When our EXPLO at Wheaton Mini Program was introduced in 2014, rising 2nd and 3rd graders stepped with their little feet onto campus for the first time. It was an instant, natural fit. The seven- and eight-year-olds that comprise our Explorer group are curious — to discover, to invent, to pull things apart — energetic and eager to explain their ideas, and are all about play and pretending. If, at its heart, EXPLO inspires students to challenge themselves, discover the world of people and ideas, and experience the joy of learning, Explorers are that beating heart.
Where Independent Exploration and Group Collaboration Meet
Second- and third-graders are full of energy and are in a hurry to get places and to explore new things. For this reason, while they are at EXPLO for the week, the Explorer Course they take isn’t limited to one subject, but is a mix. Kristi Jacobi, Director of Curriculum and Instruction at EXPLO, works with teachers to design curriculum for the week that includes an art project, a science experiment, cooking, teamwork, and engineering.
“The subject or scheme is to explore so that everyday they are faced with one or two specific challenges from each of those different genres or subjects,” Jacobi says. “The idea is that you don’t have to like everything, but we are going to explore everything and help you discover what you are interested in.”
If, at its heart, EXPLO inspires students to challenge themselves, discover the world of people and ideas, and experience the joy of learning, Explorers are that beating heart.
By fostering this sense of choice and exploration at such a young age, the natural inclination of second and third grade students towards play and discovery is nurtured. Simultaneously, they have the opportunity to try a range of options and learn more about what they like in the process. By building variety into their learning environment, kids at this age have a better sense of what interests them, and consequently are better able to take control of their own learning as they grow older.
Chip Wood, in his book Yardsticks, writes about how children this age are “driven by curiosity and a strong internal desire to discover and invent… They are intensely interested in how things work and love to take things apart and put them back together again,” (p. 88).
At EXPLO, moments for independent exploration and group collaboration are built into every day, satisfying the need for personal and group discovery. Often, Explorers are tasked with making one part of something that will fit as a piece of the bigger whole. Jacobi discusses how important it is for students of this age to physically see how they fit into the wider picture:
“We want them to learn how you can take what you figure out or what you learn and help the group solve the bigger problem.”
For instance, Explorers may take an image of a butterfly from an Eric Carle book and each paint one square of the butterfly to combine as a wall-size mural replica. Through this process, they physically see how their one square forms a part of a whole, and they also learn about grid transfer, color, and painting styles. Whether working together to create a mural, bake strawberry shortcake, or launch a spaceship, Explorers learn a valuable lesson about what it means to be a part of a team.
Explorers’ eagerness to discover, play, and take on designing a project should not be underestimated, for it is in these moments that they often grow the most.
“Give Them an Inch of Potential, They’ll Take a Mile”
Although they are the littlest on campus, second and third graders can and should be given moments of agency to take control of their own learning. Explorers’ eagerness to discover, play, and take on designing a project should not be underestimated, for it is in these moments that they often grow the most. As Jacobi says, “Give them an inch of potential, and they’ll take a mile.”
Explorers begin their day in an Explorers-only activity period where they decide as a group what to do. Their teachers provide a small set of choices to pick from, but from there, it’s up to them to choose whether they want to revisit something they were working on in class previously (that they just can’t wait to get back to), play a collaborative group game, or build and host an entire cardboard carnival for that final Friday of the week. From there, Explorers get to choose an activity they want to join with the rest of campus before heading to lunch with their teachers. After lunch with their group, it's off to a full afternoon of class — where everyday brings something new and different to explore!
Learning for Explorers is project-based, and students are invited to join in on making, creating, and designing their work. Explorers build and design a house for an imaginary pet, devise a contraption to paint on a canvas four feet away, and create a spaceship for their Eggstronauts to fly safely when rocketed out of a slingshot. Because they aren’t often allowed to be in charge of something, giving them that opportunity to build (in a structured environment) lights them up.
“You’re in charge,” Jacobi says. “There are no instructions to follow, you just use your brain.”
Just doing what Explorers do best, we say.