November 29, 2012

Castles and Catapults

2nd graders defend the large castle they've built in their classroom
We’re a little short of castles here in Boulder County.  You know, the real ones, built of stone by craftsmen and indentured servants back in the Middle Ages.  Inhabited once upon a time by knights in shining armor and beautiful maidens. Marauded and pillaged and left in ruins for centuries in the nearby countryside.

It’s too bad because castles are cool – and they are amazing places to visit: living history, imposing and impressive and, dare I say, romantic.  Growing up in southern England and attending school a stone’s throw from the site of the Battle of Hastings (which launched the Norman invasion of Britain in 1066), I got to be a school-age expert on castles.

Yet the absence of castles here in our neck of the woods has not deterred the children at Friends’ School from learning a thing or two about the building of castles and life inside castles.

Preschoolers building their castle out of blocks
Step inside one of our preschool classrooms and you’ll see wonderful castles being built out of blocks.  Block play is an essential part of our preschool program. Blocks are important for children's growth in many ways. Children develop physical hand strength while building. They work in cooperation with their peers and develop strong language skills. Kids are developing math skills in the block area. They are deciding how many blocks of which size to fill a space and if a shorter block would be better than a longer block.

Preschoolers are learning patterns as well as cause and effect. For example, a child will be able to see that if they stack too many blocks too high, they will fall.  They learn to deal with that disappointment and learn that strong teamwork will get the castle built again.

In our 2nd and 3rd grades, Friends’ students study medieval times. In Jenn’s and Diane’s classrooms, students are building amazing castles out of cardboard boxes. Just like the preschoolers, these children are practicing cooperation and developing spatial skills.  They are also learning about history.  When constructing the castle, they are learning the role of the gatehouse and the keep, the difference between a buttress and a rampart, and the importance of a portcullis and a moat. 

Bodiam Castle, not far from my English boarding school
In addition to castle building, these students are also designing, building and testing catapults and learning the physics of simple machines in the process.  They are hypothesizing, measuring, and testing theories. And when a catapult is difficult to build well and some frustration sets in, they are learning resilience - which is one of the best tools in their toolbox for future success. They are writing their own Arthurian legends and reading all about the middle ages. 

This is a wonderful example of weaving curricular areas together in what we call integrated learning. Turns out we have castles in Boulder after all.

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