Defending the fort!

storming the fort


Imagine this scene. War cries echoing throughout the grounds, battle drums thundering their intoxicating rhythms, driving warrior clans, decorated in muddied war paint, to boldly declare their conquering intention to clans whose mud spatted faces identify them as the enemy. Weapons held high, threatening, posturing, reeking of bravado.  Defend the fort! The generals observe from the hill, iPad’s in hand documenting all of the learning, linking to the Australian curriculum, school philosophy, and valued learning dispositions.  This was my experience at a city based primary school.

In the last month, I have visited many schools. Loose parts are on the rise. Sometimes teacher driven, but mainly student driven.  Students scour the school grounds for materials they can use to create forts, cubbies and other special places. With these meagre resources, they create places they can call their own. Ownership of environment is important, and at school many students feel they are at somebody else’s place. They feel, every time they carve a little niche the ‘man’ takes it away.  Often the cubbies and their resources are taken away.  The most common reason is, the students end up fighting over the finite resources, and people get hurt. This is true. I have seen it with my own eyes at many sites. The cubby building is motoring along, until they consume all the resources. First, they playfully ‘steal’ from other forts. This escalates, until conflicts break out. “Teacher! They are stealing our sticks!” is a popular catchphrase.

What happens next is interesting. At a recent conference, I heard South Australian teacher’s main pedagogies were building relationships (good) and rescuing (not so good). Some schools rescue the students from these problems (and the problem-solving skills needed to overcome them) by banning cubby building. I was at Keith area school and I noticed their students created a fort village, and had exhausted the resources. Somebody did steal some sticks (hey, they are kids after all), however the verbal exchange that followed was logical and respectful. It went something along the lines of “but I need the sticks!” “I know you do, but stealing is the wrong way of getting something”. They went on to negotiate a way forward that was win-win.

I asked their teacher why this was. She said they have had loose parts in their yard for quite a while, and they have already addressed this element in their school curriculum.   Their school has some huge banners out front saying Respect, Courage, Cooperate, and Achieve. It seems having loose parts in the yard affords teachable moments to help students gather positive experiences developing these dispositions. This was echoed by the iPad laden Generals who noted, without these learning experiences how are children going to master the executive function skills needed to move through our complex challenging world. DEFEND THE FORT!

When nature falls from the sky.

kids in the rain

When nature falls from the sky.

Some sites say they don’t have a lot of nature. Some say they are saving, through fundraisers and grants to get nature. And some run away and hide from nature. At a recent seminar at Upper Sturt Primary school (You remember, the bush school), they said nature is everywhere. Clouds are nature, wind is nature, dirt is nature, and earwigs are nature. Even rain is nature. When so many places are spending up big to bring nature into their sites, I always think it’s strange that when nature comes a calling, they run away. I was at a preschool in Mitcham, and it was 12 degrees and windy, and the BOM radar said big rain was heading our way. We spent the next half an hour with one eye pointed to the skies trying to identify the clouds that would bring this ‘nature from above’. We noted wind direction, and speed, we classified clouds based on their shade, and ‘seriousness’, and tried to identify which one was heavy enough to drop its rain. So much science learning, and the rain hadn’t even come yet.

When it did come, it came hard. It was icy, and the yard turned into the Aratiatia rapids. The children morphed into manic elves, jumping and hollering. Many standing face up drinking the rain, while others flapped their wings soaring high amongst the clouds. The teachers observed a couple of girls, who didn’t want to get messy, standing under a waterfall, letting it flow all over their faces, while another group took off their raincoats, and let the water soak them to their bones. One of my observations was, the children were behaving just like the birds in the trees. When big rain comes, things get really exciting. Imaging that. Exciting nature play, with maximum engagement, and it was all free.


Junk, litters, and STEM.

stem vehicle I was at the Keyneton Primary school the other day. This was the final of three days based on STEM. The students had familiarised themselves with the resources and this final day was a STEM challenge. They had to make a vehicle that could carry a person 10 metres using only the junk and nature I brought. One group was very sophisticated. They had many ideas, and ended up creating something that moved like the tracks of a tank. The team I was watching was thinking about how the Egyptians moved the pyramid rocks. They couldn’t think of any way to pull it off and were getting frustrated. Suddenly one student shouted, we should just make one of those things they use in China (a litter). She explained to the others it was the human powered carts used in Kung Fu Panda. One pallet and two sticks latter, and they had met their challenge and proudly marched across the school yard to demonstrate their accomplishment. I asked her, how did she suddenly come up with this, just as they were giving up. She said she looked at her friend (who was Chinese) and the idea hit her like a bolt of lightning.  Part of learning science is learning about thinking scientifically. Historically, many scientist ideas came to them like a bolt of lightning from some strange dream, or an irrelevant trigger. They went on to test their litter with various carrying capacities, and shapes and were excitedly engaged till the end of the session.

When mud kitchens explode

mushroom cloud muddy

The day started off pretty normal.  I was running a mobile junk and nature playground at a school, and every grade was spending a lesson in it. Over by the pop up mud kitchen, kids were commenting on the feel of the mud, the smell, the sounds. Some wondered if it was mud or dog poo. They rubbed it on their hands, added it to pots, pans, and old tins, and rolled it into balls. By lunch time we had gone though 40 litres of mud. Then it was the grade 7’s turn.

First they couldn’t believe they were allowed to play with it. Then they couldn’t believe their friends wanted to play in it. It was revolting, slimey, and some said it stank (it smelt like wet soil). And then just like that…It exploded.

It was horrible! Mud everywhere. Grade 7’s covered head to toe in sticky gooey mud. It was hanging in clumps from their hair, dripping from their faces. Their clothes became a uniformed brown. Tears washed mud from beneath their eyes. Tears of laughter. The teachers watching, couldn’t believe the scene. Their grade 7’s, the kings and queens of the primary school, running around screaming in delight throwing mud at each other, looking like 6 year olds. Gone were the mobile phones, sneaky eye make-up and pretend teen-age talk, replaced with extreme nature play. The mud fighting hung around the mud kitchen, and all those who entered knew what they were getting in for. The battle levelled traditional power structures, as the girls displayed a keen eye for precision and strategy, while the innocuous book worm attacked with stealth. This play went on for 30 minutes. It never escalated into anything else, but fun. It was reciprocal, measured, and challenging for all who participated. Not a bad activity for a grade 7 lesson. Engage in an extreme, challenging battle, needing self-control, resilience, and social connection (not a bad collection of learning dispositions)

The grade 7 teachers were pretty excited watching their ‘grown up’ students. “This is an age where there is so much pressure to grow up, yet something as simple as mud gave them an opportunity to still be kids” said one teacher.

Cant wait to see what this school does for international mud day June the 29th!

A log gorilla and the DECD’s literacy indicators.

I was at the Southern Flinders. A couple of days earlier it was 38 degrees and a hot dusty North Westerly was blowing. This day was a reprieve. Only 32 degrees. With a gentle hot northerly blowing. That’s alright though, because I was actually in a lush jungle feeding a baby gorilla some mashed banana. A new friend handed me the crying infant to nurse, while she prepared the mash. Shhh, she whispered to the baby, “its coming.” “She hates waiting for her food” she tells me.
I might have to step back a little. We were crouched under half a ton of sticks piled high on some climbing frames, nursing a baby gorilla sized log, feeding it a mash made from pulverised ochre. I accidently started the gorilla thing by saying I wonder if the roof could hold my weight, as I weigh as much as a gorilla. Ten minutes later a group constructed a gorilla nest, they become gorilla mums, the logs became hungry babies and the rocks were crushed to become baby food.
I love a good theorist. What would have Vygotsky said about this. In one of my favourite bedtime reads, Mind in society (Vygotsky 1978) Vygotsky reasons, when an object becomes a symbol for something else (such as the log becoming a baby gorilla), then higher order thinking is needed. And Vygotsky also sees a continuum from linking a log to a gorilla, to, linking a scribble on a piece of paper to a sound or word. They are both symbolic representations of something. A plethora of research supports this.
Schrader (1990) notes many ‘studies have suggested that children use similar representational mental processes in both symbolic play and literate behaviour’. Pellegrini and Galda (1993, p.167) argued, ‘the symbolic transformation component of symbolic play seems important for the early writing of preschool children’.
Another way research has found symbolic play supports early literacy is the fact it encourages metalanguage. My new Gorilla friend was talking to me as a mum gorilla. She was telling me about the woes of Gorilla motherhood, and then without blinking, she became a four-year-old girl, and she asked me where I got the rocks from. This ability shows her understanding of language. Talk like this, and you are a gorilla mum, talk like that and you are yourself. Pellegrini and Galda’s research highlights the affordance symbolic play has, when it comes to talking about language.
The DECD literacy indicators have something to say about all of this. One of the four indicators are “I represent my world symbolically”. Understanding conventions of text, being a key element. For my Four year old gorilla mum, using language to flick from Gorilla mum to four year old, and flipping from genre’s, Narrative, to a discussion, show, she is on her way to master the complex world of literacy.
And the last word goes to Singer (1961) who says “abstract symbols provide distance from ‘‘the bondage of direct sense perception’’

DECD 2015, Implementation guidelines for indicators of preschool numeracy and literacy in government preschools, South Australian Government, South Australia.
Pellegrini, AD & Galda, L 1993, ‘Ten years after: A reexamination of symbolic play and literacy research’, Reading Research Quarterly, pp. 163-175.
Schrader, CT 1990, ‘Symbolic play as a curricular tool for early literacy development’, Early Childhood Research Quarterly, vol. 5, no. 1, pp. 79-103.
Vygotsky, L 1978, Mind in society: the development of higher pschological processes, Harvard University Press, London.

Smashing things for fun (or. To smash or not to smash. That is the question)


One thing I have seen a lot of, is smashing things for fun. I know there are some smashers who do it because they are angry and have no well-being, but I’m talking about the ones that smash for fun. The way this affects educators can vary. Some think “you little bugger. You’re going down for that”, while others look at it and wonder what is happening in the smashers mind. How can smashing further learning? Is there legal smashing? I have a confession…. I’m a smasher. When I was a kid, my siblings and I ended up smashing every window in the derelict farm cars. In the farm junk pile, we smashed every old window we found. We even smashed up asbestos sheets (it was the 70’s after all). We didn’t smash peoples house windows. That would be wrong. We didn’t smash because we were bad, or angry, we smashed because it was interesting, full of wonder and fun. The sound, the imagery. The way a flat piece of glass would instantly change into a thousand sharp little squares, or a hundred razor sharp knives. I have camaraderie with the exploratory, fun-seeking smashers out there.  With my Mobile Junk and Nature Playground I have, what I refer to as, legal smashing. Pounding rocks into dust using railway nails, and hitting drums with sticks as hard as you can.  You can even smash yourself around in a plastic 44-gallon drum as you roll down a hill.

Do learning environments cater for the smasher? While I don’t think kindergartens should have a beer bottle smashing wall, a mud throwing wall would satisfy many smashers urges (Hmmmm, dry mud balls smashing on a wall…sweeeeet).  Some may feel that kids won’t be able to tell the difference between legal smashing and ‘illegal’ smashing. Alfie Kohn talks about the teacher’s image of a child as being the starting point on how they teach. If you think smashers are nothing but a bunch of little buggers, then maybe you have a deficit view on children’s behaviours, and you may feel you need to teach ‘smashing’ out of them.  If you think children are competent learners, then maybe you will see smashing as a child’s interest and program learning from it.

How to grow your risk taking muscle


I’m a risk taker. I ride a Harley powered garage built death trap, chase snakes and perform art in public (perhaps the most dangerous activity). I’ve identified my risk bias and am conscious of it when working with children. Even with my risk bias kept in check, I rarely see children do anything that I consider dangerous at education sites. While I don’t consider having sword fights on the kindy roof a safe activity, I don’t see climbing a child constructed cubby, a hazard. I have high expectations of children’s abilities and believe they can self-risk assess.

Except for the exceptions.  Over the last 4 years I’ve travelled all over the state to hundreds of sites, and it wasn’t until last week I had to step in and let a kid know what they were about to do was unsafe. He tied a thin stick between two trees (2 metres above the ground), above an unruly collection of pallets placed there earlier, and was about to cross.

Do some children have no concept of risks. Some people think so. Maybe he was one of the many children who rarely find themselves in risky situation, therefore his risk assessment ability is under developed. Over the years I have seen children like that removed from risky play. Maybe they should be given more opportunities to test their risk assessment ability.

4 myths of the assessor’s view of nature based loose parts environment

For the last four years I have been travelling around South Australia with my mobile junk and nature playground. Large sticks, rock crushing, mud and scrap yard goodies have been introduced to hundreds of sites. How these environments look in the eyes of the Education Standards board has always been a concern. I organised a meeting at their office with one of the assessors. To my delight, she asked if six of her colleagues could sit in on the meeting. I entered the meeting armed with a collection of photos and a belly full of experiences, and we shot the proverbial poo for 2 hours.  Here is a list of four myths that we busted in our discussion.

1. The regulations are too strict! At many sites I visit I hear how we are over               regulated, and everything is illegal.   The climbing frame can’t be more than 60cm high, water can be no deeper than 2cm, brown snakes should be kept 4 feet away from toddlers. In regards to height, the national law 167 states; … ‘that every reasonable precaution is taken to protect children …from harm and from any hazard likely to cause injury.’


I’m not insinuating that anybody in the education world is Hitler by using this pic!

No numbers are mentioned. It’s the service provider’s policies that set these whimsical numbers we are meant to follow, and most service provider’s policies err on the side of caution (some providers ERRRRRRR on the side of caution). Luckily NQS encourages policies to be developed in conjunction with staff and families, so maybe things will evolve. 

2. Don’t argue with the assessor! Challenge the assessors! If you think they got something wrong, speak up. Defend your practices. Your argument may offer some background they are not aware of. The discourse will illustrate your passion, and reasoning behind your pedagogy. They won’t interpret this as a front to their ‘authoritah’.


3.Yards have to be neat and tidy. Nature play is dirty and unhygienic. National Regulations (regulation 103) state ‘The premises and all equipment and furniture used in providing the education and care service must be safe, clean and in good repair’. How does a mud kitchen, made of old pallets, logs and rusty milo tins, or an old goldfish pond filled with mud and sticks fare, compared to a pristine rubber matted plastic castle environment? Well for starters regulation 113 states kids outdoor areas should contain nature. Mud and sticks are nature. Rubber comes from nature, but those rubber matted yards sure aint nature. Chaotic natural and recycled loose parts filled learning environments show educators taking risks with their pedagogical thinking, while stagnant ‘old school’ plastic and rubber wastelands show educators who fear change, and don’t push educational boundries. Assessors realise nature based outdoor play is messy. As long as they are cooking with mud, and not dog poo, everything is fine. Soiled nappies in the lego box on the other hand…….


The picture to the left shows a learning wasteland, while the picture to the right shows evidence of engagement and learning

4. You need to show a paper trail as long as the Nullarbor.  It is really handy to have documentation up to date. NQS and regulations state this in many places. A well-documented risk benefit assessment of your outdoor environment is good practice. That doesn’t mean, when the kids grab a log and tie it to a couple of chairs, you have to stop them until the correct paperwork is filled out. a12lifecover_edited-1

Kids play is dynamic, and there isn’t enough forest in the world that can produce the paper needed to document all the risks they encounter. As educators, we conduct dynamic risk benefit assessments all the time. It is poor practice to stop children’s playing, so you can write up a risk assessment form, yet it is good practice to allow children to play, learn and develop in a continuous uninterrupted activity (so says Piaget). Dynamic risk benefit assessment allows educators to monitor and modify children’s play, with minimal interruption, so hazards don’t appear (it might be a good idea to include the educators Dynamic risk benefit assessment skills as part of your normal risk benefit assessments).

So what does this all mean?

Throughout the meeting the overarching theme was, in regards to outside nature and risky loose parts play, the new regulations are not black and white. They are purposefully designed to be open to interpretation. This allows sites to have a certain level of autonomy. This respects the fact that educators know a lot about the ecology of their site and the kids within. And as long as the educators can confidently communicate the sound pedagogy behind all their decisions, then all their fears belong in the myth camp along with bigfoot, loch ness monster, and a fair and just government. So get out the mud and sticks and bump up the learning opportunities.

Struggle town


To the rescue.

I was at a kindy the other day and a 4-year-old was trying to cross the roof of a cubby the others had made. She was moving very slowly, and externalising her inner dialogue (handy because my ESP is erratic). It went something like this:

4 year old: Oh!…..It’s wobbly….I can’t……my foot is going to……I don’t know how to get across……Oh!!……I….I…I just got….to….get….my leg…….I’m stuck…..I’m stuck.

At this stage she hadn’t asked for help, so I stood nearby watching with a weird smile on my face that said something like, “You’re doing alright, if you need anything…”. Unfortunately, I think the teacher standing nearby thought this smile meant “look at you struggle little child, I am the struggle vampire, I FEED OFF OF CHILDREN’S DESPAIR. HA HA HA!”, so she asked if I could help the child across. Not to seem like a vampire feeding off of despair, I said sure. I stepped a foot closer, and said to the 4 year old “you seem to be working it out”. She looked up, then back to the task of climbing with no comment. I observed her climb all the way across, still muttering to herself, and when she made it, she smiled and said to herself “I made it”, then ran around and did it again.

I was at a seminar a while back and they said South Australian teacher’s pedagogy was based on relationships (Good), and rescue (Bad). It seems we are a caring lot, and watching a student struggle was not on the cards. We can’t bear to watch the poor little blighters struggle so we jump in and help. Research shows, this struggle zone is where kids learn the most though. So if you see a teacher and they seem to have a sadistic smile on their face while a child struggles to climb a cubby roof, maybe they are not a cold heartless vampire feeding off of despair, maybe they are actively teaching, by not interfering with a child’s learning.

Is your kids’ shirt more important than their education? or Messy play and parents: do they mix?


One of the favourite activities in my Mobile junk and nature playground sessions is the mud kitchen. As you would expect, kids get pretty muddy while mixing wombat stew, mud pies and chocolate pizzas. Due to the open-ended nature of the play experience, mud will travel over to the cubby building areas, and get used as a fixing agent or wall cladding (like the wattle and daub days). Even the junk instruments can cop a mud coating. That’s no problem, because it is just mud, and it washes off.

Let’s deconstruct that last sentence. That’s no problem because it is just mud, and it washes off. Key words in that sentence are, no problem, just mud, and washes. These days fewer and fewer educators are concerned with messy play, as they keep up to date with the latest research and understand the enormous learning opportunities it can offer. Parents, on the other hand, seem to suffer mess aversion more than ever before. Every educator has heard a parent warn their child to stay away from the mud pit, or paints, and many have been approached by a parent, demanding their child be kept away from the messy play. Citing a busy work schedule, parents don’t have time to pick up a messy child, then have to clean them. Let alone all the hours spent scrubbing on the washboard to clean their clothes. I would love to print a t-shirt that says ‘Is your kids’ shirt more important than their education?’  A real dilemma is, how do we keep a parent happy, yet offer the best learning environment for their child.

If we uncritically follow the parents request, and guide their child away from messy play, what does this exclusion look like throughout the day. How does little Timmy feel, when all his mates constructed the deepest dam ever in the mud pit, while he gets to draw with crayons (not the red one though, because that stains). What about little Kelly in her Sunday best, having to use pencils instead of paint. How spectacular does her rainbow sunset look. These exclusive practices will affect a child’s wellbeing and connection to their learning community. Some sites have addressed this issue of exclusivity by totally removing messy activities, such as mud pits. That means, unchallenged parental concerns have removed amazing learning opportunities for all children, not just the ones whose parents don’t have automatic washing machines or bath tubs (washboards and outside hose downs must be the reason cleaning is too hard).

The Early years learning framework has children’s learning at the core, yet one of its principles is to work in partnership with parents. How do we counsel these two opposing forces? A few strategies that I have seen over the years seem to be successful.


Have messy play clearly articulated in your site philosophy, parent handbooks and newsletters.

For all new parents, knowing what the sites pedagogical values are before they enrol, will give them the opportunity to know what to expect. They can make a choice if this site is right for them.


Document the hell out of messy play learning.

It’s hard to be averse to a messy play activity, when the immense learning contained in it, is made visible. Whether this is done with annotated photos, learning stories, or through parent discussions, making messy play learning visible is a salient strategy. One site videotaped their child constructing a dam with friends. The play was purposeful, creative, social and full of problem solving. When the parent saw how getting dirty was a side effect of amazing learning, and not the main game, she understood it better.


Have messy play clean up procedures.

Some sites get the kids out of the mud pit and cleaned up half an hour before pack up time (the kids change themselves and put their dirty clothes in their bags). The site provides boots, and spare clothes if needed. Other sites get parents to supply ‘work’ clothes that the kids change into before they head off for their days’ messy work in the kindy.


Listen to the parents

Some parents feel that dirty children are neglected children. They need to be wearing clean clothes in good repair to reflect the care they are giving as a parent. They worry what their community will think if their child is seen walking around covered in dirt, with holes in their knees. This is a real concern that shouldn’t be discounted, as these images are often connected to neglect and abuse. Working in partnerships means, two sides work together to arrive at a point where it’s a win-win situation. If a parent feels they are being discounted, while the educator feels they are the professional with all the knowledge, then trusting relationships cannot be forged. By listening to parents and together working towards addressing their concerns, rich learning environments can be created.