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The foundation of all of Dimensions' work, as identified by one of our core values, is the use of a rigorous research methodology that is based on close observation of children over time. Our work is disseminated nationally and internationally through our educational resources, Nature Explore™ classrooms, workshops, design consultations, presentations and publications. The following narrative describes the "story" of how our research began and how it has evolved over time.
Our Earliest Work
Dimensions' research began in February 1998. At the time, we were known as First-Plymouth Early Education Program, an early childhood program that primarily served preschool and kindergarten-aged children, with summer programs for children up to 5th grade. Our research was initially funded by a grant we received collaboratively with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL). The previous year, teachers and the program's executive director had attended a UNL-based aesthetic education program and met a teaching architect who also worked with aesthetic education programs in New York.
The key individuals involved in this early collaboration included early childhood educators (specifically teachers and the executive director at our early education program), the architect, an aesthetic educator from UNL, and a researcher from Doane College, who was added to the team to provide an evaluation component. From the beginning, we identified the purpose of our research as the exploration of how young children (ages 3-6) develop visual-spatial skills, and how early childhood educators could best support that development.
Teacher Training on Visual Notes Documentation
In February 1998 formal teacher training began. The architect trained a group of teachers on how to closely observe what children were doing as they worked with three-dimensional materials such as blocks, and record "visual notes" (borrowing from an architectural note-taking technique). For example, she taught teachers how to:
Initially half of the teachers were trained, and were given journals to document their observations of children's visual-spatial activities for the remainder of the Spring '98 semester. Teachers' observations mostly focused on children's work in the block area of one classroom. In the fall of that year, the remaining teachers were trained and also began documenting children's work in their block area. Over time, teachers' observations expanded as they began documenting children's visual-spatial work in other areas of their classrooms (e.g., the art, house, and toy areas). Within the first year, teachers described how their attitudes about the block areas changed. Prior to "the visual-spatial project" teachers viewed the block areas as noisy, chaotic, and difficult to manage. Many of the teachers admitted they were not comfortable in the block areas and regularly closed them (at least once a week). However, as teachers focused their observations on children in the block areas, and recorded visual notes, they realized the importance of the work children were doing there. One year into our work, those same teachers said they would "not dream of closing the block area". Teachers became more comfortable sitting in the block area, sketching children's work, and in some cases capturing some of the dialogue as children were building and interacting with other children. Two interesting phenomena occurred. First, more girls began to venture into the block areas. We hypothesize that the additional teacher support (i.e. being physically present) and paying so much attention to what children were building lured girls into the area. Second, children became very excited about teachers sketching their work and began adding to teachers' visual notes or asking for their own clipboards, pencils and paper. Before long, carrying clipboards and sketching became a way of life for children as well as teachers.
One of our earliest "ah ha" moments came when we were analyzing a teacher's visual notes that documented a structure a four-year old boy built. This special needs child created an elaborate castle. The teacher had sketched it in detail and the child sketched it also. As we analyzed both drawings we marveled: "Look how much this child knows about castles". His structure was tall, with turrets and walls, with a moat around it, and a drawbridge. It was carefully built and it was apparent that the structure required the use of several key construction and engineering skills. Though this child was verbally language delayed, and could not have articulated the elements of the "castle" he had built, he clearly communicated his knowledge and skills to us through his visual-spatial work. That insight forever changed the way we view children's work. As we poured over similar pieces of documentation, we recognized that children's visual-spatial work is a language, and that through their visual-spatial work children are:
The implication of this revelation for our teachers was that it is critically important to pay attention to children's visual-spatial work, so that we do not miss the important messages children are communicating to us.
The Evolution of our Research Focus
During those first years, when the primary focus of our work was on architecture, teachers learned a great deal about beautiful buildings and architectural elements. Teachers began integrating what they were learning into their lesson plans, to be more intentional about scaffolding children's learning about architecture and providing materials and experiences that would help children develop visual-spatial skills. For example, teachers created an "architecture walk" to help children appreciate the architectural beauty in the neighborhood surrounding the school. Teachers took small groups of children on guided walks that passed homes with arches, dentil moulding, catslide roofs, geometric-shaped windows, Doric, Ionic and Corinthian columns, brackets, towers and spires. The more children were exposed to buildings (and rich visual images) the more they began to represent interesting architectural elements in the structures they created and in their sketches and artwork.
In our early analysis of teachers' visual notes, we identified the importance of movement in children's block work, especially evident in children's "need" to move their bodies. This was repeatedly represented in the 100% scale structures children built (i.e., structures they could physically play on or in) or in their creation of objects that moved or had moving parts. Early on we identified that children with behavioral issues often needed this purposeful movement to help them focus and to calm them. We expanded the focus of our research to explore the role of purposeful movement in children's visual-spatial work, in helping them develop body competence, learn to negotiate objects and their bodies in space, and internalize their learning through developing muscle memory. Simultaneously, the architect began encouraging children to build outdoors using natural materials. She wanted them to understand the connection between the built and natural environments, and how architectural elements were present in nature, as well as how buildings could be inspired by nature.
Before long we recognized the connection between visual-spatial skills and nature. For example, nature provides powerful opportunities for all children to develop close observation skills; notice details, colors, patterns and textures; see things from multiple perspectives and levels; learn about pathways, space, scale relationships, whole-part relationships; experience area, volume and perimeter; estimate distance; even visually observe the seasons change. Understanding this link between visual-spatial skills and nature, and the value of helping children connect more deeply with the natural world became the impetus for exploring the important learning that takes place when children interact with nature.
As teachers observed children with special needs interacting in the outdoor classroom, we made another important discovery. These children, who were often strong visual-spatial and kinesthetic learners, were often in their element outdoors. As teachers stated, the outdoors became "an equalizer." It allowed children with special needs and behavioral challenges to be successful because they had the freedom to interact with natural materials in a myriad of ways. Repeatedly teachers described how giving children with behavioral challenges opportunities to spend time outdoors helped them become more engaged and focused, calmed them, and helped them be more productive when they returned to the indoor classroom. Teachers described how specific children who were challenged indoors excelled outdoors.
At various junctures of our research, we brought in outside consultants to react to our data and interpretations, including movement specialists, an individual who specialized in working with children with special needs, a licensed parent educator, a neuro-psychologist, and math and science education professors. Our research continued as we received subsequent funding, mainly through small, local grants.
Teachers had the opportunity to share their observations of children and their "ah ha" discoveries in weekly staff meetings and in structured focus group interviews each semester (facilitated by the researcher). This gave teachers the opportunity to reflect deeply about what they were doing and learning. Teachers found these opportunities for large group discussions to be inspiring. The ideas they bantered about often led to changing lesson plans, re-arranging classrooms, and providing new and different types of materials for children to explore.
Our first analysis team consisted of the executive director of the program, the architect, the aesthetic educator, and the researcher. We developed a protocol and analyzed all of the entries in teachers' journals and recorded key insights. We shared those findings with teachers in staff meetings and staff development training. We specifically identified the skills children were honing and developing through their visual-spatial work. We added teachers to the analysis team and continued to analyze teachers' visual notes.
Teacher Training Expanded
One year into our collaborative work, we expanded the focus of teacher training. This layered approach to training was intentional, to allow teachers to become comfortable with early training concepts before providing additional information. In 1999, our researcher trained teachers on qualitative research techniques to provide them with a methodological foundation for the work they were doing. The training provided an overview of qualitative research assumptions, described the single-site case study approach we were using, identified purposeful sampling strategies and key data collection procedures, and described the qualitative data analysis process. Most importantly, the training focused on teachers' key roles in the collaborative research process - as "human instruments", collecting the majority of our data through their close, direct observation of children. This was teachers' introduction to the "teacher-as-co-researcher" model we have used since our research began.
Over several years the architect, movement specialists, and the researcher provided updated teacher training at staff meetings. In the fall of 2001 the researcher offered a three-credit graduate level qualitative research course on-site and eleven teachers completed the course (in 2007 the course was offered again, for both teachers and Dimensions' consultants). It was the combination of the concepts incorporated into early teacher training and key learning from our research findings that contributed to the creation of Dimensions' workshop series. Today, all new teachers complete the workshop series, and the researcher conducts annual training for new teachers, which provides an overview of our research methodology and the teacher-as-co-researcher role.
As our research evolved, teachers' co-researcher roles expanded significantly. They became integrally involved in the development of our research protocols, to ensure that the systems we created worked for them. Working collaboratively with the researcher, teachers helped create and revise the Visual Notes documentation form, and later helped create and revise the Nature Notes form. Teachers who had specific designated research hours became part of two regular analysis teams that meet weekly to analyze data (i.e., one preschool analysis team and one infant/toddler team). During the 2006-2007 year, we hired classroom substitutes so that every teacher on staff had the opportunity to participate in an analysis session. This involvement in analysis increased teachers' understanding of the importance of their documentation to our research, and provided insight into how we physically work with the data. In the 2007-2008 year we made a commitment to teachers' continued involvement in analysis, and each semester designated a full two-hour staff meeting for analysis, so all teachers remained involved.
Key Events That Impacted Our Research
In 2002, two major events occurred as our program and our research expanded. First, we added an infant-toddler component to our program. Then, prior to the 2002-2003 school year we trained infant-toddler teachers to record visual notes and later trained them on qualitative research methods. Second, First-Plymouth Early Education Programs formed Dimensions Educational Research Foundation. With the name change the early education classrooms were designated as Dimensions' research classrooms, where our research and field-testing is conducted. We created Dimensions' mission statement and core values, and identified three key focuses of our research and training: building, nature and purposeful movement.
Two of the first key documents we produced, based on careful analysis of our data, were the Construction Typology and our Working Hypotheses. The construction typology was created exclusively from our data, i.e. the sketches teachers made of children's visual-spatial work. The architect re-analyzed teachers' journals to identify key construction and engineering skills children were demonstrating in their building, and developed a visual typology of those skills. The skills were represented in their simplest form to more complex variations. The Construction Typology served as a useful guide for teachers, to help them identify specific skills. Perhaps the biggest surprise, however, was that the typology inspired children's building. Teachers enlarged and laminated copies of the typology and posted them in the block areas of the classrooms. Often children referred to the typology as they built, sometimes experimenting to see if they could build what was depicted in the pictures (e.g., a bridge, tunnel, ramp, enclosure, imbricated wall). The skills analysis and construction typology provided early insight into how much children were learning as they worked in the block areas.
Through experimentation, close observation, and discussions with the architect and movement consultants, teachers realized the value of adding other types of three-dimensional objects to the block area, and added materials such as fabric, clips/fasteners, tubes, straws and connectors, ceramic and linoleum tiles, architectural blocks and a variety of recycled materials. Teachers began discussing ways specific materials would support different kinds of skill development and became more intentional as they purchased classroom materials and incorporated the use of those materials into their lesson plans.
The architect emphasized the importance of providing children with a "rich depository" of visual images that they could draw from, and three-dimensional materials that children could physically explore. Teachers posted photographs, postcards, and posters of interesting and beautiful buildings in the classrooms. The architect, researcher, teachers, and others donated a variety of miniature replica buildings to the school (constructed in multiple mediums including metal, resin, plaster, wood and plastic), and within a year, our collection of replica buildings had grown to over 100. Children loved handling and sketching these buildings and re-creating them out of a variety of three-dimensional materials, paying close attention to details. Sometimes, when the buildings were not out, children used their visual memories to build them. Teachers noticed that children began building more sophisticated structures (e.g., the Sphinx Pyramid, the Sears Tower, The Tower Bridge, the Chrysler Building, Empire State Building, Leaning Tower of Pisa) with the replica buildings as models. Children were learning about the architectural features of the buildings, their geographic locations, factual information, and interesting stories about them. Teachers also added architecture books to the block area and explored those books with children. Sometimes children consulted those books as they built. Early on, a parent came to school and asked, "What are you teaching these children?" On a car trip, his three-year old daughter had observed high wires hanging from a pole and said, "Look Daddy, that looks like the Eiffel Tower!"
We spent five years mostly focused on teacher training, collecting teachers' visual notes and analyzing data. In our sixth year, 2004, we internally published a summary of our early findings. We titled the document "Working Hypotheses - Insights from Visual Notes". In 2006, using our analysis to date, the researcher compiled a comprehensive list of key skills children were developing as they built with blocks and other materials, moved their bodies, and interacted with nature. At teachers' request, in 2007 this skills list was added to our documentation protocols.
Our research findings and field-testing have informed teachers' practice and led to the creation of Dimensions' educational resources. We created a workshop series that is offered in Nebraska and on-site for organizations across the country. In collaboration with the Arbor Day Foundation, we have created Nature Explore family and classroom materials and the Nature Explore Classroom certification process.
The Impact of our Research on Creating Materials and Spaces for Children
We have applied what we have learned from our research and field-testing to the creation of quality learning materials and spaces for children. Our first Nature Explore Classroom was constructed in 2004-2005 on site at our early education program. It officially opened with a ribbon cutting ceremony in April 2005.
In collaboration with the Arbor Day Foundation, we constructed a large Nature Explore Classroom that became part of the Arbor Day Farm's Tree Adventure in Nebraska City. The grand opening was in April 2006.
In the spring and summer of 2006, Dimensions First-Plymouth Early Education Programs constructed a smaller Nature Explore Classroom, with materials and surfaces designed specifically for infants and toddlers. It was constructed adjacent to the original outdoor classroom used by preschool children.
In 2007 Dimensions formally partnered with the Arbor Day Foundation to offer Nature Explore workshops and field-tested educational resources, and to provide site consultations across the country to organizations interested in constructing certified Nature Explore Classrooms.
Our research also directly informed the creation of an interactive traveling exhibit, constructed in collaboration with the Arbor Day Foundation. This exhibit, Exploring Trees from the Inside and Out, officially opened in Seattle, Washington in February 2008.