Bring A Leaf To School … And Then Make It So Much More Than That!

Sometimes it amazes me what inspires me. If you told me that I would wake up this morning and write a blog post inspired by falling leaves, I wouldn’t have believed you, but all it took was a great conversation on Doug Peterson‘s morning post to act as the inspiration for this one. 

As I mentioned in my reply to Doug, our time outside in our forest space definitely leads to “leaf games.” Students make piles of leaves, jump in leaves, and even create art with leaves. So much imaginative and creative play comes from falling leaves. 

Doug pushed my thinking even more though when he tweeted me back and replied to my comment on his blog

Yes, we’re very lucky to have a forest space. We have one of the nicest outdoor spaces that I have ever seen, and it really does provide everything that anyone could ever want in an outdoor learning environment. But Doug’s reply reminded me that even for those that do not have this kind of outdoor area, there are things that they can do. I know, as I’ve taught in these kinds of spaces before, and I realize that in retrospect, I could have done a lot more. 

My final comment on Doug’s post implied that I would be writing a post of my own, and this is that post. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about what could be done in schools that don’t have access to forest spaces. What about those schools that don’t even have grass? I know about those schools. I used to teach at one. At the time, we made our outdoor play time largely about the use of the bicycles, the scooters, the playground equipment, and the sidewalk additions, such as the tracks and games painted on the sidewalks. I’ve seen a lot of this sidewalk painting recently. I used to love these numbers, letters, and words spread across the black top, but now I wonder if the money used on these additions could be better used for a more open-ended play space. 

While we often talk about, videotape, and photograph our time in the forest, we also have a wonderful classroom just outside our doors. Here’s a look at the outdoor classroom space that my teaching partner, Paula, and I revamped before school started.

Let’s think a bit about those schools that do not have grassy areas, trees, and forest spaces. How might you create an outdoor classroom there?

  • Tires are versatile, outdoor loose parts that can be used for creative play, gross motor play, and even as seats for reading and writing. We’ve collected a ton of tires to use in our outdoor classroom, and they’re all free. Most mechanics want to get rid of old tires, as it costs them to recycle them. Talk to your local mechanic and see what you can get. You’d be amazed!
  • Wooden blocks, of various sizes, are great for building and creating outside. One of the previous kindergarten teachers at our school, Janet, collected and brought in many of these wood pieces for us to use. I wonder at your school if there might be parents or educators with some old pieces of wood. They can be all different sizes. Even starting with a few is wonderful, and then you can collect more as they become available. 

  • The mud kitchen might be my favourite addition to this outdoor classroom. Students that rarely engage in dramatic play in the classroom, engage in it outside around this mud kitchen. I love how it includes both boys and girls. So much oral language, math, science, and literacy comes from this space. We happen to have some berries hanging from trees near our mud kitchen, and collecting and creating with these berries have been very popular lately. Students use sticks and wood chips much like kitchen instruments, and as they create, there are so many wonderful conversations. Even adding some leaves in here, along with weeds, would create some new conversations in this area. This year, we used a couple of old workbenches as the foundation for this mud kitchen. If you don’t have access to these, a few tires with some wood could act as a kitchen. Maybe even an old picnic table would work. We bought some pots and pans at Value Village and Dollarama, and used old buckets to contain the mud. We also got the canteens from Home Hardware and Dollarama at very low prices. This ensures that we can keep enough water outside for this mud kitchen play. The mud piece is key! 🙂 

  • A dig pit helps with the mud component, but also with the sensory play (and the oral language that comes from this kind of play). Students often use the mud in addition to the blocks for building opportunities, which also gets students thinking about construction and cement. What a great chance to develop vocabulary skills! If you don’t have a dig pit area, what about an old sandbox or a long, low Rubbermaid container for some sand? We bought bags of play sand for $5 each at the end of the year, and they get very well-used before we need to purchase more.
  • Stumps work well for gross motor play, but are also wonderful places to sit, eat, and talk. A few stumps with some wood pieces could also act as a foundation for the mud kitchen, if the tire and wood options don’t work well for you. I know that Janet, a previous Kindergarten teacher at our school, found a lot of these wood stumps. Look for them! They are often along the roads or maybe even in a teacher or parent’s backyard after doing some tree cutting. Ask around! You’d be surprised what people have around that they are willing to give you, especially if you can go and pick them up. Just like the tires, these stumps work as wonderful loose parts in our outdoor learning space, and are so versatile. 

  • No doubt about it: the outdoor chalkboard is a wonderful addition to our space, but there are alternatives. A parent made this chalkboard many years ago, and maybe there is a parent in your neighbourhood that could make one. Maybe the money that you save on painting sidewalks or fixing bicycles could be used for a chalkboard instead. If not, some sidewalk chalk on wood pieces, logs, or tree stumps work wonderfully. We had some old doors from a shed, and students love chalking on them. They’ve also been great for painting outside. We’ve brought out water colour paints, but wondered if some of the natural berry paints might be nice to add too. If none of these options work, bring out some clipboards, special pens or markers, and even small notebooks for writing. Placing these around the outdoor space help make them easily accessible, and then kids tend to write more. We find the same thing inside the classroom.

  • Don’t forget about the books! This year, we took the doors off an old shed, and created a wonderful little space for reading and/or dramatic play. Every day, we pull out a box of books, and the kids just love sitting in this space, reading, and talking with each other. Often an adult joins them, and as kids walk by, more stop to listen to and enjoy a story. If you don’t have an old shed space, a tarp, or even an open tent might work well for this kind of reading area. Children also love to sit in tires to read, so a comfy tire space might also work. 

In the end, this blog post is about a lot more than leaves. It is about creating a space where kids can get creative, expand their schema, apply what they’ve learned in the classroom in another area, and develop their social and academic skills through open-ended learning opportunities. When I was at my last school, I never made enough use of the outdoor space that we had. I thought that we were limited due to the lack of grass and the inability to keep items outside overnight. But what if the bikes in the shed were replaced with some natural materials? What if items were locked down? (We did this with our mud kitchen this year.) I know that if I went back to a school that didn’t have our kind of outdoor space, I might shed some initial tears 🙂 , but then I would explore what could be done. For when we create these play opportunities — rich in oral language, creativity, and the development of new vocabulary — the social and academic benefits are huge. Just like leaves are everywhere, can wonderful outdoor play be everywhere too? How do you make this possible? Thanks to Doug for reminding me that there is always more we can do!


How Do You Avoid The Power Struggle?

Power struggles. As another year begins in Kindergarten, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about these. In Ontario, children start JK when they are as young as three: turning four by the end of December. Sometimes students may be three-, four-, or five-years old, but be at a developmental level that is more like two-years old. As someone who has not had my own children, I didn’t have a lot of experience with toddlers until I started teaching Kindergarten. I don’t think that I truly began to understand their behaviour until I began working with Early Childhood Educators, who were willing and open to teaching me a lot. It was then that my thinking and approaches changed. 

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve had to remind myself of some wise words: “You will never win a power struggle with a two-year old.” Three experiences made me realize how different approaches would have completely changed the following outcomes.

Earlier this week, I was outside with the other Kindergarten classes one morning. A group of students decided to set-up a hockey game over in the corner. They made sure that all interested children were included, and supported each other as they played. I really enjoyed watching this hockey game, and was doing so when one child took the hockey stick over to the picnic table. He started banging on the table with it, and then moved to banging on the ground. These are little plastic mini-sticks, and I was really concerned that he was going to break the stick. I went over to him and explained that the hockey sticks needed to be used for the hockey game. He wasn’t willing to go back, and continued to bang. Again, I asked him to bring back the stick, and when he ignored me a second time, I took the stick. Now I should have anticipated what came next, but I didn’t. He went to hit me. This should not be a surprise. It really was my own fault. If I didn’t grab the stick, he wouldn’t have hit me … but he might have broken the hockey stick. I could have reacted in all kinds of different ways, and over the years, I’ve reacted in many of them. But Stuart Shanker‘s and Susan’s Hopkin‘s voices went through my head at the time, and I started to think about Self-Reg and power struggles. 

  • I took a step back.
  • I gave him some space.
  • I got down low.
  • And I waited.

When he quieted down, I asked him in a really quiet voice, “What did you want to do with the hockey stick?” He replied, “I want to make music.” Of course! What a great idea! I could work with this. I said, “This is a wonderful idea! This hockey stick might crack though. That could hurt someone. What else can we find around here to use to make music?” That’s when he found another stick. Another child picked up a rock to use. I even suggested using our hands. This child totally calmed down, created his music, and left the hockey stick in a safer place. 

I was thinking about this experience when I was outside again one morning, and I heard some screaming coming from the building space. Why was this child screaming? I used the words that I often hear my teaching partner, Paula, use: “You look really sad. What’s wrong?” He stopped screaming and said, “Another boy took my hat. He threw it on the ground.” I replied with, “I can see why that might make you sad. Do you know who did it?” Sure enough, he pointed to a child that was hiding in the dig pit: huddled and crying. I went to go and talk with him, but I could see that he was also really upset. I tried Paula’s line again: “You look really sad.” Before I could say anything else, he said, “I’m mad! He [he pointed to the other child] started taking blocks from my building. He wouldn’t stop, so I took his hat.” Hmmm … “I can see how that would make you angry.” I looked at the first child and asked, “Did you take the blocks?” He admitted that he did. I said to him, “That’s why he threw your hat. He was mad. I wonder if we could share the blocks. Where can we find some more?” They looked around and found some. I then said to the child in the dig pit, “What could you do the next time you’re angry?” We brainstormed a couple of options together. A good start!

The more that I thought about what happened, the more that I realized that a different reaction from me could have changed the outcome. If I went up to that child angry that he threw the hat, he probably would have cried more. He might have screamed or thrown something at me. He was definitely dysregulated at the time, and not up for explaining what went wrong without my opening to do so.

It was thinking about some different approaches that got me through my third experience this week. We were playing in the classroom one afternoon, and I noticed a child getting increasingly frustrated. He started a few short screams and cries. I tried to suggest a different activity option, but that wasn’t working. Considering the time and the last time that he ate, I thought that hunger might be at play. Would a short lunch break make a difference? I grabbed his lunch bag off the shelf, and called him over to the eating table. He didn’t want to come, and started to cry a bit more. I tried to just let things be for a few minutes, but the tears weren’t subsiding on their own. I really needed to get him to eat or drink something. Forcing him to come would only result in a power struggle. No win there. So what did I do in the past when I wanted a child to come and eat and he/she was reluctant to do so? I needed to get creative! I thought about the day before and how excited he was to pretend to talk to a person on the phone. What if something in his lunch bag called him instead? No hurt in trying. I opened the bag, and quietly called his name: making the bag open and close with each word that I said. He stopped crying. He turned his head, and he walked to the eating table. “Isn’t that so cool? My lunch bag said my name.” I said that it must mean that the lunch bag wants him to eat something, and this is exactly what he did. I must admit that I love when the challenge of a “no win” becomes a “win” with just a different, creative option! Success. 

While I realize that these stories might be more unique to Kindergarten, there are students out there that struggle in every grade. Can each of these students self-select a better option, or again, do we need to consider options that reduce some of those power struggles in the first place? What are some things that you’ve tried? My teaching partner and I have had so many great moments these past couple of weeks, but maybe our biggest celebrations came when our actions helped turn around difficult situations. I can’t help but wonder if it’s some of these positive outcomes that might help change a child’s trajectory. Imagine how powerful that could be.


Is it time to gain a new appreciation for scribbles?

My teaching partner, Paula, and I had this really interesting conversation after school yesterday. I’m bringing the discussion to the blog as I wonder if others have had similar discussions before, and I’d love to hear what you decided to do.

At the end of each day, Paula and I go back through our documentation, talk about the kids, and make plans for the next day. We also discuss the different areas in the room.

  • How have children used these spaces?
  • What should we keep the same?
  • What might we like to change? 

Yesterday, the sand and playdough spaces led to our most interesting conversation. We initially wondered if we should change both areas. While we saw some possible language and math connections in both spaces, we weren’t seeing children using these areas in these ways. The literacy and math connections were less evident than we hoped. Could we get more reading, writing, number exploration, and measurement experimentation happening in other ways?

But this is when we started to wonder … maybe as much as we want to develop reading, writing, and math skills, is it time to slow down? While I may know that kids need to develop relationships and feel comfortable in an environment before significant learning can happen, I still feel an internal drive for scores.

  • Who are our target students?
  • How do we reach these targets? 

Yesterday’s conversation reminded me that we just finished our fourth school day with kids. Maybe the playdough and the sand meet needs outside of academic ones.

  • Could they provide a calming option for some kids?
  • Does the sensory play help some children as they develop new friendships?
  • Do these items help with creative/make-believe play?

At the end of the day today, Paula and I decided to replace the playdough with water colour paint and keep the sand for at least one more day. We have a possible way to interrupt this sand play tomorrow. We really vacillated on these choices though, and only made them after deciding that if needed, the playdough could always come out again. 

With every comment I made today, I wondered …

  • Are we pushing reading and writing too early?
  • Have all necessary oral language skills been developed first?
  • Do we try to push, and then relent if kids don’t respond?

I almost felt as though I wanted a do-over each time I spoke, but then when I didn’t say or do anything, and just let things be, I also questioned if that was the right choice.

All of these thoughts were running through my head when Paula went on her lunch. It was during this time that our principal came into the classroom for a visit. As he walked around, I noticed him ask a little girl about a piece of work that she did. At first glance, it looked like she just scribbled two colours of marker all over a piece of paper. My first thought was jokingly, why did this need to be the single piece of paper work that he saw? 🙂 

Shortly after he left, I invited this same child to join me over at the creative table. We looked at how to draw a portrait together. It was interesting, for while she identified some different shapes she saw in the mirror and drew on the paper (e.g., a circle), she was all about just drawing lines and curved shapes … even with support. This made me realize that this is where this child is at, and she needs these lines and shapes to slowly progress to letter formation. It’s all a part of the process. Could this playdough and sand play also be a part of this process? I don’t want to neglect the connections to math and language, but I also don’t want to lose sight of the other benefits in these play opportunities. Is it time to gain a new appreciation for scribbles? I think that it might be. 


Why Was This Week Not Exhausting?

Usually during the first week of Kindergarten, I’d be writing a tweet similar to the one that I sent out on the first day of Camp Power.

This was the first year ever that I did not come home feeling absolutely exhausted! While I’m happy that I still had lots of energy left, I started to think about why this year might be different.

We have lots of Senior Kindergarten (Year 2) students that we taught last year in Junior Kindergarten (Year 1). Our class this year is SK heavy. We have 18 SK children to 11 JK children (and yes, I still think of them as JK and SK versus Year 1 and Year 2). Most of these SK students were with us last year in JK. They know us. They know the classroom routines and feel comfortable in both the room and in the school. These children all came back to school as if they never left, but even more eager to be a leader, support new students, and make new friends. Every one of them has been a tremendous help to us this week, and helped my teaching partner, Paula, and I feel as though we didn’t have to do it all. 

We started to make small changes early on based on our observations. Paula and I really tried to get to know our kids this week. While many adjusted well, some needed a little extra support. We started to think a lot about the classroom environment and what might work better for these learners. 

  • Is there an independent space for them?
  • Which activities do they like the most?
  • Do they have items from home that might help during transitional times?
  • How can we use these items to better support them during the flow of the day?
  • Have they connected with some peers that might be able to help them during more challenging times?

We know each other well. This is our third year working together, and we’ve really gotten to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and how we can support each other. This connection also helps when we support kids. We’ve developed a rhythm to our day and our workflow, and a happiness knowing that we are in this together. Coming to work every day with a big smile and a sense of joy over being there, makes a HUGE difference. Attitude matters, and I think that this happy feeling has made this first week that much better!

We connected with parents early on. I think that I used to feel as though I was in this first week alone. I had to tackle every problem by myself, and figure out possible solutions on my own. Parents know their kids so well though, and often they have items at home, reliable strategies, or words of wisdom that can support us at school. Talking to parents at the gate and emailing with them, really helped us out this week. Between some of the things that we tried and some of the ideas they suggested, kids quickly started to settle into the classroom, and we began to feel that sense of calm that we shared the other day

We learned to slow down! While we definitely had a busy, productive, action packed first week of school, we’ve also figured out that there are times that you need to slow down. Getting ready for home is one of those times … especially when school begins. Kids don’t remember which items belong to them. Many children are still learning how to pack up their backpacks. They are tired at the end of the day, and the pace at which they move is much slower then. It’s easy to feel the pressure of the bell, and the need to get every child out to his/her parents. This is when we start to feel stressed, and pretty soon our own dysregulation impacts on kids. This year, we decided to make the end of the day just as great as the rest of it, and pack up a bit early. It’s really just about ending five minutes before we usually would, but these few minutes make a huge difference for us and for kids. 

We haven’t forgotten about the little things. So much wonderful learning happens in Kindergarten, and the academic growth of these young learners is really quite remarkable, but we can’t forget about the rest of the growth too. While we’re already playing some phonological awareness games during transitional times and supporting math, reading, writing, and oral language skills during play, we’re also taking the time needed to develop independence and self-help skills. 

  • Learning how to zipper up their lunch bags – check!
  • Learning how to open and close lunch containers – check!
  • Feeling comfortable peeing, pooping, and wiping at school – check!
  • Learning how to get dressed again after going to the bathroom – check!
  • Learning how to change their clothes in case of an accident – check! 
  • Learning how to move the stool to reach the toilet on their own – check! Yes, there is a lot of bathroom learning in Kindergarten. 🙂
  • Remembering where they put their lunch bag, water bottle, and hat – check!
  • Cleaning up the many water messes that flood our floor and fill our eating table each day – check!

By helping kids develop these skills, we stop being the only teachers in the room. Children can then support themselves and each other, which changes the whole classroom dynamic … especially when there are 29 little bodies there. 

How was your first week of school? How do you get to feeling less tired? I’m definitely liking this new, energized feeling!


Our Plan For Social Success

This morning, I started off my day as I always do, reading Doug Peterson‘s blog post. Today’s post really resonated with me because it explored social media and classroom communication. After commenting a couple of times on the post, I realized that I really needed to blog about our workflow. While we follow much of Doug’s advice, we have a few changes to make it our own. 

First Step – Start with Twitter, Instagram, or both. I love the idea of hashtags, but have never had the best of luck with them. I often forget which one I chose, and then add in an extra character or two, which produces multiple hashtags instead of just one. So my teaching partner, Paula, and I skip the hashtag step, and just move right onto posting. We love using both Twitter and Instagram. Twitter is great for longer video recordings. But with Instagram, we can create learning stories by combining photographs and videos with text. We are also not limited to characters (or at least not as much), so we can share the lead up to the story, what students said, and even some possible next steps. Best of all, we can use an IFTTT recipe to link Instagram and Twitter, and share across multiple platforms. Technically, creating this recipe is the first step, but we’ve kind of combined the two here. Many of our parents are also on Instagram, so they follow along with our posts throughout the day before seeing them merged together later on our classroom blog. A few parents are also on Twitter, but not as many. Linking both social media spaces allows us to meet parents where they’re at. By also having public accounts, parents can use the links to view the posts without needing to create their own account. This leads to even more parental views. 

Second Step – Blog it! This is actually the easiest step. All of the posts are now out there thanks to Twitter and Instagram. We then use Wakelet to collect these posts, provide a context in an introductory paragraph, and then add in a possible extension activity at the end. (A special “thank you” to Aaron Puley, who taught us the value in providing these home extension activities for parents: helping them see how they can use the documentation that they’re viewing.) After publishing the Wakelet, we embed it on our classroom blog. An email notification sends this post directly to parents. As an aside, we have explored how to create this post directly on the blog with a WordPress plug-in (thanks to the incredible Jared Bennett), but the size of each post seems to be beyond what our site can handle. Until we work through this problem, we continue to use a third-party option, and hope that we will not have another Storify experience on our hands. 

Third Step – Reap the rewards! There is so much value in this classroom blog.

  • Parents use it to talk about the day with their child.
  • We use it to inspire new learning each day in the classroom. It’s our greatest provocation!
  • The posts provide photographic evidence, recordings, and quotations that we use for our Communications of Learning. So much growth is noted here!
  • We use this documentation for planning. What are the students’ interests? What might we try next? Lots of great conversations come from these posts. 
  • I use it for my T.P.A. (Teacher Performance Appraisal). Five years ago, my principal at the time, suggested that I tag my blog posts according to the Domains for the Teacher Performance Appraisal. I did this for my professional posts and our classroom ones. I’ve kept up with this tagging, and can now use these posts as evidence for my appraisal. 

Tags For T.P.A.

Our classroom blog is how we document, support, converse about, and celebrate learning. I’m not going to say that this workflow is easy. Yes, it’s time-consuming. I use most of my prep time uploading documentation, and Paula and I discuss even more after school each day. But the time is worth it! It allows us to be very targeted in our instructional practices and provides a great place to reflect on learning. It includes student and parent voice, and always opens itself up for home discussions. After a challenging day, being able to look back at all of the good that happened and celebrate growth — no matter how small that growth may be — often changes our view in a positive way. 

Thinking about what Doug shared this morning though, and what we do, shows that there are different workflow possibilities. What do you do? What else might you want to try? As a new year begins, what a great time to explore various sharing options.