Recently, our kindergarten class embarked on a study of “ramps and pathways.” The decision to focus on ramps and pathways was two-fold. Most kindergartners are avid block builders, and our students are no exception. Whenever the block area is open, it is the most popular place in our classroom. The children tend to work in small groups to build structures and enclosures for animals and vehicles, problem-solving as they go, and figuring out the best techniques for building. They are natural engineers on a daily basis, and as teachers, it is our job to observe what they are doing and see how to scaffold and stretch their ideas. The other reason the class chose this project was because I was inspired by engineering workshops I attended in November at the National Conference for the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
To initiate this project, we brought in some new materials for the block area—plastic gutter pieces and wooden cove molding. (Later we would incorporate wider pieces of wood we borrowed from another classroom.) We asked the children what they thought they could use these new materials for, and many suggested they could be roads. A few children had the idea to incline the pieces to see what would happen. The children explored with these materials in the block area, and a teacher observed, took notes, and asked open-ended questions based on what the children were doing. It was imperative for us not to direct the play, but to ask questions that might stretch their thinking, such as “I wonder how you could make the incline more stable?” or “Why do you think…… happened?” Children were inspired by watching what other children did, and we projected photos and videos of their work on a screen for class discussions. When the children discovered that cars could go down the plastic gutter pieces, we set up an experiment to see how different inclines affected how far cars would go across the floor. The children used cubes to measure how far the cars went. The children discovered that a higher slope made the cars go further, but too steep of an incline would cause the cars to crash at the bottom and not go anywhere.
This project is important in a variety of ways. First, it capitalizes on how natural engineering and the design process comes to young children. If you watch them at work and play, they are identifying problems, coming up with solutions, testing these out, and then making adjustments. As teachers, it is our job to highlight this, and use it to promote further learning. Engineering and physical science are so critical at this age, as children are drawn to figure out how their world works. While they may not be able to understand abstract concepts such as gravity and force, they know what they see, and can draw conclusions from their observations (for example, they saw that a moderate incline makes a car go faster, but too steep of an incline did not). Young children are naturally drawn to figure things out and are full of wonder about the world around them. By allowing them to manipulate materials, test out their ideas, and work collaboratively, we as teachers further this interest and empower them to find answers for themselves.