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Thursday, 14 February 2019

If they're playing they're not learning!

"If they're playing, they're not learning" is what you might really think if you come and visit our school.  Actually, it is what our education system is set up to believe.   Despite what our curriculums, Te Whariki, and the NZC, which are world-class, say, the word on the street is that children need teachers to learn.  Children need schools.

Everyone has been to school, everyone knows how the system really works.
Remember!  The bell rings to tell you when to go to class.  The class is arranged with desks where you are directed to sit.  The timetable tells you what subject you will learn at what time.  A task is set for you by the teacher, which tells you how you will learn about that subject.  Then you are given a test to make sure you have learned it and if you haven't you are made to do more of it for longer periods of time.  And we believe that this is actually how we learn and that this is okay because that is the way we have always done it. We didn't all like school, but we did okay, so it must be correct, right?

Then there are the statistics which tell us that those in poverty, those with certain race backgrounds, those living in certain areas are most likely to fail.  Millions are spent on programmes of change. Research is published which 'proves' that these students do much better when they are explicitly told what to learn, earlier, even though the statistics haven't changed.   Tweaks are made to a system which in my opinion has grown into a force which overrides common sense, it even overrides brain research.  The system has grown into a monster which terrifies educators if they dare to step outside of it.

If we always do what we have always done, we will always get what we have always got.

Let me share with you some of my highlights from the beginning of 2019.

My heart is happy, and I love my job because I am trusted to make decisions which help children to learn.  I start each day in the mara, the garden, with around 20 students ranging in age from 5 to 17.  We meet in a shed, say hello, and chat about the day.  Relationships are key.  Each one at different stages. We have authentic, caring and real conversations.   "How are you today?"  is not just a throwaway line, but a topic we spend time on.  Do you need breakfast?  Sometimes, we cook food together.  Building relationships mean stopping to listen and then respond, sometimes the most powerful response is 'I'm sorry to hear that'.  Sometimes, building relationships are stopping to think about the behavior a person is displaying.  Why?  Then acknowledging the pain, providing the lack, giving the gift of space and time to process the pain.

 When ready, each student chooses what they will be doing for the day.  These choices are unique to each one.  Maybe, they are choosing to learn in certain spaces, playing with stuff, imaginary play, dramatic play, creative play, following deep urges which drive them.  Urges which are set up to support humans to learn urges which need to be listened to.  Sometimes, they choose a workshop on offer, sometimes, they are following an inquiry which they have decided to pursue. They choose the space depending on what they need.  The spaces enable students to practice self-regulation.

I can tell you, it doesn't look pretty, it is messy, ununiformed, not in order, not quiet, not still always but it is real.  And real means we can work with it and in it, and learn constantly. At our place, Haeata Community Campus, on the Teina side, the educators stay in spaces but the children decide where they need to be.

Around 10.15am we move back over to a building, which is set up with different options.

Teachers thoughtfully, with heart, acknowledge children as partners, design spaces, where children can be active participants without being wrong.  Teachers increasingly think about children as being capable of driving their own learning and the spaces reflect this.

At our heart are relationships.  A deep abiding belief that children are more than the system would have us believe, more than needing to be bossed about and told what to learn and where.  More than the traditional schooling system. Relationships and time enable us to notice a whole person and respond to that person in ways which are authentic.  And please, don't shout this too loudly, but children can learn without teachers telling them what to do!

That is why I am beginning to feel the way I am, deeply satisfied, like I, together with many others, can actually make a difference.  Like potentially, statistics will be written with positive outcomes, where research acknowledges that earlier isn't necessarily better, where those in poverty are empowered, where success is redefined from the majority viewpoint, where whole communities are changed, where people are living happy lives.

If I was to sum it up?

When children are playing, they are learning.

Saturday, 17 November 2018

Integrating play, technology and modern learning environments

Organising our spaces with purpose

In Hikuawa we organise our building in spaces. Each space has a Kaiako or Kaiawhina (Teacher or teacher aide). The Ākonga are free to move. Technology is a wee cave-like space. We have outside, art, construction, dramatic play, kitchen and technology and Hui space. The Kaimahi (teacher) looking after the space, writes the names of the Ākonga attending each session. This means at a quick check we know who has been there and who hasn't. The agreement at the moment is one block per day.

A challenge is set each day to complete, or the students can decide what they are doing based on other learning.

Here the learner is working on a simple scratch challenge.
We have explored Book Creator, Bee bots and our next exploration will be Minecraft.
Each Tuesday afternoon, those who want to join the other Hapori for Code Club.

Timetabling - Year 1 to 2

Each morning the students write their own timetables. They make choices as to where they will be depending on what is on offer for the day. There are agreed rules for the area and if they don't agree with them they don't spend time there.

This shows the workshops available in
the upper right-hand
Jaden completes his timetable for the day. It is his choice whether he actually does it or not. Most times, the Ākonga do. Some put the number of the block during the day next to the space, others write what it is they will be doing.

This photo shows the basic areas available each day.

Some examples

Two Ākonga collaborate naturally to use book creator
for their learning.
Some beautiful artwork is produced along with
amazing stories. 

Here the learner is working on book creator challenge.

We love learning stories because we think narrative assessment captures so much of the heart of our learners.
Here is an example - Learning Story Technology

Oh and technology often happens off the ipads.  
An example of a minecraft floor plan.  Includes
numbers of floors.  The story with this is detailed.

Friday, 16 November 2018


Success is so personal, yet often stubbornly defined by society and time.  I am successful if I...own my own house, have a job, get good marks.  Yet, this is very culture and time specific and very narrow.

I'm reading a book called "The Old-Time Maori" by Makereti. The chapter on children is very insightful.  It explains how when a marriage took place in the old days, one of the most important things were the children they would have.  Whether boys or girls, they were all welcomed, no matter what class.  Mothers were looked after with whatever foods they wanted.  The birthing experience much different to modern times.  I am left with an impression of children being much loved and well cared for.  It says they were never hit, and parents were always kind, this parenting style strengthened the bond of affection.

 Between the ages of 3 and 9 Maori children enjoyed a great deal of freedom.  Free to play when and where he likes.  A child knew how to keep safe around fire or boiling water.  This I find interesting "The children were fond of takaro (play).  They had few toys, yet they amused themselves making mud pies, playing hunahuna (hide and seek), punga, and many other games." Makereti (1938, p138)  How wonderful to learn the importance of play in learning.

Makereti discusses on a couple of occasions, how children were taught to be unselfish by being asked to share some of a special meal with other members of the whanau.  Mothers taught their daughters many lessons, like how to look after elders, by not allowing them to carry water.  "No child was ever ordered but was always asked in a kindly way to help.  I am sure that this is the reason why children looked at work as a pleasure in the old days." Makereti (1938, p139)    By the age of 8 or 10 or more, the daughter knew all the duties expected which her mother performed.  For example, she could light the fire, garden, or sweep the floors. 

Boys were taught from the age of 6 to that of 15, 16 by their father.  The same as a girl, to be hospitable, generous and to share any delicacy they may be eating.   As they grew up they learnt beside their fathers.   Gardening, fishing, hunting.  By the time they were 8 or 9, they had learnt a good deal about these and other methods of getting food.  Boys went with their fathers and relatives to the forest and watched them cutting down trees and using them.  He was taught customs and arts. At night, children would lie beside father or grandfather and hear the stories of his people.  By the age of 10, they could repeat his genealogy.

Makereti speaks about all types of children.  Naughty ones, quarrelsome children, industrious, lazy.  All given certain names.  She says "many of the terms were of course applied to grown-ups as well, but in the old days so much time was taken up by work that there was little room for idleness.

I am struck by the different definition of success in this early Maori culture.  Play is success.  Dispositional learning and everyday work is a success.   I think of some of my Ākonga (learners) and put this lens on them and instead of being 'troubled, dis-regulated and naughty' they are amazing, talented and purposeful.  Our school system struggles to accommodate practical learning.  Firstly, our inside classrooms with desks and chairs, feel removed from daily life even today.  Little time is spent outdoors.  Our lessons, seem removed from reality, and are mostly 'pretend or simulated'.  The way we treat our students is often by dictating respect.  Much of our learning is individual as opposed to collaborative.  Children are required to learn literacy sometimes, before 4 years old through worksheets, and teacher directed lessons. 

I also imagine that children I read about in this book, held in such high esteem as being given the opportunity to self-direct.  Deciding what to do and when within an established routine, being encouraged by a multi-aged community, learning through watching, trial and error.  Modern society has achieved systems which are the opposite of early Maori. 

Maybe that is why as an Educator I look for many ways to define success.  Modern learning environments are certainly enabling this.  I have noticed how working collaboratively helps Kaiako have multiple viewpoints of Ākonga.  At my Kura, at the moment for example, we have 100, 5 to 7 year olds and 6 Kaiako.  Working together has enabled us to see our environment as one whole.  The Ākonga are able to move within the whole space, even outside whenever they want, except for a few times a day, and even within that, Kaiako have designed learning around them.  From the moment Akonga arrive, we are working successfully.  Strengths are being encouraged.   We have a kitchen where food is available and able to be made at any time.  The creative dramatic space encourages Ākonga to play imaginative games.  The construction space invites building with many different materials and then there is an art and craft space.  My favourite the outside, is welcoming, safe, a place where anything is possible.  Sandpits, for digging, frames for building, carpentry, bars for climbing, water, a garden, book nooks and pens for designing.  Each space has a dedicated educator who has lovingly, purposefully set up a space where Akonga can learn to direct themselves.  From the moment Akonga arrive, they are free to decide what they will do, within our established routine we call school.

I was thinking the other day that this self-direction isn't just one-sided.  The adult, partners with the child and a type of tug of war, tension occurs between them.  I think this tension is what relationships are made of.  Tension is perhaps what makes freedom possible.  It is positive tension.  The adult keeps out of the child's way unless needed or unless they think they can offer something helpful to the learning.  This 'dance', is one of the most difficult skills required of a teacher in our learning space.

I imagine, this 'dance', is not too different to early Maori life, where the environment already set in real life, had adults and young people of all ages, partnering with the children to help them learn.  Yes, the context is very different, but the skills required of the adult are similar.  I like to imagine, Mum, stepping in to help her tama iti light the fire, talking to him about what she is doing and why.  I imagine, that the children listened to everything going on around them and soaked it up and tried it out themselves through play.   Educationalist  Kimberley Crisp describes this as 'downloading'. 
Successful, natural learning.  Everyone knew how treasured they were and what they were good at.

How are you defining success within your teaching?  How does this affect which Ākonga are successful?

Makereti, (1938). The Old-Time Maori. Wellington. New Zealand, New Womans Press.

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.

If they're playing they're not learning!

"If they're playing, they're not learning" is what you might really think if you come and visit our school.  Actually, it ...