Thursday, 24 April 2014

What really matters?


Over in England at the moment there is a lot of talk about the early years & what is appropriate for two years - there seems to be a school of thought that they need to be in a school setting & learning to read & write as soon as possible. There is much talk about school readiness & how the young children coming into schools are not 'ready to learn'.
From across the Irish Sea, it is easy to feel sorry for my colleagues in England as they are facing turbulent & often downright hostile times. However those who I interact with on a regular basis on Twitter are remaining upbeat & determined to offer the best learning opportunities for their young charges, so I am hopeful that common sense will prevail.

I have now been a nursery teacher for 14 years, so I am confident enough to stand up for what I believe in & am not afraid to explain to prospective parents that I am a firm believer in learning through play. I make it very clear that the children in my class will not be learning their numbers or letters in any formal teaching sense & we will not be using topics to teach colours or shapes ad nauseam. I see the role of the preschool teacher as making sure the young children who are starting out on their long school journey have as much fun as possible in the year they spend in nursery, doing lots of things for the first time in their lives that will make them even more curious & excited to learn more.

I make no apologies that I do want the children to have fun, that's what preschool should be about - a child who has fun is a child who wants to learn more & will be excited about going to school. Fun & learning are not incompatible. 
I have attended 4 Teachmeets in the past 2 years - these are amazing evenings organised by fellow teachers where we share ideas & good, innovative practice with each other - and the biggest factor that all those sharing have in common is a fun element. Whether it's a preschool, primary or secondary teacher, they have all been enthusiastic about their subject & prepared to ensure that their lessons are memorable. If you think back to your own school days, I bet your favourite teachers were the ones who made lessons exciting, a little bit different & certainly not boring. I know I chose my A level subjects based as much upon the teachers as the subject. That is a big responsibility for a teacher - you could be the reason a child either embraces or rejects a subject!
Confident self-portraits from young artists. Often just a few years later, they will say 'I can't draw'.
I am a firm believer in self-esteem having a major impact on anyone's learning journey, if you have the belief that you can do something or that if things go wrong, it's not always your fault then you will have a much more positive journey throughout not just school but life.
It is important to not always think it is personal & about you when the phrase 'you' is used, most times it is you plural not just about you!

A good friend of mine & I had a discussion about self-esteem & her lack of it, I put forward my theory that having no sisters had spared me that constant honesty & the chipping away of self-esteem that can happen within families! 
Honestly if a parent doesn't believe that their child is the best thing since sliced bread, who is is going to ever going to have that much belief in them?
I love it when I tell a parent how their child is a fab little person & they say 'I know'. I know then that is why their child is such a happy, bouncy little person, ready to take on the world & all that it throws at them in their stride. 

I want the children in my class to leave after a year with a 'can do' attitude & a belief that even when things go wrong it's not always because of something they did. I want for them to brush themselves off when things go wrong, hold their heads up & move on, putting it all down to experience & learning from it.
I also firmly believe that all the outdoor experiences offered at my school can but only help to build up this resilience & self-esteem. It is good to experience failure & learn that it is possible to keep trying & learn from mistakes. Failure is not a bad thing, it is a fact of life & it can only make us a stronger person in the long run. However the constant obsession with testing children & making them feel like failures from an early age is not how to build self-esteem & resilience. We all need to start celebrating what the youngest children in the education system can do instead of concentrating on what they can't do. Why don't we celebrate that a 4 year old has parted easily from their parent & come into the classroom & mixed with their peers instead of immediately seeing how many words they can identify or if they recognise numbers or shapes? 
I firmly believe that we need to take a long hard look at our current system & try to make it a much better 'fit' and experience for the young children entering into a long & often unfriendly system.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Easter Traditions - indoors & out!

When I came to teach in my current school I inherited an annual Easter Egg Hunt fund raising event from my predecessor. For a few years we used any funds raised within the nursery class but when we moved to our new building with brilliant new resources, we decided to make it an event for fund raising for charity. For the past few years our chosen charity has been Marie Curie Cancer Care and we have also had an outdoor egg hunt too. It has usually been in Peatlands Park but this year we decided to have it in Bear Woods.

When the children arrived at the gate to Bear Woods they noticed a letter hanging on the gate, it was addressed to 'Windmill Nursery' and much to their excitement it was a letter from the Easter bunny to say they had left 10 clues within Bear Woods for the children to find & then they would find some 'treasure'. 

The way we organise the hunt, is that I chose a spot to sit in & the children head off throughout the space to search for 10 paper eggs. Some were hidden beside logs or stumps, in a passel of Bottle Babies or in the long grass at the bottom of the trees. One of the adults always has 2-3 eggs in their pocket so if they see a child becoming very distressed about not finding one, they can drop one nearby for them to find. As they find the eggs they bring back to me & we count them until we have 9. Then I let them run about for one more look to see if they can find the last egg before I announce that I will get up & help them look for it - of course when I get up & turn round the last egg is found to have been stuck to me all along!!


Once all 10 eggs have been found there is usually a map to show them where the treasure is but time the bunny had written on the last egg that the treasure was hidden at the bottom of my rucksack. 
Each child got a chocolate chick to enjoy with their snack up in Bear Woods before they rolled their painted boiled eggs down the hill. 

Then the next day we had an indoor hunt, this time all the chocolate eggs are hidden around the classroom for the children to find & once again bring back to a central point & put into special Easter egg baskets. Every child had decorated a pot for the eggs to go into & they all got the same amount of chocolate eggs to take home.

Best of all we raised £156 for Marie Curie Cancer Care.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Outdoor Play Party - Visit to An Creagán.

I have been taking my class to the 'Wild Woods' area in An Creagán for the past 4 years. It is one of the few remaining sites for schools that still retains an education officer, Peter & we have known him for over 6 years as he used to be based in Peatlands Park too & he helped to build our willow dens back at school & establish our wooded area & made our sign for Bear Woods.
In the past few months he has been adding new things to the Wild Woods area & we couldn't wait to go explore them with a whole new class.
For the past 2 weeks we had been taking about going to An Creagán & looking at a map of the Wild Woods area. The children were aware that there were 3 ponds, a fire circle where we could eat our lunch, a tree house & a bridge over one the ponds. 
It takes us about 45 minutes to get there & the children were brilliant on the bus, just chatting away to each other for what must have seemed like a very long journey. 
When we arrived Peter met us of the bus & he children were excited to see another larger map of the area & some quickly identified the ponds & were able to figure out where the Wild Woods were. Even though it was their first time, they felt confident enough to run on a little ahead, until they came to the gate, they all know only a grown up opens the gate.
As it was our first time we all made our way to the fire circle - a gorgeous, newly built stone one - and had a chat about what we were going to do that morning. 

Each child had their lunch in a little back pack that we were able to leave at the fire circle while we went off on a walk around the area so they could see all that was on offer. For some of the staff we hadn't been here since last June so it was great to see all the new additions. 
The tree house is great - a 2 tired platform built around a big tree - the children loved looking out through the little port holes on the top deck & down into the ponds. There are now little platforms built at the top of many of the steep banks so when the children (or adults) climb to the top they can have a rest & look down to the whole area below. There is a big wide bridge built over one of the 4 ponds - not 3 like on the map the children were delighted to discover. Peter & the staff have worked really hard to make sure there is something on offer for everyone & for a good age range of children too.

Some of the children spent a lot of time pond dipping & then looking at what they had found in some white trays. One little boy was so excited to catch a frog in his net & they managed to catch 2 newts & loads of frogspawn & tadpoles.
Petting a frog - what an experience.
Holding a tickly newt!

We all felt that our weekly visits to Bear Woods meant that the children were entirely comfortable in this new & challenging space - they are used to walking on a slope in there & climbing up the small slope using climbing ropes so when presented with much steeper banks they just got on with it.

We had our lunch around a very smokey fire & then toasted some marshmallows before the children all got their rain gear off & had a play in the play park. Then we had to head back to school where we had just enough time to get shoes back on before it was time to go home.
The children were buzzing about the Wild Woods & can't wait to go back again next month.

It was so great to see so many fab posts linked up to the last OPP & it is heartening to see people really getting creative with their outdoor spaces & trying to ensure they get outdoors as much as possible. But if I have to pick one to feature it's from the always amazing Takoma Park Cooperative Nursery School on their trips to the forest - Turn Left at the Bike Bridge.
This one probably appealed most to me, as a fellow nursery teacher, because it beautifully & eloquently explained why we make an effort to take the young children in our classes out on trips & visits & how all that they learn on such trips will help them later on with more academic skills.
  • Any kind of children's outdoor play-related posts are welcome!



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Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Finger Painting - Crossing the midline.


At the age of 3 & 4 many children still have problems with crossing the midline, some will swap hands when painting rather than be able to cross a page using the same hand. Here is a really good article on the subject http://www.kids-first.com.au/crossing-the-midline-helps-kids-learn/

As usual we always try to make any activities that may be targeting a specific area, as fun as possible & finger painting is a great way to allow children to use both hands simultaneously & practice crossing the midline with ease.

It is a messy activity & sometimes we use ordinary paint with washing up liquid but this time I had proper finger paints, this month we are looking at the colour purple, so red & blue paint were used so the children could mix them together to get a sort of purple - it was more like maroon. The children declared it slimy, sticky, smooth, cold, like jelly & lovely!

If they wanted each child could 'capture' a print they had made in the paint & only 2 said they didn't want to do this.

I always love how some children who aren't as confident using markers or pages will create really amazing images using the paint or on whiteboards. I think they like the fact they can wipe the image away if they don't like it.



Sunday, 6 April 2014

The Nursery Journey.

As a nursery teacher the hardest months of my job are probably September & October & luckily I tend to forget how hard this period is & am always shocked for those 2 months by hard it all is! Only those who work with the youngest children in the education system can understand how difficult it is settling children into school for the first time - and in our system all 26 start at the same time - because the routine stays the same we as adults can tend to forget how much the children have to grasp in their first few weeks at nursery.
But once the first 2 weeks are over, it becomes a little easier as the routine becomes clearer to the children & they don't need to be shown how everything works e.g. in our class every child has a symbol (this symbol is used to show them which coat hook is theirs, which drawer is for their art work, where their name is for self labeling artwork) & this symbol is also a 'ticket' that is used to show who has had snack & who hasn't. They have to learn to collect this ticket after washing their hands & post it in a box on the snack table. They also have to remember to put their name on all their paintings etc. & we do spend the first few weeks constantly reminding children of these simple tasks, then suddenly after a couple of weeks we usually find it becomes second nature & they only need a gentle reminder ever so often. 

We also spend the first few weeks demonstrating how to use the various egg timers to make sure turn taking is fair - and again after a month or so, we don't even need to suggest getting a timer to settle a dispute over a toy or bike, the children will go & get a timer themselves & moderate its use. 

So suddenly after around 6 -8 weeks of constantly repeating how things work, it seems to all click - I think if the adults were recorded in this time you would hear lots of the following phrases: did you have that first, do you want a turn with that, did you tip that puzzle out, have you put your name on your painting, have to washed your hands, have you got your ticket, do you think you can knock down things you haven't built etc. etc.
But after this period of settling in and I firmly believe that the first term in all about settling in, we begin to see everything settle down and we can really start our learning journey together. After the break at Hallowe'en there is a real shift in the class as the adults & children begin to really get to know each other, trust each other & the longer day begins for everyone.
We use Board Maker to help show the routine for each day for the whole class.
At this stage it all seems to fall into place and the routine begins to take shape, a basic day runs the same way as much as possible so the children are confident about how the day flows and comfortable about what happens next. I attended a conference a few years back at which the keynote speaker talked about how the whole of the first term should be about settling in & allowing children time to pick up the routines & to learn how to tidy-up. I came back to school & we revamped our whole way of tidying-up - we have the children split into 3 groups of 9 & they tidy-up in these small groups with an adult actually showing them how to put things back properly rather than all 27 trying to clean up at the same time. By the time it comes to 3rd term the children are old hands at keeping the classroom tidy & putting resources back where they belong.

3rd term is the easiest term in classroom management terms but it is also a bit sad as you know the children are getting ready to move on to the next stage in their educational journey. But it is essentially the term that we as adults can sit back a lot more & watch as the children move around the playground or classroom with very little need for adult input to clear up disputes etc. It is also the time when the adults can spend a little more time with small groups of children without having to worry about what the other children are getting up to!

Sometimes it takes an outsider or substitute teacher coming in to make us realise just how smoothly the day runs when the children are in a good routine & most times a sub will leave a not to say - 'Your hard work really shows in the way the children are in such a good routine' - it's nice to hear this as sometimes when you are in the moment you don't actually realise that what you do is as a result of hard work.
Teachers normally only get feedback when they have done something wrong or that needs improvement so it is lovely to hear positive feedback like this I received from a lovely sub teacher who covered for me back in October when I went to Iceland, so this was early days when the children were actually only together as a class of 27 one week. 

"At the start I kept asking "Are they allowed to do that?". By today I was in total awe of all that you and your wonderful  staff have achieved.
 
Your have created a child centred environment with lots of natural stimuli.  I don't wish to patronise you but you should be very proud of the work that you and your staff do and the very positive impact you have on these children's lives."






Thursday, 3 April 2014

A week of outdoor fun.

This week we started it off with a visit to Bear Woods because we were hosting 11 children from our partner school on our usual day for going up there. It was a lovely morning & on days like that I can't believe I actually get paid to do this job!

The mud kitchen is proving a big hit with the children, they are enjoying making a variety of concoctions in there from pies, to drinks to ice-cream etc. 

We were fortunate enough to get a bread crate dolly from Cosy Direct & the children have been having fun riding about in it - it weaves all over the place & bumps off the tyres like a bumper car! They have also enjoyed moving the bottle babies around the playground in it.

After cooking in the mud kitchen some children have transferred this over into the sand pit & made cup cakes using old plant pots.

Friday is our outdoor day when we try to cook something different on the fire each week, this week the children have voted for toast!

Sunday, 30 March 2014

The Planted Adult.

"The more we listen, the more children will talk"
I attended the annual FONT (Forum of Nursery Teachers) conference in Belfast at the weekend & the keynote speaker was Michael Jones from www.talk4meaning.co.uk. Michael is a speech therapist who then retrained as a teacher & has done lots of work in preschools in the UK. 
His theme for the conference talk was 'Encouraging language in the busy classroom', an extremely useful topic for nursery teachers in N. Ireland where the staff child ratio is 1:13. Michael had lots of great practical tips for encouraging all children to contribute to a conversation at some point in the busy day and it was heartening to realise that we are already doing a lot to facilitate those who are quieter or have language delays in our classroom.
I was particularly struck by his use of the term 'The Planted Adult' - by this he talked about a 'spare' adult who could afford to place themselves at an activity with no chosen aim but to encourage the children to interact & perhaps chat if they wanted to. In an average nursery class with 26 children & 2 adults this would be a complete luxury but as Michael pointed out it doesn't have to happen every day & it can be a student or parent. I remember doing an assignment many years ago as part of my DASE on encouraging oral language in the classroom & the conclusion I came to then, was that it was more likely for a nursery assistant to be able to give the children undivided attention than a teacher who is always on alert & keeping an eye on the whole classroom.

This year in my class we have 27 children and 4 adults as there are a high number of children with statements of special educational needs, this means that there are times when we can have a planted adult, more so than normal. This year at lunch time we have enough adults for each table & I do notice that the quieter children who never chose to talk in the busy classroom will be most talkative over lunch when they know they have the undivided attention of the adult at the lunch table. This 30 minute period when all the children are seated eating lunch & chatting around the table is a perfect chance for each of the adults to sit without any pressure to being doing something else.

Michael mentioned that the book corner is a perfect place for conversations to be struck up & the quieter children to contribute but again, in a busy classroom it is a rare occasion that one of the adults can just afford to sit reading stories without getting distracted by what is going on in the rest of the room. However, I think that ironically good communication among staff is the key for good communication among the children. If the other staff know that today X is going to be in the book corner for 30 minutes then they know that will have to be the ones to answer the phone or doorbell or deal with any other issues or disputes that occur around the room.

As Michael also pointed out, it is sometimes much easier to be a planted adult outdoors than indoors. If your outdoor play space is properly set up the children should be much more autonomous than they can be outside - they need less adult interaction & therefore one of the adults can afford to just be 'in the moment' with a group of children. I see this happening on a regular basis when we are in Bear Woods or on a visit to the forest. It is much more likely to see an adult sitting with a group of children on the grass just being together & chatting outside than inside where there are too many distractions e.g. did that child put a label on their painting, have they got an apron, has someone spilled water on the floor etc.

Next week I plan to go in to school & on our planning day have a good chat with the assistants about freeing one of us every few days to be a planted adult to allow those quieter less confident children the chance to strike up a conversation with that adult or their peers. 

One thing I heard at the conference that will stick with me is that it is the role of a nursery teacher to help children be part of a larger group & to learn how to interact with their peers.
I have always believed that it is the Personal, Social and Emotional Development area that is one of the most important in nursery & that this in turn will help Language Development & it was great to hear someone else with years of experience reinforce this belief. Getting along with others & learning how to actually converse with peers are life skills & way more important than anything else a child may pick up in their nursery year.