Thursday, 10 May 2012

Following the Child’s Interest

“All of us do not have equal talent, but all of us should have an equal opportunity to develop our talents”  John Fitzgerald Kennedy

Ryan (5) is into 'where places are' and has a globe which he uses to see where the different countries are. For his 6th birthday he asked his granny, Jackie, for a world map birthday cake. When he told his dad of his special request Dad's comment was: "that's a bit of a tall order isn't it?" Ryan's reply was: "well, she'll just do the best she can!"


On his birthday Ryan received a huge wall map of the world and his dream cake; the first thing he did was to make sure that the flags had actually been placed into the correct countries checking each and every one of them! 

What impressed me is that a child this young has an interest in the wider world, he knows that the earth is round as represented on the globe but that it can also be represented flat on a map ..... or a cake. He also knows where the different countries are and not only that, he knows what the different flags look like....he certainly knows a lot more than me! 


It would be nice to know that Ryan's extensive knowledge and special interest in his subject is also celebrated at school; that he is able to share his knowledge with his class and is able use his special interest as a focus in his learning but unless teachers have the flexibility to follow the child's interest and for the planning to be child led this would be highly unlikely.
 Ryan’s sister, Elia, had requested a butterfly cake for her 4th birthday and again Jackie produced her dream cake. It is most likely that in her class there will be an exploration into butterflies as young children are generally interested in mini- beasts and teachers are very comfortable with doing the life cycle of a butterfly. Elia and many other children interested in this subjects will be able to share their knowledge and interest at school BUT not necessarily at the time when they have that interest; rather when the adult decides it is time to explore life-cycles. 


We all have different interests, talents and intelligences as well as different learning styles. Teaching a group of young children with different interests can be a challenge but I feel every child deserves to be taught in a manner that best suits them so that they can achieve THEIR true potential. As adults we can choose what interests us, we can choose to attend art classes or to go to physics seminars but young children in schools are often taught the subjects that are considered important by the adults even if these are subjects that may not be culturally relevant to some children and subjects where not every child has an interest or ability in that subject. 

Dr. Howard Gardner, a psychologist and professor of neuroscience from Harvard University, developed the theory of Multiple Intelligences (MI) in 1983. According to him we have nine different kinds of intelligence that reflect different ways we interact with the world. We all have nine intelligences but none of us have them in exactly the same configuration as we each have a unique profile. For Gardner, intelligence is the ability to create an effective product or offer a service that is valued; the skills to problem solve; being able to gather new knowledge to create solutions to problems. I would say that a child’s in depth investigation into something that really interests them and is relevant to them will display what Gardner considers intelligence; whether that child has an interest in nature, mathematics, music, language etc. 

In an ideal world children would follow and explore their interests in the classroom through a play based curriculum; children being part of the planning process and teachers having the confidence, freedom and ability to observe, assess and identify the learning that is happening to support child led planning. Could we strive towards this ideal world for our children?

BTW......... Jackie had got it right and Ryan did not need to correct any of the flag positions on his cake! 


Jackie drawn by Neve

One of our roles as the adult is to create an environment that allows children to have high levels of well-being and engagement so that they may reach their true potential - whatever that potential is.

“The child must know that he is a miracle, that since the beginning of the world there hasn’t been, and until the end of the world there will not be, another child like him”    Pablo Casals

Monday, 7 May 2012

A Natural Connection to Water ..... and Sand.

Play in the sand; splash in the water; get dirty; get wet. The beach is the only place my mom doesn’t get mad about me doing that stuff. Of course I love the beach!” Dixie Dykens (age 5)

There is something magical about water, I have a definite attraction and connection as I love beaches, rivers, ponds, lochs, dams, creeks, water drops and of course puddles!

When I am feeling stressed or just wanting to get out I often choose to spend time on our local beach, I am so fortunate to again have such an amazing facility near me and have always dreamt of having a rustic little beach hut, maybe sharing it with a good friend who has the same interests and emotional attachment to water. Maybe one day that dream will come true and I will have a little bit of beach paradise!

What is it about the ocean in particular? A beach walk is a sensory experience; the gentle rhythmic drone of the waves, the heat of the sunshine, the space and freedom both mentally and physically. The unpredictable find of sea-shells, seaweed and other ocean treasures, the daily changes in the environment created by the forces of nature as well as the manipulation by man. Do other adults feel that same connection, do children?

The variety of sand structures on the beach have always fascinated me and I decided to photograph the ones I came across this week ....”sandcastles” they were called when I was a child although some would not traditionally be classified as such!

Why do children (and adults) have this urge to dig, build sandcastles when there is a large expanse of sand? I have a number of theories but am sure there are many more!
  • Freedom to be really creative, there is no right and wrong way and there is no mess to be tidied.
  • Space to use your whole body or just your fingers, movement; running, jumping, cartwheels (wish I could!), rolling.
  • Sand and water are freely available and loose parts such as seashells, seaweed and driftwood can be found and added – each child sees a treasure in what they have found. There is no waste.
  • Adults are relaxed, maybe because they can see their child and are therefore not fearful of perceived risks.
  • Time is usually plentiful – adults tend to come to the beach for longer periods of time allowing children to really get engaged in an activity.   
  • Children do not feel judged and feel free to experiment without adult interference - unless the adult insists on helping because they might feel that it looks a bit sad to be seen building their own structures! 
  • A social experience, children can choose to work together. Observing children's play behaviours it is interesting to note how often children who have never met before will jointly tackle a sandcastle, working cooperatively and often without verbal instructions to each other, each child contributing what they feel is appropriate. 
  • Children instinctively choose to build near the water’s edge knowing that the water to sand ratio is vital and I believe that they also know that at the end of the exercise their hard work will be reclaimed by the incoming tide. Even very young children know that they cannot take their creation home – I have never seen a child having a temper tantrum because it has to stay there only upset children who have to leave the beach when they wanted to stay longer!


There is often no evidence of plastic castle mould shapes or buckets, in fact the castles I have seen children build have been built by hand, no spades, no buckets, only what nature provides – large shells and sticks for digging, hands for moulding. Parents offering the plastic bucket or spade often have that rejected as if children are seeking that added challenge and sensory opportunity of using only their hands or what they find in nature.

Too often I see small amounts of sand in an indoor sand tray, usually filled with so many brightly coloured plastic moulds, spades and buckets that the sand is not even visible. I found a piece of plastic litter on the beach and found the bright pink colour visually very intrusive. Then there is also often the rule “ do not mix the sand and the water” WHY not …….that’s the best bit! As not every child has access to beaches, how can we offer these experiences to those children too? Can we have a large sandpit outdoors, a sand-shed or a large tray and allow combined sand and water play? Can we remove some of the plastic man made resources and offer children natural materials such as shells, stones, seedpods, sticks, baskets, wooden and metal spoons, metal buckets, wooden bowls for sand play? I hope so!








What learning is happening?

LOTS!! Here a very random collection as they came to me…….Science, maths, problem solving, social development, fine and gross motor co-ordination, emotional development, language and communication both verbal and non verbal, proprioception (an awareness of where the body is), creativity, perseverance, inventions, knowledge and understanding of the world, realising the reward of epistemic play, realising the value of the intrinsic rewards as well as verbal praise from adults and peers, dealing with adversity, different sensory experiences, capacity and volume, shape, light and shadow, colour………………..    

“Children don’t make mistakes, they are discovering how things work and how to do it differently”

“We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean.

But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.” Mother Teresa

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Bush School - Nature Education in Australia

"I detest schools with a passion. 
My main beef with schools  is that they are an utter waste
 of young life because they don't educate. 
Education is preparing someone for life and schools fail to do that"  Terry Deary 

 I am in my element .....children, wild space, time, camera 
........and I am in a school!! 
A school unlike the ones described by Terry Deary

A space where you are trusted, a place for freedom, creativity and natural exploration.
Spirit of Play Community School is a small rural school in a picturesque old Post Office building in Denmark, Western Australia which is situated next to bushland and a creek. The teachers, Sarah and Regi, together with an enthusiastic group of parents approached me to support them in creating an identity for the school which has always had a strong link to the natural and indigenous environment. It seemed natural to develop a Bush/Forest school as there was already such a great passion and enthusiasm for nature education within the school. I am delighted to be supporting this development - in Scotland I had helped set up the internationally renowned outdoor Nature Kindergartens as well as being the Head of the Kindergartens until I moved to Australia, I am passionate about children having the time and freedom to really investigate what is important to them in a natural environment.
Feeling the natural environment - really being part of it

There are of  course many differences between Scotland and Australia; in climate, in fauna and in flora, in risks as well as in culture that I need to be aware of but these I can research to develop an understanding.  

I believe that children the world over develop, play and learn in a similar manner and that the curricular outcomes adults design and teach to, do not change that ..... children themselves are not dictated to by a changing curriculum. Deep level, long term real, contextual learning and understanding is achieved when children are motivated by the learning opportunity and this happens when children are allowed to influence the program and are also allowed to explore their interests in depth. Children do not learn in set 45 minute periods ......... that is not enough time to really explore and complete an investigation....... no wonder many children or young people struggle to complete tasks as they mature!

Being able to support children’s learning in a wild space is very different to working in a classroom and even in a garden. That very close connection to unprocessed nature allows us to really FEEL what nature is about, to realize and appreciate our place in it – to me it is something that is alive and is in ME and I believe children and adults can also feel that as they get to know and love the natural wild space; a spiritual connection. Children with a love and appreciation of wild nature will grow up to value and protect this environment for themselves and future generations.

I arrived at the school on the first morning of the term with my prepared interest box on 'tools', the children gathered around curious to find out what was in the mystery box.

As a group we created a 3D mindmap about saws to find out what knowledge the children had, then looked at the possible risks of using various different tools. We discussed and I demonstrated how to use the tools safely with children making the suggestions and rules. 

I demonstrated the new Treewrap™, the children helped to decide what should go into it for our adventure into the bush. ALL the tools, wire, twine, tarpaulin, shadow sheet!

Gathering at the garden gate the children counted how many children were present that  day, they then each picked up a special stone, placed it on a log and counted the stones. Each stone represents a child; on their return from the bush, children would take one of the stones off the log; if any stones are left they will know that somebody is missing – in this way children are part of taking care of the group's welfare.

Before crossing the track children sang a song looking left and right and then listening – a large noisy digger caused excitement; on the return trip they commented on the fast speed of a white car and declared it unsafe while the other car was much slower and safer. Once over the road children were trusted to run to the area in the bush they had identified as the space to explore on this day.

Children helped to wrap the Treewrap™ around a large tree rather than suspending it between two smaller trees; now they could select and have free access to the tools and resources displayed in the pockets or hung from the Velcro straps. A storage system allows adults to have an overview of what tools are in use; children are encouraged to bring tools and resources back and not to leave them lying on the ground.

Sticks used to mark make and to construct,

Everybody very quickly settled down – each child free to choose what they wanted to engage in and adults there to offer support if needed or requested but otherwise to record children’s comments and actions as well as observing and assessing the interaction and learning. Adults are or should be very much part of any high quality environment, observations and assessments are continuous and not intrusive to the children's play or concentration. It should not be necessary to set up activities to do this.

During the nearly 3 hours we were in the bush there were no arguments, no raised voices, children naturally shared, took turns  and also supported each other with self chosen projects. Adults commented on the calm purposefulness and full engagement every child displayed in their chosen activity - they all had a sense of agency.

Signing the first page of the Project Book
Sharing our reflections
Back in the school, after lunch and playing in the naturalistic garden we again gathered to allow adults and children to reflect on their experiences of the day. All the children were very keen to share their experiences of the day which together with photographs, the children’s voices and the planning possibilities adults have reflected on that come to inform future planning. Two children who had moved away from the group in the bush and had not immediately responded to the signals from the teacher were calmly encouraged to reflect on the situation and discuss possible solutions. All the children contributed to the session in a way they were comfortable with, some more verbal than others!
What did we do in the bush - did we learn anything?

"The challenge for us as adults is to be able to stand back, trust that learning is happening, identifying the learning and finding an appropriate  way to evidence and record this learning so that it is also meaningful to the children."

Splitting reeds and removing the soft centre
One child made a mini basket using reed she had picked herself. "You take out the soft in the middle, then you tear long bits until you have lots. You twist like this and then the other way, you count when you make it" I wish I had the manual dexterity she had!

The baby fairy bed
Two of the children created a fairy house using loose bits from their environment, while others contributed objects they had created using the tools. "The fairy house for tiny fairies. I need sticks, not those; this long and then another one the same. This is the bed, we need two [gum-nuts]. They fly here and there is a baby in that bed"

Many children enjoyed exploring what the hand-drill can do and took turns with the one we had, negotiating as well as sometimes compromising! This little boy was fascinated by the mechanism and technology of the hand-drill, he carefully watched the cogs move as he turned the handle. He experimented drilling into different branches and logs - some were soft and decomposing while others were very hard or still green. He drilled through a stick and tried to simultaneously drill through a gum-nut - concentrating to position the objects so that they lined up. He did not get frustrated but quietly persevered at the tasks he had set himself.
Drill through the stick and the Gum-nut
Helping to change the drill bit

Another little boy used the hand borer to make holes in a seedpod he had found and then pushed a piece of wire into the hole.

The soft wire was used to lash sticks together, to bend and to make little  figurines, to decorate the fairy house and also to bend and shape into different numbers!

The files were also very popular with children experimenting on different sticks and branches and using different angles of the file as they were easy to use and results were immediate. Some created patterns on sticks, while others worked on getting the wood as smooth as possible, I was impressed by the descriptive language these young children used.          
The saws were always in use! During the morning discussion we had examined the benefits as well as the risks and also looked at various procedure to reduce risk. In the bush most of the children chose not to wear a glove - they were gently reminded but once they confirmed that they knew what the possible risks were and what the procedures were to protect themselves against this risk and they still chose not to wear a glove the adults respected this choice.                                 

One child spent all his time in the bush creating a caterpillar world with a cocoon, a place for them to sleep or hide in as well as making a caterpillar using two sticks balanced at right angles to each other creating a triangle - very tricky until he tied them together with wire. Others joined him, contributing and then moving away again.

A great deal of time was spent on a very detailed mini shelter. One of the older boys initiated this activity and very soon some of the younger ones contributed as well by finding an assortment of natural materials and making suggestions as to how they could be used. The children treated each other with respect and kindness at all times.

The older boy shaped four small detailed figurines and placed all of  them on tiny logs around a mini log fire. "can't leave those in there when we go as that would be littering and not good for the environment" the older boy explained to the younger children. 
The shelter was measured in centimeters as well as inches so that it could be recreated at a later date or place. Some children felt it would be good to have a bigger shelter in the bush. There was a discussion about increasing the dimensions so that the children could use the shelter too. This resulted in a complex problem solving  mathematical discussion about ratios, percentages and surface area. The boy photographed his structure so that he could share it with his friends as well as having a copy himself as he took pride in what he had initiated.

The bush site the children had chosen this day had previously been used for an Aboriginal ceremony and white beach sand had been placed in a clearing. Children started to dig in this space and were excited to discover that below the the white sand they could find dark sand, stones and even some glass and plasterboard. They wondered how this could have happened and a number of different theories were offered by the children. They did not ask any  of the adult for their opinions!                        

As they compared holes, they noticed that all  the soil layers were of different depths in the  sand holes so fetching the tape measure they then set about measuring the depths of the layers in the holes and then comparing the differences between the holes.
One of the younger boys sat quietly gathering the different piles of sand into mini mountains next to each hole. He explained that all this sand came out of that hole and that the big hole had more sand and a bigger mountain than the small hole but if they did some more digging then they could make bigger mountains. The children discussed this with some claiming that sand from other holes could have got mixed up. I was impressed with his knowledge of displacement!

When it was time to go back to the school the children all tidied up making sure all the tools were packed and that no wire or twine had been left behind that could injure any bush creatures. They ran back along the track, some of them so confident in that terrain that they walked backwards, took an exciting short cut through a dry ditch to then enjoy their lunch outdoors - they all ate very well! A new rope web was very popular and the hammock was used to lie in as well as to turn themselves into a cocoon.

I thank all the children as well as parents and teachers for allowing me this opportunity to share my love of the wild space with them - I have been invited back and will most certainly be there when I have a day off .... as Wells N M (2000) stated."Proximity to, views of and daily exposure to natural settings increase children’s ability to focus and enhance cognitive abilities."
I KNOW they increase mine too!

“If we want children to flourish, to become truly empowered, then let us allow 
them to love the earth before we ask them to save it. Perhaps this is what 
Thoreau had in mind when he said, “the more slowly trees grow at first, the 
sounder they are at the core, and I think the same is true of human beings.”
-                                                      David Sobel, Beyond Ecophobi