Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Importance of the Outdoor Prepared Environment to the Life Sciences

This past week, the children discovered this little character living amongst the zucchini in our garden (perhaps this is one of the little praying mantis's we hatched and released at the beginning of the summer?). Our animated guest was a good sport; he spent the morning in the classroom observation terrarium, then dutifully walked across their little hands at line time, and entertained the fascinated children by bravely defending himself by waving his little arms frantically about before fluttering off.

Watching the children with their insect companion really clarified the importance of the outside prepared environment. Young children are consummate naturalists; as Montessori noted, they are "sensorial explorers" who absorb every aspect of their environment. Providing children with the opportunity to interact daily with the plants and animals that surround them is an essential part of the child's experience as it affords them with the opportunity to carefully observe natural phenomena (the changing of seasons, the lifecycles of plants and animals, the importance of pollinators, a food chain, and an ecosystem).

The Montessori method of education sees education as a natural, spontaneous process in which children actively construct and refine their understanding of abstract concepts by scaffolding the information around meaningful experiences, rather than treating children as if they were empty vessels to be filled with memorized facts and accumulated wisdom.

It is experiences like these, in the natural environment, with living creatures, that serve to reconnect children with nature, to spark their interest in the natural sciences and the world around them, and to provide children with an authentic Montessori education in the natural sciences.

Our children have been lucky to have had many such visitors.

We are extremely fortunate to have a beautiful outdoor prepared environment, replete with mature trees, beautiful butterflies, friendly rabbits, grape vines which are just beginning to turn purple, apple trees laden with with fruit just beginning to show the first blush of fall, and the occasional slug or interesting insect. These daily hands on experiences (collecting fallen apples, running out to the garden to surreptitiously taste the grapes, or gathering vegetables and herbs from the garden), help to bring the children in touch with the natural environment and draw their attention to the changing of the seasons and the lifecycles of plants and animals in a way that no other "lesson," or an over-groomed playground, ever could.

Not surprisingly, given the excitement generated by our outdoor prepared environment, the weekly CSA share, the vegetable garden, raising butterflies, ladybugs, and praying mantises, and field trips to the CSA farm and the apiary, the botany and life sciences works inside the classroom have also seen a flurry of activity.
Once the children have had real, meaningful, concrete experiences, the carefully prepared classroom materials help to deepen the child's understanding of the more abstract princples and concepts involved and allow the children to actively construct meaning from their experiences. This is particularly important in assisting young children in their understanding of botany and the life sciences.
I have to admit to having fallen a little behind in posting photographs about what we have been up to. Over the past few months, the children have busied themselves with carefully dissecting flowers,
making "Parts of the Plant" and "Parts of the Flower" booklets,

working with botany puzzles,

pressing flowers,

producing naturalist drawings and watercolour paintings,

and learning to recognize and appreciate different fruits and vegetables.
The children particularly enjoyed matching the set of knitted vegetables my assistant made, matching 3 Part Cards of different fruits and vegetables,

sorting miniature vegetables,
and reading about vegetables and how they are grown.

Then, there were the mounted specimens of honeybees, and other arthropods, to examine,the wooden candlestick holders to paint,
and the beeswax candles to fashion.
There were "Honey Circles" to be baked (imagine a light, golden cookie that is a perfect combination of sweet and salty- made with only six ingredients- whole wheat flour, salt, vanilla, oil, honey, and sunflower seeds). This is one of my favorite baking projects both due to both the absolute simplicity of the ingredients and the fact that it incorporates both honey and sunflower seeds, making a great project to supplement both the unit on pollinators and parts of a flower.

And, of course, there was the zucchini to be grated,

baked into fragrant mini loaves,

wrapped and tied by the older children (who practiced their bow tying),
and taken home to share with mom and dad.
Finally, there were seeds to collect and investigate. The children were very interested in examining the structure of different seeds and in sorting them based upon their different methods of dispersal (that they have structural differences in design which facilitate their travel in wind, in water, by hitching a ride on animals, by being eaten by animals, and using mechanical properties of the seed pod).

It is such a pleasure to watch young children in the process of investigating the world around them.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Zucchini Bread

"If you don't have zucchini, you don't have friends."
- Unknown

There are few vegetables which are as rewarding to grow in a children's garden as zucchini- the results are usually both massive and prolific. Additionally, zucchini are really interesting to look at in conjunction with a unit of study about the parts of a flower because the petals of the squash blossoms are slow to fall off (ours were still attached when we picked it), making it possible for children to see that the zucchini is really the swollen ovary of the female zucchini flower.
After much anticipation, the zucchini were finally ready to be harvested. The children went out to the garden and returned with a smooth, oblong courgette, nearly as large as some of the smaller students. While our zucchini plant appeared to have concentrated all of its resources on producing this one exemplary specimen, it turned out that one of our families had a bumper crop of even larger squash which they were generous enough to share.
Naturally, when confronted with lots of excited children and a large stockpile of fresh zucchini, there is only one thing to do: break out the grater and bake bread!
The children spent much of the morning happily grating zucchini

and grating fresh nutmeg.

After the ingredients were ready, our little brigade of enthusiastic bakers busily combined the ingredients and mixed the fragrant batter. The bread baked and filled the school with the irresistible aromas of cinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla.

Then the children concluded the afternoon with a special treat of homemade zucchini walnut bread, still warm from the oven.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Cognitive Benefits of Suzuki Musical Instruction

"Music exists for the purpose of growing an admirable heart."

-Shinichi Suzuki

There are two weeks until our Integrated Suzuki Violin Program begins, and I am so excited! Beginning August 26th, we will be offering optional Suzuki violin instruction at the school; the program will be taught and administered by Erron Lacy of Longmont Suzuki Strings. In anticipation of the program, I have been busy taking violin lessons, practicing (so that I can competantly assist the children), setting up the Suzuki space, reading Suzuki literature, and reading some scientific literature about the many benefits of instrumental musical training for children this age.

Suzuki instruction requires a large commitment of both time and money from parents, but the payoff for the child is tremendous. I strongly believe (and I think empirical evidence confirms) that Suzuki-style musical instruction at a young age is the optimal method for teaching music. Not only does it give them an appreciation for beautiful music, but also many important cognitive benefits as well. I thought I would share a little of the research with you (and on days when practice doesn't go as well as you might have hoped, perhaps you will be able to re-read this and find yourself inspired again).

The brain of a young child is remarkably unfinished; in the early years of the child's life, he or she is literally wiring their brain and determining how information will flow through it's structures and get processed. What connections are formed between brain cells and which ones are ultimately retained is being shaped by their experiences (especially those which are repeated regularly and part of the child's routine).

There is little doubt that formal musical instruction (learning to play an instrument) can have an appreciable effect on neural processing.

Possibly the best study of how musical instruction effects this wiring comes from a study funded by the National Science Foundation 1. Ellen Winner (Ph.D at Boston College) and her colleague Gottfried Schlaug, began imaging the brains of five to seven year old children before they ever had a music lesson. They divided their sample into four groups of about forty students each. Some children got Suzuki-style music instruction on a keyboard or violin, some got a comparable amount of attention in a "music class" (kind of a "Kindermusic" sort of thing- fingerplays, singing, movement games, playing percussion instruments- similar to what lots of schools do in a music class or during large group times), some got a comparable amount of attention in foreign language instruction, and the fourth served as the control. Over the study's five year span, the researchers looked for three things: direct measures of learning musical skills (improved rhythm, understanding of pitch and tone, gains in finger dexterity, ability to read musical notation), indirect influences of music on other non-music areas (math reasoning, spatial reasoning, phonological processing- "reading"), and measures of structural brain changes through anatomical and functional MRI scans.

In the initial baseline brain scans, the researchers found no discernible structural differences in the children's brains, nor any significant cognitive differences in IQ testing. However, after a mere fifteen months, they found statistically significant differences in the brain structures between the groups. The children who recieved piano and violin instruction had brain regions controlling the left hand that were bigger than the other groups and the children used more of their temporal lobes and auditory cortex during tasks requiring rhythm discrimination and melody processing. They also had significantly improved musical skill (finger dexterity, note reading ability, etc), and math skills over the other groups. These results were unique to the children who recieved insturuction in playing an instrument (no statistically significant difference was found in children who received the other types of musical instruction).

After five years, the differences between the groups was even more striking. The children who learned to play the violin and piano showed significant differences over the control groups, including improved verbal memory, spatio-temporal reasoning, math reasoning, IQ scores, phonological processing, finger dexterity, and differences in brain structures- the corpus callosum, or bridge of communication between the hemispheres of the brain was larger, the right hemisphere of their brains was bigger (used for planning, executing movement, timing sequential movements, auditory processing, and controlling the left hand), the children showed a left hemispheric shift for melody processing, and the children had larger and earlier waveform responses in the left hemisphere of their brain for piano or violin sounds, indicating that their experience with music caused the brain to process and attend to those sounds differently. By contrast, the children who had recieved music classes (without learning to play an instrument), showed some improvement in direct measures of musical skill but no observeable differences in the structure of their brain or non-musical areas.

Many neuroscientists feel that given what is known about brain development, the differences would have been even more marked if children as young as three had been included in the study.

This might have left you wondering, "What about the Mozart effect I've heard so much about?" The now- famous experiments dubbed "the Mozart effect" were conducted by Gordon Shaw (Ph.D at University of California at Irvine) and Fran Rauscher (Ph.D at the University of Wisconsin)2. They had college students listen to Mozart's "Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major" for ten minutes before a spatial reasoning test. Two control groups heard white noise or British techno-pop. The students who listened to Mozart performed significantly better on tests of spatial reasoning than the other two groups. However, the effect only lasted a brief ten minutes and no one has been able to replicate the results.

As my favorite neuroscientist, Jill Stamm, summarizes, "This in no way shows that listening to Mozart sonatas makes a person smarter in any lasting way. It simply shows that listening to Mozart sonatas may boost one type of problem-solving ability in a controlled setting. At the very least, it's now clear that the original results should not have been applied to children and babies. Much more promising is the research on instrumental music training 3."

The results from the NSF study are echoed in studies from Paula Tallal (Ph.D. at Rutgers) whose research indicates that formal musical training can prevent and treat phonological deficits (the inability to hear sound units) by speeding up auditory processing and improving the child's attention system (her research suggests that the attention system may be so activated while learning music that it accounts for overall gains in other "academic" areas)4. Similarly, Katie Overy (Ph.D) has done research indicating that dyslexic children showed marked improvements in improved language, literacy, and phonological processing when they received formal music instruction 5.

While contemporary science continues to demonstrate the cognitive benefits of this kind of instruction, it does seem clear on this point- to achieve lasting cognitive improvements, learning to play an instrument at an early age is the optimal musical experience; additionally, although the character benefits are harder to measure, daily practice playing an instrument also teaches children at a very young age about discipline, perserverence, the importance of establishing good habits, and the ability to concentrate deeply and delay gratification.

So, although the cognitive benefits of Suzuki seem quite astounding, it is also important not to forget our main objective:

"Teaching music is not my main purpose. I want to make good citizens. If children hear fine music from the day of their birth and learn to play it, they develop discipline, sensitivity, and endurance. They get a beautiful heart."


For more information about Erron Lacy or the Suzuki method, please visit http://www.longmontsuzukistrings.org/

1- Winner, E. & Hetland, L. (2000) The arts and academic achievement: What the evidence shows. Journal of Aesthetic Education. 34 (3-4)
Winner, E. & Hetland, L. (eds). (2001). Proceedings from "Beyond the Soundbite: What the Research Actually Shows About Arts Education and Academic Outcomes." Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Trust
2-Rauscher, F. H. (2002). Mozart and the Mind: Factual and Fictional Effects of Musical Enrichment. In: Improving Academic Achievement: Impact of Psychological Factors on Education. (J. Aronson, ed). 269-278. New York: Academic Press.
3- Stamm, Jill. (2004). Effects of musical training on Brain and Cognitive Development. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 1060: 219-230
4- Tallal, P. & Gaab, N. (2006). Dynamic auditory processing, musical experiences, and language development. Trends in Neurosciences. 29(7):382-390
5- Overy, K. (2003). Dyslexia and music: From timing deficits to musical intervention. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 999:497-505

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Adieu to Summer

The last day of the Summer Session found us dwindling in numbers (lots of students out on vacation) and yearning for a little relaxation. To commemorate the last day, I convinced the best pizza chef I know, my husband, Josh, to take a day off from work and teach the children to make pizza.
At the beginning of the summer, I had contemplated this project and I envisioned the children being able to roam through the garden, harvesting tomatoes, peppers, and onions. Unfortunately, that didn't come to pass (our tomatoes, peppers, and zucchini seem to be about a month behind everyone else that I have spoken with).
However, our basil has been quite prolific. So, the children were able to amble out to the garden for herbs and we were able to rely upon the CSA share for the majority of the produce. Honestly, I can't think of flavors more redolent of summer than fresh tomatoes and sweet, invigorating basil.
Nevertheless, the children happily busied themselves with the mise en place- chopping garlic and crushing tomatoes into a crimson puree with the food mill (there was a line for this lesson nearly all morning long and due to it's immense popularity we were left with nearly enough tomato sauce to have served a small army).

After the sauce was ready, our excited little brigade of sous chefs convened at the table (looking as serious as culinary students) and listened to Josh explain and demonstrate the process of making and rolling the dough. Each child prepared their own personal pizza crust

loaded them onto the peel,

and selected their own toppings

Afterwards, the children enjoyed the results of their efforts with a pizza party picnic.
Then they spontaneously decided to curl up in the Adirondack chairs beneath the elm tree and enjoy a dessert of fresh, ice cold watermelon. Isn't that what summer is all about? We hope you have as many great memories of the summer program as we do!