coming to a close.

I had hoped to end with some sort of culminating activity or creation, but the end of the project coincided with the birth of his baby sister, so it never came to fruition. I was able, however, to bind a book for him that contained all the photographs that I'd taken, his art work, and my narration of our activities. He loves to page through it and I hope that it will inspire a return to this topic for even more in-depth learning.

There was a several month lapse in our project learning, but I'm very happy to say that we are now elbow deep in our second project: Bones. Who knows where it will lead.

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