Program : Example of Inquiry Projects

Example of Inquiry Projects

Sam and the Tigers Play, Big Garden Classroom, 14 children ages 4.6 – 5.2, Two Teachers, September 2008

This project example tells the story of how a teachers’ response to a children’s tiger growls during a dramatic play experience deepened the children’s interest and commitment to a point of inquiry, a shared goal, and a year-long project. This Project highlights several ah-ha moments, turning points, or launching points, which propelled and deepened the project work, relationships, and meaning making through the course of the year.

It is important to note that the Project Work descriptions have been shortened. If you are interested in reading the full summary this project, you may request to see our publication, “The Big Garden Presents Sam and the Tigers: A Year-long project in a five-year-old preschool classroom devoted to putting on a play”.

Most of the Big Garden children had already turned five by September. Two of the children had identified special needs. Because this was the teachers 2nd year with the group, they started the year knowing that the children were a very aware group, ready to take on roles and responsibilities in the classroom, so the teachers set a goal to create an empowered, learner-centered classroom community; to give children a sense of ownership of classroom organizations and processes, and in turn, expect that they take care of each other and their environment and solve problems through negotiations and discussions. Challenging and interesting new tools and projects motivated this group to collaborate; for instance, they investigated the tools and materials of the wood working porch, wrote safety guidelines for the area, and even visited the Presidio Trust to submit a proposal for a tree house construction.

Early in the fall semester, children showed an interest in putting on plays in the Center room. The Sam and the Tigers story emerged as important to the children when a teacher spied two children in the acting like tigers, growling and showing each other their tiger claws. As the children were about to move onto their circle rug for story time, the teacher quickly retrieved the book, to connect to the children’s actions.

Sam and the Tigers is a well-loved story at our school due to its bright illustrations, interesting vocabulary, and humorous and imaginative story line about a little boy, Sam, who decides to pick out his own clothes for school. He chooses very bright, snazzy items, puts them on before school, and walks out the door, only to meet five tigers along the way. He ends up giving each one an item of his new clothes in exchange for not being eaten.

After the reading of the book, the children made a plan to act out the story. In addition to deciding on characters, children devised elaborate masks and costumes. Children looked at images from the book for inspiration as they created the representation of their chosen character.

When masks and Sam’s clothing were finished, the entire group, along with a teaching parent, trekked to Lion and Tiger Land for the first time. Lion and Tiger Land (named by CHS children), resembles a land where tigers would roam around, due to its expansive fields and clusters of palm trees. The children were excited to reenact the play at this special place.

When the group arrived, children put on their masks. The children excitedly explored the stands of palm trees, climbing and taking on their respective animal roles. The teacher helped to organize the children for putting on the play and read the story. This initial performance produced some confusing moments and problems: as often happens in the Presidio in the afternoon, the wind was blowing wildly; children’s masks were shifting and it was hard to hear. At the time, we also had two Sams, yet we did not discuss when the Sams should switch roles so that both could have a part in the play. One girl was upset because her mask band had broken, and while trying to fix it, she had missed her part. Other tigers missed their parts because the book’s story line only had five, and we had seven tigers.

The problems we experienced gave rise to a perfect opportunity for reflecting and problem solving as a group. Before leaving Lion and Tiger Land, we all sat in a circle and discussed the problems we noticed “this first time” and what we might want to change for next time. The following day we revisited this discussion, giving time for other ideas to be added. The children agreed that they needed time to explore Lion and Tiger Land on our small group walks. One child suggested that we spend “all day there, and have snack there.” Another child wondered aloud, we could “have the play again and invite our parents to see it.”

Our experience at Lion and tiger Land was a catalyst for taking the Sam and the Tigers toward a longer-term, more in-depth investigation of storytelling, sequencing, and other theatrical elements (stage management, costumes, props) the children had shown interest in based on their early ventures in the Center Room (a large, open room with a platform in our building). Thus the plans were set for “slowing down the process.” Rather than fixing our initial problems and rushing into another whole group performance, we structured and allowed time for going into depth investigating each problem, starting with the first obvious one – our character list does not match that of the book’s, therefore, our story has to change too.

To explore the concept of story sequencing, we invited the children to make a storyboard of our Sam and the Tigers.  Children illustrated on 5×7 cards a scene of the story (typically choosing their character’s scene), dictating what happens in that scene. Their storyboard was displayed on the wall for all to see and refer to during discussions, play enactments, and dramatic play as tiger families.

The children contributed new ideas for revisions, such as introducing the idea of face paint as a solution to the problematic masks. Also, children decided to make full costumes for their story characters. Children drew patterns and sewed fur paws, ears, tails and tunics for their animal characters. These costumes remained on a clothing rack in the classroom, accessible to the children to put on whenever they wanted during classroom exploration time.

Children developed an ongoing, intimate relationship with Lion & Tiger Land as we incorporated small group walks to allow them time and repeated encounters for exploring and gaining a real sense of place. This became a spot where families gathered for picnics and playtime before or after school. To represent and reflect on their sense of place, we invited a group of children to paint a mural of Lion & Tiger Land.

Returning from winter break in January, teachers decided it was time to help move the children to their original goal – to put on a play. Since we had fully investigated the story elements such as characters, setting, and events, we wondered if it was time to move into a study of the production elements of actually putting on a play.

We asked the children about their experiences with seeing performances. We had emailed the families a couple days before class began so many children were prepared to talk about these theater experiences. Upon arriving at school, many shared tickets or programs with the group. Many children shared detailed descriptions and anecdotes of their encounters with movies, plays, or the ballet. They discussed characters, the lights, the singing, the music, scary parts, the costumes, fake snow falling from the ceiling, fake poison, the emotions of the actors, and settings and props. Through all of this sharing it only took a couple of prompts from teachers before children were excitedly making connections to our Sam and the Tigers play.

We definitely had rich data and examples to help us build our own sets and props! A program a child brought in from a Snow White production launched our investigation further. As we read aloud its list of Production Crews the children became eager to form their own committees. We helped to organize the children into committees for each of the three sets needed for Sam and the Tigers. Also a few children were particularly struck with being Sound Engineers and formed a Sound Crew, with the purpose of amplifying roars and growls so the audience can hear and feel the scary presence of the tigers.

The Tree Committee started by drawing designs for the important tree that the tigers run around. One child pointed out that the tree needed to resemble a tree found in a jungle, where tigers live. The group then ventured outside to make some observational drawings of the palm tree near the front yard, which influence the group construction of the tree: each child designed, painted and cut out an elaborate palm leaf that was later attached to the trunk, a large column of heavyweight paper painted brown. This tree was an immense symbol of pride for the classroom community and became a symbol of our identity as a close-knit group of empowered, competent, collaborative learners.

While the committees continued their work, we had a special visitor, Blythe, talk about being a part of a theater group. Blythe was a caregiver of one of our children and had recently starred in a production of MacBeth. She brought many photos and discussed the processes of her theater group, from make- up and special effects to the control panel.

Discussions about our Sam and the Tigers play became an ongoing part of our meeting times. We posted a to-do list and jotted down ideas and questions as they arose, so that we wouldn’t forget. One such idea was that we needed tickets. The children identified seat numbers, cost of admission, names of those invited, name of play, palm tree design as our logo, and location. A child made a critical realization just then and said, “we need to decide on our location before we make our tickets.”

To choose a location the children conducted research of three possible sites: Lion & Tiger Land, the Center Room, and the Stage on the schoolyard. While teachers knew that the best place for the performance would probably be inside in the Center Room, giving enough space for onstage, audience, and backstage areas, as well as shelter from the weather, teachers trusted that the children would come to that or another workable solution on their own through their research of spaces.

As part of our research we visited the Gumption Theater, the theater space inside the Urban School, a high school a bus ride away. Frances Evans, their theater advisor, welcomed us to the Gumption Theater, showed us many of tools such as the lights, the gels that change the color of the lights, the fog machine, and a tool for getting sound from the tiny control room up above in the corner to the stage.

By this time we had also started work on our script. While the storyboard scenes clearly illustrated each event in the play, the actions and words of each character were not yet developed. Children met in small groups with the characters in their scenes to dictate their parts in the play, thus each child’s voice contributed to the script.

Knowing that the children were still connected to their sound machine concept, and not wanting to lose that connection, we decided to bridge the children to already existing “machines” that amplify sounds (such as amplifiers and speakers). We contacted our neighbor, Bay School Band director, Colin Williams, to ask if we could come to learn from his jazz band about incorporating sounds in our production. It was there that a couple children spied the amplifier, microphones and speakers connected via cords to the students’ instruments.

Once the location decision was made, the children signed up for new committees: Advertising committee took on the task of making beautiful posters and invitations. A new Props committee set to work fixing the tree which included adding sand bags to the inside bottom of the trunk to weigh it down for stability (something we learned at the Gumption Theater – they used sandbags to keep props in place).  A new Sound Committee gathered to record tiger roars and growls as well as many jungle animal sounds to create a jungle ambience, played on the “mini amplifiers,” as one child named the set of small speakers plugged into the recorder. A parent helped head the Curtain Committee, another new committee that formed because the children had decided that they would need a curtain. The children were very excited for rehearsals.

We set a date for our big performance, deciding on a Saturday, a child’s idea, so that all family members could attend. Parents, siblings, caregivers and extended family members were in attendance for a total of more than fifty people! A special program was created that included each child’s input, information about his/her acting experience, involvement in the production, and what he/she liked about their part.

The play was a huge success! All adults, parents and teachers alike, were amazed at what the children put together. Since we are so passionate about the importance, benefits and, emphasis of process over product in early childhood learning environments, it is not normal for us to guide children to performing on stage at such a tender age. To be careful of not ‘making a show of children’, we were careful not to give an adult agenda to the children. We kept to our goals to allow time for in-depth investigations and authentic research, connect to real places and people who could serve as models for the children, inspire the children to achieve their own levels of brilliance. We were blown away. A project that began by chance, a tiny moment of spontaneity and childhood play, was witnessed, validated, extended, and projected, meandered its way through an entire year of play and learning experiences.

All children, with varied learning styles, differing comfort levels with approaching writing, language, social skills, building, risk taking, theorizing, mathematics, drawing, or public speaking, were engaged and relied upon. Every single child with their unique set of competencies, intelligences, and interests was an integral part of the project and through their participation in their learning community, through the manner in which they cared about each other, they became fully invested in the group endeavor. Through this they learned more about themselves as learners, as individuals among a group, and all of them completed the year with a sense of accomplishment, with a feeling of expertise, a sense that they matter, that they have influence, and that they can likely do anything.