Preschool Project Work Turns Inquiry into Empathy

The study of Crunchy the squirrel was one we almost missed. Squirrels, after all, were not a passion for the staff. As the summer days pushed on, the squirrel living in our school’s front yard became the highlight of each preschooler’s day. They began talking about him before heading outside: Would we see him? Would he be peeking out of the bike trailer like he was that other day?

The day the children named the squirrel was the day this study became unavoidable and necessary. Their relationship with this squirrel, that was named “Crunchy” after he ran “crunching” through fallen leaves, was growing and we were missing it.

As we began learning alongside children, our own interests began to grow. We became invested in the topic and interested in the connections we saw being made within our community. Parents emailed us pictures of Crunchy, children from other classes wrote him letters and hung them in his tree. Toddlers left him apple peel offerings. We protected him, we loved him, and we did it alongside each other in ways we would not have without the framework of this longstanding project.

In the Beginning
Children engaged with Crunchy as one would expect a three-year-old to engage. They chased him. He was a big squirrel, and slow, although somehow always managed to stay outside their grasps. Eventually this hunt became more scientific: the cycle of inquiry began naturally for these young scientists. Children who did not typically play together were hypothesizing alongside each other: “I will go this way, and you will go that way and he will come down his tree and he will go to you!” They began wondering if they would ever catch him. “He is fast, but I think I’m faster.” They noticed his quick climb and huge jumps. Teachers took these wonderings and brought them back to the children. How far could he jump, and what about us? How high could we climb? How fast were our feet?

The more details we gathered, the more they wanted to know. Why is his nest so high in the tree? “He knows we will bother him down here.” We looked at a variety of squirrels and had parent help identifying him as a fox squirrel. With more information their play also changed. In place of observation, hypothesis, and plans, the children began acting as squirrels. They collected “food” and hid it in the ground, in the trees. They gathered together in bushes and curled up like squirrels. Everyone took on the role of a squirrel as a way of better understanding Crunchy.

The Change: Making Connections
As we continued our Crunchy research the lines between him and us began to blur. The children leaned on him like a friend. When we noticed toys stuck in a tree, they assumed Crunchy would lend a hand. Quickly we drafted him a letter:


Dear Crunchy,
Please grab that hula hoop and ball for us. It’s stuck in that tree – that big tree in the back of our school. Have a happy day! Please pick leaves for us, too. We are happy to know you. Love,


All the children signed the letter and hung it at the base of the tree. We had a few skeptics - one child pointed out that Crunchy could not read and therefore would not be able to help. The next day, when the toys were out of the tree he speculated, “Well, maybe his parents read it to him.” Again we saw a child making a direct connection between himself and the squirrel.

Growing Empathy
Months into this project, we noticed a new focus on his safety. One day, while Crunchy sat in a crabapple tree, the children gathered in the grass below. They watched another squirrel, identified as Crunchy’s cousin, run out of the yard and across the street. There was a collective gasp as we watched it weave through traffic. As a teacher I worried: Would this be the decisive end to our study? Would children be traumatized?

As this squirrel made it safely across the street, the children turned toward Crunchy yelling, “Stay here in our garden where you will be safe!” This scolding was cut short by another discovery: a dead squirrel, lying just a few feet from our fence. “Crunchy’s brother! He was hit by a bus or a car!” With their bodies pressed against the fence, they shared their observations:
“I didn’t know squirrels had blood.”
“And they have bones!”
“He isn’t moving. Oh, wait! He is moving a little when the cars go by.”
Then there was a change – a move toward empathy and connection.
“He has a big owie. Crunchy’s brother needs a doctor.”
“Oh, Crunchy must be so sad!”
“We need to make Crunchy another note.”


Dear Crunchy,
You have to stay out of the street because you could get run over by a bus! We don’t want you dead. Stay in the garden where you are safe. We would like you to be happy and not sad. Or dead.
Love,   The ECC


We saw empathetic actions like these seeping into other interactions with nature. Children felt connected to Crunchy’s tree: “Isn’t’ it so beautiful? I hope it never dies.” They collected trash out of the school yard. They built houses for ants and rolly pollies. They shared stories with Crunchy and about Crunchy, and through this process showed us they had gained a deeper understanding of their role in caring for the world.

Years later, ECC children still refer to and care for squirrels known as “Crunchy.” Children who were only infants at the time now point out Crunchy during walks to the park. The connection made between these children to their schoolyard friend had power: children taught children, took responsibility for a vulnerable creature, and through the Project Based Learning process built an empathetic community.