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I was thinking about buttercups. I want to remember them
because they’re so special and magical.
–Preschool student, age 5

The better I know my place, the less it looks like other places
and the more it looks like itself. It is imagination, and only
imagination, that can give standing to these distinctions.
–Wendell Berry

Teachers here have been exploring place with children for many years, beginning by going outside the boundaries of the buildings and playgrounds in order to see what learning might happen in the natural areas around us. The scope of our work in the forests, fields and park that border our two campuses has opened up our collective view of ’school’. We have come to inhabit all of the places of our school, indoors and out, so you might find children in the classroom, but you might also find them in the garden or at the creek.

A group of teachers meeting over the summer devised the term ’umbrella project’ to refer to a theme or idea that threads through the work of the entire school during the course of each year, sparking creative thinking and connecting students across classrooms and age-levels. Teachers at the Preschool have long conducted yearly, informal action research projects based around a particular topic or medium of interest. The umbrella project is intended to be action research that encompasses the whole school community. Two years ago the Lower and Middle Schools inaugurated the umbrella project initiative by spending a year with Shakespeare.

This past year, our Preschool has been preparing to say goodbye to the Grace Street campus, our home for 16 years, in order to move to our permanent Stony Point site. It thus seemed fitting to use the umbrella project as a vehicle for learning more about how children’s sense of place develops, and what that sense of place means for the school. The Preschool children documented what was important to them about the place they are leaving, and identified what should be marked and remembered. They also considered the extensive grounds and historic building waiting to be explored at Stony Point. Students already at Stony Point have been involved in preparing to welcome the newcomers and introduce them to the greater community.

The focus on place was also prompted in part by the Preschool children’s increasing use of photography. Teachers had noticed how children’s photographs provide insight into their wonderings, their humor, and their imagination. Perhaps photography could, in addition, provide clues to children’s sense of place?

From my perspective as atelierista in the Preschool studio, I observed the ways in which maps became a way for young children to show their sense of place. Teachers saw maps based on the usual adult idea of a flat representation of a place but we also saw maps that included feelings and ideas, maps that showed multiple perspectives, and constructed, 3D maps. Children, some of whom at first had no idea what ’map’ meant, began to make complex representations of places both natural and man-made. Watching the development of mapping in our young students showed much about how children form mental pictures of a place, and how those inner maps expand with further exploration. For the children and the Preschool teachers, this concentration on mapping was rich with learning and showed the potential of a place to nurture relationships and inspire wonder.

Representation of Place

Map of a Family

It is possible that the full implications of this inquiry into the idea of place, and what that idea means to children, may not be understood until later. With classroom research, often the learning for teachers does not come until they have time to ponder the happenings of the year and to revisit documentation from a past class. I know that our investigation of photography and mapping will continue, and I am certain that we will continue to venture outside the walls of the school. However, it may only be during the coming year—when children from both campuses meet, share with each other what they understand about their places and begin to define what our new ’together’ place means—that teachers and parents will be able to fully appreciate how our inquiry has shaped what we all know and how we all think about our school.

To see a variety of work forming part of the umbrella project from classrooms throughout the school, please visit the PLACE +INQUIRY blog. These pieces of documentation reflect a project that crossed age and grade groups, geography, and was realized through a range of expressive media. In addition, Anna’s article, "Exploring the Forest: Wild Places in Childhood,"is featured on the website of the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

About the Author: 

Anna Golden has been teaching at our preschool for 15 years. For the past three years she has been the school's atelierista, or visual arts teacher.