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.

Friday, 19 November 2010

A tree house the colour of sunset

After the popularity of the work bench in the Atelier I was reflecting on how we could keep developing our skills with the tools and make a collaborative project. I also wanted to take the work bench outside. 
Over the next few sessions we have some different tools, like drills and different size nails and pieces of wood.  We also have different things to hammer into, like corks and conkers.
We talk about what we are making and I ask what we could make outdoors if we had big pieces of wood. Maraaya says “a cat” Jonah says “an aeroplane” Frank says “a tree house”

I can see a tree house being a project that would interest lots of the children and would offer play value during and after the project.
I ask what we would need to build a tree house. “Lots of wood” says William.

It just so happened that I spotted a pallet on the top of a skip not far from the school. I was raised in the noble art of skip diving from a very early age. As children we used to go out with a shopping trolley collecting wood to build chicken houses for our 'poultry farm'.

The pallet caused lots of excitement and we dragged it into the wild area at the top of the play area.    
“It is like a ladder” says Jacob. With the pallet resting on the tree they can climb up it to get to the tree. “It isn't a tree house though” says Frank.
“Well lets make it into one then.....” 

We hammer nails into the pallet,
We saw it......

We drill holes into it
And we prise open the cracks with a screwdriver

Dylan finds that he can attach elastic bands around the nails that he is hammering in. William points out that Dylan is hammering the nails in patterns. He passes the nails to Dylan. 

The next day I bring a second pallet and we start with the tools on that one too. Hammering it, sawing it, drilling it and prising the cracks open with the screwdrivers.We have worked really hard, but in terms of output we now have two pallets with small cuts, nail patterns drilled holes and some loose planks. The pallets work really well as workbenches, they are really stable, children can work all the way around and on top of them without needing help with clamps or stabilising their wood.

We talk a lot about what the treehouse will look like. “It should be painted with rainbows and teddy bears” says Frank. He runs off and comes back with red paint. Georgia fetches yellow paint. There is a lot of paint. 

Some of it covers them, their waterproofs and three or four people have arms that are entirely painted red. Our pallets are looking beautiful.
Oscar looks up into the tree, concerned about how safe it will be. "It will be very wobbly" he says.
"Then we could tie it in to the tree" says Frank,
"We only have the very thin string in the making area" Oscar points out
"We could make it more like a Wendy house" says Frank.

I am at this point a little relieved. I had been following their suggestions right up to this point, they brought the ladders over to check all the trees and declared them safe. But the size of the trees wouldn't really support a platform at a low level and building it higher up the tree would mean a higher level of supervision than the setting could manage on a long term basis. Which means that whatever we made would have to be very temporary. Frank is going to do some drawings to show us how it will look, and I have too. Whichever way our construction takes us next week it is shaping up to be an excellent tree house (on the ground).

Oscar looks closely at the painted pallets. “They are the colour of sunsets”

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Experiments with animation

I’ve been mulling over in my mind whether I should write a ‘how to’  for making simple animations. This is mostly because I am still learning and trying things out myself, but, it is so exciting I just have to tell you where I have got to so far.
I first tried to do an animation some years back using my niece’s and goddaughter toys. These were kind of successful, in that things moved and I recorded it but they were really clunky and the only programme I had to work with was power point which wasn't so easy to use.
Then I noticed I had something on my computer called Windows Movie Maker  (WMM)and with a group of 8 and 9 year olds we did an animation of a giant seed growing, which worked out alright but there were a few things I would change. (sadly I can’t put it on here because I don’t have photo permissions for those children)
The first thing I learnt is it is much quicker if you change the length of each slide before you add all the photos rather than altering them individually. On WMM this is pretty easy to do (see below) but it took me ages to find it. (Under tools > options)

One rainy Sunday I got a pile of autumn leaves and tried again.

If you look in the corners you can see where I marked how the camera lined up. This is to make sure what I was doing with the leaves didn’t go out of the frame. I also found that using a tripod and remote shutter release meant I didn’t have to get up and go back to the camera all the time.

Once you have a big pile of photos all in sequence they can be imported from the camera onto the computer and from the computer into the programme. These can then be added to the timeline in order. With these pebbles, which were part of an animation I did with some 3 to 5 year olds they made shapes and patterns on the table first and then we took the pictures as they moved them around and took them away.  This sequence can then be reversed to make it look like it is starting from a blank screen and filling up.

You can stretch some pictures so they last longer, add transitions, like a fade transition which blends each picture smoothly into the next. I keep playing it back over and over to see if it is working. 

Once I have the basics together it gives me a feel of the rhythm. This helps me choose the music. I did an animation with some more 3-5 year olds last week of some skeletons they had made. I kept watching it and wondering why it didn’t come together. Then we found the right music and the whole thing was transformed. I’ll add it here when I have permissions to use the children’s photographs as they feature in it doing a wonderful dance, with a skeleton. The music is imported into the programme and added to it's own line. The spikes of the rhythm help line up with  the action.

Once all the elements are in place you can add titles and credits. All of the tools needed for this are on WMM, I just kept trying all the different tabs to see what they did.

Then the animation can be published to be played back on your computer, and uploaded to a video sharing site like youtube.

There are some useful articles here : that should help you if you want to take it even further. The things I found most helpful were
·         Fixed point of view, using a tripod
·         Remote shutter release meant the children could take the pictures without knocking the camera
·         Keep the moving elements simple
·         Lots of trial and error
·         You can double the length of your animation by adding the photos in sequence going one way then pause and reverse the order to go back to the first photo again

Friday, 5 November 2010

If I had a hammer....

So far this week we have only had to down tools to deal with an injury twice. Once for a very small cut that needed a plaster and once for a finger, that got hit with a hammer slightly harder than all the other times we hit our fingers and thumbs with a hammer.Not a bad record from almost two full days of hammering and sawing by a group of children aged between three and five.

This week I have started a project working in an atelier, or studio, based in a Foundation stage of a large school. The Foundation stage is inspired by Reggio Emilia and the Atelier is kitted out with plenty of creative resources. I didn’t quite know how this was going to start this week. I knew the staff and some of the children from a Forest School project in the spring but I noticed how wary many of the children were of a stranger in their nursery and reception.

Leaf rubbing isn't novel, but was still amazing
 enough for a child who had never 
seen it done before to say “Woah! That’s sick!”
 I felt that it would be hard to work from a child led point of view until I got to know the children and they got to know me and that lots of exciting projects wouldn't develop until this relationship developed. The first morning I caught up with a few old friends and we drew and made leaf rubbings as we chatted about our memories of going to the woods. In  particular the children remembered cooking popcorn over a fire during the last session. It was exciting to hear the memories of a boy who previously chose not to speak in nursery and gradually, as he gained confidence and enthusiasm during the Forest School project chose to talk to us in the woods and then in back in the setting. Now, he chatted away about the things he remembered and introduced me to his friends.

We made lots of full size self portraits drawing round their bodies, and the art works spread out all over the floor and round the corner. It was a great way to spend a little time one to one with lots of the children.

The second morning I put a tray of pebbles on the table along with some pictures of stacks of pebbles. I am keen to do some more animation so I set up the camera with a remote shutter to record the pebbles as the children moved them around.  It was as this was coming to a natural end that someone took notice of the work bench that is in the atelier and that, is when the sawing and hammering started.

There is room round the bench for six people to work at any one time. For all the rest of the day these places were constantly occupied.  It was mostly the older children and the more confident ones who chose to come and work with the saws and hammers, some coming back a number of times throughout the day. We had to develop a system for queuing, with a list for who was next in line for a space round the table. So for most of the day we were busily engaged. The children’s persistence and patience was incredible. Even during the course of a day I saw their hand eye co-ordination improve.  
On the next day I started out working with a group, helping them extend a provocation about skeletons that they started some weeks ago. We brought the skeletons into the atelier and did some animations with the bones. The children loved passing the remote shutter release button around to take the photos without  moving the camera which was mounted on a tripoid. Again as this was ending a child came over and said “Lily, I would really like to finish my sawing.  Please can you get me a saw.”

Quickly all the work bench spaces fill, with a queue of 6 or more either watching or drawing as they waited for their turn. The quieter, shyer children used the opportunity to watch before they took their turn. One of the smallest nursery children came and watched, even though she wasn’t really able to express clearly with language what she wanted, she wanted to have a turn. She waited for such a long time but watched the others as they worked. Really patiently she sawed at her piece of wood, when she had two pieces of wood the look of satisfaction on her face was incredible. She pointed to the hammer and then to her wood and started hammering away.  When her grandparents came to pick her up she shows them what she has made.

By the end of the day some children are really tired with the effort and concentration they have put in. But for the amount of constant use of the tools for nearly two days we only have one cut and that one bashed finger. Children know the risks and are really careful for most of the time. The tools were always put away when they weren’t being used and I had to manage the numbers around the table as the observers got drawn into watching too closely.

For every generation, except the last few, mastery of tools and the ability to make things with our hands has been a key to our survival as a species. In another blog post I would like to explore the theory of recapitulation in relation to tool use and fires but for now what I am thinking about is; with the popularity of the work bench in the last couple of days, we will do anything in this project other than hammering and sawing? How else can we use our tools? What could we build? I used to manage a self build adventure playground, will we tackle larger scale structures like those we built there? or sculptures with nails in or..... 

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