the March/April 2000 issue (vol. 13, Issue 4) of Connect,
a publication of Synergy
When the shades
are pulled up in my kindergarten classroom, sunlight beams in through
the windows. Early in the school year I give mirrors to the children
so they can explore the light that shines in. They enthusiastically
manipulate their mirrors, experimenting and discussing their captured
sunlight, spontaneously sharing and copying each other's discoveries.
At "debriefing" sessions, they build their science vocabulary by
talking about the path of light. They are delighted to use terms
like "reflection," "projection," and "screen"
as I paraphrase their statements and model the new words for them.
Soon the language of light is part of their everyday talk.
For my kindergartners,
this exploration serves as a way to begin investigating interesting
light and color phenomena. It also begins the process of asking
and answering their own questions, which is at the heart of the
Since being part
of the Exploratorium's Teacher Learning Group over the past four
years, I've used the study of light and color not only to build
an understanding of science content for my students, but also so
they can practice using materials and learn the process skills
of inquiry (observing, questioning, interpreting, etc.). As the
children mature in their ability to communicate, they also build
their vocabulary and knowledge of light and color and learn how
to design their own investigations.
Tools of Inquiry
Once the children
are comfortable using their mirrors, I give them new tools to use,
such as prisms. Prisms allow the children to explore what happens
when light is bent. It's a magical event when we learn how to make
with the Round Light Source
As they investigate,
both in the classroom and out, each student learns how to observe
and record information about light and color in their personal
science notebooks. Children start to compare observations found
outside the classroom with the investigations they do in class.
They begin to see many ways to do research, and their observations
become part of the repertoire of resources that we draw upon for
further science explorations.
In our classroom,
inquiry is also facilitated by a useful tool called the "Round
(RLS), a powerful lamp covered with a cylindrical box. The box has
four rectangular windows where light beams shine through. Masks with
narrow light slits or colored gels: red, green and blue, can be attached
to the windows, enabling the children to experiment with either white
or colored light. For instance, they can use mirrors to project colors
onto a screen, or mix the lights to make new colors. I use the RLS
as a learning station in my classroom, just the same as a sandbox
allow my students to use their skills in manipulating sophisticated
materials and in sharing new ways of communicating and investigating.
Three or four children typically sit together to investigate. As
they learn to mix colored light, there are happy shouts: "Look!
I made yellow!" "Hey, that turned green!" "Where'd the red go?" followed
by looking at each other's work and finding out how this magic
As the children
explore light and color with these tools, I guide them to follow
a structure that helps organize their investigation. Built into
the structure is the expectation that each child is accountable
for his or her own question, materials, recording, and work time.
I have divided the structure of the work into these five parts:
- Form a question
- Make a plan
- Do the investigation
- Record and
- Reflect, revisit,
and plan again
Each child states
his or her interest in the form of a question. I carefully model
questions and write them down for all to see (Fig. 1).
selection of the Kindergartners' inquiry ideas and plans:
asked: "If I mix yellow and orange and pink, can I make gray?"
Veronica and Jacy asked: "Will blue and green light make yellow?"
Austin, Geron and Jerrick asked: "Can we make yellow? Can we
put it on a screen? Can we put yellow on the table?"
All the students above planned to use the round light source,
color gels, mirrors and screens.
Kevin asked: "What colors are in the rainbow? I plan to use
the RLS with white light and a prism."
LaVelle asked: "Can I put the rainbow from the CD to the screen?
I plan to use the light from the window [sunlight], a CD and
and the materials used to investigate it, become the plan for the
activity that follows. Children work individually or in small groups.
I work with them by observing, questioning, supporting their efforts,
and redirecting their investigations. I actively reflect their
activities back to them in my own words, which helps when they
report their work to others later on. I also help them manage their
time. When the investigations are finished, each member of the
class reports to the others. As the children tell what they observed,
I write the observations on a chart. Sometimes the children write
and draw their own reports.
In the beginning,
the children have a hard time articulating their discoveries, so
I help them "find" the right words to explain what they discovered.
This is a crucial step, since it sets a tone that allows each child
to "own" the experience while communicating it accurately. Each
person profits by comparing the experience being reported with
his or her own. Since this is a group activity, I'm careful to
validate each child's individual contribution - an easy task with
4- and 5-year-old children!
As their experiences
build throughout the year, the children in my kindergarten class
constantly report and reflect on color and light interactions all
over the school, as well as at home. It's exciting to see evidence
that the children understand the concepts of light and color. When
a student makes a rainbow by maneuvering some "found" object in
the path of a light beam, the satisfied look on that child's face
tells you that a concept has been understood because he or she
has actually predicted what was going to happen. Often, the children
who have the hardest time engaging in regular classroom work will
shine in inquiry.
We are now ready
to revisit and plan further investigations. I ask students if they
want to repeat their experiments or if they would rather try something
else. Children approach revisiting in different ways: some try
what another person did; others repeat or vary their first plan
in some way. Thus the cycle of inquiry, plan, work, record, and
reflect is repeated.
As my kindergartners
learn how to question, plan, and communicate, they also learn about
the concepts of light and color. At the same time, their experiences
are supported by many other classroom activities. For example,
the children are taught to use watercolor paints and to predict
what new colors they can make by mixing them. In one of our more
cooperative projects, we mix food coloring and water in a clear
pan on top of the overhead projector. As the colored pigments combine,
they are projected on the wall and ceiling, making larger-than-life
color mixtures that the children can observe.
I use a still or video camera to record investigations. I've had
the best results with a digital camera, which has allowed me a
variety of ways to print out images. One powerful way of sharing
is to print out the children's work on overhead transparencies.
In this mode, the entire class can share investigations together.
Seeing pictures of themselves is highly motivating and helps the
children stay focused as they describe what they did or what will
happen next. It's also easy to write and rewrite statements right
on the transparency, thus modeling the writing process. Children
can even have their own copies on paper. It's very powerful for
children to have their work "published," as well as publicly acknowledged.
As a teacher
I have learned much from my interaction with the Institute for
Inquiry Learning Group and from my own four-year exploration into
children's inquiry learning. The different phenomena of light and
color are fundamentally interesting and connect children to the
real world using sophisticated tools, language, and ideas. I have
seen how language develops during the inquiry process. As children
share what they see, they find words to express and refine their
thinking. As my students have taught me over and over again, kindergartners
can indeed do inquiry.
views of the Round Light Source set up on a table
with screens and mirrors.
is currently on leave from her position as a kindergarten teacher
in the San Francisco Unified School District.
post this issue of Connect granted by Synergy
Learning International, Inc.
San Francisco, CA 94123