Wednesday, 1 July 2015

A photo is only half the story!

A happy child in the rain but they won't all be happy!!
I am a big advocate of social media and all the benefits it has brought to me as an educator - I have lost count of the amount of ideas I have gleaned from being able to follow other educators around the world and I have made life long friendships that have also transferred into 'real' friendships.
However, there are downsides to this ability to 'see' into other settings across the globe - it is very easy to see something and think 'Oh I could do that' without actually considering the whole picture, we can't transport practice or ideas from one place into ours without having to tweak or change parts of it. How many of us have seen fantastic art ideas on Pinterest, only to discover that it is not as simple as it looks from photographs or, more importantly, that a single photo showing an end result can't ever truly tell you the whole story and how much preparation is actually needed to get that end result! I have tried painting with balloons - it was great fun but at no point in the original post did anyone mention the balloons would end up bouncing all over the floor leaving a trail of paint, or that some children would manage to burst them! 
Water beads are great fun but they will bounce everywhere & get squashed!
It was the same with the whole water beads craze, no one had warned me just how bouncy they were and the first day we had them in the water tray was spent chasing them all over the classroom! I still use them every year but I warn the children that they will bounce if they throw them about and to try and be careful not to squash them too soon!

I am always amazed by the people who may follow my blog thinking I am an outdoor preschool but then that mis conception is understandable as most of my posts are about being outdoors! But in reality I am a standard nursery class teacher with an indoor classroom and we do actually spend equal amounts indoors as outdoors and some days we may even be inside more than we are outside!! 

We can never, ever tell the whole story from a photograph and we should never make snap judgments on them either. I have made some good friends by simply asking a question about something I have seen in a photograph and I would advise trying this rather than adding a snarky comment on a photograph or assuming you know the backstory to what is going on in the photo. I am so glad I first asked Lesley over at Takoma Park Cooperative Nursery School about the coloured bottles I saw all over her playground or else my journey with Bottle Babies would never have begun.
A passel of Bottle Babies!
The photos we post online are usually chosen because they are a good reflection of what we are trying to portray but that also means that they are not going to give an accurate snap of what was actually happening in the wider scheme of things - a good example is photos we might share of children paying in the snow, these photos will usually show happy children making snow angels etc., we don't post photos of a child who was crying because they were too cold or their hands had got too sore from playing with snow. 
I usually have 26 - 28 children in my class and on a cold, wet day there will always be the hard core of 10-12 children who get on their rain gear (waterproofs) and head off into the rain to play whilst another 10-12 will be content to play under the covered area but crucially there will be 1-2 who will be moaning or whining the whole time we are outside about being too cold or wet etc. We do of course layer them up with extra coats, scarves & gloves etc. but there will always be one of two children who just hate the cold but we have to look at the bigger picture and consider the needs of the majority, so we will stay outside. 

So, please never look at photos and be really jealous or judgmental of another setting - appreciate the photo for what it is, an opportunity to get a glimpse into that setting but be aware it is never truly the whole story!

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Highway Farm -A very special place.

A few years ago I stumbled upon the Highway Farm Activity Centre page on Facebook, I'm not even sure what it first was that caused us to connect but pretty soon, Martin & I were exchanging comments on each other's pages & another 'cyber friendship' was formed. By sheer chance we both happened to be on the first #PlayIcełand conference organised by Fafu in October 2013 and so our friendship was cemented in Iceland over the 4 days. 
In March 2014 Martin came over to stay with me for 3 days & visit my school and whilst there he and a parent built an amazing mud kitchen for my nursery class. 
I was supposed to visit Highway Farm in July 2014 but unfortunately that very week, my father-in-law died and I had to cancel. We both continued to chat on a regular basis and bounce ideas of each other and I was delighted when Martin invited me over this month to take part in his staff training with Juliet Robertson from Creative Star Learning Company.  I jumped at this chance to spend time at Highway Farm and meet up with some inspiration practitioners, as the training was on a Saturday, my school were good enough to give me the Monday off in lieu so I could spend a morning at the preschool. 
7 years ago, I got the opportunity to work in an Norwegian kindergarten in Eikefjord job shadowing a colleague working with the outdoor class. From the outset I was bowled over by the tranquil pace of the day, there was no sense of children being hurried through one process to get to the next, as often happens in our system. 
So roll on 7 years and it was incredible to see that same gentle child-led pace at the preschool at Highway Farm. Everything is seen as a learning opportunity, tidying up, getting dressed for outdoors, washing hands, getting ready for snack or lunch but not in the sense of 'how many grapes do you have, what shape are your sandwiches' (sorry inspectorate but this is one way to ruin proper conversation at snack or lunch), this was deep learning opportunities: whose name starts with a certain sound, who had a certain colour of shoes etc. Most of all, it was obvious that all the adults are working at the pace of the young children in their classes, not at the construction of a set timetable. There is a routine to the day but it is flexible and lunch happens when it suits not at the dictate of a bell. 
The site seemed so familiar from the photos I had seen on their page and from a wonderful album Martin had given me for my class in Iceland but it is surprising much smaller than it seems. I think the use of zoning off spaces is incredibly well done at Highway Farm & each space then feels so different and the children must feel as if they are on a visit to a totally different area each time they move between the spaces. Within each area itself there are so many other little spaces where children can be out of sight, it has to seem like an enormous & magical place to those 3 -4 year olds lucky enough to spend time in this setting.
What I particularly enjoyed was the 'real ness' of it, there are nettles, brambles, gorse, wood with splinters, metal shovels etc. it is not a sanitised space, as many preschool setting are. The children at the preschool learn all about nature and how to interact with prickly foliage or stinging nettles. Some of the climbing equipment is made from pallets & could be described as 'rough and ready' but what struck me was that if a piece does get broken it can be easily replaced at no great expense.
I loved watching the children play with a dry creek bed, as I had 'watched' this being built on the page one summer. There is something so engaging about water, I don't know of any child who does not love transporting water from one place to another. 
I spent a morning at this wonderful setting and I never heard any of the 30 odd children complain of being bored, or crying about having fallen - the lack of hard standing definitely helps, when children fall it is onto grass or bark chips.
I can't wait to go back for a longer visit next month with 2 nursery colleagues and to see 
their reactions to this incredibly special place.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Collaboration is the key! #niedcamp

We all need to share our practice.
As an educator I have fortunately always seen the value of sharing practice, ideas and experiences with others, both colleagues and parents. I came to teaching 11 years after leaving school & I firmly believe my time spent out in the non teaching world helped me to appreciate how team work is vital to any individual's success. I firmly believe there is no need for every teacher to slog away trying to come up with the best ideas, plans, ways of recording progress, observations of learning or creative ideas. We can learn so much from each other but more importantly, we benefit from being around others who are equally passionate about their chosen career. 
When I was lucky enough to be involved in the British Council's Comenius (now Erasmus +) programme, I immediately felt the benefit of being in touch with colleagues around Europe who were enthusiastic about their jobs. At our regular project meetings over the 6 years I was involved in projects, I spent many late nights & weekends talking about school with like-minded colleagues, we fed off each other's enthusiasm & shared ideas that have had far reaching consequences for my teaching & therefore every child who has ever been in my nursery class. I always came back from the meeting exhausted but invigorated. 
I also chose to do further studies after finishing my PGCE and again found that the colleagues I met whilst studying for my Masters were of a similar mind-frame, many were involved in Comenius & we were all definitely those type of teachers who can never emerge from a shopping trip without buying something for school. 
The arrival of social media introduced me to a whole new set of like-minded colleagues, those who are to be found chatting about school & sharing ideas any evening of the week on Twitter or Facebook. I know many are very sceptical of social media & say things like 'I have a real life, I don't have time for Twitter/Facebook' but they are missing the point. Social media allows me to enrich my life with regular interactions with colleagues who are willing to share good practice & practical help. I always advise those new to Twitter to start following a few key people & watch out for certain # pertinent to their particular age group or level in school.  We also get to meet up every do often face-to-face which is even better. I now have many colleagues that are friends who started off as 'cyber acquaintances' and I have yet to ever find out that we didn't get on in real life.  
I went to my first TeachMeet in Stranmillis College in October 2013 & I was hooked from the first presentation, as I listened to a secondary school colleague talk with such passion about his job and the pupils he taught. I don't mean to be controversial but many teachers outside the early years tend to be quite negative about their jobs & the pupils & I often wonder why they are teaching at all. 
I have attended every TeachMeet since & put my name down to present as I think we all need to keep sharing our practice to help each other see that small steps can all add up to help us move forward.

I am excited at the prospect of a bunch of ordinary (well, they are actually pretty extraordinary) educators getting together to take control of CPD in Northern Ireland on August 18th. # niedcamp is the result of funding suddenly being withdrawn from the annual summer school that was run for teachers in N.I each August. The minute the word filtered through to the key movers & shakers they decided to take on the challenge of offering CPD to colleagues for themselves. 
The idea is that we, ordinary, teachers/educators sign up to present and share ideas/practice with each other or to just attend and hopefully be inspired by each other. 
Please make sure, if you are free on the 18th, that you come along to see that there is much to be celebrated in the future of education for N.I. 
Are you with us?

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Playground Makeovers.

There is something very satisfying about seeing brand new playgrounds develop and become more of a reflection of the children who will use them or large playgrounds being made more 'intimate'. 
Sometimes when people do come to visit our space they are quite shocked by just how small it is, especially when they know we have several zones within the space e.g. the forest, mud kitchen, campfire, reading, covered area and slides. I would actually say that it is much easier to work with a smaller space than a large open area - that can seem very intimidating for staff as they try to make it more 'lived in'.
Our partner school moved into a brand new space and playground in September and immediately found it was too big and open and 'new'! When we would visit with the class of 28 children the space was fine but as they normally have just 12 children in this space normally, they tended to be lost in such a space. 
We love having a partnership with a special school and always find that everyone benefits from this - staff, parents and children but sometimes we can underestimate how much there school can gain from having us as partners. Their staff enjoyed visiting our established playground and seeing how their children interacted with the various challenges on offer - tree stumps, tyres, crates, logs and they were bowled over by the mud kitchen.

So today 7 months after we first visited their new space, we had so much fun exploring all the changes they had incorporated in the last few weeks - the space has just become much more interesting by just adding some camouflage netting, saucepans, tyres and a mud kitchen. I can't wait to see how this space evolves in the next 7 months.

Earlier in the week I had also had the opportunity to revisit a colleague in her nursery school almost 2 years after I first visited. Her playground is huge - one may early years practitioners would love to have but it was very open and as usual with any big space the children tended to run about. 
Well, fast forward a few years later and again I was amazed at the transformation - they have been able to fence off a woodland area WITHIN, yes within the playground! 

This is only one side of the new woodland area!
Now it will take a while for it to be an established wooded area but I know from our experience with Bear Woods, even a 2 foot tree is a tree in the eyes of a 3 or 4 year old child. 

They also had the cutest mud kitchen area under the canopy of lovely mature trees. This gorgeous little space shows you don't need to spend a fortune on a mud kitchen, as long the children have somewhere to mix up their 'cooking' they will be happy. 
Again, I can't wait to revisit this space in another couple of years to see how it has developed.

I suppose the purpose of this post is to help anyone who feels their space is uninspiring or thinks they can't achieve anything without lots of money or an established forest area - take a fresh look at your space and any piece of land not being used all the time and dream big!

Thanks to Julie, Susan and Julia for being so hospitable and for having the vision to 'go for it'!

Sunday, 31 May 2015


I have been enjoying perusing my copy of Julie Mountain's latest 'must-have' book for those working in the early years - "100 Ideas for Early Years Practitioners - Outdoor Play" and when I was reading her 'Idea no. 18: Sticks' I was reminded of why these are such an important part of our playground and our outdoor play approach. I spent all day thinking about how we came to have a collection of sticks available in the playground and then I remembered that one summer I got a load of willow with a view to letting the children whittle with the following year. Of course the idea of storing a crate full of sticks for almost a whole school year just proved too much and we decided to put them out and let the children play with them. 
We did spend time explaining to them about not pointing them each others faces or hitting anyone with a stick but honestly neither has ever really been an issue. What never ceases to amaze is that all young children seem to know that if you grab two sticks and rub them together you can make a fire - is that our caveman DNA emerging?!
Some children have recreated a campfire and are toasting marshmallows!
For third term we also introduce some longer sticks that require skill to carry about without tripping over them or poking people, so again we talk about holding them upright when walking about with a stick.

Each year the play can be very different with a box of sticks but each class does invariably incorporate them into their play. One year a boy had a particular stick he always played with, to all of us adults, it looked just like any other stick in the box, yet he and the other children had no problem clearly identifying this one stick as his!
The sticks are great for use in cooking in the mud kitchen as they make natural stirrers or even pretend spoons. We now have enough of a forest feel in the playground for the children to have ready access to smaller sticks if hey need them as ingredients for their cooking too.
We also have a box of sticks up in Bear Woods, our little wooded area on site that we visit on a weekly basis & it is interesting that the children play with these sticks in a different way form in the main playground: the long sticks tend to be fishing rods and the smaller ones are wands or get broken up for use in transient art.

Sometimes it is easy to forget how much the sticks are just part of play now at our nursery and it's only when they have to be taken away that it becomes apparent just how much the children do use them. Last week, we had children visiting from one of our partner schools we put all the stick away. If children are not used to playing with sticks that is when accidents will happen plus it is just too hard for staff not used to stick play to grasp their use in such a short time. While the children played outside waiting for their friends to arrive, some began to search about for the box of sticks, that had found one or two lying on the forest are and now they need more for their game, I have to say they were not pleases when I explained they had been put away that day and hey fell upon the next morning as if they were the most precious resource ever invented!
I like to think that the children in my class can understand the book 'Not A Stick' just a little better than any counterpart who isn't allowed to play with sticks.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Farewell to the Outdoor Play Party.

Sadly this is the last Outdoor Play Party, after a few years co-hosting this link up of outdoor play posts from bloggers around the world, it is time to call it quits. I first joined in with the original co-hosts Mama Peapod and Greening Sam & Avery. As their lives got busier they had to leave the party but it kept going with The Golden Gleam and Kitchen Counter Chronicles (KCC) and myself. We have had some other bloggers join in for a time - Flights of Whimsy, Happy Hooligans, Making Boys Men & The Usual Mayhem. More recently it has been Rain or Shine Mamma, Mud Mud Marvellous Mud and Adventure Togs with myself and KCC. But alas all good things have to come to an end, we are all busier and moving in different directions and finding the fortnightly link up party too hard to maintain. I will continue to blog about getting outdoors & some of the adventures of my nursery class & I hope that all those who have supported the Outdoor Play Party and my blog in particular will continue to interact with me on any posts, I always look forward to getting comments on my posts.
So this week we had our second visit to the Wild Woods at An Creagán, I am a big advocate of allowing children to revisit familiar sites and to allow them to have time to explore freely and enjoy trying skills over and over.
For this visit, I could allow the children to run on ahead on the path until they found the gate, I loved that those who got there first just sat down at the gate waiting for the rest to catch up! Peter, the bio-diversity officer had lit the fire so at the gate, I explained they couldn't run on ahead but had to walk with an adult in front because of the fire. Because we have a fire weekly in school these children are used to being around a fire and they knew to walk round the fire to get a seat. 
The fire circle where we sometimes have lunch.
They had been talking about what they were going to do since their last visit - catching a newt was top of some lists, climbing up the steepest bank on another & enjoying tea at the fairy tea party topped a lot of lists!
After listening to Peter talk about how he was going to make them some charcoal, the children had a request for him - they wanted to have lunch in 'the straw house' - a Bronze Age Hut recently built in an authentic village within the larger site. After hearing they could have lunch in there they were free to go and play.
The tree house, the children can really feel as if they are inside a tree!
It is a wonderful site where the children can really feel they are out of sight when really they are visible to all the adults. I love that they can spread themselves all over the site, they will be pond dipping, climbing the banks, playing in the tree house, having tea at the fairy tea party, cooking in the kitchen, digging or playing with water in the barrel. And even with all that is on offer there is also the option to just sit on a rock and watch the world go by. 
A table with beautiful china set up for the children to enjoy.
We allow the children to just be, there is no end result of our visit other than that they have fun and enjoy themselves. It is always so wonderful to see a quiet, timid child having so much fun just gathering stones in a bucket or sliding down a muddy bank. 
We usually have just over an hour to enjoy just playing before I blow the whistle 3 times to signal it is time to go back to the seating area.
'The straw house' where we had a lunch.
This time rather than have lunch around the fire we walked back to the entrance and had it in the Bronze Age Village in the 'straw house'. The children loved this experience - as far as they were concerned it was a much better version than the one the little pig made! This village has been built using traditional materials and methods and the hut is a real work of art - the walls are woven willow and were just starting to sprout leaves.
After lunch the children had a play in the play park before heading back to nursery on the bus.We had lot of tired, wet and muddy children but thankfully most parents are always delighted to see the muddy faces as a true sign of a really fun filled day.
A massive thanks to all of those who linked up to the Outdoor Play Party last time, I hope you will all grab the 'featured at' badge and continue to keep on promoting great outdoor play in your blogs.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Decisions, decisions, decisions.

In any given day a nursery teacher has to make a lot of decisions on whether something is an acceptable use of resources or not. Every individual will have their own style of deciding whether something is allowable or not, mine usually involves whether it will ruin an expensive resource or end up costing more money to replace. 
For any teacher who allows the children to have total free rein in the classroom or playground and that allows resources to be moved around from station to station, I have to say I take my hat off to you, I am all for child led play but when it comes to resources that I know cost a lot of money and can't be replaced easily is lost or broken, I draw a very clear line on acceptable use. Therefore you will hear me telling children to take toys back to the table where they had been set out on rather than carrying them around the room or playground. But there are of course other larger items that can be moved about. Generally the smaller or more expensive the item the less inclined I am to allow it to move from its original place!
I don't know about anyone else but sometimes it seems that a group of children are great about using lots of resources but terrible about putting them back at the end of play - this is probably more true outdoors than indoors. It can seem easier to just pick things up myself and put them back but then how will the children ever learn this skill if an adult always does it?
On Friday I was faced with such a decision - one child took a bucket and spade from the sand pit over to our forest area and began to gather up a load of bark chips from the forest floor. I quickly assessed that this was an acceptable use of the bucket and spade, he told me he was building a new road and soon he had a whole road crew working alongside him. Then they began to move out of the forest area into the wider playground with their buckets of bark chips, I made a decision to say 'No, the bark chips must stay in the forest area' as I knew they would end up leaving a trail of bark chips all over the playground and we need them to stay in the forest area to maintain that forest floor feel. I did however move a red top over into the forest area for them so they could continue to fill it up and this allowed their play to evolve as they moved onto cooking with the bark chips. Inevitably one child then wanted to add water to the top to mix in with the other dry ingredients. Another decision had to be made - the rule in my setting is they must wear rain clothes (waterproofs) if they want to play with water. So I explained that if he wanted water he needed to get on his rain gear but as the majority didn't want to do this, when he got his rain gear on, I then had to direct him to the mud kitchen for his wet play. 
The reason we ask children to wear their waterproofs to play with water is that we have 28 children and if even 4-5 get wet during play it is a big deal to get them changed so it is just much easier if they are properly dressed from the start.
After an hour of so of intense play from two groups in the forest area and mud kitchen, they all moved off to different play of course just leaving all the buckets and spades lying where they had been playing. So before they got their shoes back on I asked the children who had been engaged in this play to go and gather up the buckets and spades and take them back to the sand. 
As a nursery teacher, I am constantly challenged by the children in my class and my practice has to evolve with their needs but I don't see any harm in having some boundaries of acceptable use of resources in place.