Tapping Into Young Students’ Interest in Construction
A preschool teacher in Brazil guided her students to learn to make bricks from sustainable materials—and to build their own playhouse.
Living in a big metropolitan city like São Paulo, Brazil, offers children the chance to see construction sites almost everywhere. It’s part of their daily routine: trucks being unloaded, materials piling up on the sidewalks, uniformed workers carrying tools, the sound of machinery, etc.
Naturally, children are curious about all of this and bring this curiosity to the classroom, asking questions like, “How can buildings get this tall without falling?” ”What materials do they use to hold the building together?” and “Where can we find these materials?”
Organizing a Building Project
As a preschool teacher, because of the children’s interest in this subject I wanted to go further with their questions about construction and building. So I planned a play- and inquiry-based project to foster their research, aiming for new experiences and knowledge related to this topic.
First, I organized the classroom space based on the project and our goals, making the classroom environment a part of the children’s learning and the development of their ideas. I considered the choice and arrangement of materials we would be using, as well as an initial exploration time for the children to talk about their ideas and concepts individually, with their peers, in small groups, and/or with the whole group. This also helped enhance interactions between peers: children-children, children–classroom space, children-teacher.
Their space became a powerful tool for learning and for sharing experiences, and promoting their critical and reflective thinking. It also facilitated the personal relationships that motivate collaborative work, with autonomy and creativity.
Letting the Students Take the Lead
For the children’s first exploration step, they played with recycled materials, such as cardboard boxes, paper rolls, lids, and plastic bottles. This allowed them to raise hypotheses and test their ideas while putting these materials together: “How can we keep our tower upright? How can we make our construction stronger?”
From the central question the children asked while exploring and building with these recycled materials, “How are bricks for houses made?” we began some pre-research. To help them find answers, I gave them new challenges—additional materials to include in their experimentation: sand, water, dirt, and straw, resources from nature that are used to build some types of houses. I kept questioning the children about what they were doing in order to raise more hypotheses.
Throughout this journey, we watched several videos about people trying to make their own bricks. Based on what we saw in these videos, we started on our experiments, trying out materials to make bricks. First, the children tested dirt and water. Their mixture was either too soft or too hard, and it took them some time to find a recipe and come up with the idea of putting the mixture in the sun to dry. Even though the water and dirt hardened into bricks, they broke apart when the children used them to build. Then, while examining why our mixture wasn’t working well, one of the children pointed out that on his trip to the northern part of Brazil, he saw many houses that were made with dirt, but they also had some straw and wood in their composition.
Accomplishing the Goals of the Project
After some tests with these materials—water, straw, dirt, and wood—we came up with a mixture of sand, straw, and water that would work to form bricks that were strong enough for building houses. Following this, we started a research process using videos, photos, input from the school community and partnering with a bioconstruction engineer to find out what other materials we could use in a sustainable way.
Using metacognition and evaluation with the children was necessary to move from one step to another. I photographed each step and showed the students the pictures so we could discuss the results. We also saved some of the first attempts to discuss what went wrong and what worked. The children were then able to fix what didn’t work in order to reach our goal: make bricks that would be capable of being used to construct a small dwelling. To enhance their appreciation of buildings, I shared with the class several photos of houses built using bioconstruction techniques (such as incorporating wood, bamboo, bottles).
Our goals for this project were to increase interaction, build and share knowledge with the school community, broaden the students’ world knowledge, and strengthen their research abilities. We documented their explorations with videos and photos, and together we made a big board to share our findings with the school community.
The final product was a house for the children to play in that they built using the sustainable bricks they had created, along with wood and bottles, which involved the entire school community (parents, students, teachers, and the bioconstruction engineer). These days, the house shelters the school’s compost heap. And the children will always remember how they made the bricks that made this house.