Through the Eyes of Naturalists

PK and Kindergarten students get their hands dirty testing the soil around Lower School.

The Exploratorium program is a special part of the Lower School experience—it’s a way of fostering a passion for science and nature early on, in the youngest members of the Sidwell Friends community. Twice a week, PK and kindergarten students stop by the Exploratorium classroom to learn about the natural world, perform experiments, and practice working together through creative play.
“The basic idea of the science curriculum is that I want the kids to be outside as much as possible, exploring and doing hands-on things,” says Monica Sorensen, the Exploratorium teacher. “We garden, and we go outside and observe nature close up. For this age group, I want them to sit the least amount of time possible. I give instructions, but instead of them just watching me, I want them to be able to go out and do it for themselves.”
One part of the Exploratorium program is the soil project, which came about after the PK and kindergarten students had spent some time gardening. “We’d already planted seeds, and we’d been talking about compost,” says Monica. “The students were saying, ‘Well, compost is good for the soil,’ and I said, ‘How do we know? Shouldn’t we prove it?’ The idea is to ask questions, to get them to take a closer look.”
In the first stage of the project, Monica sent teams of children into various parts of the field by the Exploratorium. Students scooped soil from the main garden bed, the garden beds along the classroom windows, the grass, and a nearby hill into test tubes. “They used eyedroppers and filled them with water, and as it settled, they could see what was in the soil,” Monica explains.
After noticing that the soil quality in some areas wasn’t very good, the students started discussing steps they could take to help. They made their own compost out of pumpkins filled with vegetable scraps, paper towels, and other items they felt like adding. “Each group took a pumpkin and filled it up,” says Monica. “There’s a patch where we’ve planted garlic for three or four years. We couldn’t plant any more garlic there, because we’ve used up all the nutrients, so we planted the six pumpkins. I told them that, in April, we’re going to dig them up again and see what’s there. Every child got to put one thing inside of their pumpkin as a test to see if it would decompose.”
Monica stresses the importance of being observant, asking questions, and thinking of ways to solve problems you might discover. “We talk about thinking about where we are and what’s around us, and if we can think of ways to make improvements, we should do that! With the youngest kids, I don’t give them all the technicalities of soil, but I can get them to be intrigued about it and to notice the smaller details. It’s a process of slowing down to look at something and staying with it for a while. They’re approaching the world through the eyes of a naturalist—going outside in nature, rather than taking nature indoors to study.”

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