Growing democratic citizenship competencies: Fostering social studies understandings through inquiry learning in the preschool garden
Garden-based inquiry learning can foster the development of democratic competencies in preschool children
This study investigated the potential of inquiry learning in a preschool garden as a means of fostering social studies understandings. Inquiry learning is defined in this context as a process “where learners individually and collaboratively investigate an issue and arrive at a conclusion with the understanding that many variations of learning and knowledge can exist in exploring any single issue.” This process is considered to be an ideal mode for developing social studies competencies.
Several understandings framed this study: (1) School gardens offer an ideal learning environment for conducting inquiry projects; (2) “The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world”; and (3) Essential skills and attitudes necessary for active citizenship need to be cultivated as early as prekindergarten.” A concern addressed in this study relates to the teaching about citizenship without teaching the skills that are required for active citizenship.
Researchers (two university faculty and a classroom teacher) designed and placed a garden in children’s accessible, daily environment at a university-based laboratory preschool. The garden was designed with no direct expectations or goals for the inquiries the children would have. Eleven preschool children (age 3-4) conducted personally-driven investigations in the school garden over a nine-month period. During this time, the researchers collected data through three interviews with children, from teacher observation notes, and through analysis of teacher lesson plans. The objective of their investigation was to determine if inquiry learning in the early childhood garden could foster connections to the National Council of Social Studies themes (NCSS), and, if so, which themes would be most prevalent in the children’s inquiries. The NCSS framework includes ten themes.
All ten of the themes for social studies instruction were addressed by the children’s garden-based inquiries. Connections to these themes first emerged through the children’s own ideas and investigations and then further developed through the teacher’s provocations. Of the ten themes, three were most prevalent: Civic Ideals and Practices; People, Places, and Environments; and Time, Continuity, and Change. Activities relating to the Civic Ideals and Practices theme included working together to create job charts and to establish when things could be picked or eaten. Related activities and experiences also included children voting on their favorite flavor of mint to add to ice cream, contributing to a community soup pot, and feeling a sense of pride for the gardens. Activities and experiences relating to the People, Places, and Environments theme included learning plant names, connecting plants with state crops and festivals, and investigating insects and other life in the garden. Examples relating to the Time, Continuity, and Change theme were evident in the way children noticed changes in how plants grow, ripen, and decay over time.
The findings of this study are consistent with other research documenting the value of school gardens in promoting children’s academic learning and holistic development. This research adds to the literature by showing how children as young as three can be actively engaged in social studies practices through spontaneous inquiry in a school garden setting and how inquiry learning can foster the development of democratic competencies.
Casey, E.M., DiCarlo, C.F., Sheldon, K.L., (2019). Growing democratic citizenship competencies: Fostering social studies understandings through inquiry learning in the preschool garden. The Journal of Social Studies Research