Building on what they’ve learned

Driven by student inquiry, the Treehouse Project incorporates engineering, design, math, and art—and lessons for life

By Jennifer Marcus '73, Beginning School Woodshop Teacher

Henry, a five-year-old kindergartener, walked up to me and, with his hands in his pockets, declared, “I know what we should build next.”

I waited and thought: Space ship? Sail boat? Ping pong table?

“A tree house,” he said. Then he asked, “Where do you think we should build it?”

Surrounded by kindergarteners at our lunch table, I floated the idea to see if a tree house project would garner enough support. I asked, “Does anyone know about tree houses?” This produced many excited responses. The next question for the group was, “How do we build a tree house?”

I teach by asking questions. I try to understand all of the information that is informing students’ comments or inquiry, and how I can help them to build on that. So, when a student makes a comment or asks a question, I very rarely respond with a statement. I ask another question, and the cycle of inquiry continues. Whenever a child says, “I want to build something,” my response is always, “Well, I wonder how you do that?”

Later that afternoon in the woodshop, another student said, “We should start with a plan sheet.” Several children drew their ideas. “It needs a ladder!” “...a slide” “...a bathroom.” Everything was discussed. Other students did research using the book House Building for Children. They were thrilled to find step-by-step directions for building a platform-style tree house. More excitement came when they discovered that our woodshop has every tool on the “tools needed” list.

Next, the children discussed building a small model of the tree house, as it would be helpful in “seeing” all the sides, and maybe even open up new questions. To do this, they divided into teams: a team for choosing the best wood; a reading-the-directions team; and a sawing team. Together, they constructed a beautiful model.

Seeing their treehouse concept in three dimensions led to a series of logistical questions they hadn’t previously considered: How does the tree support it? How high off the ground must it be? How do you get into it? What is inside the treehouse? How do you look out of the treehouse? And what is the roof made out of? All questions were documented, and the search for more answers ensued.

The kindergarteners brought in a team of preschoolers to get their opinions on ladder placement. They moved their model from the woodshop into the art studio, where they began to consider the ways they could incorporate art into their structure, with painting, and handmade rugs and curtains. Soon Leondra Brackett, the Beginning School Studio Teacher, had joined me in the collaboration, and together we traveled with a group of kindergarteners to study a locally built tree house as “Field Research.” The students’ drawings and notes from the field study were shared and displayed in the studio. With this wealth of information, we settled on a building site just east of the Beginning School playground—close to the Beehive but far enough away to feel like a real work site destination.

With a new round of inquiry, I could see the students transferring their knowledge, from building their very own things in the shop to working outside and doing the same steps. It was empowering for them to realize that a house or apartment, or whatever structure they live in, was something they could actually build. They now understood more about the real world—that a house doesn’t just exist, but that somebody had to do the same steps they are doing now. It unleashed enormous ideas. And, of course, it led to more questions, many of them practical questions, such as “How are we going to do the roof?,” and “If it rains, is that waterproof?”

Groundbreaking for the tree house consisted of clearing away shrubbery, removing little branches, and leveling the construction site.     A serious digging team emerged with a rallying cry: “We have to save the worms!” Teams of children became estimators, figuring out how much lumber was needed. Measuring teams measured, and then measured some more. They “sketched” out the support frames and determining the floor shape and size by nailing one-by-twos to the trees. New, practical questions emerged, such as “How are the walls going to stay up?” and “What kind of paint should we use?”

The power of inquiry was driving the project; our students were learning how to learn. They were learning that their voice has value, and that their questions are important questions. And they were learning that it’s okay to try something and have it not work, because you can always try it again. They need those opportunities to do things not quite right, to come back and try them again, and to go through that process over and over again. We want them to grasp a larger concept that’s both literal and metaphorical: if you drill holes in the wrong place, you can just drill them again.

The children rushed to complete their tree house before the school year was over. Taken from Henry’s hands-in-his-pocket idea to paper plans, to the model, to a reality, their physical achievement is special because they did it as a community. These preschoolers and kindergarteners were able to experience what collaboration, planning, attention to detail, and hard work can accomplish. They can literally and proudly stand on their achievement. And they can build on what they’ve learned.