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Exploratory Learning: A Toolkit to Turn Elementary School Kids Into 'Neighborhood Detectives'

This San Francisco classroom taught kids to value their neighborhoods by mapping, walking and meeting them.

As Neighbor Day approaches, we here at GOOD would like to suggest that kids take a break from all that in-class activity and explore the world right outside their door. In collaboration with two wonderful first grade teachers, we’ve put together this terrific tool kit: the projects within it demonstrate that, for elementary school kids in particular, there are a million things to learn and discover while taking a walk around the block.

The Neighborhood Tool Kit takes its inspiration from Ms. Linnea and Mr. James’ first grade class at Children’s Day School in San Francisco. The school is located in the heart of the city’s Mission District where a walk in any direction provides a unique sensory experience. The 22 students set out on several journeys: from home to school, and from school to local business and landmarks (like the historic Mission Dolores across the street or the busy Bi-Rite Market two blocks south). Sights, smells and sounds of the streets were experienced and recorded. Maps were made. Interviews with neighbors, teachers, family members were conducted. Stories were written, art created.

The ideas and projects here are meant to inspire (and we think they can be a valuable addition to curriculum). They can be adapted to class size, neighborhood, age group. In getting kids to observe their world up close, we also hope to be inspiring future urban planners, community activists, entrepreneurs. With this tool kit, kids can see what might be possible—even on their own block.

Neighborhood Study Toolkit

For the past several months, the first grade class at Children’s Day School, located in San Francisco’s Mission District, has been exploring their neighborhoods. The students began by discussing what they think a neighborhood is and what they expect to see as neighborhood “detectives” in their school community. Each student made a map of their own neighborhood. Their explorations have taken them on many adventures around our school community, and has inspired each of them to have similar adventures in their own neighborhoods.

The neighborhood study is based on the premise that first-hand experiences are the most dynamic and generative types of learning for children at this age. Neighborhoods - diverse environments for living, working and playing—provide a dynamic setting for first graders to learn about themselves, their peers, their surroundings and the meaning of community.

Assignment #1:

Mapmaking: A Tool for Hitching Children’s Lives to Their Places

"Mapmaking, in the broad sense of the word, is as important to making us human as music, language, art, and mathematics…Mapmaking helps children to build a sense of commitment to a place and community - to inspire kids to care deeply and to want to make a difference, stewardship springs from connectedness." - David Sobel

We began our neighborhood study by each making a map of our own neighborhood, the area we spend most of our time in, where we play, where we live. The only thing each child had to include on their personal map was their home. Beyond that, it was up to them to show the places that felt special and important. This activity helped to provide the children with a sense of grounding and knowing when beginning to talk about such a big concept as neighborhoods.

We asked the following questions to support the children’s work:

~ What is a map?

~ What makes a good map?

~ What makes reading maps easy or hard?

~ Other than your home, what are the important places in your neighborhood you may want to add to your map?

We then mapped our classroom.

While beginning to explore our school neighborhood, the children simultaneously explored their own neighborhoods....which takes us to Assignment 2: A Neighborhood Collage.

Assignment #2:

A Neighborhood Collage

This assignment asks that your child create a representation, an expression, of their neighborhood in relation to themselves. Let’s call it, “All About My Neighborhood!”

This assignment is a team endeavor, as you support your child in coming to a deeper understanding of the community he or she lives in. Your child can decorate their board as they wish. Be creative! Take out scissors, glue, paint, fabric, construction paper, family, photographs, magazine cut-outs, etc. Before getting started, take some time to explore such questions as:

~ What neighborhood do I live in?

~ What is the name of my street?

~ Who are my neighbors?

~ What do I enjoy doing in my neighborhood?

~ What are my favorite places in my neighborhood? (i.e., park, restaurant, local book store)

~ Where do we get our groceries?

~ Where are places in my neighborhood that the community comes together? (i.e., local farmer’s market, ice-cream shop, church)

~ What is important to me about my neighborhood?

~ What makes my neighborhood special?

~ Do I have a special landmark in my neighborhood?

~ How can I best show the community I live in?

Your child may want to include a flyer from a local shop, a photograph of him/herself outside of their favorite restaurant, or playing at their local park.

This is a project that can be carried out in one sitting or in short intervals depending on your child’s temperament. Our hope is that your child will invest themselves in their creation and feel pride in sharing it with their peers. We look forward to creating a class neighborhood museum of these collages together.

Which brings us to Assignment #3: Neighborhood Walks…

Assignment #3:

Neighborhood Walks

During the neighborhood project, the students ventured out, exploring and researching, in and around our school neighborhood, which in this case was the Mission District of San Francisco. They visited Mission Dolores Church, Bi-Rite Market, Dolores Park, and walked up and down the blocks connecting each of these places simply noticing, growing their awareness, making connections, and sequencing their steps.

You and your child, or you and your class, can do this in your school neighborhood, selecting the locations that make sense there.

Having carried out several mapping activities to launch our study, the children were inspired to create a large map of the area surrounding our school. In order to do this, we needed to put our detective hats on and explore all the nooks and crannies around our school. We decided to walk up and down the blocks connecting the different places we’ve taken trips to. We ventured out slowly and simply noticed, while challenging ourselves to increase our awareness and make connections. We called these jaunts Sensory Walks and would use only our eyes, ears, and noses to sharpen our awareness and develop our observation skills. Here are several guiding questions that we asked ourselves as we walked:

~ What are the colors of the buildings on this street?

~ What are the buildings made of?

~ What types of shops do you notice?

~ What do you see, hear, smell on the streets?

~ What types of jobs are being carried out?

~ We asked questions about the logic and order of the work being done on the streets. For example, ‘If we see construction workers, what do you think they are doing? What are they building? How long will it take?’

Here's a glimpse of the making of our neighborhood map....

Assignment #4:

Mapping Activity: From Home to School

Once the children have done quite a bit of mapping work in their school neighborhood and their own, it is time to connect home to school. To gain a greater sense of one’s community and represent the order of places along a line of travel (sequencing), the children were asked to draw a map of their route from home to school. This challenge also provided the children with an opportunity to look closely at the daily experience of going to and from school. This transition from home to school can be both exciting and difficult (especially when they are running late!). Making a map and talking about it gives them a way to share their experience, hearing other children’s daily experience, and getting a sense of the community that they are all part of.

This activity is designed to help your child gain a greater sense of their community and represent the order of places along a line of travel (sequencing). This activity can help your child focus on what things they pass on the way to school and in what order. Your child’s job this week is to…

A. Take note of his/her route to school for the next two mornings and consider your home in relation to school.

B. What are two important places you notice on the way to school? (i.e. stores, significant trees, places where friends or relatives live, places where you play, etc.)

C. What are two places that are potentially dangerous or could be scary? (i.e. street crossings with lots of traffic, train tracks, construction work, etc.)

Then, using the worksheets provided, draw pictures of the places you’ve taken note of and cut them out. Create/construct a collage of your route to school each day on a large piece of art paper.

A. Glue the picture of your home and school on opposite ends of your piece of paper.

B. Connect home and school by drawing the roads, streets, and/or paths that you ride or walk along each day. Try to remember corners where you make big turns.

C. Arrange your important and scary places along the roads between home and school. Glue them in the right places.

D. Place/Draw a picture of you riding or walking to school somewhere along the route to school.

Assignment #5:

Neighborhood Interviews

This is a three-part assignment, designed to let students learn about the importance of neighborhoods to others in their community. They first interview a family member, then ask themselves what they like about their own neighborhood, and then, finally, interview school staff about where they live—and what they like about their own neighborhoods.

A: Interview a family member about the neighborhood they grew up in

Neighborhood Interview

Family Member: _________________

1. When you were in first grade, where did you live?

2. What was your favorite place and why in your neighborhood?

3. What games did you play in your neighborhood?

B. Neighborhood Project Scavenger Hunt

My Neighborhood

What is your address?

Where do you play in your neighborhood?

What businesses are in your neighborhood?

What do you like about your neighborhood?

What would you change about your neighborhood if you could?

C: Interview School Staff

When the class sat down to brainstorm what makes a neighborhood, everyone agreed that "people" were the most important part of any neighborhood. With that in mind, the Neighborhood Detectives broke into teams and set out to interview several school staff members to learn about their neighborhood and some of their favorite places.

Interviewing people they know helps young students connect with familiar people and places This human element makes the concepts of neighborhoods, landmarks and maps more meaningful, concrete and personal for them.

The students interviewed staff members at school, about the neighborhoods they live in. Possible Interview subjects at your school:

  • Front Desk Receptionist
  • Librarian
  • Kindergarten Teacher
  • Custodian
  • Art Teacher
  • Principal
  • \n

We asked them questions that the students helped to generate:

  • What do you do at CDS?
  • What neighborhood do you live in?
  • What is your favorite place in your neighborhood?
  • How do you get to school each day?
  • Do you live near nature?
  • \n

Neighborhood Reading List

Where Do I Live? By Neil Chesanow

Me on the Map by Joan Sweeney, Illustrated by Annette Cable

Be My Neighbor (with words of wisdom from Fred Rogers) by Maya Ajmera and John D. Ivanko

Grandpa’s Corner Store by Dyanne DiSalvo-Ryan

As the Crow Flies: A First Book of Map by Gail Hartman, Illustrated by Harvey Stevenson

The Listening Walk by Paul Showers, Illustrated by Aliki

City Beats: A Hip Hoppy Pigeon Poem by S. Kelly Rammell, Illustrated by Jeanette Canyon

Next Stop: Grand Central by Maira Kalman

Special thanks to Linnea Larsen, James Prietto and the 1st Grade Owls

Hang out with your neighbors on the last Saturday of April (a day we're calling "Neighborday"). Click here to say you'll Do It, and here to download GOOD's Neighborday Toolkit and a bunch of other fun stuff.

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