What I have been extra chuffed about is the feedback I have had from parents about Number Agents. A selection of comments emailed to me are here, but I also get a lot of feedback face to face with how much my children love it.
"Totally happy for _____to be apart of this she absolutely LOVES number agents it's a fantastic concept wish it was around when I was lil"
A huge part of my learning about play this term has been around brain development. Over the year I have been constantly reviewing and tweaking how I do things to better match them with what I have learned about brain development. Our home/school goals have always formed a big part of how our class works, but they have not always matched as effectively as they could have the sequence of brain development and have perhaps pushed kids into learning that they were not ready for. This mismatch is something I have worked really hard on and along with this is trying to slowly change the expectation of parents that children will begin bringing a reading book home as soon as they start school, or in that matter that they will be expected to do anything related to goals at home for a good while, is something we are also working hard to slowly change.
What I have quite decisively learned over the last three terms is that expecting children to learn something they are not ready for is not only a waste of precious time, but it can be quite damaging for them as a learner. I have been quietly observing and squirreling away thoughts and have come to the absolute conclusion that when a child is ready for the learning we are presenting them with, they will show us they are by developing understandings quite quickly. They are ready to take it on, so they do. An example of this is phonics. One of our goals is around learning the main sound a letter makes. If this goal is presented to a child that is ready, and they practice five sounds for a week, the next week they will come back to us at check in time knowing them quite confidently and will probably have learned some others. A child that is not ready, will often struggle to take on these five sounds, even if practicing at home and school and will not be confident when it comes to check in time. Now, the old me, would have probably kept plugging away with this goal, the new me, pushes pause and just issues a challenge like learning the monkey bars, or learning to skip or ride a bike or balance along a beam...something that will challenge and grow their brain. We will come back to that goal when they are ready.
This alphabet related goal used to be presented to children quite early on, so it is no wonder they struggled. This goal now appears well after gross and fine motor skills, working memory and early rhyming. The rationale for me is that by the time children have worked their way through the sequence of these goals, they should technically be ready to learn these cognitively based goals. If not, once again I will push pause and issue a challenge. For your information I have included a copy of this goal sheet. It is one in constant flux, but you can see that I do not introduce reading or number goals till quite a way down the track.
Goal Sheet Here
Another thing we have been working on is delaying reading until children are ready. This I think is the most challenging thing for us to do because a real expectation of parents is that children will start learning to read as soon as they start school. They expect a book and see it as evidence that a child is being 'taught' at school. We are working on this expectation by talking to parents openly about what we do and why we do it, sharing information at parent evenings and including it in our starting school pack. The reality is that some children will, very quickly be ready to read with us. They will enter school 'ready' to do this. The other reality is many won't. Pushing these children to learn to read only serves to put them off, and from my observations and reflections, these children are the ones that stay on emergent and never appear to move, they appear on target lists and are often giving reading recovery or a similar programme. Miraculously, these children suddenly get to the end of Year 2 or start of Year 3 and start to move...really this is not a miracle, it is simply that they are now ready to move because their brain development allows them to be ready. We are not adding any value by trying to read with them too early on. Once again, if they are cognitively ready, it will happen, in fact I would go as far as to say they would probably teach themselves when they were cognitively ready.
There are a lot of our own assumptions and beliefs we need to get rid of here and I have them just like any other teacher. I see that time at school chart, and the see that child still on emergent after a year and it causes me to inwardly panic. This is part of the old me I am still discarding, because the new me knows that this child simply is not ready by the stupid ridiculous markers our system has imposed and no part of me panicking and worrying is going to change it. What I can do is work on areas that are developmentally appropriate for that child and trust that if this is done, they will be ok.
Right, so now you know where I am up to in terms of my thinking about brain development and how I cater for it. As children are all on individual 'goals' we can check in with them individually during play-based time and really direct our teaching where they are at.
PBL has continued to go from strength to strength in our class this year. What I have really noticed is the growing diversity of relationships that children have. They no longer have one or two friends, but a multitude of different relationships based on interests. They each understand these individual interests because they get an opportunity to explore their urges and to find children with similar interests and urges to themselves.
I can't stress this enough actually, I have been astounded at the relationships I have seen develop between children who I would have thought had nothing in common. Simply beautiful for our developmentally delayed children to feel so accepted, our class is based on interests and children, it is not based on academics...in a place like this there are no differences, they are all just children, doing what children do best and enjoying each others company because of it. No judgement, no barriers, just play. In agency they are equals, all experts, what a fantastic environment to work and learn in! To prove this point I have actually started transitioning older children who I think may not have had a play rich environment through my class this year, or kept children for longer than usual. So we have 5 - 7 year olds in the one space and it is fantastic, some will have been in our space for well over a year now. No one notices, no one cares.
Another thing I have noticed is their growing ability to sustain play for longer periods of time and my growing ability to let them 😝. Last Tuesday and Thursday we basically had a day full of self-directed play, not once did I have a child ask me to direct them, not once did we have an 'I'm bored.' We had no invitations out, they just played. Watching and interacting with children allowed me to see that most engaged in at least four different types of play in the day, with a real range of personalities. What amazing learning!
Children that start school quite dependent on teacher direction grow quite quickly to understand that they have the power to direct themselves, it is truly wonderful to watch. The transition to school is easy.
Trust is something else that has grown. In the beginning it can be hard to let go of the control of a single learning space. This has been a real area of growth for me. As we have developed children have come to understand they they are trusted. They know that if they do something to challenge our trust in them that we will have to define their areas of play, but this hardly ever happens. Our play area is huge now (on a fine day) Children have a kitchen beside our room, a courtyard, and then the area our the back of our class, a small native bush, pole hut, monkey bars, a large area of grass, and a bike track. When our back door is open they know they are free to be out there. When we oink the pig (our squeaky signal for mat time) It is the most delightful thing to see children run from all directions. Last week we introduced some cowboy hats (thanks Shell) and the play changed completely. Their demeanor changed, they had a real swagger....out there in the bush were no longer children, but cowboys and cowgirls on the hunt for baddies.
We have girls and boys out there hunting wild pigs and all sorts of other creatures (however they are quick to remind me that it is just imaginary.)
Learning wise they are doing remarkably well. Levels are probably about the same, but depth of understanding is much better. What is remarkably different is the most important point. Their dispositions towards learning are hugely improved from years where we were not PBL. They are resilient and are developing growth mindsets. They have stamina when we do require them to come for directed teaching and they appreciate the importance of mistakes. They talk quite openly about learning and what they notice and I guess number agents has a big influence on this as a lot of what we do is through talk. If we ever do require them to attend to a directed session for a longer period, they are quite happy to, it is a novelty almost. The taking of photos and being able to reflect on the play and the learning that was going on in the play has been an absolute winner. We have used this poster to help us talk about emotions and how to cope with emotions, it has been awesome as a visual to help, and very good also for parents.