At the heart of Crossroads Elementary, an intricate maze of free-standing walls provides the structure within which young minds grapple with science authentically and imaginatively. Through breaks in the walls, passersby catch glimpses of a turtle’s terrarium, a large microscope, and tubs of building materials, hinting at the magic constructed here. This is the Inquiry Zone, or I-Zone, a network of over 60 material-filled stations that invite students to pursue their own scientific quandaries. Every station is designed to provide materials that spark the scientific imagination: how can you classify these objects? What do you notice about these seeds? What happens when you roll a ball down different ramps? The possibilities are as endless as the students’ curiosity.
This unique space was created at the school’s inception, and over the years, it has seen learning materials built and destroyed, ideas innovated and replaced, and teachers come and gone. So when I visited the I-Zone for the first time in July, it’s no wonder that decades of history lay strewn about in simi-chao, layers upon layers of station iterations stacked and mingled on every surface. So much potential in every nook and cranny, and yet, the space lacked… something. What is it about a space that invites children in, that hooks them with tantalizing promises of adventure, discovery, and fun? This was the challenge set before us, and one that we are perpetually trying to address.
One part of the solution was clear: we needed to declutter the I-Zone. Many days were spent sorting, cleaning, organizing, and removing. The rest of the answer wasn’t so obvious. As we began to set up stations for students to use, more and more questions arose. How many stations should we have open? What materials invite creativity without being too directionless? What will hold the attention of both a kindergartener and a second grader? How much mess is acceptable? What do these stations have to do with science?
Through many conversations, and a bit of trial and error, here’s what I can say with confidence:
- Sometimes, less is more. A station need not have 25 moving parts in order to engage young learners. One of the students’ favorite stations thus far consists of a critter keeper full of mealworms, 2 plastic spoons, and some bug boxes.
- What interests one student will likely have no appeal for another, though certainly th
ere are favorite stations. Depending on the student’s age, personal interests, and attention span, they will take joy in stations ranging from leaf-rubbings to top-spinning to bean-sorting.
- The younger the student, the more task-oriented the station needs to be. This isn’t to say that there should only be one “correct” task per station; indeed, kids will find ways to use the materials
in ways you never imagined. However, our very young learners had difficulty staying engaged with stations where they were not constantly manipulating materials with some sort of goal in mind. (ex. They love the stations where they use small units to build big structures, but they have no idea what to do with the station that consists of many rock samples and magnifying glasses.)
As more and more students use the I-Zone, we will continue to watch and listen, letting our students teach us what works and what doesn’t. Afterall, they are the experts in designing a space that engages them.