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.