Sunday, 17 June 2018

The perfect play-based learning environment.

There is no such thing as the perfect play-based environment.

As an educator I find myself striving to get to this perfect place.  I have this image of what I think the perfect play-based learning environment should be. Vision is one thing but I don’t think there is a perfect example.   

Sure, I do think there are some big building blocks that are needed in our learning environments to make them work effectively for our learners.   We can all have these building blocks, but they will look different and we will be at different stages developing them.

What would the building blocks be?  

Drivers of learning.

1.  Educators who continue to learn and study.   Inquiring into practice, asking those difficult questions and searching for answers. Trialling new ideas and reflecting individually and as a team.

2.  Educators who have a view of Ākonga (learners) as positive.  We develop positive learner identities. An absolute belief in students, that they are capable now as they are.  We can make known to them their strengths and support them in developing these.  To do this we need to have a non-judgemental attitude towards each learner.  We need to get rid of bias.  Behaviour is a smoke screen. Within every human, there is hope, promise and passion.  It is our job to believe and to make that belief as concrete and obvious as possible.  

3. An environment which is responsive to learners needs.  Space belongs to all of us.  Ākonga know how much we care partly because of our attitude towards the environment in which they learn. How space looks and is set up to operate is a big key. How we look after space and the care in providing interesting and suitable provocations.  We communicate trust by allowing Ākonga to have the power to affect change in their school environment. For example, they can move furniture, put things on the walls, decide what they will learn. We notice and respond.  

4.  A community which has a clear vision of what education is.  This might not be where it stands now, but how it could look.  What is going to make a positive difference to the community?  To get there will be painful because change is uncomfortable, but the right change is worth it.  We want to set our communities free.  I want our Whanau to love learning, to be healthy, confident and full of joy.  It will cost me something to see this happen.

5. A learning community which emphasises values and dispositions.   I was at a business innovation hui last holidays.  I asked a director who offers programmes to young innovators, how young people were achieving.   He said that they had many exceptional ideas, but that wasn't why they couldn't hire them, the problem was the young people didn't know how to make their ideas work.   Things like organisation, self-direction, collaboration and values were lacking. 

6.  A learning community which values process over the product.   In the process lies the learning.  Education in the past valued uniformity, everything looking a certain way, paint colours the same, carefully displayed on the wall.  Everyone producing the same type of writing etc.  Focusing on individual learning leads to diversity. Diversity is to be celebrated. The process will be different depending on the learning goals of each Ākonga.

7.  A collaborative working environment where the team is more important than the individual parts.  It has taken me some time to really understand this.  The journey in working as a truly collaborative team takes humility and authenticity.  It is not easy, but when it begins to work it is truly amazing.  Collaboration is like having a booster rocket.  Individually we can only do so much, together things multiply. 

There is no such thing as a perfect play-based learning environment. Please, feel excited, courageous, and empowered.  You can do it.  Keep going don't give up.  Don't compare yourself with others.   

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Play is a paradigm shift

This photo is from my class in 1994.  38 year 5 and 6 students.  One teacher.

We were learning logo, a coding language.  Forward 3, Right 90, Back 5. The turtle was the cursor on the screen that you could programme to move. Seymour Papert designed a real robot turtle that responded to the programme, but they were scarce.  If you look closely there is a crayon taped to the end of the ruler.  That was our turtle and our feet were what moved backwards and forwards.  

I would have done anything for a turtle or a sphero.  They weren't invented in 1994.

Here is the thing,  underpinning the cute Spheros, fancy robots, and bee bots of 2018, is the same thinking that we used without them in the 1990's.   My learners brains still got a workout.  New is not necessarily better.  The thinking is the same.  Our kids have never known life without computers.  Has the system by which we teach learning changed or is it still the same? 

A Paradigm shift is a time when the usual and accepted way of doing or thinking about something changes completely.

I listened as Ali Carr-Chellman shared parts of her Ted Talk at the Energise conference last week.  I totally admire her disruptive ideas, in fact agree with her.  The problem I see is she is trying to make change within a system that is very traditional.  A system that hasn't changed for centuries in America.   So while she does amazing work and while others like her disrupt education, the system stays the same.  

What we need is a complete system change.  

What should we do?

Stop doing some things we have always done just because we've always done them.  

Lets face it, if it doesn't work, or hasn't worked then why would we think by some miracle it might  work now?   Is it because the people who hold power, are the ones that it works for?   With the rapid development of technology, I don't think it will work for much longer.  Can we begin to think of others, those diverse, marginalised, culturally diverse?  Can we not appreciate, value and see success through their eyes?  Can we see ourselves not as individuals but as a collective, a community, intricately connected?  If we work together, collaboratively, society can change.

I have been reflecting on the learning through play facebook page and the reason I started it.  At the time, 2.5 years a go I had begun play based learning but I knew no other primary school using this.  I wanted to trial this idea of learning by using play.  I felt like an adventurer sometimes courageous, but also scared of what people might think, of failing the children and parents.  I didn't know if it would work.... but I had a leader who listened.  A leader who believed in my idea, supported,  resourced, released me to give play in the primary classroom a go.   The facebook page became the fuel to keep me going.  It was a timely, practical way of gaining encouragement, support and ideas to keep going.  It was a innovative thinking tool.  I am forever grateful for this online community and committed to keeping it going for others. 

Often times, leaders are scared of new things.  Sometimes, new things are dressed up as new but really old.  That is the funny thing.... the back to the future thing....  play has been around forever.  Watch a baby learn to walk (no learning objective, WALT or lesson plan). Read Peter Grey's "free to learn" The idea of play is not new, however, why and how we use play in education needs to change.  It can be leveraged to support innovation. 

Innovation, the introduction of something new.  Innovation a driver of change.

What will we do with the Spheros?  Will they lead to new opportunities for Ākonga to learn in different ways, individual specific and engaged?  Or will they be applied with a narrow range of outcomes?  Will we focus on ideas, thinking, and innovation in education?  Will we back our ideas with a budget?  Will we allow teachers to learn through mistakes, to adapt, pivot, and change?  

Collaboration, a driver of change.  Will we actually use it?  Will we be patient while our teams go through the dip of new learning?    

Will we trust our learners?  Will we let them innovate on their online world?  Will we let them develop at different rates, supporting diversification.

Seymour Papert had this to say about education “Nothing bothers me more than when people criticize my criticism of school by telling me that schools are not just places to learn maths and spelling, they are places where children learn a vaguely defined thing called socialization. I know. I think schools generally do an effective and terribly damaging job of teaching children to be infantile, dependent, intellectually dishonest, passive and disrespectful to their own developmental capacities.” 
― Seymour Papert

For me play represents a paradigm shift in education.

It looks so disorganised, disruptive, and pointless, so opposite to what most people think learning should be with neat books, lines of pencil-written words, spelling words copied ten times over, children in neat lines walking like clockwork, teachers speaking endless words. But Play. Play is innovation. Play is the very essence of learning. It is the very meaning of change. It could change a system!

Related articles.

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Innovation in play

I was one of those people.

I've been at Accelerator a CORE event over the last two days.   Prior to this, I wouldn't have called myself an innovator.  I do now.

My own personal education was industrial type schooling.  Fitting in was more important than being different.
As an educator myself now, my greatest delight is in helping students discover their unique strength.  Valuing difference is one reason I love play based learning.

Accelerator offers a scaffolded researched workshop to support innovation.
My team came up with something totally different.  We begun with a problem and then went through a series of thinking tools and iterations to uncover original solutions.  I particularly enjoyed having mentors throughout the process. The mentors from outside of education were the most helpful.  The challenges of pitching an idea like on the Dragons Den really helped us to get clarity on our product.

It got me thinking about the skills I was using and the ones I see in our learning environment.

Key thinking skills in a quality play-based environment


Students try different ways of making a Beyblade arena.  

Thinking of as many different ideas as possible.  Divergent thinking.

                                                                      Akonga find opportunities to brainstorm in play.

Barriers or Beautiful constraints 

Having to stick to boundaries and timeframes - deductive thinking.

Jay has an original idea.  He wants to create a house for My little ponies.  He sets about working out how to do this.  From many possibilities, his thinking becomes clearer, and the end product is made. From many to one.  Is it what he originally saw in his imagination?  The process of design is stunning at 7.  No one teaches him how to do this.

In the play, there is often not the thing you actually need.  So a container is used for a boat, or a hat, or a dog.  Even better the imagination allows for these things to be present in a game in a non-concrete form.  Learners practice adaptability, moving ideas quickly, pivoting, breakthroughs, process.

One of Jay's many creations leading up to his My Little Pony mansion. 

Time is provided to create.  Creativity valued as learning.

Sir Ken Robinson says " If we don't grow into creativity we grow out of it or rather get educated out of it."  "Creativity is now as important as literacy and we should treat it with the same status."


Being able to try something out on a smaller scale allows your imagination to become visible.

Complexity and mindset

Play allows space for learners to make their ideas and try them out.   Play values creativity.  Play provides an opportunity to learn perseverance,  keeping going even when things are tough.  Being able to let go of ideas quickly, in order to try something new.

In a play based learning environment, the idea of flow is supported.   Uninterrupted time to create.  The ability to try many times over several days and weeks.  Play encourages co-operation and the sharing of ideas.  Best of all, play provides an authentic context for students' to learn design.

It is my observation that children are hungry for play.  They naturally learn this way.  The best thing educators can do is provide opportunities for creativity to happen through the natural ability of play.

Thanks so much, CORE, for a totally brain numbing, fun, creative experience which has left me with lots to think about as an educator.

Post Note:   The role of the teacher in Play-based learning is that of a mentor.  Taking on the role of mentor as an Educator is very different to how teachers have identified their role in the past.  It is this that takes some working through.  Teachers have traditionally been the ones with all the answers and leading the way.  I was reminded that the real power of mentorship is providing suggestions, in real time when they are needed.  Knowing which mentor, when, and how to offer is the key.

Saturday, 31 March 2018

A closer look at Play in an Innovate Learning Environment

We have the privilege of hosting Masters students from the University of Canterbury at Haeata Community Campus.  Last week they asked a very good question.

"I was wondering if the philosophy of play-based learning at Haeata focussed on free play or also more structured play?"

from "Learning, Playing and Interacting - Good practice in the Early Years Foundation Stage."

There is much debate around play and what constitutes play and whether children learn 
through play. Learning through play is the outworking of an Innovate Learning
Environment in Hikuawa (our learning hub at Haeata).  
It is developmentally appropriate and responsive to the Ākongas needs.
The above continuum explores the different ways Educators could interact with a child in play.
I like that it is honest, suggesting possibilities of different approaches by educators to play.
It defines possible learning pathways.  According to this continuum, research shows that children learn most effectively in the green-highlighted segments. That is not to say learning doesn't happen in the
outer regions. It suggests the importance of the relationship between teacher and student.

We at Haeata are on a journey. As a team, we continually reflect on our practice. We are in the early stages of creating the most effective environment for our Åkonga (learners) to learn in. The above diagram is proving to be a very helpful tool in achieving this.

At any one time, educators in Hikuawa can be doing the following;
1. Unstructured - Play without adult support noticing what is happening.  
Setting up the environment to support Ākongas needs.
Children learn through self-directed actions. Children are biologically designed to learn through play. 
2.  Child-initiated play - the teacher is supporting the child through coaching.
 Social, emotional, academic coaching. The incredible year's programme provides excellent tools to achieve this. Coaching during the play. The teacher follows the child's lead, reflects on what the child is doing and how they can extend or add next steps.  This is Vygotsky's ZPD in action.
3. Focused learning - During one 90 learning block we provide a range of workshops for
Åkonga to choose from. These workshops flow from the child-initiated play.
They may offer new ideas that children have experienced before.
During this time, we have visiting teachers such as a Kaiako
from our senior school, the local librarian, a teacher of music and a Kapahaka tutor.
A Kaiako (teacher) may take a group out to visit a local building site and notice what
is happening, this workshop comes from the children's interest in building.
One teacher may offer a specific art technique, another, a workshop about forces,
applying this to Beyblades. Still, another may enable the creation of an obstacle course.
4. Highly structured -  Our Phonics lessons are an example of this.
Everyone is in a group designed for their learning stage. Some of our phonics is very playful, but what defines
it as being structured is when the children have to come and participate. We all do phonics after lunch.
In an ideal world, the teaching of phonics would be integrated into the play, but for the time being at least,
this is the best way for us to deliver this skill.
Similarly, for Åkonga ready for a more focused approach, direct instruction, we provide a
specialized writing tutor from within our team. This time also includes some of our Puna Ako group
(those close to our heart), where we teach social and emotional skills explicitly, and
organize personal learning plans. These small groups form the hub of our relationships.
We meet twice a day.

As we continue to develop practice together, for a range of learners, this diagram provides a scaffold for us to understand how we work as a team and how we honestly learn through play.  For example, I am particularly skilled at using play without the adult support through child-initiated play.  I spend a lot of time educating here.  Others in our team focus on adult guided playful experiential learning.  They enjoy setting up workshops for children to join.    Collaboration works wonders as we all bring different ideas into the environment from what we have noticed the Åkonga play.  We move fluidly along the continuum, becoming increasingly skillful at knowing what level of support is needed at any one time.

The type of play that Åkonga joins in is totally up to them.  We trust our learners to make wise decisions.  We view them as capable and able.  Together we are building a culture where learning is irresistible.  It is presented as a banquet table of learning delights. 

 A diagram I created to summarize learning.

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Writing developmentally

 As you may know, I teach 5 and 6-year-olds at Haeata Community Campus.  In New Zealand, Ākonga are expected to be ready to begin formal learning of writing at the age of 5.  However, I question that.  Obviously, some are ready. It is a continuum obviously.  The ones who are not ready, in my experience can struggle to achieve, feel defeated, and think they can not write. This affects their learner identity.  The risk is that they generalize this belief and think they can not learn at all.  My goal is not to teach all children the same thing, but to find each child's pathway and teach to that.  Play facilitates this to happen.

As you know, there are a lot of skills that go into learning to write.  

Physical skills.  Able to grasp the pencil.  Able to coordinate the fingers and hand to move in a certain way.  Ākonga (learners) need to be able to listen to different sounds.   Resources that I have helped develop my understanding in this area are PMP and Yolanda Sorryl Phonics programme.   Others I would love to have a look at are Casey Caterpillar ,  Smart: Mark Making and Writing, 0-7 year olds. The Bridge. (Thanks to Jess Holdaway for pointing me to this.)  You will have other great resources I am sure.  Plus just loads of experience.

Mathematical understanding.  Writing is a symbol.  It stands for something.  In the real world, a child picks up an object and it stays the same as they move around it.  Letters have a certain position on a page, they are two dimensional. As children move around letters, they look different, from different positions.  Children need to understand one to one correspondence.    

Thinking skills.  Able to hold an idea in their head for long enough to write it down.  Develop working memory.  Able to focus on a task which is actually very abstract. Play provides an opportunity to develop self-regulation because the children make up their own rules, and to stay in a game, or take part you have to stick to the agreed rules.  "When  involved in play, children's concentration and application to the task are much greater than in academically-directed activities contrived by the teacher."(Dolya, G, 2010, p.10)

Purposeful nature of writing.  We write to convey a message.  What is the learners understanding of writing?  Have they experienced the results of someone writing a message and getting what they wanted?  Have they seen writing in authentic context?  Why do you write?
Authentic contexts to write.  Waiting for turns.

If you watch children freely play, you will notice them practising the above skills.  And that is because as Peter Grey says children want to learn the cultural tools of their society.  Vygotsky believed "that true education is not the mere learning of specific knowledge and skills, it is the development of children's learning abilities that is their capacity to think clearly and creatively plan an implement their plans and communicate their understanding in a variety of ways.  He believed this could be done by providing them with a set of cultural tools for thinking and creating.  These tools are the symbolic systems we use to communicate and analyse reality.  They include signs, symbols, maps, plans, numbers, musical notation, charts, models, pictures and language," (Dolya, G, 2010, p.8). 

A collaborative 'join in if you like'  map.  One child came and got me to show me their part, using loads of oral language.

Children write freely around the place.
As we talk about solving a problem due to the lack of Beyblades, I write.

Play freely outdoor or inside.  Developing physical skills.  Simple bar set.

Zaiden writes a letter to ask for some bikes.  Authentic contexts for writing.

The issue for us teachers is not that play is stopping children from learning, but that we can not recognise what the learning is in the play.  If we did, we would be able to help them progress, by adding in vocabulary and scaffolding opportunities to extend themselves.  

"Young children play and give a running commentary on what is happening.  This is external monologuing. As time goes on, the external monologue is internalised as thought.  When dealing with challenging situations children and adults often find themselves externalise their thoughts thinking aloud.  The speech structures become basic structures of their thinking. This means the development of thought is to a great extent determined by the linguistic ability of the child.  This, in turn, is dependent on the child's socio-cultural experience.  So one of the most important functions of education is to facilitate the development of rich, effective spoken language (Dolya, G, 2010,p9).

As educators of young children, one of our main roles is to support the learning of oral language.  Vygotsky himself says that play is one of the best ways for children to learn oral language.  When I first began learning through play, I didn't know what to look out for.  I had to go back to go forward.  I needed help to learn the what of children's learning and roughly in what order.  This is not linked to age but stage.  Obviously, some children will jump certain things, some learn in their own order, others will need specific support around certain stages. 

I have found using the developmental writing stages has helped me to notice how children learn to write.  As a Primary teacher in New Zealand, it has been important to back the bus up and allow learners to develop important skills at their own pace.   If I don't I am robbing them of learning that provides strong foundations.   We now know earlier is not better.

Here is an example of the one developmental chart  If you google developmental writing, there are others.  

My ultimate goal is to know this learning so well, I can notice it in play, know what comes next and help scaffold the next steps if needed.  

Above all, I want to protect children's learner identity.  No one deserves to think they can not learn as a child.  My son Josiah, has struggled to read and write all his life.  He is now 18 years old.  When he was at school, the most important thing to me was to protect his love of learning.  Being able to read and write is helpful, but not at the cost of learning.  Being able to learn is far more powerful.  Humans all over the world, work out how to learn in many different ways.  Now Josiah can read okay.  He still struggles with physical writing, but guess what, he has a computer.  I remember visiting a Psychiatrist once.  He told me he hardly ever wrote.  He just spoke his words onto a recorder and someone else typed them up.  

And as Nathan Mikaere-Wallis says "There’s no rush to learn to write, and it shouldn’t be formally taught until the age of seven."

Over the last month, I have been collating, writing lists and working out what the foundation skills of writing are.  Here is my most up to date list.  At Haeata Community Campus, we use Individual Learning Plans (ILP) for each Ākonga (learner).  These are loaded onto a database (Link Ed) and we can click on to the goals that are most appropriate.  I have been developing the pre-level 1 of New Zealand Curriculum.  Have a look and see what you think.  I would love your feedback.  Maybe you have already done this.  Wonderful.  Creating this continuum has been really useful for my own understanding.  It will be fascinating to start to apply it to our learners.

Foundation Skills - Writing

I can use my hands and movement to communicate.
I can understand when someone speaks to me.  
I join in a conversation
I can use what I hear in my own way.

I love listening to stories.  
I can retell a story
I can tell my own story.
I can talk about what is happening now, yesterday and tomorrow.
I can tell you about something that happened to me.

I can recognise print symbols in my own world and culture. 
I use print symbols and concepts with enjoyment, meaning and purpose.

I enjoy listening to rhyme.
I can use rhyme on my own.
I can say a simple alliteration phrase.
I can use many different words to express myself.
I can use nouns, verbs, adjectives orally.
I can use the prepositions on, up, over, through, inbetween, in, to describe what I am doing.

Phonics Stage 1 Yolanda Sorryl
General sound discrimination
Speech Sound discrimination
Sound breaks

I can take part in imaginative play by myself
I can take part in imaginative play with others
I can use my imagination to visualize something.
I can use my imagination to tell a story.

Writing developmental stages 
I can draw a picture
I can scribble something that means something to me
My scribble writing is real writing to me.  It is written in a line.
I can write letters
I can write letters in a row.
I can read what I write.  
I can write letters from left to right and top to bottom.
I can write letters meaningfully into words.  
The words have spaces.
I can copy words found in my environment.

My eyes can track smoothly across the midline and follow movement without moving my head.
Both eyes move at the same time working as one.
My eyes and hands work together as one.
I can tell the difference and the similarities between two or more objects.
I can describe colour, size, shape, position, distance, direction, and orientation of an object.
I can make a pattern, sequence and order.
I can make a whole into parts and parts into a whole.

I can hop
I can skip
I can jump with two feet together
I can balance on one leg 
I can copy actions involving crossing my midline
I can cut and paste shapes
I can colour simple pictures.
I can pick up small objects using a tong or twizzers.
I can unscrew a lid on a bottle and screw it back up.

Level 1B    (NZC curriculum Haeata Verson).
Draw a picture
Talk about the picture
Write a sentence about the picture
Start in the right place
Put a full stop at the end
Leave spaces between words
Write the first sound.
Write the last sound.

Level 1A

Write on the topic
Keep writing interesting so the reader enjoys it.
Plan writing e.g. pictures, simple mind map.
Order ideas
Use different joining words (because, and, but, so, if) to join two ideas in one sentence.
Start sentences with capital letters
Use capital letters for names of people and places
Use punctuation (.?!) correctly
Express feelings about the topic
Start sentences with different words
Use interesting describing words
Use phonics knowledge to write sounds in the order they hear them including digraphs and trigraphs.
Spell some words correctly (Essential list 1-2 and some from list 3-4)
Write all letters the correct way.
Reread writing to check it makes sense
Underline some words and check spelling
Check full stops and capital letters have been used

1P (At Level 1)
Plan writing with a picture
Write two or more sentences
Put a full stop at the end of a sentence
Start a sentence with a capital letter
Try new interesting words
Begin sentences with different words
Write some small words
Write letters around the right way.
Write some middle sounds
Write the sounds in the order they hear them.
Use word endings? s, ed, ing.
Use word cards to help them write.
Reread writing to check it makes sense.
Improve writing by adding some more detail

I look forward to hearing back from your experiences.  I actually think that the foundation skills cover most of the subjects we teach at Stage 1.  These are the skills learners need prior to beginning formal learning.   While I have them for writing, they could apply to general thinking skills needed to learn.

I have used several resources to collate this list. 

Te Whariki.  
Yolanda Sorryl Phonics programme   
PMP programme.  
Barbara Brand   
Developmental writing charts.  
Vygotsky in Action in the Early Years.  The key to learning curriculum.  By Galina Dolya.
Free to Learn. By Peter Grey.

Thursday, 8 February 2018

Learning Through Play Environment

I teach at Haeata Community Campus, East side of Christchurch, New Zealand.

This year we want to become more meaningful in the way we use our spaces.  Hikuawa (Year 1-2 - Age 5 and 6), make up one team of 9 teachers (some covering release and reading discovery teachers) and 90 Ākonga (learners).

We work in an innovative learning environment and take up half of one Hapori (building) which is designed to hold 300 students.  The other half is made up of Komanawa our bilingual provision.

Following are some photos showing how we have purposefully set up space to enable us to deliver our Haeata Curriculum.
Our quiet space designed for Ākonga to have a quiet space to be.  Comfortable, low lighting, sensory.  The hanging egg chair adds gentle movement.  Ākonga are encouraged to use this space to calm down, have a rest and refresh.

Clipboards are available everywhere.  Here a student has written about bean seeds in the garden.

Our Kai (food) area.  This is where the Ākonga can cook.  Where they can eat food.  They can choose to eat at a table or sit on a mat.  Ākonga are encouraged to go here to eat their Kai (food).

An area set aside for communication fluency - numeracy, reading,writing, digital communication.  Holds many of our books.  This will be valuable when we begin our Kaupapa Ako (main) Workshops.  Workshops invite (no child is made to go) Ākonga to learn specific goals from for example, their personalized education plan or maybe a new skill they would like to try.

Art and craft - open shelves so the Ākonga can choose materials they would like to use for their learning.

Construction, plenty of room for spreading out.

Dramatic play space.

One of our two glass classrooms with air conditioning.   Shut the door and you are in a quiet room.  Used for a variety of purposes such as collaboration, dramatic play, and being quiet or noisy.

You can just see our learning narrative journals.   

Construction area.

Outside with the mud kitchen.
An outside tray for exploration.  The Ākonga are free to move outside as they need to.  Our backyard is fully fenced. 

The perfect play-based learning environment.

There is no such thing as the perfect play-based environment. As an educator I find myself striving to get to this perfect place.  I h...