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Spotlight: Problem-Based Learning with Birds!

Kindergarten students typically hear or see a bird and yet often remain oblivious to the sounds of nature surrounding them. Kelly Preheim’s kindergarten class in Armour, SD not only pays attention, but can name birds by sound and sight—over 300 of them!

Their teacher’s love of nature has been life-long, but she has only considered herself an avid birder for the last seven years. Naturally, Preheim began to integrate that passion into her classroom, and her students flourished. She discovered that incorporating her passion into her teaching while making the content relevant to students allowed them to learn more easily, making kindergarten more enjoyable.

The Imagining

Preheim knew that bringing her love of birds into the classroom would create a more enjoyable experience, but where to begin? She saw great success as an educator, but knew her students had the potential to achieve even more. How might she design activities that would inspire even greater learning among her students?

Kelly drew from her passion. “I am an elementary teacher who loves birding!  I mean… I am really addicted to it!  It is so much fun… I love the birds, their songs, their behavior… I love being outdoors and seeing other animals in cool places. I love the adventure and excitement of finding some different bird than what I was expecting!  Birding can be very contagious.”

From her nearly 30 years of experience, she knew that children are attuned to nature. Kelly was encouraged to persevere her dream during a classroom visit from some of the team at PAST Foundation, and thus began to plan her lessons around her students’ love of nature and her own passion of birding.

The teacher made sure that her students had access to their own binoculars to be successful in their endeavors.  Source: Kelly Preheim

The Sharing

Kelly has found success in developing unique projects with her students to learn through a newly found shared passion, but more importantly to share their knowledge and passion with parents and community members. Students’ demonstration of learning eventually grew to a wider range including state and national organizations who took notice of the students’ unique approach to learning.

“One important part of teaching kindergarten is to help children become more aware of their surroundings and give them experiences.  This helps them to make connections when they are reading, so that they can relate to what is happening in a story and therefore better understand it.   It really was easy for me to do and at first they were mildly interested and it didn’t take long until they were hooked.  Then they were asking many questions and wanting to know more and more. The other reason that I have found is that it gave us all a common interest which has been fun to discuss.”

This was the first time that students had an opportunity to look at birds through the spotting scope! Source: Kelly Preheim

The kindergartners made a book to teach others about birds. Source:

Why Transdisciplinary Problem-Based Learning (TPBL)?

Kelly explains that TPBL has helped students to notice details. “They have transferred that into reading comprehension and noticing parts of words and letter discrimination. It has greatly increased their vocabulary and they notice details more. Also when I started using birds in my Math story problems, they began to love story problems!”

“PAST helped me develop one of my favorite projects. The students collaborated with the high school sophomores to design and build nest boxes for Lake Alcazar.” The kindergartners chose their birds of focus, and then taught the 10th graders about them. Then, the older students researched the nest boxes the birds needed along with the plans and materials.  “The kindergarteners were decked out in safety glasses and aprons while helping the older kids build,” recounts Kelly. Later, the students painted the nest boxes together, and placed them at the local lake for observation. Preheim’s students have also created 2D and 3D maps to document bird sightings, published books to help others learn about birds, and presented at birding festivals. –September 2017

To read more about birding activities with kindergarteners, check out Preheim’s blog at !


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