Wednesday 9 August 2023

Taking some things with me from Early Years

I'm leaving the three, four and five year olds, and heading up to Grade 2 (which in UK is called Year 3).

There's so much I love about the way we work with the youngest children, and I'm hoping I'll take some of that with me.

Just two of the things for now, illustrated with two photos from the last week of the summer term.

Estelle on Sports Day with students

We join in

We don't want that 'I am the knowing, observing, and assessing adult' hanging over the students. We break that down by playing alongside the children. Plus, we have fun, and see what it's like to do the things they're doing, and we get ideas.

Rachel at the making table with two students

We are quiet

(Not always of course)
We can sometimes be larger than life, charismatic and inspiring, but lots of the time we are quiet. The students have the agency. We are with them, but not dominating the situation. The students know what they want to achieve. It helps to have us there, and there can be good conversations, but mostly it's the students concentrating on what they're doing.

These are two of the things I want to take with me.

Friday 3 February 2023

Play as the foundation

I get to see the richness of play on a daily basis with the 3, 4 and 5 year olds I work with. They learn through this play, even though it often looks very different to many an adult's idea of learning. It's through this play that their understanding of themselves and the physical and social world around them develops. They also learn what their powers are, how they can arrange things, make things happen, create important moments with others.

I've been thinking about how this is the perfect course to set off on to develop the kinds of abilities, or "competencies" that they will need as adults.

Play is notoriously difficult to define, but I think Peter Gray's definition makes sense. Play is:

  1. Freely chosen & directed by the players
  2. Intrinsically motivated 
  3. Structured by rules within the player’s mind
  4. Always creative & usually imaginative
  5. Conducted in an active, alert, relatively non-stressed frame of mind
He elaborates on this, to show the power each of these characteristics for children's development and learning (my emphasis, in bold):
  1. Because it is freely chosen and directed by the players, play is a major force for children’s learning how to take initiative, direct their own behavior, negotiate with and get along with playmates, and solve their own problems.
  2. Because it is intrinsically motivated, play is how children discover, pursue, and become skilled at what they love to do.
  3. Because it is guided by mental rules, play is how children learn to plan, structure, and create the boundaries (rules) for activities that engage them.
  4. Because it is always creative and often highly imaginative, play is how children exercise and build their capacities for creativity and imagination.
  5. Finally, the mental state of play—active and alert but relatively non-stressed—has been shown in many studies to be the ideal state of mind for learning anything new or doing anything that requires creativity or the generation of new insights.
I also came across this 'Learning Compass' from the OECD:

"Developed as part of our Future of Education and Skills 2030 project, the Learning Compass puts forth a shared vision of what students should learn to be ready for tomorrow."
There's some other important elements around the compass, which I've taken off; I wanted to focus on the compass circle itself.

Looking at the dark cyan ring - the 'transformative competencies' -

  • Taking responsibility
  • Reconciling tensions and dilemmas
  • Creating new value

- I'm struck by how similar these are to the Gray's elaborations of aspects of play.

Just to make it clear, let's put them side by side:


Transformative Competencies

play is how children learn to plan, structure, and create the boundaries (rules) for activities that engage them

Taking responsibility

take initiative, direct their own behaviour, negotiate with and get along with playmates, and solve their own problems

Reconciling tensions and dilemmas

play is how children exercise and build their capacities for creativity and imagination.

Creating new value

Play is developing the kinds of competencies with which we might hope students finish their schooling, those with which they not only know about the world, but can make positive changes to it.

It makes me think that play could be right in the middle of that compass! Play develops skills, knowledge, values and attitudes.

I'm thinking about play for young children here, but I'd like to see playful learning continuing beyond that age to maintain the self-directed approaches children have learnt so much from.

I think it's always useful to think about what that learning is like in the specific case. Luckily, I've blogged about some of these concrete examples. Here's a couple of links to earlier posts:

Arranging things - "What I’m trying to get a grip on doesn’t seem to simply reduce to dispositions though. It is a more disorganised-seeming, less direct way of obtaining knowledge about what daring and playfulness can achieve, what can be done with freedom and within necessity, how the social and physical environment can be remixed. It centres around agency, and uses whatever is at hand to achieve its undefined aims. It achieves its goal of developing capable and skillful being and making in the physical and social world, but its means are more indirect than what comes to mind when we think of theory-building: curiosity -> question -> search -> answers."

Folding, cutting, sticking, drawing - "'s really not necessary for me to be adding anything in to this process: there's so much happening already: theories being refined, interests pursued, skills honed, and much more."

Friday 27 January 2023

Mathematics Lessons to Look Forward To!

Jim's book is out!

Jim Noble is my friend and colleague in secondary. His classroom just a few metres from our Early Years playground, no doubt he's had to shut his door many times because of the racket we're making! I see him out there too. 

'If the world were a hundred people...'

Human Loci: Creating a parabola

These are part of two of the lessons described in Jim's Mathematics Lessons to Look Forward To! The book details twenty lessons that Jim returns to, experiments with, hones and polishes. 

"Every time I revisit a topic for myself or in preparation for teaching or mostly during teaching, I always notice something I haven’t seen before and this is often pointed out by a student."

Jim is a great storyteller. He's often called on to be the one who puts important rites of passage in the life of the school into words: leaving speeches, introducing speakers and celebrations. He's always assured, natural, entertaining and considered in what he says. 

This book is the same. And Jim is letting us into the heart of his teaching here, there's a vulnerability, at times, a touch of self-doubt or self-mockery. In the process, he takes us back to what makes the lessons tick for him, why they became exciting and vital.

"Deep down I have convinced myself that the roots of ideas are an important part of them. I think the journey from first idea to activity is a really enjoyable, reflective part of the job."

His lessons are not always outdoors of course, but they are all out of the routine, they all stand out as being alive, practical where possible... experiences as well as lessons. And fun.

"It is fun. I have made no apology about this. I have found that I need this as much as students do. Something that adds variety to the global experience, something practical that gets students out of their seats and sometimes out of the classroom and something that makes us laugh a little is always welcome."

Reading a draft of the book, I was struck again by how we have so much in common in our outlook towards lessons. Is it that we've spent a lot of time together since 2004 when Jim came to the International School of Toulouse?

It's not just that we both photograph drain covers for their mathematical patterns, both enjoy seeing and making Islamic geometrical patterns, both value Seymore Pappert's seminal book Mindstorms...

Many - most! - of his twenty lessons do actually have their counterpart in the primary school.

We've both enjoyed 'Numbersearch' and these feature in the book:

If the white triangle is 1, what other numbers can you see?

Jim got pi involved:

If the white square is one...

Like Jim in secondary, I love to get my primary students coding the path of a robot using Scratch:

“If I need to turn 5 equal turns that make a total of 360 then I need to turn 72 degrees”, which generalises to “for an n sided regular polygon, the turning angle is 360/n”. The thrill of making this conclusion is the same thrill as solving a puzzle. The word ‘discovery’ is much maligned and probably inappropriate as it implies a kind of wandering around until you find something then pick it up. This is much more mathematical in nature. You have a problem that needs solving, you have knowledge of the scenario at the ready and you put bits of this knowledge together to deduce new knowledge. Now that is doing mathematics.

Or using dynamic geometry:

How would you construct this rectangle? The others? I really do recommend having a go here. It is really interesting to focus on the different ways it can be done and there are some surprising challenges hidden away in there.

In this activity, the constructed dynamic rectangle is, in a sense, every rectangle. Students get to explore the notion that each construction has a degree of freedom that is entirely defined by the elements that were used to construct it and the order in which they were used. It is a profound mathematical idea that goes beyond geometry into set theory and the anatomy of a variable. In many ways it is a much more natural way to see mathematics that a set of static images might be and really helps get our heads around the idea of generalisation. “Many things here can vary, but the following will always be true”

Jim asks the reader to have a go at parts the activities. Some of them I tried. I had a go for instance at constructing a rectangle four different ways using Geogebra. Each one has a different 'skeleton', the way it's constructed.

(I've come to the conclusion there's an infinite way of constructing a rectangle that can be stretched into any rectangle and these skeletons don't have to involve parallel sides, or perpendicular sides either.)

There is really no other book like this! Jim takes each lesson from his treasure chest of pedagogical subject knowledge and turns it every way in the light for us. Which different ways could the lesson go? How does it relate to key ideas in mathematics? How does it relate to our understanding of what it means to know? How does it engage students? What connections are there with other subjects?

Jim showing piles of rice to Helen and Mike

You can tell I'm recommending it!

Great teacher, great book!

The lesson chapters:

 1 - What’s in the box

 2 - Cones

 3 - If the world was a village of 100 people

 4 - Goodness Gracious Great Piles of Rice

 5 - How do I love thee, let me count the ways

 6 - Number Searches

 7 - Human Loci

 8 - Statistics telling stories

 9 - Match Point

 10 - Prime Pictures

 11 - Population Growth

 12 - Starting from scratch

 13 - Indestructible

 14 - Dancing Quadratics

 15 - Hot Wheels

 16 - Maxbox

 17 - Dancing Vectors

 18 - Pleasure at the Fairground

 19 - Impossible Diagrams

 20 - Cubism

Wednesday 28 December 2022

Folding, cutting, sticking, drawing

I want to write a little about one of the hubs of the classroom.

It's what we call the writing table or drawing table. Which is maybe not the right name for it. A lot more happens than writing and drawing. It could perhaps be called the paper table. It's got a lot of stationery on it. Bits of paper of various sizes, glues, scissors. A lot of cutting, gluing, sticking, folding, stamping and printing happens. A lot of colouring in too. But, these names and simple descriptions aren't really adequate.

It’s 'continuous provision', as we call it: it’s always there, and used every day. I imagine that it extends beyond school too: children often have stationery at home.

Most early years classes have got something like this table. Certainly all four of our pre-K and Kindergarten classes have. This is what continuous provision is all about: a place where children can return again and again and make something, trying out new ideas, combining things they’ve done before, learning from each other.

Since they came to the school when they were three, R and K have been doing this. They're not the only ones, but let's focus on them for now. They're four years old; they've been in Moon class for 15 months. R at first stood out as leader of the duo, always inventive, always relishing what she does. But K seems to be inspired by her to be similarly creative, making things that are distinctive to her, having her own strengths and emphases.

An example, back in September: R's envelope-picture:

What kind of mathematics are present in creating this? An awareness of bringing the corners into the middle of the paper to reorient the square and create triangular flaps. A lot of spatial thinking. An example might be the awareness that when you fold the paper over once, the back of the folded paper faces the same way as the front.  She is probably aware that the orientation of the square changes too: first it was in a 'diamond' orientation, now it's in the conventional orientation. She'll be aware that the small square is made up of four triangles. And that there are diagonal lines across the square that meet in the centre. She's aware that some things can be undone, or almost undone. Pencil can be rubbed out. Cuts can be taped together again. And some things can't be undone. The felt pen drawing can't be rubbed out very easily.

At the same time, K was doing some folding too:

These paper explorations contrast with art activities that use specifically 'art' materials, painting in particular. There seems to be more of a tinkering feel, more mixing. Take R here, where she’s decided to draw round the scissors, drawn and colored in a pill shape, written a little, filled a rectangle…

There's a really strong social element in this. There was a group of girls in Star Class two years ago who all tuned into each other with their drawing and colouring, got more and more confident in that, and continued it into Kindergarten.

There’s also the sense of self-efficacy, of choosing a project, seeing it through to completion, working alongside others and learning from each other. There’s a kind of joy in the workshop ambience, in having control and making together and separately.

Here's some more, this time involving cut-outs:
With this must come some sense of how when you fold and cut, the hole you achieve is not like the cut you made. And a developing understanding of the relationship between the two.

There can be folded-and-cut shapes inside other folded-and-cut shapes:
The smaller shape suggested a watermelon to the girls. It's rare for these creations to be completely abstract; they usually represent something. This is a general feature of a lot of play - mathematics is mixed with creation is mixed with representation is mixed with narrative is mixed is mixed with language is mixed with sociability...

Another day, a butterfly:
Another day, a bird:
Another day, flowers composed of four punched hearts rotated:
What is the role of the adult here? Obviously, we keep the table stocked, and help the students to keep it tidy and organised. In the moment, we chat if it doesn't interrupt the flow of the play and conversation. We appreciate what the students are doing, how they're thinking and experimenting, again in a way that doesn't distract from the flow. We document and share with parents on Seesaw, and often with the class in our meeting times. Sometimes we play alongside too; this usually doesn't lead to much in itself, but allows us to be in the workshop too.

This time I started playing with R's leftovers (I'd asked if that was OK). I started making little 'windows' with the heart holes. R quite liked what I was doing this time, and together we made a picture, incorporating a bear on a trampoline, and also some of the folded and cut squares  that were being made at the table at the same time.
But, it's really not necessary for me to be adding anything in to this process: there's so much happening already: theories being refined, interests pursued, skills honed, and much more. 

We leave approximately the same materials on the table most of the time, and that's its power really. The little squares, the A4 sheets, the scissors, glue, tape and pens are enough for an endless range of operations, and combinations of operations that, the way children use them playfully, become more and more sophisticated.

Other things we provide in the class are more one-off. Putting some flowers in a vase to be sketched, along with the sketching materials. This is valid too, but is not a familiar arena that encourages the independence and agency of the students to develop.

In November, R gave a folded-and cut-out character to P, a boy she hasn't had much direct play or conversation with. One of them stuck the character to a sheet of paper, and P added lots of line drawing background. He carried it around with him for half the day.
I was surprised and delighted that this paper play had become a way of reaching out in friendship.

But maybe I shouldn't have been so surprised. These spaces that the students own, which become for them both a laboratory and a language are the natural places for the real events of the class to happen in.

Monday 3 October 2022

The design cycle, sped up

(just four) began her time with us with a torrent of paintings. She’s now broadened out, and shows a lot of interest in arranging blocks.

On Tuesday she got some of the Unit Blocks out and began making little ‘houses’ - combinations of shapes that went together. She was making, knocking down, sweeping them to one side, and remaking anew, again and again. I sat down and tried to add to the houses, but she was mostly not happy with my additions and my adding them only seemed to speed up the sweeping away and remaking!

Finally, she had a house shape that pleased her.

I was struck anew by something about children’s play that this seemed to exemplify: the rapid movement through iterations, making, destroying, making…

If the results weren’t right, pieces were adjusted, rearranged, added or subtracted, up to a point where, if the whole was unsatisfying it was swept to the side and the ground laid bare to build a new thing. It’s like the design cycle, but speeded up:

The checking and thinking is so fast, so much during the making, that it doesn’t stand out as a distinct stage, it’s all there in the making. The only other - brief - stage that is separate is the knocking down and sweeping blocks to the side.

I’m thinking of this, from Alison Gopnick’s great book, The Gardener and the Carpenter: "by four, fully 66 percent of calories go to the brain". Children are thinking fast, making connections rapidly. And they’re doing a lot of the thinking with their hands. 

Again, on Friday, this time working with Kapla and little wooden people, A was creating and recreating, remodeling her house again and again  to better please her. 

After about twenty-five minutes, the finished house satisfied her. There were bedrooms for all the adults to sleep in, in groups that she found satisfying. The children appear to have some kind of dormitory thing going on:

This rapid-fire remodelling is maybe a kind of superpower of the four-year old. While 66% of their energy is going to the brain, they can move quickly between experiences, ‘breaking’ (or leaving) whatever doesn’t seem to work. 

Though there was a rapid movement in the making,  A stuck with the project from 9:52 to at least 10:16 - there’s a time stamp on the photos.

It strikes me that this is characteristic of young children, how they move from one activity to another quickly. Maybe it’s a quick evaluation: is this the optimal possibility now? Could I be getting more from doing something else? We adults might mistake this for an inability to concentrate, or some kind of hyperactivity. But it seems to be just the brain’s optimal learning path. There’s no need to leave a trail, to have a distinct and visible evaluation or planning stage. Both are integrated into the making. There’s no need to document the process. We teachers might see a reason to do this, but children tend to just move on quickly. A doesn’t even seem to care too much about the ‘end’ product being put away. 

I would propose that A is demonstrating all these IB PYP "attitudes to learning" below, all almost at the same time in the course of her selection and placement of the blocks and people, and the conversation she has as she does it. The separate elements are not visible as separate but they are all present as she places and replaces elements:



What students do

Thinking skills

Critical thinking


►Observe carefully.

►Find unique characteristics.

►Consider meaning taken from materials and events.

►Synthesize new understandings by seeing relationships and connections.


►Organize information

►Evaluate evidence.

►Test generalizations, strategies or ideas.

Forming decisions

►Revise understandings based on new information and evidence.

►Draw conclusions and generalizations.

►Apply rules, strategies and ideas from one context to another.

Creative thinking

Generating novel ideas

►Use discussion and play to generate new ideas and investigations.

►Make unexpected or unusual connections between objects and/or ideas.

    Practice some “visible thinking” routines (Ritchhart, Church and Morrison 2011).

Considering new perspectives

►Seek information.

►Consider alternative solutions, including those that might be unlikely or impossible, in play and other situations.

►Ask “what if” questions. Practise some “visible thinking” routines.

Saturday 24 September 2022

From back behind them

 We've got a set of Unit Blocks in Sun Class and a set in Moon Class.

R and K were playing with them, and also with some of the wooden story figures, and a gorilla.

Sometimes, the building came to the fore.
Sometimes, it was the story telling and acting out with the small-world figures. R's mum later told me that R had watched King Kong in the summer.

Other people, including me, were also contributing to the Unit Block construction.
R was kind of telling a story as the characters acted it out.
Normally, it's the students who ask me if I can write down stories for them ("helicopter stories"). This time I asked. R and K told this story together, with R leading the way:

"They all heard the noise from back behind them. They turned round. They all jumped when they saw King Kong."

I was really struck by this part. It describes a moment of surprise in a way that the PK students stories usually don't. And the surprise hinges on a spatial arrangement. At first the character blocks were facing away from King Kong, not conscious of his presence. Then they turn around, and only then do they realise to their shock that King Kong is there.

We often act out our stories together, and acted out this one as I read it out. Again, there was the dramatic moment of all turning round and seeing that King Kong was there.

And this is what I wonder: Did the small world enactment of the story - the staging of it together -  help to introduce this dramatic - and geometric - moment into the story telling?

Tuesday 19 July 2022

Block play - an interview with Sofia Wallace

I am fascinated by our young (3-5 yo) students' block play. So, when Sofia Wallace, who posts delightful and inspiring things happening in her early years class in Milan, posted this, I wanted to know more:

I asked Sofia if she might be interested, if not in a thesis, at least in a short conversation about block play.

She liked the idea, and the idea of sharing it with you here.

Simon - Hi Sofia. #justsocool I find block play endlessly fascinating too, so I’m interested! I’d love to talk about it a little more…

I see already there are some hashtags. They might be good starting points.

#stories and #structures - It’s amazing how block play brings together engineering and narrative. Can you say a little more about that?

Sofia - Hi Simon! Thank you for putting this together! I love block play because it's such an accessible storytelling medium in early years. I’ve found that in my mostly EAL classrooms, children will often get intimidated with more traditional storytelling that requires them to draw or to speak. Blocks are different. All the students I’ve ever taught have been attracted to block play in one form or another. Whether solo exploring, testing how they can use them or sharing in elaborate narratives, there really is something for everyone in block play. 

I used the hashtags structure and stories because they seem to be umbrella terms for the two ways I generally see children explore with blocks. Even as young as 1 or 2 children explore structure when they are putting them in their mouths and discovering the texture or shape or physics of how a block drops, or rolls or sounds when it’s thrown. Then as they begin having that ability to use blocks to represent other things they move into being more storytellers. It’s the interplay of stories and structure that allow a child to create these amazing things. 

Simon - Yes, it’s amazing how #story and #structure brings so much together! The world of people and the world of things!

Blocks are such a powerful tool, language, material!  I’m struck that you say all the students you’ve taught are attracted to block play! I’m not sure we could say the same, with our 3 to 5 year olds. Let’s take it back a bit… Can you tell me a little more about the actual blocks that your students use in the block play, how they’re stored and accessed, and… how the attraction works? Is it just a matter of the blocks attracting, or is it seeing each other play too? Also, what is the place of the teacher in this? What would you advise early years educators like us who aren’t seeing this attraction in all the students?

Sofia - Oh great questions! I’ve been really fortunate to work in lots of different settings, all of which had different blocks and building materials available. Currently, my students have access to a combination of Kaplan, Lego, traditional wooden building blocks, Magnatiles and large foam blocks. All year round, a combination of these are stocked in the building area. We have either the shadow of the shape (just paper cut out to match the shape of the block, taped down) or photos posted of what the shelf looks like when put away. For me, a big part of creating a culture that supports exploring with blocks is creating a culture of accessibility. Students have to know that the tools out are there for them to use. For that to work, blocks have to be on a shelf that is at eye level, organised and sorted for easy access. At the start of the year we are pretty selective with what we put out. Slowly, as we develop a culture of care in our classroom, we add more. 

We also are mindful to keep the loose parts shelf as near the block area as possible, since loose parts add a lot to the narratives that come with block structures. 

Both of these shelves start quite sparse at the beginning of the year, but now have many more materials on them. 

Your next question is quite tricky for me to think about. I’m not sure I have a perfect answer for how the attraction works. I know that at the start of the year, we will often play with the students and model what being a good play partner looks like. We ask questions, use polite language to share, offer materials to others, etc. I think this immediately draws in students who are maybe coming to school for the first time and are mostly used to playing with mom, dad, grandma or grandpa in their homes. I found this year more than other years, a lot of my students were initially seeking to play with adults and not other children. 

Another way we draw children in is to have some structures made already to spark interest. Almost like a block provocation. We might create a pattern with a structure, an interesting arrangement or add a figurine to suggest a story. We did this more at the beginning of the year. Having the option to add on to something rather than start your ideas from scratch seemed like a good way to encourage children to explore. It also gave us the opportunity to model cooperative building. A lot of our students moved from being more parallel players to partner players this year. To support this we try to give them as many opportunities to collaborate as we can. 

We also will add photographs around the block structure area and we change those throughout the year. We started with photos of their homes sent by parents and then went to famous buildings around Milan, pictures of structures families visited, pictures of different architecture around Italy, landscapes, race car tracks, family vacations, etc. We changed these based on what we heard them talk about while playing in other areas in the classroom. Sometimes this inspires and sometimes it doesn’t. 

I think the final thing that attracts my groups to blocks is that they feel that their structures are really important. We take lots of pictures, share builds at circle, write stories about creations and allow for things to not get cleaned up. This tells them that their creations are important and valuable and allows them to continue on with their thinking. 

More than anything, I believe my students want to be seen as capable. Honouring their work by saying, “Yes! You worked so hard on this creation, tell me all about it” and then taking the time to save what they’ve done and share it with peers and families makes them feel really proud. That pride is what brings them back and gets them thinking in new and creative ways. 

So I suppose to summarise, my advice to an early years teacher who is not seeing a pull to blocks is to…

#1 See if the space is inviting and draws you in. 

  • Make sure pieces are easily accessed on your shelf and that they have a clear place

  • Make sure there are not too many options, especially to begin with 

  • Have a carpet or foam mat of some kind so that if blocks fall they aren’t alarming or frightening to little learners

  • Include pictures of places the children have been, ideas you’re learning about in class or settings from stories the children love to help inspire them

  • Include small pictures of students taped on blocks. This allows them to join the narrative

  • Make sure your block material match the kind of play your learners and you are ready for

  • Start with a provocation:

    • An arrangement

    • A tower

    • A sort 

    • A photo

    • An odd loose part 

    • etc.

#2 Adjust the way you think about block play

  • Allow structures to be saved, ask if they want to work on it later and create a system where you can do that

  • Reflect on how you talk about blocks 

    • Video or audio record yourself sitting in the block area and notice how you speak about what the children are doing. I am always catching myself inserting my narratives, which might interrupt the thinking. Listening to recording of myself helps me reflect on ways I could have better guided in the future. Being mindful of what you say during the play can really help children go deeper and explore without fear of judgement. 

  • Take notes of what you see them doing, write down quotes if you hear any, ask if you can photograph things to remember later and then post all of that near your blocks for reflection. It will help you as the teacher notice patterns and them as the students to feel their work is important. 

  • If you want to, try putting blocks in different areas for provocations and introduce them in new contexts (but have your clean up system planned and ready) 

  • Determine your rules beforehand with other teachers and figure out what language you are going to use in play to make those expectations clear

#3 Give yourself time

  • Make sure children get a good 30 minutes of uninterrupted block play time (not including clean up)

  • Treat clean up time like a lesson, plan lots of time for it, maybe gather a small group to do a mini lesson on how to clean the area

  • Model, scaffold, don’t rush 

  • Don’t clean everything. If you run out of time, honor the work by putting a sign up and saving it for later. The more you do this the more the students will be excited to put in time and energy. (This one bears repeating, because it’s so important)  

  • Reflect on exciting things as a group: if there is something they are very proud of, ask them if they want to share it at a group gathering time. 

#4 Play 

  • Have a day where you play too, see what it's like to really try and build something that you are proud of and remember what it feels like to create. Remembering the joys, triumphs and frustrations that come with blocks will allow you to better support your students. And it will get you excited about block play, which is then felt by the students. 

  • I highly recommend doing this with your team :) 

Simon - I’m so glad I asked those questions, Sofia! Yes! I love the way you’ve spelt out the kind of superstructure of influence and inspiration that needs to accompany the blocks being physically there in the classroom! It’s so useful, and practical in its detail! I already feel like you’ve given me a lot to think about and act on… but, perhaps greedily, I want to ask a few more questions…

You will be reflecting on what the students have built, and how they built it. Perhaps you’re doing that with colleagues. I’m interested in how you do your thinking about this. Do you have set times together when you do this? Do you think about play schemas? Or how students’ block play is progressing? Are you thinking about students’ interests or their working theories? Do you hone in on particular aspects as you document the building? Perhaps the dramatic, or the mathematical? And how do you select those aspects? How does this reflection feed into the way you re-present the students’ work to them?

And, on the same theme, whose ideas have influenced your thinking about all this in particular?

Sofia - Reflecting is always tricky, because the one thing that all teachers never have enough of is time. Reflection (especially with a group of 27 students like we had this year) requires a lot of time. Every Monday, we have one hour of dedicated planning time where we sit and look at photos, notice the patterns and look for opportunities to extend. We put our notes into our planner and use it to come up with action for the following week. Action might look like picking books related to the topics and patterns we saw, finding links to interesting videos or models, asking parents or other staff to come in as “experts”, adding provocations in different spaces, planning for large or small group games to support ideas, and organising pictures and quotes to present to the students for a circle time throughout the week. 

On Friday afternoons, our group attends an hour of gym and Chinese without us. We use that time to write a newsletter and reflect on what the big moments of the week were in play. Our newsletter is a Reggio-inspired document that includes quotes, photos, ideas, narratives and skills presented in parent-friendly-language. This helps us to see where we could go next, and help the parents get involved and keep the conversations going at home. Some weeks, block play would be a big focus, and all the narratives, drawings, games, etc. would connect to their creations. Other weeks it is barely mentioned. It all depends on what is happening in the classroom.

During the week, we use Seesaw to save pictures and track what is happening. I’m not sure how familiar you are with Seesaw, but it has this great feature that allows you to record over a photo so that even if you don’t have time to talk with everyone in the moment, the children can add comments afterwards (we often did this during Garden time). When helping children create recordings, we are very thoughtful about our questions and the language we use since the point is to gather data on the child's process and thinking. We have a separate document we have been working on that helps guide teacher questions and conversations; it includes a section of block play specific questions we use to guide us. 

In terms of assessing and tracking with block play: those Seesaw posts become key. At the beginning of the year, our Technology lead input all the EYFS standards we have in our yearly curriculum map into the Seesaw Skills for our class, which has made tracking very easy. Basically, once you have listed all the standards or skills you are looking for in the year, you can tag them on a piece of work, a conversation, video, etc. Which is amazing because in early years it allows you to really differentiate. For example: we can track a child's understanding of one-to-one correspondence by seeing how they count the blocks in their structure, animals in small world, pieces of paper glued to a collage or number of times they hit a musical instrument out in the garden. All of these are organic experiences that show the same skill, while still respecting their individual interests and methods of exploring. When we use the app, we are able to upload the data, tag it quickly with a skill, and see how those skills develop in a truly play-based context throughout the year.  You can also notice gaps or concepts the child is choosing not to explore and try to create opportunities in their preferred play area for that. 

I think you could honestly include anything you are looking to track and it is a great tool. I have heard other people have had great success with different online tracking tools for this. I would be very interested to hear about other tools people have had success with when it comes to documentation, data gathering and tracking.

This year, we did a systematic reflection on each student 3 times in the year: October, January and March. For this we went through the data we had gathered on Seesaw, in their portfolios and from the small and large group documentation. But to be honest, we didn’t have a rigid system for honing in on skills. Each of us would probably approach a structure or build and notice different skills the children are using. 

But I think that is okay. If I come to a block structure and see how the child is developing communication skills and another teacher comes to that same block structure and notices only the maths skills, that’s fine. We aren’t going to get everything, and at the end of the day, that isn’t the point. I’ve had a really good team this year and we have all been on the same page that the thing that comes first is the joy: allowing the child to be a child. To play and wonder and get frustrated and try again without having every detail gone over with a fine-tooth comb by their teacher. 

It’s a bit of a balancing act, because we are always very excited to get inside the thinking and understand. However, as you mentioned, our reflection, questions and perspective will affect the way we record it. By working toward being more mindful, we can avoid losing focus on what's important. 

I have been super lucky to have worked with some really amazing teachers, starting with the staff at my university: the University of Minnesota. I got degrees there in both child psych and early childhood education, which gave me a really strong foundation to start from and introduced me to the great minds and amazing science behind play. Since then, I have been very lucky to continue learning from peers in schools, through courses and PD and in places like Twitter!