My Evolving Thoughts On Loose Parts

I have been thinking about writing this blog post for a long time, and then yesterday, I read this fantastic post by Diane Kashin on The Environment As The Third Teacher, and I was finally inspired to blog. There are many different components to Diane’s post, but the parts that have me thinking the most are her comments on “loose parts.” I’ve had a love/hate relationship with loose parts. I love the idea in theory. I’ve seen incredible photographs on Instagram and Twitter that show how students have used various items — from pieces of bark to various coloured gems — to create elaborate pictures, to engage in storytelling, to demonstrate math learning, and to share thinking with peers. The documentation examples in Diane’s post align with ones that I’ve seen before, and they make me think of what is possible when it comes to “loose parts.” But then I see what’s happened in our classroom …

My partner, Nayer, and I have loose parts incorporated in all areas of the classroom. We’ve tried to limit plastic toy options and use more loose parts. It’s been a struggle though because the rich dialogue and creative play that we saw in other people’s photographs and videos weren’t happening in our room. 

  • There was a lot of dumping. Maybe dumping is learning. Sometimes students dumped containers of gems into the tires to create different sounds, but without adult questioning, they rarely considered the amounts or types of gems to create different sounds. The excitement came more from the dumping and mixing of materials than from a purposeful use in them. At the end of the day, I felt as though more time was spent cleaning up than experimenting, reflecting, and learning.
  • Students avoided these materials. We put loose parts in containers around the classroom, but often, these were the items that were overlooked. Our most popular items were the plastic toy garage, the train track, the cars, and the plastic people. Sometimes we tried to combine the loose parts with the plastic toys, but often the loose parts were dumped to the side, and the students continued playing with the plastic items instead. 
  • Modelling didn’t help. We thought that the students might be unsure about how to use these items, so we decided to model some options. We played with the students. But we found that when we sat down with the loose parts, we had very few students that joined us (contrary to other times when there were always many), and when we stopped playing, the students did too. It’s almost as though they struggled with extending this learning on their own.

Over our months in the classroom, we’ve stepped back, and we started to reconsider loose part options and watch the children closely to see what they gravitate to for loose parts.

  • We noticed that the large pieces of flooring are always popular. Students use them in conjunction with the blocks to make houses, but they also use them to create roads, racetracks, bridges, and ramps. Putting different tape options around the room has also gotten the students to look at how they can attach these pieces to each other as well as to other items, and this has changed the dynamics of the play.
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  • Wooden blocks have also become loose parts. Students use these blocks for building, but also for creating skates, holding items up, and supporting the ramps and bridges that they make around the classroom. The free flow movement of these items has almost changed how they’re used because now the students feel comfortable taking them to different areas in the room and using them in different ways. 
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  • Little loose parts work best in play dough and in the sensory bin. We tried to place gems and rocks all around the classroom, but children rarely used them for anything more than dumping. When put near the play dough and in the sensory bin though, these items seem to be used in more purposeful ways. In conjunction with muffin tins, strainers, and cups, these loose parts are often used for cupcake toppings, jewel collecting, and food items. Maybe location matters.
  • Wooden puzzles become loose parts. I never would have thought about this one before, but one student in our class realized that the top of the wooden puzzle fit perfectly inside a doll’s mouth. She used the puzzle piece as a pacifier. Pretty soon others were doing the same, and now these puzzle pieces are often used for dramatic play. Sometimes what we need most is a leader to show others some loose part possibilities.
  • A box of recyclable materials is always beneficial. Months ago, we started to collect cardboard pieces and small containers. Students are now using these more to create ramps, buildings, and musical instruments. They will sometimes also pick an item from the bin to use in other areas of the classroom as they need it. There are so many different uses for recyclable materials!

When it comes to loose parts, I wonder if schema matters. I think about those students that have only had a limited number of life experiences. If the purposeful use of loose parts comes from children realizing the infinite possibilities for a single item, do students need more background knowledge to make this happen? How do we build this knowledge so that loose part play becomes meaningful and purposeful? I wonder if this happens over time in the classroom, but also with the use of modelling, and the other experiences that we provide for students throughout their time at school. What do you think? What have you experienced?


How Do We Better Support Our English Language Learners?

When I started teaching 15 years ago, I taught Kindergarten. In my first couple of years of teaching Kindergarten, I remember going to some inservices about teaching E.S.L. (English as a Second Language) students. I still remember the advice that we were given: “We don’t do withdrawal programs in JK/SK because the Kindergarten learning environment, with a strong focus on oral language, is the ideal environment for children that are just learning English.” At the time, I don’t think that I agreed with this advice. In fact, for years, I fought for more support for E.S.L. students in Kindergarten. Now though, I’m questioning what I thought back then. Maybe I struggled with the advice back then for a reason that makes me feel “uncomfortable” now: I hadn’t created this ideal learning environment. 

Look at all of these boxes that came out of my basement three years ago.

Screenshot 2016-05-21 at 13.31.17

These boxes were full of worksheets. Children traced, copied, and coloured … and at the time, I didn’t know that there was a better option. While at these inservices, we spoke about the strong oral language skills developed in Kindergarten, these boxes told another story about at least my Kindergarten classroom. Maybe it was because I didn’t spend enough time developing oral language skills that I struggled with supporting E.S.L. students in a classroom environment without additional support. 

Fast forward 13-15 years, and I now teach a large number of students that have English as their second language. In fact, this year, for the first time ever, we’ve had the privilege of teaching a couple of different students that recently arrived in Ontario and are just beginning to learn English. I have definitely been forced to work on my one word goal of listening/hearing. I learn a lot by watching these children interact with each other, as well as with other students in the class.

  • Non-verbal communication is huge. Students communicate a lot through gestures, actions, and drawings. It’s amazing to see how even children that don’t speak the same language can communicate so well with each other. We just have to give them the opportunity for this to happen.
  • Never underestimate the value in music. Up in the cupboard near the sensory bin, we have an iPad that is constantly on and playing an album of nursery rhymes on repeat. It’s just loud enough that the students over by the bin and the sink can hear the words, but the rest of the class, can’t. Many of our students are learning nursery rhymes and how to play with words (orally), and these songs, get students to develop these skills almost without them realizing that they are doing so. As a couple of our students just begin to learn English, it’s amazing to see the number of songs that make up their first English words. Both students started singing The Alphabet Song really quickly, and the other day, as one child was singing it, she went and grabbed a paper with the alphabet on it, and even pointed along to the letters. Children in our class also regularly make play dough cakes for each other and sing, Happy Birthday, and now these two students are doing the same. I almost wonder if a new language becomes easier to learn when it has a musical beat accompanying the words.

  • We can learn a lot from each other. This year has been a good reminder to me that there’s a lot of value in families bringing their first language into the classroom. This idea is addressed in our current Full-Day Early Learning Kindergarten Program document, and I hope that it will be addressed in our new one. We are all learning new words to communicate with each other, and while my partner, Nayer, and I will often use these words in the classroom, the students are starting to use them too. I even think back to Family Literacy Day, when Nayer brought in some books in her first language, and we invited parents to do the same. All children should feel safe and comfortable in a classroom, and I think that language plays an important part in creating this environment.

Yes, as students are learning a new language, maybe we need to reconsider some of the things that we’ve done in the past and even some of the things that we’re currently doing. For a while, we really tried to get all students to join us on the carpet — even for just a few minutes — to sing some songs, listen to a short story, or play some phonemic awareness games during transitional times. Watching our students though, we’re starting to wonder if this routine works well for everyone. Do we need to add more visuals? Is the speed at which the language is spoken in our songs and games too fast for some students? Is there a way to slow this speed down? Are there better options for a few of our students (e.g., even some quiet playing/talking time) during these transitional times? We continue to think and make changes.

In the meantime though, we stand back and see what the children have learnt in a short period of time.

  • Language/vocabulary through different songs.
  • The names of almost all of the students in the class.
  • “Hi,” “Bye,” and the phrase, “How are you?”
  • “High Five,” with the action of course. (I think that we must model this a lot! 🙂 )
  • “Yes” and “No,” and both words used correctly in context.
  • “Come” and “come with me.” Both phrases are often uttered as the children grab our hands and lead us to see something and/or to help solve a problem.
  • “No delicious,” as we are given back a snack that one of the children did not like. This may be my favourite phrase yet!

In an environment rich in oral language, maybe a withdrawal system is not the best option for English Language Learners. Children can then learn a new language in a meaningful context, teach others their first language, and develop social skills within a classroom context. I think that the Kindergarten Program Document supports this kind of learning environment. 

  • What about in other grades?
  • Even if withdrawal is an option (possibly in grades past Kindergarten), what changes could be made to a classroom environment to better support our beginner English Language Learners?
  • As reading and writing become bigger areas of focus as children move up in the grades, how can we still create a program rich in oral language?
  • What benefit(s) might this have for all kids? 

My experiences from this year are making me think.


Can’t We Let All Of Our Kids “Fix Kites?”

About 20 minutes before the end of my prep today, I came back into the classroom to grab a few things to do. When I got there, I noticed a student that made a kite. Flying a kite is a new experience for him. He knew that he needed wind to make the kite move, so he started to run around the room as fast as he could, so that the kite would fly. Of course, the prep coverage teacher was concerned that he might fall, but he still really wanted to fly this kite. I asked how much more time I had left for my prep, and she said 15 minutes. Perfect! I told him that he could bring his kite outside.

The two of us brought his kite into the Kindergarten playground area, and he ran around and around watching his kite fly. He even tried taking his kite down the slide. He was so happy! Then the kite broke. 

I was sure that he was going to come to me in tears, but he didn’t. I was even prepared to help him tie the string up again, but he never asked. He just sat down and quietly worked on fixing his knot. Then another piece broke, and he fixed that too. In total, he fixed three pieces, and after each one, he tested the kite again and made changes as needed. Amazing!

This experience was a great reminder to me that sometimes — maybe even many times — we need to interfere less. I thought back to what Karyn Callaghan said the other day about our view of the child as “competent and capable.” If we believe this, then wouldn’t we also believe that all of our kids can “fix kites?” I wonder what else they can fix.


What I Learnt And What I Continue To Contemplate …

Yesterday, my partner, Nayer, and I had the opportunity to listen to Karyn Callaghan speak as part of a Kindergarten Networking Session through our Board. Karyn challenged our thinking in many ways, and as we spoke together in the afternoon and then again this morning, we decided that we were going to try to make some small changes based on our new learning from Karyn. We outlined these changes in our Daily Shoot Blog Post that we published tonight.

Reflecting back on today, here are some of the things that I noticed after making these changes.

The Best Surprises

1. One of our biggest concerns was that the students in our class often crave adult interactions and attention, and we wondered how we could really focus on just one or two students — for any given period of time — without being pulled away by other children. We were pleasantly surprised to notice though that we could observe successfully in this way. It was definitely beneficial to have one adult more accessible in the room to the larger group of students while another adult focused on smaller groups of students — or sometimes even individual students. Looking around today, I also noticed that children tend to gravitate to us when they can see us more easily. If we get down on the floor with the children, sit down on a small chair with the children, or even crouch on our knees beside a group of children, we’re a little less obviously visible and a little less likely to be called upon. Just because the students don’t “see” us, doesn’t mean that we can’t see them, and this leads to even better observations.

2. “Intentional interruptions” really do work. I would have never believed just how valuable they can be until I saw what happened today. This afternoon, a group of boys were on the carpet, and they had pulled over two big tires, some wooden pieces, and a bunch of small toys. I’ve seen them do something similar many times before, and usually this play ends up resulting in Nayer or I suggesting a different activity — often off of the carpet. I thought back to one of the slides that Karyn showed us yesterday, with a small group of boys building on the carpet. The boys in this slide often had social interactions similar to our group from today, and the educator in the classroom did something different than we usually do: he offered up a challenge that got the boys using the materials in a different way. I decided to try this. I took a basket of animals off the shelf, and I asked the boys if they could figure out a way to move the animals from one tire to another one without just lifting them up and walking them over. One student suggested building a bridge, and this was when the play started to change. I further challenged them to figure out a way to get the animals out of one tire and into another one, but with the animals only touching wood as they go. This led to an exploration of ramps. Then the children saw that the ramps and the bridge started to break, so they began to use tape to attach the tires. One challenge changed the entire direction of the play.


3. Sometimes we need to ignore the mess. I find this really hard to do. When I see students moving materials from one area of the classroom to another one, I start to think about everything that’s going to need to be sorted before the end of the school day. While on one hand, I know that play often becomes richer when we allow this to happen, it’s often hard for me to control my own impulse not to say, “Keep that there,” or “Why don’t you use that over in this area instead?” Since I know this about myself, I decided that if I was really going to let children move materials freely around the room, I needed to see less of the mess, so coupled with my first point, I got down low. This worked!

4. There were fewer problems today. I keep on thinking about the “why,” and I think that this could be for a couple of different reasons. First of all, the children really got to direct their play. Granted, they usually do, but with not interfering when students moved materials around the classroom or used areas differently than we intended, they were able to take more ownership over their learning. I wonder if ownership also leads to increased engagement, which ultimately, reduces problems. Secondly, we didn’t respond to problems immediately. This doesn’t mean that we ignored them, but we watched, listened, and stayed back a bit. We let the children work past the screams and problem solve, and in the end, most problems seemed to be resolved quicker than when we get involved. This makes me wonder how often we really need to get involved. 

Still Contemplating …

1. While it’s great to let children move materials freely around the classroom, this also means that it takes longer to tidy up, and we didn’t budget this extra time for today. Most children are really tired by the end of the school day, so their interest in tidying up is even less. I could feel my own stress level rise, as I saw the clock, realized we had to get packed up for home, and observed the pile of grass seed all over the floor. Thankfully Nayer suggested that the children start getting ready for home, and she worked with a couple of students to finish the sweeping and the straightening. Tomorrow we’ll start earlier.

2. I spent a lot more time watching specific groups of students today, and while I observed and heard more from these students, I know that I missed thinking and learning shared by other students. Nayer captured some of these other conversations, but we also both missed a few. So now I think about tomorrow and I wonder, do I continue to observe the students that I did today? Do I observe other students instead? How do you balance this so that you see and hear the most from everyone? 

3. I’m still thinking about documentation and the role of curriculum expectations. I have never been a fan of listing expectations or putting the numbered expectations on our documentation. I’ve always questioned, “Why do this?” That said, I know the curriculum expectations well, and I’ve usually identified the subject area and/or strand as part of the documentation. Karyn made me wonder about this yesterday though, when she talked about the richness of play, and the fact that it really is so much richer than a list of discrete skills. Overall, today I resisted the urge to label expectations. Could educators see links between what’s shared and the curriculum expectations? I think so … but I didn’t make these links explicit. I’m struggling with this one, for I wonder, without pointing out the link are we helping others see the curriculum value in addition to the play value? Does this matter? Do these two ideas mesh?


Our Kindergarten Networking Team meets again on June 6th, and I hope to use the time between now and then to continue to work on refining my documentation skills and applying some of my new learning. Maybe I’ll also get to figure out the answers to some of my questions, while likely thinking of new ones in the process. Any words of advice as my partner and I continue to grapple with what Karyn shared? The school year may be coming to an end, but the learning isn’t over yet for educators or children!


What If We Saw Things From The Child’s Perspective?

I am re-reading Stuart Shanker‘s Calm, Alert, and Learning as part of a School Book Club. As I’ve mentioned in some previous blog posts, each chapter that I re-read, coupled with my new learning through the Foundations Courses, help give me a different perspective. The same thing happened as I read Chapter 5: The Prosocial Domain.

In this chapter, Shanker discusses how adults can sometimes play “the part of dysregulator with our children” (Page 101). We do this as we dismiss a child’s fears, ultimately increasing a child’s anxiety. As I read this paragraph in the book, I thought back to an experience that I had last week. I was out in the hallway with the students as they were packing up and getting ready for home. One child was very excited to bring home some art work that she did in class. As she placed the work on the ground to get her backpack out of her locker, she accidentally stepped on it and one of the papers ripped into two. I didn’t see the ripping happen, but I heard the screams that came seconds later. I was helping another child do up her backpack at the time, and I looked up, in alarm, expecting to see a hurt child. Instead, I saw this student gripping both pieces of her art work with big alligator tears streaming down her face. She came right up to me, and through the tears, tried to explain what happened.

I wish now that I could say that I reacted differently than I did. Instead, I got down on my knees, and as she came and wrapped herself around me — craving a hug to stop the pain — I asked her in a quiet voice, “Will the tears fix the problem?” She said, “No,” and then I said, “This is not a big problem. You can always make a new picture tomorrow.” Oh, how I wish that I could go back in time and try again. The truth is that for this student, this was a big problem. Her work mattered, and the fact that it was destroyed, devastated her. There are many different ways that I could have responded.

  • I could have suggested getting some tape.
  • I could have helped her fix this rip, so that she could take home her art work in one piece.
  • I could have also given her some new paper, so that she could re-create this art work at home.

Some may wonder if doing any of these three options would have been “too soft” an approach. How are children going to learn not to react so extremely to such small problems if we always give into them? I’ll admit that I asked myself this same question even as I considered more empathetic responses. Shanker addresses this point in his book though, as he shares that it’s these empathetic kinds of responses that help children “develop these self-regulatory behaviours” (page 101). Maybe the next time, instead of screaming and crying, she would go and find some tape on her own and fix the ripped art work. Isn’t this what we want children to do?!

That’s when I started to reflect on some of my own problematic experiences in the past. I thought of times that I got angry. I thought of times that I felt upset. I remember telling some friends and family members about these experiences, and sometimes they would respond in a similar way that I responded to this child. They weren’t trying to be mean. They didn’t want to increase my anxiety. But by hearing words such as, “You’re overreacting, Aviva,” or “Don’t worry! This is not a big problem,” it just made me feel more upset. Maybe I needed some hand holding at these times. Maybe I needed somebody to present me with some possible options. Maybe I needed somebody to walk me through a solution. Maybe a little co-regulation then would help me self-regulate later.

While I can’t go back and change what I did last week, I can remember Shanker’s book, my list of other possible responses, and my own experiences, to remind me of the need for a more empathetic response the next time. How do you remember to show empathy? What value do you think this has for children and for adults? I think that J.M. Barrie’s quote sums up my new learning well: “Be kinder than necessary.” Imagine if we all lived by these words.


Why Label?

I just came back from EdCamp Mississauga (#edcamp905), and while I have many blog posts swirling around in my head after this great day of learning, there’s one that I feel as though I need to write first. The second session that I went to today addressed “Mental Wellness and Technology.” A point that came up numerous times was the “importance of the label” (e.g., anxiety, depression, etc.). Maybe this helps create a shared understanding of the child and his/her needs. Maybe this helps decrease the stigma (as there’s often discussion of the stigma associated with Mental Health). But the more I think about it, the more I wonder, do we need to label everything?

Education is full of labels (not all associated with Mental Health).

  • This child has ADHD.
  • This child is learning disabled.
  • This child is gifted.
  • This child has autism.
  • This child is a selective mute.
  • This child has FASD.
  • This child has anxiety.
  • This child has depression.

And my list is nowhere near complete. As I contemplate labels more, I wonder …

  • Does the label change our perception of what the child can do or cannot do?
  • Does the label make other children respond to this child differently? Is this necessary?

It was during this same session that an occasional teacher shared her experience going into a classroom one morning and meeting a child that was very upset. He kept crying. She thought back to her placement and a student that she had before that acted in a similar way. In her previous experience, giving the child about five minutes alone to calm down seemed to help. But it didn’t help in this other case, and soon, a small problem became a lot bigger. Her point was that it would be very beneficial to know about these struggling students — and the students that are labelled with different needs — so that she can support them as a supply teacher. 

This made me think of my supply notes. I’ll admit that my supply plans usually resemble a novella (hence why I try to email them to the supply teacher prior to the day), but in the past couple of years, the composition of these plans have changed a lot. About 75% of my plans are notes about the kids. There is a note on each child … and this is not a list of labels or a collection of problems.

  • Sometimes this note is a link to a photograph that helps the child calm down when he/she is upset.
  • Sometimes this note talks about some key words/strategies to use with different children to help them with getting dressed, going out for recess, or packing up at the end of the day.
  • Sometimes this note mentions some favourite activities.
  • Sometimes this note mentions some extension possibilities for students that need it.

These are only some examples. My point here is that all of our students are special. They may all need something different to do their best, and on certain days — like when there is a supply teacher in the room — they may need this even more. 

After this Mental Wellness session, I had an interesting conversation with another EdCamp attendee that led to these next two questions: if we create a caring environment, where all students feel safe and supported (both academically and socially), will many problems (and maybe even the need for some labels) slowly start to fade away? How do we create this environment? While I realize that labels can play a role in funding formulas and special class placements, I can’t help but wonder if they’re always necessary or if we sometimes rely on them too much. What do you think?


“Am I Okay With This?”

As I mentioned in a recent blog post, I’ve started re-reading Stuart Shanker‘s Calm, Alert, And Learning as part of a School Book Club. I don’t usually like to re-read books, but I think that my new learning from the Foundations Courses has helped me see the same content in a different way. During our Book Club meeting this week, we spoke about the Cognitive Domain and the Social Domain, and one of my takeaways from the Cognitive Domain chapter was on the value of obstacle courses. Dr. Shanker shares an example of a teacher, who discusses how obstacle courses help “strengthen motor coordination” (page 59) and allow children to “compete against themselves” (page 60). Since we purchased stools for our classroom, students have created many of their own obstacle courses, but this book provided some great additions to their current courses. What I didn’t realize is that the children were going to add many of these additions on their own today.

When students made an obstacle course on the carpet this morning, I thought that it might be good to add something that they could crawl under. I found two chairs and a blanket, and the students helped me fasten the blanket to the chair. When it fell off, they even moved the chairs closer together to see if this would help. Then they decided to add tape to keep the blanket attached to the chairs. Surprisingly enough, adding the tape was such a focused activity that it seemed to calm many students down. I never would have considered the Self-Reg value of taping before. 

My biggest surprise came this afternoon though, when I saw the complex obstacle course that a group of four students created on the carpet. This course included two stools, two stacked tires, and four chairs. When I first saw the course, I could feel my own heart rate rising. Would the students bump into the shelf? Would they fall off the chairs? Were the tires safe? But then I stood back and watched how the students used the course.

  • Students that felt very confident in their ability to balance themselves, stepped on the tires. They knew how to negotiate both sides so that they did not fall down.
  • A few students, asked for my hand. They held it as they went across the tires. This made them feel more balanced and ensured that they were safe.
  • One student stepped from the stool inside the tires. She was then on solid ground and could easily step onto the next stool from inside the tire.
  • A few students got down on their knees and crawled across the tires. This made them feel safer and helped with balancing.

The degree of difficulty in this course was enough that the children really had to focus to get through it. Students were slow and methodical, and the room actually felt incredibly quiet and calm.

Yes, I stayed on the carpet for the whole time that the children were using the obstacle course. Yes, I positioned myself in the riskiest areas (between the tires and the chairs) to ensure that I could easily support students in case of a problem. Yes, when I first looked at the obstacle course, I called out to my partner, Nayer, and asked, “Am I okay with this?” And yes, I had a little internal dialogue weighing the risks against the possible self-regulation benefits. 

The truth is though, there’s a lot of value in “risky play,” and sometimes when we let our fears prevent this play from happening, we also lose out on the benefits that come from this risk taking. This afternoon I saw students supporting each other, engaging in gross motor activities, thinking through challenges, and getting to the “calm” that they needed in order to learn. Maybe some stools, tires, and chairs, don’t need to be so scary after all. What do you think? How do you support risky play at school and at home? What’s the value in doing so? 


Can We Let Them ALL Play?

I’m a part of our school’s new Kindergarten/Grade 1 Calm, Alert, and Learning Book Club. As I’ve blogged about many times before, Stuart Shanker‘s book has transformed my teaching practices probably more than any other professional resource. I just started Foundations 4 through The MEHRIT Centre, and coupled with Calm, Alert, and Learning, I think that these self-regulation courses are giving me a better understanding of Self-Reg and the importance for overall student success. I share all of this because while I was eager to participate in our Book Club, I wasn’t sure how much value I’d get re-reading the book (I’m not a person that usually likes to re-read books anyway). I was wrong though. I realize now how much I missed the first time, and how my new learning helps me better understand Shanker’s book.

This morning, I was reading Chapter 3 on The Cognitive Domain, and I re-read the spotlight article on The Cognitive Value of Play (pages 49-50). When I last read Shanker’s book, I was teaching Grade 5, and while “play” had its place in the classroom, I think that we were more focused on inquiry-based learning versus play-based learning. Now I’m a Kindergarten teacher that runs a very play-based program, and I really connected with this article. I don’t think that I ever realized what role self-regulation plays in “play.” As children socialize and collaborate with each other (as they do during authentic play), they really need to self-regulate in order to maintain this play (page 49).

But what about those students that struggle with self-regulation and with this open-ended play? I always thought that scaffolding was the solution. Reading this article again today though, makes me wonder. As Shanker mentions, it’s often these students that struggle the most that need, and would benefit from, this play the most (page 50). Maybe then, instead of restricting where the children can play and what they can do, we — as the adults — need to be there to step in, ask the questions that can help the students think of ways to down regulate, and when needed, model some problem solving options that children can later use independently.

I keep thinking about what this looks like in a classroom environment. With many students, and possibly many needs, sometimes it’s easier to provide the options for the children. Sometimes it’s easier to work in the scaffolding even before problems occur to help avoid them in the first place. Sometimes it’s easier to punish (i.e., This child is grabbing away all of the action figures and throwing them around the carpet, so he/she needs to move to another area to play alone.). Is easier always better? In the long run, will the easier method result in a growing level of independence? Will the easier method result in positive changes for the child? I’m not so sure that it will … and this is kind of an “uncomfortable” discovery, as it’s making me re-think how I’ve approached play in the classroom.

  • I am the teacher that has a child move when there is a problem.
  • I am the teacher that provides options for children that seem to struggle with more open-ended choices.
  • I am the teacher that will make a choice for a child if a child can’t seem to make one on his/her own.

Maybe though, I need to become the teacher that follows the unsure child until he/she makes a choice. Then I need to become the teacher that inserts myself into the play when a major problem arises, and uses different questions and modelling to help the child problem solve and remain in this play situation instead of automatically moving to another one. 

I wonder how this might work if more than one problem presents itself at a time. I wonder if there is a need for some small group mini-lessons on problem solving and self-regulation for those students that seem to struggle the most. Is it better to learn in context, or is it better to learn first and apply later? Maybe the answer to this changes depending on the child and the classroom dynamic. I just keep thinking back to tweets and blog posts that I’ve seen before about the “benefit of the struggle.” If this is true in an academic situation, is it also true in a social situation? It seems as though more and more educators are encouraging children to try, fail, and try again in all subject areas. Why can’t this also be true for the Learning Skills? What do you think?


Do Parents Know What Their Kids Are Learning In School?

Earlier today, I read this blog post by Will Richardson that really got me thinking. His post talks about parents not knowing what their children are learning in school, and it goes on to discuss why this might be the case and how this is likely to continue to be a reality. This evening I wonder: how widespread a problem is this? I think that I work hard at trying to make the opposite true, and that I’m not alone in ensuring that parents DO know what their kids are learning in school.

Every night, my partner and I publish a blog post that highlights what the children have done all day, what they’ve learned (connected to the curriculum expectations), and how parents can extend this learning at home. We tweet and Instagram photographs and videos all day long, including mini-learning stories, that we feature in our daily blog post. Some might argue that this only happens because our students are in Kindergarten, but even when I taught Grades 5 and 6, I used Storify and captured and shared our daily learning through a class blog.

From Kindergarten to Grade 6 and at various schools, I’ve used this same blog approach to engage parents, and over the years, I’ve had a lot of positive feedback from them. I really think that parents want to help their children, and by knowing what’s happening in the classroom and having some prompts for extending this learning at home (a special “thank you” to Aaron Puley, who taught me the importance of doing this), students benefit. As Aaron also reminded me, we need to view parent engagement through an “equity lens.” This is why I also call parents — regardless of grade — regularly to connect with them, as it’s through these phone conversations that we also have learning discussions. For some parents, this works better than the digital option. For others, the opposite is true. Choice matters — for parents and for kids!

While I’m talking here about my own experiences, I also know that I’m not the only teacher connecting with parents in these different ways. I see lots of class blogs through our Board’s blogging platform, and I see and hear the stories of the phone conversations and face-to-face discussions with parents about classroom learning. Educators are inviting parents into classrooms, and parents and children are learning together. The home/school connection is only further reinforced through the Full-Day Early Learning Kindergarten Program Document, and as the underlying philosophy in this document (and the new one) spreads, I see the potential for even greater home/school relationships and co-learning in other grades. 

While I feel as though I have a more optimistic view of the home/school “learning connection” than the one highlighted in Will’s post, I’m left wondering …

  • Am I missing something here?
  • Is my sample size too small? 
  • What else could we do as individuals, as a Board, and even as a system, to change the situation outlined in Will’s post?

While I’d like to think that parents already have an idea of what kids are learning in school, I’d also hope that they want to know and that educators want them to know. Is this just my Utopian ideal or is it an achievable goal? What’s your perspective?


What If We Stopped Having The Jacket Debate?

When I get a new follower on Twitter, I often go to his/her Twitter page to see what he/she is sharing and find out more about the follower. This is what I did today when I noticed that FloradTeach started following me. What I didn’t expect to see was a link to a blog post that has had me thinking ever since: I’m Not Cold.

Is A Jacket Always Necessary? Who Decides?

Is A Jacket Always Necessary? Who Decides?

This post really hit home for me because I am the teacher that enforces that students wear their coats. Before heading outside each day, we talk about the temperature and what outdoor clothing items students wore to school. Then we discuss what they need to wear outside based on the weather. This I’m Not Cold blog post is making me start to question my approach.

The first thing that I thought of is that I’m rarely cold. I’ve been wearing sandals for weeks — as soon as the snow melted away — and while I usually wear a jacket, I rarely do it up. I love fresh air. We always open the window in our classroom, I always turn the fan on beside my bed at night, and I always delight when the cool breeze blows on my face outside. If I don’t always feel cold, do the students?

The second thing that I thought of is how my partner and I approached getting dressed and undressed during the winter months. Snowpants and additional outdoor clothing seemed to cause some students stress, and instead of arguing about the clothing coming off each morning, we let the children get undressed at their own pace. Most students got undressed right away, but a few students came into the classroom, sat down for a snack, and/or even started to engage in a learning centre with peers, and then got undressed when they started to feel warm. Usually this happened within the first hour of the day, but sometimes students stayed in their snowpants longer than this. Does this really matter? We always have the window open in the classroom, so the children never got overheated. Maybe some students were cold … and if this is the case, then would it not hold true that outside, maybe some students are hot?

Just like we didn’t enforce getting undressed during these winter months, we also considered outdoor dressing requirements. After talking to parents, for those students that were really stressed out by snowpants, we didn’t require that they wear them. We always provided the choice, and often brought the snowpants outside in case the children got cold later. If the temperature wasn’t that cold though, did the snowpants really matter? Students knew what they wanted to do outside and if they needed snowpants for these kinds of activities (e.g., making snow angels). Maybe just like snowpants in wintertime, jackets in springtime are less of an issue than they need to be.

The final thing that I thought of is if we make decisions for children, how do they learn to make them on their own? I’m a big believer in not micromanaging students regardless of age. Children choose where they sit. They choose where they eat lunch. They choose where they go to learn, and they often choose how they share their thinking and learning. This doesn’t mean that we don’t provide scaffolding for these kinds of choices, provide mini-lessons when necessary, encourage some variation, and/or support students when problems arise. We do. But if we see children as capable, then we need to give them opportunities to make choices, make mistakes, learn from them, and try again. And this is where I feel very guilty because I do this almost all of the time except for when it comes to “wearing a coat.” Why can’t they make this coat decision too? 

It’s officially springtime in Ontario. The temperature is warming up. On most days, students just bring a light jacket anyway. Maybe it’s time to let go and stop having the “coat debate” every day. What if children decided? If students bring their jackets outside with them, they can always put them on and/or take them off depending on how they feel. Do we need to make this dressing routine more complicated than this? What do you think? I would love to know what you do and why.