The Intersection of Art and STEM Skills

A few years ago SEEC was approached to write a journal article about what STEM learning looks like at our school. Several educators and administrators collaborated to write about STEM learning examples from our classrooms, such as learning about the planets, and the Earth’s relationship with the sun and moon. The publication responded by questioning whether SEEC’s approach to STEM was developmentally appropriate. They felt that children were not capable of understanding these complex concepts. This experience prompted us to reflect on how we approach STEM learning in our classrooms. Ultimately, after careful consideration, we stood by our approach and belief in children capabilities.


While many people think about colors, seasons, letters, and numbers as typical  preschool topics, SEEC explores concepts beyond that. We believe that children are capable of understanding complex topics, if taught in a developmentally appropriate and engaging ways, and if topics are scaffolded or addressed one layer at a time. Children often inquire about concepts that are complex and do not have easy answers. By delving into these topics, the children are much more invested in the learning as they are intrinsically motivated.

One way we address complex STEM topics with young children is through the use of art as a starting point. Moreover, visual literacy and observational skills related to STEM are very much interconnected.i-QcnkS7k-XL

For example, to begin a lesson exploring wind, this pre-k 4 class observed The Girl I Left Behind Me by Eastman Johnson at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.  The children noticed a girl, possibly a teenager (there was a debate about her age), her hair blowing in the wind, a storm brewing, and bumpy ground. This careful looking prompted questions from the children such as, “Is she going to get caught in a storm?” and “I wonder what is that brown thing she’s holding?” The act of looking at the artwork built the children’s skills in observation, curiosity, focus, critical thinking, prediction based on evidence, listening to other perspectives, and communication; all skills used in STEM learning. After our observation session the children were eager to share their personal experiences with wind and curious to learn more about wind. We read a book to find out why wind occurs. Then we used tools, such as an anemometer and the Beaufort scale, and experimentation to understand varying wind strengths.


Research also supports that careful looking at artwork helps to develop STEM skills. For example, one study found that medical students became more effective in diagnosing their patients after they had practiced observation and communicating about artwork at a museum. They began to notice details that they were missing before and were more open to hearing other perspectives from fellow medical professionals and the patients themselves.

While we hope children will understand the content we share, our main goal is for the children to leave our school with the foundational skills to engage in STEM experiences in years to come. We feel that by connecting art and STEM, they have more opportunities to engage in STEM content and practice STEM skills.

Want to learn more about how to create engaging STEM lessons via art? Join us next Thursday, April 18th from 5 PM to 7 PM at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. For more information, click here.

In Depth: Preschool Class Explores Activism

Recently we outlined one of our preschool classroom’s week exploring activism. We wanted to give some context about how the week came about, how the teachers planned the lessons, ideas for implementation in your classroom, and resources used. The following is from the Koala teachers, Katie Heimsath and Morgan Powell:

Context & Planning

We divided a week of lessons into four sections: community service, public art, using words, and marching together. While there are many different forms of activism and advocacy work, these four made the most sense for our group – they were age-appropriate both in scope and content, and simple enough for us to really delve into over a week. We started with our trash clean-up, which is a more concrete activity that produces tangible results, and then took a more scaffolded approach as the week went on.  Our school was fortunate enough to partner with many people and teams, like Teaching for Change, Julie Olsen Edwards who is the co-author of Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves, and the early childhood team at NMAAHC during multiple professional development days to learn more about anti-bias education. While planning this week, and all of our curriculum, we take into consideration the four core goals of anti-bias education:

Goal 1: Each child will demonstrate self-awareness, confidence, family pride, and positive social identities.

Goal 2: Each child will express comfort and joy with human diversity; accurate language for human differences; and deep, caring human connections.

Goal 3: Each child will increasingly recognize unfairness, have language to describe unfairness, and understand that unfairness hurts.

Goal 4: Each child will demonstrate empowerment and the skills to act, with others or alone, against prejudice and/or discriminatory actions.”

-As cited on NAEYC’s website

By using the research and expertise of these incredible leaders, we planned this week with many kinds of diverse examples of helpers, including children, etc. When looking to fill our bookshelf, we made sure that there was a large representation of many kinds of lifestyles, cultures, and people. As we mentioned before, the concepts we built on during this week are woven into the fabric of our days and the framework of our classroom, and is therefore easy for us to continue practicing.

Ideas for your Classroom (43).png

Mural blocks – Print pictures of murals or public art from your community sized for wooden blocks, and use clear packing tape to secure the pictures to the blocks for students to play with inside the classroom. Alternative block images: recognizable buildings from your school’s neighborhood or landmarks from your community.

11Movable Mural – Place a large white sheet on top of a tarp, fill spray bottles with liquid watercolors, and invite students to take turns adding colors to the class mural. After completely drying (if possible outdoors), ask students where they would want to hang up this movable mural in the classroom or somewhere in the school.

Book Connection: Maybe Something Beautiful by F. Isabel Campoy (Author), Theresa Howell (Author), Rafael López(Illustrator)

10Student Blocks & National Mall – Print full-body pictures of students sized for wooden blocks, and use clear packing tape to secure the pictures to the blocks for students to play with inside the classroom. To create the National Mall we used a green yoga mat and map of the Mall; a green blanket or green construction paper could also create a miniature National Mall inside the classroom which the student blocks can “march” on.

Book Connection: We March by Shane W. Evans

9Click, Clack, Moo Students Who Type – Set up a station with old keyboards, notepads, pens, and the book Click, Clack, Moo Cows That Type by Doreen Cronin. Students can pretend to be the cows in the book, typing away at the keyboards and “writing” letters to Farmer Brown.  

Online Resources

Teaching for Change is a non-profit whose goal is to provide teachers and caregivers with the tools to create schools where students learn to read, write, and change the world. 

Social Justice Books is a project of Teaching for Change that selects lists of books for children on a variety of themes, reviews books to bring attention to any potential bias, and promotes books by diverse authors and illustrators.

National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC)on Anti-Bias Education.

SEEC’s Diversity and Anti-Bias Journey

This post was written by Meredith McMahon, SEEC’s Executive Director.

Just over two years ago SEEC started on a very purposeful journey to bring an anti-bias approach to our work with young children and increased diversity and equity to the SEEC community as a whole.   Our journey is one that’s still at its beginning stages, and we’re excited for where we’re headed!  As part of our journey we want to document our process and actions, both as a way of sharing with others, and reflection for ourselves.  Periodically we hope to highlight different aspects of our work and share different voices from across SEEC, and to start, I want to share what got us here and where we see ourselves headed.

I think SEEC has long been thoughtful about respecting children and giving voice and validation to their feelings, but we had not thought in terms of anti-bias education (ABE).  Before we started our journey I’d guess that most of us here would have agreed about its importance, but we hadn’t thought explicitly about how we could – or should – integrate this approach into our own work. Our thinking changed in very real ways when our faculty had several incredible opportunities to spend professional development days at the National Museum of African American History & Culture in 2017 and 2018.  Our early education colleagues there, especially Anna Hindley and Julie Olson Edwards, shared their experiences and understanding about the importance of anti-bias education with young children in ways that were eye-opening, inspiring, and challenging.  I think as a faculty we walked away each time with both a stronger sense of the importance of anti-bias work and actual strategies to use in our classrooms.  I think many of us also walked away with the sense that we couldn’t just look at how we develop curriculum – though it’s a place where we could make immediate changes – we need to look across all of SEEC for more places where we must learn and grow.

So where did we start?  Well in the classrooms we’re embracing those questions that adults often see as taboo and shy away from – we want to turn them into moments when we can explore differences in ways that are positive, open, and accepting.  We believe children are capable learners who can grasp complex ideas much better than they’re often given credit for.  We’ve never shied away from introducing children to big ideas, we just look for developmentally appropriate ways to do it. This long-standing belief has allowed us to embrace the goals of anti-bias education as something we’re capable of incorporating into our curriculum development, even with our littlest ones.  Across the school our classes have purposefully looked for ways to explore identity and differences with the children, and you can see and hear that reflected in their interactions.


Representation matters. Our infant rooms put up images representing diversity in locations that accessible to our crawlers.


Similarly, in our older classrooms, the environment reflects the beauty in the differences of our world through bulletin boards, books, artworks, and more.


In all of our classrooms, but particularly in the infant rooms where the children are preverbal, but need to be picked up often, faculty practice language of consent. Before picking a child up to play or take them to the changing table, educators tell the child what they’re going to do, “I’m going to pick you up and bring you to the changing table.” While an infant cannot respond verbally, the educator will wait until the child looks at them to acknowledge they have heard.


Our toddlers work on anti-bias goals through empathy building and perspective taking. They begin to notice when their peers are upset and take action to make them feel better, often through a hug or pat.


“We’re all the same, we’re all different” has become a common phrase at SEEC to help celebrate our similarities and appreciate our differences. Examining our individual skin tones is one way we build a child’s positive sense of self and joy in the diversity that makes us all unique. Our faculty has used Synecdoche by Byron Kim at National Gallery of Art and books like, The Color of Us by Karen Katz to explore skin tones further.


Recently, one of our preschool classes explored how they could be community helpers through their words and actions. They thought about how they could help people by raising their voices when they noticed things were unfair. To read more about their week, visit the blog post here.


Recently, one of our preschool classes has been exploring the human body, starting with the brain. They learned that the cerebrum helps control the words we say. They connected this to Malala Yousafzai and Martin Luther King Jr, and their words that have helped to change the world. The children each took a turn using their cerebrum and voices to choose words that might change the world, including, “Keep the world safe” and “schools for everyone.”

What else are we doing? We’re looking at the shared language we use across SEEC, those phrases and strategies we draw upon when guiding children’s behavior – we want to include concrete ways to talk to children about differences, identity, and equity, a resource that could aid both our faculty and families.  We’re planning out how to completely review SEEC’s library – we want to look for unintended messages in both the illustrations and text, and the conversations we might need to include, should we continue to use some books. We want to know what our library is lacking so we can purposefully add more titles that promote equity and diversity.  Since children’s literature is a mainstay in every early childhood classroom, we expect this to be a very impactful way we can make change right now.

Beyond the classrooms we know we know there’s more to think about and lots of room to do better. From a big picture perspective, SEEC’s Board of Directors is working to revise SEEC’s mission statement to include our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. We’ll also include both our short and long term goals in our strategic plan.  Increased diversity within our faculty is an important, immediate goal, and we’ve identified some ways we can improve our recruitment and hiring practices right now. We also continue to think about next steps for professional development – we’ve had sessions on mitigating our own biases, as well as classroom strategies, but we know we’ll always have more to learn!

Perhaps most important in all of what we’re doing, we’ve realized, is transparency & communication!  We know that our efforts must include the whole SEEC community, and that means we need to make clear what we’re doing, especially for our families.  As we continue this journey we’ll need continued buy-in from our faculty and support from our families – we’re not going to get the review of our library done without some assistance from parents! We also want faculty, families, and our Board to all have opportunities to share their perspectives about what’s important for us to consider and prioritize as we continue this journey.  We’ve had one big meeting for our community already this school year, and we anticipate more to come in the next few months.  We want to keep this as an open dialogue that informs our next steps, with the idea that the growth and changes we make now will be lasting, embedded in the fabric of SEEC.  We know we’re not alone in focusing on diversity and equity with young children – many of our early childhood colleagues are similarly working on this, and what we can learn from others is of great importance to us.  We hope that our approach and process might be enlightening for others, so we want to share it.  We’re just at the start of our journey, but we hope you’ll follow along, share insights that would benefit us, and maybe even join us to see how far we can go!

We March! Preschool Class Explores Activism

This blog is written by SEEC’s Pre-K 3 Koala class teachers, Katie Heimsath and Morgan Powell.

We believe all children are extraordinary everyday change-makers. In our classroom, one student’s inquiry can launch a full-on investigation into a topic, changing the direction of what we’re learning in our classroom. When students learn to take responsibility for their actions and solve problems collaboratively, they are acting as change-makers, supporting and sustaining the culture of care and advocacy within the classroom. Every day we witness and encourage our students to wonder and explore the world around them, advocate for themselves and others, and understand the power of their words and actions. Our preschool class, the Koalas, recently explored how community helpers use their words and actions to benefit their community. To wrap up this unit, the class reflected on how they also use their actions and words to create change.


We started the week with a lesson recapping all that we had learned about community helpers. Our unit spanned over eight weeks, and included a typical line up of helpers like police, firefighters, doctors, as well as other unexpected helpers like bakers, barbers, and DC Metro officers. We recounted the many different kinds of helpers we had met, observed, or read about, including what tools and equipment helped them to do their jobs. It was important for us as educators to note that help comes in many different forms and helpers can look very different than what we might initially picture in our minds. As members of our community, we’re not required to have a specific job to help out, and we don’t need to be a grown-up to be a helper! So with that in mind, Katie asked the class what they could do, as children, to help their community. She wrote down their ideas and posted them in the classroom for others to see. Throughout our discussion we kept coming back to the idea of helping out at clean up time, so we looked at photos of different groups of people doing neighborhood trash clean up. Next, we decided to take our cleaning skills out of our classroom and onto the National Mall. We agreed on some rules for safety, like wearing gloves and checking in before picking up something sharp, and went to work. The class responded really well to this activity. At the end we had tangible evidence of our hard work in the form of two bags of litter from our community.


The following day we shifted our focus to public art, specifically looking at muralists who make their art in public spaces in order to share their creativity and ideas with everyone. We introduced this topic through a book: Maybe Something Beautiful by Isabel F. Campoy and Theresa Howell.  Based on the true story of the Urban Art Trail in San Diego, this book celebrates creativity and public art. Centered on a young artist’s experience, Mira inspires a muralist and her neighbors to work together to create murals in her community. As Morgan read, she illustrated parts of the story by using wooden blocks to represent the buildings in a neighborhood, adding colorful blocks when Mira and the muralist started painting, and finally displaying blocks with images of DC murals at the end of the story. We discussed as a class how public art, unlike art inside of someone’s home, is accessible for everyone to see and enjoy. We looked at photos of murals in DC and talked about the ideas, stories, and feelings the artists may have wanted to share. Students then worked together to make a mural of their own, using a white sheet and watercolor paint in spray bottles, an activity we worked on in our classroom as well as during our community visit in the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden.

Our next lesson focused directly on the power of words and collective organizing. Again, we chose a book to start our conversation, which turned out to be a fantastic decision since many children in our class were already familiar. Morgan read Click, Clack, Moo Cows That Type by Doreen Cronin, a story about a group of cows who want electric blankets since their barn is cold. They get their hooves on an old typewriter and write letters expressing their needs to Farmer Brown. When Farmer Brown refuses, the cows go on strike and form a coalition with the hens. Eventually, after much negotiating and lots of letters, the cows and hens get electric blankets. After the book, our students had a spirited discussion about fairness and the power of words.


We discussed how real people use their words to voice their needs, support, or disagreement. Morgan bridged a connection between how the cows used their words to get what they wanted in Click, Clack, Moo and how marchers use their words on posters and signs to create change. Each student had the opportunity to talk with Morgan individually about what they care about and how they can help each other. After our eight-week community helper unit, the students had lots of ideas around community involvement and how they themselves can be helpers. Some of the students had so much to say it could not have fit onto one sign, so Morgan had to pinpoint a few words or one idea. For example, one student shared, “I help people find the books in the classroom and go over the schedule for the day and also count numbers all the way up to one hundred!” So Morgan asked, “It sounds like you care about helping people learn, could your sign say, ‘Help People Learn!’?” If the student agreed, Morgan wrote down their words. If not, we continued our dialogue to ensure the students’ ideas were authentically heard. Once the message was written down, all students had the chance to decorate their signs with paint crayons. Writing down students’ ideas and words demonstrate to them that their words matter, that their ideas are worth writing down and sharing with everyone.


We finished the week by coming together as a class for a march on the National Mall. To kick off our march, we visited the National Museum of American History’s  American Democracy  exhibit to see the collections of signs from a variety of marches and protests from decades of political engagement. The children were able to see signs that other people have made to express their thoughts and feelings through their words. At the request of the group, we read a few of the signs and guessed at what they might be talking about, keeping in mind that some of the topics might be a little bit complicated for three-year-olds. We offered a simple and true answer, which validated their curiosities and allowed us to draw parallels to the signs they had worked so hard to make the previous day.


After observing the signs, the class sat down and listened to  We March by Shane Evans, read by one children’s grandmothers who is an activist herself. We had learned of this connection through the child’s parents, and knew we wanted to include her in this experience. We’re always looking for ways to bring in a home or family connection. The book we chose is an excellent example of how to pare down a large concept for young learners. It identifies the process of a marching experience, in this case the March on Washington which culminated in Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s historical “I Have a Dream” speech. The book is told from a child’s perspective, uses simple and direct language, and includes lovely illustrations.


When we finished the book, Katie took time to individually read every student’s sign as we passed them out, giving the group a chance to hear what each child was marching for. It was a moment of validation and an easy way to honor the hard work and opinions of our students. The next step was the march itself! We discussed how we would be moving as a group by walking in a “follow the leader line” and explained that they could hold their signs however it felt comfortable. We had seen a short video in the exhibit of people carrying signs, and most of our children replicated what they saw and carried their signs in front of their bodies or over their heads. As we exited the museum and crossed the street to the Mall, we started a chant that went, “We are the Koalas! Listen to our words!” Since each child was marching for a different reason, this chant included everyone. By the end of the march, some of the class had taken this chant and turned it into more of a call and response, and took turns with a partner alternating the phrases. Our students noticed that people were watching them, reading their signs, and waving.

This week was full of big topics and ideas that, when labeled with the words activism or advocacy, might seem too much for three and four-year-olds to grasp, much less actively participate in with the agency our students did. However in our classroom, as well as in our whole program, we strive to weave these concepts into our everyday interactions with one another. We practice concepts like fairness when we take turns or share toys, we work together to clean up and set up areas of our classroom, and we frequently make art for ourselves and others to make our space feel more beautiful. We also do a lot of work identifying and expressing feelings and opinions to others. From the earliest age SEEC students are taught that their words and feelings matter. As they get older, they begin to learn the responsibility of listening to others as well. This communication can look like signing “more” or “all done” in the infant classroom or hearing “my turn next” in the two’s classroom to watching a small group of four’s discussing what is or isn’t inclusive behavior or friendly to their classmates. All of these actions are a type of advocacy, either for oneself or another, and is a skill that can be developed at a very early age. Planning several lessons to highlight how we can be community helpers felt like a natural extension of this work and gave our class an outlet to express their ideas on a larger scale, and they met the challenge with an incredible passion.

Resources we used to prepare for this week and that continue to inform our work:

Be on the lookout for a follow up post containing ideas to try in your classroom! 

Objects Speak to Us

Just like a song or smell can spark memories and strong emotions, so too can objects. We all have personal objects that may seem ordinary to others, but are invaluable to us because of the person who gave it to us, the memory attached to it, and more. Museum objects can hold similar meaning to people, often for many different reasons. Objects, both every day objects and museum objects, are at the heart of our education pedagogy. We feel strongly that they can teach young children so much from critical thinking skills, to perspective-taking, to science and literacy skills.

A few years ago we published a blog, Objects Teach Us, that explored some of our faculty’s favorite museum objects, and now we’re back with another edition including favorites among our faculty and students.

Some objects are favorites because of the memories they hold and the people that the object reminds us of:


Phoenix the Whale 

Charlotte, age five, enjoys Phoenix the Whale in the Ocean Hall of the National Museum of Natural History. She explained that Phoenix, “reminds me of my cousins because they all love to play in the ocean, and it [Phoenix the whale] is an animal that lives in the ocean.”

7The Doll’s House

Meredith McMahon, SEEC’s Executive Director, loves the The Doll’s House at the National Museum of American History.  Meredith explains, “I first fell in love with it when I visited when I was just 6 years old, back before NMAH was even know as American History (it was still the museum of history and technology!).  I loved all of the detail to it, and they had a small book about it that I got as a souvenir of our visit. I poured over the photos in the book, marveling at the detail and imagining myself as part of the story.  And now, every time I see it I’m reminded of the amazing experience I had that day with my mom and my older sister – it was my first trip to the Smithsonian, but clearly not my last!”


Henry the Elephant

Director of Infant and Twos Program, Melody Passemante-Powell, loves Henry the Elephant who presides over the rotunda at the National Museum of Natural History.  Melody explains, “I always felt warmly about Henry and I feel even more connected to him since he was cleaned and renovated the year my daughter was born! For me it’s how iconic he is and was to me prior to working at SEEC and what it stands for now, a meeting place for our classes Halloween parade, an example of how things can change so much over time and still remain the same in some ways. A timeless symbol of the museum and in ways, our school.”

Some objects are special because they are multifaceted and allow multiple perspectives when teaching young children:


Life in All Directions by Roxanne Swentzell 

Toddler teacher, Julia Smith’s favorite object is Life in All Directions by Roxanne Swentzell at the National Museum of the American Indian. She explains, “My favorite part of the piece is the the expressions on every mask in this piece. They are all expressing strong emotions but it’s not exactly straight forward what they are feeling. The kids tend to find the masks particularly fascinating and will call out lots of different emotions to describe their expressions.  The artist’s back story also adds to the context of this piece. Roxanne Swentzell had a speech impediment as a child that made it difficult for her to express herself so she turned to art to express her emotions. Roxanne’s story and the many faces in this piece are very relatable to the kids, and it is an excellent way to talk about their many emotions.” (42).png

Tibetan Buddha Gautama

Cynthia Raso, Director of the Office of Engagement, loves this Tibetan Buddha Gautama located at the Freer Sackler. “Visually, I am drawn to the contrast of the gilded body and the rich blue of the hair. The artist captures both the compassion and serenity of the Buddha through the simple, curvaceous lines.  The way his fingers delicately dangle and almost enter the viewer’s space makes one feel like one is present in the moment when the Buddha becomes enlightened. Beyond the aesthetics of the piece, it is also one my favorites about which to teach. If approached in the right way, it can be a great experience for young learners. It forces them to look closely and explore the sculpture’s iconography. In this picture we are looking at the lotus flower on which the Buddha sits. Before we visited the Museum, we had fun playing with a lotus flower sensory bin full of real mud. It helped the children understand the significance of the lotus, a flower that grows up from the murky water into the sunlight.”

Honoré Daumier Busts

Kindergarten teacher, Sharon Jensen, loves the Honoré Daumier busts at the National Gallery of Art for personal and professional reasons.  “I admire the artistic talent, but mainly I find them hilarious! The satire is clear immediately, and even removed from the context of political commentary, these faces will make you aware of the artist’s opinion of each man. I love the caricature-like features and ridiculous hairdos, but the exaggerated facial expressions are my favorite part! They remind me of the grotesques and gargoyles peeking out from medieval churches. They are a wonderful way to explore emotions with children, and how our faces can show how we feel inside.”

Other objects represent parts of our personality and passion: (40)

The Hope Diamond

Weekend educator, Christina Reitz loves the Hope Diamond at the National Museum of Natural History. “The diamond satisfies, for me, the two sides of being a museum-goer and a museum professional – enjoying rare objects and being inspired by the exhibit design. Both the diamond’s exhibit and the mineral and gem hall are perfectly designed to heighten a sense of wonder and awe. Every time I walk by and the room is filled with visitors, all waiting patiently for the diamond to turn toward them, I’m filled with both a simple joy at a beautiful object and a deeper appreciation for the work we do.”


Fish by Alexander Calder

Director of Kindergarten and Toddler Programs, Maureen Leary is partial to Fish by Alexander Calder that is in the Hirshhorn collection. Maureen says the piece is special to her, “for a number of reasons. This mobile touches on my love for the ocean, my admiration for Calder as a versatile artist, and the importance of reusing/recycling, as Calder made the mobile using found objects. I have fond memories of visiting this piece with SEEC students to make a connection to the story “Swimmy” by Leo Lionni (who is one of my favorite children’s authors!).” (41).png

Nature’s Best Photography Exhibit

Nature lover and infant teacher Mallory Messersmith enjoys the entire Nature’s Best Photography exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History. “I love the variety, all the different colors and perspectives. I also like that it changes! Sometimes my favorite thing is just to go walk through and enjoy a little nature through a photographer’s lens!”

Other objects are favorites because of their function and purpose:



Nicko, age five, loves the beaver in the Mammal Hall of the National Museum of Natural History, “because I like when they cut down trees.”



While many of us are partial to objects within the museum complex, Dr. A’damski, our resident science teacher, favors an object that can be found outside of the museum: an acorn. He reasons, “It represents food for a host of animals large and small. And if it doesn’t get eaten may grow for a few hundred years into a majestic tree…”

Want to learn more about using objects to engage young children? Come to our Learning Through Objects workshop on March 14 and 15.

Beyond the Classroom: Benefits of Learning in the Community

Have you ever read about a place you really wanted to visit –  a new restaurant or a faraway country? Have you ever been lucky enough to actually visit that place? How was the experience different from just reading about it? Once the sounds, smells, and sights flooded your senses – how did your understanding of that place change? Now imagine you are a young child with limited experience of the world. How do you think their understanding is enhanced when they get to experience the very thing they are learning about?

At SEEC, we believe that learning is richer and more meaningful when it is taken beyond the classroom and into the community. True we are fortunate enough to have access to a  complex of museums, but we feel strongly that this type of learning can take place no matter where a school is located. Learning in the community not only deepens  understanding, it also sparks interest, provides inspiration, broadens horizons, offers multiple and varied exposures, and cultivates a connection with the community.

Sparks Interest and Excitement and Provides Inspiration


You never know what you might find when you walk out of your classroom door and into the community. One of the benefits of learning outside the classroom is the unpredictability of what you will encounter. Just being outdoors sparks wonder and inspiration. Actually experiencing something with all your senses is more exciting, effective, and memorable than just hearing about it via a traditional didactic lesson.


While our classes generally have a destination in mind, they always take the time to explore when the children express interest in something. Educators can harness that interest to create learning experiences on-the-spot and back in the classroom. Children often become excited because they identify something related to what they are currently studying. For example, this preschool class had been learning about construction and happened to spot a cherry picker and safety equipment on their walk. These spontaneous sightings give the students autonomy over their own learning and broaden their understanding of a topic – all things that would not have happened if they had stayed in the classroom.

Connects Abstract Concepts to Concrete Examples


Young children think concretely, so it’s important to pair new ideas with tangible examples. After talking about wind in the classroom, one of our toddler classes went to blow bubbles and watch how the wind carried them away. After that, they held up a parachute to see how the wind moved it. Similarly, our kindergarten class had been learning about a severe type of wind storm called a haboob. Luckily, they were not caught in a haboob storm themselves, but did get caught outside on a particularly windy day and were able to appreciate the affects a strong wind in a whole new light.

Offers Multiple and Varied Exposures while Broadening Horizons


For young children, many of the concepts explored at school are completely new, without much background context. Going into the community allows children to gain multiple and varied exposures to the same concept, deepening their understanding and giving it a nuance they would not have from only one example. Last school year, our older infant class was interested in the bread they had at lunchtime. Their teachers took this opportunity to learn more about bread, how it is made and its many varieties. They went to the National Gallery of Art to see James Rosenquist’s White Bread, and to Paul Bakery where the chefs were gracious enough to give the children dough with which to play and demonstrate how they bake the bread.


Providing multiple and varied exposures also expands a child’s perspective of a topic. By going into the community children begin to see a world outside of themselves and their immediate surroundings. For example, when one of our preschool classes was learning about boats, they went to the National Museum of the American Indian to see a boat that was not as familiar to them, broadening their understanding of what a boat can be. They also went to the DC Marina where they encountered boats with which they were more familiar. They also had the chance to meet with a boat expert at one of the stores who helped them expand their knowledge of boats.

Cultivates a Connection with the Community and Fosters Citizenry


Children are growing up in a society in which the biggest challenges are not relegated to their community alone. Global warming, immigration, and diminishing natural resources, just to name a few, are global issues that will require the future generation to  respect others and understand how humanity is interconnected. Learning in the community allows children to observe the impact of our actions and develop an appreciation for that which is different. It is also the place where children can see how we help each other and work together to solve our problems. For example, one of our preschool classes recently went to a local convenience store to replenish their first aid kit while another class helped to clean up litter on the National Mall. Inviting community members into the classroom is another way to have a positive impact on young children. Children can gain so much when they are able to interact with the very people who are responsible for cultivating and nurturing their community. These personal encounters also make students feel connected to the community as a citizen themselves.

Schools are in a variety of locales and settings, and getting out into the community can be challenging, however we strongly believe the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. Even a patch of grass right outside the classroom opens up immense opportunities for learning.

Join us for our upcoming workshop Learning Through Objects on March 14 & 15 to learn more about taking learning outside of the classroom and into the community!

Inquiry Tools

A few years ago several of my three-year-old students asked me a question, and I responded, “How could we find the answer to your question?” They stared at me and said, “We’re asking you because you’re a teacher, and teachers know everything!” While flattering, I had to tell them that I most certainly do not know everything. Instead, there are many other ways in which we can seek the answers to our questions. This moment illustrates the importance of directly teaching children the skills, even as young children, to find the answers to their wonders.

At SEEC, we define inquiry as asking questions, but also as the process to find the answers. In order to ask effective questions and have the tools to seek answers, children must be curious, know how to observe, describe, make connections, and communicate. From infants to kindergarten, our classes foster these skills to ensure our children leave our school with a love of learning, a ferocious curiosity and the ability to find the answers to their questions.

Recently, one of our four-year-old classes, led by Will Kuehnle and Jessie Miller, spent some time discussing what it means to be curious, and what tools could help them explore their curiosities.


To begin their experience they went to the National Gallery of Art to see The Thinker (Le Penseur) by Auguste Rodin. They looked at the sculpture and pondered how its body language depicted thinking. They even tried to pose themselves.


Next, they discussed four tools to use when we have a question: asking an expert, observing, reading a book, and/or going to a museum. After discussing these inquiry tools in the gallery, the class headed outside to the National Mall to make these ideas more concrete through play.


The children got into groups and went through stations, each representing one of the inquiry tools they previously identified. At the “Ask the Expert” station, the children dressed up and pretended to be experts on different topics. One child would ask a question while the other child listened. The conversation would continue back and forth while one child spoke and the other waited and responded. The teacher could step in and model this for the children as well as praise them when waited for their turn to speak. This was a great opportunity for the children to practice patience and listening.


At the “Observe” station, children observed what they saw on the Mall and recorded these thoughts through writing and drawing. This was an open-ended activity that allowed the children the freedom to observe anything in their surroundings. It gave the teachers a glimpse into what the children find most interesting and, since SEEC uses an emergent curriculum, will serve as a guide for possible future topics for the class


The “Read a Book” station contained several books where children could flip through and gain knowledge through their reading.


Lastly, the “Go to a Museum” station had blocks for the children to build a museum where they might be able to answer their wonders.



Back at school that afternoon, the class had an opportunity to play at the stations again if they wished.



Recently, during storytime a child asked a question about something in the book. The other children were quick to suggest finding a book on the subject or visiting a museum to find out more information. The teachers have also observed students using language such as “curious” and “inquire” more often in their day-to-day conversations. By spending time practicing listening, vocalizing questions, and exploring how to find answers, the students have built a strong foundation that will serve them as they progress in school and life.

Join us on January 17th to learn more about Fostering Wonder with young children.