Mail system offers lessons for children and adults
For a five-year-old, what could be more fun than doing a real grown-up job like delivering mail?
And fun it was, for the kids at the Berkley Child and Family Development Center. But here’s a secret: There was real learning going on in this simple exercise – and not just for the kids.
That’s because the Edgar L. and Rheta A. Berkley Child and Family Development Center is more than just a preschool. It’s a learning laboratory for perfecting the art and science of early childhood education, created and staffed by the UMKC School of Education. So there was a lot more to this project than simply playing post office.
For the children, it was a very early introduction to the practice of research. They were presented with a situation, encouraged to ask questions, and charged with working together to develop a plan of action.
For the adults it was an opportunity to practice the instructional process of the Project Approach, a research-based preschool learning technique.
The sound of laughter and the beaming looks of pride on the children’s faces? That was a bonus – albeit a typical one at Berkley.
The project was facilitated by graduate student Nanell McAlpin for a class in advanced curriculum, in collaboration with Jen Copeland, classroom master teacher, and Tiffany Nelis, classroom lead teacher.
“The idea is that their motivation to learn is much higher if they study something they are interested in, and you can always incorporate math or reading or any subject area into the experiences if you know how to watch for those windows of learning opportunity,” McAlpin said.
McAlpin said the project began with selecting a topic to explore.
“They considered bugs, because they found a grasshopper and a bees’ nest outside; and policemen, because they’d seen some on TV at home recently. But one day they wanted to mail a letter and didn’t know how, so we walked to the front of the building that day and introduced the mailman to them, and the excitement about studying mail was huge,” McAlpin said.
Getting the kids into research mode took no effort at all.
“Where does the mail go after we put it in the mailbox?”
“How does a letter get across a river?”
“How do you know who the letter is for?”
The topic was chosen, and the children started generating a stream of pretend letters to be “mailed.”
For the next four months, the students in Berkley’s Royal Room, (ages 3 ½ – 5) studied a mail delivery system. Being part of a large, two-campus university provided the opportunity for an in-depth study of the UMKC campus mail system. Angela McDonald, director of the UMKC Mail Services Department, hosted the 17 children on a tour of the campus mail facility.
“Angela made the children feel important, trusted and grown-up, and treated them as the capable learners that they are,” McAlpin said.
Over time, they examined almost every possible aspect of mail. They explored the neighborhood to survey types of mailboxes. They learned how to recycle paper – not tossing it into a bin, but actually remaking old paper into new – and used it to mail letters to their grandparents.
In the UMKC Mail Room, they were fascinated by the stamp machine, and the staff indulged their questions. Back at Berkley, they made representations of the stamp machine out of five different media, to see it from many perspectives. The final replica was a large 3-D model.
“Play is where children discover and think about concepts. This is where learning really occurs in young children,” McAlpin explained. “Plus, their excitement about writing increased and they enhanced their literacy skills.”
Eventually, the Royal Room kids decided to create their very own Berkley mail system.
“The children have this so down that they now operate an in-house mailing system in Berkley for all the other classes and administration in their building,” McAlpin said. “They pick up and deliver mail every day from room to room. They make super mail-carriers and sorters.”