A Letter To Parents

Hip hip hooray – the holidays are nearly here!

I wanted to share my end of year letter to parents with you all. It has been a year of change, growth and wonderful progress. Our children have matured and developed and our staff have done so with them. I have to say that this has been my favourite year of teaching yet. Exploring new paths and finding overwhelming success has been liberating, stressful (I definitely have a few more grey hairs to show for it), nerve wracking and simply amazing.

Thank you all for your amazing comments and support.Little did I know at the start of this year, where this blog would lead. Seeing readers from around the world come together to share in everything early years has been truly humbling. Keep an eye out for my regular contributions to Teach Early Years magazine – my first article on facing the fear and embracing child-led learning is out now (“Be BRAVE try it!”)

I will continue to post throughout the summer and update you with our very exciting KS1 journey.  Have a very happy summer, relax, take a break and enjoy the benefits of the best job in the world!

 

“Dear Parents and Carers

I would like to thank you for what has been a very successful Reception year. The children have thrived and each has made such fantastic individual progress. Thank you for being so supportive of everything that we do. I am very proud to say that we deliver a cutting-edge style of teaching and learning and we are lucky to be one of a handful of schools across the country using the latest research into childhood education and development to drive everything we do. Our methods of teaching are the same as those currently forming the basis of studies at the universities of Cambridge, Harvard and MIT, so we really are pioneers! I am thrilled to say this ethos will continue to underpin teaching and learning as your children move into Form 1 and 2 – more will be revealed in September! For now, I hope your children leave Reception having built greater self-confidence, critical thinking and a passion for learning.

If you would like to work with your child over the summer, my greatest advice would be to play with them, explore with them and to treasure the summer holiday with your 5 year old – they are only this young once! As we do in school; follow their passions, encouraging reading, writing and number practice, when they are inclined to do so and in relation to their interests.

Thank you again for all your help and support this year. I look forward to seeing you all in September.”

 

 

 

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Child-led learning in Key Stage 1

**It’s been a long few weeks of quiet reflection on the blog (hands up – who else has been writing reports?!), but exciting developments continue to take place in the ‘EYWL’ world! I am excited to announce that I have accepted a position writing for Teach Early Years magazine on all things early years. My articles will have a specific Reception focus and I am already brimming with ideas! Look out for my first article on overcoming the barriers to creating a child-led environment in the next issue…**

Today I wanted to talk about another exciting development: child-led learning after the early years. After the success of our exciting journey, our school is now joining us on the road to educational nirvana!

We all know that children learn best when they are engaged, when they can play and when they enjoy what they are doing. Why is it then, that as soon as children make the transition to key stage 1 (and sadly often before), the word play, the very notion of play is an abhorrence?

In a word? Results. 

Teachers all over the world are terrified that if they let children play, they will not learn enough to make satisfactory progress. There is so much pressure on us all to provide evidence that our children are progressing that it often seems so much easier to create situations in which we know (or think) that children will acquire the correct skills for their age and stage. I know that my practice has definitely been less than perfect. When I look back at some of the ways in which I used to teach, I cringe.

It doesn’t have to be this way though. Not in the early years, not in Reception and not in the rest of the school. Settings all over the country are proving that child-led learning, planning in the moment and generally letting go (!) are leading to outstanding results (and relaxed teachers) – doesn’t it make sense that this continues as the children grow?

In our school, we are very excited to be extending our child-led learning and Reggio inspired philosophies into Key Stage 1 from September. Our Year 1 class is already more play-based than many. We have continuous provision, although the environment is screaming out to be used to its full potential. We still have subject lessons though, largely imposed on us by the expectations of the school, and as I imagine is the same in many classrooms, operate a system of adult-led groups on rotation with independent play.

Will it be the same next year? Not on your nellie.

Our year 1 class will be child-led, following the same model for learning as both the Nursery and Reception. For our plan to succeed, strong interactions between adults and children are vital. Modelling language and key skills through play and conversation will ensure that children continue to extend their learning and exploration. As in our EYFS, we will respond to interests with provocations (enhanced provision), enabling children to build projects around these. We know that the environment is incredibly important and ours has been though about very carefully to ensure that children can access whatever they may need. This summer, however, we will be critically assessing the classroom and fine tuning our continuous provision to make it even better.

As for results and evidence? Observations and our talented teacher’s knowledge are all we need. We are expecting an inspection next year and we will stand by our convictions. It may be scary but we will remember that we know what is best for our children and our school.

I understand that this may be a terrifying, or even ridiculous concept to many, but it will work. Those year 1 children are going to make progress, excellent, outstanding progress.

I have complete faith.

Evidencing Enjoyment: Showing Progress in the Early Years.

We have had a wonderful few weeks of exploration in our Reception classroom. There is just something about hazy summer days that makes learning together so much more enjoyable.

Something I have not not enjoyed seeing is the increasing number of posts on social media surrounding evidencing the end of the EYFS. Many teachers seem panicked at the thought that their children will not achieve the outcomes expected at the end of the foundation stage. Many are feeling the pressure from higher up to prove that their children have made sufficient progress, or may even feel they have something to prove to the Year 1 teacher. It is depressing enough that the government seem to have lost faith and trust in the teaching profession, but it seems that some teachers may feel that they can’t trust their own judgement when it comes to assessing their pupils’ progress.

As a teacher in a wholly child-led environment, I can understand the feeling of worry that descends when you wonder how you will evidence the all the learning that has taken place. What if you don’t have enough photos for each child in every area? What if (heaven forbid) you don’t have enough pieces of writing to show that they are have achieved the early learning goal?! This is where you come into your own as a practitioner. It is you that knows each and every one of your children better than anyone else. You that has played, explored and learnt alongside each furrowed brow and curious touch. The evidence is inside you!
Yes, of course it is important to be able to show a certain degree of physical evidence for each child, but just because you didn’t capture each and every time a single child progressed or achieved, it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

There seems to be so much emphasis on goals and attainment for our youngest children and it is spiraling worryingly out of control. Since when was it acceptable to expect the majority of children in Reception to independently write sentences using finger spaces, full stops, phonetic spelling and a large amount of correctly spelled high frequency words? If they can – what a brilliant accomplishment. If they can’t…they are 5 years old.

 

There is so much more to childhood and learning that the ability to find one more or less than a number or write a sentence on a page. I am not denying for a second that they are important skills but they are such a small part of a much larger picture. We are scaring each other into thinking that our children’s progress isn’t good enough and it has to stop. If we are pushing our five year olds to jump through our (or Ms Morgan’s) ever multiplying hoops, when will they have time to play, relax and just be children?

13226818_10209354406357174_4419579626453639941_n.jpgIf If If you haven’t done so already, please SIGN THE PETITION to extend the EYFS to age 7 and protect our children’s right to play.

 

Recording evidence in a child-led setting:

  • Use the focus children system to ensure each child in the class is observed for a full week at least once per half term.
  • Record any moments where a child (not necessarily the focus child) does something for the first time.
  • We use an interactive app – 2simple for us, but there are many on the market, to record observations. We have found that it is so much quicker and easier than the ‘old fashioned’ system of post-its and print outs.
  • Don’t worry if you haven’t got a certain amount of evidence for each child. It should be your professional judgement that matters most.
  • Remember that children will naturally learn through play. We don’t have to orchestrate false situations to check they are where they should be. Watch and you will see!

 

Find out more about Keeping Early Years Unique at https://www.facebook.com/groups/548117901996416/ 

A Classroom Without Colour?

In January of this year, I decided to change the way we create displays in our Nursery and Reception classes. For a while I had been thinking about our learning spaces and the influence – positive or negative – they had on each of our children. There is abundant research (Dudek, 2012; Mayesky, 2009; Piotrowski & Rogers, 2007 (to name a few)) on the impact of overly bright, colourful and ‘dangly’ classroom displays on children, and it can make for surprising reading. Words like ‘overbearing’, ‘distracting’ and ‘dominating’ appear frequently. It certainly makes you re-assess practically every classroom that you have probably ever stepped foot in.

When you walk into a modern classroom, you will, in all likelihood, be greeted by displays backed with vibrant, cheery colours. This is how I used to back all my displays and I thought they looked fantastic (they did!) It was last year, however, that I started to favour more muted colours – soft pastels and neutrals and found that it had a calming effect on the room and the children. Then, this year, I decided to ditch the display colour altogether.

Cue audible gasps.

It didn’t mean getting rid of the colour in our classroom though – far from it. Neutral backdrops provide a wonderful canvas to showcase all we have to offer (Mayesky, 2009). Now, instead of the backing paper shouting from the walls, it is the children’s work that cries ‘look at me!’

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The response I have had from the parents and other staff has been brilliant. We have had so many more positive comments on children’s work than ever before. Why? You can see it, that’s why!

So often I found myself spending hours putting up an incredible display and much to my disappointment, my pupils hardly blinked an eye at my efforts. The displays weren’t meaningful to them – some of them probably couldn’t even spot their own work in among my own decoration. Instead of saving enough work to create a display or putting up a class set of almost identical work, I now create my displays as our projects develop. As the children create work, it goes up on the display the same day (they often pin it on themselves). We invite parents and carers into the classroom at the end of each day to show them our developing projects and the children take such pride in showing their work.

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A  current working display on plants. This is added to regularly, as children continue their learning journey.

Project work displays show a mixture of photographs, work by children and narrative accounts of conversations or observations:

The beauty of having neutral backing is that it rarely needs changing – hurrah! We use a mixture of sand coloured backing paper (good as it doesn’t fade) and parcel paper. The use of hessian or neutral felt boards would be ideal as the pin marks are still evident with paper and can cause a problem when changing the boards on a semi-regular basis. When we do change our displays, we use the work to create project books. This provides evidence for those ever-looming inspections, but more than that, is a lovely way for the children to look back and think about what they have learnt. Ours love to flip through, chat about photographs and read each other’s writing.

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Our displays show the current journeys and interests of each of our children and are a great teaching tool for parents too. It is so easy to see the skills children are developing through leading their own learning.

Some may think it looks boring but the displays are meaningful and do not overpower the classroom, allowing the children to focus and achieve much higher levels of engagement in their work. Isn’t that what all learning spaces should do? For us, it has worked wonderfully. I can feel the spirit and presence of each child in my class every time I step into the room – their work shines.

Our classroom now feels calm and safe. It is certainly a place that I love to be.

 

How we create our wall displays:

  • Use a neutral, inoffensive backing paper. Hessian looks great too, as long as it is pulled tight.
  • Use only black or white borders.
  • If you are mounting pieces to display, only ever use black paper (or white if the work is on black). This means that, like in an art gallery, all the work stands out from the wall.

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Creating an inspirational learning space

It has been three weeks since the start of the summer term and three weeks since we introduced the newly renovated learning space to our children and their families. I am thrilled that the response has been overwhelmingly positive and it is a joy to see the environment come alive with the addition of curious little hands. After just one day, our nursery teacher commented how calm and engaged the children seemed. It was as if they knew, almost instinctively, that this was a space to become engrossed in learning.

After lots of questions and remarks, I wanted to take the time to document how I created our natural environment and my thought processes behind each area. My influence lies heavily in the wonderful centres of learning in Reggio Emilia and R.E. inspired settings back home, in addition to all those ideas formed over the years in both EYFS and KS1 (and some serious late-night pinterest sessions). I have adapted ideas I collated through research to suit our space, budget and children. There is, by no means, just one way to set up the ‘perfect’ classroom, just as the definition of perfect classroom will mean so many different things to so many people. I hope the way in which I have set up our space, may provide some inspiration for any practitioners making changes to theirs:

Neutral colours on the walls and a wood-effect flooring create a perfect backdrop for natural resources. The decor doesn’t shout, because it is not what the children should be focusing on. Our displays (the ones that we have put up so far) reflect children’s learning journeys, projects and their spontaneous work. I will post more about our move away from brightly coloured ‘dangly’ displays at a later date.

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Plants help to bring the outdoor environment inside. They provide interest to the space and the children, as well as being vital sources of oxygen of course. Looking after our plants gives children a sense of responsibility and I think it adds a homely element to the space.

Lamps and lights also provide a feeling of warmth and familiarity. Light play is especially important in Reggio Emilia settings, appealing to children’s natural curiosity and providing the basis for an endless amount of learning opportunities in nearly every area of learning. I chose the lamp below with our 2 year olds in mind. You can touch it without burning your hands and the wicker texture creates fun patterns on the wall as well as feeling interesting!

The resources we chose for each area were thought out very carefully. (I will give you a more in-depth look into how we resource each area of our continuous provision soon.) Natural (there’s that word again!) resources help children to bring elements of the outdoors into their play. These resources are so open-ended and offer countless possibilities for use.

Storing items in boxes and baskets that ensure they are easily visible is essential to creating an easily accessible environment. There is only one ‘teacher trolley’ in our classroom that is off limits and the children know that they can use the rest of resources freely and without guidance. All our learning in the setting is child-led and it is vital for us that children can feel free to fuel their interests and projects without asking an adult for help. We chose baskets to enhance the natural feel of the space and create visual interest, while clear plastic boxes are practical, as resources are easily visible.

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Our wooden furniture is sourced from a variety of places including Community Playthings and TTS. We chose solid wood pieces that would stand the test of time. I much prefer these to our old brightly coloured tables. Why should a table take a child’s attention away from what they are doing? Natural tables add to the calming effect of the classroom and do not draw attention away from provocations or children’s projects.

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Please feel free to add any comments or ask any questions. I would love to hear your opinions!

 

Reggio-Emilia Inspired Nursery Transformation

I said in my last post that I had never been so excited to spend my holidays in school and I can tell you that the anticipation was not under-estimated! In the week before our new furniture arrived I was plagued with nightmares about ill-fitting chairs or lost resources and spent many a dark, quiet hour going over every detail in my mind.

On Wednesday we received our order from Community Playthings. Over fifty boxes sat on the playground (thankfully without rain in sight), ready to be unpacked. We had also ordered furniture from TTS and resources from Early Excellence, TTS, Cosy Direct and Hope Education and after receiving these boxes and storing them away for weeks, I couldn’t wait to unpack and play! After a gruelling three days, our nursery was transformed and I am so happy with the result. I hope that we have acheived a perfect balance for our children: a natural Reggio-inspired environment that encourages child-led learning and endless opportunities. If you are anything like me, you love a good transformation picture so I won’t keep you in suspense any longer.

I will do a detailed post next week on our planning process, the resources and furniture and how we created our natural space.

Here are the before and after shots. Enjoy!

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If you would like any more information on how we created our space, then please don’t hesitate to drop me a line in the comments below!

Creating a Natural Learning Environment

The walls are stripped, the paintbrushes are out and the radio is on. It can only mean one thing…the holidays are here and our renovations are underway!

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As I speak, there is a workman downstairs working his magic on our floors. We have chosen to lay a wood-effect vinyl throughout, getting rid of the previous combination of Flotex carpet and hard, old-style vinyl. Having one floor covering not only creates a harmonious and natural-looking environment but eliminates the zoned areas of the classroom. This means that the space is flexible and can be changed and adapted each year to suit new intakes or new interests (Carpenter, 2013). The vinyl element means that the floor is not too cold and has a slight cushion for those little legs.

Our walls have been painted in an off white (Dulux trade paint in Linen White). This is far removed from the bright yellow paint that used to adorn the walls and is intended to create a calm and relaxed atmosphere. It is said that colour on the walls distracts the children from their chosen task and does not allow them to become as easily engrossed in their play (Community Playthings, 2015).

Everything in our new classroom is to be created with the children in mind. It is their space, and there should be nothing within it that is superfluous or distracting. We want to create an aesthetically beautiful space and one that can truly act as the ‘third teacher’.

Our before and after so far:

Our new furniture arrives from Community Playthings H.Q. next week and I couldn’t be more excited to spend the final days of my holiday in school (yes, you are permitted to roll your eyes at me). Stay tuned for more pictures as we revitalise our Nursery space!