Thematic Study

And why it works, especially for this age!

So it’s no secret that kids learn best when they are doing things that peak authentic curiosity and interest. It’s all about motivation, and motivation theory tells us that intrinsic motivation stems from this (but I’ll save the theory for another day). And a while back I wrote a post about interdisciplinary projects. Along those same lines, I’m going to talk about why you see themes come up so often in preschools or daycares, and why you might think about using them at home. And because I’m always all about staying true to your child, I’ll also offer some tips on how you can decide on themes for your own kids, rather than just using the typical seasonal/holiday themes that come with the calendar year.

Why Themes?

For the preschool/early elementary age range…and I’m talking ballpark…like ages 2-6, theme-based studies allow kids to naturally see and make connections across content areas, activities, and play. Learning occurs in our brains when we actively create new schema (the way we organize and remember information). If we don’t find a way to fit a new bit of information into a currently existing schema, or have the motivation to revise a currently existing schema, then we lose that information – this is the way our brain filters short term memory – either decides to take on that new information and consider it ‘learned’ rather than fleeting, or let it go and not remember or retain it (in one ear, out the other). So when we theme our work with these kiddos, we are creating a methodical environment conducive to building schema. Take a typical springtime preschool theme of weather, for example. It rains a lot in the spring, so kids at this age might naturally offer questions or comments about this: “It’s raining AGAIN?! Why is it raining so much lately?” And because they are genuinely curious to understand why, there is authentic opportunity to tap into this motivation to learn. So we begin to read books about weather and springtime and rain and the water cycle. And this leads us to tracking the weather at our own schools or homes, which helps to teach calendar skills and conceptual understanding of days and weeks and months. And this leads to water sensory play and and making our own rain sticks and creating a water cycle science experiment and keeping a science journal or notebook about what we notice happens outside when it rains and reading favorite stories about characters dancing in the rain and jumping in muddy puddles and I could go on and on, but you get the picture. Kids will want to read, and write, and study, and try, and play, and LEARN when they are curious enough to want to figure it all out. So we take all those isolated skills like learning letters and numbers and sight words and language development and we build it all into this so that we DON’T do it in isolation (where it’s most often boring and unmotivating). And voila, our kids surprise us because we never realized they knew how to explain the water cycle in their own words, or recognize the word rain in a book about weather, or write their own story about a mouse in a rainstorm. We see results when we aren’t even looking for them. And that’s magic.

Why Kid-Centered Rather than Calendar/Season-Centered?

I’m not knocking the season, holiday, or calendar-based themes you see a lot. They are all well and good, especially when a particular season or holiday is meaningful or exciting for your kid. But I’m telling you, if you follow your kids’ lead and pick themes based on what you notice their current driving interests are, you’ll be stunned at what they can pick up, and how fast they do it. So how do you do it? Kids probably won’t come out and say “Hey Mom I really want to know more about the solar system!” They may not necessarily have the language to express something like this. But what they will do is ask questions about the world around them, what they’re seeing in books, what others are talking about around them, and what they’re seeing elsewhere – like TV or movies or stores. So, what do you do to figure out a theme? Study them! Observe them closely by…

  • Noticing what types of books they are gravitating to (when Luca started asking for and reading books about space and rocket ships, we learned and read about the solar system and our planets)
  • Noticing what types of things they are asking questions about (when Luca started inquiring about where food goes once you eat it, we learned and read about the human body)
  • Noticing their choice in toys (when Dominic became obsessed with plastic dinos, we learned and read about fossils, dinos, and the Earth)
  • Noticing their conversations, with other adults, but also particularly with other kids (when Dominic started talking to his brother about diggers and excavators and backhoes and was using this specific vocabulary independently, we learned and read about construction vehicles)
  • Noticing their choice in movies, tv shows, or other visual arts (when Luca constantly asked to watch YouTube videos about zoo animals, we learned and read about safari animals)
  • Noticing their free play – what they do with their time when they don’t have toys or other people to play with (when Luca wandered around our yard endlessly hunting in tree bark and peering into the Earth, we knew it was time to read and learn about bugs)

It’s ok to get it wrong.

Yes, there are those times where I think I’ve thought up the greatest thematic study ever and it turns out to be a major flop. Either one, or both kids have no interest. And when that happens, I’ve learned to let it go (or just do it with one of them rather than forcing both). Abandoning it goes a lot better than forcing something that doesn’t want to be done. Because just as much as kids learn best when they are doing something authentic and meaningful and interesting to them, kids don’t learn if they are being forced…it just ends badly for everyone (been there, done that… learned the hard way).

Kid-Centered Thematic Study: Ants (An Example)

If you’ve followed my IG at all, you’ve definitely noticed Luca’s current obsession with bugs. He calls himself an entomologist, and has lured his brother right in with him. The past two months have been filled with worm digging, bug catching, and ant collecting. We even have five painted lady caterpillars right now that we are harvesting into butterflies (not sure harvesting is the right word – somehow that sounds bad). Wait, and I should add, I am NOT a bug person at all. But I suck it up and own it for the sake of the kids, and the good thing is most of the time I supervise while they do the work so I have minimal interaction with the actual bugs (thank goodness). So we’ve been doing thematic studies with all types of bugs, and right now we are in the midst of ants.

We started finding those huge black ants in our house once the weather turned from winter to spring. While Mom was grossed out and Dad was concerned for the infrastructure, the kids were on cloud 9 chasing ants around the house. That got Luca and Dominic asking questions like, “How did they get in here?” and “Why do we keep finding them inside, don’t they live outside?” And then they noticed that a lot of the ants on our walkway outside were the ‘baby ants’ (not really baby ants, just a different species), so that got them wondering, “Why are the baby ants outside and the big ants inside?” After a week of endless questions, I bit the bullet, ordered some ant books to pair with some of the bug books we already had, and began to think about how we could study ants and answer some of these questions.

I had just purchased the Nature Mega Bundle (Vol. 3) from The Hidden Way Learning in honor of Emily, and it had an ant mini unit that gave me tons of ideas and visuals. Usually this is how I get my ideas – I see things on other blogs or from other teachers and it’s a launching pad. I’ll steal a few things from what I see (teachers are the BEST thiefs!), but it’ll also jog my teacher brain and give me a gazillion of my own ideas. I’m pretty good at figuring out how to add literacy and math into any craft or play activity. Our studies end up being other peoples’ ideas with my own spin on it, or a mix of other peoples’ ideas and my own.

So, we read as much as we could about ants. We learned about ant colonies and the types of ants within a colony, we learned about the anatomy of an ant, and we learned about different species of ants – lo and behold those big ones are carpenter ants and are probably making nests in the wood of our house (HALP!) and those ‘baby ants’ are actually called pavement ants. We made an ant colony sensory bin using ground cheerios (dirt), moss from our yard (Earth), dried white beans (eggs), dried lentils (food), and plastic ants from the party store. We made model ants out of cardboard, buttons, and sticks from outside when we studied the anatomy of an ant. And when we learned about ant food – how they will essentially eat anything, we did an experiment to see if we could attract ants like at a picnic. And yes, we caught and collected (and released!) ants, and studied them and made drawings and diagrams and took pictures, applying everything we were learning to the ants we were finding in our house and in our backyard.

So yeah, now I know more about ants than I ever thought I needed to, but my kids do too. And not only that but they naturally practiced old and learned new literacy and math skills in order to do all of the things we did during the study, and got to be scientists while at it. I’ll take this kind of learning over workbooks and flashcards any day, and I’m willing to bet my kids would too!

Inquiry with Toddlers

Purposeful and authentic learning is good for the soul. The mama soul AND the teacher soul AND the kid soul.

Parent-supported remote learning is hard. Really, really hard. It’s hard for me, and I’m a teacher. I can’t even imagine how hard it must be for working parents not in the field of education. Some of the best times with my bruises this past spring stemmed from learning experiences driven solely by them – their curiosities and questions (rather than the purely academic and pre-created tasks, activities, and/or worksheets). During these times, they were learning and growing and engaging in “school” without even knowing they were engaging in school. That’s the best kind of learning, and I’m here to hopefully give you enough info and background knowledge to at least get your brains wrapped around it, so you can hopefully try it out too.

First, let’s understand inquiry, in it’s true sense of the word and in relation to the educational world. Here’s dictionary.com’s definition of inquiry:

What does this tell us? A few important things. First, it stems from questioning – and how many questions does your toddler ask per day? If they are anything like mine, it’s 39084094857450 billion. And lots of times toddlers especially can get fixated on topics that they don’t quite understand, but are trying in their brains to organize and sort information to help them understand it. (Right now my 4 year old is trying to understand death/dying/dead….need some advice on this one [perhaps a future post] so help a sister out if you have any ideas!) How amazing is it that I’m telling you, instead of you trying to answer these questions and not really knowing what to say, there’s a way you can turn it around on them and let them discover it themselves? Second, it requires investigation. It’s not just straight to google. Kids learn to answer their questions by doing – and ‘doing’ in all sorts of ways. Reading, writing, researching, experimenting, building, revising, reflecting.

Now, simply put, here’s the inquiry method as a teaching philosophy:

Kids go through a series of stages in order to investigate and answer their own questions. Ask and investigate are self explanatory. The creating stage revolves around finding some way to share work publicly. The best questions to investigate are purposeful – the answer to the question helps you DO something with it. And when you DO something, you get to share it with the world. This is extremely motivating for kids of all ages, but especially toddlers. Think about how proud they are of that massive lego tower or that painted self portrait. Discuss is important because we know as educators that kids learn best when they are able to socially construct knowledge – i.e., two brains are better than one mentality. And lastly, reflect is so important, now more than ever, because it signifies to kids that just because you may have ‘finished’ you project or ‘answered’ your question, it mostly likely will lead to more questions, ideas for how you might make it better, or how you might replicate it in bigger or better ways.

Sounds great, right? Well, sounds more like something you’d see in a high school or college classroom. Wrong. We use this model in the elementary classroom too (not like traditional school – way different than what you and I remember from when we went to school). I’m going to show you a few examples of how our family has made it work for a 2 and a 4 year old, and I think you’ll begin to see it better.

Exhibit A: Our Vegetable Garden

This one launched naturally and has been a larger project that has continued over time. It was around March, and we started to see the first daffodils of the season pop up. Dominic would see it in our driveway and scream “LOOK AT THE FLOWERS!”. And Luca would follow up with “Mommy how did those get there? Where did those come from?” Because he’s 4 and he asks questions about everything. Teacher brain kicked in, and over the next several days we researched flower and vegetable gardens, decided which one we wanted to try, and got to it. This part was amazing, because it required us to read and to watch and to write (literacy!), and measure and plan and price (math!). And it’s ongoing, with daily opportunities to engage in literacy and math in order to move forward – we’ve had to ask and answer more questions along the way. Like why our first ripe strawberry mysteriously went missing overnight (animals!) and what we could do to keep them away (coffee grinds!). Or how we keep tomato plants from bending and snapping due to their own weight.

Exhibit B: Hearts for Healthcare Heroes

This one came out of left field one day, in the early days of shutdown due to the pandemic. And it was shorter – only took us one morning to complete from start to finish. We had been watching the news at night, and Luca and Dominic would pick up on a lot of it. So we ended up having kid-appropriate conversations with them about what was going on with COVID (there’s a bad sickness spread easily by germs right now, school’s canceled and we have to stay home so other people don’t catch our germs and we don’t catch theirs!). One random day Luca asked what we could do to help people get better and feel better. A BIG question coming from a 4 year old, and I didn’t have any answers in my back pocket lined up. So we talked a lot about how there were heroes that were working really hard to help people get better and feel better while the rest of us stayed home. And he said, “Like doctors?”. Yes buddy, exactly. And nurses, and hospital workers, and lots of other people too. You should have seen his eyes when I asked, “Do YOU want to help too?”.

“But Mommy, I’m too little to help!” No, sir, no you are not. Enjoy the progress photos below to see what I mean. 🙂

Hands down, the best part about these projects? The pure JOY that radiates from these kids’ faces when we go out every morning to see if we have any fruits or veggies ripe for picking, or that moment they turned around outside and looked at our front door full of hearts for the first time. And can you imagine the excitement they had when they then noticed hearts appearing in our neighbors’ windows?!

Epilogue

Guys, I get it though. I really do. These moments described above are amazing. But also remember they aren’t every day. There are plenty of days where we did discrete academic activities or tasks, and days where I didn’t know what to do at all. And days where we actually did do NOTHING AT ALL. I did find some resources that helped me come up with some fun science and engineering investigations that I thought would be interesting and engaging for the kids, so of course I’m sharing them below. Click on the photo to be taken right to Amazon to fill your cart. Happy shopping!