Category Archives: active learning

Outdoor Play: When They Would Rather Play with Sticks and Stones (The Theory of Loose Parts)

child playing in the dirt
I hid my stick, can you find it?

I laughed to myself as I watched my 2-year-old playing in the borders, hiding a stick in the bushes and drawing in the dirt.  A few feet away was a very expensive sensory playground with musical instruments, water features and a little bear cave. It was very impressive, but the lure of a stick was just too great. Given the choice I’m sure regardless of the expensive equipment we provide, most children are happy with a stick, a pile of stones, or a tub of water.

My eldest was obsessed with tiny stones when she was small. Everywhere we went she would stop to pick them up or take them home in her pockets. If we were in the garden she would make collections of little stones and spend hours moving them from one place to another. She was very young at the time but I never stopped her for fear that she may swallow them. I simply made sure I was sat nearby so that I could see what she was doing.

playing with loose parts
filling eggs with stones and glass beads.

My 2-year -old loves sticks. We have 2 rules:

  • No sticks in the house
  • Do not point sticks at people’s eyes.

Sometimes they are magic wands, Sometimes fishing rods or sometimes simply something to carry around. Every stick is greeted with equal excitement.

playing in the dirtAll 3 children play for hours in the sand pit. When I first moved to the US I didn’t think the girls would like the grey, gravelly play sand they have here. I was wrong, they love it as much, if not more than the fine golden sand we had in the UK. Even at the park they chose to play in the dirty gravel rather than on the equipment.

The Theory of Loose Parts

In 1972 the architect Simon Nicholson devised the Theory of Loose Parts. It grew from the notion that all children love to interact with variables. Variables can be anything from materials and shapes to media such as gases and fluids and are used to discover, invent and have fun. The theory of loose parts is as follows

‘In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it.      (Nicholson 1972)

Put simply, the playground with static play equipment will not offer a child the opportunity to discover and create their own scenarios as freely as one that is less predictable or restrictive and offers moveable objects that can interact with the child’s play. A swing is a swing but the gravel can be a home for a bug, fairy dust, a cake, something to draw in, a track for a car and other endless possibilities.

We have the perfect garden for playing with loose parts, with an abundance of trees, pine cones, stones, dirt etc. I decided to organise these a little to see if it would change the way the children played with them.

Storage for Loose Parts

garden equipmentWe had an old clothes horse in the garden that was waiting for a purpose. I bought a few hanging baskets and hung them on the clothes horse along with a few other baskets I  had found. I also clipped a variety of containers to the clothes horse using  an underwear dryer (we also use this for drying paintings).

Using the clothes horse means that it is fully portable making  it easy to move out of the rain or to the sandpit, paddling pool or lawn .

The Slide show illustrates some of the things we collected .

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Other ideas for loose parts that can be stored outdoors

  • sticks, twigs
  • glass beads, marbles, buttons, bells, beads
  • feathers
  • lolly sticks
  • pegs
  • acorns, conkers and seeds,
  • string
  • large things like pallets, tyres, flowerpots, fabric, boxes, pots and pans, tubes, guttering, bamboo canes, bricks, planks, logs, driftwood.

I love to see the children using their environment to stimulate imaginative and creative play. Here are some of my favourites.

Learning for Life

Country Kids from Coombe Mill Family Farm Holidays Cornwall

Steady Beat Action Rhymes

My Children are big fans of Beat Baby and love to play rhyming games. Some of these activities and the way they help with early literacy development are documented in a previous post about Musical Games . Recently we were reading Ros Bayley’s Action Raps and then continued to make up some of our own.

After a few rhymes with me leading the way, my 4-year-old decided to have a try.

TEDx London 2011 The Education Revolution

WP_000716

I was fortunate to attend TEDx London this weekend. This event was born from issues raised in Sir Ken Robinson’s 2010 TED talk and was designed to raise the question ‘ How can we bring on the Education Revolution?’

What can all those involved ACTUALLY  DO to ensure that the old and irrelevant in education is thrown out and  that we can build a new model of constant reinvention to ensure that  education provides what industry requires and more importantly what   young people need to flourish in today’s world.

I returned from TEDx London, my head buzzing with ideas, questions and things to explore.  Many of the underlying concepts were not new but were reiterated by passionate individuals and illustrated by exciting examples from the world of education. These were some of my highlights:-

The talks were split into 3 sections

  1. What’s Wrong / What’s Happening
  2. What’s Right
  3. What’s Next.

The first session began with a live feed from Sir Ken Robinson.  He discussed his views on the purpose of education

Economic – Education underpins the modern economy and for a modern economy there is a need for creativity and innovation.

 Cultural – Helping to understand each others cultures and relieve the problems of cultural mistrust.

Personal – Education is about individuals, it cannot be mechanistic and should encourage students to become engaged.  For this reason education should be personalised.

Sir Ken Robinson’s vision for change includes

  • Education that is personalised
  • Improvements in the motivation of both students and teachers
  • Education that is customised to the needs of the particular community or individual school
  • Education is about diversity and standardisation offends diversity.
  • Education is about partnership with great institutions and the community.

A number of these points were a common thread throughout the talks.  The importance of recognising children as individuals and encouraging, rather than stifling their talents and interests, came time and again. The need to motivate children and encourage them to think for themselves and the many possibilities that technology offers  also kept reappearing.

I consider myself fortunate to work in Early Education.  Active learning, teaching that stems from children’s interests and strengths and listening to the child’s voice are fairly widespread.  Learning is fun in the early years and it would be unusual to find a pre-school child who grumbled that school was boring. I hope that all education can take lessons from early education at its best.

Adam Roberts an 18 year old human rights campaigner talked about  critical thinking and how his mother’s encouragement to ask questions set him up for life. As young children we instinctively ask questions, but as we grow older children are often discouraged from questioning. This point was made even more strongly in Ewan McIntosh’s talk. Ewan explained the need for children to be problem finders rather than problem solvers.  He showed a group of 7 and 8 year olds who were asked to put on their own TEDx event.  The children were inspired to come up with their own questions, prompted by ‘have you ever wondered?’ The children came up with wonderful philosophical questions and the excitement and animation shown by the children was truly infectious

Another common thread was the potential for  embracing social media and technology in the classroom.  By doing this we are bringing the real world into the classroom rather than viewing education and school as separate to other aspects of life. Dan Roberts  believes strongly in education through technology and demonstrated some of the things his students at Saltash.net Community School are doing.

 

The What’s Right sessions showed a number of inspirational projects including:

History pin – building a history of real people and places using photographs and video footage.

A workshop from Seeper with a school for children on the autistic spectrum, showing how technology can motivate and engage children Dr Matt Whitby  showing how awe-inspiring science can be, through his off the wall science experiments.

 

Tim Exile – a musician who has invented a machine to create spontaneous electronic music using a variety of sounds.

 

The Final session involved speakers who are thinking in a new way and their pleas for like-minded individuals to join them in this journey.

Dougald Hine was inspirational.  He talked about change  with determination and self belief, a firm believer in making things  happen.

Emily Cummings the 24 year old inventor has been named Barclays woman of the year in 2009 and one of the top ten outstanding young people in the world in 2010.  She explained how her passion for designing began when her grandfather taught her to make things in his workshop. Teachers recognised her talent and entered her for competitions, harnessing her enthusiasm and giving her new goals.

Sir Ken Robinson closed the day with a plea to make alternatives a part of the mainstream.  A new vision for education including personalised learning, group activity, the closeness of the community and using and sharing talents.  Many of the case studies from young people at the conference showed that talents were often discovered and utilised outside of school.The community then has an important role to play in educating children The closing lines resonated with me

New technologies will make change possible.

Technology alone doesn’t do much, it’s what we do with it that matters.

There were some wonderful examples of what we do with technology and creative thinking.  I came away with lots of ideas and things that I wanted to share but also a feeling of uncertainty about what I can do to make a difference.  I want to share inspirational ideas and inspire others to try new ways of teaching.  Why?  I believe that we need to be able to use the tools that children are used to at home and that will form a large part of their future rather than sweeping them under the carpet .  Technology will not replace traditional play but will enhance it if we use it creatively. It gives opportunities for awe and wonder, for raising questions, self discovery and creative expression. My endeavour is to show this in practice and inspire others to do the same.

 

Toddler Takeover @At-Bristol

watering cans
I’ve had a really fabulous day out with my 2 year old and her friend at the bi-monthly Toddler Takeover at At-Bristol.  At-Bristol is an interactive science centre with over 300 hands on exhibits.   The Toddler Takeover is a themed day targeted at the under 5’s.   The theme for today was ‘Come Rain or Come Shine ‘.  I’ve been impressed by the amount of exhibits that my 2 year old can enjoy when visiting with her older sister in the past.  There are 2 under 8’s areas that are always available .  A role play airport including a cockpit where the children can fly a plane, passport control, luggage and an x-ray machine and a hostess trolley.  When my eldest was 4 we spent most of the session playing here.playing airports  The other has an animal theme and includes a tunnel, dressing up, storytelling and a sticky spider’s web game where the aim is to throw bugs at it to try to make them stick in the web.

throwing

I once saw a superb storyteller in this area so was disappointed to have missed the storytelling session today.

As our children were under 3 we only had to pay for the adults therefore the day was good value for money.  In addition to the usual exhibits, there were a number of theme based activities  designed with the under 5’s in mind.  These activities were on the whole well thought out and there was a mixture of child directed hands on activities and more structured adult directed activities.  Some of the activities involved making an end product – a windmill or weather wheel and some were more exploratory such as musical instruments that made weather sounds, pretend snow and water play.  These were suitable for even the youngest children and each of the exhibits included a list of  suggested questions and discussion points .

There were a lot of staff helping the children to make the most of the exhibits including a number of volunteers.  Some staff were better at engaging the children that others but in all I felt that the level of supervision was excellent.

For an extra 50p the children could watch a show in the planetarium.  This was very interactive and visual and at about 15 minutes short enough to keep the children’s attention.  It may have been better presented by someone with experience of working with large groups of under 5’s but he managed to keep the interest of most children.

My little one enjoyed running through the lights best of all and is looking forward to returning with her sister so that they can do it together.

playing with light

We had a lost child incident whilst we were there and would just like to commend the staff for the efficient way that this was dealt with.  The child had wandered from the cafe to the main exhibit area.  When  staff  observed that he was without an adult, 4 members of staff  kept in close contact  without approaching him directly, so as not to alarm him. When reporting the lost child the reception staff immediately alerted all the other staff and the child was found .

On a practical level there are a number of baby change areas and buggy parks throughout and a picnic area where you can sit and eat your own food.  The cafe has its own small play area so the children can play whilst you have a coffee break. Parking is on the expensive side but park and ride or public transport are an option.

As an added bonus to the day out, outside At-Bristol there are a number of water features that on sunny days become a great place for children to splash about in.

splash

My only real suggestion for improvement is that there could have been better signage from outside that the event was going on . I’ll definitely be recommending this to my friends and am looking forward to the next one.

At-Bristol is also a great place to visit with older children too, my 7 year old wants to go tomorrow and is disappointed that she couldn’t come with us today. ‘I want to play with the fake snow’ she said when she found that it was only available for the toddler session.

http://www.at-bristol.org.uk/

Is there any value in pre-schoolers using iPads?

 

As you may have read in previous posts I am very interested in harnessing technology to engage children in early literacy.  I have been reading a number of articles about using iPad with pre-school children and am still yet to come to a satisfactory conclusion. 

In Maine there is an initiative to give iPads to  pre-schools in the hope that it will open up new worlds of learning for students.  It is recognised that this it will take a great deal of thought to achieve optimum benefits.  The hope is that it will be used to open up new avenues for exploration and not purley for entertainment.

 http://new.bangordailynews.com/2011/04/22/education/ipad-use-among-kindergartners-sparks-debate/

This is where I struggle.  My 7-year-old has just been allowed a DSi and I had hoped that she would use it as a camera and music player, creating projects to share . As yet I have only seen her engrossed in solitary activity and pushing her younger sister away.  I fear that this could also be the case with iPads if the applications are not creative and far-reaching enough.  Are there any applications that promote creativity and open-ended activities?  Are there any that are designed to be used with groups of children collaborating on tasks?

I have looked for many recommendations but have so far found that most involve variations on the same theme.  The kind of things that have been around on children’s websites for years – memory match games, puzzles, flashcards, colouring in, matching and tracing. Also I have seen a number of interactive books which are great on some levels but would worry that they would replace important aspects like bedtime stories.

So I’m very much on the fence at the moment .  If anyone has experience of using an iPad with pre-schoolers (particularly in the classroom) or has found any ground breaking applications in line with an active, play based,creative and interactive classroom I would love to hear about your experiences.

My Thoughts on the Tickell Review of the Early Years Foundation Stage

I usually approach such reading with trepidation, however when Jonathan Douglas Chairman of the National Literacy Trust described it as ‘exhilarating’ my ears pricked up.

The Review recognises the success and popularity of the EYFS and that it will be some time before this will be fully embedded in practice.  It therefore does not recommend radical change, but maintaining  EYFS in its current form whilst  fine tuning certain aspects.  I’m sure this will be a relief to many who are only just getting to grips with the EYFS and dread being faced with even more change. The tone of the report feels very much as though Dame Tickell has listened to the many individuals and organisations involved in the consultation and shows a commitment to the importance of early education. The review supports learning through play, active learning, creativity and critical thinking as characteristics for effective teaching and  recommends  that the EYFS remains inclusive and mandatory.

There are a number of recommendations in the review including:-

  • A greater emphasis on parental partnership .  The EYFS should be more accessible to parents by making sure it is in plain English.  I also think this would really help with the wide range of people that use it and help to remove any ambiguity .  In addition an online interactive version of EYFS is recommended that would be accessible to parents.
  • A reduction of the Early Learning Goals from 69 to 17, with a simple scale defining the skills needed for emerging, expecting and exceeding each goal.  Anything that reduces targets has to be a good thing in my opinion and the examples of the simple scale are very clear.
  • A commitment to greater clarity on the level of paperwork required, alongside the suggestion that paperwork should be reduced.  This sits alongside the recommendation that Ofsted and the Local Authority work together to ensure that no unnecessary demands made.
  • There continues to be an emphasis on formative assessment based on observations of daily activities to illustrate children’s learning.  Summative assessment (the Foundation Stage Profile) will be significantly reduced and there is a call for stronger links between EYFS and KS1.
  • A call to investigate as a matter of urgency the suitability of a ratio of 1:30 in reception classes.
  • A commitment to recruiting a professional and highly qualified workforce including a review of Early Years training courses and a clear progressive structure for qualifications.  I just hope that this quality is maintained by providing financial incentives.
  • A recommended change to the areas of learning. This would create 3 Prime areas – Communication and Language, Personal, Social and Emotional and Physical and 4 further areas through which these will be applied. These would be Literacy, Maths, Expressive Arts and Design and Understanding the World.  I am undecided as to whether the separation of Communication and Language from Literacy will lead to a greater emphasis on speaking and listening or whether it will detract from the interdependence of reading, writing, speaking and listening.  I hope that there will be clear advice as to what early literacy is .  I am a little disheartened that literacy is defined in terms of reading and writing and that definitions have not been reframed for a new technological age.  I am also unsure about the change from Creativity to
  • Expressive Arts and Design.  I am certain that it has been changed to avoid ambiguity, but creativity encompasses so much more than art and design, that I would hope that this would be fostered in diverse ways.  It is good to see that technology has a specific mention in Understanding the World.
  • A review of children’s development at aged 2-2.5  sharing knowledge from all agencies.

The examples of good practice in the appendices make good reading and there are some thought provoking quotations interspersed throughout.  Reading the whole document takes some time, but is worthwhile.  If you didn’t want to read the whole review the summary of recommendations in Annex 2 will give an overview.

I watch with interest to see how policy makers will adopt these recommendations for the new EYFS.

The full consultation report can be viewed  here http://www.education.gov.uk/tickellreview

Can Technology Engage and Improve Boys Literacy?

How many times do you hear stories about boys falling behind girls in their literacy scores?  In the last 2 years the Foundation Stage Profile Results ( assessment at the end of the child’s first year in school) show that girls are outperforming boys and that Communication, Language and Literacy has the widest gap.

My opinion  is that to a large degree it is down to the fact that boys are not motivated by literacy, because it is not taught in a way that is relevant or interesting to them.  It is important that this is addressed at an early age, rather than once they have already lost interest and are failing.

Children are growing up in an increasingly technological world.  Think back to how much has changed in the last 10 years and we can not possibly imagine what life will be like for our youngest children by the time they leave school.  There is no doubt that children’s experience of literacy in the future will be very different to the pen, paper and print concepts they learn about today.  

 Children’s experiences with technology in the home are generally incompatible with  what they see at pre-school or nursery.  In my experience, having visited many nurseries, technology is generally used in a piecemeal way.  If  I compare this to my children’s  experiences at home it is vastly different.  At home my children play on games consoles, operate the television by remote control, talk to family via video chat, watch cartoons on the laptop or mobile phone, take photos and videos using a mobile phone, record their voices onto a laptop or mp3 player, draw pictures on a drawing tablet, play games on a mobile phone, search the internet for information and much more. The richness of their home experiences are not reflected in their learning at pre-school.

Often this is based on fear, an uncertainty about introducing children to technology (especially screen based) because it will lead children to become lazy and replace more healthy, active or outdoor pursuits.  I recognise those fears; none of us want our children to grow up as screen junkies or for technology to replace important things like reading to your child.  However, I would argue that as technology is evolving, it is becoming more accessible to pre-school children and the opportunity to use it in innovative ways in a play based setting presents itself.  Technology is an ever growing part of their lives and it is important that it is utilised as a natural part of children’s play in pre-school settings.

Boys generally love anything technological and lack interest in reading and writing – this is a generalisation but on the whole it is the case.  I hear people ask all the time ‘ how can I get my son off the computer?’  So maybe instead of trying to ban the things they are interested in we should be using it to our advantage.  I was told a story just a few days ago about how a boy aged 11 who could never understand how anyone could choose reading or writing as a pastime and had joined a computer club at school.  The teachers had shown them how to create animations and story boards.  Following this he has gone away and invented characters, writing comic books and animated stories with such enthusiasm that he couldn’t get to the club quickly enough. 

If we can encourage this enthusiasm at pre-school, maybe we could avoid many of the negative feelings that boys have around literacy and inspire them to be literate in a different way.

This premise forms the basis of my proposal for Phd research ( subject to finding the necessary funding). The hypothesis is that if boys were given opportunities to learn the foundations of literacy through technology, then they would be motivated to learn and this would in turn improve their literacy outcomes.  I would  create a play based environment whereby children could explore the underpinning skills of literacy, through the medium of technology.  This would occur alongside more traditional activities to see whether the technological experiences were more engaging. Technology would be integrated into ongoing practices of teaching and learning.  Each classroom would be designed around the needs and interests of the children. Technology would be freely available and would be used both indoors and outdoors.  I would hope that it would also inform those who create technology, software and applications highlighting possible future developments.  To work together to provide suitable experiences for our youngest children that would reframe  long held notions of literacy.

I see and I forget, I hear and I remember,I do and I understand.

 

 

The Chinese proverb above illustrates the common practice of active learning in early years education, except that maybe we would say ‘ I play and I understand’.

Early years educators are often criticised for having an easy job, because all we do is play.  I would argue that play is one of the most important things we do, not only as children, but also into adulthood.  Play gives us freedom as it is one of the few things that we do that has no external goal.  Play is both therapeutic and a way of self regulating experience (Jennings).  In play we can select our own materials and are free to choose what to do with them, helping  to work out solutions to conflicts and understand one’s self.  Maybe we should all take time out from our busy lives to play.

As an adult I rarely play, we might play with our children, but generally this is following their agenda or playing a rule based game.  How many of us play for play’s sake ? Why don’t we build dens in the woods or take out a lump of clay and model with it?

I was once on a course with Jenny Moseley who asked us to sit for 5 minutes with an egg.  We had to stay in our own space and were allowed to do whatever we liked with the egg in that time.  Who would have thought that a simple egg could be so absorbing?  It became my complete focus for that 5 minutes and we were then asked to put our thoughts on paper to share with others – the words poured out of me without hesitation.826egg

I think that real understanding is achieved through more than just play.  If we look at some of the most highly respected early years establishments, in particular the pre- schools of Reggio Emilia,  there is one thing that sets them apart.  The schools founder Loris Malaguzzi describes the teachers role as learning and relearning with the children. A favourite saying is ‘catching the ball that the children throw us’. That is not simply asking the children to tell you what the teacher already knows but retaining what the children give with a sense of wonder.  We can learn a lot about the way children think by listening to them.  Often they are viewed as funny or cute comments – like when my 2 year old saw manure on the road and asked ‘Mummy has the road done a poo?’, but these little comments tell us a lot about the way children think.

In the pre-schools of Reggio Emilia  projects are based around what the children say and do.  They would go that extra step to give the children a complete experience .  A project on supermarkets for example, led them to not only visit during the day but also when the shop was closed, helping to encourage further discussion and enhance the children’s play.  In the Reggio schools understanding is not achieved through simply ‘doing’ but also by having the chance to reflect and build on those experiences. It is important that when children ask questions we ask what they think and that their interpretation is seen as important.  It is not the answers that are important but the process of discovery.

In our own work as teachers and parents we can learn so much from our children if we listen , share and take time to reflect both alone and together. In our own lives too , if we take time to step back and really absorb ourselves in something as with the egg exercise, we learn far more than rushing around doing things. Rather than always focusing on the present, the reflection time helps us to work out what to do next.  I believe therefore that the proverb should be

I see and I forget

I hear and I remember

I do and with reflection I understand.

For further information on Jenny Mosley’s work  http://www.circle-time.co.uk

For further information regarding the schools of Reggio Emilia  http://www.sightlines-initiative.com/