A log gorilla and the DECD’s literacy indicators.

gorilla
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’’

References
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.

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

smasher

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

death-defying

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.’

hitlers-climbing-frame

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’.

batman-slapping

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…….

thumbs-up_edited-1

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

struggle

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?

dirty-t-shirt

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.

Can I have my nature play cake and eat it too?

nature-play-continuum

Can you pick and choose Nature Play?

A couple of comments I heard recently got me thinking about educator’s views on what is nature play.  One comment was “I suppose you will be getting more bookings, now that the weather is getting better?”. And the other one was “we can’t go down to the back area, because of the bees”. It has been a very wet year, and normally I don’t cancel sessions because of the rain. I always call rain ‘nature falling from the sky!’ However, a few days it was a top of 9 degrees, 50kmh winds with heavy rain. Personally I would chuck on a rain coat and get amongst it, but I know some sites aren’t conditioned to such craziness, so I postponed them for another day. I think it’s a shame though, when so many fantastic outside learning experiences are lost, because the site isn’t set up for normal wet weather outdoor play. I had a discussion with a really cool teacher who questioned the notion some have regarding nature play. She asked “why are they talking about their nature play environments, yet pulling the kids out of them, when nature appears?” Rain, bees (not swarms of Killer bees), spiders, snakes and wolves are nature, just like daffodils, rainbows and log stepping stones (maybe wolves are pushing it).  Good nature, and evil nature. It is great seeing nature play popping up everywhere. Even schools are getting into it. A lot of sites are only dipping their toes into the nature play waters at the moment. Testing the water, so to speak. Jump in! Go deeper. It’s more fun than the shallows. The waters fine. I’m sure the sharks won’t hurt. Sharks are nature too! (disclaimer: I’m not suggesting you should swim with sharks, unless you really want to) Statistically, driving your kids to a nature play environment is way more dangerous than the nature play environment.