Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Collaborate & Learn Together.

Five and a half years ago I started this blog & if I think back as to why, it was mainly because I started to follow other blogs around 6 months earlier and the more I followed them and interacted with those bloggers, the more I started to think 'I do that too' and to realise that others might actually be interested in hearing about my practice. I was still surprised by how many people did begin to follow the blog and interact with me on a regular basis. I am the first to admit, I sometimes speak before really thinking, so a blog is good for this as I have to mull over my thoughts before blabbing them out into a post!!
Teachers in general are a secretive lot, in the main they do not play well with others, are terrible at sharing and prefer to teach behind closed doors. I say in general, as there is a growing movement within teaching that is very open to sharing and collaborating with each other, learning from each other and constantly questioning their own practice and striving to provide the best possible educational experience for those in their care.
I spent a weekend at a conference with two such teachers in 2012, one from primary and one from secondary and I was overwhelmed by their enthusiasm and passion for their jobs, new technology and for embracing the opportunity to learn from others around the world. The best step I took was to follow these two on Twitter as it opened a whole new network for me, or a Professional Learning Network (PLN) to give it the 'correct' term. It also introduced me to the wonderful world of #niedchat and so I found myself sitting in a lecture theatre in a local teacher training college on a Friday evening in October, surrounded by other teachers, attending my first #TeachMeet. @Daithi and @MrMalcontent had managed to persuade me to put my name into the hat as a presenter that evening, with the assurance that as there were over 30 presenters in the hat it was unlikely I'd be picked out. Mmmm how foolish of me to listen to those two, as lo and behold my name came out on second! The idea of #TeachMeet is that teachers sign up to give a presentation of either 2 or 7 minutes to colleagues, names are picked at random by an electronic rickety wheel! There are only a handful of people involved in organising these events and yet it is always run very professionally. 
As a nursery teacher, it was quite incredible to have an audience not made up of just other nursery teachers but colleagues from primary and secondary but the best thing about #TeachMeet is that it's about appreciating what others are doing not necessarily being always able to transfer what you learn to your own practice. So there were presentations on the flipped classroom to apps for helping language acquisition to myself talking about getting outdoors with nursery children. It was the passion and enthusiasm that struck me, I am used to this within the nursery sector but it is not as common in primary or secondary. Over the past two and a half years I have attended other #TeachMeet events that happen every 6 months or so and it has been a privilege to listen to colleagues who are striving to find the best ways to engage with the pupils in front of them. Those who attend these events are those teachers who are chatting about work long after 3.00 and at weekends, who are willing to share documents and ideas, who genuinely care about each and every pupil and who are willing to go that extra mile. They are the teachers who are always seeking out new and innovative methods to help enhance their teaching and most importantly they are the teachers who don't ask 'What is in this for me?'
This summer funding was suddenly withdrawn from the only CPD opportunity that teachers/educators  in N.Ireland have had in the past few years - the 3 day summer school from RTU. Most teachers heard the news and just accepted it. But the group who help organise the #TeachMeet heard this news and through a series of tweets began to organise a one day CPD opportunity run by teachers for teachers. They called it niedcamp and managed in a few short weeks to organise a fantastic day of collaboration and learning for teachers. I was fortunate to get to present twice at this event, firstly for an hour to other early years colleagues and later for 7ish minutes to colleagues across all sectors at a #TeachMeet that was organised to close the day. Weirdly it was in exactly the same lecture theatre where I had had that first opportunity to present and again, it was interesting to present to teachers who were not just from nursery. The whole day was such fun and considering this was taking place on one of the hottest, sunniest days of the summer and the last week of most our holidays, the turn out of over 350 teachers was impressive.
In conclusion I would say that sharing about practice be it through blogging or a short presentation at a #TeachMeet, has been one of the best methods of self-evaluation for me. It has helped me to reflect on why I do things the way I do and encouraged me to challenge why I feel the way I do about outdoor play. But most importantly it has allowed me to surround myself with a supportive network of like-minded colleagues who help inspire me daily to strive to be the best teacher I can be. 

The next TeachMeet will be in the Guildhall in Derry on the 18th October 2015.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Loose Parts = Creativity. Road Trip to Lithuania Part 3

Sometimes, no matter how much we think we know something, we have to actually witness it ourselves to truly believe it! 
Last month, I was fortunate to spend a week in the company of other educators as passionate about getting children outdoors as I am. 4 of us from very different settings and countries (Martin from an outdoor preschool in Cornwall, Unnur from a traditional nursery in Iceland, Lesley from a cooperative nursery school in Washington, D.C. and myself from a nursery unit in a primary school) all came together to help share our practice and experiences with educators, parents and children at 2 newly established outdoor nurseries in Lithuania - one in Vilnius and one in Kaunas called Lauko Darželis.
On the two days we spent in the nurseries I was able to see just why schools need to have loose parts on offer in their playgrounds. Young children are so open to new ideas and have that self-belief that they can make anything they want to from whatever resources they have to hand but somehow as children get older they seem to lose this ability. 
As I teach in a nursery unit in a larger primary school, I get to see most of the children I have taught as they move on up through the school. It always makes me a little sad when I encounter those same children who believed they could make anything or draw anything as 3 year olds, tell me as 8 or 9 year olds that they can't draw or wouldn't know how to go about making an aeroplane with junk. I know something is happening in our education system to stifle their natural creativity but until last month I hadn't really connected the importance of loose parts and this creativity.
A load of pallets and within a few minutes an insect hotel is created.
On the day we were in the Vilnius nursery Martin & Unnur spied a pile of pallets and immediately thought 'insect hotel'! They were able to grab a load of pallets and quickly make a basic frame for it, then some of the children and staff from the nursery began to fill in the hotel; they were able to find all of the necessary elements in the playground - sticks, logs, pipes, long grasses etc. As I watched the take ownership of the hotel and begin to fill it in I realised that by having all those component loose parts close to hand the nursery was allowing the children and adults to be as creative as possible. How many times do children want to make something to enhance their play, only to look around a playground and only see fixed equipment?
The bare metal structure getting it's woven 'walls'.
Another day at the nursery in Kaunas, we initially decided to make a temporary den using a metal frame that was already in situ, we found long, leafy branches to weave around the frame and then added larger trees branches to the roof to create a cosy den for the children. They immediately moved in to this space - getting longer branches to make a 'door' and adding containers and pine cones to create a 'kitchen'.
The children take control of this den and begin to make it theirs.
But this wasn't enough for the really creative members of the team! Martin, Unnur and Lesley began to look about for another project and when a member of staff mentioned that they would ned a sleeping area for the following week when the children began to attend full time, Martin spied the potential of a clump of trees! All that as needed, that wasn't already on site were some tarps and ropes and hey presto, within a matter of hours a sleeping area had been created amongst the trees. As I watched this unfold, it again struck me that none of this could have happened without the necessary components being  readily available. This time, of course, it wasn't loose parts, strictly speaking, as they had to cut trees and branches to get the basic frame but this project showed what can be achieved in the right environment. If playgrounds have sticks, logs, crates, tyres and tarps readily available at playtime, then if/when they wanted to children could build shelters.
As I witnessed these projects I realised that children and adults can only be as creative as their environment allows them to be and that by letting children spend time in a natural environment like the woods or to be surrounded by loose parts, we can but only help them to become or remain creative.
The finished shelter getting an entrance!

Please read some more about our time in Lithuania here:

Martin teaches at Highway Farm Activity Centre
Unnur teaches at Leikskólinn Stekkjarás 

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Play is the universal language. Road Trip to Lithuania Part 2

The magical entrance to the outdoor nursery at Kaunas.
Each year for the past 10 I have had at least one child who enters the class with little or no English. I firmly believe the preschool year is the best year for this to happen, as it is so language rich as an environment & also very visual. The adults tend to mime most of the actions they are asking the children to do - washing hands, putting in coats etc. 
I watch each year as these 3 and 4 year olds make connections with us and their peers as they play, at first just playing alongside each other but then gradually playing with each other. It is always wonderful to witness this connection through play.
Last week as I spent a morning at Lauko Darželis in their 2nd and newest nursery in Kaunas, I was reminded how important play is for making connections with young children. I speak no Lithuanian and the children spoke no English yet as we played alongside each other in the sand pit, we were able to make a connection. The children were making sand pies & at first were just content to play alone but then they began to watch each other to see how each was achieving a different end result. As I looked around to find some decorations for my sand pie, they began to include me in their play. 
One child asked his mother (one of the two teachers in the nursery)  how to get me to come and play with him and when she told him to say "Please come" he used this all morning as an invitation for me to follow him or join him in his play.
During our week in Lithuania, we had talked debated about how so many preschools look exactly the same & therefore the theory is that you could drop a blind folded teacher into any setting and they would feel 'at home'. I would argue that you could drop anyone who still has the capacity to play anywhere in the world and they would manage to make connections with others. 
A skilled adult can play alongside a young child making the teaching implicit.
It made me realise that this is how the young children in my class without English manage to find their feet so quickly - they learn so much of the mechanics of school by playing alongside their peers and by imitating what they see.
I had similar experiences in Norway when I spent a week in a kindergarten and picked up more words while playing with the children than I ever did by just listening to adults talking. It does make me realise how much harder it is for children who have to join a class at a much older age when there are less opportunities to learn by doing as opposed to listening to instructions and less chances to 'play' outdoors.
By chance this piece by Dr. Scott Sampson ( appeared in my feed today and it reiterated what I was trying to say: being outdoors in nature and playfulness go hand in hand and it was the latter quality that allowed me to interact with the young children at Lauko Darželis.
The sooner we all realise that the preschool experience should be as informal and as outdoor based as possible the better.

You can read some more about the outdoor nurseries in Lithuania in the following posts: On my blog:
And this one over at Takoma Park Cooperative Nursery School:

Friday, 31 July 2015

Choice and Memories. Road trip to Lithuania Part 1!

I was fortunate to be offered a chance to spend a week with 3 friends and early years practitioners from around the world (Martin from Highway Farm Activity Centre, Cornwall, Unnur from Leikskólinn Stekkjarás Iceland and Lesley from Takoma Park Cooperative Nursery School, Washington D.C.) taking part in work shadowing and sharing practice, ideas and experiences with colleagues in 2 outdoor nurseries in Lithuania - one in Vilnius and one in Kaunas.
Lesley, Zilvinas, me, Unnur and Martin.
Our host for the week was Zilvinas Karpis, the founder and impetus behind the outdoor nurseries known as 'Lauko Darzelis' in Lithuania. ( As a parent, Zilvinas, had been disappointed by the lack of outdoor experiences on offer in any of the more traditional nurseries he looked at for his own children. Rather than complain about it and wait for someone else to do something about the situation, he decided to set up an outdoor nursery in the incredible Pavilniai Regional Park in Vilnius last year. This is considered one of the smaller regional parks at only 2127 hectares! 
Over the past year the nursery has renovated a small wooden house in a larger area to provide a cosy indoor space for the children to retreat to in the winter or on very wet days. It is a 2 story building with the upper sloped floor providing a sleeping area for wet or very cold days - otherwise the children sleep outside under canvas to help keep them cool on hot days.
On the day we visited the children had just had their breakfast on the verandah and were ready to head out for a 2 hour walk around the park. They choose a different route every day and we broke up into 2 pairs to go walking with the 2 groups - the under 3's and the older children, the latter also included children over the usual nursery age of  7 as it was summer holidays and the nursery offers a summer camp for those older children who are on school holidays.
Our route took us into an old munitions building and the children had fun climbing up into the building and enjoying the acoustics while they sang before they had fun jumping off the big platform inside. They were lots of different plants to explore in this space too.

Lesley shares some of the photos she had taken of them jumping off.
The pace of the walk was taken at the pace of the children, we stopped if they came upon something of interest to them - like a pile of logs to clamber on and one of the teachers made them a seesaw by placing a log just so on the pile.
After walking for about an hour we stopped on the banks of the river Vilnia to allow the children to have some snack. They each carry their own snack and change of clothes in their own rucksacks and some even had little mats for sitting on when they stopped. his was an idyllic place to enjoy refuelling for the next part of the walk. Some of the children had been at nursery since 8.00 and had had breakfast provided by the nursery earlier, this snack as brought form home and was mainly bread, biscuits or fruit. I was impressed at their independence as every child unpacked their own snack and opened/closed their own boxes without any adult help.
A perfect spot for snack.
Some children sat with friends or with a teacher, others chose to sit apart enjoying watching the river flowing past. After most had finished they packed up and head off again.Even though we didn't speak any Lithuanian and only a few of the children spoke English, we had no problem communicating with each other, most of the children would just chatter away to us regardless of whether we replied or not. And they had no problem conveying their wishes to be photographed in a favourite spot!

After another while meandering along the path, the children reached a part of the bank where the river was less fast flowing and they soon had their socks and shoes off and were paddling in the river. The sound of their laughter was lovely to hear and those people walking past couldn't help but smile at their behaviour.
At this point we swapped groups and Lesley and I headed up the hill to meet the younger children whilst Unnur and Martin joined the bigger children in the river.
This group was walking at a much slower pace as dictated by the youngest child who was only 2. He enjoyed stopping ever 2-3 minutes to explore something exciting on the path. The little ones enjoyed gathering leaves to drop over the side of a bridge to watch them float down the river.
After around 2 hours we all arrived back at the main site of the nursery and they children had their lunch on the verandah. The nursery provides a hot vegetarian meal at mid day and the children all eat together. (It is a vegetarian meal because there are  a lot of children at the nursery who have a variety of food intolerances.)
After lunch the children had a sleep or rest time, on this day they were sleeping outside under canvas to keep them cool in the sun. Those older children who weren't tired played around the main building, climbing trees, reading books or digging in the sand.
As the children woke up they gradually began to play again within the main space where there are lots of loose parts to engage with. Martin and Unnur began to build an insect hotel with some of the many pallets that were lying about - I'll write a post about that later.
So many great loose parts available to play with.

We used this time to explore the wider site with Zilvinas, as he shared his plans for some of the other buildings on the site. I would love to return to this setting is a few years to see all  that is planned by them. 
We also met with the Mayor of Vilnius and some of his advisors to show them some short presentations on our settings. He was impressed that each country and setting was so different yet the message was the same - children who are offered the opportunity to play outdoors and learn in a more natural environment are more rounded individuals. Then we had an opportunity to chat with some of the parents and staff, to explain where our settings were at present with regards to outdoor practice. It as a good chance to answer any questions the parents had - this is such a new experience for many of them, they just needed reassurance from others that their children will be ok if they are outside in all weathers.
This is such an exciting time for all of those involved in this new outdoor education revolution in Lithuania, most of all it reinforced to me how far I have come in my own practice in the last 8 years, as I could recognise some of their fears of apprehensions as being the same ones I had had or encountered at that time too.
What I realised was that most parents want their children to have carefree childhoods filled with memories of climbing trees, paddling in streams, getting dirty etc. - most educators who claim that parents don't want that are deluding themselves.
More importantly Lauko Darzelis offers choice for parents who want something different for their children. We showed the parents that the nursery system does not have to be a one size fits all experience, as each of us are from very different settings and countries and yet are able to offer the children in our care outdoor learning experiences on a daily basis.
To quote Michael Fullan, the professional capital was high and getting the opportunity to spend time with like-minded individuals has helped to recharge me and re-enthuse me, ready for a new school year.

Lesley has also written a post on this setting, you can read about it here:

A massive thanks to Zilvinas and his family for all that they did for us during the week and to all the staff, parents and children who made our visit such an enjoyable and worthwhile experience.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Stain Glass Window - Highway Farm Style!

Stain Glass Window with Tissue Paper & PVA
The finished 'stain glass' window.

Whilst I was over visiting Highway Farm, I was lucky to see this great activity unfold and to see just how simple and enjoyable it was for all those involved. 
I had seen this done before when we had an artist in working with the children and she had pre-drawn a butterfly shape for the children to fill in but this was a much easier way to do it.

Martin got a black bin bag (any plastic will do) and taped it to a tuff spot, then he gathered some tissue paper, pipe cleaners, tiny beads, brushes and PVA glue. He covered the surface of the tuff spot with PVA and began to show the children how to place the tissue paper to cover the whole surface - they then brushed more glue over the top. He and Maria cut up the pipe cleaners into small pieces and encouraged the children to place these all over the surface too. Then they were sent off to gather leaves, flowers, petals etc. - in fact anything they could find - one child brought some 'treasure' - a glass pebble.
Soon the whole surface was covered with no gaps at all and then Martin added a final layer of PVA. 

What impressed me most about this activity was how all the children were so engaged, some drifted in and out of it during the hour or so but many stayed with it the whole time.

They were also able to make bracelets with beads and pipe cleaners as they sat around waiting for a turn with a the brushes.
I can't wait to try this with my new class next term.

Monday, 13 July 2015

A nurturing space where children truly do grow!

Cornwall CPD Road Trip 2015

The Tevi classroom and outdoor space.
Last year, two nursery colleagues and myself decided to take Continued Professional Development (CPD) into our own hands and organise visits to nurseries in the Derby area during the first week of our summer break. This year we were lucky to spend the day at the incredible Highway Farm Activity Centre in Cornwall working alongside Martin, Rachel and the team of educators at this unique outdoor preschool setting.

What a way to enter preschool!
Earlier in the year, the farm expanded it's preschool setting by adding another class for the older children and Rachel joined them as an experienced teacher with many years in Reception and Foundation Stage behind her. They decided to give each of the classes a unique, Cornish name rather than keep referring to them as the lower and top classes. And so the 2 classes became known as 'Maga' and 'Tevi' from the Cornish for nurture and to grow. The newly turned 3 year olds are in Maga and the 4 year olds in Tevi.

I was so lucky to get to see both classes as their day unfolded and had also visited last month too. Even so often you get to witness a natural 'teacher' in action and you just know that all the qualifications in the world could never, ever replicate what comes organically to some people. 

The term nurture is so perfect for what Martin and his team do with the younger children. With a staff child ratio of 1:6, they have time for each child, they have chances to have 'teachable' moments throughout their day and it is so obvious that every child is valued and listened too in this amazing setting. I saw some children who in a more traditional setting would stand out a mile and have to have lots of support to access the curriculum, just be allowed to take the day at their pace and to be fully supported by all the staff in everything they tried to do. 
I watched entranced as Martin had these pre preschoolers doing maths that many a P.1 teacher would be impressed with. I was most impressed by the skills that the children are given to be as independent as possible and to have lots of strategies to get them to the right answer to most questions. Bearing in mind these were 3 year olds in the year before most would be in nursery, when asked to find 5 on a number line, they knew to go to 1 and count forward until they found it, if they couldn't identify it at first. 
I watched as staff gently reminded children to sit down during the group story time and even if the same child had to be reminded 4-5 times it was always done gently and with such patience. Not every child had a turn and yet these young children had no issue with this.

I suddenly realised that in reality the current staff child ratio in nurseries in Northern Ireland of 1:13 does not allow for as many activities or teachable moments, we are under too much pressure and a lot of the learning has to be more incidental. I spend my time teaching to the whole group during story time or interacting with smaller groups at activities but will inevitably be called away or distracted by something else going on in the busy classroom. What I saw going on with these 3 year olds might be happening in a nursery class by 3rd term but certainly not in first term. Martin was able to work closely with 1 or 2 children whilst the others were busy engaged elsewhere, he was able to give his undivided attention to children. 

I saw lots of times when the children were out of sight of the adults and guess what - none of them came to any harm - they were all fine and engaged in play. In nurseries we have become obsessed with children always being in our sight and yet they do need to learn to be in charge of themselves and to be independent and to feel OK about being out of sight of an adult. Martin has created lots of little hiding spaces in the Maga space and they are nearly all at child height to make them seem even more inaccessible to interfering adult eyes! I can only imagine how magical it must be to be a 3 year old in this space.

Every space is used to it's full potential and cosy areas are created.
Now, with having added the Tevi class where the 3 and almost 4 year olds spend the year before moving onto primary, the Farm can truly ensure the children who go to this setting are being nurtured as they grow. They will be mostly move from one class to the other and therefore from one space to the other. And throughout the day they move through the various spaces that have been created, therefore ensuring they learn to cope with transitions within a familiar space. The children are alongside each other at times and you can hear both classes as they play, or chat to each other over a low gate. Best of all the dry creek bed runs between the 2 spaces and the children in the Tevi class are the ones who add the water to create running water through the Maga space.

The children in the Tevi class add water to the dry creek bed that runs down into the Maga area.
As the water trickled down the path, I asked one child where the water came from and he replied 'From the big children' and on a previous visit when I asked the older class where the water was going to one replied 'Down to the babies'!! 
These older children who have been thoroughly nurtured by Martin and his team in the Maga class are then ready to move into the bigger space of the Tevi class and explore a wider area known as 'The Top Field' as part of their daily morning routine. These children are certainly growing as their class name suggests and they are such enthusiastic learners you just know they will thrive when they get to primary school. 

What I witnessed most when I was able to work alongside Rachel and Maria one morning, was that these 4 year olds were as independent as possible and took responsibility for most if not all of their belongings. With a staff child ratio of 1:8 in the Tevi class, it is still a intimate grouping and allows for lots of teachable moments throughout the session. 

Estimating how many peas might be inside the pod!
What it showed me was that if we could always ensure another adult was in the nursery classroom, the quality of interactions would rise immediately. 
The outdoor space that the Tevi class use is developing well and again has lots of opportunities for children to be out of sight and feel hidden from adult eyes. The newest area being developed 'The Top Field' has so much potential but as of yet lacks these hidden spaces or shelters of any kind - but this is all in the pipe line. I can't wait to see how this incredible setting will develop next year when it has its first full year of 2 classes and I bet any of the schools that get these children will thank the staff at Highway Farm for the confident independent and enthusiastic learners they are getting.

You can read more about a previous visit to Highway Farm over here:

Also read about Juliet Robertson from Creative Star Learning Company's visit over here:

You can read about my CPD road trips to Derby in 2014 here: