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How we express ourselves: A kindergarten inquiry

Tasha Cowdy

Tasha Cowdy is the PYP coordinator at the Anglo American School of Moscow in the Russian Federation

This article talks about unplanned events that are powerful in enabling students to make personal and emotional connections to their own first hand experiences which is a key to deeper understanding.

We are currently working on a unit of inquiry into How we express ourselves. The central idea is People use many different languages to express ideas and feelings. As an initial provocation we shared a poem with the children titled The Hundred Languages of Children by Loris Malaguzzi. Malaguzzi was an Italian early childhood specialist from Italy and founder of the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education. His poem has influenced early childhood practitioners all over the world and has encouraged teachers of young children to listen carefully to children’s many languages.

The children’s responses to the poem provided us with an insight into what the children already know about languages of expression. We talked about what ideas Malaguzzi might have wanted to share through his poem and about some of the languages we use to express ideas. The poem both confirmed and challenged the children’s ideas on languages and provided a common but open-ended starting point for our unit of inquiry.

  • Scarlett: Sometimes, if I want to make a beautiful thing, I don’t want to write it, I want to express it another way.
  • Leona: I like dance.
  • Angus: Well I like to tell stuff with lego. Because then I can show my ideas better.
  • Shoei: I no like school do writing. I no like. Only lego. Lego best than writing.
  • Jaiden: I had a wiggly idea once and I made it with wire.

Recently we accepted an invitation to see a ballet production of Mozart’s Magic Flute. Although we had not planned for this trip (the invitation came at short notice), we thought it would provide a natural connection to our inquiry into languages of expression. In preparation, we introduced the children to the main characters and regaled the children with a simplified version of the story. Over several days, we listened to the story and looked at YouTube clips showing different versions of some of the key events in the opera. After the first day, the children were hooked! They were intrigued to know how the story unfolded and couldn’t wait for the next installment.

A simple version of Act 1
A simple version of Act 2

Once the children were familiar with the music, characters and plot, we watched the same story told through animation. The animation had a different starting point and portrayed some of the characters quite differently. Several children commented that they preferred the animation while others expressed a preference for the opera production. One child explained that she liked watching both versions; the animation gave her a better understanding of the story, but she preferred seeing the singers in the opera production because she thought it made the music sound better.

BBC Animated production

Finally, we went to see the ballet, which had similarities and differences to both the opera and animated productions. When we returned to school, we talked about similarities and differences between the various opera productions, animated production and ballet production. The children were most indignant that one of their favorite (and rather grizzly!) pieces, the Queen of the Night’s second aria, had been cut from the ballet production. Some children felt the princess “doesn’t look like real princess” and was “not princessy enough” and was even “a little bit boring“.

The children made their own representations of aspects in the story that interested them. They chose a wide variety of media to express their ideas including lego, paint, words, wire, clay, and a few different iPad apps. One child made a sophisticated representation using towers of unifix cubes to represent characters and events, showing the significance of the events by the height of the tower.

Over the weeks, I have been interested to hear the children talk spontaneously and enthusiastically to each other about their feelings and thoughts regarding the story long after the adult facilitated discussion is over. Children frequently burst into tune as they go about their work – the Queen’s vengeance aria being a clear favorite, with Papageno’s and Papagena’s duet a close second. I hear the children make story-to-self and story-to-story connections as they discuss differences between the Queen of the Night and their own mothers, and find similarities between the Queen and witches in other stories. At one point there is a heated and prolonged discussion about the merits of Disney princes and princesses which then comes back to the characters in the Magic Flute.

A discussion breaks out about whether it is necessary to be able to understand the language. (Much of the opera we have been listening to is in the original German). Several children describe how they interpret the body language and the music. One child talks about how the Queen’s aria is “angry music from her heart because she is so, so mad, not good mama“. Another child talks about how the make-up and costume of Papageno is very different to that of Tamino and explain’s, “… that’s how you can tell Tamino is serious and brave and wise, but Papageno is only joking and he’s not serious.”

As I reflect on the children responses to story of the Magic Flute, I think about how often content is “dumbed down” for young children in order to make it accessible. Yet with scaffolding and support, young children can access and appreciate the world around them with a depth that adults often do not credit children with. I am reminded again of Malaguzzi’s poem and of how children have a hundred languages and a hundred, hundred more, and of our responsibility as educators to help make the many languages of expression accessible to children.

I am also reminded of the importance of focusing on conceptual understandings rather than content and not crowding the curriculum with pre-planned activities so that there is little time left to pursue the spontaneous provocations which arise during the course of an inquiry. Over the last few weeks events have cropped up which, although not directly related to our unit of inquiry, have nevertheless helped the children to make connections to both our central idea and to the transdiciplinary theme, thus deepening their conceptual understandings: an incidental question tweeted to us from our kindergarten twitter buddies in Canada led to an in-depth inquiry into different writing systems; as part of our Mother Tongue focus, one of the dads came to read a story which led to a rich conversation amongst the children about multi-linguism and different languages of expressions; a spontaneous visit to an art exhibition provided a natural connection to our central idea; an impromptu kanji demonstration by the artist grandmother of one of our students provided yet another authentic connection. This flexibility to respond to unplanned events and to follow children’s interests is key to an effective unit of inquiry. So often, it is these spontaneous, unplanned events that prove to be so powerful in enabling children to make personal and emotional connections to their own first hand experiences – a key to deeper understanding.

The original article can be found in Tasha’s blog here.

Tasha Cowdy is a PYP workshop leader and school visitor and has taught throughout IBAEM and IBAP regions as a classroom teacher, ESL teacher and curriculum coordinator. Tasha has recently been involved in curriculum development for Early Childhood in the PYP and the use of ICT in the PYP. You can follow her on Twitter @tashacowdy and she blogs at

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5 Responses to How we express ourselves: A kindergarten inquiry

  1. ricardo 18 August 2017 at 8:15 pm #

    Great article! Congratulations.
    Regards from Mexico.
    Ricardo Dominguez

  2. Bijal Shah 28 March 2018 at 7:37 am #

    This is exactly matching to ideas we have to tune into our unit of inquiry on stories. Introducing to variety of characters in various genres. Some story characters impact children’s mind very strongly. Children pretend to show their liking towards them.

  3. Shubha Chopra 28 March 2018 at 7:42 am #

    Upon reading the article I find myself aligned with the thoughts shared by Tara Cowdy , I was fortunate to meet her in Moscow at the Anglo American School.
    My truly international group in Russia with various parts of the world made me realise each day how important is free expression whether through poem ,art ,dance ,drama in various languages. Poetry being one of the unique forms of expression .There is no language of play and despite the cultural diversity and richness, we enjoyed our learning engagements and play.

  4. Rachana Patel 29 March 2018 at 6:26 am #

    Every learner is unique. Teachers celebrate their learning style by giving them choices to construct meaning as well as opportunity showcase their understanding. PYP is inquiry based curriculum and giving a open-ended tasks by keeping learning outcomes in mind gives a sense of ownership to students. The above article rightly mentions about how preplanned learning engagements gives little opportunity to learners to express themselves.

  5. Nidhi Golecha 29 March 2018 at 10:16 am #

    As per research and my understanding, children learn through play. As they explore different resources and discover how the world works.Since the curriculum of Reggio Emilia is not fixed and structured but open-ended and student-led which is exactly how a pyp framework is designed I would love to incorporate some of the ideas mentioned above for our upcoming unit based on the theme how we express ourselves. I believe if students are encouraged to take the ownership of their own learning we turn them into lifelong learners and inquirers so I will provide them with multiple resources and support their learning in the best way possible.

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