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SciTech Hands-On Museum's preschool teacher Karen Nicholas teaches students Thursday about parts pumpkin. | Kalyn Belsha~Sun-Times Media

SciTech Hands-On Museum's preschool teacher Karen Nicholas teaches students Thursday about the parts of a pumpkin. | Kalyn Belsha~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: November 21, 2013 6:47AM

“What kind of foods can you eat with pumpkin?” Julie Bauman asked the squirming preschool students at SciTech STEM Discovery Academy in Aurora, where she is head of school.

The students had just finished exploring the pumpkin’s stringy insides during a dissection and were reviewing its parts and edible uses.

“Pumpkin snot!” one girl yelled. “No, no, pumpkin seeds,” she corrected herself.

As Halloween approaches, elementary and early education teachers from Aurora to Naperville to Oswego are bringing hands-on activities about fall and the harvest to their classrooms to teach science, math and literacy lessons.

But those pumpkins, apples and leaves aren’t just for play.

Teachers say the autumn staples can help students build social-emotional skills, develop sensory and observation abilities and learn academic concepts that are part of the new Common Core State Standards, which emphasize engaging activities and lessons that cross multiple academic subjects.

Samantha Giglio, who teaches preschool at Indian Prairie District 204’s Longwood Elementary, used the month of October to teach her students about the parts and life cycles of the pumpkin and apple.

She said the fall lessons are a good way to introduce her students to fruits they are unfamiliar with, as well as go beyond the commercialization of Halloween to teach students about the true purposes of scarecrows and pumpkins.

“When they see a pumpkin, they just think of a jack-o-lantern,” Giglio said. “A lot of them have never opened a pumpkin and seen what’s inside.”

As part of her lesson, Giglio made a felt apple pie, so students could follow the steps of baking and act out how to set a table. She also has a discovery center where students can touch hay, baby corn and various gourds and squashes.

During art projects, students worked on fine motor skills as they made stamps with apple sections and painted apple trees.

Over at Oswego District 308’s Brokaw Early Learning Center, preschool teacher Ann Neville designed several lessons using apples, which she said can be used to help students learn about how plants grow.

Her school has about eight to 10 dwarf apple trees on its property, so Neville took students and their parents out to observe and pick apples, then taught students how to make apple pie.

“People don’t bake at home anymore,” Neville said, adding she learned to make pie from her mother at a young age. “They love the rolling pin and rolling out that dough because it’s like Play-Doh.”

In her lesson, students help measure and mix ingredients, roll out dough and construct the pie, which she bakes in the school oven, then lets students taste it. Students also take home mini-pies they made to share with their families.

Neville said the lesson teaches students new vocabulary, counting skills and states of matter, as they see the apple go from hard to soft under heat.

She keeps play dough in the classroom so they can continue to act out pie making. And later in the spring, the lesson will come full circle when students see the apple trees blossom and they learn about planting and seed growth.

This time of year, Neville said, she encourages parents who are able to take their children to the grocery store or to look at fields in the Oswego area when they are driving to reinforce what students learn in class.

At East Aurora’s Allen Elementary, all the kindergarten classes get together — mixing bilingual and general education students — to do a pumpkin lesson filled with math, science and literacy concepts.

“Even on the fun days we still include the standards that we need to be teaching them,” said teacher Stephanie Paul, who teaches bilingual kindergarten at Allen.

Paul said mixing up the students is a good way to get them to interact socially with one another, break some stereotypes and form new friendships.

The school sets up several centers that students can rotate through, such as writing poems about the life cycle of the pumpkin and making graphs after they’ve counted colored leaves.

For older elementary students, pumpkins can be used to teach more complex math and science concepts.

At Indian Prairie District 204’s Kendall Elementary, fourth-grade students team up to find the mass and circumference of pumpkins, hypothesize whether the gourd will sink or float in water and then predict how many seeds are inside. For individual work, students do creative writing, such as composing spooky stories.

As a class, students work to find minimums, maximums and averages of pumpkin size.

“With group work we try to make sure that each of them has a role,” said teacher Ayana Spires. “There is a lot of the collaboration piece.”

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