What Fairy Gardens Taught Me About Makerspaces, Teaching, and Learning

Entertaining a 5 year old and 3 year old during the summer is a big job.  I love being a parent, and it has made me grow so much as an educator.  Summertime brings many days of opportunities for adventures.  We get out of the house every single day and go somewhere whether it’s the botanical gardens, the local UGA campus, the local zoo,a movie, or the pool.  In between all of the fighting that happens between a brother and sister, there is a lot of curiosity about the world, and I love watching this unfold during the summer.

Recently, Athens held its big summer music festival, Athfest.  A part of this festival is an artist market, and my kids loved seeing what was in each tent.  Their attention was most drawn to a booth of fairy gardens.  These artists had created living pieces of art inside picture frames and jars.  They had made every single item in the gardens.  Building on my kids’ curiosity of this art, I decided we would make fairy gardens one day.  The only instructions we had were the memories of what we had seen at Athfest.  I intentionally did not look up examples on the computer because this was not a copying activity.  I wanted this to be full of investigation, dreaming, tinkering, and creating.  In fact, I really love not planning out every single detail of what we do because I can just see where the curiosity takes us.

We started by looking around our house for fairy homes.  We looked at several pickle and jelly jars as well as empty flower pots.  Alora and Anderson each chose their favorite.

Then, we had an outing to the local hobby and craft store to find trinkets for the fairies.  I didn’t have a specific budget in mind, but I like a good bargain, so I didn’t plan to spend very much.  We got a basket and each child got to put things into the basket as possibilities.  There’s not really a “fairy garden” section in the store so you have to really wander around with a fairy eye and think about what a fairy might like in his or her house.  We spent a good amount of time in the dollhouse section of the store.  Finally we made our way to the clearance section which was a hodge podge of all kinds of stuff.  We really had to dig here.  After the basket had a good amount of stuff, I got out my phone calculator and started looking through the basket.  We sorted piles of “definitely want”, “kind of want”, and “don’t want”.  As Alora and Anderson were making those decisions, we talked about price and also how many items were in each pack.  They knew they would be sharing so they were more interested in packs that had multiple items in them that could be split up.  After agreeing on an amount, we visited the register, chatted with the cashier about fairy gardens, and paid our bill.

Back home, we took to the outdoors with a basket.  We did a nature walk and collected free items for our gardens.  On our walk, we talked about what to touch and what not to touch.  We collected sticks, rocks, pine cones, moss, and leaves.  Finally, we prepped our fairy gardens.  Again, we didn’t specifically look up what we should put, but we talked a bit about the layers in the Earth and decided to make some layers in our gardens.  We filled the bottom with rocks.  We didn’t have any sand, but we noticed that there were some rocks along the sides of the house that had been broken down a lot by the water gushing out of the gutters.  We talked about the rock cycle and erosion while we shoveled up some of this sand and bits of rocks to make another layer.  Finally, we put a layer of dirt.

Back inside, we added some water to pack everything together a bit and then topped our containers off with some moss.  We spread out all of the items from our nature walk as well as all of our trinkets from the store.  They both started placing items into the gardens and making decisions about what the fairies would like the most.

When their construction was complete, we topped off each garden with a metal candle shade from our junk closet and placed all of the remaining items in a ziploc bag so that they could trade out things in the gardens when they wanted to.  The gardens went to each child’s room.  At bedtime, I went in Alora’s room and she was busy once again.  On her own, she had gotten a roll of tape and a ziploc bag.  The ziploc was on top of the metal shade and was securely taped on.  When I asked about it, she told me that if a fairy went inside she didn’t want it to get out.  Nevermind the gaping hole on the front of her flowerpot.  I loved how she was already extending what we had started.

It really wasn’t until that moment that I started reflecting on the whole experience: where we had been, where we could go, and what implications it had for my own teaching.

A Few Topics We Explored:

  • perspective through the eyes of a fairy
  • financial literacy through budgeting and decision making
  • speaking and listening
  • layers of the Earth
  • habitats
  • erosion and rock cycle
  • plant identification
  • problem solving
  • reusing
  • safety
  • art
  • creativity

A Few Potential Extensions:

  • reading fairy stories to learn more about fairy behaviors and needs
  • building upon Alora’s idea of a fairy trap.  We could use littlebits to make an alarm to alert us when a fairy is inside.
  • adding electronics and circuitry to our garden.  To give the appearance of a fairy or even to add some light for an existing fairy, we could use littlebits or leds with coin cell batteries.  This could lead to a whole exploration of circuits and electricity.
  • spending more time learning about terrariums and the types of plants that could live inside a jar.
  • storytelling based on our fairies and fairy gardens.

Some Takeaways

  • Some of the best learning experiences can happen when you don’t have every detail planned out. We had a goal, which was to build a fairy garden, but we didn’t lock ourselves into a series of steps.  While I love to plan, I think we often miss out on some incredible learning opportunities with students when we aren’t observing, pausing, listening, and reflecting.
  • Our library makerspaces are a place where these types of experiences can launch, but the space alone does not create the learning.  I add a few layers to our makerspace each year.  More stuff brings more possibilities.  However, I learned last year that you can’t just turn kids loose in the makerspace and expect that they are going to come out with an amazing project.  There’s a big inquiry piece that is amplified through conversations with an educator like the librarian.  Kids can come into the makerspace to dream, tinker, and create, but it is up to us to be observing, listening, reflecting, and inquiring to take the student learning to the next level.
  • When students are engaged through something that is of their own interests, multiple required standards can be woven in.  They may not happen on the timeline that comes from the district or state, but they can be woven in.  My struggle, just like many educators, is how to replicate this type of individual experience with a class of 25-30 students.  It can be done.  I believe it can, but it is very tricky.
  • I thought back to my experiences with Kelly Hocking, a kindergarten teacher at our school.  She can take just about any topic that most of the class is interested in and create a magical year long project that weaves in multiple standards, experiences, and projects.  The fairy garden could easily be that kind of project, but I’m not telling everyone to go out and make fairy gardens.  I think we need to listen to our students’ voices, find their interests, and somehow find connecting threads that allow us to create projects and experiences that honor those while still upholding the standards we are required to teach.

I know there is more here, but my brain is in summer mode and I’m still trying to entertain a 3 and 5 year old as I write.  I’m going to continue thinking on this.  If you have your own thoughts, ideas, extensions, takeaways, etc, please leave them in the comments.

Real-Life Angry Birds: A 3rd Grade Action Research Project

Our school has a problem that I’m sure many of you have seen or have experience with.  We have angry birds.  Not the ones that live on an iPhone, iPad, or other device.  These are ones that take a crash dive into the windows of the school and either knock themselves out or something a little more grimm.  Our students, of course, notice this every time they pass by a window.

Mrs. Shealey’s 3rd grade students have decided to do something about this, so they have launched into an action research project which ties to many of their curriculum areas including habitats, research, information writing, data collection & interpretation, and more.  It would be easy for a small group of adults to sit down and figure this out, but it is much more meaningful when the students are involved.  It is also our hope that the process of this project will carry over into the lives of students outside of school to notice problems, investigate, and take action.

Mrs. Shealey is doing a tremendous amount of work for this project within her classroom, but the library has been one small piece of this larger initiative.  Mrs. Shealey, Ms. Hicks (spectrum teachers), and I met to brainstorm and map out a timeline.

Our webcam pathfinder

Our webcam pathfinder

I wanted to help the students with observational skills.  When I stayed on Skidaway Island for 2 weeks a few years ago, I practiced careful observation in a field journal.  We decided to have one lesson in the library that explored careful observation.  I shared my journal including the sketches, quick notes, and deep reflection that I did on various pages.  I talked about the importance of being still, staying focused, noticing the small things, and observation stamina.  Then, students moved to computers where they used multiple live and recorded webcams to practice observing.  While students observed, the three of us made note of what they were doing well, what needed to be worked on, and what we might need to focus on as we did our actual observations of the birds at Barrow.  I think this practice session was really helpful to the process.

Using webcams to practice observation

Using webcams to practice observation

In class, students began making bird feeders that they plan to put outside the windows that birds are crashing into.

Mrs. Shealey also split the class into 4 small observation groups that both me and Ms. Hicks took to observe at the windows in the hallway leading down to the media center.

Here’s a quick look at what we saw:

I was amazed by the noticings the kids made after 30 minutes of careful observations and prompting from me and Ms. Hicks.  Some examples are:

  • Birds were more attracted to the tree that had berries and leaves on it outside the window than to the tree that was bare.
  • Some students had put laminated colorful pictures of flowers on the outside of the window and birds were flying straight into those pictures.
  • The window is different than other windows because the outside is exactly like a mirror.
  • Birds did not fly into the window when we were outside watching, but they did fly into the window when we were inside.
  • The tree with the berries seemed to have a smell that some students thought might attract birds.
  • Students noticed that birds were not flying into the windows of other hallways and wondered if it was the height of those windows that caused that.
  • Students began to wonder if bird feeders, statues, dark colored window decals, and perches might deter the birds from the window.

I think that these students crafted some wonderful, authentic questions that they can now research and create things to test out in this space.  As we observed, several teachers stopped and thanked the students for working on this project and asked them to share their findings with the whole school because some teachers are having the same problem at their classroom windows.

birds8 birds7 birds6 birds3 birds2 birds

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here are a few of the student reflections about what they saw: