Friday, 29 August 2014

Outdoor Play Party - Guest Post 5.

For the final summer Outdoor Play Party guest post, I am returning to the inspirational Lesley Romanoff, Director of Takoma Park Cooperative Nursery School.
"Sit Stones" and concentration cards along with a book I used for inspiration, "A Handful of Quiet" by Thich Nhat Hanh
Networking helps with Planning
Over the summer I began planning for our new school year and how to introduce different components that will expand our outdoor education.

Lots of different ideas were swirling about, many inspired by a session led by Amy Beam at the Irvine Nature Preschool Conference. I used our international staff meetings with Kierna (Learning for Life) and Martin Besford (Highway Farm Activity Center) to work out details.

First things first – we introduced cooking campfires last year and then worked out the hiccups during our Summer Tinkering sessions. Both Martin and Kierna have a collection of great things to cook over the campfire, so there were plenty of ideas to share about good things to eat!

After the summer sessions were over, Kierna and I talked about how each time we were scheduled to hold a campfire a few key things would happen; to begin, we both agreed that the fire consistently signaled the same thing to the children -- as soon as the fire is lit, the children gather ‘round and instantly settle. It is a very easy, quiet time and storytelling is a perfect fit. The other thing that would happen is that I would find out that I had forgotten something inside the school, like a hot pad, the tongs, or I would have to make several trips back into the school, for matches or platters. We both agreed that having a bin that held all the gear needed for a campfire session in one place. After talking it through, we put together a list of must-haves from materials to light the fire, safety (I have a fire extinguisher, protective hot pads, and a fire blanket), to utensils and prep items needed for cooking.
Inspired by both Martin and Kierna, we will be offering regular sessions for nature studies that will include components of dramatic play, art, adventure, and simply enjoying the outdoors. We will begin these sessions slowly (another thing I learned from these two) working at first in our own play yard and then moving out, as the weather cools, to our local park grounds.
I have worked out plans for the children to create their own knapsacks that will also serve as seating. These knapsacks will hold a clipboard, a pen, and a small muslin bag that I have personalized for each child. Inside the bag is a small stone for each child to use as something I am calling a “sit stone.” We will use these stones as a way to begin each session outdoors. I also made small cards to fit inside the muslin bags along with the stones which will help the children visualize different components of nature as they sit with their stones. Later they can use these cards to find something that matches during their play (I made both color cards and object cards). We will use the clipboards, pens, and paper to document their discoveries and play.

This Summer work brought about a lot of idea sharing and inspiration. Now school begins and the real work will bring about new ideas and inspiration. I am glad that I have Martin and Kierna to share both the successes and the failures and get their feedback as we go along!

Once again thanks to all those who supported the last Outdoor Play Party by linking up or leaving a comment. My featured post from the last one is from Wild Family Fun - 3 generations went hiking up Pen-y-Fan & the photos prove how much the youngest family member really enjoyed this challenging experience.

  • Any kind of children's outdoor play-related posts are welcome!
  • We'd appreciate it if you included a link back to this post (either in your post or sidebar) to help us spread the word about the importance (and fun!) of outdoor play! In return, we'll gladly further share your post on FacebookTwitterPinterestPlease feel free to grab the Outdoor Play Party button from the sidebar and/or include a text link back. Please note that by contributing you are giving permission for an image and link to your post to be republished if featured.(If you have been featured, please feel free to grab the 'featured' button from the sidebar.) Share your ideas for outdoor play activities with us every other week!

Monday, 25 August 2014

What? No break!

There is a core team of 3 of us in the nursery class, myself the teacher & 2 nursery assistants who job share. However almost every year we end up with extra staff members ranging from assistants for specific children or students training to be assistants or teachers. Throughout the year I also may need to call upon support staff from the primary to cover for sickness. 
I know nursery is not for everyone but aside from the differences between how a primary class is run as compared to nursery the biggest difference, dare I say shock, for most is that there is no break or lunchtime for staff. 
Anyone who has ever spent any time in a school learns pretty quickly how important the morning breaktime & lunchtime become to all staff. I would say breaktime more so even than lunch as many staff will use their lunchtime to run errands but if that 10-15 minute morning break is interfered with there will usually be a mass revolt!

I always love to witness the reactions when new staff members ask about breaks, their faces when told there are none range from horror to despair! If I am out for the day & a substitute teacher, new to nursery, is covering, I can always guarantee a footnote on their feedback of the day commenting on how they don't know how I cope with no tea/coffee break!

Those who know me, will testify that I love coffee & yet I can cope very well without my copious cups of it when back at school. We have purchased lots of travel mugs in case anyone really, really has to have a cuppa through the day. However, I generally prefer to savour my coffee & would rather wait until after 2 o'clock to really enjoy my coffee than try to drink it during the session.  Also, let's be honest here, the nursery day is so busy that drinking coffee during the session would only lead to having to make time to go to the toilet!!!

On the flip side after 14 years of operating this way I know can't imagine having to work to set times interrupted with 2 breaks, I love that the nursery day can be more fluid & flexible. The only clock watching revolves around when the dinners will be arriving from the primary or the parents will be coming to collect children! 

I guess everyone gets used to their way of working & I wouldn't want to change mine but I wish primary colleagues would bear in mind that I have been working non-stop since 8.50 until around 2.00 & that if they come down & I'm eating my lunch I'm not slacking! Nor can I make meetings at 2 unless they are prepared for me to be munching away on my lunch through the meeting! 

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Settling in to nursery - Part 2 - It's all about routine.

This post is to follow on from an earlier one I wrote about how the children are settled in to my class - you can read it over here. The whole month of September is about settling in & in fact I would go so far as to say the first term is also mainly concerned with settling in. By the 2nd week of October we generally have the whole class established as one big group & all the children who are ready are staying for the whole day, in my case that is from 8.50 - 1.45.

I make no apologies for taking the whole of September slowly & having the children in 2 smaller separate groups of 13/14 for only 2 hours per day. Whilst it is true that more & more children are coming into nursery with prior experience of another preschool setting, many in my school are still coming from home & nursery is their first experience of being away from their main carer. The key for us as a staff is that we are ultimately strangers to the children, no matter whether they have been in & out of the school collecting older siblings, they have never spent any significant time in our company & solely in our care. We also don't know them & how they 'tick' - it takes a few weeks to begin to understand how each child operates, who can work away on their own, who needs lots of reassurance to complete tasks & who needs to just come & lean on an adult for a few minutes during the busy session.

From about the 3rd day we try & establish the basic routine that will be the mainstay of the class all year - outdoor play, indoor play, storytime & then home. We add certain routines to this as the days & weeks unfold - snack time, tidying-up, self-registration etc. This is our 4th year of having this way of settling in & looking back we feel that we have it just right now, yes the first 2 weeks are the hardest as we have to explain what we are doing & why we are doing it, but in general by week 3 the children have found their rhythm & it all seems to fall into place. It is very easy for us, the adults, to forget how many new experiences the children have to come grips with in those first 2 weeks. We know how it all works but can forget that they don't & we need to start all over again every year & teach so many new 'skills'. 

It starts with even the basics of learning that they have to wait in the hallway for the main classroom door to open, for the first week I actually have to lock that door & explain to the children & parents that they have to wait until 8.50 for the door to be opened as we are setting the room up for the day in that time. But after the 1st week I rarely have to ever lock that door again, as the children & parents just know to sit in the hallway, chatting to each other & looking through the photo books until the main door is opened. For the 1st 2 days we start off indoors & then go outdoors but by day 3 we establish going outdoors first. This again takes a few days of explaining to some children that we are playing outside first, then going inside before they all just accept this routine. By week 3 it is just the norm that all the children & parents walk through the classroom to the playground each morning without stopping to play indoors. As each day unfolds, the children become more confident in the fact that they will get time to play inside & outside & they begin to relax & stop that almost manic, rushed play we see in the early days. 
The routine stays much the same for the first month.
It is quite common to see the children over at the visual timetable in the first month, quietly going over the routine, almost reasuring themselves as they move through the morning.
They have so many new things to learn: taking turns for snack, in my class they have to also get a 'ticket' & put it into a box on the snack table to show us they have had snack. This is a crucial part of learning their symbol & we have the symbols on display just outside the bathroom so it is an easy step to establish the whole routine of washing their hands before snack, then geting their ticket & taking it to the box. We usually start with snack inside, so an adult can be on hand to gently remind them of this routine for a week or so before we move it outdoors. When it's outdoors they need to be a lot more independent & able to remember all the elements of routine with little or no adult prompting.
The tickets & the ticket box.
Outdoor snack when the routine is secure.
We use aprons during water play & painting, so they have to learn to put these on & off again & also to know that when there are no aprons there is no room at that activity. In the first week or so, we don't force the apron issue as I'd rather a child tried playing at all the activities than avoided it because they don't want to wear an apron.
Taking turns is a big part of being in a larger group & we have found having sand timers really helps with this crucial skill. We have 1, 3, 5 & 10 minute timers. Initially the staff have to model how to use them to help with disputes but we generally find by the end of September the children lift the timers themselves & bring them over to let their peers know that they are wating for a turn with a toy or resource.
For the last 10-15 minutes they go into the storyroom to listen to some short stories & talk about the names of the staff & their peers. For some children this is sometimes the first time that they allow a parent to be out of sight. I also stress that parents etc. can't come into the storyroom at this time, just me (the teacher) & the children. This is an important break for many as they allow their parent to remain outside in the classrooom while they go into the storyroom. 
After 4 weeks we put the 2 groups together & honestly so far it has always happened without a hitch, we have talked about the other children so many times & looked at photos of them that when they do meet they almost feel as if they already know each other. After a couple of days staying for 3 hours together we can move to the longer full day system with lunch & the children accept this change easily after having had 4 weeks in a smaller group. By the middle of October the stress of settling in time has been long forgotten & it can be hard to even remember that the class was ever 2 distinct groups. I feel we have finally found a settlin in system that really suits everyone & more importanly it allows time for us all to become comfortable with each other & it mean less issues when the children move onto the next phase on their educational journey.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Outdoor Play Party - Guest Post 4 - A Visit to Norway.

This time round my guest post is from Andy Mitchell, one evening we starting chatting on Twitter about a shared passion for outdoor learning opportunties in schools. I have enjoyed watching Andy on his journey this past year to become a teacher, when I saw he had been fortunate enough to visit a kindergarten in Norway I asked him to contribute a guest post for the blog. He very kindly agreed & here is a little background to his visit to Norway to spend a week at Birkebeiner Outdoor Nursery.
"I’m a mature student who only returned to education in 2010 with the intention of training to become a teacher. I won’t bore you with the details but I graduated from Edge Hill University with a First Class Degree in ‘Children & Young People’s Learning and Development’. You need a degree just to recall the title!! Anyhow, throughout my studies, I had become increasingly interested in the use of the outdoors in young children’s learning and development. I realised that there seemed to be a great deal of literature espousing the benefits of outdoor teaching and learning. However, what I was seeing in practice, was very little use of the outdoors to promote children’s learning and development. On the very first day of my Early Years PGCE, one of our tutors explained that we had to arrange 10 days of voluntary placement. They explained that the 10 days should be somewhere different. Not a mainstream primary school. Perhaps a special needs school, children’s centre, library or museum. I immediately thought of Norway. I had heard lots of different things about how they approach early years teaching in Scandinavia and set about arranging a trip!
The staff explained that the kindergarten building is only rented and was original built to house the press office for the 1994 Winter Olympics. My initial impression was that it looked just like an office building with viewing platforms, where the press and supporters would watch the skiing events! Once I was taken onto the site it was clear to see how it had been adapted into a pre-school/ nursery.
The outdoor area, still with some areas covered by snow and ice, but I could see seating areas, sand pits, a slide, wooden horse and lots of storage areas.
The area which is set aside for the children to sleep in their prams as and when required.
I asked about the extreme weather conditions which they can have in Norway and she assured me that the children will sleep inside if the mercury dropped anywhere below -15 degrees !
One staff member explained how the children enjoy sleeping in the fresh air and don’t feel the cold as they are kept warm and dry by the appropriate equipment and blankets. Therein lies the real secret to their philosophy as I see it……the children will be given every opportunity to enjoy the outdoors, whilst also being safe and protected by appropriate clothing and equipment but more importantly they are supported and encouraged to spend time outdoors, taking risks that are developmentally appropriate for the individual.

The children arrived up to 9.30am and casually go about their routines. I noticed that they were all very calm and behaviour management was not an issue. Everybody seemed very aware of the routine and the children are really relaxed. In the other room there were three members of staff and everybody was taking part in a circle time activity. It was very lighthearted and I suspect that everybody is sharing their ‘news’. It was noticeable that all the children were very comfortable with male staff (there were 3 men in the room). I guess I only made this initial observation because it is unusual in England.
The children spend the day at the Lavo which is essentially a wooden wigwam in a nearby forest. I was intrigued to see the children getting themselves changed into lots of winter clothing. They’re clearly used to dressing themselves in waterproof trousers, coats and boots etc. The overall atmosphere was one of calm. There was no rush or panic to be anywhere and this seems to help everybody to stay relaxed. I couldn't help but imagine a similar situation in a Reception class at home where staff would be helping children, rushing them to get changed and then asking them to ‘LINE UP’.
Once we walked into the forest it was clear that the children were right at home. It was beautiful. I lasted about five minutes before falling over !! In all I fell about 4 times. The children were free to choose their play and went off in different directions, without ever being out of sight. A member of staff generally accompanied the children to observe what they were doing / learning. They take every opportunity to point out birds/insects etc. to the children. Lots of the activities in the forest have been ‘built’ by staff and parents and they generally consist of climbing, swinging, balancing and sitting upon wooden/rope equipment. The children did fall and slip but were unfazed and they jumped up to repeat/continue with whatever they’d been doing.
I did have to fight the urge to intervene when I thought the children were faced with too great a challenge !! The truth was, they were very resilient and worked together brilliantly.
Some were sawing, axing, climbing, den building, role playing, swinging and some were casually sitting in the snow, chatting. The whole environment was very sociable and the children were all very happy.
Another day was filled with the children playing around the barnehage. Whether it was bikes, in the sand (with water) or inventing games using all sorts of things, then the children were happy to go from place to place as they so wished. Just occasionally, staff, and I, would go and play alongside certain children to see what they were doing and to help I, but only if invited or needed.
Some of the children encouraged me to try some of the equipment that they use in the snow. You didn’t need to understand Norwegian to know that they were having a good laugh at my incompetence!
I hope that the reader can see the type of approach taken in this particular kindergarten and that my thoughts and ramblings make some sense. I hadn’t approached the trip with the idea of sharing all my experiences but I fell in love with the philosophy and way of life in Lillehammer. The cost of a pint of beer may well be off the scale but they certainly know how to provide children with the opportunity to develop as young people before burdening them with concepts that are beyond their understanding. They let their children be children and allow them to develop physically, socially and emotionally in beautiful natural surroundings."
Thanks to all those who took the time to link up in the last Outdoor Play Party, my featured post from the last round up was from Still Playing School with their brilliant outdoor water feature from cooler bottles.

  • Any kind of children's outdoor play-related posts are welcome!
  • We'd appreciate it if you included a link back to this post (either in your post or sidebar) to help us spread the word about the importance (and fun!) of outdoor play! In return, we'll gladly further share your post on FacebookTwitterPinterestPlease feel free to grab the Outdoor Play Party button from the sidebar and/or include a text link back. Please note that by contributing you are giving permission for an image and link to your post to be republished if featured.(If you have been featured, please feel free to grab the 'featured' button from the sidebar.) Share your ideas for outdoor play activities with us every other week!

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Utilising the space you have.

In January 2013 children, parents & staff at my school came together to plant a woodland on a long strip of sloping green space that was rarely used within the school playground. During a 4 hour period around 500 trees were planted & 3 willow dens planted. We even ran out if space in the main grass area & it was decided to plant on a further grass verge outside the main playground gates, just above the nursery playground. Little did we know on that Saturday morning that the decision to plant in this extra space would create an incredible area for the nursery class to enjoy a real 'forest' experience on a weekly basis. We realised how great this little wild area was in that June but we were concerned by the proximity of a roadway for delivery vehicles that ran alongside it, so thankfully the school management team was easily persuaded to fence it off just for the nursery class to use. It was all finished & ready for us to use at the end of September & we were able to start visiting this space while the children were still settling-in in 2 small groups of 13/14. It was perfect for us to introduce them to in the smaller group, establishing a few ground rules e.g. they were allowed to run on ahead up the Tarmac road as long as they stopped at the red circle on the gate. In the first few visits one of the children called it Bear Woods & the name stuck, so this particular class can also claim to have named this space. Peter, our local biodiversity officer, who helped plant the areas made us a great sign for the area & we decorated the fence with coloured plastic circles, bunting, mirrors & posters from Cosy Direct. 

September 2013
August 2014

In the first term we visited monthly but in the second & third terms it became a weekly event & we even had 2 birthday parties in the space. The children really looked forward to visiting this space & we noticed that they were very calm in their play & spent time just sitting chatting in the long grass. They played in a very different way in Bear Woods too, games developed that they never ever took back to the playground; a favourite one was pretending to be stuck or tied to the fence & having to be rescued by one particular child! As the year progressed we brought more resources up to stay in the space, ropes, big plastic lorries & cars, Bottle Babies, silver garden balls, sticks & play food. 
Bear Woods looking down onto the nursery.
We kept to a familiar routine on our Bear Woods days, the children played about in the playground while we gradually got everyone dressed into their 'rain gear' before loading up the wagon & heading up the hill to the space, we took snack up with us & had it on arrival - usually a biscuit sandwich & some fruit. Once snack was over the children were free to head off around the space to play. Most days we would still be up there when the main school had their morning breaktime & older siblings enjoyed coming over to the adjoining fence to chat to the children. 
Long term, as the trees grow & the space develops we hope to have some semi permanent shelters dotted around the space. Having seen some of Cosy's portable willow dens in place in some of the Derby nurseries, I know these will be perfect for the space. We also have an artist coming to work with the children this year to create some outdoor art for this space.
 As the space is on a slope the children have to learn to negotiate walking on an uneven surface, walking up & down the incline. They love rolling down the hill - learning to avoid the trees & each other! They enjoy racing the cars or silver balls down the hill & using the ropes to climb up the slope. 
There is a brilliant post by Timbernook about why children fidget & it illustrates perfectly the value of having such a space for regular use - you can read that article here:

So my advice is to have a look around your space & see if there is a strip of land you could develop as a wild or wooded area to allow for some different outdoor play experiences on site.

The green space in the main school before & after.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Outdoor Play Party - Guest Post 3 - Highway Farm.

For this Outdoor Play Party I am delighted to have Martin Besford from the incredible Highway Farm Activity Centre guest posting. They have an outdoor preschool called 'Little Explorers' & the most amazing site to facilitate outdoor learning. In this post Martin explains how the idea of doing an annual trek with the preschoolers came to be.
The Carn Brea Hike
Our Ethos throughout the centre is based on outdoor learning, play, nature and of course FUN. Children can engage in and with the natural environment everyday, all day regardless of the weather. The children throughout the centre are challenged on a daily basis across all areas of learning and development. The over 8's can also learn and progress skills in mountain biking, archery, sand boarding to mention a few. All children regardless of their age grow fruit and veg, light camp fires, cook on camp fires, whittle, knife and tool work, den build and lots more exciting things. There is a huge emphasis on managing their own risks and using real tools and equipment to learn important life skills.
Inspiration is a huge leverage tool to motivate and make changes, often to better ourselves, our practice or indeed the wider circle within which we operate. My inspiration for this now "tradition" activity for the pre-school children at Highway Farm came from a you tube video of a setting in Norway. Our older children are further challenged through the outdoor pursuits and we wanted to explore ways to extend the pre-school children. 

As I watched the video, I felt an instant tingling of excitement and my brain rev into 5th gear. I was in awe of this group of children, 5 years old hiking up a mountain which was actually a weekly activity for them. That was it...... for me it was a must! 
The children at our pre-school are outside between 80-100% of the day in all weathers. Our environment is set up in a natural way that enables children to reach high levels of physical development very quickly. This was the challenge that we had been looking for! 
We a have just completed our 3rd annual Hike of the Hill. It takes the children who are 3 and 4 years old, over a 3.5 mile hike of varied terrain, including steep rocky incline, clambering over high rocks, styles, old granite steps and through scrub, heather and bracken that towers over their heads. 
There are various stops along the way for snacks, enjoying the far reaching views of coastline and countryside, a chance to spot local landmarks, homes and tin mines. We also chat about the huge cultural heritage that the Hike holds and part of the walk is that which miners would have taken on a daily basis to and from the mines, some of which not much older than those on the walk.

Last year we decided to make the hike a sponsored one to raise money for the pre-school and this year the children's families were also invited on the Hike. About 3 quarters of the way through we explore small tunnels and stop for a break on the door step of the castle.
We then hold a medal ceremony for them. Each child receives a medal for their efforts. 
Each year I love the drive and passion that the children always dig up to complete the hike. As adults, especially these days, we never seem to give children enough credit for what they are actually capable of. This Hike really emphasises their capabilities and determination to challenge themselves and the satisfaction and pride that they have completed such a memorable, physical achievement. 
Each year I am filled with emotion and job satisfaction that these children, families and staff can share such a magical experience together. One which will hopefully be remembered for life.

The trek is the only fundraiser that we do at our pre-school. Last year we raised money for our new sand pit, which was not only paid for by the sponsor money, but was also built by the parents, children and staff. This year we raised £390 (which is good for a small setting). We have ordered a set of large hollow blocks from Cosy Direct which is something that the children and staff have been wanting for a while.
Thanks again to all those who linked up in the last Outdoor Play Party, your support is really appreciated. My featured post from the last round up is from An Idea on Tuesday. In this fab post Niccola has lots of great ideas for bring maths outdoors & I just love the balance scales set her father-in-law has made.
  • Any kind of children's outdoor play-related posts are welcome!
  • We'd appreciate it if you included a link back to this post (either in your post or sidebar) to help us spread the word about the importance (and fun!) of outdoor play! In return, we'll gladly further share your post on FacebookTwitterPinterestPlease feel free to grab the Outdoor Play Party button from the sidebar and/or include a text link back. Please note that by contributing you are giving permission for an image and link to your post to be republished if featured.(If you have been featured, please feel free to grab the 'featured' button from the sidebar.) Share your ideas for outdoor play activities with us every other week!