Seeing Circles with Six-year-olds

What happens when first grade students are asked to make connections, given some chalk, a sidewalk, a simple drawing, some rocks and a garden? The answer is: an enthusiastic rendering of new ideas about how the world works.garden1s

At Borton Magnet School, Molly Reed, Outdoor Learning Coordinator, brought a group of first graders out to the school’s garden to help maintain various projects in progress. What also resulted was an impromptu lesson about garden health.

  • What does it mean for our garden to be healthy?
  • How do we know it’s healthy?
  • What increases the garden’s health and what decreases it?

Blank stock-flow templates and behavior-over-time graphs were painted directly on the sidewalk there, just waiting for students to think about the dynamics and interconnected nature of the garden. Rocks and chalk were standing by. The stock became “Garden health” and the flows increased and decreased that health.

garden2sStudents chose rocks painted with words of different garden parts, placed them near the inflow or outflow, and drew cause-and-effect arrows. They showed that some “rock elements” directly affect the increase of garden health, such as sunlight. Some rock elements affect one another, such as the worms affect the soil [quality], which increases the health of the garden. Other rock elements affect the decrease of garden health, such as animals that eat plants.



The “big question” about feedback came then; it’s a question that teachers sometimes wonder whether their young students can understand.  “How does the stock affect other parts of the system?”

Can students understand this concept of feedback in a stock-flow map? That is, can they represent how a particular stock affects other parts of the system they’re drawing? The only way to find out is to be willing to take a leap, to put a question about feedback out there, and see how students respond. Questions like:

  • “How does the health of the garden affect other parts?”
  • “What happens if you have a really healthy garden; what will that affect?”

Without any additional prompting, one girl immediately described a connection between the stock of garden health and the worms. She drew an arrow to represent her idea. So the healthier the garden is, the more worms there will be. Another student saw a connection between health and soil, adding on another arrow to show his idea.garden4s

So given the chance, the short answer is a resounding yes! Students can take the next step beyond seeing what increases and decreases a stock. They can indeed realize that the stock is also an important part of the system that affects other parts, thus illustrating the feedback relationships that exist in their garden.

The next challenge: can young students see the feedback loop they created in the stock-flow map and then draw it out as a causal loop? That’s  a “big question” for another day.

Leave a Reply