Tuesday, 14 September 2021

Numberblocks

In PK, we've been watching the first two series of Numberblocks. These present the numbers zero to ten as different characters who, by the normal rules of arithmetic portrayed dramatically, have the power to transform into one another.

If you're not familiar with Numberblocks, you could watch the first two minutes of this video. (You don't get full episodes on Youtube, you get composites of a number of episodes. We've watched Series 1 and 2 on DVD and on Netflix.)


What do I like so much about it?

Our young three to five-year old children like it so much, want to watch episodes again and again, go home and watch further episodes.

Numbers are represented as arrangement of cubes. All sorts of things become clear like this. Number as area. Addition as combining, subtraction as splitting. Odd and even-ness à la Numicon. Square numbers. Arrays of numbers. All sorts of interesting avenues for investigation are opened up. For instance in the clip above, the numbers are represented as different polyominoes, different arrangements of squares. What tetrominoes are possible? I'm a fan of figurate numbers, of area-as-number (have I talked to you about Cuisenaire?) because I find it gives children a powerful way into number and arithmetic.

Numbers as character and narrative. We all love a story, and the Numberblocks stories are well thought out and entertaining. They also work because of the mathematics. Again, in the Strampolines episode, the story is about what different arrangements are possible. 'One' is sad because she can only make one arrangement, but is cheered up when she learns that copies of herself make up every arrangement (polyomino factorisation anyone?). 

The animation and the music. Yes, we sing along to the songs!

The equations that emerge as numbers transform are represented flexibly. So we don't just see 4+1=5, we see 5=4+1, and also 5-1=4. Children get a sense of what equality means, and they also begin to see how equations relate to arithmetic before having to write them themselves. Often they want to write equations, and it's something we've built on to give the power that writing ones own ideas brings.

Students enjoy recreating and exploring what they watch. Here, for instance, a four-year old student observed that 25 is a square.
I pointed out that there seems to be one missing, and he had a good think about that:
One piece of evidence about how well it's worked for the students, is doing 'Number of the Day' with them on the first day of their next year in Kindergarten. I've been able to pop in and work with them on this. In the past, students have been a bit blank when we've asked them what they know about 1, or have commented on what its shape makes them think of, but this year there were equations.
By day eight, with a bit of help from Cuisenaire rods, the equations were really flowing.
And here are the day 9, here are lots of the ideas the Kindergarten students shared:
So, a big thank you to the Numberblocks team, and also to Debbie Morgan who has been their chief mathematical advisor.

Sunday, 1 August 2021

Sleeper effects

There are two studies I keep thinking about. Both involve large numbers of students. Both concern 'sleeper effects' - effects that don't appear straight away, but emerge later.

😴

The first is a study in Boston Massachusetts, and I heard about it via Alison Gopnik. Public preschools had been made available to everyone, but there was such demand that places had to be decided by lottery. Effectively this produced a very large randomised trial, involving more than 4000 students.

The study, The Long-Term Effects of Universal Preschool in Boston, produced some very interesting results. Preschool attendance did not improve test scores in elementary school. It did however have a sleeper effect that emerged later in high school. More students who'd been to preschool finished high school, and more went on to college.

That's fascinating, isn't it? Four-year olds going to preschool didn't effect their test scores in the immediate years following, but it did have a significant positive effect much later. 

What would be your guess about how this works?

😴

The second study was conducted with an even larger number of students, more than 12,000 this time. They are at the other end of their formal education, at a four-year college. Keith Devlin writes about it in this piece

Students are randomly assigned to different teachers, and their test results are collected over a long period of time. There are two really interesting results, and I'll just touch on one of them here.

As Devlin puts it:
But here is the first surprising result. Students of professors who as a group perform well in the initial mathematics course perform significantly worse in the (mandatory) follow-on related math, science, and engineering courses. For math and science courses, academic rank, teaching experience, and terminal degree status of professors are negatively correlated with contemporaneous student achievement, but positively related to follow-on course achievement. That is, students of less experienced instructors who do not possess terminal degrees perform better in the contemporaneous course being taught, but perform worse in the follow-on related courses.
We find that less experienced and less qualified professors produce students who perform significantly better in the contemporaneous course being taught, whereas more experienced and highly qualified professors produce students who perform better in the follow-on related curriculum.
Isn't that interesting! Students of more experienced and better qualified teachers get poorer test results that year - - - but better results in subsequent years!

What a fascinating sleeper effect! What would be your guess at an explanation for that?

😴

Saturday, 31 July 2021

Copycats

As an EY team we look back at 'Moments in the Day' together - times when something in the children's play and learning strikes us. We share documentation and discuss. In our last time doing this in the school year, Estelle shared this photo with us:

She wrote:
I’m still puzzled about this activity that S., G. and M. engage in regularly.

It is often initiated by M. but not always (I think). I’m not sure I’ve watched closely enough at the right moment. I wonder what skills they are using here and that makes me think that I almost need to try it myself to find out. Perhaps they will allow me to quietly join in…. Otherwise I could have a conversation with them.

There is definitely a quality to this play that is ‘safe’, mindful and we can assume that it is good for their well-being based on the repetition. Maybe for the artist no. 1 there is a feeling of being the leader, being ‘seen’ and valued. For artist no. 2 perhaps the feeling of making a connection in this way has meaning.

Perhaps I can join in and see what is happening; it all happens so fast.
I've noticed children doing things in unison a lot too, and I'm interested. What do we derive from this? 

As teachers, we think of our jobs as being about building individual creativity, individual agency, so where does this leading and following, this doing (almost) the same thing fit in?

Questions like this are quite hard to get a handle on. We have hunches, but they don't feel like the complete story.

Perhaps we should take up Estelle's suggestion and just draw the same thing together, and see what it feels like 'from the inside'. There's no guarantee that we'll feel the same as the students do of course, but it might help.

What else does copying look like in our classes?

Here's some more examples.

At a certain count, friends are jumping off chairs in unison:

Pairs of students making the same as - or here, the reflection of - each other's designs with the square tiles in trays:
We're at the pattern block table and a student says. 'Simon, let's play I make something and you copy it.
Using large foam pattern blocks to make rockets together:
Painting together:
Tap-a-shape:
So what's going on?

I can't say, but there are certain things I sense might be going on. This passage from Sloman and Fernback's The Knowledge Illusion might help orient us:

Sharing attention is a crucial step on the road to being a full collaborator in a group sharing cognitive labor, in a community of knowledge. Once we can share attention, we can do something even more impressive—we can share common ground. We know some things that we know others know, and we know that they know that we know (and of course we know that they know that we know that they know, etc.). The knowledge is not just distributed; it is shared. Once knowledge is shared in this way, we can share intentionality; we can jointly pursue a common goal. A basic human talent is to share intentions with others so that we accomplish things collaboratively.

Let's make a list of some of the things happening: 
  • Feeling comfortable with each other,
  • Feeling comfortable with an activity,
  • Being in the same space with each other,
  • Somehow having an idea of doing things in unison,
  • Understanding the proposal,
  • Accepting the idea together, sharing the intention, having a joint project,
  • One  leading, other(s) following (how flexible is this?),
  • Monitoring each other's actions,
  • Recreating each other's creation,
  • Comparing the results,
  • Completing the project.
That's part of what happens, and it's a lot. But there's also the significance. What does it mean to do the same thing together? 

That time the children synchronised themselves jumping off the chairs, was such a moment of joy. It seemed like a celebration of friendship and of feeling great in their bodies, in the classroom and together! Not all the examples are so exuberant, but there's a pleasure and significance in not just being in the same place and time, but in the same self-chosen project.

As an adult, I can appreciate this too. In fact, teaching together with the PK team, we plan our activities together. We then, mostly, work in our separate places. But there's a tremendous affirmation in having the same understandings and objectives, in approving of the same resources, environment, activities. And, of course, bringing our stories of what happened back to each other. Our work together is so intertwined that what we do with our students isn't usually the idea of any one of us, it's a kind of team thing.
Then there's singing Beatles songs with friends. We're not exactly doing the same thing: one of us plays piano, another guitar, another ukulele, but mostly we sing the same melody and words. What is it that's so satisfying about it? There's something in there about the whole being more than the sum of the parts.


In our 'Moments' meeting, Nick mentioned that humans succeeded where Neanderthals didn’t because they shared ideas; they didn’t have bigger brains, it was just that they shared their ideas.This is part of what it is to be human, and what has given us our success.
 
I first came across this idea in Rutger Bregman's great book Humankind. Bregman has this chart:
Following anthropologist Joseph Henrich's modeling, Bregman invites us to think of a planet with two tribes. One tribe, the Geniuses, are great at inventing things, but not so good at sharing their ideas; the other, the Copycats are not such great inventors, but do share. The Geniuses are a hundred times better at inventing. The Copycats on the other hand are ten times better at sharing. Which tribe do inventions spread through most?

The Copycats. 

So, I'm coming round to valuing these times when children get into total synch with each other.

And next year, I'm going to copy Estelle's idea, and try to catch more of what is happening as children copy each other. 

Friday, 23 April 2021

Rulers

Dan Meyer tweeted 

and Kassia tweeted:

And I have just read this in Wally's Stories: Conversations in the Kindergarten by Vivian Gussin Paley . It's a lovely example of how Paley is able to write against herself, to document her growing points as a teacher, alongside the learning of the children:

Rulers

Rulers were another example of the wide gulf separating my beliefs from those the children demonstrated whenever they were allowed to follow their ideas to logical conclusions. I had not realized that "rulers are not really real." We were about to act out "Jack and the Beanstalk" when Wally and Eddie disagreed about the relative size of our two rugs.

Wally: The big rug is the giant's castle. The small one is Jack's house. 

Eddie: Both rugs are the same. 

Wally: They can't be the same.  Watch me. I'll walk around the rug. Now watch: walk, walk, walk, walk, walk, walk, walk, walk, walk - count all these walks. Okay. Now count the other rug. Walk, walk, walk, walk, walk. See? That one has more walks. 

Eddie: No fair. You cheated. You walked faster. 

Wally: I don't have to walk. I can just look.

Eddie: I can look too. But you have to measure it. You need a ruler. About six hundred inches or feet.

Wally: We have a ruler.

Eddie: Not that one. Not the short kind. You have to use the long kind that gets curled up in a box.

Wally: Use people. People's bodies. Lying down in a row.

Eddie: That's a great idea. I never even thought of that.

Wally announces a try-out for "rug measurers." He adds one child at a time until both rugs are covered-four children end to end on one rug and three on the other. Everyone is satisfied, and the play continues with Wally as the giant on the rug henceforth known as the four-person rug. The next day Eddie measures the rugs again. He uses himself, Wally, and two other childen. But this time they do not cover the rug.

Wally: You're too short. I mean someone is too short. We need Warren. Where's Warren?

Teacher: He's not here today.

Eddie: Then we can't measure the rug.

Teacher: You can only measure the rug when Warren is here?

Jill: Because he's longer.

Deana: Turn everyone around. Then it will fit.

(Eddie rearranges the measurers so that each is now in a different position. Their total length is the same.)

Eddie: No, it won't work. We have to wait for Warren.

Deana: Let me have a turn. I can do it.

Jill: You're too big, Deana. Look at your feet sticking out. Here's a rule. Nobody bigger than Warren can measure the rug.

Fred: Wait. Just change Ellen and Deana because Ellen is shorter.

Jill: She sticks out just the same. Wait for Warren.

Fred: Now she's longer than before, that's why.

Teacher: Is there a way to measure the rug so we don't have to worry about people's sizes?

Kenny: Use short people.

Teacher: And if the short people aren't in school?

Rose: Use big people.

Eddie: Some people are too big.

Teacher: Maybe using people is a problem.

Fred: Use three-year-olds.

Teacher: There aren't any three-year-olds in our class.

Deana: Use rulers. Get all the rulers in the room. I'll get the box of rulers.

Eddie: That was my idea, you know.

Deana: This isn't enough rulers.

Eddie: Put a short, short person after the rulers - Andy.

Andy: I'm not short, short. And I'm not playing this game.

Wally: Use the dolls.

Teacher: So this rug is ten rulers and two dolls long? (Silence.) Here's something we can do. We can use one of the rulers over again, this way.

Eddie: Now you made another empty space.

Teacher: Eddie, you mentioned a tape measure before. I have one here.

(We stretch the tape along the edge of the rug, and I show the children that the rug is 156 inches long. The lesson is done. The next day Warren is back in school.)

Wally: Here's Warren. Now we can really measure the rug.

Teacher: Didn't we really measure the rug with the ruler?

Wally: Well, rulers aren't really real, are they?


I recognise this kind of thing from my own teaching: the children are thinking about things a certain way, and I'm eager to present my ready-packaged solution to all their needs. But it's not time yet. The value of a transcript like this is that it puts our teacher noses in it! Are you really wanting to replace this brilliant conversation and thinking with your pale version of progress?

It's interesting here how the children's thinking around measuring the rugs with each other is so rich - there's debate, there's problems, resolutions, ad hoc rules, modifications and concensus. The teacher's tape measure solution is relatively meagre. It may be 'right' from our adult perspective to use a tape measure, but where the children are now, 'Well, rulers aren't really real, are they?'

Young children are learning incredly fast, learning more than we adults are able to. But they don't necessary learn in the chunks of time we would like them too. And they don't necessarily learn in the 'efficient' way we would like them to. They repeat things again and again, seeming to need to do this to realise something or some things. Here they need people lined up on the carpet. That's a lot more interesting to them, a lot more what they need than any next step.

What could the teacher do here if not be the supplier of the answer, the next piece of information? I'd say, enter into the moment without itching for the next step. I'd say, take a picture of it and put it up on the wall. And, document it, to discuss what the learning and theory building is with other teachers, And of course, share it with the parents. A transcript like this is precious. Even a remembered summary of it is something that can help us to think about real learning.

Sunday, 21 March 2021

Listening

Simon writes:

Back in 2015, Estelle and I ran a workshop on talk in the classroom. I was in Grade 3 (Year 4), Estelle was in Grade 1 (Year 2), and we were sharing ways we encourage students to talk more in our classrooms. To prepare for it we visited each other's classes, watched some established ways, and tried some new ideas too. 


Estelle, as well as being a wonderful friend, is a fellow edu-geek. We read, we discuss, we even go to see the odd French education film like Le Maître est l'Enfant and Être plutôt qu’avoir?

Some things were working against student conversation in class back then. We teachers have some tradition behind us, and a lot of curriculum to get through. We end up listening for rather than listening to.

This distinction, listening for rather than listening to is one Helen Williams uses lots, but it seems to have had multiple origins. Max Ray-Riek was one of them, and if you have five minutes to think about this a bit more, this is a now classic talk of his:

I'm not sure how much we were thinking about listening to at that point. We were thinking about 'What do you notice? What do you wonder?' to hear what the students actually have to say, but we were very much orchestrating what lessons were all about and the kinds of things that might be talked about in them. I had discovered people in the mathematical Twitter world who were guiding me towards close listening to students. Estelle was and is a brilliant listener. But we were still listening mainly for the matter in hand, the curriculum content.

In June 2016, Estelle and I knew we were moving down into Early Years, Estelle as the coordiantor. We went off to Prague for a great few days on play. Estelle would be leading the Early Years through a lot of change, but I'm not sure if she knew how much change there would be.
Loose parts play in Prague

That September, and for the next few years, I taught in K (5 and 6 yos). We still had specific mathematics lessons, for 45 minutes each morning. At the time, I blogged about the some maths aspects of this:
'There was a lot of space for the students own creations and explorations. I was keen to keep a sense of agency, and tried to respond to any initiative. This was as important, I feel, as the exact direction we went in. That sense of 'this is an inquiry we're following because B started us off with this; let's see where it goes' is something I really want to nurture again, and even more so, next year.'
Last year, Estelle and Rachel were in K and I was popping in, especially for maths lessons, in my role as STEAM coach. From September, they changed the mathematics so that there was a lot more choice in the range of activities available. Then in November, Rachel went off to Ljubljana for a play-based learning course, and when she came back she said they were recommending moving away from specific subjects at specific times of day and onto a continuous provision where children could choose what they engaged in for long periods of time. Estelle listened and was really responsive to the idea and Rachel's enthusiasm for it. In January, the K classes became more truly play-based, with children having a lot more choice.

As STEAM coach, I wanted to keep some record of the changes, so at the end of the month I asked Estelle about the changes. Here's a few minutes taken from that conversation:
It was not easy for me, this change. I had really enjoyed having a time with the K students each day where we would be exploring maths together. But of course, there had been a cost in terms of student autonomy and agency. Now children would choose more how to spend their time, and it would be our job to make sure the mathematics offer was atractive and just right!

The PYP (Primary Years Program of the International Baccalaureate) was changing too. In 2018, the PYP document The Learner described a major shift towards play for young children. Here's part of a table that describes the changes:

Move away from

Move towards

Predetermined time structures and routines

Flexible timeframes and routines that are responsive to the needs of the students

Pedagogy that centres around instructional processes for students and is teacher-led

Play that is co-constructed between students and teachers

Repeated large-group experiences as the basis for all learning

Whole-group experiences at pertinent learning moments

Actually, we were already well on the way to the right hand side, but there was more travelling to be done.

We've been thinking a lot about our pedagogy. During lockdown, we zoomed about Kath Murdock's Power of Inquiry. And when it was over, we met in peron after reading Anna Ephgrave's Planning in the Moment.

This year, we've been doing Saturday morning sessions with Anna Van Dam, debriefing afterwards to apply all the things we'er learning to our classes:
We've also discovered, and are loving, Vivian Gussin Paley's books.

And Rachel, Estelle and I are together in PK, with 3-5 year olds - in Sun, Star and Moon class! It's a kind of homecoming in some ways - finally the choice and playfulness that I tried hard to allow space for in lessons is the actual stuff of our time!

We're becoming more and more interested in listening to children. And finding out that our questioning is often not helping. Julie Fisher's Interacting or Interfering: Improving Interactions in the Early Years crystalised for us how some of the tools we might use in adult conversations, such as questioning, are often actually a hindrance with young children.

And as John Mason writes in the context of teaching mathematics:

"The secret of effective questioning is to be genuinely interested not only in what learners are thinking, but in how they are thinking, in what connections they are making and not making. Genuine interest in the learners produces a positive effect on learners, for in addition to feeling that they are receiving genuine attention, you can escape the use of questions to control and disturb negatively. Instead of asking for answers, which in most cases you probably already know, you can genuinely enquire into their methods, their images, their ways of thinking. In the process, you demonstrate to learners what genuine enquiry is like, placing them in an atmosphere of enquiry which is, after all, one view of what schooling is really intended to be about."

Especially as most of our young students don't have English as a first language, we're finding that watching can be an important part of listening. Seeing what our students do, trying to guess their lines of thiking.

Slowing the pace down, giving students our attention for longer periods of time.

Here's Estelle in the forest the other week. I managed to video part of a much longer conversation. 

Young students like this don't usually respond well to the direct approach, to questioning. It's more about creating the conditions for relaxed conversation. Here Estelle establishes a slow pace, peeling open acorns, seeing that some of them have turned to powder inside, seeing that there are holes in those ones, talking about worms. It's a comfortable situation, and sure enough, a student begins sharing his knowledge about worms. 

After this, Estelle starting delving for acorns that were beginning to grow. 

(We took some back to the classes, and there are some seedlings now!)

There's a quality to the listening which we sometimes get. There's a giving attention to whatever the student wants to say, in their own time.

Estelle, Rachel and I have been documenting 'Moments in the Day' - times when we watch a student at play, document it, try to see what learning is happening, and bring it to the EY group for discussion.

An example:

Estelle writes:
"G is sitting in the sun and holding up a jelly digit. What catches my eye is his quietness and his gaze on the object. I go over and ask what he’s noticed. I try to go carefully and softly with my interactions wanting to avoid taking over.

G says these things at different points in the play and conversation.

“I just cut it in half and it did that.

What is this? (holding up the digit zero)

Every time I do this it does that (points to two bubbles as they move in opposite directions when he presses his finger down.

I made four now (bubbles).”

Observations, sharing, trial and error, comparing across objects that are similar but not exactly the same. Counting the number of bubbles. Thinking about letters and numbers. It was G on the number hunt who was asking about the zero and saying it was an o.

A joins us:

“It’s broken into more!” Bashing it and making loads of tiny bubbles.

...There is a quality of being in the moment, attention and pause which was noticeable."Documenting together (and thanks to Anne Van Dam for encouraging us in this) is making us more keen to listen. Reflecting together on what we've documented is making us realise how much there is in what we hear.

We're all still learners in this art. We have to tell ourselves to leave space, to not do all the work. 

It's kind of odd that it's hard for us. Estelle, for one, has listening as a superpower. I know how good she is at listening to me and other friends, and to colleagues at school. But, the challenge is harder now. Making space for students who, at 3, 4 and 5 years old, and are still building up the confidence to speak in English. Making our interactions carry little weight, to not swamp their tentative beginnings at expressing themselves.

Now at least, and at last, our antenae are twitching, waiting to hear what our students want to say, trying to read in their play the theories they are building. (Thanks again to Anne Van Dam for that emphasis. See the previous post for more on this.) 

"In listening to others, accepting them in their irreducible difference, we help them listen to themselves, to heed the speech of their own body of experience, and to become, each one, the human being he or she most deeply wants to be." from D M Levin, The Listening Self, quoted in this piece by Brent Davis.

Saturday, 20 February 2021

Dinosaurs and thinking

 Rachel, Estelle and I have been on a great course with Anne van Dam on Saturday mornings in January. 

One of the things she asked us to consider was the theory building that we see in children’s play and conversation, and to use this intentionally as the basis for planning.  

I wondered about some of the times play doesn’t seem to be theory building - for instance when some of the students like to get the dinosaurs and bash them together in dinosaur fights. Maybe I needed to look closer, Anne suggested. So I did. I recorded a little of U and V playing with them.
After bashing for a while they say:

U: Le he apretado el cuello.
V: Todos los dinosaurios son fuertes pero este es el mas fuerte, a que si?
U : Vamos a ver los cuellos. Son los mismos?
V: No, el con la boss, el mio es mas grande.

I don't speak Spanish (yet - I'm puting in some Duolingo time on it!) so I asked our colleague Irene to translate from the video, and she kindly sent back:

U: I held his neck.
V: All dinosaurs are strong but this one is the strongest, am I right?
U: Lets see how tall the necks are. Are they the same?
V: No, the one with the hump, mine, is the strongest.
So... thinking about strength, where the strength is, comparison, anatomy… lots going on!

More specifically, they seem to be considering the features of the dinosaur that might contribute to strength, and beginning to measure those features. They are interrogating each other and seeking evidence: ‘Let’s see...Are they the same?”

Anne encouraged us to think about next steps, and as it seemed both to be fascinating to some of the students, and to be a place where they were thinking critically and theory building, I thought it was maybe worth building on. What could the next steps be, I wondered?

I showed this image, and asked what is strong here:
I was very pleased that T wanted to contribute lots. Though he’s 3 and beginning with English, he knows a lot of dinosaur names and has a lot of interest in them.

Alongside this, a question about the relative strength of two pyramids came up. Which is the stronger?
We tried it out with our dot stones, which have graded weights, to see how much each pyramid could support.
It turns out the square-based pyramid is stronger:
Back to dinosaurs...

At some point I tried playing one of the many simulations of triceratops facing up to a tyrannosaurus. Children started asking to watch more of these, and I found some that could work. I was stopping the video at various points and getting lots of observations and conversation.

I also wrote this up and shared it with Estelle and Rachel and the team in our regular Monday meetings where we look back at specific moments of play and learning. Afterwards, I wrote:

I’m finding putting this down and sharing it with colleagues is helping me think of next steps. It’s bringing it into focus for me - I don’t really see the way ahead, but I feel like there are enough clues in what’s happened already, and in our shared knowledge, to come up with some ways forward. It helps to have detailed evidence to work on, and might give us pointers to more general matters about pedagogy too.

Then I saw on Twitter a story about palaeontologist Dr Elsa Panciroli who had stumbled over a fossil Stegosaurus bone on the Scottish island of Eigg. If we could talk to her, it might help us to see that people - scientists - do the work of finding out about these creatures. It might also show the students that they could ask questions and get answers. And of course, tell us more about dinosaurs. I tweeted to her - and she agreed to Zoom with us! 
She became our 'Dr of Dinosaurs' and answered the questions brilliantly. It was great to see children that were just beginning to feel confident at school put whole sentences together in English asking their questions and getting answers.

If I was in any doubt about the impact this had, one of the parents shared how her son had been so animated about our meeting that she'd written down what he'd said:
And when I asked about favourite dinosaurs, Stegosauruses were now the most popular.
I don't know where this will go next. But it feels good to be following up on not just one  on the things that interests some of the students, but on their thinking about that interest, and to be making connections outwards from there.

Monday, 15 February 2021

Number books

  Simon writes:

Estelle has tried helicopter stories before - hearing children's stories, writing them down for them exactly as they tell them, and then giving the class the chance to act out the stories on a classroom 'stage'. (We've discovered Vivian Gussin Paley, who made great use of this approach. We've read her brilliant Mollie is Three, and are moving onto The Girl with the Brown Crayon.)

Z (4 yo) sat down to begin a book. Like this. She tells me what to write in my story book, and wants it on the page too.
The second page followed:
Two other children had joined her:
At some point, W decided this was going to be a number book. There was one cat on the first pages, and two cats on the next pages. It would carry on like that.

She wrote out the numbers, copying them from the wall.
'I've just learned to write five!'
And into the afternoon:
From seven onwards, there was a lot of counting and checking the numbers:

Z was really pleased with her book, smiling and laughing at how much she was writing and drawing, and loving her creations! The whole group spent about an hour on it in the morning and another in the afternoon. It was also a leap forward with writing numbers. Perhaps she needed the reason to use the numbers to be motivated enough to try and write them.

A week later, Z made a little book with some pretend writing. Estelle had been talking to me about encouraging her class that it was OK to do this, but, without a word from me, Z knew this was a good thing to do.


The book grew to be up to ten. Later she read her writing to me:
  1. All about the number 1, because 1 is a tiny number and zero is nothing.
  2. 2 and 2 equals 4.
  3. Number 3 is big enough to be a monster.
  4. Number 4 is big enough to be a zombie.
  5. I feel so alive. You know that you've arrived when you're with number 5.
  6. Look what you do. You look good.
  7. Let's say number 7. Look how I work with this information book.
  8. I'm 8 always. And you can see 5. This number likes 5 because they're friends.
  9. This number is very tricky, but more easy than paint.
  10. And then, let's look at number 10. 10 is big enough to be a dinosaur.
I wrote it all down in my story book, and read it back to her. Later she asked Steph to copy it all into her book. Again, she was really pleased with her book, and keen to take it home.

It's very interesting to me how different people's paths to loving numbers are. Counting is really working for some children, with our How Many? images going well, Pass it On and Numicon games are good with others, Numberblocks episodes are doing it for others (Numberblocks pop into Z's book at number 5, with a line from the number 5 song). For Z, a way in is being an author, and finding out that she could make substantial books that had an integrity of their own and would be exciting to share with others.

Since then, I've shared her work with the class, making some blank zigzag books available with numbers 1-7 on pages. I'm going to get some blank stapled books out on the table too.

Saturday, 21 November 2020

fascinating water play

A short while back I was talking with Estelle and - I can't remember what the subject was - was it play schemas? - anyway, the subject of water play came up. It was something we both wanted to look into a little more.

We put water out, because it fascinates children. We think they must be learning if they're so active and so fascinated. Children will spend half an hour or more pouring and filling and emptying and much more. But what kinds of things are they investigating? What is interesting them in the water play?

I've been watching students play, asking myself what's going on, sometimes asking students but not getting much reply, and asking my colleagues.

If you haven't thought about this already, you might like to stop and think about what the fascination is with water play, before you've read other people's answers.

I thought I'd try Twitter too. I posted a photo of a student playing, and asked, 'What is it about playing with water that makes it so fascinating?'

Syreeta answered the call: 

We enter the world via the amniotic sac of fluid. Perhaps it reminds us of our beginning.

It's true, we are water creatures. Not only that, but we come from a very long line of water creatures.

Once I'd made clear that this wasn't a rhetorical question, answers came flowing in.

Kassia tweetedFilling and pouring seem to interest kids (and adults!) of all ages.

(Filling and emptying had been my first though too: satisfying to get to the end points - full and empty - and then to reverse the process. Maybe satisfying to so easily change the state of something into its opposite. Also, it doesn't have to be water: it can be rice or sand or wood pellets .)

Christopher repliedTrue. At least 40% of fun of home brewing is playing with water. Which, by the way, involves siphoning. Do these children have access to a siphon? Cuz if you're gonna make a tremendous mess, a siphon is a SUPER fascinating way to do it.

Must siphon!

Aston too was clear, adults have the same pleasure: It’s not just children- I’m 38 and been working on our rink in the back yard. Nothing more satisfying then watching the water spread out and freeze.


Jack wroteI think in part it hits a sweet spot between something that acts on its own and thus gives a sense of mystery and something that is controllable and thus reassuring. Also their is the slight drag of moving through it which is wonderful tactile feedback from the world.

The tactile feedback links in with what Steph had said: it's a sensory experience in a way that most of the day isn't. Estelle's impression too, putting her hands into the water, was about the sense of touch: how we felt the cold of the water entering it, and the warmth coming out.

David also commented on the meeting of opposites in water: 

Maybe it’s because water is so paradoxical:

You can see it’s there, but you can see *through* it. You can feel it, but not grasp it. You can make mess with it, but the mess disappears. You can carry it, but it can carry things too.

Michael too saw an oppositionIt is solid enough we can shape and change it but only for a moment, sending us back over and over again to try again.
Also it makes really satisfying sploosh sounds.

Westley thoughtIt's magical, like fire. We can control it but it also has a life of its own.

Justin also had a word about fire: It burns less than fire.
Face with tears of joy
Watching students play should provide some of the answers. One of the things that seemed to fascinate this student, was how you could tilt the container just a little and the water would swill to the other end and start pouring. Shake it, and it comes out in all sorts of ways! 

He spent about 40 minutes with this water. He liked the bubbles too. Sometimes, the bubbles made a kind of noise. Here's Estelle listening to it.

When I got home, I showed Pam some photos from the day, and asked her too what the fascination is in water play. She had a lot to say:

Water is just the most fantastic material. The way it has so many interesting properties, shapes, colours. The way the light passes through it. The way it twists as you’re pouring it. It doesn’t just go from one place to another. When you pour it, it catches the light, it sometimes has a smooth bent surface, it cascades, it’s in drops, it might fall in zigzags through the air.

You can hold it, but you can’t hold it. You can scoop it, but you can’t control it. If you put your hand in to pick something up, it’s not where you think it will be.

There’s something mysterious about it.

If it’s in a transparent container, it’s different according to what side you put it into. There’s nothing boring about water.

And then there’s bubbles! Even in water without squeezy in, there’s a bubble when you drop something in.

It’s funny as well. You splash it, and it goes on your clothes but there’s no harm – it will dry out. Maybe a bit of water on the floor. But it’s just fun.

You’ve got something floating and then it sinks, you can experiment with it just by playing and having a laugh. It’s fun.

Meanwhile, more tweet answers were washing in.

Dan suggestedI wonder if asking why might not get to the heart of what it's *like* to play with water? What’s it like to ... might get closer to the experience?

Amanda wroteIt's the one substance besides air that we have a lot of regular contact with, but it acts differently than air, in very interesting ways. When we go to the beach, it seems like access to a totally different world. It's incredibly powerful.

We don't think much about air because for the most part it's not visible or tangible to us. But water does cool stuff!

Poly tweetedI am totally with this little one: watching water move is fascinating! Might be interested in this book by a marine biologist, all about our fascination with all things water and why it makes us happy.


I am interested! It seems to me that the exploration of water, the experimenting and contemplating is carried by a comfort with water, the pleasure in being close to it. While we're enjoying water, waves of learning splash over us too!

maggie and milly and molly and may
went down to the beach(to play one day)

and maggie discovered a shell that sang
so sweetly she couldn't remember her troubles,and

milly befriended a stranded star
whose rays five languid fingers were;

and molly was chased by a horrible thing
which raced sideways while blowing bubbles:and

may came home with a smooth round stone
as small as a world and as large as alone.

For whatever we lose(like a you or a me)
it's always ourselves we find in the sea

e.e. cummings

MB talked about our attraction to water: And as well as all it does, it’s really good for us to touch the elements of nature. Water, sand, Earth, wood, pebbles etc. Think we are intrinsically drawn to it.

Sarah also spoke about the emotional power of water: When my son was born,he was always unsettled and barely slept. He didn't sleep through the night for four years. Water was the one thing that calmed him.He would immediately relax and was soothed. He's now 19 and still loves water. Water can be restorative as well as fascinating

MariaIt's splishy, splashy fun!

"From one million miles away our planet resembles a small blue marble; from one hundred million miles it’s a tiny, pale blue dot. “How inappropriate to call this planet Earth when it is quite clearly Ocean” Arthur C. Clarke, quoted by Nicole

All this has of course made me only more keen to have water play as a big part of our provision for our 3, 4 and 5 year olds. This week we've had red strawberry-scented water, (a bit too) blue peppermint-scented water


 and yellow lemon-scented water.

It's also made me want to watch closely, an see what it is that children are attending too, and experimenting with.