Tuesday, 24 May 2016

A great day in the forest.

We were very fortunate with the weather for our second trip to 'the big forest' at An Creagan. Last visit some of the children struggled to really enjoy the experience and were mainly concerned with eating their lunch! So this time, we were prepared and had some mini breadsticks for them to enjoy upon arrival, so they could then head off to explore the site with something in their tummies.
They seemed much more comfortable in the face this time round and enjoyed all of the great opportunities on offer - climbing up the steep banks, resting on the various platforms dotted around the banks, playing in the treehouse and looking for newts in the ponds.
The fairy tea party area had lovely new bunting and Peter was busy stripping the bark off some freshly cut spruce trees to make giant pencils. 
The beauty of this wonderful space is that it affords lots of opportunities for children to sit quietly and enjoy listening to the birds singing or the laughter and shouts of their friends. 

We enjoyed our lunch outside and then after a little play in the park beside 'The Wild Woods', we headed back to nursery on the bus. 

Friday, 20 May 2016

Enjoying a rainy morning.

Watching the world go by from the top of a compost bin!

The willow has burst into life with the sunshine & some rain.
For the past few weeks we have had amazingly dry & sunny weather - it has been fantastic, the children have been able to ditch their coats & jumpers & enjoy playing in the forest area & mud kitchen without having to don welly boots and rain clothes. It meant that some of the children who are not as keen on getting wet or muddy ventured in there to have some fun too.
However, some the children found a downside to this weather - the rain barrel has been empty, so no endless supply of water to play with. This all changed on Thursday of this week & the group of children who fully embrace the mud kitchen and full on water play were delighted.
"A cocktail from the mud kitchen!"
Even though we go outside every morning, on really wet days I need to set up something to entice the first few children out from under the cover of the verandah & I have found the powder paints are the best draw every time. As it was our outdoor day, it also meant that some children could decide at 10.30 to get on their rain gear as they had at least another 40 mins to enjoy being out in the rain. These two sat mixing the rain & powder paint for ages, they didn't really have an end goal as far as painting but I could hear them chatting away about what colours they were creating.
Some of the children then took some of the pink paint over to the mud kitchen to make 'cocktails' - they enjoyed picking leaves from some of the trees or using bark chips to add some colour.

All in all we spent over 2 hours outside in the heavy rain - we even managed to cook some popcorn on the fire in the covered verandah area. As I was moving around the playground I could hear lost of humming & singing as those children who were busy in the mud kitchen or mixing the paints proved that it really is about the right clothing & a great attitude.

Friday, 6 May 2016

Art as a process.

"Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up" Pablo Picasso
This week my class got to paint their 'paper people', these are always a big hit with the class and they love to see them up on display and there is always lots of excitement when they take them home. Last week before we broke up for a long weekend I explained they would be painting these large paper people shapes, one child got very excited as he knew there was one at home already belonging to his older brother. 
Now, many might see these templates as cookie cutter art but I would argue against this view. Templates have a place in any art process - these paper shapes give the children a starting point but no one is in any way similar to any other. I was amazed 5 years ago when one by one each child painted their paper person mostly blue to show they were wearing their uniform. It had never happened before and so far hasn't happened again, this year the children embraced the chance to paint using all the colours on offer and mixing them up to make different shades etc. 
I think in preschool we need to give as many different art opportunities as we can and it is part of our role to actually encourage children to take part in representational art activities as well as purely creative art activities. 

The children loved painting these 'rock babies' for us to enjoy playing with in the playground. It was a wonderful process to see the paint running off the rocks and opportunities to paint 3d objects should be encouraged as much as possible too.
Young children can paint representational images if given time & space to look closely at what they are being asked to paint. Another piece of art the children were very proud of when it was all displayed was their daffodil paintings. They are again, all very different but it was important that I as, the teacher, encouraged them to look at the flowers and really think about how they could paint their representational image.
Every 6 to 8 weeks we ask the children to draw a self portrait for their portfolio booklets and it is wonderful to see these develop over the school year. They usually have 6 portraits by June and it is a great visual way for the staff, parents and children to see how  skills have developed over the year. When drawing these, the children are encouraged to look into a mirror and again, really think about what they are going to draw. From experience, talking about these self portraits the day before is usually a great way to encourage the children to be even more ready to attempt the task.
Another art opportunity is provided on the iPads and this year we got a few iCrayons so that the children get the chance to practice their pencil grip while drawing on them rather than using their finger. 
I think preschool teachers have to ensure that the young children in their classes begin to see that there is a place for representational and creative art. Young children are probably the best at being able to see the potential of any image to be whatever they want it to be but they lose this as they get older. I do fear that the latter gets less of an emphasis in the lower primary end and that is why I hear 7 or 8 year olds tell me that they are 'rubbish at art/drawing' yet I remember them as being very creative in nursery. 
Then I hear colleagues who teach further up the school lament about how unimaginative pupils can be when it comes to more creative art - they will hear lots of 'what am I supposed to draw/paint?'
Unfortunately as there are more and more budget cuts in education, art will be squeezed out even further in primary school timetables and the opportunity for children to begin to fully understand the place for representational and creative art and to realise each has it's own value will be lost. 

Thursday, 21 April 2016

A busy week of outdoor fun!

Finally, this week we got some lovely Spring weather - the sun shone & it was warm & dry all day. The children embraced the opportunity to shed their coats & explore playing in the mud kitchen without having to get on their rain gear.
This class has very different play patterns from other years & it has taken them until now to discover the potential fun of the Bottle Babies! 2 children decided to put them in some crates & this then became a jail for all the Bottle Babies - apparently when asked if they promised to be good in order to be freed from jail, the Bottle Babies had replied 'No'!
 The whole school had a gardening day up above the nursery opposite Bear Woods & the children were brilliant at getting all the weeds out of one of the planters & then putting some seeds into another planter. Normally on the way back down, as the path leads into the car park an adult has to go first but I had rediscovered some cans of playground marker paint in the store & decided to add a red line at the bottom of the path so the children can run ahead & have a visible mark of where to stop & wait for an adult. I also added some numbers to our playground with the paint.
 The trees are all blossoming in the playground & the children enjoyed picking some blossoms of the cherry tree to add to their 'cooking' in the mud kitchen. The Christmas tress given to us by An Creagán in January are now providing great needles to be used in the mud kitchen for recipes too!
 We had our first trip to the Wild Woods at An Creagán this week too & the children loved looking for trolls under the bridge, climbing up & sliding down the steep banks.

I know this lovely weather won't last for ever but it has made for a fabulous week of outdoor fun!

Friday, 15 April 2016

Guest Post - Making Maths Matter!

Delighted to have the incredible Elaine Bennett as a guest on the blog today - here is her post on how to make maths an exciting and 'real' topic for young children.

Hands up...who has ever trudged down to the maths cupboard to sign out the box of 3D plastic shapes before so that they can "do" 3D shape?
Well this week, we have been looking at shapes in our daily magic maths sessions. We started by looking at the flat shapes on our rug which we cant pick up and then looked at the 3D solid shapes which we can. We began with the plastic ones and the children looked at them and we talked about what they could be in our lives. The plastic cylinder became a rolling pin, telescope, nose and can of coke. The pyramid became a mountain. The cube became a box, a present, a robots head, a dice. Another day we put a shape in each hoop and I gave the children classroom objects to match to the shapes. The point I am trying to make is that we need to make sure that we provide the opportunities for children to see maths in their worlds, their lives, to see the patterns, relationships and connections. I wasn't expecting them to pick up the mathematical names....but they started to use them, recognising our deputy head teacher badge was a cuboid and her buttons were cylinders and not circles.
Today we went on a shape hunt outside and I was blown away. The children were highly motivated and engaged, excitedly making connections in their world, their environment. Seeing the planks they climb on are cuboids, our door strips are bendy cuboids, a stick is a cylinder, the wheels on the bikes we ride are cylinders, the 6 square waffle bricks together make a cube and that cylinders had been cut in half to make our ampi theatre..as whole ones wouldn't have lined up as neatly. Excited yells of "Mrs Bennett I found a cuboid! Cube! Cylinder!" filled the air.
Boys in the willow den realised there was a square was at the top inside of it and took a photo on the ipad. By this time we were late for lunch. As we walked along the corridor lights, tiles, windows, doors, mosiacs and even our dinner tables proved fascinating to the children! It was honestly like they were seeing things they pass everyday with new eyes.Leading me to exclaim "Our whole world is made of shapes!" 
I guess my point is that we need to make sure that children see maths as important, relevant and meaningful. We need to provide the opportunities for them to make the connections, see the links, patterns and relationships. We need them to see that they are surrounded by maths....it involves them. It is LIFE! 
Maths is ultimately about these patterns, relationships, links and connections whether they relate to numbers, measures or shapes. Children who can recognise and use these patterns are our learners who feel truly connected to maths.
In years gone by I would have called children over to "learn" shapes, using the box from the maths cupboard and a ticklist to complete of "who knows shapes". What I was really teaching them is that maths is abstract, plastic, brightly coloured, led by an adult, and happens at this table. This will only switch off learners.
Ironically that list wouldn't really tell me if they "knew" 3D shape.
So if and when you use the plastic shapes, when you take them back to the cupboard, don't take the learning back there to be placed on a shelf alongside the dog eared box with sphere thats broken in two! Ironically the shapes we used were not designed for children to actually explore as the cones bottom fell off! 
NB Depsite my plastic shape bashing, I cannot recommend highly enough the magnetic polydron sets, which whilst pricey are brilliant for exploring shape!http://www.polydron.co.uk/magnetic-polydron.html
Thanks to Elaine for this post & make sure you follow Keeping Early Years Unique on Facebook and @Keep_EYs_Unique on Twitter.

Friday, 8 April 2016

Embracing Risk.

I got the idea for the long handled forks from Highway Farm Activity Centre.
For those visiting our nursery to see the class during outdoor play, I always have to stress that where we, as a nursery team (staff, students, children and parents) are today, is not something we just arrived at, it has been a long journey to reach this particular outdoor play approach. Most importantly, the parents sending their children to our nursery have to fully buy into our approach of embracing risk. I can explain to them at open days and induction evenings what I mean by this but it is usually not until they actually see it in action that they fully understand what we mean. 
I will,often hear a parent telling their child not t go up the slide in those early days or not to pick up sticks or climb over tree stumps etc. As a staff, we take time to explain that it ok to go the slide, climb on seats or play with sticks. 
I love watching the children become more confident over the school year as they truly begin to believe in their own abilities. At the start of the year they will ask us a lot, 'can I do that, can I climb up there, can I move that, is it ok to climb over that?' etc. By the start of the third and final term most of them will look to an adult to gauge their reaction or for reassurance but they rarely ask for permission to embrace risk as much. We totally underestimate how savvy young children are, unless rhey have a reason for having no sense of danger, most know their own limitations & will try a risky activity & decide whether they want to continue or not.
A few weeks ago we built a den out of some pallets. The idea was to have a pitched roof but it didn't work out that way & it has a flat roof. The children love to climb up the sides and one discovered she could get up onto the roof. The next plan will be to strengthen the roof more so that lots of children can be on the top at the same time.
Another way we embrace risk, is to have a weekly fire every Thursday. These children have been used to being around a fire since October & when they had the opportunity to toast their own bread on it, they are sensible enough to stand well back from the flames. The long handled forks allows for this but even then some will stand as far back as possible, in the 4 years we have been using the fire the on,y children who would go towards the flames are those with an additional need that includes a lack of awareness of danger. 
Each day, all staff have to assess the risk involved of an activity a child decides to engage in & many times my heart is in my mouth as I watch a child climb up on something in the playground but I have to stand back and trust that they are confident they are ok. 
The worst thing we can do for our children is to constantly tell them to be careful or make them afraid to take risks. 

Friday, 1 April 2016

The potential of mess!

Through this blog and local Teachmeets, word has spread amongst colleagues that there it is worth coming to see how we 'do' outdoor play at our nursery, so invariably most weeks we have visitors who spend time watching how the children use the playground and what resources we have provided or acquired.
The one thing I always stress to anyone visiting is that our playground didn't start off looking like it does now, it has taken 10 years to get where we are physically and in that time period my practice has evolved a lot too.
It is always great when someone comes to visit and 'gets' the area immediately being able to see the potential in it and understand how much it contributes to the level of engagement from the children. But every so often, people do come along who are obviously horrified by the 'state' of the space - it is messy, it is dirty and it is well used. It is often pointed out that if I was at the front of the school or on show I probably won't be 'allowed' to have such a space! I like to think I would - anyone spending time in the space sees that it provides endless prompts for play. 
If you are someone who likes clean lines & tidy spaces then a playground full of loose parts is going to be very hard for you to embrace but if you can stick with it and resist the urge to keep tidying up, I promise that you will start to appreciate the 'mess' when you see how much stimulation such a space offers to children. 
There is a fantastic free downloadable resource from Learning through Landscapes called 'This Place Looks Like a Building Site'  (available here:http://www.ltl.org.uk/resources/results.php?id=643and I believe every principal or manager should have a copy of this so they can see why their outdoor space needs to messy rather that a pristine space. 
We do have to have some rules about the use of loose parts of course. After numerous incidents involving the real crockery and the tarmac, it is now agreed that it's best to leave the crockery in the house corner and just use the plastic unbreakable stuff in the wider area. The children also know not to throw the large hollow blocks about or they will splinter and break but most other resources were sourced free so can be moved about e.g. tyres, saucepans, pots, crates, sticks etc. 
I always advise taking small steps in the revamp of a playground, add whatever you can source first then just keep adding more and more 'stuff' as you find it or buy it. 
We now have an almost permanent fire circle at the bottom of the playground for our weekly camp fires or birthdays (we have the cake outside with the birthday child sitting on the big throne) but the stumps are moveable and so some days they will be rolled about to make something else by the children. 
I firmly believe that it is best to let a space develop over time and it needs to allow for the group of children in the class at the time to feel ownership of it. So here's to lots of messy fun times & who knows what this space will look like in 10 years time!