In case you’re interested(!) – the mini-garden I planted up on a whim on the last day of the Easter holidays, and as discussed here, is thriving, and the children are loving observing its progress!
Our Aistear play theme for the first half of April is Space. Initially, the stations were comprised of the two regulars; Junk Art and Role Play; as well as Small World (rockets, moon buggy, astronaut/ alien figurines) and a tub of Alien Slime.
As expected, the alien slime (a.k.a. cornflour gloop as per recipe here) drew much attention on Monday morning when the children arrived in. They were all eager to get their hands in and investigate. Unfortunately, their enthusiasm was quickly tempered by the pungent smell wafting up from the slime! (I haven’t been able to find any references online to gloop being smelly, nor did I notice any smell from the much smaller batch I had made at home to test it out, so I can only guess that the smell was lingering from the well-used sand that occupied the box previously.)
I encouraged the children to persevere despite the smell and over the course of a week, over half the class enjoyed exploring the fascinating qualities of the ‘non Newtonian liquid’ (learn a little more here). The other half of the class varied between strongly opposed to coming anywhere near the gloop, and being intrigued, but still too wary to participate! Most of those who did play with it, chose to come back and play with the gloop on a second day, as it is a very enjoyable, tactile experience. The play elicited new alien-related words and encouraged the children to imagine more about the properties of slime, and as such, I would still call the inclusion of the slime in our play a success.
Nevertheless, on Friday afternoon; half way through our fortnight of focusing on the theme of Space; and despite my own undiminished fascination with gloop (Try it!!), we put it to a vote. The vast majority of the class voted to get rid of the slime and we will now need to introduce a new play station for next week.
Maybe I can reintroduce gloop again in a couple of weeks, in a fresh box, and hopefully without the accompanying stink! And in the meantime, we have had the valuable experience of trying something, deciding it didn’t work, and voting to move on from it.
Throughout our experience thusfar with Aistear, the Role Play area has continued to be an area of concern for me, as mentioned in previous posts. The children are very happy to play there, and more often than not do engage in role play, but I have noticed them struggling sometimes to engage properly with the relevant theme. Earlier in the year we addressed this difficulty by engaging in extensive planning and review of play in that area, and more recently I have made an effort to ensure that there is an adult present in the area as much as possible, particularly in the earlier days of a new theme, in order to give the children any necessary nudges to remain on topic. In many cases, the children are happy to stay in role but can run out of ideas as regards what they should be doing while playing in a particular role. Having an adult there, playing in role, is often all the support the children need to maintain the drama.
But one of the issues I have recognised is that at the beginning of a new scheme of work, the topic is still new to the children and as such, they haven’t been exposed to the necessary learning to give them a jumping off point from which to base their pretend play. I have wondered whether it would be better to introduce a topic for several days or a week before then changing the play areas to match, but this seems clunky and disjointed.
At the beginning of March I introduced an Oral Language slot early on a Monday morning, during which I can introduce the new topic of the week (or build upon the topic established last week) and provide any vocabulary the children may be lacking. I write the topic up on the board under the heading “This Week We are Learning About”, and I have found that drawing their attention explicitly to the desired learning has been useful in terms of the children’s recognition of an overarching theme to our learning throughout the week. We have an opportunity to brainstorm the types of things we may like to do in the Role Play area (and others) – listing the types of questions we might ask, and the sequence of interactions that will need to take place (e.g. buying something, making something, discussing something). This is valuable because it is killing two birds with one stone – there is productive play planning taking place, as well as being a valuable oral language slot. I have found that this gave the children more confidence when planning their own play in the Role Play area. I have then been able to supplement the children’s grasp of the topic at the Conversation Station.
In a recent Professional Development seminar at school, I was introduced to the idea of a Conversation Station, something I had never heard of before. It’s a pretty simple concept – an area is set up in the class, where the teacher has an opportunity to have a one-on-one conversation with four or five children each day, with a particular topic in mind. The area may have posters, flashcards, other resources to stimulate conversation, as well as prompts such as rules about good conversation, listening skills, etc. The Aistear hour of play provides a window during which I can have these short chats and the Station provides me with a perfect opportunity to get each child talking about the topic of the week.
I think the Role Play area will always be one I would like to improve upon – and naturally certain themes will come more easily to the children than others – but the interventions we have made as the year has gone on have made significant progress.
During the month of March we have been learning about Spring and the whole concept of growth, gardening etc. This theme has been particularly enjoyable as an Aistear theme and both I and the children have enjoyed playing and learning about the topic. In the Role Play area we had a Garden Centre, and in place of the sand or water box in the messy play area, we had a Mini Garden.
My intention in setting up the mini garden was that the children would have the opportunity to play at digging, raking, breaking soil, planting seeds, watering, etc. While I had read mentions online etc. of gardens being set up in play areas, I wasn’t actually able to find the details of what people used or how they structured the area. Ultimately, I filled our sand box with compost and laid out a variety of garden tools; trowels, rakes, forks, watering can, soil sifter, flower pots, plant tags; blank and labels for specific varieties; as well as a generous handful of pinto beans (bought in the food section of Tesco and selected for the high quantity of the beans, the price, bean size and colour, and generally satisfactory ‘seedish’ appearance) and some shallot bulbs (selected for their low price and similar appearance to daffodil bulbs as it was too late in the year to buy daffodils). Needless to say, as the children would be planting and replanting these seeds, making sandcastles containing seeds, digging through the seeds, I had literally no expectation or hope that the seeds would DO anything.
For the garden centre I pillaged my daughters’ old garden tools from the back garden (rake, spade, wheelbarrow) and brought in a few pairs of their old wellies, as well as some envelopes with printed seed labels and some signage/ posters that I found online. Coinicidentally, Lidl had a special offer for garden tools that I couldn’t resist, which meant that our props were boosted in the second week. I also picked up a handful of potted plants and the tray they came in, which really helped to set the scene.
The theme was a great success – the children really got on board with the garden centre and began to play in the soil differently to how they would in sand. When the beans began to sprout, to our delight – particularly mine!, the children were really able to pretend that their plantings had grown and they enjoyed it all the more.
To my mind, the best thing about having the garden play area was that the children were free to explore the seeds in a way they wouldn’t have been if we were planting them with the intention of growing something. Had we done that, we would have been looking at a pot of compost for over a week and after that had some green shoots to watch. This way, the children had the opportunity to pick up the seeds as they sprouted – look closely at the way they were growing and compare various seeds with one another. Sure, plenty of them got broken along the way, but that was all part of the learning experience, and by the end of two weeks’ play, there were still dozens of beansprouts that had stayed the course!
After the children left this afternoon, when I started to clear away the garden in preparation for the next topic, I decided on a whim to plant some of the sprouting beans and the few shallots that had shown signs of growth. Fingers crossed we’ll be greeted by a pleasant surprise when we go back to school after the Easter break!
When we first began with our Aistear scheduled play times, the biggest problem I faced as a teacher was encouraging the children to embrace their independence. The Aistear framework advocates that children should take as much ownership as possible in their own learning. Within Aistear play time, this meant encouraging the children to feel an ownership of the resources within the classroom, so that they a) felt free to use whatever was necessary to augment and maximise the play experience, and b) began to appreciate the role of responsibility they hold in the good maintainence of the resources.
Aistear> Principles and Themes> Exploring and Thinking> Positive Attitudes Towards Learning…
In partnership with the adult, children will
1. demonstrate growing confidence in being able to do things for themselves
2. address challenges and cope with frustrations
3. make decisions and take increasing responsibility for their own learning
4. feel confident that their ideas, thoughts and questions will be listened to and
5. develop higher-order thinking skills such as problem-solving, predicting,
analysing, questioning, and justifying
6. act on their curiosity, take risks and be open to new ideas and uncertainty
I have tried to allow the children to feel out this freedom for themselves, as I did have concerns that an announcement at the start of the year that Anything Goes, could translate to a Free For All. As such, most children still ask tentatively before using something that hasn’t been clearly designated as belonging to a given area, but it is catching on, and the children have begun to realise that if there is a good reason to integrate a particular toy or resource into their play, I am unlikely to refuse.
Most recently, the children have started to move the furniture in the role play area to suit their needs, something that they wouldn’t have considered earlier in the year.
Independence has developed too, in terms of the children’s ability to set out their toys and tidy away efficiently. In the beginning, both I and Nicky; our SNA; had to resist the adult impulse to help the children with everything in order to speed things along. They now confidently and competently carry out this daily business and only look to the adults for help when it is genuinely necessary.
And while in the beginning, some children floundered when faced with the challenge of making ‘anything they want’ at the Junk Art table – repeatedly asking:
‘but teacher, what will I make?’
‘…. I don’t know what to make….?’
– those same children now spend time outside the classroom considering what they are going to make and come in to school with a clear vision of their intentions. It is exhilarating to watch the child who lacks the confidence to speak out in class creating a masterpiece and confidently explaining what every last button represents!
In recent weeks, the children’s independence has grown further as we have done away with our Play Rota and the children now have the freedom to choose which of the areas they would like to play at.
Our most recent step towards independence has been my taking a back seat as teacher and allowing the children to do the talking. It is easy for me as a teacher to spend the whole day doing all the talking. In an effort to give the children more of a voice I have handed over post-playtime Show and Tell entirely to them.
Each child with a piece of Junk Art to show presents their piece and leads a Q&A session with their classmates, while I sit out and say nothing. Initially, this was hard for the children to accept – after each answered question, all children turned to me for a cue as to what came next. My response to this was to look expectantly at the Q&A leader to indicate that the ball was in their court. It has been very satisfying watching the children’s confidence grow and to see them asking considered questions of their classmates’ work. I look forward to watching this independence blossom over the coming months.
Over the past few weeks, we have enjoyed a number of conversations about the Signs of Spring that we have begun to see in the world around us. But the #antearrach Twitter project (coordinated by seomraranga.com) has added so much to this discussion. The idea is that any class tweeting about signs of Spring that they have observed, includes the hashtag #antearrach, thus providing a grouping for tweets on the topic.
With the use of this project hashtag, we have been able to expand our exposure to the various signs of Spring, which has been particularly useful in terms of developing an appreciation for the larger impact that Spring has on a rural community. We have seen photographs of baby lambs, tractors spreading slurry, and frogspawn and tadpoles – all of which would have been limited to textbooks had we stuck to traditional lessons.
And since many of the classes we see tweeting about #antearrach are classes we have interacted with before, we feel a more authentic connection with the images we do see, and have an opportunity to ask questions and learn more.
Before Christmas as part of the reflective process, I asked the children to consider the differences between the way they played when they were in Junior Infants, and the way they play now, during Aistear time. As they offered comments on the two experiences, I jotted their observations on the board.
The chart did not end up being very coherent! We started with a summary of the order of events before and after Aistear. There wasn’t much more to say about the Pre-Aistear Era, and there was so much input for the ‘After’ aspect that it ended up spilling over onto the ‘Before’ half of the page.