Wednesday, 29 December 2010

The language of leaping

Even in that frantic run up to Christmas the Foundation stage children (aged three to five) who had been working on the treehouse were reflective of their experiences. The tree house building which has been recorded here and here ground to a halt when we found we had a structure that we could leap off.

The staff in the setting and I were really fascinated by the pictures of them jumping. They seemed to look so calm and so dramatic all at once. So I made some time to sit with the children looking at the pictures and reflecting on their experiences and exploring the language of leaping.


I really like the way their reflections involve some real emotional literacy, Frank thinking about how his future self would feel looking at a picture of himself now, Oscar talking about how he managed his emotional state at the time, Kaleb noticing his own and the emotions of others. The comments on the pictures also reflect how much fantasy and dramatic play was going on, the acting out of characters and superhero personae and the sheer volume of imaginative language around flight and flying. 

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Who goes there? Who went there?

Snow that is covering lots of the UK at the moment and when I've been out and about I can't help keeping my nose to the ground looking for tracks. Walking up on the moors on Sunday (before it got so deep) we noticed a regular little round regular mark, keeping pace with some human footprints. 
It took a little while for it to dawn on me, we were following the tracks of someone walking with a stick. Further up the hill was a perfect imprint of a walking pole in the snow. We both gleefully pointed it out "look, look he dropped his stick!"

I've written before about how working with children and nature shouldn't be just about naming  but should also be about engaging and inspiring a love of the natural world. 
Children, unless they are brilliant at being still and silent, often miss the opportunity to observe birds and animals in their natural habitat. Tracks are wonderful because  they leave a record of what has happened minutes or hours before you were there. From these you can try and guess what the behaviour was that caused the tracks.

We spotted all sorts of different tracks during the course of our walk:
These large bird prints stomped resolutely down a steep slope and then even more resolutely up a steeper slope. We followed them off as they crossed our path, went round a tussock of grass, then followed a stream bed. On the really steep bits we could also see drag marks of a long tail. This has to be a bird that would choose walking over flying, to walk up such a steep slope.

This was something that had a pretty good ability to hop, and a thin tail that dragged on the ground in between it's feet. Maybe it was in a hurry as it crossed the open ground, it didn't seem to bother using it's front feet much. 

More little prints but these include smaller prints. This means it was using it's front feet as well as it's back feet. It also seems to have changed it's mind and gone backwards and and forwards a few times.

Then with a 'hop, hop, wiggle' it has gone down a hole and under the snow. To try and work out what was going on in some off the prints we even did the actions of what we thought would have made them, looking back at our own prints or imagining and acting out what the animal would be doing to leave prints behind like this. 

For children, especially those children who learn kinaesthetically, moving and wiggling around is an engaging way to learn about wildlife; what it does, and why it might be doing it.  Focussing on the behaviour rather than just naming the owner can give you entertaining insights into what is going on around us all the time, we just don't normally see the evidence.

There are lots of  guides to UK animal signs available, some can be downloaded from here and here. The Field Studies Council produce a wonderful laminated fold out guide which I find really easy to understand and especially great for lots of children to look together. All the information is laid out rather than being on lots of separate pages. I find Tom Brown's Field Guide to Nature and Survival for Children  really inspiring. Although it is an American book he does a lot to encourage the tracker to think like the animal and observe behaviour from tracks.

Mud and sand are also brilliant mediums for recording who and what has gone before you. I was first really inspired by tracking when I went out into the Namib desert with a tracker called France. Just listening to him I wanted to know everything he knew. He could tell from the sand who had walked next to who, whether it was an old man or a young man or woman. He could tell exactly where the lizard was hiding out, how quickly the oryx were travelling and he told us the most useful skill  a tracker possesses is to tell who exactly had been laying in the sand next to your wife. He had such a keen observational sense it made me look around me in a completely different way.

If the only footprints you find around where you live are from cats, dogs and humans then track them! Early mornings or after a fresh snowfall are best, before it gets too confusing. You might spot some tracks on a roof like these that Emma of Sew Recycled saw. The drag marks are from a slinking belly, the paws neatly walking in file, it looks like someone is stalking the birds.

On the left are some prints from a rabbit or hare, the four marks made by the small front feet and the long back feet, I always think they look a bit like a spooky face, so I couldn't resist some additions of my own:

Wrap up warm if it is snowing near you and go and see who and what has been wandering around when you weren't looking.

Monday, 29 November 2010

The builders take a break

As the children had their lunch I went up to the treehouse site (if you are new to this project then catch up here and here). I wanted to check things over and see what things looked like without half a dozen small bodies on top of the walls and door frame. A group of girls came out after their lunch and watching them playing in the treehouse distracted me so I didn't get a chance to get any tools out. As more and more children arrived they climbed up and over the walls, which being made from pallets are like ladders.

It wasn't long before the first person tried an experimental leap.

There are a number of blue crash mats in the garden and a teacher and I dragged them over to the treehouse. Another child leapt, then another.

What fascinated me is the play behaviours that I observed in these children, who are aged four and five were identical to the play that takes place on self-build adventure playgrounds. I spent some time as manager of an adventure playground and this sort of deep play was common. Deep play, is defined by Bob Hughes in his  book A Playworkers Taxonomy of Play Types, 1996 London, PLAYLINK, UK  as  play which allows the child to encounter risky or even potentially life threatening experiences, to develop survival skills and conquer fear. 
There is a view that this sort of play is uncommon in  the early years stage but there was nothing that I could perceive that distinguished this from the play behaviours of  much older children. For some they were truly overcoming some deep fears and apprehension, their trepidation palpable as they climbed for the first time and stood on the top of the pallet. Others, seeing another child leap, were straight up and over, crashing into the mat. Some would jump from a sitting position. Each child, assessing, choosing and managing their own level of risk taking. Their confidence building with each turn they leapt again and again.

One boy was desperate to be part of the leaping but his fears kept overcoming him. He would climb on the pallet, getting higher each time before deciding it was too high, climbing down and coming to lean against me. I tried to help him recognise the achievement of climbing to the top and the teacher encouraged him to try jumping from a sitting position, as others were. He climbed again but didn't jump, instead he chose to swing down on the door frame. For him this was a challenge as great as leaping in the air from the top of the pallet. What constitutes deep play will always be different for every child. He reminded me of a group of boys at the Adventure Playground who built a jumping tower with platforms at different heights. One boy was involved in leaping from the lower platforms for a whole week before he climbed to the top platform. He must have spent over an hour waiting on that platform watching his friends before he felt ready. Once he had made that first leap he had overcome that fear and jumped again and again. 

What I really love about working alongside the teachers and children in this particular setting is their acceptance of the children's desire to take risks. Perry Else in his book The Value of Play, London, Continuum books 2009,  says
"The aim of deep play is not really to die but to experience the thrill of close encounter, letting us know we are fully alive and so helping us conquer our fears. Quite often when adults see children engaged in deep play they may feel compelled to intervene to keep the child safe. This then results in children who may feel unable to take risks on their own terms. We need to understand that taking risks is helpful to children in building up their resilience to the challenges of the world."

The role of the teacher and I was to make sure everyone did take any risk on their own terms, that no one felt physically or emotionally pressured to do a jump they didn't want to do. Some children watched or stood at the top of the pallet for quite sometime before they decided to leap or climb back down. With a press of bodies behind waiting for a turn it could be a challenge to give each child the space and time to decide how and what they wanted to do.

The addition of a heap of cloaks deepened the role play element of the leaping as batman, 'wonder-super-hero-girl', Ben-10, and Buzz Lightyear leaped onto the crash mats. One child's play was in the role of Ben-10 (a cartoon boy who transforms into a super-hero alien) Each leap he made was prefixed with a complex summoning of elemental forces. The control and concentration on his face reminded me of a tai chi master, so deep was his level of immersion, the stillness and control in each of his actions. 

Over the course of the afternoon they leapt, leapt and leapt again, there never seemed to be a break in the flow of children.

When I got home that night I picked up the book I was reading, which is a book of articles by the writer Tom Robbins. In this book I came across the word 'approfondement'. Robbins describes it as "a marvelous French word which roughly translates "as playing easily in the deep". That's how the afternoon had seemed, like we were playing easily in the deep.


Sunday, 28 November 2010

We move from process to product

Last week I began a child led project with a foundation stage group of children to build a treehouse. It was a very process oriented project. The children were content to have moved from hammering, sawing and drilling  around a table inside, to have moved to hammering, sawing and drilling around a pallet outside. This week however they were very keen to have something that felt like a tree house. To the two wooden pallets and small pile of wood I added some fence posts. 

We started off by reviewing the photographs of the previous weeks work, talking about tree houses, and drawing some designs. This led to some massed pottering around outside hammering a few nails into the wood and moving wood around. Safa and Oscar find a sketch I have drew over the weekend. "Look these are the plans! This is how we build a tree house" Two children tried to get the fence posts to stand up in the ground so I ask what we could do to make them stand up. Someone suggests we could dig them in. In no time someone has got spades and trowels and the children are all engaged in digging holes. 
I am sure most building sites don't down tools every time someone finds a worm. That is where most building sites are lacking in my opinion.

The hole is prepared and the worms are investigated. I want the structure to be strong enough to support whatever play happens in, on and around it. So at this point I introduce my secret weapon. Fortunately both my partner and myself hoard tools and we have this 'kadunker'. In case you have never seen a 'kadunker' before  it is a big metal thingy with two handles, it goes over the top of the post to bang it down into the ground. I asked the children to stand away from the post whilst I 'kadunked' the post into the ground. They were fascinated by this and counted how many times it took before the post was banged into the ground.

The 'kadunker' is too heavy for the children to lift off the post, but by swinging it back and forth they found they could make it ring like a bell.
In my mind we would have a post at each of the four corners and the pallets running in between them. This is a child led project though, so what goes through my mind isn't going to be how things turn out in the end. After we had stomped the earth back into the hole for the first post someone points to another hole about a foot away. "This is where the next post goes." 
I'm not one to waste the effort of a well dug hole so I Kadunk in the second post.

This provided us with a fantastic opportunity to check comparative heights, how much more kadunking would it take to make the posts the same size? There was lots mathematical language in use.

So now we had two posts that were really close together. Which wasn't what I had had in mind. As I was safely stowing the kadunker out of the way someone else spotted exactly what we had made.

"Look it's a doorway!" 
This piece of wood fitted exactly, just the sort of serendipitous find that sets of the next course of action. This was really hard wood, so I suggested we drilled it before we hammered it in.

Even though the snow started coming down the children remained extremely motivated and focussed. 

The thing that I wouldn't have predicted about this project as it has developed is the high level of involvement of girls. About thirty children have been involved to this point. There is a core group of four children that have been working on this project almost all the time, one girl and three boys and about 40 per cent of the children involved have been girls.

We had a very interesting discussion about who was the 'boss' at one point, prompted by that girl who has been the most involved. After one spell of pottering around and talking about what was going to happen next she said "right then" and picked up her tools in such an authoritative, 'lets get on with it' sort of way that one of the boys said "She thinks she is the boss" another said "She can't be the boss because she is a girl, only a man can be a boss". 
This is a setting that has an all female staff team, and the school has a female headteacher. So I asked them to think about who were the bosses in the setting and in the school. They offered a few suggestions as to who was the boss that reflected their experiences or their own teachers in the setting, all of which were women. "So can a girl be the boss too?" I asked proud of our incursion into gender politics, "Well, Amanda could be the boss because A-man-da sounds a bit like A-man" one of them pointed out helpfully.

 At least the phonics teacher would be pleased with their ability to sound out words.

Each morning we have been reviewing progress using photographs and drawing plans. 

Just some of the tree house designs


A third post was positioned in the same way as the others to one side of our new doorway. This meant that we could get our first wall up.  I asked them how long they thought it would take from this point to finishing the tree house. William said "six weeks", Someone else said "forty weeks"

I think I have met builders like this before.

Each hole drilled, each nail banged in is the work of three or four people as they take it in turns to complete the more challenging tasks.

As they have started to see how the first wall has gone up the second one went up more quickly. By lunchtime we had two walls and a doorway. We had already tested the strength of them in the building as the builders climbed on them, sat on them, swung from the doorway and checked every part of them with drill, hammer and saws in hand. 

We definitely have something we have built now. Something tangible, something that is a product of our efforts rather than a concept. And it is recognisable as a house. Five girls who hadn't been involved with the building came out while I was checking it over after lunch. They immediately started to use it as the basis for some complex socio-dramatic family play.

Oh! but wait to see what we did next.

comment FB


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...