Friday, March 27, 2015

My love affair with loose parts

Kids really get to know the environment if they can dig it, beat it, swat it, lift it, push it, join it, combine different things with it.  This is what adults call creative activity...a process of imagination and environment working together.
- Robin Moore

Loose parts and I have been best friends since way before I even knew that loose parts were an actual thing. 

The small, progressive preschool I chose for my boys -  and later - for myself had an outdoor space rich in loose parts - both natural and man made.  The children had ready access to all manner of sticks, planks of wood, bricks, stones, mesh, fabric, rope, tyres, tree cookies, crates, sand, dirt and mud and - here is the important part - the time and permission to use them in whatever direction their imaginations, creativity and curiosity took them.

Do you know what I noticed?  Children engaged for long periods of rich, co-operative play.  Curiosity sparked and imaginations ignited they followed their own interests for days, and in some cases months. Children became expert problem solvers and dispute resolvers.  There was very little need for "supervision" in terms of behaviour management challenges which was the norm in other centres I had worked at.  

Building ramps
My eyes were opened to the power of loose parts.  I started to sing their praises on my blog, and at last count there were 50 odd posts on loose parts alone.  Why?  What the children did with loose parts knocked my socks off, every single day.

A pile of rocks was moved to a "rock factory".  The rocks were ground by hitting them with bricks.  This evolved into a rock shop.  Rocks were decorated.  Signs were made.  The children at the school next door were invited to come and peruse their wares.  This went on for weeks.

Over time, I noticed that things in the play department were really rocking when the loose parts available supported the schemas in children's play.

Enclosure, trajectory, transporting, positioning, connecting, rotating, transforming - loose parts are the raw materials that support children's innate urges in their play.
Making cubby houses was a constant.  The urge to create spaces of their own is strong.

Resist the urge to step in - unless invited - and you will be amazed where the play takes them.  I promise.

Often a project would ebb and flow - a manic hour of work in the morning and then the work site may sit untouched until the next day.  It may look haphazard but rest assured they know where everything belongs and why.
Making traps continued for months on end.  
 When children play with loose parts, they are not only developing their imagination and creative thinking - they are solving problems, moving their bodies, calculating, measuring, inventing, negotiating, co-operating, respecting and learning how to get along.  

What more could we want than that?  But don't just take my word for it.  Try it yourself and see!

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Why There Is No "Climber" in my Play-Based Playground

Now this is kindergarten readiness!! 

In this short 45 second video, two of our soon-to-be kindergarteners demonstrate their ability 
  • to build body awareness, strength, and coordination through locomotion activities
  • to build awareness of directionality and position in space
  • to use both sides of the body to strengthen bilateral coordination
  • to build upper body strength and stability to gain controlled movement of shoulders
  • to use eye-hand coordination, visual perception and tracking, and visual motor skills in play activities
  • to create and articulate a plan in sequence
  • to engage in activities that build understanding of words for location and direction
  • to use imaginative thought to create something of their own design
  • to represent their ideas symbolically
  • to work together collaboratively
  • to listen to the ideas of others and be flexible in negotiations
  • to teach a younger classmate a new skill
  • to demonstrate empathy and compassion for a classmate
  • to assess and modify risk
  • to discuss strategies to prevent injury
  • to talk about ways to solve or prevent problems and discuss situations that illustrate that actions have consequences
  • to explore and identify space, direction, movement, relative position, and size using body movement and concrete objects
  • to listen to and use comparative words to describe the relationships of objects to one another
  • to use mathematical thinking to estimate size, distance and mass
  • to make predictions about changes in materials or objects based on past experience.
  • to manipulate a wide variety of familiar and unfamiliar objects to observe, describe, and compare their properties using appropriate language.
  • to understand the physics of a lever and the impact of adjusting the fulcrum
  • and to work and learn cooperatively, constructing knowledge together.

Many of these criteria are included in the Massachusetts Department of Education's Early Childhood Program Standards and the Guidelines for Preschool Learning Experiences. According to this document: "the mark of a superior teacher is the ability to select materials and interact with children in ways that help them learn through their own play and these planned activities. Young children need many and varied opportunities to: 
■ Plan: children consider what they are going to do with materials and how they are going to do it. 
■ Play: children use materials and equipment in ways that best suit their personal curiosity and understanding. 
■ Reflect: children recall things that happened to them, reinforcing or questioning their understandings. 
■ Revisit: children practice skills and replay experiences in many different ways, with each activity refining or modifying previous learning. 
■ Connect: children, with the help of staff, connect new knowledge with past experiences, creating links among subject areas and areas of skill development."

We found when we took our climber out of our playground, the children's play became more creative and complex. The challenges to the children's motor development, their language, their mathematical and scientific thinking and their social interactions became greater when we removed the climber and replaced it with loose parts of all kinds. Now the children dictate their own play instead of being dictated by an immovable, fixed structure that dominates the play space.

These children have accomplished all of this in just 45 seconds! Imagine what they can do in 45 minutes! And beyond! The power of play!

Monday, March 23, 2015

A Love Of Literacy : Creating A Literacy Rich Culture In The Classroom


Creating A Literacy Rich Culture In The Classroom

I remember when I first opened Discovery, I was so eager to settle in and have a culture, a way, a feeling of our school. I was, like I often am, rushing what should happen naturally. As time went on I was reminded that a culture is something that is cultivated over time, it simmers and sizzles until it boils over. As much as I wanted to dig in.. I had to allow things to happen at it's own pace. I already knew this about children and how they learn, I knew that they could not be forced to learn and develop, that it would happen naturally in an environment full of rich material and a culture that supported play.. I used this same mindset to settle down my inner voice and let the classroom culture take shape.

One thing was for sure, play would be at the center of what children experienced at our school. Why play? Well because Play develops relationships, relationships with people, spaces, materials, and ones self. We understood that these relationships would be of great importance to the classroom culture.

With relationships as a main focus, we began to closely observe the children. Through our observations we noticed the connection and closeness that was nourished while sharing stories, books and simply chatting together. We had designed the classroom with ample access to reading and writing material, but with the new knowledge of the children, we began to fill the shelves with books that supported the interests of the children in the classroom. We blurred the lines between "Centers" in the classroom by adding reading and writing materials in all areas of the classroom, by doing this it became understood that writing and reading did not happen ONLY in designated centers.

By providing books that matched the interest of the children and allowing them to read  naturally in groupings of their choosing, on the lap of a teacher or alone at any given point in the school day, we created an environment that merged the joy of reading with the joy of play.  Children could be found deep into a book as a marching band marched on by, children giggling in delight didn't even threaten to tear a child away from his book.  

We also found it important to offer ample opportunities for children to write and mark make. blank books made of folded paper then stapled along the spine, blank paper, lined paper, chalk boards, journal books, memo pads, and any other type of paper we could find is nestled in all areas of the classroom. A myriad of writing tools accompany them. Clip boards, and mini notebooks create a mobile writing device that add to play of all kinds. cardboard, scraps of wood dry erase boards were also placed thoughtfully around the room. 

Simply adding an easel and large paper to the block area encourages plans to be mocked up and sketches to be made. 

We do not do worksheets, we do not practice any writing curriculum or have any teacher directed writing sessions, it's not a chore.. or work, it's PLAY..  

Children write and mark make ALL day, children read and tell stories ALL day. Our end of the day story is an event.. We call it the book vote. Everyone meets at the rug. Small blocks are passed out as tickets, three or four books are laid out after each title is read and displayed for all to see. Then the vote begins! The children are called up a few at a time to place their vote. It's always exciting to tally up the votes at the end and see which story won. This time fosters a sense of community, a sense of democracy and a love of and excitement for reading. 

We found that there are a few key things that helped to develop our literacy rich culture. 

- We provided ample accessible books and reading material 

- We talked with and listened to the children 

- We asked " How does your story start" ( Bev Bos) 

- We provided many tools for mark making and writing 

- Plenty of play give the children to opportunity to play out ideas and events in    stories and books. 

- Reading one on one, small groups, and whole group situations naturally. 

- Never having a forced reading time or a lesson in reading. 

We dictate the words of the children reading their own words back to them and their classmates. Dictation is so much a part of our program that now the children attempt to dictate for each other, the act of dictation is showing up in play!

Never before have I seen children flock to reading and choose it when play is an option, my theory for this is;  they are never forced to sit for group "reading time" they are never punished by being sent to " go read a book" they are not worried that they will miss play time because play is not scheduled between all of the other stuff.. it is the other stuff. They have associated reading and mark making or writing with spending time with loved ones, with laughter, sharing ideas, playing and learning.  They do it for pleasure, not because they are pressured. 

Their love for books and reading continued to grow, to the point that children began asking to take favorite books home. This prompted us to create a book borrowing corner in our classroom. The children and their families check out books to enjoy together at home, this home school connection reinforces the importance of reading to children and with loved ones.  

The children have truly developed a love of literacy

Friday, March 20, 2015

Playing and Being at Laurie's House

We begin our day greeting the children as they arrive, visiting with parents and then saying good-bye to them. The morning transition is often the hardest part of the day; I comfort upset children and reassure them that the people they love will come back, and I comfort upset parents and assure them that their child will be okay. Then we do whatever the children need: eat, sleep, diapering and play. As they get older a routine emerges, with a morning snack, lunch, mid-day nap and afternoon snack as the touchstones of the day. We try to get outside every day. Because relationships are such a core part of early care and education I maintain a primary caregiving relationship with the children…
… My goal is to provide the optimally stimulating and nurturing environment that a young child would encounter in a healthy home – ordinary reality, life in its goodness.  We spend our days together in my small home, learning in the way that young children do: for example, playing with pots and pans, being read to, resolving conflicts and exploring.

From my website: 

When I decided that I wanted to do infant care in my home 22 years ago, I looked at what my community needed and what I could offer.  

It was clear that there was a shortage of good infant care, and that most infant programs in the area required full time enrollment in order to make their budget. I wanted to support parents spending more time with their babies by working part time if they had that option. This worked better for me as well, because as I completed my MA in Human Development I knew I wanted to spend some time teaching adults as well as working with babies – I needed that balance in my life.  So I am open 4 days a week, and parents can sign up for between 20 and 36 hours of care per week.

Having studied with Magda Gerber, who developed the RIE method of infant care, I valued the concept of respectful care that allows for children to develop as authentic and competent people. From Liz Prescott at Pacific Oaks College, I embraced the idea that family child care could be as good as center care, and provided an ideal setting for children to experience the ways in which  we meet day-to-day human needs – an essential part of the early years curriculum in my view. I liked the idea of providing care in a small, home-based, non-institutional environment.  From Betty Jones, also at P.O., I learned about the value of providing a safe space with an abundance of interesting things to do, and letting children explore freely within it. 

Because I wanted to develop deep relationships with families, and provide continuity of care I decided that every three years I would enroll a new group of four infants, between about 3 and 9 months old, and that they would stay together as a cohort until leaving for pre-school. I enjoy creating a small, stable community for children in their first years, and children benefit from having a primary caregiver in a small group during that time. When I enroll families we talk about the intention we share to stay together for three years; twice families have had to leave before the end of that period and I have filled their slot with another child of roughly the same age.

In Oregon, as a Certified Family Child Care Provider, I am able to care for up to 4 infants at a time. We arrange the schedule so that when they are tiny they’re not all here at once, or if they are I have some help. So our ratio is always 1 to 4 or better. I often have help from my part time assistant Katie, from my partner Terri, and from practicum students. The children in each cohort develop deep connections with each other, and we spend lots of time developing language and problem-solving skills together.

Sometimes I want to say that what we do here is nothing special, or that we’re hanging out with babies the way people always have, but I know it’s much more than that. In a speeded up world we provide a place for babies and their parents to slow down and enjoy the richness of the early years. Daily life and caregiving is our curriculum; we try to take the time to honor young children’s interest in the mundane aspects of life that adults often ignore.

Some examples are:

Our toddler field trips are the hour long walks around the block where children become intimately familiar with the geography of this place, and the beings that inhabit it. We know which neighbors have given permission for us to run up and down their steep driveway, and which lawns we need to stay off of, we know that Pearl the neighbor cat can often be found a block away taunting the squirrels, we know which plants are okay to touch and which ones we should avoid – we end up knowing a lot about ourselves and this place. That knowledge provides a solid base for moving out into the wider and more diverse world.

I’ve joked that I don’t need to hire magicians and clowns to entertain the children because in this old house we have regular visits from workers who help us maintain it. There’s Tom, our painter who comes every spring, and makes smiley faces on the windows with blue painters tape, there’s the plumber who glows as I explain to the children that good plumbing is one of the foundations of civilization and public health, and Julie who comes a couple of times a year to prune our trees and shrubs. She leaves us piles of sticks to sort through, and we learn that if we leave them for a while they become dry enough for us to break! 

Of course food is an essential part of the infant/toddler curriculum, and in this small setting with a little garden and access to the kitchen, children are able to explore it fully with all their senses. One of my favorite materials to put out for babies is an unpeeled onion - the textures, the smells, the taste, the conversations about cooking with onions – I can’t think of any toy that offers such rich possibilities!

In part because I began with a minimal budget, and in part because I value reuse and non-commercial materials, I mix in lots of boxes, scrap paper, empty bottles, avocado pits and other found treasures for the children to explore (Tom Hunter’s line “we just call it garbage when we don’t know what to do with it” is a great inspiration for this kind of reuse). These materials mix easily with the open ended purchased objects in the environment, and are used just as much if not more.

In being together here in very ordinary ways, we learn that life is delightful and play is what it’s all about!