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Volume 12 Number 2
©The Author(s) 2010

Dramatic Play as a Context for Children’s Investigation of Size and Scale

Christy Spencer with Ellen Hall
Boulder Journey School
Boulder, Colorado


The author describes and reflects on ways that a class of prekindergarten children used collaborative processes to investigate and make representations of elements of an underwater environment. These explorations followed the reintroduction of a mural depicting underwater life that several of the children had made, which had been displayed for a time in the local public library. The children's re-engagement with the mural in the school's theater space led to their design and creation of 3-dimensional representations to be part of the underwater setting. Concepts of size and scale played significant roles for them during their creation of mermaid costume tails, construction of small and large representations of sea creatures, and work on a life-size representation of a scuba diver. Vignettes of the children's individual and small group work, along with transcripts of their dialogue, reveal their processes of design, problem solving, construction, and collaboration. The author also reflects on the role of the experience in her professional growth.


In fall 2008, I began my participation in the Teacher Education Program at Boulder Journey School, where Ellen Hall is executive director. The events described in this paper took place during two semesters of my internship placement at the school.

My internship year was filled with inquiry-based learning experiences that naturally integrated components of the academic and social world. One such experience consisted of a long-term investigation surrounding the children's interest in creating a representation of an underwater environment. In this reflection, unfolding just a fraction of that larger investigation will shed light on children's thinking and the co-construction of knowledge pertaining to size and scale that can emerge as they work together.


Boulder Journey School

Boulder Journey School is a private preschool located in Boulder, Colorado, USA. The philosophy of education and pedagogy of Boulder Journey School are inspired by the schools for young children in Reggio Emilia, Italy, and draw from the constructivist, social-constructivist, and systems thinking theories of John Dewey, Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, Jerome Bruner, David and Frances Hawkins, Howard Gardner, Loris Malaguzzi, and Carlina Rinaldi, among others, and from the school's theory of supportive social learning (Boulder Journey School, n.d.). The school's fundamental values are based on an image of children as competent and capable and as valuable citizens with inherent rights.

The Teacher Education Program

Known for leadership and innovation in early childhood education, Boulder Journey School is dedicated to professional development that connects authentic classroom experiences and theories of child and adult learning, motivation, and development.

Boulder Journey School’s Teacher Education Program consists of a 12-month internship at the school, in conjunction with graduate studies at the University of Colorado Denver. Candidates completing the program earn a license in early childhood education and a master’s degree in either educational psychology or early childhood education. Interns enter into a co-teaching relationship with a mentor teacher. They are actively involved in building and maintaining relationships with children and families, as well as planning, organizing, and facilitating classroom explorations and investigations, documentation of experiences, and collegial exchange.

Demographics and Description of Physical Spaces

Approximately 250 children attend Boulder Journey School, ranging in age from 6 weeks to 6 years. The school provides full-time and part-time attendance options. This article describes the work of prekindergarten children in classroom 11. Classroom 11 is the largest classroom in the school in area (1,400 square feet) and in number of children. During the 2008-2009 school year, 31 children (13 girls and 18 boys) were enrolled in classroom 11. Twelve children attended full days Monday-Friday. The remaining 19 attended in combinations of part-time, full-day, or part-day schedules. At the beginning of the year, the youngest child in the classroom was 3 years, 11 months. The oldest was 4 years, 8 months.

Sharing co-teaching responsibilities were four mentor teachers and two intern teachers.

During the events described here, the children also worked closely with the studio and theater teachers. The studio, approximately 350 square feet, is a space for children to gather, explore, and create, using a wide variety of art, natural, and recycled materials. The theater is approximately 800 square feet in area. Classes typically schedule appointments to work in the theater space with or without the support of the theater teacher. At any given time, different classes might be working in the theater with the same or different materials; it is an adaptable environment where children can engage in design, construction, and creative expression.

Creation of the Ocean Mural

The catalyst for the long-term investigation of underwater environments that included the explorations of size and scale described here was the creation of a mural of the ocean on Plexiglas by some of the children for the Boulder Public Library. The mural was inspired by conversations that a group of children had about the fish tanks that they had seen in the library. Documentation of and reflection on these conversations led my colleagues and me to encourage the children to express their thoughts about the library fish tanks through drawing. The resulting drawings incorporated representations of both real and imaginary underwater life. For several weeks, the children researched underwater life, utilizing available reference books, a variety of technological resources, and visits to the school’s fish tanks. Noting the children’s continued interest, the classroom and studio teachers proposed creating a large collaborative mural, using paint as another medium through which to express their thinking. 

Through a process that included discussion and voting, a small group of children determined which of their individual drawings would be transferred to the collaborative mural. I found it interesting that the children did not select drawings based on favorites, their own work, or what they considered the best drawings, but rather they selected drawings through a process of categorization. For example, they concluded that if there were only one drawing of something, such as a bonefish or sea urchin, that drawing should be included. They also decided to include mermaids in the mural in addition to actual sea life. They grouped mermaids in the category of “family,” concluding that more than one mermaid should be depicted.

The mural was completed in fall 2008. It was hung in the Boulder Public Library, where it remained on display until the beginning of the new year.

Figure 1Figure 1. The mural.

The Mural Returns to Boulder Journey School

Initial Questions

Working on the mural with the children had fulfilled one of my first-semester internship assignments—linking children, art, and community. The following semester, interns were asked to fulfill additional graduate course requirements by engaging in a long-term research project pertaining to an interest of our own or an ongoing investigation by the children. Knowing that the ocean mural would soon be returned to school, and observing the children's continued interest in underwater life as evidenced by their dramatic play, I wondered about how they might respond to the mural after its return. This curiosity sparked numerous conversations among colleagues, leading to a question for my intern research: How might children respond when revisiting a previous project (the mural) in a new context—the theater? I wondered how the children's re-engagement with this project in a different school space might influence further exploration of underwater life.

We reintroduced the mural with my research question in mind. The theater teacher prepared the theater environment to create the feeling of being underwater. The mural was hung near the center of the room. At the base of the mural, the teacher placed mirrors, fabrics of varying shades of blue and green, fiber-optic lights (later referred to by the children as “sea enemies” or anemones), and the original drawings that children had made for the mural. In addition, the room lights were dimmed, and emitting from the stereo, sounds of seagulls and crashing waves quietly echoed in the background.

My co-teachers and I invited a small group of children who had been involved in creating the mural to come to the theater. While the theater teacher thoughtfully listened and observed them, the children enthusiastically, yet calmly, became reacquainted with their work, interacting with the prepared environment and conversing with one another:

McKenzie: Look at the mermaids I drawed.
Morgan: And my octopus.
Zen Rose: I see my mermaid right here.
Morgan: I see my octopus right here.
McKenzie: These (indicating the fiber optic lights) are the enemies—guys—they can sting you.
Max: Ouch!
Zen Rose: We’re mermaids.
Max: What is that noise?
McKenzie: It’s a part of the ocean.
Morgan: Those are eagles—those are seagulls.
McKenzie: On top of the ocean, and we’re mermaids.
Max: And I merman.

When I reviewed the videotapes of this experience later, I was struck by how much the theater teacher stepped back and simply paid attention as the children interacted. My colleagues and I noted that during this time the children seemed to revel in the memories of their collaborative process of creating the mural, recognizing their individual efforts as contributors to the larger group (see New, 1998), while at the same time noticing the recently added features of the theater space.

After the children's initial conversation, the mural became a backdrop as they engaged in dramatic play and storytelling, interacting with the fabrics, the lights, and the sounds. The mural's presence in the theater became the catalyst for a multifaceted exploration surrounding the question: “How can we transform the school theater into an ocean?” My colleagues and I anticipated that the transformation might lead to dramatic play in the theater as well as to explorations in other community spaces of the school. We initially expected attention to focus on creating the surface of the ocean; as a provocation, we talked with the children about what waves would be like. However, early on, the children’s actions and discussions indicated that they were interested in creating a representation of the environment found beneath the waves near the ocean floor.

Reflecting back, I believe that the teachers were thinking about looking down into the ocean, while the children were thinking about being submerged in the ocean and looking up. This required reorganizing our thinking and posing a second question to both ourselves, as facilitators, and to the children: What elements are found beneath the surface of the ocean?

Exploring Size and Scale

As the children investigated what might be found beneath the ocean’s surface with the goal of transforming the theater space, their work soon involved concepts related to size and scale.

We observed the children using concepts of size and scale in the context of their daily discoveries and interactions with the physical and social world. Beginning with work on tails for mermaid costumes, they continued to encounter issues of size and scale as they designed and constructed large and small representations of sea creatures for the theater space and a life-size tracing of a scuba diver.

Designing Tails for Mermaid Costumes

Although it seemed apparent that the children understood that mermaids are not real, mermaids played a vital role in dramatic play in the “ocean,” as they had in the mural. In their discussions about costumes to use in the theater, the children communicated a desire for mermaid tails. A teacher invited six of the children who had expressed this interest to revisit the drawings and images they had used when first creating the mural months earlier. Revisiting this work provided a forum for my colleagues and me to initiate conversations during the early stages of design. The following conversation about tails for mermaid costumes took place during a small group meeting:

Olivia: What if we invent something that is straight so we can walk?
Teacher: Do mermaids walk?
Group: No!
Teacher: How then do mermaids move?
Mary: They swim.
Morgan: What if they walked on their tails?
Olivia: They would be standing on their tippy toes.
Mary: I was talking about we need our legs together and something to hold their feet together.
Maddy: On your feet, the tails will stick together so your feet need to be together.
McKenzie: Mermaids can touch their nose with their tails.
Zen Rose: A tail goes from here to there (pointing to toes and hip, respectively).

Some of the children's initial thinking about size and scale relative to the costumes is embedded in the larger conversation. Shortly afterward, the idea of making tails was overshadowed by other play in the theater, for approximately one month. When the children reinitiated the desire for tails, my colleagues and I provided paper, felt tip pens, and a jointed figure model such as artists use, inviting them to design a mermaid tail. At first, the children looked at and manipulated the figure model. For many, it was a new tool of reference.

The children then drew mermaid tails, without seeming to consider the size of the model. When their designs were cut out and held up to the model, the children realized that their tails were either much too large or much too small. With this new information, they went back to drawing. Some implemented the same strategy and continued through a process of trial and error. Others developed new strategies. Some children would begin to draw, pausing along the way to compare the size of the drawing to the model, making the necessary changes until they had a suitable length and width. Another strategy included drawing and cutting out a tail, then comparing it to the figure model, and finally making adjustments by adding to or removing pieces from the original cutout.

We wondered how this experience might eventually inform and translate into designing mermaid tails that would fit the children’s own bodies. The following week, however, those children were engaged in another project so it was not possible to revisit the experience with them at that time. Instead, one day during morning meeting, a new group of five children from the same class expressed interest in designing tails for mermaid costumes. The teacher shared with them the previous group’s plans and findings about tail design. Starting with the figure model as a reference, the new group made a few small-scale drawings, but almost immediately the children began thinking on a larger scale, about their own bodies:

Max: We have to make them long.
Evander: We need a lot of paper.
Max: I want to measure.

Max hurried off to the small classroom woodshop, looking for measuring tools, but returned empty-handed. The conversation continued.

Evander: If we put it to our feet, you can’t walk so well.
Teacher: That is interesting that you brought that up; the last group talked about other ways that mermaids move.
Avery: You’ll have to walk really slowly. They swim!
Tyler: They float.
Avery: What if we sew one? We have to trace our bodies and see how big our bodies are.
Justin: But we are not the same size.

Justin then proceeded to stand next to and then face to face with each of the other children in turn, moving his hand from the top of his head to the tops of theirs. Next, he asked them how old they were. After doing this with a few classmates, Justin determined that since they were all 4.5 years of age, they were all the same size. Evander did not agree with his logic. He told Justin that he thought they were pretty close to the same height although he (Evander) was 5. Evander then revisited Avery’s idea about tracing bodies:

Evander: We could trace one body and then lay down to see who is the same.

Avery showed the other children that they must lie on the paper with heels together and toes pointed out, like a tail. Justin, without tracing first, began to cut around Avery’s body. Next, he cut the shape in half horizontally at the waist. Ignoring the top piece, he used the bottom half to test the length by holding it up to children’s legs. Perhaps recalling an earlier discussion about walking while wearing mermaid tails, he used tape to attach the tail at the waist. He then tested the tails by asking the children who were wearing them to walk while he observed whether or not they stayed in place.

Figure 2Figure 2. Designing and measuring mermaid tails.

The children’s developing understanding of size and scale became apparent as I analyzed their words and actions as they designed and made tails for mermaid costumes. It was evident that they understood that tail size must correspond to their body size, specifically in relation to their legs. Furthermore, they were aware that the tails should be long enough to reach the nose and that the children themselves were different sizes.

The children's misconceptions about size and scale were altered through their experimentation. My co-teachers and I wondered how their strategies might have been different had they not realized that they were going to need large quantities of paper, or had Max been able to find and use measuring tools.

Making Representations of Sea Creatures

As the work on mermaid tails continued, other problems related to size and scale emerged for children who wanted to make representations of real sea animals.

In my basement, I stumbled across an old book about sea creatures. Thinking the children might be intrigued, I brought it to school to share with them. Several of them were captivated, closely observing and discussing the physical characteristics of the creatures. Immediately a group of eight children were off, with book in hand, to draw.

One child approached a teacher with his finished drawing of a shark, explaining it and stating that he now wanted to a make a 3-dimensional representation. Responding to her questions, he identified several recycled materials that he thought could be used for the body. Later, he visited the studio searching for additional materials to embellish his shark. For the next several days, a small group of children engaged in similar work, and the collection of small sea creatures grew. 

Boulder Journey School collects natural, recycled, and open-ended materials year-round to provide sufficient resources for children's investigations. My colleagues and I agreed that the use of these materials to create sea creatures was rich in possibilities for collaborative work related to size and scale. We talked with the children about the small scale of the sea creatures that they had already made, inviting them to consider constructing a larger creature that would correspond to the scale of the large theater space. The children eagerly accepted the invitation; one child suggested making an octopus, and the others immediately agreed. As they had done with the smaller representations of creatures, the children looked through reference books featuring octopi, and viewed images and video on the Internet. They documented their findings through a collection of drawings detailing various characteristics of octopi. (The children frequently initiated use of research and drawing as integral parts of the problem-solving process.)

Figure 3Figure 3. Researching and drawing octopi.

After their initial planning, the children discussed the potential size of the octopus construction, making comparisons as opposed to using actual numbers (for instance, “the octopus will be as big as the table,” not “the octopus will be 64 inches long.”) Recognizing that the process of choosing materials would potentially present its own challenges, we teachers intentionally left the selection process to the children and prepared instead to offer suggestions and provoke the children's thinking. We considered this selection process to be important to the children’s understanding of size and scale relative to design and construction.

The children began selecting and gathering materials from throughout the school. When we noticed that the group seemed stuck regarding possible materials, my colleagues and I suggested that they search outdoors; the outdoor spaces housed a variety of long tubes, piping, bowls, buckets, and balls, any of which the children could use in a construction. We found it interesting that although they had discussed making the octopus "as big as the table," when the children were outdoors, they began to gather sticks not much longer than 6 to 8 inches to use for the tentacles.

We wondered, “Did our suggestion of beginning outside influence the children to gather only natural materials, without regard to size? What materials might they have selected had we begun our search inside the school? Most compelling, what was the children's conceptualization of ‘really big'?”

Then, one of the children found a long, clear plastic tube and suggested using it for the octopus tentacles. The group of five children agreed with this idea and, further, suggested that the tube be cut into eight pieces. In determining the length of each piece, the children utilized a strategy used when designing the mermaid tails—making comparisons with their own bodies. They decided that the octopus tentacles should be as long as a child’s body, from head to toe. 

Figure 4Figure 4. Determining the length of the octopus tentacles.

Having identified what to use for the tentacles, the children were still in search of an octopus “body.” Together, children and teachers scoured the studio looking for materials, with the teachers posing questions that supported the children’s thinking about size, shape, and structural integrity. Through this process, the children selected an old hubcap because, as one child explained, it had spaces where they could attach the tentacles.

My colleagues and I suggested that the children lay out the found materials on the floor to begin the next phase—attaching the tentacles. Looking at the materials from this perspective changed the children’s opinions; they concurred that what they had designed looked more like a jellyfish than an octopus. They decided to use the hubcap to create a jellyfish, which in the end inspired them to build two giant jellyfish, using design and construction processes similar to those used to make the octopus.

The group dynamics then changed a bit. Some of the children working on the octopus began to work on the jellyfish, while those remaining in the original group invited others to join them in making the octopus.

The children were adamant about using the plastic tubes for the octopus tentacles, in part because they had already started attaching pistachio nutshells for the suction cups. After several attempts to make the "body," a child suggested using wire, which created a new challenge—constructing a 3-dimensional body using wire that would be strong enough to hold the tentacles. Figure 5 Figure 5. Engineering the layout.

Meanwhile, several children began making an ocean diorama, incorporating the small representations of sea creatures. During early discussions with the children about constructing a large sea creature, the teachers had shared with the children their observation that some of the small representations were too small to be seen in the theater space. One of the children found a cardboard box, roughly 2 feet x 2 feet, and wanted to turn it into an ocean diorama for theater puppet shows; the teachers invited children to add their smaller representations to the diorama, acknowledging that there are also small creatures living in the ocean.

It seemed that through experimentation the children clarified their understanding and ideas of “really big” and “really small,” as well as the size of objects in relation to one another. Also noteworthy was the transference of an idea from a 2-dimensional design to a 3-dimensional artifact in creating an octopus.

Making the Scuba Diver

Two children decided that they wanted to include a life-size representation of a scuba diver in the theater “ocean.” The idea surfaced when the two boys were perusing an old issue of National Geographic. They became interested in a particular photograph of a scuba diver that they found there. Rather than simply using the photograph as the basis for a small scuba diver drawing, they wanted to enlarge the magazine image and trace it on paper.

Their first efforts included testing the school’s tracing machine with the help of a teacher to see whether it would cast a large enough image on the wall. The tracing machine is similar to, but not as powerful as, an overhead projector, and it can cast an image large enough for what the boys had in mind. However, it required almost total absence of light, and the only room in the school that met this requirement was too small.

The boys turned for advice to the school’s technology manager, who helped them scan the photograph of the scuba diver onto a computer.

Figure 6 Figure 6. Scanning the diver image onto the computer.

From that, they could make a copy on a transparency, which could then be enlarged on an overhead projector. (This was the children’s introduction to the scanner, which became part of their repertoire of resources for future research.) The children then projected the scuba diver image onto a wall, adjusting it to the desired size—an adult body—and traced it on paper taped to the wall.Figure 7Figure 7. Projecting the scanned scuba diver image.Incorporation of the scanner and computer enabled my co-teachers and me to co-construct, along with the children, knowledge about the affordances of technology to support thinking about concepts of size and scale. This experience with technology influenced one child to think again about the octopus; he proposed building a long track and a small motor to propel the octopus across the theater ceiling. As the end of the school year approached, with the support of the theater teacher and technology manager, he began formulating ideas, testing small segments of tracks, and examining various motors. This idea has not yet come to fruition because the child moved on to kindergarten; the octopus remains suspended in a space in the theater.

Current Reflections

At the start of the children’s work on underwater environments after the mural was returned to the school, my colleagues and I were unsure in what direction it would lead. However, through engagement in action research, we identified a recurring conceptual thread. The work described here was not a theme-based study of the ocean; rather, the children’s interest in the ocean became a catalyst for several investigations, including explorations of size and scale.

Through their work on representing an underwater environment, the children gained a deeper understanding of size relative to space, and of the size of one object relative to the size of another object. This was evidence for us of how being in an environment that supports authentic, inquiry-based learning encourages children to encounter and begin to co-construct deeper understanding of scientific concepts. Additionally, observing and reflecting on the children’s work confirmed for us the value of emphasizing process over product.

A common thread weaving through the experiences described here is partnership—among children, among children and adults, and among children and materials. The conversations and vignettes shared highlight a continuous exchange of ideas around a common goal. The children’s approaches to problem solving were enhanced through collaboration. Having myriad opportunities to exchange ideas and to use one another as knowledgeable resources encouraged children to engage in dialogue and to move through challenges more cohesively. This was also true for the various classroom and studio teachers involved in the project. When reaching a point of cognitive tension, we sought the support of another teacher or teachers who might contribute additional insights and ideas.

David Hawkins (2000) wrote, “To understand the dimensions of the teaching art, complex and inexhaustible though it be, is an equally endless commitment and one that needs constant insight and renewal” (p. 41). Motivated by the Hawkins’ own commitment to learning, teachers at Boulder Journey School are encouraged to build our own knowledge base and to immerse ourselves in the scientific concepts that the children seek to understand.

In future investigations, I would encourage teachers to bring problems back to the children to solve. That is, instead of immediately advising the children when a problem arises, a teacher can simply ask the children, “What should we do?” The teacher can then support children in the problem-solving process—pointing out the issue, encouraging them to draw from previous experience as they explore possible solutions, and as they move forward, helping them focus again on the problem until it has been solved. I would also recommend that teachers carefully observe, document, and reflect on what the children are doing and on the aspects of each problem with which they seem to be struggling. Teachers' own reflections can inform their choices of additional provocations that might extend the children’s thinking, and which, in turn, could be reapplied to the original problem. This process may occur many times throughout an investigation.

The process of inquiry invites us to revisit our original questions and new wonderments as teachers with the children. Carlina Rinaldi (2006), president of Reggio Children, defines the concept of “re-cognition” in the following way: “Re-cognition is basically an attempt to revisit and re-understand what has taken place by highlighting previously constructed relations, developing and challenging them, and consequently producing new ones” (p. 131).

Over a year after the events described here, I continue to find myself engaged in a process of re-cognition, through research, reflection, and dialogue, both regarding the children’s explorations of size and scale and my daily role as a teacher. This continuous process of professional development leads me to also consider what the children and teachers learned, other directions we might have followed, and how we might take our knowledge gained and apply it to our work with a new group of children.


Boulder Journey School. (n.d.). Conceptual framework. Retrieved June 22, 2010, from http://www.boulderjourneyschool.com

Hawkins, David. (2000).  The roots of literacy. Boulder: University Press of Colorado.

New, Rebecca S. (1998). Theory and praxis in Reggio Emilia: They know what they are doing, and why. In Carolyn Edwards, Lella Gandini, & George Forman (Eds.), The hundred languages of children: The Reggio Emilia approach—Advanced reflections (2nd ed., pp. 261-284). Westport, CT: Ablex.

Rinaldi, Carlina. (2006). In dialogue with Reggio Emilia: Listening, researching, and learning. London: Routledge.

Author Information

Christy Spencer is a mentor teacher at Boulder Journey School. She currently teaches in a prekindergarten classroom with two additional mentor teachers and two intern teachers. Christy holds a B.S. in sociology and a M.A. in educational psychology. Christy has also worked with educators from around the country, participating in Boulder Journey School study tours.

Christy Spencer
Mentor Teacher
Boulder Journey School
1919 Yarmouth Ave.
Boulder, CO 80304
Email: christyspencer@hotmail.com

Ellen Hall is the founder and executive director of Boulder Journey School, a school for young children in Boulder, Colorado. She is the director of the Teacher Education Program developed at the school through a partnership with the University of Colorado Denver and the Colorado Department of Education. Ellen is a founder and partner in Videatives, Inc., an educational publishing and professional development company. She is a founding member of the North American Reggio Emilia Alliance (NAREA) and serves on its board. Ellen is a member of the World Forum International Organizing Committee. She is also a founder and member of the board of Hawkins Centers of Learning, inspired by the work and lives of David and Frances Hawkins.

Dr. Ellen Lynn Hall
Executive Director
Boulder Journey School
1919 Yarmouth Ave.
Boulder, CO 80304
Email: ellen.lynn.hall@gmail.com