Saturday, 12 October 2019

Iceland: Leikur ad læra - Play To Learn More

I love how small the world has become since social media came along, it is now so much easier to connect with people around the world and find like-minded individuals to connect with to share ideas etc. I have 'met' so many preschool teachers around the world on Facebook and Twitter and have enjoying learning from them as we discuss our practice and curriculums. 

However, nothing beats meeting up in person with someone and finding a true connection in real life. In 2013 I got the opportunity through Fafu (an Icelandic company) to go to Iceland as part of #PlayIceland with 33 other educators from around the UK and US. You can read about this visit in these two posts:

During this visit on Day 2 we visited an incredible newly built school and one of their staff, Kristín, took the time to show us around the school, give us a taster session of a new way she was trying out teaching in the school. Then at the sharing event where we gave presentations about our settings, we heard from Kristín about her new venture Leikur að læra  she was just about to launch to have young children learning core skills through movement. We became friends on Facebook and stayed in touch. 
My colleagues & me in Iceland in February 2019
Roll on 2018 and our school secured funding through Erasmus Plus KA1 for staff to attend training and courses around Europe and Kristín's course were the first I thought of. In 2019 8 of our staff both teaching and non teaching travelled to Spain and Iceland to attend one of her week long courses Smart Teachers Play More. These courses are facilitated by Kristín and Sarah (who has a business called Smart English in Spain)
This has been one of the best courses I have ever attended and I recommend this to any one working in a school. You can read about the course in this post:
Through this course another colleague, Jill, also did the course and began to offer Play to Learn More sessions locally and our school signed up all the classes for 4 weeks of activities with Jill. as both of us in the nursery are now trained we then ran sessions with our class over 6 weeks from Easter until June. 
These sessions were the most fun I think we have all had whilst learning and let's face it as a nursery teacher every day is filed with fun! But more importantly the P1 teacher has noticed that the children are much more secure in their core skills this year after lots of practice during our PTLM sessions. 
Some of our PTLM activities. 
Whilst in Iceland in February for the course, Kristín mentioned that she was running a conference in October on Outdoor Learning and wondered if I would like to come along to do a workshop. I jumped at the chance, of course. 

In May Kristín came to Belfast to run a taster session for PTLM for local teachers and stayed with me and visited my class for a morning. 
Myself, Kristín & Jill in May 2019

So fast forward to October 2019 and I found myself on a flight to Iceland via Finland (where I had just been on an Erasmus Plus mobility) and attending a conference for over 450 teachers from Iceland who spent the whole day doing workshops to help them develop outdoor play and core learning skills for young children. The conference was held in an agricultural college and many of the events like lunch, coffee took place in an old green house with fish pond and exotic plants. The workshops were mostly outdoors but also some were inside. 

My workshop was titled 'Outdoor Learning - it doesn't have to cost a lot' and I had to run it 4 times over the day with between 20 and 40 participants at a time. It took place outside in the most amazing grounds of the college and thankfully it was dry but very windy. The teachers were so receptive and engaged and willing share ideas from their practice too. It was wonderful to have this opportunity to talk with international colleagues and compare similar issues and discuss what was different about our settings and practice. 

This is my 4th visit to Iceland and each time I visit I fall in love with it and it's people a little more. They are some of the warmest people I have every met and even more hospitable than the Irish. They have a true connection to nature and a respect for their environment that is lacking in a lot of other places. 

I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to hang out with friends old and new and learn from each other. It also helped me firm up ideas for further workshops and  most importantly I learned that I had to change my pronunciation of the words eight and shape to be understood!

A huge thanks to Unnur & Kristín (and her whole family) for picking me up, putting me up and drinking coffee with me over the few days I got to stay in Iceland. 

Erasmus Plus KA2 Finland

Our school is involved in a two year Erasmus Plus KA2 Project 'European New Generation' with preschools from Denmark, Turkey, Croatia, Finland and Greece. You can read some more about the project in this post:

So far we have all met up in Turkey and N.Ireland and then this past week we had our third meeting in Finland. Our project is all about STEM/STEAM in the early years curriculum and at some of the meetings the partners share some games for the children in the host school to enjoy playing. This has been a great way for us as educators to gain some new ideas and gather lots of new innovative maths lessons. 

 This project has helped us as staff in the nursery and Foundation Stage classes to realise how to ensure that maths is integrated into all aspects of learning and not just seen as a stand alone subject - this is more of an issue for colleagues in the primary when curriculum subjects are very clearly divided up. In nursery and preschool, in general, we tend to teach subjects across the board all day long and realise that maths is everywhere and not just something to be taught for an hour a day.

In Finland we got to take part in some outdoor games with a small group of children and share some maths activities indoors with them too. We also spent time in the forest watching the children take part in maths/ICT games, this was followed by having lunch around the fire.

As I watched some of my partners in the forest it made me realise how far we as a nursery have come on our outdoor journey and how we as a staff have developed our outdoor curriculum over the past 10 years. When I visited Norway in 2008 and took part in a job shadow in an outdoor preschool, I spent a lot of time asking 'Can they do that, should they be up there, are they allowed to do that?' as is was so different from our playground and outdoor play. This time I was very comfortable in the forest and almost blasé about the adventurous, risky play that we saw but I could see some of my other partners were amazed by it and it made us realise that we have benefitted so much from being involved in European projects since 2004.

Sometimes you enter a project with one aim but end up with a completely different one or you get something out of a partnership that you never expected and of course life long friendships are made. 

Our next meeting is in Croatia and then we have 3 more left before the project comes to an end. The children and staff in Windmill can only but benefit from all the shared learning going on from across Europe. 
of course the idea that we are now being dragged out of the EU and that the possibilities of the amazing Erasmus opportunities may be lost for out students and staff makes me so angry but in the meantime I will continue to take part in projects and learn from my colleagues. 

To end on a more positive note, our school was recently awarded the International School Award by the British Council.

Tuesday, 24 September 2019

New Experiences are Good.

Climbing up the slope using a rope is always a popular activity.
We are very fortunate to have two wooded areas within school grounds that were planted by pupils, parents and staff over 5 years ago. The nursery has the sole use of one of them, called Bear Woods and it is just above the nursery accessible by a path that runs around the front of the building. 
This week we decided to introduce our new class of 28 3 - 4 years olds to this space. So far the children have been staying for 2 hours in separate groups of 15 & 18 and today was the last day before the groups merge into one big class. This proved the ideal opportunity to take the children up in the smaller groups to allow them time and space to explore Bear Woods and learn some of the ground rules. 

There aren't many rules for when we go to Bear Woods but the ones we do have are important: 
A grown up goes first through the nursery gate and the children must follow behind until they reach the first white line. 
The children can run ahead once we reach the first white line but have to stop at the second white line. 
Then when coming back the rules are the same: 
A grown up first through the gate of Bear Woods until we reach the first white line.
Run ahead but stop at the second white line. 
The children can just run ahead on the path or go through a willow tunnel parents created last year during a maintenance morning for the wooded areas. 

The willow tunnel - you can see the nursery playground below.
Once we get to Bear Woods the children have a small snack and when finished eating they can go play. This small area has really become a proper wood in the past couple of years and it is wonderful to see the children explore this space and enjoy just being outdoors with very little resources. 
The area we have is on a slope and it really challenges the children at first to navigate walking up and down the gradient & sometimes they enjoy just rolling down the hill.
Today as we arrived one child commented "Woah this is very steep, we need to concentrate guys!"

An adult usually goes to stand at the second white line just to make sure the children stop( as the path is out into the main school car park) but today I was so impressed when both groups stopped without anyone having to remind them. 


I can't wait to have a year of fun and adventures in our our little piece of nature.

Thursday, 11 July 2019

#ErasmusPlus Key Action 1

*Whilst not deliberately a political post, it is impossible to talk about funding opportunities without mentioning Brexit and the loss of such opportunities for future pupils and teachers*

Since 2004 my school has taken part in many opportunities to travel and engage with colleagues and partners in projects and training across Europe through EU funding from the British Council and the Erasmus Plus programme.  The impact this has had on my teaching and therefore on the lives of the pupils who cross my path is immeasurable but needless to say it has been a positive one. It is one of the many reasons, I am disappointed and saddened that such opportunities are slipping away for future generations as England and Wales drags the rest of the UK out of the EU, against our wishes. 

Since October 2004, I personally have had the opportunity to travel to Italy, Norway, Poland, France, Germany, Sweden, Czech Republic, Iceland, Malta and Turkey to visit schools and take part in workshops and training. The friendships I have made during the past 15 years have been invaluable in helping me to develop my practice and grow as a preschool teacher. Our school has also hosted colleagues from Poland, Spain & Sweden and as a result I have had to really understand the 'why' of how I do things - when you have to explain your practice to someone else, you really begin to articulate why you do things or to question why you should continue to do things.

In 2013 I travelled to Iceland and met a very enthusiastic teacher called Kristín, who wanted to develop her ideas about how young children learn by moving and to show others how to make learning fun beyond preschool. Social media has made staying in touch with new friends in far flung places a lot easier & so Kristín and I were able to touch base ever so often through Facebook & I watched as her business Leikur að læra  grew and went from strength to strength. I saw that Kristín was now offering training for school staff funded by Erasmus Plus and planned for some staff to attend this training in Iceland. Our project 'Inclusive Creative Education for All' allowed 8 members of staff - both teachers and assistants - to attend a week long training course run by Kristín and Sarah from Smart English in Alicante under their partnership of 'Smart Teachers Play More', 4 went to Spain and 4 to Iceland and 2 of us to also travel to Malta to do another language based course. 

On our course in Iceland there were 22 people, it seemed like a big group but everyone worked really well together and it was incredible to get to mix with teachers from across Europe and who work with different age groups from preschool to adults. I learned so much from each of the participants over the week, never mind what I learned from our course providers. 

The inspiring Kristín in action.
The course operated from 9-3 every day for 5 days, each day flew by as we were learning a lot and on the move so much too. I have rarely attended a course where I gained something every hour that I knew I could take back to school and use immediately. 
Luckily both of us in the nursery - teacher and assistant were able to take part in this course and so we have been able to introduce aspects of the course into our everyday teaching. For the last 8 weeks of the school year we split the class into 4 groups of 7-8 children and had weekly 'Play To Learn More' sessions with children embracing the opportunity to climb over and under tables, move like crabs or snakes across tables and learn and consolidate core skills e..g numbers, colours and letters. We both can't wait for September when we can have a whole school year using the innovative method to introduce and consolidate academic skills. 
Our Play To Learn Mat has been wonderful for reinforcing key skills. 
During the first week of the summer break 2 of us travelled to Malta to undertake a 'Teaching English to Young Learners' course with Alpha School of English
This course offered practical advice on teaching young children English and the other participants were all Italian teachers wanting to introduce an element of English to their classrooms as opposed to ourselves who were thinking of how best to help our 'Newcomer' (the term used in N.Ireland for children who speak a language other than English at home) pupils acquire a good level of spoken English, quickly. 

One of the best aspects of this opportunities is the chance to connect with like minded teachers from across Europe - to share practice, ideas and talk about how we can learn from each other. Chatting with colleagues over coffee after the courses often provided valuable insights into ways to improve practice. 

Whilst we were in Malta for the last course of our current KA1 project I received word that our new application for a two year project enabling 15 members of staff to attend courses and a job shadowing scheme had been successful so thankfully these wonderful opportunities are still available for UK schools for now. 

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Maths Everywhere!

This year our school is involved in a 2 year Erasmus Plus KA2 Project called 'European New Generation' with school sin Greece, Turkey, Finland, Denmark and Croatia. The theme of our project is maths, science and the arts: the STEAM subjects as it is know referred to. 
Izmir, Turkey. 
We started the project off with a teaching event in Izmir, Turkey in December when 3 of our staff travelled there to meet up with all the other schools and began to plan out the 2 year project. We will host a visit form the partners in April.
This project has come at the perfect time for our nursery and foundation Stage classes as all the staff in these classes have also had the opportunity to take part in some Erasmus Plus training through a KA1 Project with 'Smart Teachers Play More' in both Alicante and Reykjavik. This course emphasises getting children moving whilst introducing new key concepts like colour, shape, number and also literacy.
The children are really embracing all the opportunities to have lots of new maths activities and are particularly drawn to playing with the bigger dice and finding numbers in their environment. They love looking for shapes as well and I just drew some shapes on the playground and made a simple dice with the shapes on it so they could make up their own game. 
Rolling dice and finding the same number of objects.
Sorting by colour. 
Finding shapes. 
Making shapes.

Thursday, 17 January 2019

Enjoying life through the eyes of a child.

The path was glistening with lovely light 'snow'.
This morning as the children arrived for class it began to snow, very light snow like icing sugar but snow nonetheless. The children were so excited and rushed to get on their wet gear, or as they called it today 'snow gear' and had so much fun exploring the playground with this new dusting of snow on it. There was much celebration of there being so much ice in the mud kitchen and the had fun zipping down the icy slide. 
They experimented with pouring water on the snow and seeing what happened, lots of cries of 'It's disappeared', 'Did it melt?' etc. could be heard. 

When everyone was all dressed we head up to visit Bear Woods to see if there was snow up there too, the children were amazed to that they could still see the white line where they stop on the path under the snow.
There was a little patch of snow up in Bear Woods and they had fun climbing on the big log, rolling down the hill, hunting for sleeping bears and avoiding wicked stepmothers. The children were amazed that their little hiding places were so visible now that all the leaves have fallen off the trees. 
Bear Woods looks very bare at the moment but the class still love being up there. 
It was truly wonderful to see the joy of light snow in their faces and it reminded me once again, what a privilege it is to work with young children and experience the everyday as magical. 
And it was even better as they had made some paper snowmen the day before.

Saturday, 4 August 2018

Talking, talking everywhere!

So, I have finished my 4 week study travels as a Churchill Fellow. I actually can't believe how quickly the time went by,  as initially I thought 4 weeks away from home would seem like a long time. It has been amazing to actually live in another country for an extended period and to get the opportunity to live like a local as opposed to being a tourist.

After this time spent talking to various people on the ground dealing with children and parents from migrant backgrounds on a daily basis in Dresden, Berlin (Germany) and Norrköping & Stockholm (Sweden) there is a common theme running through all the discussions - language acquisition and communication between parents and children. 

Whatever the home language of the family, all those I have met with have all agreed that it's not about what language a child hears at home but how much of that language they hear and therefore can begin to use themselves. 

I love this quote from James Britton "Reading and writing floats on a sea of talk" and it sums up perfectly how important communication is for all young children but particularly those who are trying to learn a second or third language. 

Early years settings - be they daycares, kindergartens, preschools or nurseries - should be places filled with the noise of children and adults communicating. Those of us who work with young children know that they can communicate by more than just speech - they hum, sing, makes noises and move when communicating. I have so many things to reflect on from the past 4 weeks but the one big thing that I have taken away is that in the UK context, our children are being asked to be quiet and listen too early - if literacy floats on a sea of talking why are we so keen to have children writing and reading at the age of 4 or 5? The young children I met in Germany were confident communicators, it was obvious they had had lots of time to watch, listen and talk rather being expected to listen and then write. 

The 5 and 6 year olds talked fluently (many in their second language) whilst sharing memories provoked while looking through their 'Language Learning Diary' with me and other members of staff. The 'Mein Sprachlerntagebuch' was introduced by the Senate Department of Education Berlin as part of their initiative to make parents realise the learning that was going on in the kita. What I particularly like about this document is that it involves the parents from day one - they are asked to fill in the early pages 'What they child likes, dislikes, favourite toys, food, siblings etc' so that the staff can build up a picture of the child and use it help comfort the child at settling in time. Many settings have an 'All about me' type document that is similar but the Berlin one is more of a working document and is added to over time, and used to record the child's language development over their time in the kita. 

There was a little girl from Poland in the group that was looking at their diaries and when asked if she wanted to talk about the activity she had taken part in earlier that day to record in the book, she said no but did enjoy looking through the book and got very excited when looking at photos of her cousins. When she headed outdoors the teacher explained that she had been selectively mute until recently and by flicking through the diary she was able to show us exactly when the child had first spoken in the kita and what her first word was. (Incidentally it was chocolate!) This is when I saw the full potential of this document and how it could be something we introduce in our system to help staff and parents see the language progression at a glance. 

A huge thanks to Dr Gesina Volkmann from SFZ Berlin for taking the time to meet with me on numerous occasions to explain the important work her organisation does in relation to language learning. 

I have much to mull over from my 4 week travels and a report to write but for now I am taking the time to try and write posts about some of the observations I made. 

Here is an excellent article on the importance of talk in the classroom:

Here is a great post that explains how a German Kita operates: