Children’s theories about ice

It’s been really cold here in Northern Town: freeze your eyelashes together cold.

We’re a pretty hardy bunch but even we have our limits and we were stuck inside for a few days while the wind blew itself out and the temperature came up a few degrees.

What to do, what to do?  What do you do inside with 35 children when it’s -35˚C outside?

We decided to play with ice!

Our amazing ECE led the children in filling balloons with coloured water and braved the weather to place them outside.

two rows of coloured balloons, filled with water, sitting in the snow
water… meet your new friend cold.

We waited…

Today during our outdoor inquiry time we ripped open the ballons and found that the water had frozen beautifully and that it had produced an interesting effect.  All of the colour had migrated to the bottom of the balloon and rows of air bubbles were visible within the orb of ice.

a sphere of ice, blue towards the bottom, clear on the top, bubbles throughout.  the top of the sphere is flat

When I showed the children this photo on the Smartboard, I told them that I wondered (je me demande…) why all of the colour had gone to the bottom of the balloon.  What did they think?

MN:  Because the water’s lighter than the food colouring so the food colouring is at the bottom and the water’s at the top

PB: The water froze so it was turned into ice so you cut the balloon so you can see the ice and the bubbles are inside

UN: If you drop it it will crack open and you can’t get a new one.

CF: The gravity was pushing it down – the blue – because of the the bubbles.

MP:  The water is pushing it down (the food colouring)

At this point in the conversation there was some back and forth about the bubbles so I asked: What are the bubbles trying to do?

LT: They’re trying to get out

Another child disagreed.

TN: The bubbles are trying to stay in place in the water

LT replied: No, the bubbles are trying to get out to make a puddle

UF: I think the bubbles are trying to escape the ice because there’s a little hole at the top

BU: Maybe they’re trying to swim up and get on someone’s head and have a ride

BW:  I think the ice is growing and the bubbles don’t want to pop.

AQ: The food colouring wants to get out of the balloon from the bottom – it wants to dig through the ice.

UN: I think the ice is growing and the bubbles are going to break the ice and when the ice is broken they want to run away and go back to their home.

I find their thinking fascinating.  It opens up a window into their minds and gives us precious information about how they’re making sense of the world and how we might help them to develop their thinking.

Some of them are drawn to creating a narrative using the bubbles, water, and food colouring as characters.  Others are interested in the science of the process and are trying to figure out how it works.  Others still are using what they already know about the world (gravity, weight) to create a hypothesis.  Another group of children is more interested in how they are personally affected.

XC, for instance, said: “If you drop it, it might break” – she has a point!

There will most definitely be more cold weather ahead – let’s see where else the ice can take us!

Ice Fishing and Footprints

I think I need to rename this blog… maybe it should be called “teaching on the verge… outside” because it seems that this year, especially, so much of what I’m noticing is happening outside.  I think that this has a lot to do with the greenbelt strip we have at the edge of our playground which offers so many more possibilities for learning than a traditional playground ever could.

We recently had a day of heavy rain which melted all of our snow.  This was followed by a drop in temperatures and a good dump of snow.  The snow stuck to the ice which had formed on all of the branches, creating a beautiful effect that puts every branch into stark relief against the blue sky.  The denuded trees looked sparkly and crisp and the evergreens were heavy with layers of snow and ice.  FI asked if the trees had grown; everything looked fuller and more substantial.  According to the calendar it’s still fall… maybe we need a new calendar!

snow covered trees seen from below

It is like walking into a winter wonderland.

snow covered branch, sun and clouds

LH was very interested in the way her feet crunched through the snow and the frozen slush underneath, leaving very defined footprints.  She took me to see a large footprint that she thought belonged to a monster.

footprint in snow

Then she created a footprint of her own which she told me came from a big dog.

a child-created footprint in the snow.

LH has an amazing imagination so this discussion of footprints quickly swerved in a different direction as a group of students came to tell us about the chipmunk they had just seen.  In response, LH said: “At my grandma’s I saw 18 chipmunks, 18 dancing chipmunks, and they did cartwheels and skated on the ice.”  She then decided that she should camouflage herself, like animals do.

child hiding in/camouflaged by cedar trees

As LH was hiding in the branches, I noticed two boys playing on the ice in a nearby ditch. I was concerned because the ice had weakened during the rain so I went over to show them that it wasn’t safe to stand on.  I cracked a hole in the ice with my boots and the children moved back on to the bank.  They were undeterred, however, and changed their game.  Now, they were ice fishers!  They found sticks and vines on the ground and began using them as fishing rods.  One of the boys, BH, often engages in fishing-play.  He rallied the others to fish through the hole in the ice.  He told them: “You have to be quiet so the fish don’t get scared.”  LH joined them and told us: “I ate fish last night and it was real: I put ketchup on it.” Clearly, only the realest fish needs ketchup!

children pretending to ice fish

Process-based painting

We tend to think of art as a product: a thing to hang on a wall.

We, that is, those of us who aren’t artists, miss out on all of the messiness about and tossing aside that happens long before you have anything to hang up.

As a choreographer, I know how many ideas I try on for size before I hit on one that I like and that works with my dancers.

Young children approach the creative process differently.  Their art is, quite literally, ALL ABOUT PROCESS.  We often talk a good talk in education about process-based assessment and about looking beyond the product for insight into learning but at the end of the day we remain quite concerned about what’s on the paper; the product.

Many kindergarten students couldn’t give a hoot about what their painting looks like when they put down their brushes.  They are interested in how the painting changes as they add layers of paint, how the paint behaves, how it mixes together.  They will often start with an image and then paint over it.  Their process often has more in common with storytelling than it does with paint-by-numbers.  SH, for instance, began by painting a robot and then added several layers of paint over top.  You can just glimpse the robot underneath.

robot painting covered by red paint

This art work challenges us to closely observe children’s process as they work through their creative ideas and not to settle for assessment that is only interested in the product.

Still under construction but we’re getting there.

In August, I showed you some photos of our newly renovated classroom when it was completely empty.

Over the course of the last few months, our supplies have slowly trickled in and we’re finally feeling as though the room is beginning to take shape.  We’d love to hear your thoughts on our 4th teacher (we already have 3!)… the environment!

classroom with furniture and neutral wallsAnd in case you’re wondering… we still don’t have a window!

Into the Woods

I must be easily amazed, credulous, or naive because things happen in the classroom all the time that leave me gobsmacked.  Children are an endless source of surprise and amazement and, while there are themes and strands of inquiry that come up over and over again, the children’s focus, insight, and intelligence continue to astonish me.

We are still visiting the green space every day during our outdoor inquiry time.  As soon as my feet hit the gravel, children run up and ask me if they can go in the forest.  The space probably measures 4 metres deep by 60 metres wide; it’s a long narrow strip.  You wouldn’t think that there would be enough in there to sustain their attention over the course of weeks but there is no sign of them becoming bored.  They are eager to explore it every single day and pay close attention to how it changes.  Their engagement is, for me, in stark contrast to how children behave around traditional play structures.  There is always a lot of behaviour management in the playground.

  • Don’t climb on the outside of the structure.
  • Don’t climb up the slide.
  • You can’t do that in rubber boots.
  • Slide down feet first.
  • Stay out of the mud.
  • Don’t play in the puddles.

It often feels that we spend most of our time on the playground saying no.

In the bush, it’s very different.

child exploring in the snow
Walking in the snow

FI says he likes the bush area “because all my friends are there and I like to play there because it’s mushy and there’s berries. It feels good to go there. Cause I didn’t get to go there last year.  I wasn’t allowed – only the big kids could go there – now I can.”

MK says “Cause there’s lots of sticks. You can break them off their tree. You can pick up leaves. Play in the puddles and with the leaves.”

BI says “Cause it’s fun – I like to go back and forth. I feel fun.”

TB says “Because I like where the corn grows in the field.”

Some of the most interesting comments were about the kind of play the children engage in outside.

XC says “we can play any way we want.”

LH says “It’s fun because there’s nothing there.”

ON says “Because there’s a pole and a slide.”

DSCF4713 DSCF4714

It’s not that we’re specifically instructing them on how to play in the playground area (although we are telling them what not to do) but somehow they perceive that there’s an agenda.  They understand that their play is being managed in ways that detract from their enjoyment and they’d prefer to be somewhere freer. I wonder about how much money we’re spending on playground equipment and whether we’d be better off just letting the grass grow high and the trees grow back.  What would change about the quality of children’s play and social interaction if all of the “don’ts” were taken away?

For instance, our children have spent an enormous amount of time carrying a huge tree branch around the schoolyard.   It’s a challenge that doesn’t loose its appeal.  How do you balance the branch?  How many children do you need to carry it?  Do we stand on both sides or all on the same side?  Endless fascination, endless engagement, endless amusement.

children carrying a branch
Heave ho!

They recently found a log in the green space.  It may have been part of someone’s retaining wall at one point.  Now it’s a teeter totter.

using a log as a teeter totter balanced on a rock

Another day it’s a bridge…

walking across a puddle using a log

All of this fascinating play happens outside the realm of adults, in kid land.  I’d like to see what would happen if we allowed kid land to expand a little, if we gave it more space, permission and time.  In her 2008 paper “Meddler In the Middle” published in the journal Innovations in Education and Teaching International, Erica McWilliams proposes “less time spent being a custodial risk minimiser and more time spent being an experimenter and risktaker” (vol 45, no 3, p.265).  I think that this idea is particularly applicable to the outdoor context and I wonder what it’s going to take to get us there.


Parenting on the Verge


Parenting on the Verge

The school year can feel very long sometimes.  Somewhere around March when the snow won’t melt and everything is grey and you’re close to offering up your first born in exchange for a sunny day and some budding trees, it starts to feel very long.  At that point summer feels like a hazy fantasy, a tease on the calendar.  And then summer arrives… and you realize that there are ways in which summer is longer than the school year.

There are ways in which 2 is more than 28.  28 kids entertain each other.  2 kids fight.  While they’d like to play with anyone (ANYONE!) other than their sibling, everyone else is on holiday, or at camp, or whitewater rafting someplace way more exciting than what you, mommy, have to offer. 28 kids have a custodian.  2 kids have me: chief activities coordinator and janitor.  So, it’s hard, during the summer, to give my kids the leeway to be creative and explore in the ways that I would like them to because, lordy, I’m just so tired of cleaning my house! (And we moved this summer, so that may account for some of my impatience.)

It’s also been hard to let my now 6-year old big boy have the independence he is so craving.  Oh, I talk a good talk about The Land adventure playground in Wales and I’m a big fan of blogger Lenore Skenazy but when I watch my little boy bike down the street and out of sight all by himself, I have to swallow a big lump in my throat and hold myself back from running after him.  But, oh, the reward is in how proud he is of himself that he crossed the street alone, that he remembered to look both ways, that he got up that big hill without having to walk his bike once, that he stopped at the stop sign.  He’s so excited.  I’m excited too… it’s just that it feels like walking on the edge of cliff, being on the verge of peril and greatness at the same time.

I am finding that, the more I document play at school, the harder it is to stop at home.  I find myself constantly taking note of all the cool things my kids do while they play.  This summer has been no exception.  Children are amazing at finding ways to entertain themselves, even in very challenging circumstances.  Lunch with the extended family gets too long? Set up a restaurant at the nearby tables and take each other’s orders!

resto Monkey Man

When every single toy in the house has been packed… use the moving boxes to make forts!

Mommy, moving boxes are for making forts... duh!
Mommy, moving boxes are for making forts… duh!

And after you’ve moved, use the moving boxes in place of painting paper… because Mommy still hasn’t found the box with the paper!

deck painting

Oh, and hit your brother, that’s always good for a few minutes of entertainment.

In the end, I’m looking forward to going back to school.

But… I’ll miss these long and lazy days, the morning snuggles, the endless books, building forts in the bush, the evening bike rides, and the visits from friends.

I may even miss the fighting, just a little.

tree fort


A snippet of a post that I wrote on the last week of school…

We’re out of tape in the classroom. Completely.
It’s been a few days without tape and things are getting dire.
Today, as I unwrapped some early end-of-year presents, the scavengers descended. They took the used but still sticky tape. The took the wrapping paper. Right out of my hands… gone!
It quickly turned into a design competition – who could create the best tissue paper dress in the least amount of time?

As funny as it was, I was delighted by their scavenging.  It made me feel that we’ve done something right this year.  We’ve preserved their ingenuity and imagination, fed it, recognized it, aided and abetted it.  I sometimes joke that the biggest part of my ballet technique job is not to screw it up; avoiding bad technical habits is as important as teaching good ones.  I feel the same way about parts of my classroom job.  If, by the end of the year, I can look at the kids and honestly declare that we’ve honoured them as people and preserved their creative impulses, whatever they are (whether they involved spinners made of snap cubes, huge block towers, or paper dresses), then I can comfortably say we’ve done our jobs.  Maybe “first, do no harm” should be our oath too.

high fashion

An awesome boy

Let me tell you about my friend LB.

LB is one of those kids that you follow around sometimes because, often, when he chooses to do something, it’s something worth noticing.

LB is curious and creative.  He is also verbal and physical – when he’s upset you know it and when he’s happy he lights up a room.

When LB arrived at school last year he rarely put pencil to paper.  In fact, I documented the few times he produced something on paper last year because it was so rare.  He had very little interest in drawing but was intrigued by the properties of the material… what can you do with paint? How does it feel?

Here is one of those rare moments from LB’s first year at school.


And now… now as I prepare for the melancholy and bittersweet task of saying goodbye to the children I have been with for two years… just look at how far he’s come.  The detail, the imagination, the self-expression.  I’m in awe.


Chairs: An open-ended material.

All last year, the only thing the children ever made out of chairs were forts or houses.  They would gather the chairs into a circle, drape a piece of cloth over the backs of the chairs, attach the cloth to the chairs with clips, and play underneath, snug as bugs in a rug.  This year, however, the chairs have taken on an entirely different dimension in our classroom.  They are used as stages, buildings, and most strikingly for me, as vehicles.  One of their favourite things to do, particularly the boys, is to create a vehicle using two chairs, using the legs of the chair in front of them as controls and shifters (interesting in an era when most of us drive automatic transmission cars).  On Friday, following a fire drill, we had three separate fire stations on the go, complete with captains, walkie talkies, hoses, and lots of very noisy fire trucks.  I wonder… do other children use chairs this way?  How are chairs being used in your classes?fire trucks