Friday, 18 July 2014

Outdoor Play Party - Guest Post 2 - E11 Creative Workshop.

For the latest fortnightly Outdoor Play Party I am delighted to have an inspirational guest post from Maria & Alain Navaratne from the incredible E11 Creative Workshop. Please take time to explore this amazing school by following them on Facebook or checking out their website Maria & Alain created this unique choice based art school for children aged 3 plus in 2009. This post is a brilliant example of having a 'can do' attitude & will be a great inspiration for those who don't have access to outdoor spaces or feel overwhelmed by a small outdoor space. Maria & Alain have created a stimulating outdoor learning area in a small space by carefully placing open ended resources & have really connected their students to the local community by using the whole area as a giant learning environment.
No Outdoor Space - No Problem!

So, what do passionate outdoor play advocates do when they have a center with no outdoor area? 
E11 Creative Workshop moved to The Manitou Art Center in Manitou Springs, Colorado in December 2013. The benefits of providing children’s art services within our local Art Center were too exciting an opportunity to turn down. We have never had a space without a yard, we are huge proponents of loose parts play and our preschool program was traditionally an indoor/outdoor approach. But the invitation to work in this space was one we could not refuse. We transformed what was formerly a storeroom in a gallery into a beautiful working art studio for children. Now, what to do about outdoor free play, one of the most important aspects of our program? 
Before & After
In the great E11 tradition of repurposing just about anything we can get our hands on, that is exactly what we did to address our need for outside time. The Manitou Art Center is opposite an ordinary city park with an extraordinary, picturesque shallow creek running through it, shaded by huge trees. This provides an idyllic setting for our 60+ summer camp children to cool off, float handmade boats, construct dams and build riverbank hideouts. Twelve children ages 4 to 11 attend each day with a couple of Middle and High School volunteers in addition to two teachers, providing plenty of supervision for riverbank fun. 
One of the trickiest aspects of using the creek and park opposite is that a busy road separates us from it. 
Even though it is only 4 minute walk from our building to the river, we have a to cross this busy road. That was when we discovered the Manitou Free Shuttle Bus which loops around our small town delivering us safely from our side of the road to the creek. We couldn’t resist a little bus trip for our little and big kids and it has proved to be very popular. With a quick clean up after lunch we can ride the 12:41pm bus just along from The Manitou Art Center, loop around the town and get off on the other side of the road just opposite! This does sound ridiculous but when we have a group of 12 excited children playing eye-spy at the bus stop, big kids holding the little kids hands, clutching buckets and handmade boats, greeting Miss.Shelley the bus driver we do have a truly fabulous time! 

Now, how to provide an indoor/outdoor experience for our little school? Well, there is a little outdoor studio area just by our entryway. It has homemade rolling fences to separate it from the carpark of the Art Center, a patch of dirt, a tree and a decorated concrete patio with a few tables and chairs. We have slowly inched our way out of the studio, first planting some donated strawberry and pepper plants in the dirt, next putting out just a few pallets, oh and a trough for water play. Gradually we inched the fence a bit further into the carpark (I just know Bev Bos would be so proud of us), we got rid of all the tools and rubbish that the studio artists had dumped behind the tree and made a fine little hobbit hideout for the children to have private play time. 
Every now and then we find donated scraps of lumber or logs for the children to build with, presumably all our artist neighbors know what we are up to now! The studio artists pop by and have become a resource to our little artists. The month of June produced a lot of wooden swords which gradually became slicker and more refined. A few of our older children began to make mortice and tenon joints, engrave the handles with wood burning tools and sand their ‘blades’ out on the patio for much of the day. That is when they met Jordan the blacksmith and tanner who could show them how he makes real (blunt) swords for the Rennaissance Festival, including leather sheaths. He kindly gave demonstrations in his studio and then gave the children leather scraps to make their own sheaths.
This professional dialogue between two generations of artists only occurred because of our inching out into the outdoor studio. We have pretty scraps of fabric as tablecloths and our little community of artists sit and watch the play going on as they eat their lunches at their own leisure - our choice based approach includes not only art.
Today we dumped four bags of sand in a small trough. Our littlest children were thrilled to be playing with clean sand as they are more used to picking up great clumps of wet mud by the riverbank and forming it into balls to plop in the river or playing in the dusty dirt (next to the park’s clean, enclosed sand pit) that has sparkles of micah in it . We dream of our old gigantic sandpit and the complex waterways, dams and bridges we used to build, but back then we were probably fantasizing about funny field trips on a free city shuttle bus to a favorite spot by the creek. 
Maria & Alain Navaratne 
E11 Creative Workshop 
Manitou Springs, Colorado, USA
My featured post from the last Outdoor Play Party was from Adventure Togs on how to get even the most reluctant or real indoor children outdoors.
  • Any kind of children's outdoor play-related posts are welcome!
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Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Derby Road trip - Day 2, Little Explorers, Broomfield.

Over 2 days we (myself, Julia & Marian - 2 nursery school principals) visited 4 different settings - 3 nursery schools & one private day nursery. To say I took a lot of of photos at each place is an understatement, hence each place needs it's own post and because we spent a whole day at Alfreton, it gets 3 posts!
Marian, Kate, me & Julia.
Little Explorers is a 54 place private day nursery set in the grounds of Broomfield Hall, Derby College's argricultural campus. The nursery has use of the amazing grounds for the children who attend the nursery & Kate was good enough to spend an hour or so showing us around the site, we were also lucky enough to have a fabulous child guide, Oliver, who gave us an idea of how the various areas are used by the children.

I was amazed at the sheer area the nursery has access to, even the little shaded wooded area just outside the building was a great site to be able to use on a daily basis & from the various resources dotted around this space it was obviously in use by the children. Kate, aims to gradually phase out all the plastic resources that the nursery have accumulated but has found that when set out in this wooded area they seem less bright & obtrusive than when in the smaller playground space. I always worry when settings decide to go down one particular route & throw out perfectly good resources just because they don't 'fit' in with the latest philosophy, I would much rather they, like Little Explorers, found another purpose or place for them. At the moment natural resources are all very much the thing to have in every setting, and I agree they are much more aesthetically pleasing but not at the expense of throwing out perfectly good plastic resources that still serve a purpose.
It was brilliant to see a child made obstacle course set up amongst the trees using tree stumps, logs & plastic crates from a well known shop!
This are is just outside the more traditional playground.
The nursery uses 2 main sites for their forest school experiences & both were well used & established sites but felt very different, the first was more manufactured with willow dens & concrete seating areas whereas the other site was much more natural & organic. The willow den in the former was one of the biggest I have even seen & I could just imagine being in there on a wet day! The nursery is lucky to have lots of students on hand to make seats out of logs etc. & it means that as the seats break down, they are replaced regularly.

Oliver, our child guide, was delighted to have visitors to show off his 'forest' to & he enjoyed telling us what might happen at each area - this is where we make dens, climb trees, go over the logs etc. and most endearingly he kept asking us 'You do like this a lot don't you?' and of course we did, the sites were amazing.
My favourite area was the real foresty bit that the older children use on a daily basis, there was lots of evidence of play - wooden discs with clay & twigs that had been Gruffalo cake, lots of dens & sticks arranged in piles. It was refreshing to see nettles & holly & prickly bushes, as sometimes sites created for use by schools can be too sanitised. I feel it is much better that children learn all about these natural hazards first hand than being shocked when they do encounter them. In my experience a child stung by nettles cries a lot less than one who have fallen hard onto tarmac.
The children at Little Explorers had been having fun using an old hand drill that one of the staff had brought in from home the day before & you can read their post about this activity here.

We spent a lovely hour or so wondering around this incredible site, it was so relaxed & as Kate said, all the staff & children are much happier in this natural environment. I can see that Kate & her team have lots of ideas for making even more use of the fabulous space around them & I honestly would say that they have a unique selling point for their day nursery with all the access to woodland. If I had any advice for them it would be to actually make the break away from their more traditional indoor spaces & go down the outdoor kindergarten route.

Thanks again to Peter for setting up this opportunity & to Kate & Oliver for their time & enthusiasm.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Derby Road trip - day 1 - Alfreton N.S, outdoors.

This can be read alone or alongside this post on the amazing indoor learning environment at Alfreton N.S.
The wooden gates can be closed off.
If I had been impressed by the indoor space at Alfreton Nursery I think my jaw really did hit the floor when I stepped outside! This incredible school has one of the best outdoor spaces I have ever seen, it is broken into so many different little areas, a child must feel as if they are at an adventure park. Once again, they cleverly use items to close off areas between use e.g. a wooden planter closed off the slide area when not in use.
In the outdoor space they have numerous shelters dotted around the place, some planted like willow dens or others are wooden, some were even movable willow arches. I always like to try & create quiet areas within the larger, noisy outdoor space & this is exactly what they have done so successfully at Alfreton. There were so many opportunities for children to be in smaller groups amongst the larger group - at most times there are up to 52 children in the school at one time & yet it never felt that way. I saw little groups of children playing with each other in the mud kitchen area, inside the grass tunnel, the willow dens & just sitting on the grass chatting with the adults.
They have a gorgeous sand pit/construction area just outside the main exit & we got to see in use throughout the day & how the adults set it up for play as well. It was great to see the 'H' crates in action in another school, as the green crates we have at Windmill have become known to the wider school audience. Once again the pile of crates was set up beautifully before each play session to entice the children to engage with the various items. 
Area just for bike play
There is a completely separate bike area so that this play does not dominate other areas of the playground. Again, the high staffing level allows them the luxury to have such diverse areas where one adult can be with the bike area whilst several others can be dotted around the rest of the outdoor area. They even have an outdoor Atelier space on the grass & with important developments planned for this area in the new school year, I can't wait to see what becomes of this space.
Large outdoor transient art.
Like some of the other schools we visited Alfreton has an outdoor sound system to allow the children to enjoy some dancing outdoors, even when this was on it didn't impinge on any of the other quieter areas. Throughout the day I saw children put on the music & perform to little groups, some used cheerleading pom poms, others had on super hero capes & others just enjoying playing with the music on in the background.

The best part of exploring this incredible space was that I got to see so many Cosy Direct products in action, it is hard to sometimes tell how useful something is going to be from looking at it in a catalogue, so this was even better than going to an exhibition. 
As you enjoy looking at all these photos, I want you to bear in mind that there are also not one but two Forest school sites within the school grounds!! Yes, that's right 2 Forest school sites, I feel that they deserve their own post!
Once again, Angela & her team has used every inch of space & are not precious about it looking pristine - it looks so lived in & well used. You can tell when people are serious about outdoor play when there are waterproofs & wellies for everyone, not just the children.
If you ever get the opportunity to visit this amazing school, grab it. I promise you will come away with loads of ideas of how to enhance your own outdoor space.

Thanks again to all the Alfreton Team for their patience at the many questions! And to Nicola for being our chauffeur & guide for the day.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Derby Road Trip - day 1 - Alfreton N.S, inside.

The background to my road trip to Derby to visit nursery schools & preschool settings began when connections were made through social media between Peter from the amazing Cosy Direct & myself. In September he paid a visit to N.Ireland & I agreed to show him around my school & 2 others. He was travelling with Angela, the Head of Alfreton N.S & Gill, the Chair of their Board of Governors (Peter is the vice-chair). So myself & the 2 principals of the other nurseries they visited began to plot our return visit to Derby!! The fact that we finish school at the end of June was an advantage as we could plan a trip in our own time & yet see the nurseries in action. Angela was good enough to agree to host us for a full day & Peter said he would sort out other settings for us to see on the 2nd day.

This was my first time visiting settings within the UK outside of N.Ireland, I have lots of experience visiting European settings but none in England, I'm not sure I was prepared for how different they would feel. 
Alfreton is a stand alone nursery school with 110 children attending on a part time basis, some of the children may do some full days, others just the morning or afternoon. They operate an open plan day (or continuous provision) so the whole building is used & the children are free to move from indoors to outdoors throughout their time at school. By having it open plan, the whole area can be used rather than having 2 distinct classrooms with each having a house corner, water tray or sand tray etc. as is more common in most N.Ireland settings (though both the Principals travelling with me operate an open plan system in their schools). In this nursery Angela, the Head Teacher is not teaching full-time so there are 2 other teachers & numerous assistants. The level of staffing is very high & this allowed for a very calm & relaxed feel to the whole setting. Most of the nursery schools we visited had officer managers too - most unsual from our point of view. 
From the moment we walked in the door the welcoming atmosphere was so apparent, everyone was so calm & friendly & even as children were being dropped off it was a very relaxed, laid back affair. The school was laid out in very distinct areas - a construction/block area, baking area (on Thursdays) science area, number tent, floor play for trains, mark making area, role play/imaginative areas, music corner, reading area & an atelier area with water play & art. At any time any of these areas could be closed off by simply placing a clothes drier across the entrance. 
A simple cloth barrier allows areas to be closed off during the day.
The space was also divided into numeracy areas & literacy areas - so the construction, science, baking & number tent were on one side of the school with the role play, mark making & imaginative areas on the literacy side.
Baking & numbers on the numeracy side of the school.
Mark making & painting in the Atelier area.
The building I am in is only 8 years old & everything still feels very new so I always love visiting more established settings, they always have the best resources built up over time. Staff were designated to certain areas each day to allow for there to always be enough staff between all the different areas indoor & out. Angela & her team have made the most of every nook & cranny in this building & have made 3 very distinct story rooms/areas for the 3 groups they have broken the children into. I think many primary school colleagues could learn alot from this nursery school on differentiation & how to manage diverse groups of children with varying learning styles. The nursery also felt more like a classroom than my setting in alot of ways because of all the print & numbers around the rooms - I felt that our Primary 1 or 2 class could operate very easily in a space like this & that this was a prime example of learning through play operating at the highest level.
Respect is a big theme in this school & it really does show right across the school, from the way the children speak to each to other and the adults and vice versa. This is a team that works well together, making it look effortless & Angela in particular, moves about the space in such a serene manner, nothing looks like it is too much trouble yet, I know that she must work very hard to have got the school to this amazing level of learning.
This nursery is a Rights Respecting School & respect is a key theme throughout the school.
Lots of natural storage was in evidence.
The snack area is in a little covered courtyard space.

Home Corner 
Evidence of learning is everywhere.
The Atelier Space is an inspiring area - who wouldn't want to be creative in an area like this.
We were very lucky to spend all day in this amazing school & their outdoor space deserves a post all of it's own - it is that good!
I only hope that when visitors come to my setting they are made half as welcome as we were & that they find a 10th of the inspiration I got from this amazing school.

A massive thanks to Angela & her team at Alfreton for making us so welcome & to the many children who allowed me to join them in their play that day. Most of all thanks to Peter for reaching out to me & making this connection - a life long one I hope.

Maths - Icelandic Style!

Thanks to Unnur Henrysdóttir , my colleague from our partner school, Leikskólinn Stekkjarás in Iceland for this lovely post on how to take learning outdoors & make subjects concrete for even the youngest of children. 
Making a number line.
We had fun playing with numbers one rainy morning, the task was to find numbers from 1 to a 100 and put them in a straight line. It can be tricky to know if the number is 6 or a 9, does the round bit stay down or up. Does 3 come before 1 when you write 13? These were all questions that came up. One of the children was quick to come up with the explanation that 1 is on the left and 3 is on the right. 
Finding the right number in such a large pile can be tricky!
Looking for number 77.
After we had our lunch it was time to head in to the woods, for some of them it would be there last trip since they are going to big school in few weeks time and we are all going on school holidays. Since we had been working on numbers it seemed a good idea to take that idea a bit further and work on some numbers there as well. We brought with us a tape measure and I asked the children what we could measure? The answer came quickly, "we can find out how long the worms are!" Of course, it was raining so plenty of them were around. The longest worm turned out to be eight and a half centimetres or 8.5 which was kind of a strange number.  
Worm measuring!
We carried on trying to find something else to measure and next thing we found was different sticks that we had been using to dig in the mud finding worms. How long were our sticks and who had the longest one? 
Since it was both wet and windy and some were a bit cold we needed to keep moving, so for the next task they could choose between jumping in a puddle, trying to empty it and of course count how many jumps were needed to empty it or see how far they could jump with one attempt. 

Numbers did go anywhere between 30 and a 100 but all were happy wittheir number and made sure to shout it out loud.  This was certainly a good day, one I hope the children will remember and it showed them how maths can be fun.