How I support schematic play at home.

As I sit down to drink my coffee and write up this post my two-year-old daughter is pushing a dolls pram filled with onions around the kitchen. Meanwhile my eldest daughter at 3.5 year old is carrying an armful of spice jars leaving a trail of yellow powdery turmeric in her wake. She adds them one at a time to a long line of spice jars before going back for more. 

I imagine you too have observed these repeated and coherent patterns of behavior or ‘forms of thought’ that are known as ‘schemas’ or what I like to refer to as ‘play urges’. For my youngest it is transportation, for my eldest it is transportation and positioning. There is a whole list of schema’s that you might have observed in your childs play: trajectory, containment, enclosure, enveloping and rotation. These very repetitive patterns of behaviour can often seem quite strange, pointless and sometimes massively inconvenient, but, whilst wiping up the trail of yellow and tripping over another onion in the process, I remind myself how important they are for our children’s development.

Knowing about schemas helps us understand and make sense of our children’s behavior and it also helps us see the value in providing our children with opportunities for uninterrupted, child-led play with open-ended toys or materials.

Van Wijk et al (2006) came up with this helpful description of schema’s

“Children’s schemas seem to make them alert to certain events and properties of objects in their environment. Schemas seem to be part of their motivation for learning, their insatiable desire to move, represent, discuss, question and find out. Children seem to take from the environment the elements that make sense to them and that match their schemas at the time” (van Wijk et al. 2006)

As an Early Years educator and a parent I spend time observing children in ‘child-led’ play (this is play that is self-initiated and self-directed compared to play which is introduced by the adult). By allowing children to choose what and how they play we begin to see these schemas unfold and we are able to better design an environment that allows children to express and explore these natural play urges.

So how do I support my children’s schema development at home?

Make time for uninterrupted, child-led play – children need the time and space to express and explore their play urges. I am careful not to over schedule them with structured activities. Young children need opportunities everyday to become engaged and engrossed in play of their own choosing. I try to make sure that we spend part of our day at home with no agenda so that the girls are free to just play.

Observe our children in ‘child-led’ play – child-led play is when they are most likely to express these play urges.  I often see lots of different activities that seem to have nothing in common, for example A might play on the slide, she might then head off to play with the vehicles, they might then climb up on to the sofa and practice jumping off. When we look a little closer at these activities and apply our knowledge of schemas we notice that all of these activities involve trajectory, which refers to all forms of movement taking place in all directions either with objects or with their own bodies. Once we know that our child is working on a particular schema we can provide more opportunities for them to explore it. For example I might leave a piece of cardboard and a basket of cars out for them to roll the cars down or look for more opportunities to explore trajectories with their whole bodies such as soft play or a playground with climbing equipment.

Create a ‘yes’ space where play can take place – I believe that if we keep interrupting play because we are concerned about safety then children will become discouraged. Everyone’s yes space looks different and will evolve as our children get older. It might be a whole room with a safety gate and plug sockets covered and a soft mat or it might be a large playpen. As long as its safe and allows children to explore without interference from us then that’s fine.

Realise there is no right or wrong way to play with toys and materials – another way in which I think we tend to interrupt and interfere with children’s play is when we hold preconceived ideas about how something should be played with or used. As long as the way the my child has chosen to play with something isn’t putting them or another child in danger, it is ok with me. In fact it’s better than ok, it’s creative and its their way of expressing and exploring their play urges.

Provide open-ended toys and materials -We use a lot of loose parts in play at home. These are everyday objects, found or bought that can be used in many different ways or represent many different things. They provide a great opportunity for children to work on their schemas. For example some corks are transported (carried from one place to another), contained (placed inside boxes or bags), enveloped (wrapped up in silk scarves) or lined up (positioning).

Look for inspiration based on schemas and not your child’s age – There are so many beautiful Instagram and Pinterest posts labeled as ‘activities for 16 month olds’ but I have noticed that, when replicated with my own 16 month old they showed next to no interest or they didn’t use the materials in the intended way. This is likely because my child and the child the original activity was intended for are not working on the same schemas. Rather than looking at inspiration categorized by age, looking at inspiration based on schemas can be very helpful.

Ultimately, I believe we need to hold an image of the child as competent and capable protagonists in their own learning, with an innate ability and drive to learn. We need to trust that their play is not meaningless and respect their play choices. When play is always parent/adult-directed we are aren’t allowing our children the opportunity to play in ways that meet their current developmental needs. By sitting back and observing their play unfold we can identify their interests and play urges and better support them.

Van wijk. N., Simmonds, A., Cubey, P., and Mitchell, L., with Bulman, R., Wilson, M., and Wilton playcentre members (2006) Transforming learning at Wilton Playcentre, New Zealand Council for Educational Research

Painting beyond paper: A Reggio-inspired provocation with tempera paint and plexiglass

This is like the red sun when it’s darker. When it is night time the red sun comes out and it’s just like the red sun.

Althea, 3.5

We use tempera paint a lot, on paper, but mostly on bodies. After a ‘learning episode’ where A painted her little sisters hair red (and the cat 😬), I decided we needed some redirection and so we revisited painting on plexiglass. You can see our first encounter here

I simply taped the plexiglass to our gate and provided sauce bottles with blue and red tempera paint in, a muffin tin for mixing and various paint brushes.

We noticed how smoothly the paint went on to the plexiglass, how visible the brush strokes were and how the light still came through patches of paint. We layered paint to make it more opaque.

We left the painting up and in the morning we noticed how the rain had washed most of it away.

It has lines. The rain has made lines.

Althea 3.5

This was a wonderful opportunity to extend on our conversations about drips and drops.

We then took a bucket of soapy water, a spray bottle and sponge and washed the rest away.

I purchased this plexiglass on its own but you can repurpose the plastic from the inside of picture frames (and then use the empty frames as loose parts).

This is a provocation Pam Oken-wright shares in her wonderful book “Mommy, they’re taking away my imagination”. You can join the book club here (for the price of coffee and cake with a friend). It opens up on the 1st November and runs for 8 weeks.

Children as researchers and theory builders: A Reggio-inspired perspective

Whilst hanging out the washing together, my eldest, hanging small items on the hanging pegs, noticed that the hanger was tipping to one side

A: “Why is it tipping?”

Me: “Hmm… it is tipping”

A: “It’s going this way”

Me: “I wonder why it’s tipping”

A: “Because of the pants”

Me: “The pants are on that side”

I pause and wait a few moments

Me: “what happens if you put pants on the otherside”

A takes a pair of pants and pegs it on the other side of the hanger and then repeats the process

Me: “Whats happened”

A: “It’s not tipping”

Me: “It does seem to be balanced now. I wonder why that is?”

A: “Because I put them on the blue pegs”

Me: “So it doesn’t tip anymore”

A: “No because the pegs are blue”

“Learning is about being a researcher. The young child is a builder of theories. The young child learns by communicating and expressing their concepts and theories and by listening to others” 

Carlina Rinaldi

This is an example of my daughter noticing and trying to make sense of the world around her. She investigates what happens when she adds more pants to the hanger, she observes the effect and she comes up with a theory as to why the hanger was no longer tipping to one side. She tells me that it’s because the pegs are blue.

Obviously as adults we know that the reason isn’t down to the colour of the pegs, we understand the concept of weight and balance but A is still figuring it all out. I could have given her the answer “I think it’s because you’ve now got pants on both side and now it’s balanced” but I didn’t.

Bruner believed that the credibility of these theories is not important, what is important is the process that leads to construction of the theory. And so, this time, I let the mystery be. She now has a theory, a schema if you like, in place that she will be able to revisit and test. Sometimes it might be necessary to steer them in a different direction but in this instance I decided it wasn’t.

My role was to listen

“One of the foundations of our work is the careful, respectful, tender ‘listening’ with solidarity to children’s strategies and ways of thinking.”

Vea Vecchi

So I offered her ideas and questions but did not providing her with the answer this time. I felt that in that moment telling her that her theory was wrong wouldn’t be tender or respectful. She had done the important work, it didn’t matter that the theory wasn’t 100% correct. My role now is to reflect on how I might provide opportunities or a provocation that will help A explore this concept further.

Next time we happen to be hanging out the washing together I will probably say something like “Remember yesterday when it was tipping to one side…” and we will go from there. That might be all we need to build on her current theory…

I will be sure to let you know.

Co-constructing Reggio-inspired invitation’s and provocations at home with young children.

What are invitations and provocations?

Reggio-inspired invitations and provocations come from our children’s ideas and theories, they are our response to what we have noticed in our children’s child-led play and inquiries. Although they are intentional they are still open-ended in nature with no prescribed outcome. They are an invitation to explore, discover, investigate and create. They aim to provoke thought, inquiry, discussion, creativity and new ideas.

In the classroom environment I would set up provocations before children entered with the aim of sparking interest and wonder. At home it is a little different, it is rare that I set up an invitation or provocation the night before, it’s not that there’s anything wrong with setting up an invitation in advance, it’s just that at home I am not that organised. So more often than not my children are present as I pull out materials, whats more is they actually get involved in setting up these spaces for exploration and discovery.

The day before I had noticed that both girls were interested in positioning objects and making enclosures out of them. They had worked together to empty our entire pantry of tins and had lined them up wall to wall. My eldest had discovered that she could pull the kitchen cabinets open so that they closed together to make an enclosure. So I decided to set up a provocation that worked with the idea of positioning and enclosure on a smaller scale. I thought we might branch off into patterning but I had no real agenda and of course it didn’t.

My youngest watched me as I pulled out the white sheet and lay it out in our yard, she responded with a ‘wooow!’, apparently, being there at the conception of a provocation is equally if not more exciting than discovering the finished product. My eldest joined me in pulling the boxes of loose parts out, choosing what she would like to add and enjoying the sense of agency and independence it gave her, to be involved, to be collaborating.

She took her animals over to the frames I had laid out and used them as an enclosure, lining them up inside. There commenced play that evolved and incorporated other pieces.

The set up of this provocation led me to reflect on my image of the child as competent and capable and how I could perhapbs be involving my children more in the design of their spaces in the home, trusting them to make decisions and to be able to represent their ideas through the materials I provide access to. I never would have added the animals, it didn’t fit with my own ideas and agenda, but together we were able to co-construct a space that built on existing interests but also showed me new ones I hadn’t yet had the opportunity to notice.

How do you set up spaces for your children at home? How much involvement do they have?

How can we make water play and inquiry with young children more sustainable?Thinking with drips and drops

Because we live in such a hot and humid climate, water play is a huge part of our days at home. We usually fill the water tray up in the morning and in the afternoon we sometimes fill up our paddling pool. The girls get so much out of it but the amount of water we use makes me extremely uncomfortable. We try and use the left over water for watering plants and washing down the yard but I feel we waste so much and I have noticed the girls will ask for more and more.

So I have been reflecting on how we might be able to make our use of water in play and inquiry more sustainable and how I can help my children understand the importance of preserving water.

Collecting drips and drops

We used containers in a range of sizes and materials to collect rain water. We talked about which one might fill up first? We used the water collected in the different containers to see if we could fill up one container to the top. We moved the containers around to see if it made any difference to how much water collected in them. A held them high to see if it resulted in more water (exploring a hypothesis that closer must mean more). As she held the metal container up she noticed the ting ting ting sound it made, she made the sound herself. When she used the plastic container she noticed the different plunk plunk plunk sound the rain made when it hit this material.

“Mummy, when I hold this up it makes a different sound.”

recognising that taking the bucket off the floor changed the sound.

Making drips and drops

We used some small syringes alongside milk bottle and jar lids to explore the power just a few drops of water can have. We noticed we didn’t need lots of water to fill then up.

Smaller containers for drips and drops

Rather than using large containers we used yoghurt pots, an empty vitamin bottle and a muffin tin as receptacles for water contained in source bottles.

More ideas for preserving water

Using funnels to stop water spillage when pouring

Using spray bottles

Using pipettes

Using drips and drops on different materials (plastic, glass, wood, paper) to explore size, shape, movement and how materials change when water is added.

Set up a permanent rain barrel (unfortunately not an option for us in Singapore with mosquitoes ).

Find natural sources of water. Next week we will head down to the beach with a variety of containers and some tarpe to explore how we might collect water from a natural source.

How do you feel about your water consumption? How can we make our practice with water either in the home or in an educational context more sustainable?

Reggio-inspired Documentation: How we make learning visible at home

The way we have documented and displayed artwork has evolved a lot over the last 3 years and will continue to do so as we find what works for us and our space. Initially we simply taped artwork to the wall above A’s little table. We rotated these out when new pieces were created.

Artwork secured with washi tape alongside DIY artist cards

We eventually decided that a designated “playroom” wasn’t working for us and integrated toys and materials into the rest of the home. This meant that a lot of art exploration happened in our dining room so we attached a piece of string to hang art work as it happened.

Art displayed on a piece of string with wooden pegs

About 6 months ago we decided to make an official gallery wall. We had a stack of artwork that we keep in a large tray in the cupboard and as a family we went through and chose some to put in frames. This was a great opportunity for my eldest to revisit and reflect on her work through dialogue with us. As of yet we haven’t rotated these pictures out, but we continue to collect new pieces in the tray and we will repeat this process of revisiting and reflecting when we feel there is something new to add (i.e. working with a new art medium or working with them in a different way) or if A or O ask to display a particular piece she is proud of.

Artwork framed and hung up in our dining area

Pieces that do not make it on to the wall are either added to our Floorbook or scanned and kept in digital format and the original is reused or recycled.

Documenting our first encounter with oil pastels in our Floorbook

I really do try and make this into a process that involves reflection and agency, but I am also only human and sometimes work that has been discarded and uncared for makes it into the recycling bin without discussion.

Artwork scanned into Ipad and used in a free paint app to explore digital languages

We use a free scanner app on our Ipad to create a digital version of the art but it is my ambition this year to set up our old laptop with a document scanner like this one so that it is a process of documentation my eldest can engage in with more independence.

You can learn more about Claire Wardens Floorbook approach here, she runs an introductory course on how to use Floorbook’s with young children and she also has a wonderful book.

How do you make learning visible at home?

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Inquiry-based tempera paint provocation for young children: All the shades of blue

“Encounters between children and materials are generally extremely rich in suggestive qualities, memories and meanings, without much intervention on part of the teacher”

Vea Vecchi

When I first introduce liquid tempera paint to young children I usually offer just one or two primary colours and white. If I provide all three primary colours we very quickly arrive at brown and brown always feels very final, its rather hard to undo.

Offering blue, white and black and a 12 case muffin tin and collection of brushes is my all time favourite tempera paint provocation, it never gets old. I feel like blue holds so much potential, where as red will eventually resign itself to pink and yellow gradually becomes invisible against the backdrop of white. Blue is a colour that has many identities, its the bright hue of a summer morning, the dark almost black blue of late evening, the grey-blue that threatens rain or the deep blue of an impenetrable ocean.

Mummy, it’s blue. it’s the sea. the wind blows the boats. its the ocean. whoosh whoosh.

Althea, aged 3.5 as she paints shades of blue on to her paper

Blue mixes beautifully on the palette and the page and it sparks the imagination in a way that, I believe, no other colour does.

This week I added some reusable sauce bottles to our atelier so that I can decanter small quantities of paint into them for independent colour mixing.

Althea was able to experiment with different quantities of blue, white and black to alter the shade.

Reflecting on our Reggio-inspired, Inquiry-based Project approach at home

“[If we] stand aside for a while and leave room for learning, observe carefully what children do, and then if you have understood well, perhaps teaching will be different from before” 

Malaguzzi, 1998

Project based learning is one of the principles and pedagogical practices of the Reggio Emilia Approach feel very different to the ‘projects’ I did as a child at school and those that I see taking place in primary classrooms. Instead of being mapped out in a standardised curriculum, projects in a Reggio Emilia classroom or Reggio-inspired environment are what we might refer to as a ‘projected curriculum’. These projects emerge from our reflections and interpretations of observed and documented learning experiences.

So what does this look like at home?

I will admit it feels different. I think this is because childrens learning experiences in the home span an entire day, from the moment they wake until the moment they rest their heads to sleep at night, and sometimes even after that. A few days ago, long past bedtime I heard a little voice call from the bedroom, when I went in Althea pointed out of the window at the sunsetting in a red sky. She described the colours, asked questions that we pondered answers to and she reminded me of the sunsets we watched on the beach in Bali nearly a year ago. As long as there is curiosity and questions there is learning.

There is so much more to observe and document in the home. Our attention is focused on a much smaller number of children, sometimes just one compared to a classroom environment and so I must be more selective when considering which ideas are worthy of further inquiry. Not everything can be a project.

So how do I decide what opportunities to pursue?

In a sense I don’t. The children decide. Our days are filled with ‘episodes of learning’, moments of intrigue, inquiry and questions. I answer questions with more questions and we co-construct understanding and knowledge in an attempt to answer them. The key I believe is not to answer the question, it’s to formulate more questions. This is something I am always working on, because as an adult I often know the answers (although on plenty of occasions I do not) and I believe sometimes an answer is necessary. Can everything be discovered? I would be inclined to say no. But deciding which questions to provide answers to is not something I find easy. Sometimes I give an answer and realise I have ended what could have been an interesting opportunity for inquiry and discovery. We are all learning.

What questions do I ask?

I try to answer questions with open-ended questions. Something that cannot be answered with a yes or no. I try and steer clear of questions with very specific right or wrong answers. This isn’t a test. So I find myself saying “I wonder…” quite a lot. So much so that I hear it from the little voices around me. I have noticed recently that Althea will rarely ask “What is that?” or “Why does it do that” but instead will, in a curious tone ask herself out loud…

“I wonder why that is doing that…”

Althea, 3.5 years

Whilst there is nothing wrong with asking us what and why questions, in fact there is everything right with it, this particular form of questioning suggests to me that perhaps she feels that it is within her power to find the answers. Part of me wonders if maybe she knows on some level that the value is in the curiosity and not in the answer. The answer can of course be of great importance, but we won’t find it without curiosity.

So when does an episode of learning become a project?

Usually I notice that our interest has developed into a project when we are half way through or even close to the end. We have followed a particular line of inquiry and it has spanned days or weeks or even months. We are still asking questions and I am still providing the materials and provocations that further these inquiries. The beautiful thing is there is no distinct end to a project, it usually just branches off into another line of inquiry, sometimes just an episode of learning but sometimes a new project entirely. Only when I look back and reflect on the journey can I identify the twists and turns we have taken along the way. This is why I document, to reflect and in turn to respond. With more questions.

You can view our Light, Shadow and Reflection Project here

Exploring neighbourhood nature with young children: Clay flower prints

Today on our nature walk we collected fists full of wild flowers growing on patches of grass around our neighbourhood and brought them home to make prints.

I pulled out a small block of grey air dry clay and a mat. Althea found the circle cookie cutters and the rolling pins. Ottilie busied herself with a tub of crackers.

We rolled the clay in to smooth balls before rolling it out to about 0.5cm thick. This took a few tries. We discovered that if it were rolled too thin then it was hard to peel up afterwards, too thick and we would run out of clay.

We then used the cookie cutters to make circles, pressing them down hard to slice all the way through, then we peeled away the edges before gently prodding it out. Too much pressure and our fingers would pierce through. Sometimes we could push the clay back together, smoothing out the joins and creases. Sometimes with a ‘hmph’ we would have to start over: a ball rolled smooth between two hands; then rolled flat, but not too flat; the cookie cutter pressed down; excess clay peeled away; finally, a circle.

We then chose our flowers, Althea preferring the simplest, a single stem. After watching me lie the flower on the surface of the clay she does the same, gently pressing it down with her fingers so the clay cradles it in place. The next step takes some trial and error, too much pressure and the clay looses its round shape, it flattens and sticks and swallows up the flower. We dig it out with our fingers and try again.

When she peels it away theres an imprint, if we look closely we can see the detail of the tiny petals pressed into the clay.

We carefully peel it up and place it to one side to dry. And then we start over.

The Atelier of Light, Shadow & Reflection: documenting our reggio-inspired, inquiry-based exploration Pt 1.

“Learning is about being a researcher. The young child is a builder of theories. The young child learns by communicating and expressing their concepts and theories and by listening to others”

Carlina Rinaldi

This ‘episode of learning’ started in September 2019 (Althea, 2yrs 8m, Ottilie 11m) aged and lasted until the beginning of October when its twists and turns took it in a different direction entirely. But for a number of weeks we immersed ourselves in the child-initiated exploration of light, shadow and reflection.

This encounter took place during a period where the haze here in Singapore reached unhealthy levels and we were spending our days inside the house. Althea had become quite preoccupied with the concept of shadows. In the daytime she would point them out gleefully, referring to them as ‘reflections’, transferring her understanding of mirror reflections to the discovery of her own shadowy silhouette. However, at night she was unnerved by the presence of the shadows cast on the walls of her room. So I decided to use this as an opportunity to build on this interest by setting up a provocation in our atelier.

During nap time a cleared a large space and set up this simple provocation using an adjustable desk lamp and a mirror square fixed to a wooden board. I set out plastic transparent colour shapes and metal cookie cutters.

Althea initially started her exploration by placing the coloured shapes on the mirrored surface and noticing their projection on the wall in front. When she approached the wall to inspect the coloured shapes she discovered her own shadow standing tall above her.

She spent some time watching Ottilie’s movements cast onto the white backdrop, whilst Ottilie explored the coloured shapes.

Ottilie was more transfixed by the novel objects, the source of the bright light and her own reflection, whilst Althea experimented with movement.

‘The magic of me’

This encounter with transparent colour blocks and light ended up being an enduring focus over the course of the 4 weeks until eventually Althea became engaged in using the blocks for the purpose of creating structures with windows and wheels as opposed to exploring this material in relation to light.