Cultivating Myrmecologists* at the James R. Russell Child Development Center

By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Program Writer and Consultant 

*Entomologists who study ants.

P1100074When the scientists arrive in the designated area, their insatiable curiosities focus on — ants. They all want to know more about the industrious creatures they see in various locations around the space. Fortunately, consultants are on hand to help them organize their many questions and prioritize their inquiry.

They notice that not all ants look alike. Some are not only different sizes than others, but look different in other ways, as well.  Could there be more than one kind of ant?  What attracts ants?  What do their underground homes look like?

With assistance from their consultants, these scientists study ant anatomy, the structure of their homes, and map the distribution of different kinds of ants across the designated area. Also, they design studies to explore how ants could be attracted and influenced to move to different areas of the space. In addition to field study, the scientists consult books and the web for detailed information. They document their findings and impressions in maps, writing and illustration.

In this case, children are the scientists and teachers serve as consultants. The young scientists make inferences, test hypothesis and collect data through daily investigations in the natural world.

Loss of interest in science shouldn’t be natural, yet for most children in US schools this happens by the fifth grade.  Fortunately for the children at the James R. Russell Child Development Center (CDC) at Creighton University, in Omaha, Nebraska, their inner myrmecologist is honored, encouraged, and scaffolded by their teachers. The children’s investigatory play in their Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom will, we expect, resonate with them in later years. We hope that, in a few short years, the foundational scientific inquiry they experience now will inoculate them against this loss of interest in science that so many of their peers will experience.

The CDC at Creighton University is unusually positioned to support their students’ inborn curiosity. Carol Houser, the school’s Director, is studying the approaches to early childhood education practiced in Reggio Emilia, Italy. The Reggio Approach involves child-initiated learning, scaffolded by teachers, in contexts adapted to each school environment. It dovetails well with the learning practices supported by Nature Explore. Carol and her staff are folding these pedagogies into their ongoing use of the Project Approach.

The children’s investigation into ants will take directions the children themselves desire to explore, and will last as long as they wish. Maps, artwork and stories are among their forms of documentation. Teachers document this project through photos and notes on each child.

The sum of their efforts is a project in which children and adults learn and explore together, and in which “curricular” learning flows freely. Math is everywhere.  Counting ants and anthills and mapmaking involves math; spelling, too. Science— that’s the whole project. Yet it’s a more in-depth usage of scientific concepts than most preschool children experience. In their attempts to lure one kind of ant into a different location, the children are making hypotheses, and testing them by using a variety of “ant attractants.” This is exciting “curricular” learning—without the need for a standardized course of study.

Some parents considering placing their children in the Creighton CDC opt for more kindergarten-like preschools, instead.  Those schools have a curricular focus. Carol is committed to the play-based model, in which the curricular learning that is foundational for later school grades is gained through projects rather than through lessons that require children to sit at desks.

A child’s curiosity can be a bit overwhelming even to the most dedicated early childhood professional. Fortunately for these children, the Creighton CDC’s teaching staff has a diversity of experience that answers this challenge. While some teachers have the full early childhood education academic background, others don’t.

“We have more teachers with a degree in something else. They have experience and a love for kids, so they chose to come here.”  While studying other fields, they worked in the CDC, and simply wanted to stay on after graduating. Carol values this blend of experiences that keeps the program academically sound and fresh to new ideas.

Creighton’s young myrmecologists, assisted in their investigations by a passionate and varied teaching staff, will head-off in new directions of inquiry as their knowledge of ants deepens. They learn curricular subjects, and the scientific method, along the way. Carol Houser’s ongoing blending of the Reggio and Project approaches in Creighton’s Nature Explore Classroom ensures richly rewarding experiences for both the myrmecologists and their consultants.