Exploring Water: An Inquiry Approach

This summer was a hot one. It was the first that we've spent without air conditioning. In general, we try to seek out water wherever we can, but on the hottest days it was absolutely crucial that we do so. July seemed like a perfect time to star an inquiry about water.

Here Silas is creating a "fountain." Shortly before starting this exploration he saw an episode of Mr. Rogers (1999, episode 1741) that focused on water and fountains and he was blown away by it. It inspired many plans and drawings of how to recreate the fountains that he saw.

I pulled out my copy of Exploring Water with Young Children (another title from the same series as Building Structures with Young Children, which we followed last winter) and started gathering materials. I really can't speak highly enough about this book. It's intended for early childhood educators to use in the classroom, but it is so easy to adapt to the home setting. Everything is clearly laid out; all I had to do was glance at it in the evening and I felt prepared to make meaningful observations of Silas' play the next day.

The biggest purchase was the water table. Prices on Amazon are so variable, I stalked it until the price dropped and then snatched it up. I looked for months on Craigslist, but only ever saw the plastic ones that are really for younger children. For our initial open exploration, I set out clear plastic containers, gathered from our recycling bin and the thrift store; clear flexible tubing in a variety of diameters and cut to various lengths, which were just a few cents a foot at the hardware store; and a set of funnels

It was so interesting to just sit and observe his play, taking notes, recording his comments, and photo documenting! It was such a window into his ability to problem solve and I got so many clues about his understanding of the properties of water.

He created this double funnel apparatus (picture above) over and over again. The first time he created it he said, 

I’ll put this [a second funnel] in the opposite side and this [the tube] in a circle and see what happens. Look! It [the water] goes in a circle!

Several play session later and he was still making the same apparatus. We had this exchange about it:

You’ve done this experiment before. Is anything different this time?

The tube is longer.

Does that change anything?

It takes longer for the water to go around.

It can be so hard to refrain from "instructing" in these moments. I try hard to choose my words carefully and to ask questions that help me better understand his thinking rather than questions that "test" his knowledge by seeking a "right" answer.

Kids are learning all the time. So often we expect them to demonstrate their learning in ways that don't really suit them. But if we adults just take a step back, observe, and ask some open-ended questions, we would be amazed by what they understand.

For example, If I asked Silas to explain displacement to me or asked him to demonstrate his understanding of that concept in some abstract way that would appear on a test, he would most likely be hard pressed to answer correctly. But, he totally gets it. I know, because we had this conversation during the moment photographed above:

“It’s spilling out.”

“Did you add more water?”


“So, why do you suppose it’s spilling out?”

“My arm takes up space and pushes the water out.”

The book guides one from this initial exploration to two focused inquires into how water flows and the nature of drops of water. In all honesty, this summer we just focused on the open exploration. The water table is stored away now for the winter, but both of us are excited to bring it back out again next year and pick up where we left off.

To close out the investigation, I invited some of our homeschooling friends to join us on a trip to the wastewater treatment plant. Silas has for years been fascinated with where the water ends up when it goes down the drain and a recent interest in watching the "ball float" (we have to watch the tank fill up almost every time we flush) paired well with our water inquiry.

In situations such as these - in a large group, in an unfamiliar place - it's hard for me to discern how much Silas is taking away from the experience. He stayed pretty quiet and seemed a little bit anxious. But, when describing the experience to daddy that evening he do so with great detail and enthusiasm and in the days and weeks that followed, he brought up things that the tour guide said. It was clear that his mind was working through all that he had seen and heard.

There are so many children's books about water and the water cycle. These were some of our favorites: Kumak's River, Water Can Be, A Cool Drink of Water, All the Water in the World, and Water in the Park

To extend learning from our trip to the waste water treatment plant, we read: Toilet: How it Works and looked at select pages from Material World: A Global Family Portrait. (A note about the second title: its purpose is to give a real and raw picture of living conditions around the world and that it does very well. As such, there are images that may be upsetting to young children and I encourage you to preview the book before leaving it out for children to have free access to. I chose to have us look only at the two-page spread of "toilets around the world.")


This morning... rushing to get out the door in time to take one of the kitties to the vet. An 8:15 appointment with my two early risers seemed perfectly reasonable at the time of scheduling, but after a middle-of-the-night waking that disrupted us all, we woke with just enough time to get dressed, eat a banana, and head out the door. A real breakfast was had upon our return home, which was followed by a walk. Our neighbors have backyard chickens and little Theda adores visiting them. Every morning she looks earnestly at me and asks, "bok boks?" When I respond in the affirmative, she spins in a circle and breathlessly says, "Happy!"

This afternoon... Silas rides his scooter back and forth, back and forth on the sidewalk in front of our house, choosing it more often than not these days over his bicycle with the training wheels so recently removed. Zooming down the hill and pausing at the bottom to inspect the many holes in the gnarled trunk of the giant, ancient Catalpa. It is a tree full of stories, I'm sure. I can see why he's drawn to it. Only officially a walker for the past two weeks, Theda clings to the backs of my knees when she wants to make a request. If not "up" or "hop," then it's "book." A million times yes, my love. 

Art in the Afternoon

A long sheet of paper, some tubes of fingerpaint, two kids, and a sunny afternoon adds up to some pretty terrific process-based art.

It is really starting to feel like autumn out there. So chilly in the morning that we need sweaters and hot tea with breakfast, but we're stripping down to almost nothing to play in the afternoon sun. We're trying to make the most of it by doing some big and messy art outside before the cold and falling leaves chases us inside.

Nature Study: Cicadas

While doing my not-nearly-frequent-enough pass with the vacuum cleaner upstairs, I happened upon a dead mosquito on the floor. What luck! Immediately I called Silas in to preserve the specimen for viewing. We spent a delightful afternoon recording our observations and asking all sorts of questions. Doing so made me realize that it's been a whole year (!) since our last focused nature study and I never did get around to writing about that one (!!). Hard to believe, right? I mean, it's not like I had a new baby or an impending move or anything like that to keep me busy. *ahem*

Late last summer Silas became really obsessed with cicadas. Every morning he would take his little collection jar outside and gather all the "shells" that he could find. This collection was so important to him, I should note, that it made the move and is currently sitting on top of his dresser in our new house.

Most of our study consisted of really close observation. We listened as they sang us to sleep every night. We used a hand lens to look at the shells and other cicada parts that we happened to find outside and then drew them. We spent a glorious morning with some friends at the Natural History Museum looking at the specimens housed there and drawing what we saw.

We also read books, our favorites being Cicadas by Squire and Cicadas Strange and Wonderful by Pringle. Right after the trip to the museum we made a pinch drum, which is a wonderful model of how a cicada makes its sound. We folded origami cicadas. Well, I folded and Silas played. He was only 4 at the time.

There are many, many cicada videos online, but we especially liked this snippet from the longer documentary The Return of the Cicadas. Cicada Mania is a pretty comprehensive resource that I used to better educate myself so that I could more effectively guide Silas' learning. He also decided to dress as a cicada for Halloween that year and so there was a lot of practical work in translating his drawings into a costume. The construction of the wings was an especially beautiful process.

We looked closely at cicadas for about a month. I had grand plans of doing a different in-depth nature study each month, but things just didn't shake out this way. We're so excited to be getting back to it, though. I can't wait to see what we learn about mosquitoes!

Artist Study: Matisse

"I don't paint things. I only paint the difference between things."  - Henri Matisse

The second artist that we learned about in our Charlotte Mason-inspired artist study is Henri Matisse. This was a fun one! Matisse's works are so full of color and are so playful; Silas really enjoyed being surrounded by them. 

Much like Monet, there are so many great picture books about this artist. Our favorites were: Matisse's Garden, Henri's Scissors, The Iridescence of Birds, Matisse the King of Color, Colorful Dreamer, Henri Matisse, and Oooh! Matisse.

As before, we just checked out prints from the library to hang on our art wall and read books about the artist to immerse ourselves in his work. Our local art museum does have a Matisse in its collection, which we plan to go see soon. As I plan our artist studies, I'm trying to let what is available to us locally guide my choices. I think it's really important to see these works in person.

YouTube is such a great source to enrich these studies, even though it wasn't the first thing that popped into my mind when searching for resources. We enjoyed this video of Matisse drawing and speaking about his work as well as this video of Matisse creating a paper cut work.

To bring it all together, we created art "like Matisse." I asked Silas what he thought it would mean to do that. He said that he most liked the papercut works that Matisse did late in life, so that was our inspiration. I gathered a big stack of paint chips to cut shapes out of, which were then glued to a watercolor background that Silas painted.

A Rainbow Hat

There's nothing like a stretch of 90 degree weather to motivate some knitting, right? Poor Silas requested a rainbow hat for this past winter. The pattern was chosen and the yarn purchased, but with moving that project just never made its way onto the needles. Then the hot weather hit and our lack of air conditioning and single fan left me planted on the couch at the end of every day wanting to move as little of my body as humanly possible. Suddenly, knitting seemed like a great way to pass the time. By the time the heat broke he had a finished hat for next winter.

This is the Rainbow Trout pattern (ravelry notes here) and I used Crystal Palace Mini Mochi because it was the only self-striping rainbow yarn I could find after a quick search. It is very very soft and I like it, but I probably wouldn't choose it for a hat again. For socks, though, it would be divine. The pattern is fantastic and was a perfect way to add some visual interest to the rainbow stripes without being too distracting.

Joining Ginny.

A Scooping Game

Lately, we've been spending a goodly sum of our time in the front yard playing in the rocks. Silas is building quite an elaborate fairy house and garden (complete with pond, bridge, and stable for fairy animals) and Theda loves to splash in a little pan of water.

She is deep in an enclosing schema and much of her self-directed play consists of putting things into things. I often give her a pile of objects and an empty container and one by one she will put each thing into the basket. Her focus is amazing to watch; she is very determined that all things must be put away.

When giving her a little pan of water outside, I didn't give too much thought to the set-up - just some water with a spoon and a little cup - but she developed a little game for herself that she's been playing over and over for days now. One at a time, she'll pick up a rock, toss it into the water, and then scoop it up with the spoon. Then, very carefully, she removes the rock from the spoon with her other hand and brings the spoon all the way up to her mouth to drink whatever water is left in it. She will then either toss that rock and begin the process anew with a different rock, or she will place the rock back onto the spoon and dump it back into the pan of water. Over and over and over again.

There's also a fair amount of splashing and, of course, dumping going on too. But, this little game of hers, that she comes back to again and again, seems to be fulfilling a need for her. What exactly she's learning about the world or what skill she is trying to master I'm not quite sure, but it's not really important that I do. I trust that she knows best and am happy to watch her work.

Birthday Bolero

I promised myself (and Steve) that I wouldn't buy any more knitting books. I rarely use them anyway as Ravelry is such an easy and useful resource. But this one called to me from the shelves of the resale shop at our library. Filled with such cuteness! I actually passed it over once, but then decided to purchase it (for a whole $2) on another visit after I realized that Theda needed a little cardi to keep her shoulders warm while wearing her birthday dress. I may not be able to sew in sleeves yet, but I can knit them!

The pattern is Debbie Bliss' Baby Bolero (Ravelry notes here) and I used a skein of MadelineTosh that I had purchased with the intent of making a Valentine's Day sweater that never made it on the needles. I've not used MT before (because, good heaven's it's expensive), but it is so dreamy to knit with and so very soft to wear. Theda and I are both fans. I shortened the sleeves because I was shy on yarn, but it worked out perfectly to wear during this very warm spring.

This patch of gravel, by the way, is her new favorite place to play. It's right outside our front door and she practically dives out of my arms, trying to get down to the coolness of the stones, whenever we are coming or going. She can sit there and kick her feet and pick up and put down rocks for as long as we're outside...usually watching Big Brother ride his bike on the sidewalk in front of the house. She's pretty good about not putting them in her mouth and whenever she tries to she does so very slowly and deliberately with a sideways glance in my direction, anticipating the "no, no, no" that is to come and laughing hysterically when it does. 

Joining Ginny.

A Little Party Dress (or two)

I sewed up a couple little party dresses for Theda (because for her, every day is a party). The parade fabric was the inspiration for it all and my intent was to sew her a first birthday dress. I asked in my local sewing group for pattern suggestions with the parameters that the pattern had to be beginner-friendly, have a gathered waist with a sash, and no sleeves (eek! sleeves!). Because the ladies there are awesome, in no time I was directed towards the party dress by Mummykins and Me (which is free if you follow her FB page) and it was perfect. The instructions walked me through each step so it was super easy to sew and it's fully lined with finished seams, so it's comfy to wear.

I did a test run of the pattern using an old bed sheet (so soft!) for the main fabric and something from my stash for the accent. No joke, I bought this fabric six years ago in my very first fabric order ever. I have no idea what I intended to make with it, but I'm guessing I was thinking it would make a good skirt as I bought three yards. Who knows?

I think she is in dire need of some bonnets to go with them.