Saturday, 4 November 2017

Different types of outdoor play.

"I have pink hoop & a pink Bottle Baby"
We had a very short week at school this week as the children came back on a Thursday after almost a full week off for Hallowe'en. As a preschool teacher I'm not a fan of being off that long so early in the school year as it usually means we have a few children unsettled for a week or so after being off again, so soon after having just settled into school. However, it's something we just have to deal with each year and we always hope that the majority of the children are glad to come back and see their new friends and enjoy exploring new resources and activities in the playground and classroom. 
The weather helped us this week as it was dry and cold - my favourite type of weather, if I am being totally honest. I love it when the playground is dry and the children can sit about on the ground without getting dirty and wet and it so lovely to be able to enjoy all resources without them being covered in dirt - let's be honest in our damp Irish climate most of the time everything is coated in a layer of damp dirt!
It is always interesting to watch as the children become more confident in the outdoor space and begin to explore more of the resources - it can take weeks for each new class to begin to interact with some of the permanent fixtures and some years they can be ignored altogether unless an adult deliberately creates an invitation to play. 
The box pallet is perfect for perfecting climbing before moving onto the pallet den.
This week it was as if it was the first time some of the children noticed that the pallet house was perfect for climbing on - up until now they have filled it with bread crates and used it as giant communal 'trampoline'. We have a box type pallet in the 'forest area' within the playground that they climb in and out of all the time but up until this week no one had attempted to climb on the one at the back of the playground. 
The feeling of satisfaction that each child felt upon their ascent to the top to sit with their friends looking over the playground was a sight to behold. 

Our playground allows for all types of play, those who want to run about or climb and take part in more robust play can do so but equally there are quiet spaces of those who want to time to sit and read or just 'be'. 
A reading area has been created under the slide with some crates and 'wrap arounds' from Mindstretchers. 
I moved the large Lego bricks out into the playground this week and the children took full advantage of the large area to spread out and make bigger structures. 
Just by moving the Lego & turning the crates over a whole new play scenario was created. 
I find that if resources stay in the same place the children begin to ignore them after a while - it is almost as if they become part of the landscape and are not really seen anymore. So every so often, we'll move the bricks or crates or logs and see what the children will make of them in their new space. And I suppose that's why so many people are now wary of too much fixed equipment in playgrounds.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Risk or opportunity?

Stumps - provide so many different learning opportunities, they are not just for climbing or sitting on!

This past month we have had 3 teachers working in the nursery & Primary 1 from Madrid, they were over as part of an Erasmus Plus Job Shadowing opportunity & spent the 4 weeks observing practice in both classes and gathering information on how to create a more inclusive ethos in their school. 
Marta, Rosa and Maria from Madrid. 
The Principal was one of the 3 visitors and on her first day in nursery was a bit worried about being back in the classroom after 9 years out in a management role but she very quickly was able to get back into a more hands on mode. She was a very warm person and the children were drawn to her to read them books etc. 
I had sent them an email to warn them that they'd be spending the first hour outside when in the nursery and at first they thought I was joking but when they realised I was serious they all came well prepared to be outdoors no matter what the weather. 
On the first day in the nursery there were lots of questions being asked mostly about the weather - I don't think anyone had prepared the poor Spanish for our grey skies and lack of sunshine! They couldn't get over the fact that the children were all happy to be outdoors even on a cold & damp morning, they wanted to know why the parents weren't complaining about their children being outside, they asked would we go outside in heavy rain or snow? I remember asking similar questions when I visited a kindergarten in Norway. They were also quite taken aback at some of our resources - weren't the tree stumps too dangerous? What if the children fell while climbing on them? Didn't they get slippy in the damp weather? 

At first I could see that the Principal was a little stressed as she watched children climbing on the planks, logs and stumps and she rushed to help children who fell or slipped but gradually as she spent more time watching them and us & how we reacted to falls etc. she began to relax. 
After a couple of days, we had a conversation about what she had observed so far and it was wonderful to see how much she had taken on board in such a short time. It reminded me that sometimes we do need to see things first hand for us to really 'get it'. She explained how she had realised that while the children might stumble or fall on the slippy logs, they all got up and went back to keep on trying, she had watched them practising again and again until they knew which ones were wobblier or slippier than the others and how some would jump down and skip over those ones whilst others would just take it more slowly. Most of all it was our reactions that she had picked up on - we didn't rush over making a big fuss is a child fell, instead all adults stayed very calm and as a result, unless badly hurt, most children were happy to get some sympathy and just keep on climbing. Even if a child who was crying and upset they liked that we had a designated seat for the injured child to rest on while 'Mr Bump' was applied & then they would just get up and continue to play. 

A few days ago, this article about risk in outdoor settings was shared on social media and it made me think about how we, as adults, can worry too much about the whole 'what might happen if..' scenarios when we think about young children taking risks. We have lots of life experience and obviously a lot more than the children in our care but we also have to stop ourselves from always thinking of the worst case scenario. In my experience a child who falls off a log when climbing will rarely be off climbing ever again, yes they might get a scrape or bruise but they also know that it won't happen every time they climb. As someone once pointed out, if a baby gave up trying to walk every time they fell, none of us would ever have learned how to walk. 

After 4 weeks in the nursery, the visiting teachers could see that the children were very happy outdoors, they were busy and purposeful in their play. The principal could see that there were less arguments outdoors and most of all she kept saying 'Your children are all so happy, there is no crying' and she could see that they were ready for more settled play when we moved indoors too. Sometimes it is good to have another person question your practice and make you explain why you do things a certain way or have particular resources, it is always good to reflect on your practice. 
Here is a another good article on the importance of daily outdoor play opportunities:

Friday, 27 October 2017

It is ok to be alone!

I prefer a child who knows their own mind and doesn't others to enjoy playing somewhere. 

"No one will play with me"
"X won't play with me"
"Y keeps following me"
"I have no one to play with"
"I want to sit beside X"
"I don't want to sit beside X"
"X isn't my friend anymore"

Anyone who works with preschool children will have heard these phrases and many other variations throughout the school day. The children in nursery are aged between 3 and 2 months and 4 and 2 months when they start school in our system in N. Ireland and sometimes we, the adults, forget that is a very short time to have been on this planet and that there are so many new emotions and experiences to be had once they are in a much bigger group of peers. many of the children in my class come into nursery straight from being at home with a parent/grandparent or carer, some will have siblings, some won't and others will have been with other children in daycare or with a child minder but I can guarantee none of them have been in a group with 26 other peers and just 2 adults for the majority of their day.

We begin our day outdoors and more often than not the children run out into the playground and begin playing immediately - they are excited to return to play with resources they had enjoyed the day before or to explore new ones for the first time. Sometimes parents will stay and watch to see how their child is settling in to the class and it is usual to have a parent ask 'Do they not play with the other children?' when they see their child head over to an activity where there are no other peers whilst ignoring another one that may have a crowd of children at it. They might also ask 'Do they have a friend yet?' or "Who do they play with?'. When a parent asks the former question I always ask them to actually observe the group of children for a short while and they we talk about how most if not all of that group are playing alongside each other rather than together. I try to explain about the different stages of play that young children move through as described by Mildred Parten in the 1920's. (There is a good article describing them on this site - 
I feel that anyone can enjoy these stages of play at different times of the day and not just as a set stage they move through as they get older and solitary play has its place in life even as children become older. 

We usually hold parent/teacher meetings in late October/early November and I always stress how important it is when a child is happy in their own company and knows what they want rather than having to rely on others before they choose to play somewhere. It is a truly great quality to have already realised at the age of 3 or 4 that you are responsible for your own happiness and contentment rather than waiting for others to fulfil it.
Sometimes it's good to be alone in your own thoughts when you are surrounded by a large group of peers. 
In fact it can be more of an issue if young children make very firm friendships that exclude others or totally rely on each other and are lost if their friend is off sick or doesn't want to do exactly the same thing as them. So often that "X isn't my friend anymore' refrain actually means that X wants to play in the sand but Y doesn't. Or another child has managed to break into the previous solid twosome. 
When a sympathetic adult teases through some of those familiar refrains, it is more likely that the child claiming no-one will play with them, hasn't yet acquired the skills to know that you have to ask people to play with you or have the skill to know how to join in an already established game. Parents might watch a group of children all running around 'playing together' and wonder why their child is over playing on their own but in fact if asked none of those running around could tell you what they are playing, they are just caught up in the game of chase!

Some children will make firm friendships very early on in nursery and it might well continue as the children progress up through the school whilst others will peter out as the children get older. In fact it is more common for young children to have very fluid 'friendships' as they test out most of their newly developed social skills. 
Here is another helpful article on the minefield of friendships with young children:

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Seeing the world from another point of view.

A whole new class of children has begun to settle into the nursery, this year we have 27 three and four year olds and most of them have settled into nursery without too many problems. So far they have only been attending nursery for 2 hours in 2 smaller groups of 13 and 14 but on Friday they all joined up together as one big class and next week they will stay for 3 hours before going to the full time of 4 hours and 45 minutes the following week. 

It is amazing how many new skills they have already mastered and how easily they accept the routine of nursery, so on Friday when they were in a much larger group most took to it  easily. It was interesting to watch them initially playing with the peers they have already met over the past 3 weeks but gradually over the morning they began to mix more and by 11.00 it was hard to imagine they hadn't all been together all along. 

A big rite of passage in the class is when some children discover they can stand up on the outdoor seat to see over the fence into the wider world that lies beyond the nursery playground. For some it is a matter of being able to see the 'big school' where they have siblings attending, others might spot 'God's House' as there are several churches visible in the nearby town, others will recognise the sports pitches above the school where older siblings go to play in a local football team.

However, for me the biggest new view point for any nursery child is that of a peer, for some it is first time they have come into contact with someone their own age who has just as many opinions and demands as them. In first term, we hear lots of 'But I want it' as the children grapple with the whole concept of turn taking. And it can take some a long time to realise that another child has feelings just a big as them. For me, this is what nursery is all about - developing empathy for others and self esteem for yourself. Some children come into the setting with lots of empathy already whilst others have varying degrees of it or none at all. 

On Friday when they were all one big class, one child who is struggling with separation from his parent was crying and it was interesting to see the others reactions, some were close to crying themselves, some were annoyed by the noise and had no sympathy at all for the child whilst one or two rallied round him and tried to offer comfort - either by physically patting him while he was trying to make sense of the big feelings he was experiencing or by telling him how they missed their parent too. I was particularly impressed by one child, who speaks the same home language as the poor upset child, it was the first time they were meeting and yet this child took time to come over and offer a comforting presence to the upset child. He told me how he was going to be his friend and helped me find things that might help him settle. When it was time for his parent to come back, she was so happy to hear that her child had had another to help him deal with his big emotions. 

I look forward to another year of adventures with the class and hope to share some of them with you all through this blog. 

Here is an article I came across about how to help a young child develop empathy:

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Dice - what a great addition!

The thing I love the most about my job is that you just never know what a day will bring bring, preschoolers are rarely predictable in their behaviour and the same goes for the way they look at the world or use resources.
I had always admired the wonderful collection of dice that I saw in use over on Takoma Park Cooperative Nursery School's Facebook page but had never got around to getting enough for us to use. So this year when we had our Easter Egg  Hunt fundraiser I decided to use some of the funds to buy lots and lots of dice. I ordered coloured ones and then as a after through added an order for a job lot of red ones too. When they arrived I was delighted to discover that the red dice were much bigger than I had expected and they have proved such a great combination with so many different resources, in just a week the children have had fun adding them to the Polydron and then over the past two days they have proved a real asset with the Tree Blocks. 
The little dice and the Polydron
I watched as 4 children spent over an hour building houses using the dice and blocks and adding to them as they went along. 
One group built their house and then added some small green dice to the roof - "It' a caterpillar" they told me.
Can you see the green 'caterpillar' on the roof?
Another child added tables and chairs for his 'people' (the bigger red dice) and then used the smaller dice as their pizzas! (perhaps inspired by Dominos?!)
Another built a tower and enjoyed counting how many dice they could build up with until it would fall. 

My next plan is to add the dice and poker chips to the Polydron - I'll let you know how they get on!

(I purchased these dice from Hope Education)

Sunday, 23 April 2017

#ISV2017 "What Else Could we Do?" - Post No. 2

To read post no.1 about my study visit to Berlin follow this link:
3 young children who shared their stories with us - the boy in the red hat had been living in the centre for 2 years.
On our second day of the study visit, we had the opportunity to visit a refugee centre in Moabit. None of us had any idea what to expect when we saw that on the programme as we have no experience of such centres in our areas. This was an old school building that had become empty as a result of falling birth rates in Berlin. Now it housed 260 people. 
On our walk to the centre we passed a memorial to the local Jewish people who had been transported to concentration camps during the war, the fact of this being right beside the refugee centre made it very poignant.
Our purpose was to meet up with a young trainee teacher who was offering extra language classes to the children in the centre as an after school activity. 
The first thing that struck me as we entered the building was the fact that there were security guards positioned at the entrance, we had to sign in and the thought that someone living there has to do that every time the enter or leave struck me as feeling like a prison and definitely didn't feel like a homely environment right away.
The building looked, smelled and felt like a school, there were lots of people milling about, mostly men hanging about the entrance smoking, children sitting along the corridors playing on tablets or chatting to friends and women with small babies pacing the corridors. It was noisy.
The room where the student teacher was holding German lessons was a bright, colourful room with lots of evidence of play and children - there were games and toys on the shelves and larger pieces of play equipment around the walls. There were only 3 children in the room and they were all very different ages - ranging from 12 to 6. They were full of energy after a morning at school and wanted to be moving about the room. We watched as they played some games with the adult and then we chatted to them about their backgrounds etc. The student teacher explained that she never knew how many children would turn up for each session and as it is voluntary they could wander in and out during the time as well. They could also be at very different levels of German and some might only have just arrived a day or two earlier. The 3 children were keen to introduce themselves in German to us & tell us a little about themselves. Being children they automatically said things like "my name is ..... and I am .... years old' so when it came our turn, Ian went first and followed their lead with a "I'm Ian and I'm 33 years old", of course the rest of us had to follow suit or we'd have looked churlish!! We did tease him about that afterwards of course.
While we talked to the director the children built a castle.
We were delighted that the director was about to join us for a brief chat about the work going on in the refugee centre, he was an amazing person, very young and yet so passionate about his job and the plight of the refugees in Berlin. He was a social worker who had fallen into the role of director when the previous one left and after 2 years was burned out after working 24/7 in the centre but he wasn't leaving to do something easier, as he had decided to move to a role in a local school working with refugee children in their aferschool programme.
He spoke with such passion about how it was so important to make sure anyone moving into Berlin was given every opportunity to integrate into society and allowed to contribute in a meaningful way to local life etc. He was frustrated by lots of the problems he had encountered during this time working in the centre and the many hoops people had to jump through to access the most basis of entitlements. 
The idea is that people spend up to 3 months in such centres before moving out into a more homelike setting but one of the boys we spoke to had been living there for 2 years. This child spoke of not getting to sleep until 3 a.m. because of the noise in the centre each night. 
As the director pointed out was it really fair to the children in the centre to be expected to attend extra language classes after a day at school when they should really be playing? He was also concerned that whilst at the centre children were catered for almost all day and therefore parents had no expectation to look after their own children and this became a problem when they moved out of the centres and most if not all of this support was withdrawn. He was very concerned that families were depending on young children to provide them with their future in Berlin - the pressure on the children was too much, they had to act as interpreters for their parents and were being robbed of their childhood.
The biggest issue in his eyes was the complete disempowerment of people while living in the centres - they had no cooking facilities so even this basic skill was taken from them.
We had an opportunity to see around the centre to have a look at the facilities on offer to the residents. 
No matter how hard anyone had tried, this was still an institutional building and could never be seen as a home in any way, shape or form. I began to feel very sad and emotional as we walked through the building and you realise that life has to be really terrible where you come from if this is seen as better option. The volunteers who work hard to help make centres a better place were incredible, we met people who ran the clothing bank where residents could come to pick out new clothing, they had it set up like a proper shop and I was struck by the dignity they were trying to give people back as they had to choose used clothing. 
The volunteers had worked hard to make the clothing bank feel like a proper shop. 
There was a canteen but it could only hold 30 people so most have to eat in their rooms, meals are provided and as you can imagine aren't of a great standard or even the type of food most of the residents are used to eating.
There were 3 toilets in the building, so you can imagine what they were like and 6 washing machines but no driers for the whole building. I could only imagine how damp the rooms must be as people try to dry their washing.
We were humbled to chat to a young man from Afghanistan who at 17 was living in the centre alone and seems so sad and lonely yet was adamant he didn't want to go back home. Sadly as Afghanistan is viewed as a 'safe' country he is most likely to be sent back soon.
We heard about retired doctors who were volunteering weekly to offer a drop in clinic for residents and how one resident a tailor from Syria was helping to teach sewing skills to others in the centre. 
We later learned that this activity had almost been withdrawn from the plan as there were issues with the director now being available to meet us and a worry that it would be 'too much' for us. However all of us agreed that this had been such a worthwhile part of the programme and that it really needed to be part of it and future study visits too - we could never have understood the barriers the children were facing without seeing where some of them are living. All I could think was, how is a child supposed to concentrate at school when they have been awake until 3.a.m? I was also very struck by how vulnerable the young children wandering around the corridors unaccompanied were, they were very trusting and willing to please adults. 
Once again, though we heard the phrase "what else could we do?" from the staff and volunteers who were doing their best to make an abnormal situation as normal as possible. 
A massive thanks to all who made us so welcome at the Moabit refugee centre and the British Council DE for organising the visit.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

#ISV2017 Berlin - "What else could we do?" - No.1

Me, Ian & Nigel - on a Bear Hunt!

This post is lengthy & could be even longer so I'm going to break down my experience into several posts - this is number 1.
In September I was given new role in school that of 'Newcomer Coordinator' - with this role comes the responsibility of ensuring all our newcomer pupils and their families are welcomed into our school and given all the information they need to take a full part in school life, keeping records of each child's entry to school, home language and place of birth. I also help all my other colleagues to keep up to date with any new initiatives or training that is available to help with the CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages) that must be maintained for each pupil who is registered as a newcomer.
It seems like fate when I then spotted a week long study visit for primary teachers through the British Council in Northern Ireland to Berlin with the theme of 'Inclusion of refugees and migrants in Berlin'. I asked for permission to apply and sent off my online application. I was delighted to hear in February that I had been offered a place and later that month I travelled to Belfast to meet up the others who would be going with me & some of the other teachers who had got places on 2 other study visits - one to Canada & the other to Hong Kong.
There were to be 5 of us but due to family bereavements it ended up with just 3 of us, Nigel, a Principal of another integrated primary school & Ian, a Primary 4 teacher and modern languages coordinator at his school.
At the briefing session in Belfast we were told a little more about the purpose of our study visit and what was expected of us - we were introduced to the 'Appreciative Inquiry' model, as we were to use this to reflect on our experiences. I have to say as a blogger I was immediately drawn to tie model and thought that it made such sense - it's all about trying to see the positive of any experience rather than focusing on the negatives. I am a firm believer in being critical without criticising and so this approach seems like a natural fit for me. 

On the 5th of March the 3 of us met up in Dublin airport to travel onto Berlin. We got the train into the centre of Berlin and found our hotel easily, it was so centrally located in Alexanderplatz that we were within walking distance of most sights and had a range of transport options on our doorstep too. The 3 of us found out we had similar outlooks and were ready to learn from our colleagues in Berlin as well as sharing some of our practices and experiences. 
The programme had been drawn up by Frauke in the Berlin British Council office and I have to say, it ran like clockwork the whole 5 days and each meeting we had built upon the information we had received at the one before so by the end of the week we felt we had a very comprehensive picture of how the education and social care systems had reacted to the huge influx of refugees into Berlin.
We met with representatives from the Berlin Education Senate & Inspectorate and heard how they had worked closely with housing, police & town planning to figure out where best to place refugees - it seems like a lot of joined up thinking & something that seems quite alien to us in N.I where we tend to react to situations rather than plan ahead.
We met with social workers and psychologists who worked closely with the schools to help place children in schools as soon as possible - the key seems to be to ensure all children have access to education quickly so they could become active members of society. 
We visited schools throughout the week to meet with those who teach in the 'Welcome Classes' - in Berlin when a child arrives into school with no German, they are placed in a 'Welcome Class', a small class of up to 13 children of mixed aged groups, with the aim of getting their spoken & written German up to a level where they can then move out into a mainstream class. 
I had seen similar system in Florø, Norway in 2006 & had been impressed with this idea, our then principal had mooted this idea when we got back home but our education authority had seen it as segregation and discouraged it. So I was very keen to see if it was working 11 years later in another country and with such a huge influx of children with no German in the schools. Interestingly, Berlin has always had this system, it is not a reaction to the recent refugees but the number of the classes is now on much bigger scale. (**Welcome Classes increased from 639 in Dec 2015 to 1,053 in March 2017 with over 12,000 children in these classes)
The amazing Joana from Anna-Lindh Schule, who spent well over 2 hours answering our questions and inspiring us with her passion for the children she teaches.
The teachers in each of these classes were amongst the most passionate individuals I have ever met, they were determined to give all the children in their classes the best start possible and to help them become active members of society. For some this meant, taking the children out onto the public transport system to help them navigate their way around a strange city or taking them to the opera to help them enjoy all aspects of the culture in their new home. It was about helping the children enjoy as normal an experience as they could in an otherwise very abnormal situation. However, the overwhelming feeling of all the teachers we met was that there wasn't enough integration going on, the classes felt very separate from the rest of the school - in some cases the classes were in different buildings altogether. There was also an issue of how the 'local' children were being prepared for all their new peers and being supported in their acceptance and understanding of what some of these children had been through. On our last day we met with an agency ( who work hard to do just this, whilst supporting all newly arrived young people, they also ensure that they offer lots of opportunities for locals and refugees to mix together. (Interestingly in Berlin a child is seen as someone aged between 6 and 21 and they are working to move this to 27)
The wonderful Welcome Class at Theodoar-Heuss Schule, who made us so welcome too.
So what did I take away after my 6 days in Berlin? 
I learned that there are not hoards of refugees swarming the streets of Berlin, I heard Berliners say over & over "What else could we do?" when asked about the reaction of the city to the huge influx of refugees. I saw children being children and smiling, playing, keen to learn & teachers who were so passionate and caring and determined to make a difference in lives that had been transformed.
I, personally, felt that the separate Welcome Classes are not as good a way of helping children integrate and acquire language skills as our more inclusive model of supporting children in small groups that are withdrawn from class for extra support or given the support in class. I really felt that our children who have English as additional language pick it up quicker from their peers with additional support rather than being intensively taught separately. We have over 20% of our pupils coming from a 'newcomer' background and yet I would defy anyone to pick them out at playtimes etc. whereas I did see the children from the Welcome Classes playing together outside and tending to stick together - obviously they felt safer with the children they knew from their classes.
However, we don't have the huge numbers that the schools in Berlin have had, we also don't have children arriving into upper primary who have never attended school and need to learn the most basic of skills and tasks, so I can see why the smaller numbers of a Welcome Class can be such a reassurance to some children. 
I did like the way the Welcome Class teachers had time to really work with the parents of the children in their classes - they had weekly meetings to discuss progress, issues etc. and this allows them to build up good relationships with the families. There was a real drive to help these families fully access all that Berlin society has to offer & I felt that this is something we could do much better, our system tends to concentrate on educating children without seeing the family behind the child.

Massive thanks to all the British Council N.I and DE for all that they did to arrange this study visit and make it such a worthwhile experience and to all the schools who welcomed us and took time answer our many, many questions. 

Here is a link to the British Council DE's post about how to help refugee children settle into school: