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Deeper Learning with Dirt, Squishy Leaves, Paint, and Clay

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This post is by Patricia Lim, 1st Grade Teacher, High Tech Elementary Explorer.

Dirt. Nature. Taking things apart, touching, smelling, and observing things up close. Walking through canyons, among trees and rocks, and crossing streams. Squishing, poking, and molding clay. Mixing colors and painting. These are all things 1st graders LOVE. My partner teacher and I took on the task of designing a project that highlighted these experiences. We focused on engaging students in activities that are intrinsically motivating to them. We took their natural curiosity and used that as an anchor to develop their critical thinking, writing, and reading skills. We also knew that our kids cared about their school, so we designed a project that empowered them to contribute to their community and strengthen their sense of shared school ownership.

My students and I took a walk around our school and noticed all that we loved about our space. The kids talked about the colors of the floors, art on the walls, flowers in the teacher's lounge, and plants in front of the school. Then we strolled down the street and stopped at a fancy movie theater, a hip coffee shop, and a restaurant with a unique ambience. When I asked the students what made them feel welcome in those spaces, many spoke about sculptures, plants, and fun, comfy sitting areas. In our second walk through of our school, we identified spaces that we could transform into a welcoming and aesthetically pleasing environment for all students. Since art and plants spoke to students the most, we needed to learn more about them.

One morning students entered the classroom and were inundated with natural phenomena. The classroom was filled with a variety of plants, and they immediately began to touch, smell, and discuss them with their peers. Images of four different habitats--a tropical jungle, desert, coast, and pine forest--were projected on the wall so students could collaboratively compare and contrast. They described the forest as being "more green" and the jungle as being "even more green than the forest" with "probably 100,000 leaves there!" They were surprised about plants growing on tree branches or on rocks, so I asked, "Why do plants look different in different places?" This prompted them to generate their own questions: How can a flower grow on a spiky plant? How can plants grow on the side of a cliff? How can they live when it is very hot? These 6-year-olds were already scientists, and all I needed to do was provide them with experiences that led to deeper thinking.

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We embarked on a journey to figure out the answers to our questions. With magnifying glasses in hand, the kids looked at variety of plants: fuzzy, smooth, shiny, and prickly. Some had leaves that were plump and squishy, or ones that folded when touched. Some plants floated in water or twirled themselves around other structures and climbed. When the kids dug in dirt, they saw long, creepy-looking roots stretching every which way. My 1st grade scientists were captivated and began to think about what structures and functions help plants survive by asking more questions so found the plants so interesting! I guided my 1st grade scientists to think about what they were noticing about structures and functions that help the plants survive. Why might a cactus have spines? Why might vines have tendrils? Students generated their own hypotheses, then engaged in scientific investigations through reading books, conducting field work in two different habitats, and talking to some experts.

During one science investigation, students thought about roots. Many of them knew that plants get water and nutrients through their roots, but most of them did not know another important function. With small potted plants on each table, students used a variety of methods and tested what would happen if animals hopped around the plants, if the wind blew on the plants, and if a plant was growing on the side of a steep hill. They came to the conclusion that the roots anchor the plant to the ground. They then examined--with a magnifying glass, of course--a cross-section of the roots in dirt so they could carefully study this structure and how it is able to do its job. Rather than my telling the students the root's function, they developed their own ideas from this investigation, leading to a stronger understanding of this concept.

Because I encouraged my students to think like scientists, they used their critical thinking skills throughout the day, even when I wasn't presenting them with a lesson. For example, the kids started to notice that the plants in the classroom changed over time--the leaves of the succulents became soft and mushy and started to fall off, while other plants' leaves dried up. Since they knew that we watered all of our plants with the same frequency and the same amount of water, they were able to conclude that different plants need different amounts of water. This supported the big idea that plants have adaptations designed to help them live in different environments.

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The students used their knowledge of plants to determine which ones they could use to improve some of the spaces around the school, and decided that plants that need little care and water would be best. They identified the plants I could purchase for their planters, then planted them in barrels and built structures to hang air plants. They wrote nonfiction books about the plants and how they survive in their habitats. Plants became the muse for the children's art when they explored mediums like oil pastels, watercolors, and tempera, and made paintings to hang throughout the school. Using clay and an assortment of random objects, they recreated plant textures and made a tactile wall for others to explore. The art and plants beautified our school and made the spaces feel more welcoming. Given the opportunity to create artwork with a variety of mediums at a "professional" level, the students put in serious effort to produce their best work and beamed with pride when they shared this work at our exhibition.

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All of this learning stemmed from the kids' love of nature and messy art mediums, and their inherent curiosity. They felt empowered, that even as 1st graders, they could do something for their whole school community. Students were motivated because the project was designed to enhance the enthusiasm for learning and making that already existed inside of them.

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Photo credits: Patricia Lim


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