Tuesday, 19 March 2019

A culture of trust for children to blossom in!

It can be really difficult to let go of the way you have done things in the past.  Believe me, after 21 years teaching, this has been the most challenging and confronting journey I have been on.  Confronting because in the past six years I have called into question all that I have believed as a teacher and given away the majority of my practice. 

It has been a challenging journey, because it has meant really having to stick my head up out of my teaching shell and be prepared to share my journey, knowing that many don't agree, can be down right rude, but also trusting that for many, the journey I am on supports them, just as I am supported by the journey of others.

I think a lot, as we all do, so this experience has been challenging, because just as I think we are ticking along, another wondering pops into my head that I just have to pursue.  Play, as in the pedagogy that I use and how I approach it has morphed and changed each year, because let's face it...we don't know what we don't know until we want or need to know it.

This has made this journey transformative for me, but ultimately for my school and I know for many this continues to be challenging and confronting, but hopefully, just as rewarding as it is for me.

My journey has lead me to a place where I work a lot harder, I am constantly on the go, I don't plan in the traditional sense, but I am 'planning' just on the spot and led by the children.  Being reflective and responsive is not something that naturally comes to all of us, I am lucky that it is part and parcel of who I am. 

For those that like to tick the boxes and know where they are headed, this journey is challenging.  By the very nature of play as a pedagogy and the need to make learning purposeful and authentic we can no longer control it.  That can be scary, it can create stress and it can create worry...and that is where trust comes in. 

Transformative change, real change, change that blows things up, deep change, change that makes a difference, does not happen without trust.  This comes in several forms in a school environment.

1) Trust in ourselves.  We need to believe in our abilities as an educator to let go of the known and leap into the unknown.  Not blindly of course, but following research and a great deal of thought and reflection.  But ultimately that leap does need to happen and we have to be prepared to let go of the old pedagogy or it will only hold us back in the place we have come from.  It is like losing weight, but keeping your old clothes just in case you ever gain it back.  We have to trust in the decision we have made.

2) Trust in each other.  As educators we are a team.  We have to be willing to listen to each other, without getting defensive or employing excuses.  We have to be willing to take on ideas and truly have a go.  Most of all we have to trust that others are as deeply into this journey as we are and not holding onto their old clothes.  Children quickly get used to this pedagogy of play, student voice and agency and if the next teacher is not as far down the rabbit hole with it, they will quickly sense this and demonstrate it in a range of ways...defiance being one of the ways.  If they are not feeling listened to or valued, they will make sure they make their feelings known.

3)Trust in learning.  Play is how we mammals learn best, even as adults.  Authentic and purposeful learning context driven by interests and urges produces a depth of learning I have never seen before.  But we must trust enough to take a scalpel or sledgehammer to the amount of direct instruction we have been engaging in, the activities we have pre-designed and the planning we have done in the past and trust that children want to learn and will learn without these things.  Instead we must trust in the individual and small group moments, the just in time moments, the just right for now moments, the moments of intrigue and wonder, the moments we can respond to and really make a shift for that child.  Children will read, write and develop mathematical understandings...that will happen, but in their own time and as they are ready, and you will know when this time is, if you trust enough to let them guide you.  Learning should be playful, so even when we are engaging in direct teaching, we need to be aware of this.

4)Trust in the children.  Without this, this approach is dead in the water.  Play has been around since adam was a baby, it is not a new thing, we have not discovered it, we can not claim to be the experts...we have rediscovered something we should have always known.  Play is learning and learning should be play.  Play however can not be micromanaged.  Give up now if you need to do this.  Children need freedom to play, freedom to truly self-direct, regardless if we understand what they are doing or not.  They need space to grow and an environment that allows this.  They don't need us to constantly know where they are at every moment and they don't need us playing with them, unless they actively invite us in.  Children are competent, capable individuals, wired to learn through play, they don't need our help doing this.  They are naturally curious and will find the 'curriculum' for want of a better word, without out help. 

Trust in them and you will be rewarded. 

Friday, 15 February 2019

We are just not really needed...

Well we have just finished our first full week at school.  Seven days in it is like we never left and although our class is now made up of nine new children (27 in total) the play at our place has just continued seamlessly.

I have already learned so much over the last week.  Thanks to Marc Armitage for giving me the confidence to know that for the most part, we really need to stay out of the play and just tune into what is going on.  I had started to get there last year, but his words have given me that last bit of confidence to just let go.

What we have noticed this week is how little we are needed and how with the different mixture of urges in the class, the play has changed from last year.  We have a lot of children with connection urges, so the items that largely went unused on our shelves last year have been out in force. 

We have spent the week realising how deep and rich the play already is, and how little attention the children pay to us.  We can be standing just a few steps away and they don't even notice us.  It allows us to tune into conversations, take note of vocab being used, notice the urges, interests and be able to write rich (but short) reflections on the children that include the dispositions being used.

They come to us, just to affirm what they are doing, just to really reflect them, to quickly share, then they are off again.  They may invite us in, but on their terms and often only for a short time and for the novelty of it all.

It has allowed me to see how much the environment provokes and just how little as teachers we need to be doing to provoke this play.  In fact I can quite happily tell you I did nothing out of the ordinary this week and had the pleasure of taking part in some beautifully rich reflections where children were inspired by the big ideas of each other.

In terms of my role, well it was one of pulling all the ends together, finding connections, drawing attention to dispositions, finding moments to allow children to grow socially and emotionally, promote kindness, writing up class learning stories in our scrapbook and taking photos to share.  Our scrapbook is already really full, I have allowed myself the time to notice so much and children the freedom to play without the intrusion of an adult.  I truly am starting to feel like I have the ability to 'see' the power of the play and have come to a place where I  trust that the learning will spill out...the play is the learning and the children are the curriculum.

We've opened up our space a lot this year

Some images of play this week....wonderful fun!


A koru pattern, inspired by the art of his big brother

A wonderful story written about this in our journal because of the problem solving I was able to just stand back and watch.

Koru pattern

Our place feels so relaxed, it is full of joy, excitement, imagination, creativity, cooperation, kindness, empowerment, negotiation and moments to learn from each other.  Thanks to Marc Armitage I have taken the time to watch for children starting play independently, continuing it independently and ending it independently.  Such a great measure of a child in a play-based environment. 

Because we keep children developmentally I also have the privilege to see that shift in the children we have already spent 6 months to a year with.  It allows me the confidence to deeply know them and understand how we desperately need our system to gain more understanding about developmental progress in children.  I have also come to trust in myself, that I am getting it right, I am understanding children more deeply, discarding the need to worry about age and having the insight to engage with children individually.

I love this way of working, I truly love education in this form and my deepest wish is that every child across NZ had the right to experience school in this way.

The mind map below captures what our path has been so far.

The reality is, if we are to get this play thing right, we have to realise that they just don't need us as much as sometimes we'd like them to, and that is absolutely wonderful!

Friday, 1 February 2019

The Art Of Hiding The Vegetables

Something I have learned over the last four years of this journey is that as teachers we have a huge role to play in how children define successful learning in a classroom, this is no different in a classroom based on play.  Children notice every nuance, every facial expression, everything we say and do not say.  They notice how much weight we give to certain activities, how much positive attention we give and they seek to please us by choosing to engage in these activities.

What I have noticed over the 20 years of my career are that most children are people pleasers...particularly girls and they deeply want to do the right thing.  If they perceive that a certain type of 'play' is more desirable than another type, they will engage in this preferred type, even if it is not what they are interested in. 

Children are largely taught to people please, from the moment they pick up a book and get a huge smile from their mother or father and copious amounts of praise and pride heaped on them they learn that there are certain activities adults desire over others.  Did they get that same praise when they choose to mash the colours of doh together, jump proudly of that log in the backyard, skip around and around in circles or transport their toys one by one from one coach to another?  Probably not.  They learn early on that there are certain types of activities their adults like them to do, and often those are not the ones that their heart desires.  Add to this that they are often told by enthusiastic parents that when they start school they will learn to read and write  and when that first book comes home in the book bag is suddenly more important then the fun that they had creating a catapult that day, it becomes glaringly obvious what is desired.   Children are constantly given messages of what success does and does not look like and as adults we need to be aware of this.

What I have been aware of over the past few years, is that they are also looking for these reactions from the adults in the classroom.  These reactions are often not even conscious ones.  Do we display more approval in them selecting to draw on a whiteboard during play based time, than the imaginative play they have been engaging in with the loose parts?  Do we pay it more attention when they are counting rather than attending to their potion making?  Do we hold independent reading during play in higher regard than pirate games in the pole hut? 

What I have learned is despite how hard I have tried, I am still so inclined to be looking for the academic over the play, nothing wrong with this because I am trying to break habits of 15 years.  A smile, a look, a nod of approval, a word of praise, that is all they are looking for to work out what I value, what will make them successful, and your garden variety people pleaser will seek to do more of these things, rather than engaging in what they actually want to do.

So for play, deep, wonderful play, that is truly child-led (independently started, independently continued independently ended - thanks Marc Armitage) to flourish and grow in a classroom environment it is the play that needs to be focused on, the play that needs to be reflected on, shared, noticed and responded to.  In our space we do this a lot through class meetings, viewing and discussing the play, truly rejoicing in it and the fabulous dispositions shown, recording it in our class scrapbook.  We engage in the play as it is going on with "I wonder" statements, but to be honest my goal is to keep my nose out of it more often than not.  What I have found is that teacher interaction in the play largely comes about because we feel a need to be involved, I am coming to learn, we are not needed and need to hone our skills of observation instead. 

What I am trying to say in this post is that children easily take their cue from us.  The play may be the bit they enjoy, but if the adult is paying attention to the more academic tasks, then perhaps the 'vegetables' are more important and they will look for them in order to please us. 

They take their definition of success and learning from us, they seek to please us, therefore as teachers we can still be aware of all those 'academic' indicators but in my opinion for truly joyful, deep play to happen in our spaces...we need to keep these intentions hidden.

My goal for this year - Hide the vegetables :)

Sunday, 27 January 2019

Ditching the timetable - take two

I have posted about this previously, but because this is an issue many are thinking of at this time of the year I thought I would expand on it a little.  Have a read because there are probably things in here I won't mention again.


To me the word timetable and the word play don't go together, they are contradictory terms.  After all, what is a timetable for, well for the large part a timetable is to make sure we get through all the learning in the day.  All those things we must do.  But the mere fact we are doing this, does not set us up for truly independent play.  A timetable is probably also useful for management teams if they like to micromanage.

This definition of play, presented by Marc Armitage at a recent play-based conference is the best I have seen yet. 

"Play is what children and young people do when they follow their own ideas and interests, in their own way and for their own reasons." Playwork principles 2002

So if children are to play following their own interests, what benefit is a timetable to them or us?

Marc also raised this point, that we should be looking for children to start play independently, continue it independently and end it independently.  Again done best in an environment not constrained by time slots.

So when I say ditch the timetable, what do I actually mean.  What it doesn't mean is that I don't plan...in fact I do this a lot, but most of it is on the spot and reflective.  It guides my 'teaching' far better than any timetable I have every written a week before has.  I also don't sit down and write long-term or short term plans.  Once again the idea of planning this far out is contradictory to the word play and to the very individual needs of our children.  Planning for the 'mass' allows us to miss the needs of the individual.

So what is it that I do?

Well to start with I think about the components of my programme, what is important to me, understanding what I do and how I want to get it done.

I then think of the term, of the things I want for the children, these are dispositional not academic.  I also set this out in mind map form.

These help to set my priorities.

Each week, I use this to guide what I would like to pop into our reflective/discussion moments during the week - aka mat time.  There are areas of 'academic' based learning in there, it is just that this is governed largely by individual readiness and fits where it is appropriate.

Children begin the day with play and I then scribble what actually happened during the day as we go.  Obviously we have a swimming slot and we put Number Agents in there as well....but other than that our day is fluid.  We have rituals, like singing our songs from waiako, a lovely start to the morning, sharing a chapter book after lunch, browsing at books of interest for ten or so minutes some time in the day, sharing the play we are seeing and provoking a little more through discussion etc.  This scribble is usually done in the form of a mind map....featured below rather than being linear.  It works for me.

The gift I ultimately want to give to our children is large chunks of play that are not interrupted by an adult.

We do all we can to bring visibility to learning throughout the day, either through video, sharing on seesaw, recording in our shared class scrapbook etc, so the planning is done, it is just done after the fact.

This year I want to try mind mapping about individual children, this will be a challenge, but I think it could be really valuable.

Ultimately it comes down to trust, trusting the children, trusting that learning will fall endlessly out of play and trusting ourselves to make best use of this wonderful approach.

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

Writing in the early years - what should we be trying to achieve?

Inspired by this ...have a listen, it is very interesting.

Writing...a complex way to communicate with many pieces to the puzzle that I think often go overlooked.  I have previously shared some ideas on writing that can be linked to here.


What I wanted to think about today, for myself, as much as anyone reading this, is the parts of the jigsaw that have to be in place for a child to become successful at communicating in the written form.  Too often I think writing is thought of as this stand alone area, taught in isolation and without purpose. 

Firstly let me say this, children learn best through play, it is my belief that particularly in Year 1 - 2 their experience of school should be through play.  The most important part of learning for these children is social and emotional, if we fail to get this right, we can be part of creating huge problems later on.   We only have to look at our depressing stats around mental health in young people to know that something is going wrong.  Should we accept complete responsibility for that, of course not, but by placing stress on a child from a young age to do something their brain is not capable of doing yet, we are contributing to those statistics, as confronting as that may be, it is the truth. 

Have we done it knowingly, of course not.  Do we know better now?  Yes, so it is time to stop and it is time to put the overwhelming research into practice, because to not do so would be completely ignorant. 
If that means ignoring ERO, ignoring our Education Ministry, so be it...it is the children that matter, and we are the ones who have the power to make a difference for them.

 From Year 3 onwards play continues to be very important, but if we can get it right in the first couple of years, we have done a huge service to the child and their later development as a well rounded, happy, secure person.

I've blogged about literacy development before.  That post can be found here, and many of my previous posts talk about my what I think about developmental readiness.  My diagrams on brain development in the classroom and literacy development are very relevant to this post.

Today I wanted to  blog specifically about writing...however as we know, writing is a broad term and it is all about communication.  Children don't learn to write in isolation and the teaching of writing can can attempt to do just that! Writing is far more than just the mechanics and the product.

Writing is not something that exists as abstract genres, which we teach on rotation, writing is about having a message, something to say.  Many write for pleasure and others write for purpose, some write for both.  When was the last time you sat down and decided it was time you wrote an instructional text.  Children will develop an understanding of different types of writing, not because we spend three weeks focusing on it, but because for  for the message they need to convey, this type of writing is necessary.  When it is necessary, when they are interested, then they will learn about it and be receptive to us teaching them more.

Ultimately "writing is the painting of the voice" - Voltaire

The thought that in many new entrant rooms across our country, children are forced to write from day one (and yes I also was guilty of this) makes me incredibly sad.  These children sit in classrooms, where they are not yet able to speak clearly, yet they are expected to write a message, to learn their name, to even have an understanding of what they are being required to do.  It all seems so absurd to me now that I've travelled this path into play.

There is nothing wrong with invitations to write, experiences based around storytelling, but the expectation that all children at five will magically walk in the door ready to sit and spend an extended time recording a message is quite ridiculous.  We sit down as a class, we talk about messages, we storytell, we expose children to a wide variety of rich and wonderful language through play, but when it comes to actually writing, if they are not ready, they are not ready and no amount of the teacher requiring them to write will make them ready.  In fact it will put them off and later on, they will become our reluctant writers.  As Nathan Wallis says, all they learn from being pushed into this learning is that they can't do it and therefore they are dumb.

And so to go with the diagrams above, what do I think are the crucial parts of the jigsaw puzzle to get children started out as writers when they are ready.  These are my thoughts.

I have shared this before, but it is a really useful tool for 'assessing' the product so that we can better engage developmentally.  Children will make marks during play in a variety of ways and this little assessment can be used to assess anything they produce through play...it doesn't have to be a piece of writing on paper and it doesn't need to happen inside four walls of a classroom.

It is our job as teachers of the youngest learners to know that we do them no favours by foisting the mechanics of writing on them before they are developmentally ready.  However we can assist them by slowly putting the jigsaw puzzle together so that writing becomes a natural and enjoyable process that has everyday purpose in their lives. 

Play is the way and the sooner we realise that, the better off we all will be.  Play has purpose, through purpose comes authentic learning and learner voice and from there everything falls into place!

How would you feel if you were forced to write and you had nothing to say?