A Yearlong Study in Construction,

Teamwork and Materials


Children entered the building during the first months of school hearing the sounds of construction work happening in the basement. Then there was the day they saw all the old “potties” outside of the building in a dumpster! As many of the children had played in the basement during their year in the 2s, questions started to percolate. “What is happening? Where are those sounds coming from? What are they doing?” Like many Inquiry Cycles, the first step a group takes is a field trip to create a shared experience. Children went down into the basement where they heard about making the space better for children to play and creating a bathroom just for kids. They also started to meet experts such as the plumbers and our site manager. Through these experiences, children began to connect prior knowledge to new questions and concepts. Materials were brought into the classroom such as actual nuts and bolts, a work bench and dramatic play materials to extend children’s thinking and allow them to unpack their new knowledge. During play, children recreate what they know and explore new concepts. Teachers listened closely, read stories, watched play and held group conversations.

Children visit the basement construction site

Children meet our site manager and learn about his job

Children explore construction tools

A child recreates the role of a construction worker

Teachers continued their reflective process through webbing, examining documentation and team conversations. A clear interest in the vehicles associated with construction was taking shape for children. Teachers started to focus their provocations, the thoughtful layout of materials to promote exploration, around vehicles. The books on the shelves were rotated, the conversations shifted, and the play changed in response. In Playful Inquiry, teachers work to strike a balance between a broad enough entry point to welcome all learners and a tight enough focus to ensure the learning is targeted. It is also incredibly powerful for young children to work together to create something larger than what one child can do on their own. Teachers supported the children to vote for the vehicle they wanted to learn about. Our initial Construction Inquiry Cycle shifted to a more specific Excavator Inquiry Cycle.

Children play with construction vehicles 

 A child explores vehicle documentation

In an adult dominated world, children can struggle at times to feel autonomous. It is the goal of our classrooms for children to feel empowered to have real impact on their environment and own their decision making. We also believe that learning is a social act where children can learn from one another to find new strategies and problem solve together. It was clear that the group needed to build their own excavator to better understand the vehicle as well as work together to accomplish something big! After exploring cardboard boxes as part of the construction play, the group worked to paint a box yellow as steppingstone to the creation of the excavator. They referenced documentation, prior experience, videos and books to understand the different components like the arm, bucket, cab, crawler tracks, etc. They created “blueprints” to imagine how these various elements could be integrated into a child-sized cardboard vehicle.
A child’s excavator blueprint
The children then divided into construction teams and material exploration took another step. Each team went “shopping” at a specially curated upcycled materials collection, gathering materials they thought would be the best to use for their particular element. For instance, coffee cans were chosen to make crawler tracks while sturdy cardboard tubes were chosen to create the arm. Through facilitation from teachers, these teams started to experiment with how to manipulate the materials to form the structures they needed. Children problem solved continually. “Is tape better than glue?” “Is that going to hold our weight?” “How is the driver going to see out?” “How can we get the arm and bucket to move and scoop?” It was magical to watch as children tried different strategies, talked to one another and even asked friends from the 3s/4s/5s if they had any suggestions or advice. In one magical moment, a child from another team found a solution for the buttons inside the cab. It was a true team effort.

A child works with a teacher to attach tubes for the arm

A child problem solves for the crawler tracks

In the midst of this work, we discovered that an actual excavator was working on 5th Avenue! The group shifted their plan for the day and went out to see the actual vehicle that had been thinking about for months outside working! It was so exciting to watch the vehicle in action, ask the construction workers what they were doing and understand the excavator in greater detail. The children realized we needed some kind of bell to signal when it was moving as there were so many sounds coming from the vehicle we hadn’t realized before!

Children observe an excavator in action

Final touches were made on their “child sized” model and then it was time to use it! The arm and bucket became an actual working lever. The cab door could open and close. A bike bell was installed to warn pedestrians that the vehicle was in motion. We set up an auxiliary space as a construction zone with projections, sound, and shredded paper as soil. Children played and showcased all they had learned about this vehicle. The final step in an Inquiry Cycle is to share your knowledge as the act of sharing solidifies concepts learned as well as allows children an opportunity to reflect on and celebrate their hard work. The class worked to sequence a book of photographs outlining the steps they had taken over the year. Children dictated language about the photos that highlighted all of the new vocabulary they had learned. They wrote a letter to their grown-ups inviting them to a Zoom party to celebrate. The party included a special excavator song, videos of the children using the excavator and a read aloud of their book. And finally, no party is complete without a special treat! The children voted to make ice cream. It was a remarkable year of teamwork and problem solving!

Final touches are added

The excavator in action