How to create an "information friendly" environment in your classroom
"Everybody!!! I found a bug!" The excited shout came from 4-year-old RJ as he came in from the playground. A large cricket sat cupped in his hands. RJ's teacher carefully transferred the cricket to an empty glass aquarium with a screened top. The children quickly gathered around their new classroom pet-the cricket was an instant object of intense interest. One child ran over to the science area and returned with a large magnifying glass for a closer look at the cricket's legs. Another grabbed a digital camera. The excited questions began to flow: "What should we call it?" "Is it a boy or a girl?" "What do crickets eat?" "Where do crickets live?"

The next day during afternoon rest time, something magical happened. A quiet "chirp" sounded from the fish tank. In days after that, the chirps continued, faster on warmer days than cooler ones. The children wondered why the cricket seemed more excited on some days than others; they began to count the number of chirps on a piece of graph paper. Soon, RJ's cricket had become a valuable classroom learning tool-as well as a classroom thermometer!

You can take advantage of everyday opportunities to help children gain information and use it for further investigation. Here are some important steps to follow:

Model desired behaviors. If you're the type of person who climbs on a chair when you see a bug, keep in mind that your initial reaction to a new discovery can send a strong message to the children in your program. If curiosity replaces fear, they'll follow your lead. The first step in making your classroom a place where children are active information processors is to be one yourself!

Take cues from children. A young child's interest can be sparked easily and at any time. It might be a friend's new pair of sneakers that light up as he walks or a passing fire truck. You never know when a "cricket" will be discovered. It's always best to be prepared for new learning opportunities. A master teacher I know once said, "I can stay up all night planning the perfect lesson, but the best learning material walks in the front door every morning." To turn a bug into a teachable moment requires planning. More specifically, having a clean, empty aquarium; a general reference book on insects; Internet access; a magnifying glass; and access to art materials will help. The reward for this kind of preparation is a classroom where children can deepen their thinking about any new discovery.

Evaluate your classroom materials. The materials you include in your classroom set the stage for information processing. Ask yourself, "What tools are available in my classroom to help a child independently explore something he has discovered?" An information-friendly classroom has a supply of materials available for exploring, recording, and representing. Below are some items to have readily available to help children find, record, use, manage, and interpret information.

To collect information:

Visual observation and recording tools such as a magnifying glass, a digital microscope, a telescope or binoculars, a flashlight, and a digital camera can give children a new perspective on a discovery. If more sophisticated technology is available to you, a computer projector can transform a child's collection of digital pictures into a public slide show.

  • Audio observation and recording tools, such as a camcorder or tape recorder, allow children to capture a sound (such as the chirp of a cricket).
  • Measuring tools for length and width, including a ruler for smaller items such as leaves or insects, a yardstick for block structures, and a tape measure for longer distances, such as how far a ball rolls.
  • Measuring tools for weight and mass, including a postage scale for small items, a balance beam scale for larger discoveries, and a bathroom scale for heavier items (including children themselves!). All of these tools provide excellent graphing opportunities.
  • A digital weather station for accurate daily measures of outside temperature, wind speed, or rainfall. These can be charted and graphed.

To expand information:

  • A classroom library, stocked with plenty of developmentally appropriate picture books. In the case of the cricket, Eric Carle's The Very Quiet Cricket would be a perfect resource to have on hand for story-time.
  • A computer with Internet access, if possible. This puts a world of information at your fingertips.

To interpret information:

  • Blank paper and pencils, crayons, or markers. These tools make it possible for children to make sketches or drawings of their new discoveries.
  • Graph paper provides a means for recording quantifiable information, such as the height of classmates or number of cricket chirps per minute.
  • Open-ended materials, such as clay, molding putty, or sand. These allow children to make representations of things they are investigating.

Review your routine. A well-stocked classroom won't be helpful unless children have time to use it. Ask yourself, "Does my daily routine provide time for children to explore and interpret their findings?"

  • Plan small group times in which children can make sketches of a significant toy or material they worked with during the day. Encourage children to talk about their experiences with the material.
  • Set aside time when children can work independently in pairs or small groups to share information and ideas.
  • Take photographs of interesting classroom experiences and provide plenty of free observation time during which children can explore the photos and discuss them with one another.
  • Offer children plenty of time to enjoy outdoor play each day-you never know what natural objects/observations might strike their fancy and lead to further investigations!

Practice the art of questioning. Learning to ask well-timed questions is both an art and a science. The question must be on topic and at the child's developmental level. Here are some strategies that will help you to encourage, rather than stifle, children's further thinking:

  • Assess a child's existing knowledge by asking open-ended questions, such as, "Have you ever seen a cricket before?" or, "Can anyone tell me about crickets?"
  • Interview a child or have children interview one another about an interesting classroom object or experience as a way of assessing what they already know.
  • For older, more verbal children, you might want to ask some "not" questions. For example, "Where are some places crickets don't live?"

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INFORMATIONAL BOOKS AGE BY AGE

Infants Start babies off with study board books that they can handle and pictures books that you can look at together. My Car, Trains, Boats or any other title by Byron Barton are excellent choices.

Toddlers There are plenty of nonfiction picture books that are just right for toddlers. Try Seymour Simon's excellent photography books (Cats, Dogs, or Wild Babies)

Preschoolers Three- and Four-year-olds often develop specific interests in animals, dinosaurs, knights, and castles. Include non-fiction books and magazines on these subjects in your classroom library.

Kindergartners Help children use a print or CD encyclopedia and other reference books.

CHOOSING NONFICTION BOOKS FOR CHILDREN

When we think about helping children find information, nonfiction books usually come to mind. As Richard Arlington, Ph.D., professor of education at the University of Tennessee, says, "Most of the reading people do across their lives is informational reading. Children are curious, and informational books and magazines can help them learn about the world in a way that stories cannot." But what informational books make the best addition to a classroom library?

Dr. Allington suggests that books (such as The New Way Things Work by David Macaulay; Penguin $35) that include cutaway drawings of household things like faucets, toilets, and toasters can be powerful learning tools for young children. A CD encyclopedia can also be another important component of your nonfiction library. Field guides on birds, fish, flowers, and animals can help children explore their interests in the natural world. Informational magazines, including Scholastic's Ranger Rick, and National Geographic's Young Explorer, help to round out your nonfiction library.

John Peters, supervising librarian at the New York Public Library's Donnell Center Central Children's Room, recommends picture dictionaries for preschoolers and new readers. Many publishers offer lines of inexpensive, high-quality children's dictionaries at a number of reading levels. Peter also likes single volume encyclopedias that combine simply presented information with stimulating color photos, such as Scholastic Children's Encyclopedia (Scholastic, 2004; $20) and The Kingfisher Illustrated Nature Encyclopedia (Houghton Mifflin, 2004;$25). Peter adds, "Keep in mind that a good nonfiction book can be as satisfying as any electronic substitute. As the original ‘multimedia,' illustrated informational books provide both visual and verbal content that children of literally any age can absorb at their own individual rate."

When selecting informational book titles for young children, an important element to consider is clear writing. The quality of illustrations is also key.

Barbara Moss, professor of literacy education at San Diego State University, looks for the 5 A's:

  • Authority of the author (the author credits his or her sources)
  • Accuracy
  • Attractiveness
  • Appropriateness for a child audience
  • Artistry ("This artistry involves text that is clearly organized, interesting, and written in a way that children can understand.")

Moss recommends sharing books by Byron Barton, Gail Gibbons, Jim Aronsky, and Seymour Simon. By reading aloud books about the real world, you "not only build knowledge about an array of topics, but familiarize children with the types of language found in the text type - language that differs from that found in stories."