These Pre-K Classes are on a Roll

There’s a whole book about what happens if you give a mouse a cookie. What happens if you give a pre-kindergartner a miter saw?

“Sawing gives them that sense of independence and of making a real thing,” said Exploratorium teacher Monica Sorensen, the supervisor of the sawing. “And I was standing right there.”

What the pre-kindergartners were making were ramps to add to their classrooms. Sorensen and PK teachers Kathleen Geier and Katie Kunin noticed that the students were always interested in sending blocks, cars, marbles, and anything else that would roll careening to the floor. Kunin had been a part of a ramp-building project at a previous school, so the team got the students to band together to create a classroom set of ramps that would meet the students’ need for speed. But first the students had to figure out what, exactly, that need was.

“Kids started to think about what sizes would work, so as a class they came up with the different measurements they wanted,” Sorensen said. “We spent a week or two just playing with ramps, testing out ideas and researching and learning.” Then it was a matter of deciding which of the realistic measurements (an idea to make an eight-foot-long ramp was abandoned after realizing it was far too big for the classroom space) would best serve the purpose.

“It’s important to hear about other people’s thinking about the size of the ramps and arrive at a consensus about what would make the most sense,” Sorensen said. “Just for kids to be able to go up to the board and draw out an idea so they could show each other their thinking, and then to honor each other’s thinking and realize ‘OK, maybe my idea isn’t the one we’re going to stick with, but as a group we came to a consensus about this.'"

After that came the building, with clamps and wood­—and that miter saw, of course.

“A lot of times kids make things that don’t last very long,” Sorensen said. “This is something they’re making that kids in the next few years are going to be using in their classroom, so in that sense it’s important work—and it’s not just for yourself. There’s a sense of satisfaction that comes with that.”

Another sense of satisfaction, Sorensen said, comes from the fact that the ramps—a lesson that covered not only building, but physics and Quaker decision-making processes—were a response to the students’ interests, and not a lesson that came from the top down.

“It was an idea that came from what the children were playing, and we used that to create some teachable moments,” she said. “Teachers don’t just sit back and watch or get other things done while the kids play. Play is such an integral part of what we do—to see what inspires the children, and then we can make the learning deep and meaningful.”

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