PreK CarsEarly this year, prekindergarten co-teachers Carolee Fucigna and Claire Wasserman observed that students were very interested in cars — what are the fastest cars? Is car “X” faster than car “Y”?

The teachers started gathering information — conversations they overheard while students were playing in the sandbox, a comment made or a question asked during the walk to music class — to develop a fall unit.

In prekindergarten, the curriculum is negotiated. “It’s neither totally developed by the teachers, nor do the teachers sit around and wait for the kids to have some inspiration,” Wasserman said. “Instead, it’s a negotiation between the two.”


“Studies (units in a semester) generally emerge because teachers in prekindergarten are listening all of the time and documenting the work of students in different areas,” she added.

Both Fucigna and Wasserman observed students checking out books about sports cars, and lots of play and discussion around cars.

“Young gifted and talented children are interested in sorting and organizing their world along these kinds of categories,” Fucigna said. “We decided to test the waters in terms of whether to study cars because sometimes we think they’re fired up about an idea and when we have a few activities they don’t seem to go anywhere.”

In class, students brainstormed what they knew about cars, read books, embarked on mini field trips both on and off campus, made drawings, and added to their ongoing lists of terms as they increased their knowledge.

When prekindergartners were asked, “What are the parts of a car?” and “What parts are on all cars?” they gave a variety of the expected answers — “wheels,” “roof,” and “windows.”

And then the conversation moved to students making connections to their own lives.

“I have a jeep and the roof does not go on at all,” one student said. “Another chimed in, “I saw a light show with my grandma and some kids were standing up and out of it (the sunroof).” And a third said, “I have a car with a window on the top and I think it’s called window up. It opens.”

Early research questions and conversations like these gave Fucigna and Wasserman a better idea of where this particular group was in their understanding and what areas they might be interested in exploring more deeply.

“Tires are a big focus so we started to look at tires and wheels,” Fucigna said. “We utilized textbooks that are developmentally appropriate, but which also have a nice level of detail to them.”

While looking at photos of tires, students noticed many details such as the little black post sticking from the tire. They brainstormed what it might be:

“It’s where you put the air in so the tire doesn’t get flat,” one student answered. “Because then it will go really slow and pop.” “It makes your car go bump, bump, bump. After the bumps, it stops.”

“If a race car driver popped the tires they’d have to go to the pit,” another said. “Sometimes you take it to the repair shop, but then you’re out of the race.”

Additionally, students are learning that their study of cars extends across multiple subjects. In math, students are working on patterns that are connected to the car theme. For homework, students were asked to examine car tires at school and home and note the details they observed beyond just a circle. An adult also drove over a piece of paper so that prekindergartners could observe the pattern in the tire tread.

“The idea is cross-domain knowledge,” Fucigna said. “We’re trying to support ways to build knowledge by having cross-domain events. You can look for a pattern on your shirt, you can look for a pattern on a tire.”

In an effort to utilize experts and gain access to real world experience, a parent offered to change a tire with the students.

“It was super hands on. They could touch the bolts and helped push the jack up,” Wasserman said. “They could really see what we read about in books.”

During a field trip to Datsunville Automotive Center and Burlingame Auto, prekindergartners toured the repair areas, were shown how to change the oil in a car, and asked the shop owners a series of research questions.

The students wanted to know details such as “Do you use a notebook in your office?” “Do you have a hydraulic lift?” “Do you have a tire balancing machine?” “Do you have a day and night crew?” and “Do you have flat tires? Extra tires?”

On the adventure, they also viewed cars from the “olden days” and a car seat from the 1970s.

Recently, students have been studying the dashboard, its symbols, and the exhaust system. As for what’s next, that still remains to be seen.

“We have an idea, but we’re flexible and they’re going to direct us a little bit,” Wasserman said.

One idea is the outside symbols — stop signs and speed bumps, for example — that interact with cars and drivers.

“For the future, we’re interested in exploring with the students the role of the driver — why the driver is so central,” Fucigna said. “And also bringing in an imaginative focus where students will design and build their own car model that can include both imaginative and real attributes.”

“There’s so much we can do right here at Nueva,” she added. “It’s a very accessible, hands-on unit of study.”


 December 9, 2016



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