Courtney Newman and Gina Young
Hawken Lower School
The Hawken School is an independent school in Lyndhurst, Ohio, that serves students from 18 months to 12th grade. The Beach Project took place in a full-day kindergarten classroom. There were 18 students, ages 5 and 6, and two teachers. Students in the class had many support needs, including speech and language support, occupational therapy, and Tier 2 literacy interventions. Teachers involved in this project included two homeroom teachers, Gina Young and Courtney Newman, and two science teachers, Gina Catania and Michelle Leizman.
Phase 1: Beginning the Project
As the first six weeks of school were coming to an end, it was time to open the dramatic play space of our classroom. To get this started, we had our students come up with ideas for what they would like to see this space become. Each child drew a picture of what they would like our dramatic play space to be, and from these ideas we chose three so they could vote for their favorite theme. Opening a beach was the clear and decisive winner!
We use this prompt at the beginning of each school year as a precursor to our first class project. By creating a dramatic play space around a topic, we are able to integrate several curricular pieces: research, writing, cooperative play, math, and STEM work.
To begin our beach project, we created a topic web; we wrote down our students’ current understandings of what a beach is and what you might see on one. We saw some great broad understandings of a beach environment, which included sand, water, and ocean animals as well as the items (e.g., towel or umbrella) a family might bring with them to enjoy their time on the beach. Students began to wonder what other types of animals might be seen on the sand, how the sand was made, and whether there are trees on the beach.
Phase 2: Developing the Project
When we first asked our students how we might be able to find some answers to our questions, they suggested “looking on a phone,” but they weren’t sure about other ways to research a topic. After talking them through some more ways to learn about a topic, such as reading a nonfiction book, talking to an expert, or visiting an informative website, the class decided that we should begin our research by going on a field trip to a beach.
We took the class to a local beach on Lake Erie. It was a windy day, but we were able to take plenty of pictures, which the students later used to make some field drawings of what they saw. The students were excited to see the grasses and flowers on the beach, the multicolored rocks, and especially the lighthouse on the shore. For preservation reasons, we were not allowed to bring back any artifacts.
Over the following weeks, we continued our research by exploring nonfiction books and watching videos online. It was interesting to watch a YouTube video about the different colors of sand on beaches and how sand is made through the process of erosion. Each time we completed a step of our research, we went back to our “web” to add new information.
By changing the color of the marker when we wrote something new on our web, students were able to see how much they had learned about beaches over the course of our study. Our kindergartners also were very interested to learn that there are tiny creatures such as antlions and sand fleas that live on the sand and that there can sometimes be other important landmarks on a beach, such as a lighthouse or a concession stand.
Once we had filled out our web with plenty of new knowledge, the class decided to write a nonfiction book about beaches. Each child chose one piece of information from our web to make their page for the book by writing a short sentence and drawing a picture to go with it.
By having everyone participate in writing this book together, we were able to ensure that they not only practiced the skills of research and writing, they also created a sense of community, teamwork, and pride in being able to complete an entire book, which would have been a daunting task to complete individually at their developmental age.
We made a PDF of the book. We bound a physical copy of the book and displayed it in our beach area! We added “teacher writing” on the back of the pages to help parents and other visitors be able to read it.
After completing all of this research, it was time to create a beach in our classroom! Students spent a week creating different elements for the beach, using cardboard, construction paper, paint, tissue paper, glitter, and much more. Some students focused on the sand, shells, and driftwood; others made the water with underwater animals; and some worked together to create the “snack shack.”
During a science class, each student worked with some basic materials to build their boats in our school’s innovation lab. The homeroom teachers brought in two large tubs, one to act as a sand table and one a water table. Parents were eager to help with this project and contributed to our beach by sending in small shovels, fishing toys, and swimsuits and other accessories.
The next weeks of the project gave every student several chances to play in the classroom’s beach area and practice cooperative learning skills. Everyone was eager to participate in the various beach activities. Our kindergartners spent time fishing, creating sand castles, selling food to patrons, and relaxing on their beach towels and chairs.
Because of our schedule in kindergarten, our project time usually takes place during the last 40 minutes of the day. Dramatic play is one of many choices during our project time. Three or four students are allowed in each area, and they make their choice when we pull their name stick out of a cup. The Beach Project provided the students an integrated curriculum, application to the real world, and a chance to engage in meaningful learning.
Phase 3: Concluding the Project
In our kindergarten classroom, we continue our dramatic play projects until our students naturally become interested in a new project. At that time, we will give a few more days in our space before we take it down and begin something new.
From start to finish, we were engaged in the project from early October until we left for winter break in mid-December. Before we left for our break, we engaged the students in a reflection share, where we asked them to tell us their favorite part of the project. Many people said their favorite part was playing at the sand and water tables, and one student shared, “I had fun making the food for the snack shack!”
We have collected documentation throughout the project, in the form of pictures, student work, and our research web. We plan to create a display of this work to share with parents during our year-end family event.
The beach was a very engaging topic for our class. One reason we found it to be a meaningful topic is that, being just outside Cleveland, we all live near the beaches of Lake Erie. All the students had some previous background knowledge on this topic. What surprised us was how limited their knowledge was before beginning our research.
It was very rewarding to watch them deepen their understanding and to see them become excited about researching and applying their new knowledge through many different modes of learning. In the future, we would want to extend a project like this over a longer period of time to explore related themes around the topic (e.g., lake pollution, Lake Erie animals).