Teacher Feature: Three-Year-Old Class Explores Rivers

Today we’re featuring Connie Giles, one of the teachers of the three-year-old Wallaby class. The class had been busy exploring a water unit, and I joined them for a lesson about rivers at the National Gallery of Art. Below you will find images from the lesson, as well as reflections from Connie. 


fountain preschool rivers

On the way to the museum the class stopped by one of the large fountains outside of the National Gallery of Art. Connie reminded the children about the other fountains they had seen during their water unit and the class took a few minutes to observe the fountain and listen to the water falling.

The museum or community destination of the day is not the only place where we can learn. We often stop to look at other things and have many interesting experiences along the way. On this particular day, we had some extra time and were able to travel slowly and enjoy the journey more than usual. I had wanted to take the students to this fountain at some point and had not been able to yet, so this was the perfect opportunity for them to see it, hear it, and experience something new. It was also a chance to review the tranquility concept we had learned during an earlier lesson and would be reviewing again at the end of this river lesson.

observation preschool rivers

Upon finding the artwork, River Landscape with Ferry by Salomon van Ruysdael, Connie asked the class to sit in front of it like an audience so that everyone had a clear view of the painting. Next, she led the class in taking a few deep breaths to center themselves and calm their bodies. After that, she asked the children to silently observe the painting for a moment.

To choose this piece, I looked at several paintings with a few criteria in mind. I wanted a piece we had not seen before. I also wanted it to be large with many details so there would be lots to observe. I would have preferred a painting that depicts both sides of a river to point out the difference between a river and other bodies of water, but I finally settled on River Landscape with Ferry because it had lots of details to help with our “careful looking” activity. Before discussing an object, we often take time to look carefully at it as careful looking strengthens the early cognitive skills of examination, observation, and concentration.

movement preschool rivers

After the children observed the artwork, Connie asked the children to move as something they noticed in the piece. One child was a boat sliding on the water, several were moving like horses they spotted on the shore of the river, while someone else moved like the whooshing of wind.

Children need to move after being still, but also, movement is a way to experience and learn something in a different way than through hearing, speaking or seeing. It is important for the brain to be stimulated in as many different ways as possible to create deep understandings of concepts. Movement is another way for the students to make a connection to the art and put their own personal touch on the describing and interpretation of it.

careful looking preschool rivers

Finally, the group discussed what other observations they had, including how the painting made them feel. Common themes among the observations were the shape of clouds and what it reminded them of (a forklift, a lobster, a moose chef), and the castle in the distance. Many children focused on small details and took turns to get up and show their classmates what they had observed. For example, “If you look very closely you can see a white flag hiding behind that boat.”

At the beginning of the year the group always had plenty to say, but their observations were almost solely of things they could see. Gradually, I helped them expand into how it made them feel, what it reminded them of, and what they could imagine was there. I did this through modeling this myself and also giving them prompts to help them get started like, “It makes me feel….” or “It reminds me of….” Gradually the children grew their observations into deeper and more expansive descriptions and explanations of their thought process. Now, I often hear them describe something that is not seen, but imagined or say that something reminds them of something else. Sometimes, on their own, they begin with a phrase like, “It makes me feel…” It has been a great process to watch grow.

One moment from this section of the lesson I have reflected on a lot is how I respond to the children’s responses. I stopped one student a little prematurely because I felt she was repeating what the previous student said instead of sharing an observation of her own. I wanted to give this student more time to think of her own special thought, but she did not want to. I wish I had seen how important it was to her to share her almost identical thought. I have to remember that a thought that seems identical to another child’s isn’t copied, it is simply that the students had the same idea and both want to share it in their own way. Fortunately, when we came back to her, she shared her thought, and while some elements were similar to another student’s thought, there were many parts that were different.

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Next, the group rearranged themselves into a circle so they could focus on some objects and activities that Connie had prepared. She told the class that rivers are very special because they are always moving! She showed a video of leaves floating down a river and a video of a toy boat sailing downriver to illustrate this concept.

Technology is another way for children to absorb information, it allows them to see actual photos or a video of what they are learning about which takes the teacher’s verbal description one step further. In my experience, technology also seems to enhance concentration, as students seem to become very interested and focused when the iPad, cell phone or laptop comes out.

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Connie explained that the direction a river moves is called “downriver”. She brought out a whiteboard and sounded out the word as she wrote. The children enthusiastically called out the letters as Connie made each sound.

Literacy is everywhere and should be a natural and constant part of every child’s day. I try to incorporate literacy into almost every lesson in the form of reading books, sounding out words, talking about letter sounds and letter recognition. I also like to incorporate a specific new vocabulary word about once a week by emphasizing the word, spelling it out, and reviewing it many times. The kids love to learn new words as it makes them feel powerful. The children’s interest in letter sounds has peaked in the second half of the year, so we have increased our spelling and sounding out of words even more and added additional letter related activities for classroom playtime as well.

walking hands up river

Next, Connie put down a paper river with arrows to show the direction the river flows. The class walked their fingers downriver and back upriver.

downriver marble preschool rivers

The class took turns rolling a marble downriver pretending that the marble was being carried by the moving water.

shallow water preschool rivers

Connie asked, “What do you think it feels like if you try to walk upriver?” To explore this idea, the children acted it out with one child being the river water, and another child walking downriver or upriver. They found that in the shallow river water, they could easily walk downriver, but it was harder to walk upriver because they were being pushed in the opposite direction.

deep water upriver preschool rivers

But what if the river water is not so shallow? They tackled this question next. One of the children pretended to be deep river water while another child tried to walk upriver. She found that she could not move very far at all. The group decided that it would be very hard to move upriver!

I wanted the students to learn one main thing about rivers: that river water is always moving and that it is always moving in one direction. I approached this concept from four different angles to help the children gain a deep understanding of the concept: the videos, the finger walk, the marble roll, and the acting out. It is important for kids to learn by doing, to truly experience the feeling of something rather than just hearing it described or looking at pictures. It is always important to teach a concept in several different ways in order to reach several different learning styles as not all children learn best in the same way.

When doing activities in a museum space, I consider how to situate ourselves to ensure a successful experience, while also keeping the gallery safe. In a museum, we sit in a tight circle and keep all activities inside of it. Throughout the year we have also discussed, practiced and reviewed our museum manners such as, quiet voices, walking feet, and calm bodies. With these systems in place, the marble rolling and body pushing activities were no problem at all and disturbed no one. In fact, some people stopped to watch with smiles and one even complimented us on the way out. You can use museum spaces in many ways, you just have to plan carefully and set expectations with the kids.

river rocks tranquil preschool rivers

To end their lesson, Connie passed out river rocks. The class noticed how the rocks were very smooth from the water running over them. They compared these to a bumpy, rough rock and decided that the rough rock must not have come from a river. As the children held their rocks and Connie read/sang the book River by Bill Staines, they took deep breaths and practiced being tranquil, something they had discussed when learning about fountains.

Knowing how to self-regulate and how to calm your body when excited are skills that young children continue to develop well beyond preschool. All year long we have worked on understanding that different places, activities, and times of day influence expectations for how we control our bodies. I found that studying fountains earlier in our water unit was a wonderful opportunity to introduce the idea of water as having a calming effect. During these lessons we learned the word “tranquil” and talked about other words like “peaceful”, “calm”, “mellow” and “relaxed”. We talked about how fountains are often peaceful places. I found that revisiting this concept at the end of the river lesson allowed the children to reconnect with the idea of water as a calming influence as we finished our lesson and prepared for our walk back to school.

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Back in the classroom that afternoon the children enjoyed taking turns rolling the marbles down their river and learned about two animals that live in rivers – crocodiles and alligators.

I set out a “theme choice” every afternoon, which is an activity that is related to the lesson topic of that day. I do this to solidify what was learned and to allow the kids to explore their new knowledge on their own through play. Oftentimes not all students get a turn with an activity during a lesson, but placing the same materials out for free exploration allows them all to get a turn later in the day.

After exploring rivers the class learned about several other bodies of water such as ponds. For more water ideas, visit our boats, ocean, waterfall, and water Pinterest boards.