Thursday, October 12, 2017

Our first Umbrella Project!

Investigating Together:

Exploring the Charles River as a Center

“Learning and teaching should not stand on opposite banks and just watch the river flow by; instead, they should embark together on a journey down the water. Through an active, reciprocal exchange, teaching can strengthen learning how to learn.”
-       Loris Malaguzzi

The idea of embarking on an umbrella project came from work that is done in both Reggio Emilia, Italy and in the Sabot School at Stony Point in Richmond, Virginia. It is a center-wide investigation undertaken by children & teachers that continues throughout the year, in various forms both big and small. Together as a center, we defined what the topic of an umbrella project might be:

“A compelling, enticing, accessible, physical thing, event, place or idea (a noun) that elicits a emotional and metaphysical response between people. A catalyst with opportunities for investment in deep, dynamic connections, new ideas (growth).”

 For our first umbrella project (which we investigated during our 2016-2017 school year), we chose the subject of the Charles River – a unique and beautiful piece of nature in the midst of our urban surroundings. The river has always been a part of our school’s landscape – it can be seen through the Studio and T2North windows, and it is a location for occasional walks – and this year we sought to strengthen our relationship with and understanding of it through this investigation. For many classrooms, even the act of allowing children to get out of the buggy by the river was a revelation in itself. For others, the process of returning again and again led children to ask for and recognize just what a “river walk” meant. In addition, our attention and consciousness of the river opened our eyes to the way in which it changed over the course of the year – from the blooming flowers in summer, to the falling of the leaves in autumn, to the freezing of the water in winter, to the appearance of goslings in the spring. 

In order to share just a fragment about what I found to be a powerful center-wide experience, I used some of the headings from Ann Pelo’s book, TheGoodness of Rain: Developing an Ecological Identity in Young Children : walk the land, learn the names, embrace sensuality, explore new perspectives, create stories, and create rituals. Pelo describes these as ways in which we can foster children’s relationship with and stewardship of the natural world, and I believe they were all present in our investigation this past year. 

Walk the Land ------------------
Returning again and again to the river throughout the year allowed us to broaden our knowledge of its terrain. We learned the best places for children to throw rocks and sticks, or to look out over the river, to collect, to watch boats, or to gather flowers. Children grew familiar with the landmarks they would pass on the walk to and from the Charles. Teachers marked the evolution of children’s ability to traverse the challenges of uneven ground, long grass, mud, and tree roots.

At the beginning of the year, the prospect of walking along the river was a bit daunting for some. Many classrooms began with buggy and stroller rides, not yet venturing to let the children down to explore. However, over time, both teachers and children became more comfortable with the river and its banks, finding places where they felt safe to investigate beyond the buggy. Even our youngest infants spent time sitting, laying down, or crawling near the river. Building a relationship with this place allowed us to broaden our comfort zones  and place more trust and autonomy in children.

Create Rituals --------------------

Over our year of visiting and revisiting the river, many classrooms developed rituals to help build community and to strengthen children’s connections with place. In some cases, this took the form of finding a “spot” that a group would visit during each trip to the river. A gated ledge that allowed children to view the river up close without fear of actually entering the water became a favorite place for many to search for sticks to throw in on each walk. One classroom always stopped to look at the “turtle stone” that they passed on the walk to and from the river. For some children, it was important that everyone have a turn to push the crosswalk button as we waited a the juncture of memorial drive and DeWolfe street.

Embrace Sensuality --------------------
The sound of waves lapping after a boat has passed… the honking of geese… the feel of wind against your face or the sun on your back… the smell of autumn leaves, of chamomile buds, of daffodils… the softness of milkweed seeds… the prickle of burdock and sweet gum pods....  the sour taste of sorrel … the spicy taste of wild chives…

The river invited us to explore with all of our senses. We opened our ears to the sounds(after hearing a jet ski zoom back and forth, one child remarked, “It’s like a motorcycle!), and our skin to the feel of the  river’s offerings. Our eyes took in the many delights on display – the colors of autumn and spring, the ice and snow of the winter. We searched out opportunities to smell and taste where we could. Each visit became so much more than a walk – it was a full-body experience.

Explore new Perspectives ---------------
Our commitment to the Charles River led us to witness its beauty through a variety of lenses and from a variety of places. We watched it through windows, through the pillars of the John Weeks footbridge, and up close on its banks. We represented it in multiple media, and we took note of the ways the river itself changed through the seasons.

Visiting the river also offered teachers an opportunity to take on a child’s point of view. Infant teachers wondered at the view of the trees a baby might see lying on their back. Toddler teachers noticed how a seemingly small hill provided a real challenge to children still learning to walk. Preschool teachers shared the joy of being able to gather flowers without the restrictions of more manicured environments. The sight of a goose on its nest or a snail on the path brought as much excitement and interest to the adults as to the children.

Learn the Names ---------------------
As we move beyond the generic names of nature – bird, flower, leaf – into the specific, we are building our relationship with the natural word, just as we would a person. Over the course of the year, children and teachers across our center developed a greater intimacy with many of the things we encountered near the river.

Young toddlers came to know the difference between a goose and a swan, while older children (and teachers!) grew knowledgeable about some of the plants that grow on the riverbanks (“Watch out for burdock – it’s so sticky!”). We revisited these things in a variety of ways – not only on the walks themselves, but by bringing remnants into our rooms through photographs, collections, drawings, and field guides.

Create Stories ----------------------------
As we build relationships with a place, we begin to collect stories about it. We remember the things that we have seen, the special encounters we have had, and the changes we have noticed as a result of our kinship with this landscape. Through our documentation, teachers remind children of these stories and share them with those who were not present.

One example of the development of a story came early on in the year. Many children spent time painting under a large oak tree near the footbridge. Then, one day, some other children discovered that part of the tree had cracked and fallen. Over the next few days, children from many different classrooms encountered the tree in various stages of removal –from branches being cut to a stump in the ground, to an empty patch of dirt. This is a story that many preschoolers still remember and will reminisce about as we cross Memorial Drive.

This year, we are exploring sound as a center. Stay tuned - I'm sure there will be posts about it as the year progresses!

- Katie 


  1. Thank you for this great piece! it was fun going on river walks with you and others. I think my Most memorable walk was with Amara we found ice chunks that the kids could hold. They loved it! So did i!

  2. Thank you for this great piece! it was fun going on river walks with you and others. I think my Most memorable walk was with Amara we found ice chunks that the kids could hold. They loved it! So did i!

  3. A lovely recap -- thanks Katie! Excited to see how our next, new umbrella project unfolds throughout this year!

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