A Journey Down the Water: Learning How to Learn

Parker River Learning Environment Learning and teaching should not stand on opposite banks and just watch the river flow by; instead they should embark together on a journey down the water.  Through an active, reciprocal exchange, teaching can strengthen learning how to learn. ~ Loris Malaguzzi

For young children, learning about learning, in an environment that inspires imaginative thinking, is the ultimate experience. My October visit to Parker River Preschool in Rowley, Massachusetts opened my eyes to all that early childhood education can be. Signage Parker River PRe-schoolParker River Preschool’s Parker River Learning Environmentprogram is informed by the work of Loris Malaguzzi and the Reggio Emilia approach. Even before I walked in the door, I saw children at work in the play yard. Using rocks,  sticks, and leaves as their mediums, they were designing buildings and bridges.

Entry Parker River PRe-school“Bridges” is the school wide theme, and It was instantly clear that this is a living metaphor at Parker River. Teachers forge partnerships with children, rather than prescribing a set curriculum. 

HOW DO TEACHERS DO IT? Learning at Parker River often begins with  a question.  In this case the teacher asked,”What is a bridge? ” Then, “What are bridges Bridge Start-upmade of?” Kindergarteners in Jessie Vogel’s classroom thought about the bridges they made outside (“They’re made out of rocks”) and those they had observed in the world (“They’re made out of rusted metal”). After a bit of theorizing, the class went to work on bridges of their own. Books  were available to inspire and promote research. Some children used clay combined with miniature “objets d’art.”Kindergarten Block BuildingBlock Bridge Start-up Others built a bridge with large wooden blocks. Five year olds in Mrs. Vogel’s class were suddenly engineers, marshaling their small motor skills and applying their knowledge of geometry and symmetry. Every child thought about how parts connect to the whole and how the materials he or she selected would work best. Yet, the study, beyond construction, was about learning how to learn.

Teachers LISTEN and PROBE deeply into children’s thinking. Hearing what students have to say, they encourage them to take the lead. Kids then investigate and represent that which interests them.

Teachers connect children with NATURE. Beautifying their classrooms with objectsMaterials to Inspire Creation from nature and providing natural objects with which to create are just two ways that Parker River links Art with the natural world.

Teachers document and display STUDENT WORK. Children’s artwork is everywhere. Parker River PRe-school -Kids' artworkBecause teachers expect students to reflect on and learn from what they have done before, they make the work “public.” Looking back on their own efforts and seeing what others have done helps kids think about the process and plan for the next one.

What does Art mean in early childhood education? Art making teaches kids how to learn and confirms for them that they can often figure things out on their own. Art Materials on DisplayKnowing that they have a rich assortment of resources at their fingertips gets kids’ minds going. They wonder, “How can I use these? What would happen if I combine them? overlap them, or stick them together?” There is no end to the depth of their experience.

Art making helps kids figure out who they are.Self-portraits It helps them define themselves. In a classroom where Art is central, kids realize that they can be sculptors, painters, architects, or inventors.  

I learned so much at Parker River. And I know that my insights don’t hold a candle to what children are learning on their very own journeys  down the water. Thank you to the founding director, Jennifer Shaw-Rita and to a real pro, Jessie Vogel.

Parker River Pre-SchoolNancy Harris FrohlichKids' ArtworkParker River Pre-school Environment

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