Friday, December 5, 2014

A Little Bit of Christmas

In FDK we are encouraged to steer away from teacher-selected "themes", and to favour the inquiries and interests of the children. But when December arrives, it is hard to resist the attraction of Christmas! We are busily preparing for our Christmas Open House, and while all centres are open, we have added a bit of sparkle here and some glitter there.

We plan our week(s) using a template that includes all the various centres in the classroom, and link our ideas back to the children's interests and questions, any inquiry that has arisen through play, and the many expectations laid out in the Ontario FDK Document. As with so much of what we do, there are many layers of learning happening while the children explore and play with new materials. 

Some of the week's Christmas centres include:

MATH EXPLORATION: rolling a number cube and placing the corresponding number of sparkly pompoms on a five- or ten-frame. We sit nearby and ask questions such as, how many more do you need to fill your ten-frame? Who has more? Can you fit six more on there? We make observations about the child's ability to recognize dot patterns on a number cube, count with one-to-one correspondence, represent numbers in various ways, compare quantities, and explore simple addition. If the children choose to play in pairs, we also observe their play and social skills. Can the child take turns? Do they use questions and statements effectively? How do they solve problems that arise?

SENSORY EXPLORATION: I brought in some whole spices, as well as some ground spices. The children have been invited to "sniff-and-match" the whole spice with its ground counterpart. The children come to me full of excitement..."I matched these ones!"

WRITING: We co-created a cloze-passage letter to Santa, focusing on sight words we've touched on this year. The Year Two group was then invited to write their own letter to Santa. I always photo-copy these to send home to parents, as some children can be hush-hush about their Christmas wishes! I have a modified version ready to write with the Year One students, and next week we'll walk to the post office to send them all to the North Pole!

SENSORY TABLE: I created a Golden Cinnamon Sensory experience for the children. A big bag of rice, cinnamon, glitter, and lots of golden trinkets from Dollarama were the raw materials. The children have loved exploring these items, using them to make "cakes", picking through to find the treasures, sorting them, and so on. It is very calming to let rice trickle down between your fingers! 

SAND TABLE: As we move through Advent with a focus on the Nativity Story, we are adding items to the room to encourage the children to draw on their previous knowledge and to retell the Christmas story. We have durable Nativity figures in our sand table and it's been wonderful to see the children sharing this timeless story with one another time after time.

Please check in next week for some Nativity Art!

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Gingerbread Time!

The play dough centre is a hot spot in our classroom all year round. We make a new batch every Monday, incorporating reading, measuring, and forms of writing (procedure) into the process. The children roll balls, flatten it with a rolling pin, create snakes, pat it, squish it, cut shapes out of it, decorate their creations with sequins, toothpicks, glitter, and googly eyes. One of us usually sits at the table to demonstrate new techniques for manipulating play dough, while listening in on the spontaneous conversations that arise. These conversations between the children offer so many insights into their understanding of the world around them. We take photos of the children and make notes that will help us in future planning.

Today at our Welcome Circle (first thing in the morning) we passed around a small cup containing a mixture of cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and nutmeg. They each took a sniff and we marvelled at the range of their experiences of scent: "It smells jelly beans...cinnamon hearts...cookies...spicy stuff...GINGERBREAD!" We read "Maisy Makes Gingerbread" by Lucy Cousins and everyone seems keen to make REAL gingerbread cookies before Christmas.

We talked about where spices come from and they were astounded when I mentioned that cinnamon comes from the bark of a tree. I made a mental note to bring in the "raw materials" that are used to create dried spices: a ginger root, some whole cloves, a whole nutmeg, and some cinnamon sticks.

When we sent them out into the classroom to play, I gathered a small group in the play dough centre, and we went through the steps of creating play dough. This recipe was different as it required us to cook the dough, and the children were very interested in the way the mixture changed as it cooked.

In no time at all, we had a beautiful batch of Gingerbread Playdough, and we set the children loose with rolling pins, cutters, and lots of sparkly sequins with which to decorate their cookie creations! The dough turned out beautifully and as the site suggests, it would make wonderful homemade Christmas gifts. Enjoy!

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Inquiry Never Ends

In a FDK classroom, interests may shift, questions may arise that have nothing to do with the current inquiry, or the children may suddenly stop playing at a centre that up until now has been the most popular hangout.

Sometimes it feels as if there's just no inquiry happening! This feeling usually arises when the teaching team feels that there is nothing "formal" going on (e.g., I haven't gone to find fifteen books about spiders/airplanes/castles in the library, and the children just aren't biting when I offer an enticing activity to extend their understanding of something they seemed interested in yesterday). 

We've learned to just ride this out. When our hunting inquiry drew to a natural close, we observed and listened carefully to see what other interests might arise. For a few days, a few of the children were interested in tying and taping string all over the classroom like webs. When this evolved into chasing and "webbing each other" like Spiderman, we tried to shift their focus towards learning more about spiders and how they spin webs. No bites. It felt like pulling teeth to generate an "I wonder" chart. The interest just wasn't there. 

We decided to change some of our centres up, leaving them open-ended enough so that the children had choice. We decided to focus on sorting, as many of the children were naturally doing this anyway during our tidy-up times. We created a planning template to see how many areas of the program document we could touch on with various centres. The children explored many new materials in new ways, and we were able to document all kinds of learning and discoveries as the children tried different ways of sorting various materials.

Kindergarten is like that. You might think the children are just playing (or in this case, just sorting), when in fact they are honing their fine motor skills by cutting with scissors, comparing and contrasting facial expressions, classifying living and non-living objects, and engaging in all sorts of complex conversations. The squirrel's tail and the piece of washed sheep's wool I added to our discovery centre sparked long discussions about where wool comes from, and why squirrels' fur is lots of colours. 

My enthusiasm for wool almost led me to believe that these questions meant that an inquiry into sheep and wool was in the works. I resisted that hope, because the questions ended with that one discussion. Perhaps this interest will arise again, but for now it is just that: an interest. In the Spring I'll bring in a raw fleece and we can work through the process together. Perhaps I'll have some spinning enthusiasts among my class. Time will tell.

The bottom line is, inquiry never stops. Sometimes inquiries last two minutes while we have a conversation, or just the length of time it takes to read a story. 

Yesterday we read a story about hibernation, not because I want to start a hibernation inquiry, but because someone picked it from the shelf and asked me to read it. The children's interest was piqued: they wanted to know how the animals know when it is time to come back to Canada, how the butterflies know the way to Mexico, and what a bear's snore sounds like. I wrote their questions down and will revisit them in the coming weeks and we'll see what happens.

I'll set that squirrel's tail and piece of wool aside in case a discussion about how animals stay warm in winter comes out of that read aloud!

Monday, October 27, 2014

An Inquiry into Hunting Culture

In the Full Day Early Learning Kindergarten (FDELK) program document, one of the expectations under Social Development is that children will talk about events or retell stories that reflect their own heritage and cultural background. 

In a rural setting, there is not as much cultural diversity as one might find in an urban school. However, the traditions we celebrate here in Eastern Ontario run deep, and are a very rich part of the children's experiences. 

In late September when we were creating a list of "signs of fall", a point that came up several times was that "Daddy is getting ready to go hunting". The boys started pretending to hunt, and it is a credit to the learning journey I am on that I didn't immediately shut down the shooting of pretend guns. 

I gathered the boys together and saw their faces fall when I reminded them of our "no guns in school" rule. Then their faces visibly brightened when I asked if they thought it was time to change things up in our dramatic play area. "Do you think you could help me create a hunting centre in our classroom?"

Immediately, they were engaged. They gave me many ideas of items we'd need, which I recorded as a list (modeled writing): camo and orange clothing, hats, stuffed animals to represent local prey, hunting licenses, and guns. The last item had a big question mark after it. 

We didn't want to encourage gun play in our classroom or in the school yard, but it was clear to me that these children understand deeply what guns are truly for: protecting livestock from pests, and hunting to provide for their families. We agreed that they could build guns from wooden blocks (with the permission of our administrator), but that they would lose their hunting licenses if they engaged in gun play at recess.

We used camouflage wrapping paper and real tree branches to turn our play loft into a tree stand. The children have really enjoyed pretending that they are quietly watching for prey. They were thrilled with their personalized Ontario Outdoor Cards, and have put a lot of attention into packing their supplies for a trip to the hunt camp. 

One day a student offered me some of the moose he'd caught; I asked him if you can eat it right away or if there were steps that needed to be taken before eating our catch. I invited the little hunters to help me create a step-by-step procedure (modeled writing) detailing how to process an animal we've shot. Their prior knowledge runs deep!

One of my students was picked up one afternoon to go see the moose his dad's hunting group had shot. The next day he arrived with a photo of himself standing beside the two moose, suspended from tractor buckets, with their bellies cut. I'll admit, this sounds gruesome. I gave the children the choice of whether or not the wanted to see the picture and they all chose to look. No one said, "Ew!" 

The girls have been less enthused about this inquiry, and it has been interesting to observe the preconceptions the children have about who goes hunting. One day, one of the boys said, "The girls can be the moms". We discussed what that means in hunting families; in general, the moms stay home with the children while dad goes to the hunt camp! Some of the children mentioned that their moms engage in turkey or partridge hunting, and a few of the girls have donned the orange vests and hats.

With Halloween just around the corner, we started to pack up the hunting gear. This worked well with the inquiry; I just told the children that this year's hunting season was over! We clarified that there would be no more shooting guns in the classroom and so far, this has worked wonderfully. We are now investigating pumpkins and measurement! More on that in an upcoming post!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Math is All Around Us

In the early months of school, we present the children with many opportunities to play with many different materials. We create invitations to explore mathematical concepts, without explicitly teaching "the right way". A basket full of mixed rocks placed in the middle of a table with two smaller, empty baskets invites a child to sit down and sort the rocks. She is in JK, and does this quickly and efficiently. The teaching team takes note of this, knowing that she may benefit from more challenging sorting provocations in the future (e.g. buttons of many kinds). 

Another very young JK child plays with a set of farm animals. I approach him and tell him about our farm and how we keep the same types of animals together. The chickens are in the coop, the ducks are at the pond, and the ponies are in the barn together. He absorbs this for a moment, then finds some long blocks. He creates stalls, and begins to sort the animals by type. He pauses when he picks up the spotted pig. He sets it with the Holstein cows, looks at it for a moment, then places it with the other pig. Once again, I take note and marvel at the knowledge this young child brings with him to Kindergarten. 

Patterning emerges in many areas of the classroom in these early weeks of school. I hear the SK students saying, "Look at the pattern I made!", and a few days later, I hear a JK student use the same words. 

 I confess, in my first years as a Kindergarten teacher, I "covered" curriculum in a way that made sense to me. I explicitly taught the children about patterns and sorting, spending lots of time creating "activities" for them to do to "prove" to me that they could do it, and checking this off my list of expectations as each child "performed" the task I'd set for them.

It turns out you can teach an old(er) teacher new tricks.

As we set out enticing, open-ended materials with no real expectation of what will be "covered", we uncover what the children already know. We keep note of children who are not yet sorting and patterning, and make a point of sitting down with them wherever they play to introduce the concepts to them in a playful, informal way. 

Without teaching the whole group at the same time, we meet each child's needs in a way that respects their previous mathematical understanding and provides "next steps" to deepen their understanding.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Outdoor Classroom, Part Two: Crossing the Creek

The children took water from our outdoor water table and poured it on the ground. They watched it pool into a small depression along the cinder block wall, and got some more water. I sat to the side and watched for the next 40 minutes as they played with no adult intervention.

"Let's make a creek!"
"We need more water."

Without asking for permission, she took this problem unto herself and went inside to fill her bucket.

All of the children excitedly grabbed the log slices from the old milk crate by the door, and placed them across the big puddle they'd created. They added some taller log pieces as well as piles of rocks.

They immediately and peacefully lined up to cross the creek. Some balanced themselves with one hand on the wall, others hopped as if they were playing hopscotch. They waited patiently while each person crossed in his/her own way. 

One very quiet child observed the play from a distance.

Other children continued filling buckets to add to their creek. One in particular was very interested in creating an island using poplar branches we'd gathered after a windy day, and a pile of rocks. He was very interested in how the water flow changed as he added materials to block it.

I wondered how long the children would play with the same layout, as their first path was "easy" (in that the log pieces travelled in a line, closely spaced). It didn't take long till they began to relish the physical challenge of moving the log pieces around to make new and more challenging paths.

"'s the problem...this is the tricky part!"
"I can't believe it! This way is even harder!"
"Hey! I have an idea! Let's put a boat in the water!"

The next day, a few children played the creek game, but gradually faded away to kick the soccer ball or paint on the chalk lines they'd drawn on the cinder block wall.

The last child to cross the creek was the shy observer from the day before, who was waiting till the crowd dispersed.

So what was I doing all this time? I sat and marvelled as they shouted, balanced, challenged themselves physically, solved problems, collaborated, took risks, discussed their findings, used the materials they found around them, and had more fun than any adult-initiated, pre-organized game could ever offer. I took photos and detailed notes to document their play, and thought ahead to new challenges I could present to deepen their play and understanding.

Next week I think we'll take a walk to the creek down the road and I'll wait and see what happens.

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Outdoor Classroom: Part One

We are fortunate that our classroom has a back door that opens out to a paved alley. On one side is our classroom wall and windows, and on the other is a cinder block retaining wall, just tall enough for me to peek over. Beyond the wall is a grassy rise with spruce trees growing on it, and just behind the trees is the fence that borders the cemetery.

It sounds like a bleak setting for outdoor play, but with the creative thinking and openness to diverse play materials that are inherent to children at play, it has become one of our most used centres.

Some of the items at the children's disposal are:

slices of log
river rocks of various sizes
a small water table (but a bin filled with water would work just as well)
lots of buckets
construction trucks
baskets and beanbags
soccer balls
sidewalk chalk
magnetic fishing poles
fish and insects with magnets glued on to them
hula hoops

Most of the items were gathered here and there, and the cost has been minimal to set this centre up.

Every day during our open-choice centre time, one of the teaching team members supervises outside while the other stays inside. It has created a beautiful balance for the many kinds of learners in our room. Many of the children want to be using large muscles throughout the day, so having the option to get outside to kick a ball, run races, climb the hill, balance on logs, bend to push a truck, or lift up stones prevents many of the behaviours one might expect from a child who would otherwise have the wiggles. There is a flow between the outdoors and indoors, and many children float between the two.

Some of the children organize games like creating a caterpillar by attaching themselves together with hula hoops. Another group draws symbols on the wall and has a contest of who can hit each target with a bean bag. Another trio surrounds the water table and giggles as they catch fish. The children use chalk to create hopscotch games, to trace log shapes on the pavement, and to practise letters and numbers in meaningful ways (e.g. one child wrote "$300" beside the beanbag game to indicate the price of playing!).

The children who prefer to be alone blow bubbles, draw and print on the cinderblock wall, collect pine cones, or balance rocks.

There is something for everyone in the outdoor classroom. There are so many opportunities for so many skills to be built. The children think they're just playing and having fun. We adults know, of course, that we are growing whole, healthy children by giving them the tools to:

*engage in rich multisensory experiences
*shout and be boisterous
*be physically active
*collaborate and create games
*take challenges and risks
*develop strength, balance, and physical coordination
*explore natural objects, and adapt them to their own purposes

We are amazed ever day to see the creative play, deep conversation, and physical competence we observe when outside with the children. We often just watch, and record what's happening by taking notes, videos, or photographs. The children's capacity for using open-ended materials in new ways knows no bounds.

Recently, I observed that some of the children were using our inside blocks to build catapults, teeter totters, and something that resembled a jet ski. Because these blocks are not built to hold the weight of a child, some of them were getting damaged 

I sat with them and shared my observation with them (that they were wanting to build bigger "real" things that they could sit or stand on). I asked if they thought we could use some big log pieces and some sturdy planks in our outdoor centre. Their eyes went wide as they nodded, and immediately broke into excited discussion of what they might do with these materials.

I'll be setting my husband to work with the chainsaw this weekend, and raiding our old drive shed for some wide barn board planks! I can't wait to see what the children create.

Friday, September 5, 2014

The Third Teacher and Fine Motor Development

They come in with smiles, loud greetings, eyes bright and taking in all there is to see in their new classroom. Some cling to their parents, others can hardly wait to be set loose on all the beautiful materials they see before them. They leave their shoes and lunchbags in strange places, and forget to tidy up the messes they make. They cry at quiet time, because they are tired and they miss their mommies. They sometimes pinch or slap when they don't yet have the words to say, "No", "Stop", or "I don't like that!". They snuggle in to the adults that now care for them, so willing to trust us with our gentle voices and complete engagement in their play.

The first week of school is massive in its transition, for children and teachers, out of the relaxed zone of summer holidays. We are getting to know one another, and we take copious notes on the interactions we see. D brought S a baby doll when he noticed she felt sad. R invited A to play a game he made up with the school buses, called "Crash Fall Down". B pinched K because he knocked down her tower.

We gently redirect and remind, guide them through conflicts with a firm but gentle voice, and teach them how to care for the materials in our classroom. We pay attention to the energy in the room and find ways to calm things down or ramp things up (although the latter is rarely needed at this time of year).

Our classroom is the Third Teacher. We spent the summer cleaning, sorting, purging, and carefully presenting the materials we've collected and purchased to offer invitations to the children. We intentionally create many opportunities for the children to develop their fine motor control before we ever put a pencil in their hands. 

Drawing, painting, rolling and cutting playdough snakes, moving beads on a wire caterpillar, filling small bottles with dried beans then screwing on the top, spinning their homemade tops, building cars, lining up blocks, and hammering nails all lead to improved control of the small muscles in their hands. 

Printing will come, but not just yet. 

We have much playing to do first. 

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Field Trip: The Bonnechere Caves!

The Bonnechere Caves provide inspiration for budding geologists, paleontologists, and artists alike! The natural curves and contours carved by water over ten thousand years offer much to the reflective soul. The invitation to brush one's hand across the fluting and scalloping patterns of water over rock is irresistible. 

Layers and layers of sea mud, sand, and long-deceased marine creatures create the layers of limestone, and only the power of water and time could reveal such beauty: a cephalopod shell forever encased in its sea bed, stalactites formed patiently by the eternal drip-drip-drip that is a cave's nature, and a passage curving ahead to unknown mysteries.

My Kindergarten students were completely awed by the experience of walking so far under the earth. When I suggested that a deer or a person might be walking over our heads at that very moment, their eyes grew wide with wonder.

As a teacher, I highly recommend the Bonnechere Caves as a field-trip destination, either in the Spring or the Fall. There are so many inquiries waiting to spring up from this experience!