Children's imagined adventures become learning experiences

Posted January 3, 2010 10:32 a.m. EST

Project Education: Edutopia, a partnership between WRAL-TV and the George Lucas Educational Foundation, brings the story of an Alabama school where the creativity of young children leads not to chaos, but to learning.

Auburn Early Education Center in Auburn, Ala., teaches 500 3- to 5-year-olds. They learn through themed adventures in which they exercise their imagination.

The school's former principal, Dr. Lilli Land, described one exercise that students did:

"Let's say that the theme is Brazil. They begin to study Brazil by going on the Internet. They look up information," she said.

"Then they decide, 'Well, we want to go there.' And teachers pose to them, 'Well, how can we get there?'"

The children studied maps and figured out how they could get to Brazil. "Then they may decide, 'Well, we're going by plane. We need to construct some type of model of a plane,'" Land said.

The children went on a field trip to the Auburn airport to learn about the mechanics of airplanes and piloting. Back at school, they used cardboard, construction paper and other classroom materials to recreate what they had seen.

The children simulated a flight to Brazil, and the teacher gave them a virtual field trip of the country and its culture.

"It's not just an arbitrary, cutesy activity," Land said. "The kids are highly motivated to be involved, because they're doing it for a reason."

Teacher Stacye Jones said that a bit of skillful coaching can turn everyday events into engaging learning experiences for children.

For example, she said, the death of the class praying mantis became a lesson in funeral customs, incorporating science, social studies, math and writing.

"I got in everything all through an authentic purpose for learning," Jones said. "They were interested. And once you have them interested, they can't get enough information. They love school, because it's authentic."