Kids are fascinating creatures. They are perplexing and curious, bewildering and bewitching. Frequently, when I document a conversation or an event, I look back at it and think: “What was that all about?” It’s often not immediately clear; it may never be clear.
Yesterday, when we went into the greenspace, N.I. perched himself in the little rock alcove that they’ve all decided is their chair.
M.P. said: “It’s the chair of high-y-nest.”
I thought at first he meant “highness” – like a throne for a king.
But when I asked him what he meant he told me “it’s because the rocks are high.”
Then, as we continued our walk, the children started to push their way through a dense patch of bush near the back of the property. They said to each other: ” We’re going to the camp high-y-nest in the high-y-nest city.”
I’m standing there thinking: “Like hyenas? Does this have something to do with Africa? The Jungle?”
Then we got to the edge of the bush and a white dog dashed out and started barking at us. His exuberance was met with a solemn: “Look, Madame, we found a high-y-nest dog.”
Of course you did.
At this point, I probably looked a lot like a confused dog with my head cocked to one side and a perplexed look on my face.
Now, if there’s one thing that I wish I could change about school in the interest of furthering inquiry, it would be to remove the schedule. I wish we could eat when we’re hungry, go outside when we like, and stay out as long as we want. But, that’s not the reality of busing and contracts and bells. Part of my perplexedness (it’s really a word – I checked) is because I can’t always stay with something as long as I would like to, as long as the kids probably needed to in order to develop this high-y-nest narrative to the point where it might have made sense to me (maybe it never would). It was time to go in so we trooped back towards the school, with the world of high-y-nest remaining mysteriously elusive, at least for the adult among us.
PS: If you ever want to read a great story about ditching the schedule (and more), check out William Ayers’ To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher – fabulous book.
Some teacher friends and I have been talking about guns for a long time. It’s an open question for us, one we’ve struggled with over the years.
I’m not a gun person. As a child I fired a hunting rifle a couple of times – meh… it’s not really my thing. I don’t pretend to understand some people’s love of guns but I try to separate my discomfort with guns from my relationships with the people who like them. We have a lot of avid hunters in this area and many of our children have very responsible, safe relationships with guns at home.
I started my teaching career in a very challenging school context where guns were a daily fear for staff and students. Because of that experience, and in an effort to implement school rules, I have often taken a very hard line when it comes to gun play in my classes.
And it comes up all the time.
“No guns at school.” – I say that almost as often as I say “walk”.
I understand why it’s a rule; we want children and adults to feel safe at school. It’s hard to feel safe when someone is pointing a gun (pretend or otherwise) at you.
But still they play with guns – they make them out of sticks, out of blocks, and out of snap-cubes… oh, the snap-cubes! We always wind up putting them away because they lead almost immediately to gun play.
So I understand why it’s “no guns at school” and generally I adhere to that maxim but then I find myself torn. Most of the time, I pay extra attention when children are very engaged in something and, let’s be honest, they’re VERY engaged by gun play. They are totally captivated, riveted, and engrossed. They’re not actually hurting each other but they are playing at hurting each other. Where is the line between acceptable play and unacceptable play? I have so many questions.
I don’t have the answers to any of those questions but I do have some student voices to add to the mix.
Some students are particularly savvy about rationalizing their gun play so that it will be acceptable to adults. This week alone I’ve been told that what looks like a gun is actually:
a laser – “And it’s okay Madame, because the lasers on Star Wars don’t really hurt people.”
A colleague also has some great video of a child holding a snap-cube gun who, as the teacher approaches, flips it around and declares with a smile: “Look Sir, it’s an L.” This one is particularly brilliant as it shows that the child knows that teachers are so fixated on literacy that making a letter might deflect any reprimand for what was clearly gun play.
These kids are aware that they’re transgressing school rules by playing gun games. They’ve even come up with alternate explanations to placate the adults. That’s some pretty sophisticated theory of mind going on.
So I’m left wondering: is there any place for this play in the classroom? Is there something to value here? The kids are obviously very engaged and that’s usually my bellwether for valuing. What do you do in your classroom when kids are engaged in gun play? I’d love to know!
We are lucky enough to have an education researcher who visits our classroom once a week to give us feedback on our work and to help us collect documentation. This week, as we were debriefing, he looked quizzically at me and remarked… “hey, I’ve noticed you don’t have a dramatic play centre any more.” It’s true – we don’t. We haven’t for a few weeks and I’m pretty sure that last year we stopped having one at around the same time of year. Here’s why: we don’t need one.
I’ve started each of the past three years with some kind of dramatic play area – often a play kitchen – set up in the classroom. We’ve allowed this to morph into other things: a pet store, a forest, a doctor’s office, a fire hall, a camp site, etc… using input from the students and donations from their families.
It serves a purpose at the beginning of the year; it’s a good bridge for those who have been in child care and it helps them all to feel secure, having a centre where they know for certain what they’re supposed to do. Role play in familiar roles like mother, father, doctor, and nurse is a type of play that most children have encountered before coming to school either at home or in child care. But… it really loses its purpose after a while and it seems to create behaviour problems as students move the materials from that centre all over the room, requiring reminders to return it all at the end of the play block.
What I’ve noticed is that over time, the whole room becomes a dramatic play centre. To quote my amazing ECE “wherever they are, they have dramatic play – they make every centre a dramatic centre.” Here is a snapshot of what was happening during one five-minute period this morning.
Some are kids are playing cats, others are playing butterfly tag on the carpet – waving their arms the way we practiced at the dance studio, tagging each other and giggling uproariously.
Three children are playing banana car (a car that brings bananas) in the block area. “LG: Madame, we made a banana car and TN and BQ are on the banana car!” Next to them, two girls are building a house and playing inside it. The kids from the banana car approach. “LG: Pretend it’s a babies dance show – it’s time for baby’s dance show… get on the train.” They get back on their banana car.
One of the girls in the block house says “this is the baby’s house so everyone step back” and the kids from the banana car join in the house play.
FN and SN are playing doctor in the library and several boys are playing doctor’s office inside the cube.
The marble run also has dramatic play components as the children seem to imagine themselves as the marble, moving with it as it goes down the run and celebrating its descent as though they are the ones who have run a race.
This is in five minutes! Five minutes!
We just don’t need a dramatic play centre any more; it can’t be contained in one space. The drama is nowhere because it is everywhere!
Plagues are bad, don’t get me wrong, and I don’t like it when kids get sick. But, amazing things happen in classes when half of the kids are away. The pace slows, the pressure retreats, and we find that all of a sudden we are seeing things we’ve never seen before. The absence of so many children forces those who are left into new social situations; when they play with new people they learn new things. Some kids seem to be particularly good at this business of finding ways to push other children’s learning forward.
“A” is one of those children. While she is very advanced in terms of her thinking and her learning, she is happy scaffolding and thinking aloud while bringing others into her play – in fact, she seems to enjoy the mentoring process. In this picture, she has led the creation of a ramp for cars. The pieces don’t fit exactly, so they keep having to adjust the angles, otherwise the cars will fall off. “A” helps the other children to figure out how to place the pieces and persuades them to try new strategies and ideas.
In this picture, she’s helping another child to better understand representational play, showing her how to use the little bears to create a narrative and gently reminding her about the flow of the story.
Representing and re-telling familiar stories together.
And on another day, working at the light table.
I’m not wishing for another plague but I am grateful for the silver lining.
For the past two days, M, J1, and J2 have been using the snap cubes as part of their dramatic play and have arranged them in very interesting ways. I first noticed M and J1 at the two wooden desks, facing each other and carefully grouping their cubes according to colour. I was drawn to them because I could hear J1 singing.
I asked: Qu’est ce que tu fais? (What are you doing?)
J1: They’re singing their national anthem.
Once the singing ended, I overheard:
J1: Grab your kids and grab your snacks ‘cause this one’s going to be a doozy.
J1 had recently been to a professional hockey game with his family and had shared his experience with the class.
J1: This is my best guy.
M: These are the bad guys, these are the good guys.
The next day, when J2 returned to school, the play continued with him, this time at the table in the math centre.
Later that same day, M and J revisited their play at the wooden desks again.
A few days later I showed J1 and M the photos:
Question: What are the big towers for? What’s the difference between the big towers and the little ones?
M: The big ones are the trainers. The big ones train the little ones how to fight better. They’re martial arts fighters
J1: Mine are karate fighters – ‘cause I play karate.
M: And mine are martial arts, ‘cause I play martial arts.
‘Cause the patterns.
Mme: Tell me about the patterns.
M: We use them as their fighter suits.
Mme: Have you noticed that people have patterns on their clothes?
J1: Like me – I have green, blue, green.
Mme: And like on my shirt.
How does this play fit into our curriculum expectations?
The Ontario curriculum tells us that in Kindergarten, children will…
– listen and respond to others for a variety of purposes and in a variety of contexts
– begin to use and interpret gestures, tone of voice, and other non-verbal means to communicate and respond
– use language in various contexts to connect new experiences with what they already know
– describe personal experiences, using vocabulary and details appropriate to the situation
– orally retell simple events and simple familiar stories in proper sequence
– explore a variety of tools and materials of their own choice to create drama and dance in familiar and new ways
– use problem-solving skills and their imagination to create drama and dance
– communicate their ideas about something (e.g., a book, an experience, a painting) through sounds, rhythms, and music
– respond to music from various cultures, including their own
Now let me say a little about how I assess and how I see assessment in the context of the Full-Day Early Learning Kindergarten program. I believe that all assessment is based on noticing and valuing. As soon as you notice something, you’ve ascribed value to it (positively or negatively) and have therefore assessed it – to varying depths. For instance, when I notice two students wrestling on the carpet, I assess that negatively because, in the school context, I don’t value it. It’s often not a particularly deep assessment although it has prompted me to think deeply about the role of physical play in children’s development. It’s usually a superficial assessment that the play is getting dangerous and so I intervene. However, the process of noticing and valuing can be much deeper. In the context of a play-based classroom, I see one of my roles as being that of a detective. I am looking for places where what the children are doing intersects with the curriculum. I see the curriculum as being, in large part, a description of a developmental stage, rather than a list of things I need to teach in a top-down way. I believe that, given exposure to the right materials, environments, and experiences, children will learn these things and will demonstrate their learning in their play, their conversations, their artwork, and their writing. If there are areas where we’re not seeing that learning, that’s where we may need to do some more direct instruction, either one-on-one, in small groups, or with the whole class. We may also need to modify the environment and change the materials.
I’ve written before on this blog about the inherent subjectivity of this process. All assessment is subjective. We, the grown-ups, decide what to assess, when, and how. The curriculum itself is subjective and culturally-specific. I point this out not to devalue our curriculum but to put it in context. It is a living, breathing, document. It gets revised regularly and what we choose to value within children’s learning changes. Where subjectivity becomes dangerous is when we don’t pay attention to it – when we trick ourselves into thinking that we have magic, objective powers.
We need to always be aware of our subjectivity and to critically examine it. Are we missing something? What are the children doing that we don’t notice? What are our biases? Having two people in the classroom has made a huge difference for me this year. The Early Childhood Educator that I work with notices different aspects of the children’s play than I do and I am so grateful for that diversity. It keeps us both honest and highlights our own subjectivity – awareness is key.
And so I come back to M and J1 and their snap cube fighters. Often, when we think of dramatic play, we look for children dressed up in costumes, acting out roles, like firefighters, doctors, or parents. However, that’s not always what it looks like. Sometimes, it can look like two little boys, sitting in desks, arranging cubes. As educators, we need to put on our detective hats and remain vigilant about finding the learning in the play. Because, as Shakespeare put it “The play’s the thing.”
It’s been a busy few weeks in my life, as you may have gathered by my complete absence. Three days of praying, one while fasting… it takes a few beats for me to wrap my head around teaching again. What’s been catching my eye? The diversity of play.
I’m constantly impressed by how the children use the room… they’re everywhere. They find the most interesting corners to climb into. They’re under my desk, in the art studio, surrounded by blocks, lying on the floor, tucked in behind the puppet theatre. They are everywhere and anywhere. My challenge is to follow them.
As I’ve explored documenting their play and experimentation over the past few weeks, I’ve been struck by how challenging it is to document some kinds of play and inquiry. When children are sitting and playing or while they’re making art at a table or easel, it’s pretty easy to chat with them about what they’re doing, to take pictures and video, or to transcribe their conversations with each other. I can eavesdrop without imposing or interrupting. Much harder, however, is documenting play that moves around the room, that runs, that rolls, and that crawls. I’ve been wondering about this, particularly as it relates to boys.
While I hesitate to generalize, boys’ play tends to be very active. There isn’t a lot of sitting still. It’s a real challenge to document that kind of play. If you were to sneak a peak into my classroom when I’m documenting you might get to see me walking or crawling while simultaneously trying to take notes, photos, and video; I wouldn’t call it graceful. How easy would it be to miss it altogether, to assume that there really isn’t anything of value happening, to be sidetracked by the teacherly need to keep everything orderly? I’ve been making a conscious effort to insinuate myself into this very active dramatic play – in the last week I’ve observed monsters, wolves, spaceships, pirates, and a ticket booth. It’s an ongoing project and, as we take our first steps into outside inquiry and exploration this week, I’ll continue to struggle to figure out how to capture their active inquiry and to do their learning justice. There’s just so much going on… it’s an embarrassment of riches.