Tag Archives: Learning environments

How Do You Know When You Have Found the Perfect Preschool?

muddy feet
A place where I can kick my shoes off and sink my toes in the mud.

Regular readers will remember that when I moved to the US, I struggled to find a preschool that I was entirely happy with.  I became so disillusioned that I decided to home preschool for a year. I’d lost faith of ever finding a preschool that valued play, independence and individuality above academics and rigid schedules until a friend told me of a preschool situated on a farm.  The preschool shared my belief that children learn best by doing things that have relevance in their lives through exploring, discovering and creating.

The school is so popular that it was a whole year before I had a chance to visit and see the school for myself. Children were busy pulling apart sunflower heads on the covered deck area whist others moved freely between the different activities indoors and outdoors. The teacher’s enthusiasm and passion for both the children and the setting was evident immediately and a bubble of excitement rose up within me. Our name was put on the waiting list for Sept 2015 but before Christmas a place became available in the co-op class so finally my youngest daughter had the chance to attend.  This was perfect as I also had the chance to be involved in this wonderful experience as a parent helper.

ducklings

There was little doubt in my mind that this was the perfect preschool for my outdoor loving daughter. My expectations were high. I have been fortunate to teach at a highly acclaimed nursery in the UK and to visit the best preschools in my local authority as an advisory teacher. My experience of this school has surpassed all my expectations, I couldn’t have hoped for a more perfect preschool for my daughter and I am only sad that my older daughters didn’t have a chance to go there. After she started, it just seemed to get better.  Regularly she would come home covered from head to toe in mud.  To some parents this would be horrific but to me it meant she had the freedom to be herself and have fun.

Being a part of the co-op class means that I get to help out once a month. This is the most exciting part for me as I get to join in.   I love the covered deck area which enables the children to play outdoors all year.  The children explore the whole farm for the 2nd part of the session, mud, water, animals, climbing and balancing. They are actively encouraged to take risks.

long paintbrushes.
As we arrive my daughter always chooses to paint . She liked this painting activity with paintbrushes placed on extended poles.
painting with feathers
Painting with feathers

What makes it so perfect?

1. Children are individuals

Small classes and the dedication and experience of the teacher, mean that she understands each child as an individual. My daughter who is uncomfortable speaking in a group or to unfamiliar adults is given time to think about what she wants to say, often being presented with a question at the start of a session and returning for a response later.  The child who hates to get his hands dirty is offered alternative tools and all the materials are open-ended so that children can use them as they see fit.

2.Children are competent

Children are always encouraged to try things for themselves, even when they ask for help they are first encouraged to try.  The children are trusted to use adult tools for woodworking and tinkering, peeling vegetables and cooking.  The teacher shows them how to use the tools safely and responsibly and thereon in they are trusted with them.  The children cook their own green eggs and ham on the tiny stove, they dig with metal shovels, they observe candle flames and peel carrots with a peeler.  Outside they are permitted to climb trees, feed the animals, hold guinea pigs and dig in the mud. The children are trusted to handle precious materials like birds eggs, chicks and nests.

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This tinker table is always available. I regularly see children sawing pieces of wood placed in the clamps, hammering nails or taking apart electronics with a screwdriver. In the nursery I taught at we had a tool bench with real tools but we weren’t confident enough to leave it out all of the time. I have never seen a child have an accident or do anything dangerous with the tools.

climbing trees at preschool
My daughter loves to climb trees – I’m not sure I could find anywhere else where this would actively be encouraged.

3. The Preschool fosters understanding and respect for nature.

Many of the activities involve the natural rhythms of the farm, collecting the produce, understanding the cycles of the plants and learning about the animals and creatures they find.

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After the first few sessions, my daughter told me they had unicorns at preschool but that it was too small to have grown a horn yet. A preschool with unicorns? Could it get anymore magical?

ducklings.
When the duck’s eggs hatched the children were allowed to hold them.
bug hunt
A bug hunt in the woods

4. Children’s thoughts and opinions are important

Each session the children are asked a question and the answers are recorded for parents to read on the wall outside.  The children listen to each others responses and discuss them with respect.  The children’s choices are respected as they are presented with a number of activities to choose from at leisure. They also have opportunities to choose the songs they will sing and are confident at asking for things.  The children are offered a snack, they choose when and if they would like to eat it .

5. They have fun.

wading in the swamp
On the last day of school, parents are invited to join the children as they wade in the swamp.
horse riding on the last day of term
horse riding on the last day of term

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Best of all, I feel that my daughter experiences something here that she would never have the chance to experience elsewhere.  I feel so fortunate to have found this preschool and that my daughter has one more year there.  When our time is over I will be so sad but I hope I can remember her teacher’s words of wisdom.

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How to Create a Low-Cost Outdoor Playspace in Your Own Backyard.

I recently hosted a party for friends and their families.  I was  surprised at the comments I received about my garden being an exciting place for children as I often think of it as small with too many trees and very little grass. I’ve worked hard to make it an enticing play space and most of the materials have incurred little or no cost. Here is a little tour.

Water Play

water wall on tree

 

The water wall is a recent project. The pipe came from an old vacuum cleaner and the other containers are empty bottles.  The containers are fastened to the tree using nails and pipe cleaners or threaded through markers for obstacle courses. The tyre at the base is to help my youngest daughter to reach.

water table

The good thing about the water table is that we can move it to different parts of the garden. It is perfect as a water source for the water wall . Other materials can also be used in the water table like the packing peanuts the children built sculptures with in the picture above.

 

Potions and Mud Pies

This is one of the children’s favourite activities and we have experimented with a variety of potion stations and mud kitchens. This is our current set up.  The plastic tub was purchased very cheaply after Hallowe’en and fits perfectly inside a tyre.  A split pallet in between is the workspace and another tyre with planks of wood laid over is where I set out materials for them to experiment with.  Test tubes, containers and sticks for mixing are conveniently located in storage nearby.

 potion station

I didn’t know these mud tables existed until one was offered on my local Buy Nothing Group. It would be easy to make something similar with a washing up bowl on a stand.

mud pie table
I have tried different positions for mud table and play kitchen and I am still unsure which works best. Currently they are close to each other but not in the same space so that the mud table, potion station and kitchen can be used together or separately.
kitchen
Storage on the trees. The containers hold kitchen utensils for the kitchen and pans hang on hooks screwed into the tree.
storage on a tree

Sand


The children love this sandbox that I bought second-hand.  It is really sturdy and has held out really well.  The trees in our garden offer lots of shade so the girls can often be found making up imaginative games in the sandbox.
sand box

I use a storage net from Ikea to store the smaller sand toys, water toys and small balls and hang it from a tree branch.

storage outdoor toys

Mark Making

The girls are always making little paper signs to include in their play so I added a chalk board to the tree.  I placed it near to their play shop so that they could use it as a sign.

chalk board

The spool table  another space for mark making
kids play table from an electrical spool.

Imaginative Play

My eldest daughter created this puppet theatre using a sheet and a few sticks jammed between 2 trees. I nailed the sticks into the tree to stop them falling and added a board from a broken picture frame for them to write on. This could be painted with chalkboard paint but works just as well without.
puppet theatre

We were donated a large amount of fake flowers last Summer and we used them to create  a flower shop using an old plant stand and their play till. We could also use the puppet theatre with a table behind it. The girls use cars and waggons as the delivery vehicles.

The Flower Shop

The Fairy Garden

.fairy garden doorway

Quiet Time

Another Ikea purchase but something similar could also be made using a hula hoop and ribbon or tulle.  I hang it from a tree and put cushions and books inside.

quiet cornerWe also use a parasol for a shady spot. The girls recently created a face painting station beneath it.  The parasol came with our water table and doesn’t have a stand.  I used the stand for my Christmas tree.

A shady parasol

Sometimes they use my umbrella propped up on the porch for shade.

reading in the sun

Physical Play

Of all of the things we have in the garden, the one that is used the most by all of the children, is the trampoline. We have a Springfree trampoline that I was lucky enough to win in a competition. They are not the cheapest trampolines but based on amount of use and durability,  had  I bought the trampoline, it would have been a worthwhile investment. The trampoline is overshadowed by trees so the girls keep a broom next to it and brush off fallen leaves and seeds before getting on. They have created a number of games to play,  make up shows or practice gymnastics and often my eldest disappears to the trampoline for a bit of peace and quiet.

trampoline

The balance beam is strung between 2 trees with paracord.

balance beam

We use tyres to make obstacle courses. Getting rain water out of them is also an interesting challenge for my youngest.

rolling tyres

I’ve made ribbon sticks before using sticks bought from a craft shop. These sticks  collected from the garden work just as well. The ribbon can be glued onto the sticks or simply tied. Ribbon sticks with multiple ribbons work well too.

ribbon sticks

 

Sound Making

Our music garden is housed between small trees. We made a jingle stick by nailing metal bottle tops to an old broom handle.

music garden

Observing Nature

My daughter made this nesting box and this year for the first time we were rewarded with a family of nesting sparrows.  You could hear the hungry little chicks as their parents flew close to them and we spent a lot of time lying in the hammock watching them going in and out of the bird house.

nesting sparrows

Other regular visitors are squirrels, hummingbirds and an occasional racoon.

hummingbird feeding

 

I am always interested in gathering new ideas for outdoor play spaces.  If you are interested too, follow my Pinterest boards:  Outdoor Play, Children’s Garden Inspiration and Forest School.

Ideas for Learning Environments Inspired by Children’s Museum of Tacoma

I’d never heard of a Children’s Museum before I moved here but as I entered the door I was greeted by a little bit of play heaven. I think I was more excited than the girls.  My 9 -year-old remarked

It’s not really a museum is it?

True not in the traditional sense.

According to Wikipedia, Children’s museums are institutions that provide exhibits and programs to stimulate informal learning experiences for children. In contrast with traditional museums that typically have a hands-off policy regarding exhibits, children’s museums feature interactive exhibits that are designed to be manipulated by children. The theory behind such exhibits is that activity can be as educational as instruction, especially in early childhood.

In essence it’s like walking into a really well- resourced nursery or pre-school.  I loved that many of the exhibits used simple, cheap materials that could be replicated at home, like a blackboard with a pot of water and brushes.  I particularly like these; they would be a great addition to a child’s bedroom wall, garden fence or in a toddler room at nursery.

The water area was a huge hit with my youngest. My favourite was a water bath with a transparent window so that you could see what was happening under water.

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Behind the glass is an area for art based activities – musical instruments, painting, movement with ribbon sticks and scarves and drawing.   The metallic walls made it so easy to dry and display pictures. What a great idea for a messy play room.

There were 2 light tables in the space with very different activities, the girls chose to trace and draw.

light table with maps and plans

My eldest loved  den building best of all.  The smaller structures were not very stable so she negotiated with the other children in the space to create a big den together.

More building – drainpipes and gutters

drainpipes and gutters

I’m so glad we discovered Children’s Museums and I’m looking forward to visiting the others in the area and sharing more ideas.