Child-led learning:
Arizona unit

Colorado Springs outdoor learning school and nature kindergarten

When it comes to curriculum I try to keep things flexible. Sometimes I will have a curriculum planned out concerning a particular topic I’d like the children to learn about, but most commonly I look to the children for cues about what we should be learning about.

I recently came across the following brief summary of the Reggio Emilia philosophy on education and found it expressing my own views very precisely:

“The Reggio Emilia philosophy values the child as central to their own learning, not simply an empty vessel waiting to be filled with knowledge. Children are able to pursue their own interests and revisit and build upon ideas at their own pace.” [source]

I usually bring a few books with us on our hikes and let the children chose which ones they’d like to read. Recently one such book was about snakes, lizards and salamanders. And surprisingly the biggest hit for all the children became the Gila Monster — a large venomous lizard living in Arizona. The children right away started coming up with different pretend games being Gila Monsters. One girl interpreted Gila Monster as a “Yellow Monster” and her favorite game was claiming a rock where she would sit being a “Yellow Monster princess”. Children are truly magical creatures! 🙂

Learning through play

As the Gila Monster was such a topic of interest I wanted to use this opportunity and help children take their interest deeper and learn more about this subject. So I created a “Gila Monster Land” board game. It was a fun and easy way of learning things. In the process we learned some geography, geology, history of the Earth and people of Arizona, and of course we learned plenty about the flora and fauna of the Southwestern desert ecosystem. Here are a few photos I wanted to share of our Gila Monster learning fun.

Colorado Springs outdoor learning school and nature kindergarten Colorado Springs outdoor learning school and nature kindergarten

The board game premise

In our board game we embarked on a trip to see Gila Monsters in their natural habitat — the Gila River basin in Southern Arizona. We started in the Northwest corner of Arizona, where it meets Colorado, and ventured down through the lands of ancient native Hopi people, passing by Wupataki ruins, majestic rock formations, Painted Desert and a petrified forest. Eventually we arrived to the Gila River basin on the southeastern side of Arizona, before heading back north and west through the Grand Canyon and then back to Colorado. Whew, quite a trip. 🙂

Colorado Springs outdoor learning school and nature kindergarten

The board game elements

The board game had trouble cards, naturalist assignment cards, time travel cards and cards that earned presents for the players.

Colorado Springs outdoor learning school and nature kindergarten

“Maybe trouble” cards

These were essentially our learning cards. For example, a scorpion crawled on you, what should you do? You see a rattle snake on a trail — should you touch it, should you move it or walk away as far as you can? A correct answer would advance you on the journey. 🙂

“Time travel” cards

I also created time travel cards. If a player landed on a time travel spot the entire group was transported back in time. Sometimes we travelled back in time to when Arizona was mostly a sea and there were giant water salamanders we had to run away from. Other times we travelled back in time to when Arizona volcanoes were active and we had to dodge hot lava. Time travel cards gave us an opportunity to run and be wild and silly escaping imaginary dinosaurs or hot lava. I think those were everyone’s favorite cards!

“Present” cards

We also had present cards, where a child could collect useful objects that could avert trouble in the future. For example, a large water bottle, or a gas tank, or a black light to see Bark scorpions — as we learned, the only really dangerous scorpions in the Grand Canyon area.

“Naturalist assignment” cards

The naturalist cards were little assignments. I modified them based on each child’s skill and development level. The assignments included spotting an animal on a picture, coloring or making a drawing, describing an animal or plant in detail. The naturalist assignment cards advanced the player on his or her journey.

Colorado Springs outdoor learning school and nature kindergarten Colorado Springs outdoor learning school and nature kindergarten

Keeping it fun and active

Colorado Springs outdoor learning school and nature kindergarten

Learning through play is always a success. A board game gives an opportunity to touch on many disciplines, while keeping it all being a game. Including some cards that give children regular opportunities to get rowdy and wild adds to the fun of it all, and gives the children breaks from sitting, which in turn also helps to keep their interest longer.

Concerning young children

The youngest children, having shorter attention spans, wondered in and out of the game. Some of them only wanted to get trouble cards, others only wanted present cards. And we went along with that, allowing them to participate to the extent they wished, and getting from the game the knowledge they were ready for.

No set expectations

I noticed having set targets and expectations tends to add some rigidity to the learning process, making things somewhat obligatory, which in turn immediately makes them less fun. Adults tend to start getting stressed about making their teacher’s target and from that it all goes downhill as it takes the spirit of play out of it all.

Letting children learn on their terms

Children, like all people, are so very different from one another. They learn in different ways. They may be interested in the same things, but to a different extent. They all have different attention spans, even at the same age, and have different skills. Offering knowledge in a form of play instead of making it obligatory makes it engaging and fun. Keeping the participation optional allows them to take away from it as much as they are ready for, without making it an all-or-nothing situation. And at the end each child will take away that which aligns with their interest, and so that knowledge becomes their own for life.

Colorado Springs outdoor learning school and nature kindergarten

Let us know your thoughts!

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *