From the Field. Highland Plaza Preschool: A Place Where Kids Reach for the Sky

STEM Education at the Maritime Explorium
April 22, 2012
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From the Field. Highland Plaza Preschool: A Place Where Kids Reach for the Sky

If a child never…..experiences the richness of nature, what happens to that child? ~ Richard Louv (author of No Child Left Inside and The Nature Principle).

Highland Plaza United Methodist Preschool (HPUMP) is located in the Hixson area of Chattanooga, Tennessee.  The preschool employs constructivist teaching methods, allowing children to learn as they construct a personal understanding based on intentionally prepared experiences in the classroom and in their environment, and also by reflecting on those experiences. Vicky Flessner, Preschool Director, and her staff are guided by the Reggio Emilia approach to education where the classroom becomes a learning environment that enhances and facilitates children’s construction of their own knowledge.  The role of the teacher is that of a learner and researcher alongside the children. Within such a role, teachers listen, observe, and document children’s work, while they provoke and stimulate thinking about children’s collaboration with peers.  The teachers reflect together to determine the “one next step” that will scaffold a child’s integration of new concepts.

The classrooms at Highland Plaza support children’s natural curiosity and provide many opportunities for learning.

HPUMP is a community, where children, teachers, and parents learn together.  In the classrooms, teachers facilitate an “emergent curriculum”, one that builds upon both the children’s and teacher’s ideas. They work together, formulating hypotheses about possible directions of a project and also what materials might be needed.  Parents and other members of the community often become engaged in the project as well.  Emphasis is placed on collaboration among home, school, and community to support the learning of the child.  Visibility of children’s work in progress is also considered an important tool in the learning process of children, teachers, and parents.  This documentation of the children’s experiences allow the “walls to talk” and provide glimpses into the work happening in the classrooms. Revisiting ideas, deciding if questions have been answered, and asking new questions, support the ongoing cycle of inquiry.

A tree that was partly destroyed in a tornado became a totem pole, sculpted with native wildlife and overlooking the Playscape from atop a hill.

The children spend time outdoors everyday.  Frederich Froebel said “Play is the highest expression of human development, for it alone is the free expression of what is in a child’s soul.”  The land surrounding the preschool has been converted into a natural playscape, a wooded wonderland dotted with play components such as climbable sculptures, environmental art, vegetation (trees, shrubs, flowers, and mosses), rock structures, dirt and sand, textured pathways, water features and artistic play areas, all encouraging children to explore the outdoors.  The design was inspired by the latest field-tested, age-appropriate methods for reconnecting children with nature

Ms. Flessner, her staff, parent volunteers, and church and community supporters raised funds and helped to construct the Playscape which features play areas that include natural as well as historic and cultural landmarks in Chattanooga.  In each of the areas, there are books and materials for children to use while exploring the site.  The “Tennessee River”, with water splashing down the hill and over rocks, makes the area a wonderful and peaceful place for everyone (teachers included!) to enjoy.  The climbing wall, made from reclaimed tires, represents “Lookout Mountain” where children can climb up and down the side of a hill. An outdoor art studio (the Art District) and a musical instrument area (the Chattanooga Symphony) foster the children’s expression of creativity. Container gardens will be blooming this spring, with vegetables and herbs that children will use to make pizza and vegetable soup.

A stone water play table named “Lake Chickamauga” has two old-fashioned hand pumps (representing the riverfront water cannons) and is imprinted with fossils and several mosaics created by the children including a rainbow trout.

Natural playscapes like the one at HPUMP blend natural materials, features, and vegetation with landforms to create spaces that challenge and captivate children, teaching them about the wonders of the natural world as they play within it. Studies show how beneficial and important it is for children to be in regular contact with nature. Outdoor learning promotes independent play and fosters children’s abilities to solve disputes themselves.  Teachers from HPUMP have reported that since the children have been using the outdoor setting, their new understanding of negotiating and problem-solving has transferred into the classroom setting and there are fewer behavior problems.

As constructivist educators, responsible for guiding students and asking them questions that lead to drawing their own conclusions about topics such as the environment; we are left with these questions:  What are some opportunities that you can provide to your students to expose them to the natural world, encouraging their inquisitiveness and curiosity?  How can you integrate your curriculum into the study of nature and the environment?

Contributed by : Cathy Landy, East Tennessee State University Doctoral Fellow & Vicky Flessner, Director, Highland Plaza United Methodist Preschool, Hixson TN