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Tangible, Real-World Experiences Shape the Learning Journey

As the spring weather (finally) appears here to stay, we can’t help but find our minds thinking about what’s ahead. As parents, I know we personally feel the pressures around summer plans, camps, and schedules for our children immediately after the winter holidays. While this time of year is exciting to embrace the growth that has been had and look forward to the future summer months, as well as the next grade level transition, I’d like to focus this month’s newsletter on the delicate balance of fostering the present joy and NOW of childhood, while also knowing when and where the role of preparation comes into our children’s lives.

Importance of Field Site Visits

Why do we place such importance on these experiences? Because we recognize that for children who already have access to a plethora of resources in our bustling city, it’s the quality, not the quantity, of their encounters that truly matters. While traditional field trips usually entail taking in a vast amount of observation during the short duration of a trip, it is during field site visits that students can attempt to find answers to their own specific generated questions, examine specialty equipment, and interview people at the site. By immersing our young learners in authentic, hands-on experiences, we unlock a world of possibilities for exploration, discovery, and learning.

Consider for a moment the difference between dressing up like a firefighter at the Chicago Children’s Museum versus going to the local fire station, meeting the Fire Chief, getting to sit in the truck, and handling various aspects of the equipment. The latter not only engages the senses but also sparks curiosity and ignites a passion for learning that lasts a lifetime. This is the essence of our approach—to provide children with opportunities that go beyond surface-level engagement, delving deep into the heart of their interests and inquiries.

Student Engagement is Energized by Curiosity and Relevance

In our classrooms, this philosophy comes to life every day. For example, in Ms. Simmons and Ms. Prieto’s PreK class, it was a visit from a local non-profit leader showcasing how a trap and release program for cats is on a mission to improve the lives of feral cats across the city. This was followed by a trip to the Treehouse Humane Society, where children learned how to approach and care for community cats. They also met some of the community members who are kind enough to feed many community cats in the city. As these teachers and children continued to reflect on their larger study of Homes, their investigations into community cats have now led them to research birds, a top prey of cats, and therefore nests, and how they serve as protection from cats. Most recently, nearby First Graders graciously spent time with PreK, imparting their recently gained knowledge of birds from their endangered animals project.

In Ms. Rosenfeld and Mr. Gygar’s SK, a year-long study on pigment and color has led them to develop a new relationship with our local paint store neighbors, Sherwin Williams. Upon routine walks designed to inspire and provoke questions of how color is all around us, the class was surprised to find the paint shop just minutes away from our learning campus. Popping in to say hello, they soon developed a relationship that resulted in a formally planned trip to the store to learn about the science behind color mixing before that paint can arrives in our home and on our living room walls. Upon return to the classroom, the students worked to create their own colorful paint swatches on ten frames (a routine math tool), varying the shades by mixing lighter or darker hues.

These in-person, real-world encounters with our local community partners not only complement our curriculum but also empower children to become active participants in their own learning journey.

Examples of projects, field site work, and expert visits happening in each of our classrooms:

Our Bambini students have been enchanted by the 5th- and 6th-grade yarn paintings outside the first-floor hallway this month. In collaboration with Ms. Bodnarskyj, our Lower and Middle School Art Teacher, Ms. Dahlberg, brought a similar yarn project into the toddler classroom to bring this sensory experience to life, gluing yarn to their own canvases. Ms. Bodnarskyj visited the class to share more about the 5th and 6th grade yarn work. She introduced a new material, pebbles, and encouraged the students to glue them to their paintings to add more texture. Ms. Bodnarskyj later invited the class to visit her art studio where they got to walk around and explore some beautiful art artifacts. This invitation led the students to new discoveries and opened a window for more cross-class collaboration. In our first-floor hallways you’ll notice Ms. Dahlberg and Ms. Bodnarskyj have documented the Bambini yarn paintings alongside the artwork of 5th and 6th graders. As Ms. Dahlberg wrote to her parents, “This integration of art from both classes into a communal documentation panel conveys a powerful message, not only to our youngest learners but also to older students, parents, and teachers alike. As older students walked the halls, they remarked on the beauty and creativity of the Bambini art displayed alongside other paintings. This message resonated deeply, reinforcing the idea that inspiration knows no age limits, and collaboration is key to creativity.”

In Ms. Bartolozzi and Ms. Donati’s PreK, students continue their year-long study of Celebrations. A recent field site visit included a trip to Luft Balloons, a local balloon shop, where they made their own group balloon burst, explored the balloon design studio (full of color and a myriad of balloon types), and asked the owner specific questions about their role in celebrations. Trekking back on the CTA on a windy morning, a gaggle of PreKers and their parents and a massive bag of balloons could be sighted, filled with joy and wonder. To close out this week, this group celebrated Women’s History Month with classroom moms as they closed out the month of March.

In Ms. McDonald and Ms. Hanifin’s class, JKers continue to explore the world of games. Having spent the beginning of this project largely on board games, which provide tangible, concrete ways of learning for preschoolers, they recently looked further into the topic of video games and how they are made. A field site visit doesn’t always require one to leave campus but can include exploring a space that is typically not visited by JKers: the Lower and Middle School TESLab. Fourth graders hosted a time for the group to come in and test out the video games they’ve been building this year. Following the visit, students had some follow-up questions that they generated in group discussions, and we were able to pass them on to the fourth graders in hopes of getting some more information back and keeping the dialogue with local experts going. This group even worked with Ms. Lipke to create a lifesize board game! Check out the documentation near the gym next time you’re in. As the warm weather approaches, the teachers have returned to mapping out the project to determine where they can further this study next, with outdoor games, sports, and competitions proving to provide a next step in this avenue of learning.

Mr. Rosa-Molina and Ms. Glaeser’s JKers continue to explore storytelling and book-making this school year. Teachers have leaned upon connections in the parent community to bring in real authors to explain the writing and publishing process. Students even made a connection with a Bennett 4th grader, Sandiya Badmus, who wrote and published a book with her mom, Shambrekiá Wise, about worldly travels, explaining to the students that you don’t have to hop on an airplane to learn about the world and cultures unfamiliar to your own. JKers are currently dissecting the essential parts of a story: beginning, middle, and end, putting their story arcs on paper with the help of teachers and parent volunteers, as well as acting out stories through puppetry.

Ms. Kirkpatrick and Mrs. Rios’ class is embarking on a new investigation of numbers, sparked by initial investigative questions around the purpose of zero, what infinity is, and Google. To kick off this project, they’re bringing in two experts from the field of math, one being our very own Middle School Math teacher and SK mom, Ms. Sawyer.

These are just windows into each of our EC classrooms to show you how we’re capitalizing on the power of field site visits and expert interactions to enrich the learning experiences of our students. As parents who have chosen our program for your children, you understand the value of providing them with opportunities that transcend traditional education. Working and learning together in a PreK-12th grade school is powerful and can bring remarkable learning interactions that one does not always anticipate. However, when educators open themselves to the availability of these interactions, authentic partnership unfolds, not just from faculty experts but also from our older students. Together, we’re creating a community where curiosity thrives, and every child has the chance to learn from and alongside one another.

This article was originally published as a letter to the Bennett Day community from Meg Fitzgerald, the Director of Early Childhood. Each month, we share insight with families about the “why” behind Bennett Day programs to reinforce our values and highlight how these philosophies manifest themselves in the lives of our learners.