Toddler Explorations: Garbage Trucks

For over a month now, Silas and I have been exploring garbage trucks together. I know they say there is a "big truck" gene in all little ones, but Silas was the last of his friends to really take an interest in them. The first truck that he could identify and that he got really excited about seeing was the garbage truck and I thought this excitement was a great opportunity to try our first Reggio-inspired project.

Reggio can sometimes be a challenging thing to explain (I know that I definitely have a limited grasp of it!) because it is more of an attitude about learning, rather than a set philosophy. There can be many "ways" of being Reggio-inspired because each learning environment is dependent on the situation of the people in it and these, naturally, have many variables. There are some things in common, though, among many who are inspired by Reggio ideas.

Like in Montessori and Waldorf, environment is very important. Value is placed on natural, open-ended materials that children can access themselves and are free to manipulate in any way that they choose. Access to art materials is very important. The role of the parent/educator is to stimulate learning. Objective observation is very important and documentation of children's work, conversations, and interactions is key. The goal is to record what the child is interested in, analyze their understanding, identify areas of keen interest or misunderstandings, and then to work together to open up new avenues of learning. In the U.S., this is often labeled as emergent curriculum or project-based learning.

In Reggio, Italy, where the original schools were built and this attitude about learning was formed, it is primarily a mindset that is used with children over the age of three who come together to learn in a multi-age classroom with other children. I've read about some experimental classrooms where educators have tried to apply these ideas to two-year-olds and there are adjustments that need to be made for this age group, in addition to the shifts made for a child learning alone rather than in a group setting. The biggest challenge is the limited communication -- both their limited access to vocabulary and our limited capacity to understand what they are trying to say. For all ages, Reggio strives to encourage children and adults to tap into the "100 languages," that is, to use a variety of media to express ourselves and to communicate our ideas. This is especially important for toddlers.

I did a quick Google search to see if a garbage truck exploration was something anyone had documented before. And while there were plenty of ideas for a unit study of garbage trucks, there wasn't anything I could find that was Reggio or Montessori-inspired. While they make look somewhat similar on the surface, there are some pretty big differences between unit studies and Reggio learning. If I were doing a unit study, I would take Silas' interest in garbage trucks and use it as a springboard to do themed activities to teach him other things (the letter "G", colors, numbers, etc.). In Reggio learning, I see his interest in garbage trucks and we use it to learn more about...well...garbage trucks. It's a process that helps him to learn more about the thing that he's interested in as well as an opportunity to help him learn about his own educational processes.

So, my first goal was to just start. I wanted to figure out what it was about garbage trucks that Silas found so fascinating. We checked out some books from the library, which he enjoyed. They did generate some conversation, but not much that was originating with him, mostly just naming what was going on in the photographs. He'd only very recently started to make representational objects with play dough (a snow man!), so I thought we'd try that.

I opened up one of our books to a good garbage truck picture (above), presented him with a ball of play dough and invited him to make a garbage truck. Instead, he really wanted to put the dough on to the picture of the truck. So, we put the book away, finished playing with the dough and tried again another day.

This time, I printed out a large photo of a garbage truck onto cardstock, laminated it, and invited him to put the dough directly onto the picture. He got really excited about this process and was very deliberate in his actions; pressing dough onto the wheels as he said "wheels" and onto the lights as he said "lights."

He then "drove" the picture around with the play dough stuck onto it.

On another day, I set out the same photograph and a basket of dry erase markers and invited him to draw on the photo. He was very excited about this one. He very systematically went through each color and went around and around and around. When he put his marker done and paused as if he was done, I observed, "you made a lot of round marks." To which he responded, "wheels!" We did both of these activities on several other days with similar results. Clearly, a pattern was emerging. One of the things he really likes about garbage trucks are the wheels.

Then I wanted to make sure that he had the vocabulary to describe all the parts of the garbage truck, with the hope that this would help him to communicate with me about them. So, I made a set of Montessori-inspired classification cards. The idea here is that there is one card for each part of the truck and this helps him to isolate each part and to associate it with the correct name. We did a three period lesson with the cards. His initial accuracy was good, but not perfect. He's asked to do this activity several times and he can identify them all now, without fail, and includes the correct words when we have conversations about garbage trucks.

A matching game isn't particularly "Reggio," but he's so interested in matching right now and I wanted a way to show him the great variety in kinds of garbage trucks. I also wanted a way to emphasize that there is a person who drives the truck and does the work of collecting garbage, so I chose many images with people in them. When we watch the garbage trucks outside our house, he always mentions the "man" and what he does or doesn't do (whether or not he gets out of the cab, if he picks up the can or if the arm does it, etc.). We started with three cards and when he breezed through those we did six and then nine at a time.

I set up an interest shelf to house all of our garbage truck-related items so that he could explore them at any time. The books we checked out were:

Garbage Trucks - Real photographs and simple text about the parts of the trucks and what they do
Little Trucks with Big Jobs - Real photos of a variety of small trucks, including garbage trucks
Construction Zone - Real photos of construction trucks, including a garbage truck
Dig Dig Digging - Realistic illustrations and simple rhymes about the jobs of big trucks, including a garbage truck 

although we were limited by what was available at our local library. There are many other good-looking books available on Amazon. I also checked out every picture book our library had on garbage trucks (and there were many!), but to be honest, after an initial reading I immediately returned them. My biggest complaint with them was the way they anthropomorphized the truck. Why on Earth would I want my kid to believe that a garbage truck is some scary monster with big teeth that comes in the middle of the night to "eat" your garbage? My other complaint was that much of the text didn't jive with what we do in our home. Many of them included lists or songs about what was in the trash, which included food, something that we put in our compost rather than our trash. I thought that would be confusing to Silas. So, we stuck with the few nonfiction books that I could find and I also made him a Montessori-inspired nomenclature book, but I haven't presented that to him yet.

I actually really debated about getting him a toy garbage truck. There are so many really cute options out there (I went with this one), but I didn't want to set a precedent of always buying a toy for every interest that he develops and I also didn't want to hinder his creative play. Before I bought the small truck pictured above he was having a perfectly fine time pretending to be a garbage man and pretending that his walker wagon was a garbage truck. He absolutely did not need a specialized garbage truck toy. That being said, he does love his little truck and he plays with it often. I chose it because it seemed the most realistic and had an articulated arm. It has been helpful in applying his new vocabulary to a three-dimensional object, rather than an illustration or a photograph.

Finally, I wanted to expand on the interest in wheels that he demonstrated by taking him to a play structure that used old tires. This was a wonderful experience. He was fascinated by their texture and he got to explore them fully and safely.

As of right now, his interest is still in the wheels and the lights. He also really likes to talk about the process of garbage collection ("truck stop, arm out, lift, dump!") and he repeats the order of events over and over. If he were slightly older, I might present the option of making a flip book of the process. His singular interest in garbage trucks has become more generally applied to all big trucks now. I've toyed with the idea of taking a trip out to the landfill, but I don't think that's where his interest lies right now. From what I've read, projects at this age do tend to just peter out rather than culminate in some sort of final activity or presentation. So, this may be the end of our garbage truck exploration, but, honestly, who knows!


  1. i love reading your toddler explorations/reggio-inspired posts :) great idea about the tires!

    thanks for all the info and tips.

    1. Thank you Renee, I'm glad you enjoyed it! :)

  2. My goodness gracious well done! You must tell Lori about this. Or at least submit it to the PBH forums for other mama's to read. We've been working with ballerinas for months now! I need to do a post about it because S's way of working on her interest is so different then other children I have read about.

    Keep these coming I love to read about your homeschooling adventure!

  3. i love how you responded to his desire to put the playdough on the picture by laminating the picture. <3

    and finding the play structure with the tires he could explore was wonderful!

    would the visit to the landfill be to see the trucks in action? i wonder if you could visit the road maintenance yard for your area (we live in the country, so there’s one in each county) and just see and touch a parked truck.

    1. Thanks, Lori! Yes, I thought the landfill might be interesting to see the trucks in action, but he's more interested in the process of the trucks picking up garbage. I thought I would wait until he asked the question of "where does it go?" before I suggested a trip to the landfill.

      We do live in a university town and the university has its own fleet of garbage trucks and we often drive by where they keep them parked. I've thought about stopping, but kept putting it off. Maybe it's time to follow through... :)

  4. This really is a wonderful exploration of garbage trucks you and Silas have done together. Really wonderful. And you are right, a lot of our projects seem to run their natural course without a large culminating activity or presentation. Thank you for sharing with me :)

  5. Excellent job following your child. I, too, get frustrated at the lack of authentic materials for children. My daughter just doesn't respond to cartoons the way she does to real photos, and those are always harder to find. She is very interested in photos of real children's faces and books with children signing. Luckily ICPL has a few of each, but we've gone through them all.

  6. A great post. My son is a little obsessed with garbage trucks and construction sites at the moment. Wondering where you got the nomenclature pictures from, they are great.

    1. Thank you! I made the nomenclature cards. I'd be happy to send them to you! Just drop me a line with your email address and I'll forward them to you. :)