Monday, 5 October 2015

All Settled-in.

Team work was needed to create this castle.
 After 5 weeks the nursery class have managed to blend together into one big class of 26, they had been in 2 separate groups for 3 weeks but for the last 2 weeks have enjoyed getting to know each other and enjoy being in a much bigger group than any of them have ever been used to before.

There are lots of firsts in the initial few weeks at nursery: saying goodbye to their parents, taking turns with toys, waiting for turns for an adults attention, putting on rain gear, taking off & putting on their own shoes etc., listening to a story in a big group, having lunch and dinner in nursery, going up to Bear Woods and making lots of new friends. It is no wonder that lots of parents report that they child is exhausted after a full day at nursery.

It is always interesting to watch how the 2 groups play differently and then whether this distinctive play stays the same when they join into the bigger class. For the first time in many years we have more girls than boys and whilst I don't like to stereo-type, they play can be very different. So far this class explores different parts of the playground as smaller groups e.g. it took 3-4 children going into the forest area for more to get their boots on & enjoy playing in the willow dens.

Amazingly this morning was our first wet outdoor play time - which is pretty good for 5 weeks. It is always better to get a few weeks of good dry weather under our belts before a wet day, as the children are better to have enjoyed wearing the rain gear to play in the mud kitchen by choice rather than having to wear it because it is so wet. On very wet days we always bring out the powder paints and allow the children to use the rain to make paint and decorate the playground. It was lovely to watch a small group enjoying just sitting in the rain today, painting some of the tree stumps whilst others played in the mud kitchen, making soup and hot chocolate.

Powder paint & rain - the perfect combination.
Each month we try to reinforce a different colour through a painting activity and the play dough. So today the children had fun making different coloured orange prints with some bottles. 
An orange wall display for October.
It will be interesting to see what the next 5 weeks brings for us all.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Taking life at a snail's pace!

So here we are 3 weeks into a new school year and most of the 26 children are well settled and thoroughly enjoying their time at nursery. They are in 2 small groups of 14 and 12 and tomorrow they go together to form one class for the first time. 
As there are just the two of us at most times, staff wise, this year, we have quickly realised that we are going to need to slow things down and not get too stressed if we don't manage to achieve all that we have planned for each day.
Sometimes we forget how interesting the everyday is to young children and this age group is definitely the best for making me stop to appreciate what we often rush past on a daily basis. So today, I found myself spending some time watching spiders spin their webs in the trees up in Bear Woods with the first group and then a small snail crawling up the shed with the second group.

At times like this I am reminded that the age of 3 and 4 is not just a stage to be rushed through to the next, these children have the right to experience everything at their pace and as their interest is piqued, to explore topics freely. So, that is our hope for the next few weeks and months as we all get to know each other better and learn how to cope in a larger group and find our place together - we will stop to look at the spiders, smell the flowers and watch the snails!

Friday, 11 September 2015

Bear Woods has become a real woods!!

The joy of running on ahead up to red circle!
We had our first visit to Bear Woods this morning and the children had been counting the sleeps until this momentous event! This little space has really come into it's own in the last few months, some the Alder trees are now about 12 foot high and we can really begin to see what shape the space will take in the next few years as the trees fill out and become sturdy enough to climb.
The space when it was first fenced off in 2013.
The class of 26 are still in two separate groups of 14 and 12 for a short 2 hour session each day so it meant we had lots of time to help get them ready for the visit by getting on their wellies and 'rain gear'. We have perfected a good system where we call a child at a time to hep them get dressed whilst the others play about in the playground and then whenever everyone is dressed we head off.
As this was their first visit, they had lots of new instructions - to walk on the footpath outside the nursery and to let a grown up go first and that grown ups are the only ones who open any gates in nursery however the best part of going to Bear Woods is that once we are around the corner from the school car park we can let the children run ahead up the hill to Bear Woods - we have a red circle on the gate that they must wait at for the rest of the class.
Once inside we had snack sitting on the new seats Cahal, one of the caretakers made over the summer. We did find they were a little too high and sloped & some of the children keep slipping down the seats like dominoes! However, Cahal has assured me it's no problem for him to adjust the height of them.
Our new seating that just needs a little tweak!
After snack the children were free to explore the site and even in the 2 month period since we were last there in June, it was amazing how much the space has filled in. The trees are much bushier and some provide gorgeous red leaves and berries - the children were told not to eat the berries but they enjoyed incorporating them into their play in the simple 'mud kitchen'.
How magical must this space appear to a 3 or 4 year old!
They found the slope a challenge and a lot of them were saying they had sore legs after running up and down the slope a few times. They enjoyed climbing up using the rope and then rolling down again - this is a skill they will develop over the year as today most rolled across rather down!
On the way back down again, the children had no problem accepting that a grown up would walk first as they were heading back towards the school car park. They got back to nursery just in time to get their rain gear off watch a short DVD and then it was time to go home.
I am truly grateful that this little space was planted and fenced off for the nursery children to enjoy year after year.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

8 days in, what skills have we learned?

An uncommon sight on the first day!
So after a lovely summer break I am back at school with 26 new children in the class. They have been at school for 8 days and are well settled into their two groups of 14 and 12, they have made some new friends, learned lots of new skills and are starting to trust us, the nursery staff more and more each day.
From the 3rd day we have kept the same routine - outdoor play, indoor play, story and home  - over the two hour period they are in nursery. As the days pass we have added more 'tasks' into the routine, like snack, tidy-up, signing in and out of class and choosing library books. Tomorrow we go on our first visit to Bear Woods and the children have been counting the sleeps to this momentous occasion all week. Many of the class have older brothers and sisters who have already told them all about nursery and Bear Woods, this has made our jobs easier!
These 26 children are playing really well together, already deploying the sand timers to ensure fair play and constantly amaze us at how much they can cope with in this new environment. We, as adults, who return to this job year after year, can forget how it is all new to the children and that they need time to learn the routine and get to grips with all the new language and rules. On the second day we had had the painting easel out, I was gently reminding a child that they needed to get their name to put on their picture, when they looked at me and holding out their apron, said 'But I have the name on' - which showed me that I had been giving too many instructions without checking that they actually understood the vocabulary I was using.
This is where the names are for all the artwork.
Today I was so impressed when all of the 25 children in school today were able to take their library book bag and walk through the classroom from the playground to hang it up on their coat peg - this is quite a feat and one that hasn't been done on the first day it's been introduced for a long time!
All the book bags hanging up on the correct pegs!

Friday, 4 September 2015

Nature and seasons.

The willow in summer.
One of the things I think most new school playgrounds do not take into consideration is providing planting that allows children to be surrounded by nature and to see seasonal changes. If I am totally honest, it is not something I consciously thought about when we were getting ready to move into our new space 9 years ago. We put a bush in a tyre in the middle of the playground without even knowing that it was deciduous! 
This bush allows the children to see our 4 very distinct seasons.
The nursery moved from one end of the school grounds to another and we suddenly gained lots of trees that were in the gardens of the nearby houses & thereby had a ready supply of leaves in Autumn to incorporate into our play. Now, the children get to see birds nests in the trees in Winter and Spring before the leaves fill in on the trees and the willow dens provide shelter in Spring and Summer.
This big tree is full of nests, we can hear the birds now but can't see them.

The willow is starting to provide great cover along the fence.
One Spring we planted some willow along the fence in the nursery and it is amazing to see how well it has grown and provides more shelter from the wind as well as making a lovely noise.
I love that Bear Woods allows the children to see seasonal changes first hand, from the red autumnal leaves to the lush green summer foliage with the bare stark stick like trees in Winter.
If it is at all possible, I would suggest schools seek advice from someone who knows about trees or planting to help enhance their grounds.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Collaborate & Learn Together.

Five and a half years ago I started this blog & if I think back as to why, it was mainly because I started to follow other blogs around 6 months earlier and the more I followed them and interacted with those bloggers, the more I started to think 'I do that too' and to realise that others might actually be interested in hearing about my practice. I was still surprised by how many people did begin to follow the blog and interact with me on a regular basis. I am the first to admit, I sometimes speak before really thinking, so a blog is good for this as I have to mull over my thoughts before blabbing them out into a post!!
Teachers in general are a secretive lot, in the main they do not play well with others, are terrible at sharing and prefer to teach behind closed doors. I say in general, as there is a growing movement within teaching that is very open to sharing and collaborating with each other, learning from each other and constantly questioning their own practice and striving to provide the best possible educational experience for those in their care.
I spent a weekend at a conference with two such teachers in 2012, one from primary and one from secondary and I was overwhelmed by their enthusiasm and passion for their jobs, new technology and for embracing the opportunity to learn from others around the world. The best step I took was to follow these two on Twitter as it opened a whole new network for me, or a Professional Learning Network (PLN) to give it the 'correct' term. It also introduced me to the wonderful world of #niedchat and so I found myself sitting in a lecture theatre in a local teacher training college on a Friday evening in October, surrounded by other teachers, attending my first #TeachMeet. @Daithi and @MrMalcontent had managed to persuade me to put my name into the hat as a presenter that evening, with the assurance that as there were over 30 presenters in the hat it was unlikely I'd be picked out. Mmmm how foolish of me to listen to those two, as lo and behold my name came out on second! The idea of #TeachMeet is that teachers sign up to give a presentation of either 2 or 7 minutes to colleagues, names are picked at random by an electronic rickety wheel! There are only a handful of people involved in organising these events and yet it is always run very professionally. 
As a nursery teacher, it was quite incredible to have an audience not made up of just other nursery teachers but colleagues from primary and secondary but the best thing about #TeachMeet is that it's about appreciating what others are doing not necessarily being always able to transfer what you learn to your own practice. So there were presentations on the flipped classroom to apps for helping language acquisition to myself talking about getting outdoors with nursery children. It was the passion and enthusiasm that struck me, I am used to this within the nursery sector but it is not as common in primary or secondary. Over the past two and a half years I have attended other #TeachMeet events that happen every 6 months or so and it has been a privilege to listen to colleagues who are striving to find the best ways to engage with the pupils in front of them. Those who attend these events are those teachers who are chatting about work long after 3.00 and at weekends, who are willing to share documents and ideas, who genuinely care about each and every pupil and who are willing to go that extra mile. They are the teachers who are always seeking out new and innovative methods to help enhance their teaching and most importantly they are the teachers who don't ask 'What is in this for me?'
This summer funding was suddenly withdrawn from the only CPD opportunity that teachers/educators  in N.Ireland have had in the past few years - the 3 day summer school from RTU. Most teachers heard the news and just accepted it. But the group who help organise the #TeachMeet heard this news and through a series of tweets began to organise a one day CPD opportunity run by teachers for teachers. They called it niedcamp and managed in a few short weeks to organise a fantastic day of collaboration and learning for teachers. I was fortunate to get to present twice at this event, firstly for an hour to other early years colleagues and later for 7ish minutes to colleagues across all sectors at a #TeachMeet that was organised to close the day. Weirdly it was in exactly the same lecture theatre where I had had that first opportunity to present and again, it was interesting to present to teachers who were not just from nursery. The whole day was such fun and considering this was taking place on one of the hottest, sunniest days of the summer and the last week of most our holidays, the turn out of over 350 teachers was impressive.
In conclusion I would say that sharing about practice be it through blogging or a short presentation at a #TeachMeet, has been one of the best methods of self-evaluation for me. It has helped me to reflect on why I do things the way I do and encouraged me to challenge why I feel the way I do about outdoor play. But most importantly it has allowed me to surround myself with a supportive network of like-minded colleagues who help inspire me daily to strive to be the best teacher I can be. 

The next TeachMeet will be in the Guildhall in Derry on the 18th October 2015.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Loose Parts = Creativity. Road Trip to Lithuania Part 3

Sometimes, no matter how much we think we know something, we have to actually witness it ourselves to truly believe it! 
Last month, I was fortunate to spend a week in the company of other educators as passionate about getting children outdoors as I am. 4 of us from very different settings and countries (Martin from an outdoor preschool in Cornwall, Unnur from a traditional nursery in Iceland, Lesley from a cooperative nursery school in Washington, D.C. and myself from a nursery unit in a primary school) all came together to help share our practice and experiences with educators, parents and children at 2 newly established outdoor nurseries in Lithuania - one in Vilnius and one in Kaunas called Lauko Darželis.
On the two days we spent in the nurseries I was able to see just why schools need to have loose parts on offer in their playgrounds. Young children are so open to new ideas and have that self-belief that they can make anything they want to from whatever resources they have to hand but somehow as children get older they seem to lose this ability. 
As I teach in a nursery unit in a larger primary school, I get to see most of the children I have taught as they move on up through the school. It always makes me a little sad when I encounter those same children who believed they could make anything or draw anything as 3 year olds, tell me as 8 or 9 year olds that they can't draw or wouldn't know how to go about making an aeroplane with junk. I know something is happening in our education system to stifle their natural creativity but until last month I hadn't really connected the importance of loose parts and this creativity.
A load of pallets and within a few minutes an insect hotel is created.
On the day we were in the Vilnius nursery Martin & Unnur spied a pile of pallets and immediately thought 'insect hotel'! They were able to grab a load of pallets and quickly make a basic frame for it, then some of the children and staff from the nursery began to fill in the hotel; they were able to find all of the necessary elements in the playground - sticks, logs, pipes, long grasses etc. As I watched the take ownership of the hotel and begin to fill it in I realised that by having all those component loose parts close to hand the nursery was allowing the children and adults to be as creative as possible. How many times do children want to make something to enhance their play, only to look around a playground and only see fixed equipment?
The bare metal structure getting it's woven 'walls'.
Another day at the nursery in Kaunas, we initially decided to make a temporary den using a metal frame that was already in situ, we found long, leafy branches to weave around the frame and then added larger trees branches to the roof to create a cosy den for the children. They immediately moved in to this space - getting longer branches to make a 'door' and adding containers and pine cones to create a 'kitchen'.
The children take control of this den and begin to make it theirs.
But this wasn't enough for the really creative members of the team! Martin, Unnur and Lesley began to look about for another project and when a member of staff mentioned that they would ned a sleeping area for the following week when the children began to attend full time, Martin spied the potential of a clump of trees! All that as needed, that wasn't already on site were some tarps and ropes and hey presto, within a matter of hours a sleeping area had been created amongst the trees. As I watched this unfold, it again struck me that none of this could have happened without the necessary components being  readily available. This time, of course, it wasn't loose parts, strictly speaking, as they had to cut trees and branches to get the basic frame but this project showed what can be achieved in the right environment. If playgrounds have sticks, logs, crates, tyres and tarps readily available at playtime, then if/when they wanted to children could build shelters.
As I witnessed these projects I realised that children and adults can only be as creative as their environment allows them to be and that by letting children spend time in a natural environment like the woods or to be surrounded by loose parts, we can but only help them to become or remain creative.
The finished shelter getting an entrance!

Please read some more about our time in Lithuania here:

Martin teaches at Highway Farm Activity Centre
Unnur teaches at Leikskólinn Stekkjarás