Thursday, 21 April 2016

A busy week of outdoor fun!

Finally, this week we got some lovely Spring weather - the sun shone & it was warm & dry all day. The children embraced the opportunity to shed their coats & explore playing in the mud kitchen without having to get on their rain gear.
This class has very different play patterns from other years & it has taken them until now to discover the potential fun of the Bottle Babies! 2 children decided to put them in some crates & this then became a jail for all the Bottle Babies - apparently when asked if they promised to be good in order to be freed from jail, the Bottle Babies had replied 'No'!
 The whole school had a gardening day up above the nursery opposite Bear Woods & the children were brilliant at getting all the weeds out of one of the planters & then putting some seeds into another planter. Normally on the way back down, as the path leads into the car park an adult has to go first but I had rediscovered some cans of playground marker paint in the store & decided to add a red line at the bottom of the path so the children can run ahead & have a visible mark of where to stop & wait for an adult. I also added some numbers to our playground with the paint.
 The trees are all blossoming in the playground & the children enjoyed picking some blossoms of the cherry tree to add to their 'cooking' in the mud kitchen. The Christmas tress given to us by An Creagán in January are now providing great needles to be used in the mud kitchen for recipes too!
 We had our first trip to the Wild Woods at An Creagán this week too & the children loved looking for trolls under the bridge, climbing up & sliding down the steep banks.

I know this lovely weather won't last for ever but it has made for a fabulous week of outdoor fun!

Friday, 15 April 2016

Guest Post - Making Maths Matter!

Delighted to have the incredible Elaine Bennett as a guest on the blog today - here is her post on how to make maths an exciting and 'real' topic for young children.

Hands up...who has ever trudged down to the maths cupboard to sign out the box of 3D plastic shapes before so that they can "do" 3D shape?
Well this week, we have been looking at shapes in our daily magic maths sessions. We started by looking at the flat shapes on our rug which we cant pick up and then looked at the 3D solid shapes which we can. We began with the plastic ones and the children looked at them and we talked about what they could be in our lives. The plastic cylinder became a rolling pin, telescope, nose and can of coke. The pyramid became a mountain. The cube became a box, a present, a robots head, a dice. Another day we put a shape in each hoop and I gave the children classroom objects to match to the shapes. The point I am trying to make is that we need to make sure that we provide the opportunities for children to see maths in their worlds, their lives, to see the patterns, relationships and connections. I wasn't expecting them to pick up the mathematical names....but they started to use them, recognising our deputy head teacher badge was a cuboid and her buttons were cylinders and not circles.
Today we went on a shape hunt outside and I was blown away. The children were highly motivated and engaged, excitedly making connections in their world, their environment. Seeing the planks they climb on are cuboids, our door strips are bendy cuboids, a stick is a cylinder, the wheels on the bikes we ride are cylinders, the 6 square waffle bricks together make a cube and that cylinders had been cut in half to make our ampi whole ones wouldn't have lined up as neatly. Excited yells of "Mrs Bennett I found a cuboid! Cube! Cylinder!" filled the air.
Boys in the willow den realised there was a square was at the top inside of it and took a photo on the ipad. By this time we were late for lunch. As we walked along the corridor lights, tiles, windows, doors, mosiacs and even our dinner tables proved fascinating to the children! It was honestly like they were seeing things they pass everyday with new eyes.Leading me to exclaim "Our whole world is made of shapes!" 
I guess my point is that we need to make sure that children see maths as important, relevant and meaningful. We need to provide the opportunities for them to make the connections, see the links, patterns and relationships. We need them to see that they are surrounded by involves them. It is LIFE! 
Maths is ultimately about these patterns, relationships, links and connections whether they relate to numbers, measures or shapes. Children who can recognise and use these patterns are our learners who feel truly connected to maths.
In years gone by I would have called children over to "learn" shapes, using the box from the maths cupboard and a ticklist to complete of "who knows shapes". What I was really teaching them is that maths is abstract, plastic, brightly coloured, led by an adult, and happens at this table. This will only switch off learners.
Ironically that list wouldn't really tell me if they "knew" 3D shape.
So if and when you use the plastic shapes, when you take them back to the cupboard, don't take the learning back there to be placed on a shelf alongside the dog eared box with sphere thats broken in two! Ironically the shapes we used were not designed for children to actually explore as the cones bottom fell off! 
NB Depsite my plastic shape bashing, I cannot recommend highly enough the magnetic polydron sets, which whilst pricey are brilliant for exploring shape!
Thanks to Elaine for this post & make sure you follow Keeping Early Years Unique on Facebook and @Keep_EYs_Unique on Twitter.

Friday, 8 April 2016

Embracing Risk.

I got the idea for the long handled forks from Highway Farm Activity Centre.
For those visiting our nursery to see the class during outdoor play, I always have to stress that where we, as a nursery team (staff, students, children and parents) are today, is not something we just arrived at, it has been a long journey to reach this particular outdoor play approach. Most importantly, the parents sending their children to our nursery have to fully buy into our approach of embracing risk. I can explain to them at open days and induction evenings what I mean by this but it is usually not until they actually see it in action that they fully understand what we mean. 
I will,often hear a parent telling their child not t go up the slide in those early days or not to pick up sticks or climb over tree stumps etc. As a staff, we take time to explain that it ok to go the slide, climb on seats or play with sticks. 
I love watching the children become more confident over the school year as they truly begin to believe in their own abilities. At the start of the year they will ask us a lot, 'can I do that, can I climb up there, can I move that, is it ok to climb over that?' etc. By the start of the third and final term most of them will look to an adult to gauge their reaction or for reassurance but they rarely ask for permission to embrace risk as much. We totally underestimate how savvy young children are, unless rhey have a reason for having no sense of danger, most know their own limitations & will try a risky activity & decide whether they want to continue or not.
A few weeks ago we built a den out of some pallets. The idea was to have a pitched roof but it didn't work out that way & it has a flat roof. The children love to climb up the sides and one discovered she could get up onto the roof. The next plan will be to strengthen the roof more so that lots of children can be on the top at the same time.
Another way we embrace risk, is to have a weekly fire every Thursday. These children have been used to being around a fire since October & when they had the opportunity to toast their own bread on it, they are sensible enough to stand well back from the flames. The long handled forks allows for this but even then some will stand as far back as possible, in the 4 years we have been using the fire the on,y children who would go towards the flames are those with an additional need that includes a lack of awareness of danger. 
Each day, all staff have to assess the risk involved of an activity a child decides to engage in & many times my heart is in my mouth as I watch a child climb up on something in the playground but I have to stand back and trust that they are confident they are ok. 
The worst thing we can do for our children is to constantly tell them to be careful or make them afraid to take risks. 

Friday, 1 April 2016

The potential of mess!

Through this blog and local Teachmeets, word has spread amongst colleagues that there it is worth coming to see how we 'do' outdoor play at our nursery, so invariably most weeks we have visitors who spend time watching how the children use the playground and what resources we have provided or acquired.
The one thing I always stress to anyone visiting is that our playground didn't start off looking like it does now, it has taken 10 years to get where we are physically and in that time period my practice has evolved a lot too.
It is always great when someone comes to visit and 'gets' the area immediately being able to see the potential in it and understand how much it contributes to the level of engagement from the children. But every so often, people do come along who are obviously horrified by the 'state' of the space - it is messy, it is dirty and it is well used. It is often pointed out that if I was at the front of the school or on show I probably won't be 'allowed' to have such a space! I like to think I would - anyone spending time in the space sees that it provides endless prompts for play. 
If you are someone who likes clean lines & tidy spaces then a playground full of loose parts is going to be very hard for you to embrace but if you can stick with it and resist the urge to keep tidying up, I promise that you will start to appreciate the 'mess' when you see how much stimulation such a space offers to children. 
There is a fantastic free downloadable resource from Learning through Landscapes called 'This Place Looks Like a Building Site'  (available here: I believe every principal or manager should have a copy of this so they can see why their outdoor space needs to messy rather that a pristine space. 
We do have to have some rules about the use of loose parts of course. After numerous incidents involving the real crockery and the tarmac, it is now agreed that it's best to leave the crockery in the house corner and just use the plastic unbreakable stuff in the wider area. The children also know not to throw the large hollow blocks about or they will splinter and break but most other resources were sourced free so can be moved about e.g. tyres, saucepans, pots, crates, sticks etc. 
I always advise taking small steps in the revamp of a playground, add whatever you can source first then just keep adding more and more 'stuff' as you find it or buy it. 
We now have an almost permanent fire circle at the bottom of the playground for our weekly camp fires or birthdays (we have the cake outside with the birthday child sitting on the big throne) but the stumps are moveable and so some days they will be rolled about to make something else by the children. 
I firmly believe that it is best to let a space develop over time and it needs to allow for the group of children in the class at the time to feel ownership of it. So here's to lots of messy fun times & who knows what this space will look like in 10 years time!

Sunday, 20 March 2016

That aha moment!

Those who teach preschool or nursery often chat about how we luckily forget just how hard the first month if not the first term is for everyone involved - the staff are exhausted as they introduce a whole new set of children to the routine and rules of the setting and the children have to learn how to get along with a room full of their peers.
But the reward for all this hard work comes when you witness that 'aha moment' when you see a child grab a timer and empty it themselves rather than an adult modelling how to ensure a fair turn, or you watch a couple of children negotiate turns on a piece of equipment with no pushing, shoving or tears!
Over the past few weeks we have added the large hollow blocks and half rounds to the playground, the latter are just little logs cut in half from Cosy that allow the children to create a balance effect with a plank & a half round. They started by walking up the plank and feeling it tip and then lurch to the other end. Some use it to replicate 'surfing' by just balancing on the plank while it's off the ground. Then last week one child discovered that by putting a bottle baby on one end & then jumping on the other they could create a large catapult! Of course the poor bottle baby burst upon impact with the hard standing of the playground & so I suggested they look for something lighter that wouldn't cause any injury if it landed on anyone's head either!
A few years ago one child found a purple, rubber thing in Bear Woods- it soon become known as 'the purple minion egg', in fact it was the inside of a bouncing balance shown in the photo above & came from the main playground.
What impressed me most when I watched a small video taken by another staff member of the game 2 children invented with the minion egg, was the turn taking that was taking place. There was no shouting or fighting but lots of direction from one of the children "No, it's my turn now, you're next" or "Now it's your turn, that's it, well done" etc. lots of great dialogue between the 2 as they had fun sending the minion egg up into the sky - there were lots of giggles too as it bounced back down again. 
Turn taking does not come naturally or easily, it does have to taught, it has to modelled again and again and again but most importantly children need to see that it is fair. 
I think that many underestimate how important that year in preschool is for all the social skills that are learned. If we bow to the downward pressure or testing young children for academic skills we are losing sight of the importance of their personal, social and emotional development. They need time to learn how to compromise, negotiate and argue with their peers in a safe environment with adults who are constantly modelling turn taking and giving them lots of opportunities to hear how to negotiate a turn until suddenly they begin to employ all these skills for themselves.
I have often said that the third and final term is the most bittersweet, the children are so much more independent and able to fully enjoy being part of a big class and all the exciting play opportunities it provides without all the angst of the first term and coming to grip with being part of a large group and yet it is also sad because as their teacher, I know they are ready to leave me and move onto their next step on their educational journey and I have to start all over again!

Sunday, 6 March 2016

The importance of role play.

 Sometimes when I have a post 'brewing' in my mind, another blogger I might follow manages to write a post on the same topic or I come across an article written in a similar vein. And so it has happened with this post, I have been watching as the role play develops in my class this year and reflecting on how this aspect of the preschool day has far reaching consequences for later development. Then lo and behold, last week I was fortunate to get to hear a brief presentation from Dr Dorothy Singer a big play advocate and professor at Yale, all about her research on imaginative play. Then Takoma Park Cooperative Nursery posted their latest blog post all about dramatic play.( Sometimes in the busy preschool curriculum role play can be overlooked as a valuable stage of development but after listening to Dorothy Singer, I won't be making that mistake. She referred to the ages between 3 and 5 as "the high season of play" and I think anyone who spends time around children of this age will agree; play comes naturally to most children in this age group, they just can't help themselves and aren't yet self-conscious about acting out a fantasy scenario in front of others. I think it is very sad that our present curriculum in Northern Ireland doesn't allow for much deep,  sustained role play beyond the nursery years of 3 & 4. Once children are in primary they have an hour of play and because it is limited and so much has to be achieved in that hour, it can be quite frantic rather than settled and deep. I once heard it said that it takes 45 minutes for a child to become deeply involved in their play and so if play time is over a 60 minute period with lots of moving from activity to activity and perhaps snack time thrown into the mix, it can't really be deep level play, can it?
One thing I admire about Takoma Park, is the way they have archived all their play scenarios (play arcs is their term) from the start of the school and do they have a wealth of children's play scenarios to draw upon. I wish I had done that since starting in my job in 2011, it would be great to see the influences that had lead to the play scenarios over the years. 
This year, Disney's Frozen, is providing a big inspiration for a lot of the role play outside but not inside, perhaps there's a study to be done on this! One child is the one who freezes the others and then various other children will drift in and out of the play to help melt people or to be frozen themselves. Interestingly whilst sometimes the rescuer can be Kristoff, it is just as likely to be a storm trooper or Spider-Man as both Star Wars & super heroes have a big influence this year too. Other times the same child who is 'the ice queen' can be found being Daphne and searching for mysteries ala 'Scooby Doo'!
Mud kitchens & outdoor 'cooking' - another aspect of role play.
Inside the role play revolves around cats and dogs and at the moment pregnant ladies! Some children will get on a paramedic dress up suit to help deliver the various babies - usually stuffed toys that have been stashed up a dress or jumper. One child in particular who has been deep in the pregnant lady play scenario for weeks, can be heard going around the room saying "Sweetheart, I'm pregnant" to whichever child seems receptive to the situation. 
Dorothy Singer spoke of how children who engage in role play usually have higher verbal skills and that engaging in such play children learn how to defer gratification. The latter remark was made in relation to those who are primarily engaged in playing computer games etc. This remark about delayed gratification stuck with me, as I could think of a child I had in my class at one time, who played a lot of games on the X-box and iPad etc., it was all he could talk about and it took a long time for him to 'get' play in nursery. His biggest issue was turn taking and not being first, he found waiting very, very hard and even after 6 months could be heard crying out 'But I haven't had a go yet/been picked etc.' even when it was clear that lots of children were still waiting a turn. 
A good leader at role play is about to give and take, they usually have great ideas for the play scenario but can be flexible and allow for character changes throughout the play. The child, I talked about before had real problems during role play, as he wanted it to always go the route he had chosen, he couldn't be flexible about characters changing of leaving or joining in half way through. Could it be because many of the games he played had a very set way of being played out?
I personally, love watching role play scenarios unfold and develop and think it is a crucial part of the curriculum for every child but it needs time to be developed over time and not just a new scenario every few weeks to help tick a box on a planning document. 

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Seeing your practice through other's eyes.

From day 3 we start with our basic routine that can be expanded as the day lengthens.
Sadly in teaching the only people who regularly view our practice are usually inspectors or management for performance related pay assessment, on these occasions those watching the practice generally feel they have to be super critical and on the look out for ways to suggest improvement.
Luckily in a nursery classroom there are always at least 2 adults working together, so it is not a huge deal to have another adult in the room when you are teaching but I know for many teachers this is their worst nightmare!
Every so often, it is rewarding to have an outsider come to watch your practice and give feedback through their questions, it gives the practitioner time to reflect on why they do things a certain way and to step back and ask themselves, 'do I need to do it that way?'.

In the past few weeks I had 5 different practitioners come to spend some time in my classroom, one was a local practitioner who wanted to see how we organised our indoor play time and the others were four Swedish preschool teachers who were on a job shadowing experience in our school. 
Sometimes, as we toil away in the classroom everyday, we lose sight of our own craft; we are so used to doing things a certain way we forget that it is not the norm. In N.I, I imagine every preschool class has indoor & outdoor play, tidy up time, a group story time and depending on whether they are full time or not, a dinner/lunch routine. However, how each teacher chooses to move from one activity to another will be unique to that teacher. I found it really interesting to suddenly see how an average day looked to these outsiders and it was through their questions that I began to see where my practice had evolved to over the past 5-6 years.

I had been concerned that the Swedish teachers would be disappointed by what they saw & not really gain anything from their time with me but I was wrong! They kept having to disappear into the office to jot down copious notes as they observed how our day unfolded. We had two at a time each day, so that one could stay in the classroom while the other went off to write up notes. 
At the end of the first day, one of the teachers told me that she loved how our day flowed seamlessly from one activity to the next, she commented that it was very obvious to her that lots of work had been done to make the structure look unstructured. I could have kissed her at that point, as there is nothing worse than someone perceiving my nursery classroom as a chaotic place, it is anything but, we have spent a long time (the first four weeks) 'teaching' the routine so that it becomes a natural part of the day. There is a long thought out reason for every activity, sometimes it can be as simple as the need to have all 26 children in the one place at the time when there are just 2 of us, other times it is because we know it is important to actually teach young children how to tidy up and not just announce 'tidy up time'. 
The key point for me was that the Swedish teachers had enough practical experience plus subject knowledge of early years, to be able to see the why of what we do. 
For me, it was invaluable to have to explain to another practitioner why we split the children into small groups to tidy up, why we have set points in the day when we regroup as a whole class and how as a team we decide who will be based where in the classroom.
I personally believe we should all get regular opportunities to go and observe other teachers in action not to criticise but to challenge ourselves and see new ideas in practice.