This month I am teaching at one of the most outstanding programs for gifted children – Worlds of Wisdom and Wonder run by the Center for Gifted, (a Northern Illinois University partner) founded by Joan Franklin Smutny. The Center for Gifted’s creative, hands-on classes reach thousands of students from preschool through twelfth grade in the greater Chicagoland area each year.
Sometimes a two-week summer program feeds a gifted child through the hum-drum of a generally unchallenging school routine. I know this to be true, because in the summer after my third-grade year (the year when I repeatedly threatened to drop out of school), I attended Worlds of Wisdom of Wonder myself.
There, my intrigue in math and problem solving soared as a result of Christopher Freeman’s teaching, and my future work as a writer was sparked in Joan Smutny’s creative writing class. This experience literally sustained me for the rest of my elementary years of 100 percents and lackluster learning.
Content Balanced With Activities
Amy Jacobs is a well-known primary teacher in the Chicago area, and is a seasoned expert working with young gifted children. She taught a prekindergarten/kindergarten class on Oceans at Worlds of Wisdom and Wonder. We discussed the challenging task of combining content with age-appropriate hands-on activities for young gifted children. Oftentimes the preschool and early elementary years are geared toward play and group work, but lack the content that effectively engages gifted students.
On the opposite end of PK/K environments is the highly academic classroom, which provides “advanced” skill work (such as early reading and writing), but little opportunity for exploration, problem solving, and applied learning. These classrooms tend to be focused on pushing students ahead, rather than providing opportunities for learning depth.
The Center for Gifted classes, and classes at my own Sparkitivity, are always designed to deliver a balance of age-appropriate content, opportunity for in-depth discovery, and flexibility.
When designing a learning environment for young gifted children, it is important, as Amy Jacobs says, to introduce content accessible to many levels of learning. For example, on the first day of their Oceans class, 4- and 5-year-olds entered a classroom full of books about the ocean on outward-facing book racks, multiple maps of the world, ocean creature stuffed animals, a portable sandbox with shovels and pails, play-dough, and more.
Although it’s easy to understimate them, gifted preschool children love learning about concepts not typically introduced until second or third grade. However, even within a self-contained classroom of gifted children, there is still a span of learning levels, styles, and interests so it is crucial to pair content with age-appropriate, multi-sensory activities.
Have you ever noticed that many sea creatures have white bellies and dark tops? This is an example of camouflage, and was one of the advanced concepts Mrs. Jacobs introduced to her young students.
They observed the white bellies and dark tops on sea creature figurines and stuffed animals. Then they glued pre-cut fins and white bellies onto black Orca cut-outs. This basic cut-and-paste activity, coupled with the high–level content, reinforced the concept for a variety of learning levels and types.
Other content areas that the Oceans class explored included the (now) five oceans, the layers of the ocean, the differences between mammals and fish, and the functionality of scuba gear.
To find in-depth content for preschool and kindergarten-aged gifted students, look beyond primary workbooks. Maps, globes, facts, processes, science projects, and higher-level math concepts are fair game. Of course, you can’t just use a third-grade lesson plan, but have to prepare appropriate hands-on activities to support the content.
Puzzles of the sea and the world, fish costumes, scuba gear, maps, art projects, books, science experiments, measuring, reader’s theater, play-dough, and simulations are all activities that Amy Jacobs has used in her Oceans classes.
As we have discussed before, young gifted children often value process over product. If your classroom includes primarily product-focused activities, gifted children may feel boxed in by the expectation to perform without the chance for exploration. They may even become skeptical of what you are offering, forcing you to win them back again.
“Conflict arises if you feel the students always need to be producing something,” says Mrs. Jacobs.
There was a student in her clas that only wanted to cut yarn. He cut yarn for 45 minutes. An observer might have concluded that the child wasn’t learning, but in fact, the 4-year-old was practicing valuable small-motor skills and was listening to the activity going on around him in the classroom.
Through this cutting, he experimented with measurement and contributed materials to the class’s upcoming jellyfish project. The next day, as the class was engaged in reader’s theater, this same child made high-level connections between the book and a story he had read before.
Speaking of reader’s theater, have you ever tried it with a class of mostly non-readers?
In Oceans, the students “read” The Magic Pail by Mildred Phillips. Mrs. Jacobs assigned one part to the boys, one part to the girls, and she read the narrator. And how to get the non-readers to say their lines? She said the lines out loud and the children repeated them.
Another activity the children have been working on is shredding toilet paper and ivory soap into a big, clear container. They will then gradually add hot water until they have the consistency of cool whip. The result: clean mud, which they will use to create models of the ocean floor in disposable aluminum pans. This is another multi-sensory, preschool-appropriate project that results in deep content-based learning.
Mrs. Jacobs creates a rich learning environment with plenty of choices, including the choice to be an “observer” for those who wish to sit on the perimeter and watch or read quietly. Not every child participates in every activity. Some children choose to play with the toys. This flexibility is an essential ingredient to successfully working with young, gifted children.
The priority is to nurture a love of learning, exploration, and problem solving by creating a flexible, content and activity–rich environment. Make a safe space where children can pursue that which sparks their interests from a selection of purposeful, multi-sensory, content-based activities. In this type of setting, poignant learning takes place as children work, explore, create, and observe.
Three basic questions to help you more effectively meet your primary gifted students’ needs while planning:
- Am I focusing on having the students produce a uniform or pretty product at the expense of providing opportunities through which they can experiment, tinker, explore, or solve?
- What more can I provide to create depth, content, and intrigue for this particular topic?
- Have I incorporated art, music, literature, and open-ended exploratory activities into this theme?
Photo by Barefoot In Florida