Kindergarten Goes Beyond the Square

October 21, 2023

Over the course of the 2023–2024 academic year, the Kindergarten class will be learning about the importance of sustainability. But how can one approach teaching this concept in a hands-on way with this age group? Easy! By using reusable materials and demonstrating how they can support creative thinking, doing, and playing.

The brainchild of Amy Helgeson, Kindergarten science teacher, Jenn Pentecost, Kindergarten art teacher, and Jessica Reich, Kindergarten homeroom teacher, this capstone sets the stage for the Kindergarten class to lead the way towards a more sustainable Lower School and Nightingale. “We’ve seen in the kitchen and other parts of the school where they’ve ramped up sustainability efforts—things like not using as much plastic and bringing in composting. So the Kindergarten students will be able to take that knowledge and way of doing things, add in their approach to play, and keep moving forward. I think they really do understand that the planet is in trouble, and while they don’t necessarily feel like the weight is on them to fix it, they do have a generation of parents who are aware of it and talk to them about it,” Ms. Reich noted.

Their inaugural sustainability exercise included a multi-step collaboration with Teaching Beyond the Square, a nonprofit based in New York City which aims to improve the quality of early childhood education. Earlier this fall, Teaching Beyond the Square brought their “materials trailer” to Nightingale and every Kindergarten student went “shopping” for recycled objects. They were given free reign to browse the very full shelves of the trailer and instructed to collect five objects each that intrigued them. Through this experience, Teaching Beyond the Square encourages the idea of ownership of play materials and reinforces how important it is to reuse materials and use imagination to repurpose objects in new ways. A building block of sustainability, this philosophy will be revisited through the school year.

After returning upstairs, students gathered in a circle around their selected materials and had the opportunity to sort through them and make observations about what they had collected. Each student was asked to describe an object using color, shape, and material for classmates to find. Finally, the students were then able to dig into the materials to create, storytell, collaborate, and imagine with one another. An important note: glue and tape are never used so that the materials can be used multiple times.

Seeing the students’ imagination run wild was especially rewarding, as they built entire worlds and scenarios out of bottle caps, corks, paper clips, buttons, etc. Ms. Helgeson noticed that students even made a pulley before they had even learned about simple machines in science class!

“We really want to see the Kindergarten take the lead in this and show the rest of the school how to do it. They play with these materials the best because their brains just work differently—it’s incredible to observe,” Ms. Pentecost said.

Ms. Reich continued, “If a student can choose to do that in play, it makes you wonder what can we do in other areas that make us a more sustainable school?”

Moving forward, the materials that the class collected will live in the classroom and the students will learn what it looks like to store them in a meaningful way. They’ll continue to work and play with them throughout the year—a perfect example of sustainability!