Sunday, 2 August 2015

Play is the universal language.

The magical entrance to the outdoor nursery at Kaunas.
Each year for the past 10 I have had at least one child who enters the class with little or no English. I firmly believe the preschool year is the best year for this to happen, as it is so language rich as an environment & also very visual. The adults tend to mime most of the actions they are asking the children to do - washing hands, putting in coats etc. 
I watch each year as these 3 and 4 year olds make connections with us and their peers as they play, at first just playing alongside each other but then gradually playing with each other. It is always wonderful to witness this connection through play.
Last week as I spent a morning at Lauko Darželis in their 2nd and newest nursery in Kaunas, I was reminded how important play is for making connections with young children. I speak no Lithuanian and the children spoke no English yet as we played alongside each other in the sand pit, we were able to make a connection. The children were making sand pies & at first were just content to play alone but then they began to watch each other to see how each was achieving a different end result. As I looked around to find some decorations for my sand pie, they began to include me in their play. 
One child asked his mother (one of the two teachers in the nursery)  how to get me to come and play with him and when she told him to say "Please come" he used this all morning as an invitation for me to follow him or join him in his play.
During our week in Lithuania, we had talked debated about how so many preschools look exactly the same & therefore the theory is that you could drop a blind folded teacher into any setting and they would feel 'at home'. I would argue that you could drop anyone who still has the capacity to play anywhere in the world and they would manage to make connections with others. 
A skilled adult can play alongside a young child making the teaching implicit.
It made me realise that this is how the young children in my class without English manage to find their feet so quickly - they learn so much of the mechanics of school by playing alongside their peers and by imitating what they see.
I had similar experiences in Norway when I spent a week in a kindergarten and picked up more words while playing with the children than I ever did by just listening to adults talking. It does make me realise how much harder it is for children who have to join a class at a much older age when there are less opportunities to learn by doing as opposed to listening to instructions and less chances to 'play' outdoors.
By chance this piece by Dr. Scott Sampson ( appeared in my feed today and it reiterated what I was trying to say: being outdoors in nature and playfulness go hand in hand and it was the latter quality that allowed me to interact with the young children at Lauko Darželis.
The sooner we all realise that the preschool experience should be as informal and as outdoor based as possible the better.

You can read some more about the outdoor nurseries in Lithuania in the following posts: On my blog:
And this one over at Takoma Park Cooperative Nursery School:

Friday, 31 July 2015

Choice and Memories. Road trip to Lithuania Part 1!

I was fortunate to be offered a chance to spend a week with 3 friends and early years practitioners from around the world (Martin from Highway Farm Activity Centre, Cornwall, Unnur from Leikskólinn Stekkjarás Iceland and Lesley from Takoma Park Cooperative Nursery Schoool, Washington D.C.) taking part in work shadowing and sharing practice, ideas and experiences with colleagues in 2 outdoor nurseries in Lithuania - one in Vilnius and one in Kaunas.
Lesley, Zilvinas, me, Unnur and Martin.
Our host for the week was Zilvinas Karpis, the founder and impetus behind the outdoor nurseries known as 'Lauko Darzelis' in Lithuania. ( As a parent, Zilvinas, had been disappointed by the lack of outdoor experiences on offer in any of the more traditional nurseries he looked at for his own children. Rather than complain about it and wait for someone else to do something about the situation, he decided to set up an outdoor nursery in the incredible Pavilniai Regional Park in Vilnius last year. This is considered one of the smaller regional parks at only 2127 hectares! 
Over the past year the nursery has renovated a small wooden house in a larger area to provide a cosy indoor space for the children to retreat to in the winter or on very wet days. It is a 2 story building with the upper sloped floor providing a sleeping area for wet or very cold days - otherwise the children sleep outside under canvas to help keep them cool on hot days.
On the day we visited the children had just had their breakfast on the verandah and were ready to head out for a 2 hour walk around the park. They choose a different route every day and we broke up into 2 pairs to go walking with the 2 groups - the under 3's and the older children, the latter also included children over the usual nursery age of  7 as it was summer holidays and the nursery offers a summer camp for those older children who are on school holidays.
Our route took us into an old munitions building and the children had fun climbing up into the building and enjoying the acoustics while they sang before they had fun jumping off the big platform inside. They were lots of different plants to explore in this space too.

Lesley shares some of the photos she had taken of them jumping off.
The pace of the walk was taken at the pace of the children, we stopped if they came upon something of interest to them - like a pile of logs to clamber on and one of the teachers made them a seesaw by placing a log just so on the pile.
After walking for about an hour we stopped on the banks of the river Vilnia to allow the children to have some snack. They each carry their own snack and change of clothes in their own rucksacks and some even had little mats for sitting on when they stopped. his was an idyllic place to enjoy refuelling for the next part of the walk. Some of the children had been at nursery since 8.00 and had had breakfast provided by the nursery earlier, this snack as brought form home and was mainly bread, biscuits or fruit. I was impressed at their independence as every child unpacked their own snack and opened/closed their own boxes without any adult help.
A perfect spot for snack.
Some children sat with friends or with a teacher, others chose to sit apart enjoying watching the river flowing past. After most had finished they packed up and head off again.Even though we didn't speak any Lithuanian and only a few of the children spoke English, we had no problem communicating with each other, most of the children would just chatter away to us regardless of whether we replied or not. And they had no problem conveying their wishes to be photographed in a favourite spot!

After another while meandering along the path, the children reached a part of the bank where the river was less fast flowing and they soon had their socks and shoes off and were paddling in the river. The sound of their laughter was lovely to hear and those people walking past couldn't help but smile at their behaviour.
At this point we swapped groups and Lesley and I headed up the hill to meet the younger children whilst Unnur and Martin joined the bigger children in the river.
This group was walking at a much slower pace as dictated by the youngest child who was only 2. He enjoyed stopping ever 2-3 minutes to explore something exciting on the path. The little ones enjoyed gathering leaves to drop over the side of a bridge to watch them float down the river.
After around 2 hours we all arrived back at the main site of the nursery and they children had their lunch on the verandah. The nursery provides a hot vegetarian meal at mid day and the children all eat together. (It is a vegetarian meal because there are  a lot of children at the nursery who have a variety of food intolerances.)
After lunch the children had a sleep or rest time, on this day they were sleeping outside under canvas to keep them cool in the sun. Those older children who weren't tired played around the main building, climbing trees, reading books or digging in the sand.
As the children woke up they gradually began to play again within the main space where there are lots of loose parts to engage with. Martin and Unnur began to build an insect hotel with some of the many pallets that were lying about - I'll write a post about that later.
So many great loose parts available to play with.

We used this time to explore the wider site with Zilvinas, as he shared his plans for some of the other buildings on the site. I would love to return to this setting is a few years to see all  that is planned by them. 
We also met with the Mayor of Vilnius and some of his advisors to show them some short presentations on our settings. He was impressed that each country and setting was so different yet the message was the same - children who are offered the opportunity to play outdoors and learn in a more natural environment are more rounded individuals. Then we had an opportunity to chat with some of the parents and staff, to explain where our settings were at present with regards to outdoor practice. It as a good chance to answer any questions the parents had - this is such a new experience for many of them, they just needed reassurance from others that their children will be ok if they are outside in all weathers.
This is such an exciting time for all of those involved in this new outdoor education revolution in Lithuania, most of all it reinforced to me how far I have come in my own practice in the last 8 years, as I could recognise some of their fears of apprehensions as being the same ones I had had or encountered at that time too.
What I realised was that most parents want their children to have carefree childhoods filled with memories of climbing trees, paddling in streams, getting dirty etc. - most educators who claim that parents don't want that are deluding themselves.
More importantly Lauko Darzelis offers choice for parents who want something different for their children. We showed the parents that the nursery system does not have to be a one size fits all experience, as each of us are from very different settings and countries and yet are able to offer the children in our care outdoor learning experiences on a daily basis.
To quote Michael Fullan, the professional capital was high and getting the opportunity to spend time with like-minded individuals has helped to recharge me and re-enthuse me, ready for a new school year.

Lesley has also written a post on this setting, you can read about it here:

A massive thanks to Zilvinas and his family for all that they did for us during the week and to all the staff, parents and children who made our visit such an enjoyable and worthwhile experience.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Stain Glass Window - Highway Farm Style!

Stain Glass Window with Tissue Paper & PVA
The finished 'stain glass' window.

Whilst I was over visiting Highway Farm, I was lucky to see this great activity unfold and to see just how simple and enjoyable it was for all those involved. 
I had seen this done before when we had an artist in working with the children and she had pre-drawn a butterfly shape for the children to fill in but this was a much easier way to do it.

Martin got a black bin bag (any plastic will do) and taped it to a tuff spot, then he gathered some tissue paper, pipe cleaners, tiny beads, brushes and PVA glue. He covered the surface of the tuff spot with PVA and began to show the children how to place the tissue paper to cover the whole surface - they then brushed more glue over the top. He and Maria cut up the pipe cleaners into small pieces and encouraged the children to place these all over the surface too. Then they were sent off to gather leaves, flowers, petals etc. - in fact anything they could find - one child brought some 'treasure' - a glass pebble.
Soon the whole surface was covered with no gaps at all and then Martin added a final layer of PVA. 

What impressed me most about this activity was how all the children were so engaged, some drifted in and out of it during the hour or so but many stayed with it the whole time.

They were also able to make bracelets with beads and pipe cleaners as they sat around waiting for a turn with a the brushes.
I can't wait to try this with my new class next term.

Monday, 13 July 2015

A nurturing space where children truly do grow!

Cornwall CPD Road Trip 2015

The Tevi classroom and outdoor space.
Last year, two nursery colleagues and myself decided to take Continued Professional Development (CPD) into our own hands and organise visits to nurseries in the Derby area during the first week of our summer break. This year we were lucky to spend the day at the incredible Highway Farm Activity Centre in Cornwall working alongside Martin, Rachel and the team of educators at this unique outdoor preschool setting.

What a way to enter preschool!
Earlier in the year, the farm expanded it's preschool setting by adding another class for the older children and Rachel joined them as an experienced teacher with many years in Reception and Foundation Stage behind her. They decided to give each of the classes a unique, Cornish name rather than keep referring to them as the lower and top classes. And so the 2 classes became known as 'Maga' and 'Tevi' from the Cornish for nurture and to grow. The newly turned 3 year olds are in Maga and the 4 year olds in Tevi.

I was so lucky to get to see both classes as their day unfolded and had also visited last month too. Even so often you get to witness a natural 'teacher' in action and you just know that all the qualifications in the world could never, ever replicate what comes organically to some people. 

The term nurture is so perfect for what Martin and his team do with the younger children. With a staff child ratio of 1:6, they have time for each child, they have chances to have 'teachable' moments throughout their day and it is so obvious that every child is valued and listened too in this amazing setting. I saw some children who in a more traditional setting would stand out a mile and have to have lots of support to access the curriculum, just be allowed to take the day at their pace and to be fully supported by all the staff in everything they tried to do. 
I watched entranced as Martin had these pre preschoolers doing maths that many a P.1 teacher would be impressed with. I was most impressed by the skills that the children are given to be as independent as possible and to have lots of strategies to get them to the right answer to most questions. Bearing in mind these were 3 year olds in the year before most would be in nursery, when asked to find 5 on a number line, they knew to go to 1 and count forward until they found it, if they couldn't identify it at first. 
I watched as staff gently reminded children to sit down during the group story time and even if the same child had to be reminded 4-5 times it was always done gently and with such patience. Not every child had a turn and yet these young children had no issue with this.

I suddenly realised that in reality the current staff child ratio in nurseries in Northern Ireland of 1:13 does not allow for as many activities or teachable moments, we are under too much pressure and a lot of the learning has to be more incidental. I spend my time teaching to the whole group during story time or interacting with smaller groups at activities but will inevitably be called away or distracted by something else going on in the busy classroom. What I saw going on with these 3 year olds might be happening in a nursery class by 3rd term but certainly not in first term. Martin was able to work closely with 1 or 2 children whilst the others were busy engaged elsewhere, he was able to give his undivided attention to children. 

I saw lots of times when the children were out of sight of the adults and guess what - none of them came to any harm - they were all fine and engaged in play. In nurseries we have become obsessed with children always being in our sight and yet they do need to learn to be in charge of themselves and to be independent and to feel OK about being out of sight of an adult. Martin has created lots of little hiding spaces in the Maga space and they are nearly all at child height to make them seem even more inaccessible to interfering adult eyes! I can only imagine how magical it must be to be a 3 year old in this space.

Every space is used to it's full potential and cosy areas are created.
Now, with having added the Tevi class where the 3 and almost 4 year olds spend the year before moving onto primary, the Farm can truly ensure the children who go to this setting are being nurtured as they grow. They will be mostly move from one class to the other and therefore from one space to the other. And throughout the day they move through the various spaces that have been created, therefore ensuring they learn to cope with transitions within a familiar space. The children are alongside each other at times and you can hear both classes as they play, or chat to each other over a low gate. Best of all the dry creek bed runs between the 2 spaces and the children in the Tevi class are the ones who add the water to create running water through the Maga space.

The children in the Tevi class add water to the dry creek bed that runs down into the Maga area.
As the water trickled down the path, I asked one child where the water came from and he replied 'From the big children' and on a previous visit when I asked the older class where the water was going to one replied 'Down to the babies'!! 
These older children who have been thoroughly nurtured by Martin and his team in the Maga class are then ready to move into the bigger space of the Tevi class and explore a wider area known as 'The Top Field' as part of their daily morning routine. These children are certainly growing as their class name suggests and they are such enthusiastic learners you just know they will thrive when they get to primary school. 

What I witnessed most when I was able to work alongside Rachel and Maria one morning, was that these 4 year olds were as independent as possible and took responsibility for most if not all of their belongings. With a staff child ratio of 1:8 in the Tevi class, it is still a intimate grouping and allows for lots of teachable moments throughout the session. 

Estimating how many peas might be inside the pod!
What it showed me was that if we could always ensure another adult was in the nursery classroom, the quality of interactions would rise immediately. 
The outdoor space that the Tevi class use is developing well and again has lots of opportunities for children to be out of sight and feel hidden from adult eyes. The newest area being developed 'The Top Field' has so much potential but as of yet lacks these hidden spaces or shelters of any kind - but this is all in the pipe line. I can't wait to see how this incredible setting will develop next year when it has its first full year of 2 classes and I bet any of the schools that get these children will thank the staff at Highway Farm for the confident independent and enthusiastic learners they are getting.

You can read more about a previous visit to Highway Farm over here:

Also read about Juliet Robertson from Creative Star Learning Company's visit over here:

You can read about my CPD road trips to Derby in 2014 here:

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Evolving Practice.

7 years ago, eating lunch around a fire was a totally new experience to me.
I have now been a nursery teacher for 15 years, blogging for 4.5 and I have found blogging to be a great way for me to reflect on my practice, challenge my way of thinking and best of all, allows me to be involved in critical self-evaluation.
If I write a post about a certain activity I have done or why I approach thing in a particular way, I have to really think about the how & why of my practice & I am aware that others will be reading it & I try to be as honest as possible so that if someone else wants to try something similar they will be fully aware of any issues that may arise.
A fire is now a weekly activity in our playground.
I have found the rise of the internet and social media a great way for me to connect with other educators around the world but I do try not to just jump from one idea to the next just because I've seen someone else do it in their setting. I do like the challenge of finding new ideas and changing my own practice but I do try to be wary of just changing things for the sake of it. Let's face it we all resist change in our own way and can be unwilling to try new approaches and yes I have heard myself say 'But I've always done it this way' or 'I tried that before and it didn't work' but fortunately I work with a great team - a supportive Principal, incredible nursery assistants, wonderful 3 & 4 year olds and their parents - and each of them helps me to question my practice on a daily basis. Some things I will stand up and make no apology for doing them in a certain way - those 15 years of experience have given me confidence in my practice and I found doing further studies helped give me other theorists to help me back up my beliefs. I make no apology for some of my stances - I do not see the point in nursery children doing P.E sessions in the main school - I offer all those physical development opportunities during outdoor play.
Sometimes it takes an 'outsider' to make me rethink the how and why of practice, whether that be my principal, an inspector, a parent or a colleague from another setting.
And if I found myself only having 'because this has always worked' as my reason for doing something, it does make me rethink the practice & start to reflect on when we began doing this and why - often I find that we might have started doing something because of a particular child or class and then I have to think 'does this current practice reflect the needs of the children in my current class?'
Between 2004 and 2011 I was very fortunate to be involved in 2 British Council's Comenius  (now Erasmus +) projects with schools across Europe and this really allowed me to reflect on my practice and constantly challenge myself as to why I was doing things the way I was. After spending 2 days in the kindergarten in Norway I did have to ask myself, why do we stay inside if it is raining? I was lucky enough to work for a week in the same kindergarten in 2008 and at the end of that week I was given a little book of photos to take back to my class. 
Playing in the 'forest' area of the playground in the mud kitchen is now everyday practice.
The title on the cover was 'Our favourite things to do outside' - it was full of photos of children playing outside in the rain & snow, eating lunch outside, enjoying sitting around camp fires etc. When I took it back my class were amazed by it and they spent ages pouring over the photos and I heard lots of 'ooh' and 'ah' as they looked at the photos. I gained so many ideas from that little book - taking powder paints out in the rain, painting snow, playing with rain & mud etc. The partnership with that kindergarten in Eikefjord had such a profound effect on my practice that 7 years later I watched as 4 children came across this album and began to look through it, instead of hearing 'ooh' and 'ah', I heard 'Oh we do that' or 'They cook bananas too' - it really made me realise just how far my practice had come in 7 years. So here's to self-evaluation and reflection and to where I'll be in 7 years time!!

You can read about my job shadow in Eikefjord here:

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

A photo is only half the story!

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Highway Farm -A very special place.

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