Friday, 24 February 2017

It is all coming together

Ingredients of My Play Based Classroom Here

I don't know about you, but often at the beginning of a year in a new entrant room (or any room probably) you often stop and think about the journey and how it seems it will all come together.

At the beginning of the year, each one of the ingredients listed in my mind map seem so seperate, yet they come together as one so quickly.

It amazes me, how in a play-based room and using Number Agents as my mathematical/inquiry approach children just begin to make their own links...almost effortlessly things come together and there is no longer 'curriculums' happening at various times, but just becomes the curriculum and all of a sudden all areas of learning come together...children are learning what they need when they need it.

Learning and teaching become enjoyable, natural, reflective and responsive.

As we start feeding and inviting in all of the ingredients listed in my mind map, we start to see children self-directing their play in these directions to learn even more.

Hooking in children over the last week into Number Agency has been incredible.  To watch their excitement and imagination take over the classroom has been almost entrancing.   Even after we finish our session children are taking the session and expanding on it during their self-directed play.  Finding characters in our puppets and soft toys and using them through dramatic play, making up their own math problems, sharing and conversing about the message in the bottle, how it got there, where it came from and the magic portal that must be in our classroom.  They have been drawing maps, writing stories etc, all in response to just a couple of hooks.

It can be really difficult when people ask questions like "how do you teach writing in a play based room" - In fact the most common question is about writing and to be honest, when you are sitting in front of a new, new entrant class it can be one of the most daunting things to think am I ever going to get these children writing?

I think the writing question is the unlike reading it is harder to give people a clear picture of what is actually going on in a play-based classroom that ultimately means children will be able to write.  So I am going to try to break it down here.  Writing and the process of learning to write is complex...I'd even like to put it out there that it is harder than teaching children to read...I think that is why it is often done so badly and in such a surface way.  I think it is often why we see so many reluctant or struggling writers later on.

 The process of learning to write is hard, and the one biggest reason for this is we often don't understand the crucial building blocks that have to be in place for children to take part in all areas of literacy...and more specifically to learn to write.

So I teach writing....but not in one session and not in one way...and it often does not look like writing....and ultimately when I have things just right...the honest truth is children teach themselves to write...through play.

Crucial Elements in My classroom: (I am not saying they are the be all and end all)

1)Understanding that some children are not ready for writing...they need to build up other crucial building blocks of these being vocab and the ability to use this vocab to create a story out loud.

2)In my class we draw a lot...we start out with opportunities to talk about our picture and to understand that this is the starting point of our writing.  taking time to develop fine motor skills through play is also really crucial for some children before they even handle a pencil.  Then just time to scribble and experiment is important.  Big pads of paper are an absolute must.

3)Phonics....we start by understanding what a sound actually is...listening for environmental sounds....making different sounds ourselves....listening for rhyme....listening for words that start with the same sound.  We then move onto understanding phonemes, attaching a letter name to the sound it makes.  We use a range of different approaches here, but particularly love to link in nursery rhymes as they are great for building up word and rhyme awareness.

4)Oral language - understanding that talking is the start of children vocab...taking time to talk...building vocab and not taking for granted that children understand words that we think they should.  Taking teachable moments...using things that children are interested in that come up during they day and taking the time to explore and talk about these further.  For example the other day a child was reading a book about animals that eat flies, at the end the venus fly trap was mentioned...we then took time to find a short video on this and talk about this incredible plant together.  The biggest learning I had with oral language was the fact that we as teachers need to spend more time just 'talking around' objects or ideas and allowing children to listen.  We ask questions and expect children to have the vocab to answer...often they don't have this vocab.  Three statements to one question was the advice I was given by an SLT and this has worked wonders for me.

5)Puppets - I use puppets a lot...they often have problems for us to solve...questions they need answered....they elevate children to the position of expert and children love this.  I often video my puppets having similar problems to those that the children are having...this allows them to process these problems at a much deeper level.

6)Growth mindset - this is huge...we always start the year with this and keep pushing it.  Class dojo has some excellent videos for this and we use them frequently.  We use the learning dip and that really helps children to understand the learning process.

7)Time to write - we use blank journals...once a fortnight (or more often if needed) I will take a teacher-led session, where we will all write together.  Otherwise children will write about their play.  They draw and just have a go at writing.  We use the writing progressions to guide us and I use a scrapbook to write in, just like them.  I take samples, but I never mark these books.  They can return to each story as often as they like to add to it and we use these journals during play-based time if they want to.

8)Daily six is crucial - we teach one facet each week and slowly we start to see children using these during their play-based time.  They all have letters or words they are working on learning and this helps.  They can learn these at school and at home.

9)Gruffalo words - we have a pet Gruffalo, he is greedy but only eats interesting words.  Whenever he hears an interesting word, we hear a deep growl....he can gobble this word off the page, or directly out of a child's mouth...these words later appear on our word wall.
10)Mimicking and copying - I am a big believer in using a child's natural disposition to mimic in my teaching.  I will often just write words up on the board when I hear them trying to sound them out...children will often spend time writing and learning these words in their own time.

10) Great pieces of writing - we have not started this yet, but further into the term I will start to show them examples of lovely pieces of writing.  I wont expect them to go away and write their own based on the same topic, we will just look at it, discuss it, talk about why it is good and what works.

11) Questioning my work - I write alongside my children.  As they grow as learners I will ask them to question my story, to encourage me to add detail to my story.

We have just finished week three and already I am seeing children's writing develop.  Some children are already using finger spaces, recording words and letters they know, beginning to sound out those they don't.  Some children are already selecting from our stack of blank books to make their own stories.  But you notice I say some children...because not all are ready YET...but they will get there.

 The great thing, is they are all willing to write, they are all happy to write...they write about their play, they write about the magic portal, they write about our puppets.....they write about whatever they want!

They write without tears and without sulking, they write without uttering the words "but I can't write" - that is what I call winning  :)

And so in a play-based room, when you are asked "but how do you teach..." it can be hard to answer...because it all comes together like a beautiful spiders web.  And like a beautiful web...if one part is broken, or if one connection isn't as smooth...but the great thing is that the thread can be rejoined and learning can go on :)

I no longer teach curriculum, I teach learning and I love it!

I expand more on the ingredients of my play-based room in my short book The Power of Play.  You can purchase a copy here.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

First Hook - Great Excitement!

Today we started hooking children into agency.  A message in the bottle appeared, as soon as one of the children noticed it we immediately came together to investigate.  There was great excitement as the message from Grandma was read.  Children worked together to solve the gingerbread related problem, with a lot of scaffolding we were able to come up with the correct answer.  We wrote a message back, put it in the bottle and placed it on the table.

Once children moved back to play-based time there was great excitement, investigating the wall, trying to find out where the bottle had come from and posing likely scenarios.

A group of children actually found some puppets and stated to make up their own stories related to this message.

The excitement on their faces and the immediate leap into the imaginative is always an absolute pleasure to watch and I never tire of it.  I can't wait for the bottle to turn up again tomorrow.

They wondered where the bottle had come from and how it appeared without them seeing...

Perhaps if we listen to the wall we may hear a clue?

A few children started to draw their own maps to solve the 'mystery' they left these on the table and miraculously these also disappeared.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Play-Based Learning - Re-defining learning and learners

Wow, it has only been two weeks, but starting the year with play-based learning has totally confirmed my belief in this approach.

Of most interest to me this week has been how this approach has completely re-defined what I see as a 'good learner.'

If I think back to past years my definition of a 'good learner' was often summed up by children that followed instructions well, followed routines, chose to read and write frequently...basically they were compliant.

Now it does not sit well with me to admit that I valued this compliance....I have always believed myself to be so embracing of difference, to unique learners, to the quirky...and yes I guess to a degree I was.  But it was those children that really complied, that sat up, that listened intently, that could focus for greater amounts of time, that would have largely got my praise....and these were the children that flourished in my routine based classroom.

Play-based learning has completely changed my lens when I look at learning and learners.  I have known for a while that those children that flourished in Number Agents and were motivated and engaged by it were those children that found traditional maths sessions difficult...but I had not quite made the link between the success of these learners in Number Agents to the success they could have in a play-based room.

This year I can look around and truly see those children in my class.  My definition of what a 'good learner' has changed.  Now I can see those children who are able to innovate, create, use initiative, relate to others, make new friends, take risks and try new activities, notice connections, verbalise learning are the learners who would have previously driven me round the bend in a routine based classroom.  It is my 'traditional' learners, those children who have been rewarded for compliance, who have perhaps been told my their mothers and fathers what school will look and feel like and how they can be 'good' in this environment that are actually struggling.  These children who just want me to tell them what to do are struggling in my play-based room, where they would have shone in a traditional environment.  They want to be told what to do, they prefer to play with the same children, they often spend some time wandering, looking to the adults in the room to tell them what to do.

It has only been a short time, and I am happy to say that these children (incidentally did you guess?)  are beginning to realise that they can lead their own learning....I am starting to see them embrace the opportunity to innovate and beginning to see their lovely imaginations shining through.  Their next challenge is to work with a range of children in the class and to begin to take more risks in their learning choices.

Incidentally behaviour is no longer really an issue....what a relief.

My hope is that more people can re-define what they believe epitomises a 'good learner' and hopefully we can start to re-look at the traditional approach to teaching and learning we have taken in the past.  Maybe we can even see this spread past ECE and wouldn't that be amazing!

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Why does Number Agents work?

"Learning is a by-product of fun"

I am asked quite often why number agents works and what makes it so different from other maths approaches.  I have given this a lot of thought over the last few weeks and believe the key is connection...connection in terms of relationships and connection in terms of emotions.  Number Agents really doesn't differ from other approaches in teaching maths, in fact the only thing that is different is the way it is taught.

Children connect to this approach in ways they would never connect to normal maths sessions.  In fact most never ever see it as 'learning maths.'

1)They connect to each other in a new and different way.  Within an imagined world as an imagined team of experts, working together on a very important task - defeating the villains and saving their clients.  This sense of camaraderie truly allows children to work in purposeful mixed level teams.

2)In the position of experts the worry of not knowing is taken away, their is a new belief in their abilities and success happens daily as the villains are defeated.  This success builds on itself each day until, by the end of the year 1 children are actually competent mathematicians operating around the beginning of Stage 4.

4)The teacher is no longer the teacher...positioned as equal in the play the relationship with children becomes stronger, it's like we are all in it together!

5)Fun - it is fun, fun for us and fun for fact we often laugh :)  We all know that we remember aspects of school that were fun for us...this component linked with maths makes their connection to this area of learning stronger.

6)Emotional Connection - through all these aspects children form a huge emotional connection to maths, the way they feel about it, shapes their achievement and how they perceive themselves as mathematicians.  In fact agents often spend time pretending at morning tea and lunchtime and are more likely to engage in agent related tasks at home.

7)It is playful, children learn best through play, it is that simple.

I love this Ted talk by the late Rita Pierson, her words should resonate with all of us.

Friday, 10 February 2017

First Week Back

We had a great first week back.  The zones we have created and the loose parts area, together with the dress up area have allowed for everything to run really smoothly.

Its incredibly interesting to watch children and their interactions and to have the time to really step in when needed or to simply observe.  We wont start formal reading till week 3 but I can already see that this is going to fit in beautifully.  We are having a go at seesaw along with our individual journals and think this strategy will really give us some lovely deep understandings of the children.

We have 21 children at the moment with four more to come this term.  It has been really pleasing to see how quickly they have settled into school.  Our class is destined to grow hugely this year and is is very positive to see that this play-based approach can help them settle in so well.

The beauty of mess and the organic nature of the day is so rewarding, the fact that children can leave something and come back to it, or to even contribute to the same piece of work over the day is fantastic.

We've watched the first to growth mindset videos on class dojo and children really responded to this.   One of our newest starters was able to very accurately articulate how learning can be hard but we just have to try our best and not give up.  Eating together has been an awesome way to get to know the children and to give those children having difficulty making friends some gentle social coaching.

Number agents is being established through drama ....this week we used one prop each as part of our space game. Remarkably they are really confident and accepting of each other already so I think we will begin hooking in during week 3.  I am really looking forward to getting the company up and running.

The first video made by Hannah our puppet was LOVED by the children and really got them thinking about friendship and emotions, I am looking forward to them meeting Ian next week.  We watched the video twice, which is not something I would usually do, but when we played the video for the second time, their answers to her were so much deeper, they had made lovely connections and this was fabulous to see.

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Puppets in my play-based class....why they work so well

I have been using puppets in my classroom for years now.  It wasn't until I started using puppets with Number Agency that I actually started to stop and think about why they work so well.  When children see the puppet villain their eyes light up, they are excited, engaged and interact very authentically with this imagined character.  In fact if you hand one of the agents the puppet they can easily take on the character.  I will often see quite shy children come alive with a puppet on their hand, or when they are talking to a puppet.

Because of this high level of engagement I started to use puppets last year more widely to explore emotions and friendships.  The results were amazing, children seemed to relate beautifully to the puppet and in a way the puppet could convey the message so much better than I could.  When the puppets started to create short videos for the children to watch the learning really came alive.

The Empathy family was able to guide us so beautifully through understanding emotions last year, the children were able to relate to the feelings they were having and placing the children as 'experts' who could help the puppets really helped them to engage with and understand these feelings.    In one example of this I used the puppets to role model a problem I had actually seen some girls going through, without actually directly talking to them about the issue.  They were able to help the puppets and guide them through how to be a better friend.

So this year I have expanded on this.  Helpful Hannah and Kind Kate (Hannah featured in the video below) will guide us through emotions, friendships and growth mindset while their brother Ian Empathy (also featured below )will be cast as a child learning to write.  Also along the way all of these siblings will require our help with any problems they have at school along the way.  I am sure the children will see themselves in these puppets and it will allow them to explore how they are probably feeling, without divulging that they actually feel this way.

This is Hannah's first video, please excuse her for not looking at the camera, she is a little shy.

So why...why do puppets work so well?  

Learning through play is fundamental to our children's education, helping them to develop the necessary skills in life. Puppets can stimulate children's imagination, encourage creative play and discovery and are a wonderful interactive way to introduce narrative to even the most reluctant reader. They can be a powerful way of bringing story time to life; puppets can provide a focus for role play, encouraging the child's imagination and involvement in activities and can play a fundamental part in the recitation of stories and verse. In addition, hand puppets with workable mouths and tongues are an excellent motivational resource to inspire the teaching of phonics within literacy.
All puppets come to life as characters. They can portray different personalities and various traits and they cross all cultures. Puppets can share joy or sadness; they can be naughty or good, cheeky or shy; and when a child is engaged by a puppet they can learn lessons without even realising.
Puppets provide an essential link between learning and play which makes them wonderful teaching tools for at home, the classroom and in the wider community.
A. Greensmith

This article makes some very good points and I can totally relate, given the positive effects I have seen in our classroom.

Young Minds at Play

What Puppets Can Mean to Children 
By Jean Mendoza, September 2014

Over the years she has designed and constructed a veritable regiment of figures to go with the storytelling. She decides on a personality for each puppet, and it appears in stories that fit its particular traits. Wiggin, for example, didn’t speak aloud. He would whisper to Jan, and she would tell her listeners what he had said. The children became very fond of Wiggin. When she retired him and turned him over to me, she explained that the puppet’s “shyness” mirrored what many children feel in large social situations, so they watched closely as she told stories to see how he would respond. So Wiggin was more than just an entertaining prop.
Part of the appeal of puppets like Wiggin is that they can “behave” like people while not exactly being people. The user can make the puppet move, talk, gesture, and react to its surroundings. A puppet operated by another person can help a child understand perspectives other than her own or see a new way she might respond to a difficult situation.
When a child is the one animating a puppet, he has control over whatever it says and does. Through the puppet, he can tell stories or interact with other people. The puppet permits “psychological distance” from aspects of those stories and interactions that might cause him discomfort. Pretending with puppets can help children express feelings about their lives, practice ways to communicate with peers, or gain mastery over fears. This can be especially important for grieving or traumatized children or those who have certain mental health disorders. But typically developing children who haven’t experienced trauma also find puppets psychologically and socially useful.
Early childhood educators generally recognize that children can benefit from having access to puppets, even when therapy isn’t the goal. One of the most thorough accounts available of what can happen when teachers make puppets a key part of classroom life can be found in a 2008 Early Childhood Research & Practice article, “ ‘Fixing Puppets So They Can Talk’: Puppets and Puppet Making in a Classroom of Preschoolers with Special Needs.” The author, Kelli Servizzi, became interested in finding out what her two preschool classes might do with puppets, so she brought in a basket of inexpensive hand puppets and left it out for them to find.
A small group of boys discovered it and began to make the puppets fight. When this kind of play continued for several days, Kelli modeled some friendlier interactions, and children began to follow suit, arranging more sociable times for their favorite puppets. They also worked through problems involved in performing puppet shows together. The teachers incorporated puppets into book-sharing time and noted positive changes in children’s attention to the stories (much as my aunt did with Wiggin and her other creations). Puppet experts were invited to speak to the classes, and the children learned how to “work” a variety of puppets. The teachers encouraged them to make their own finger puppets, paper bag puppets, and stick puppets. The puppet activities culminated in a two-hour workshop led by professional puppeteers, during which the children constructed puppets from spoons, spatulas, toy garden tools, and an array of scraps and found objects.