Sunday, January 31, 2016

Sand Play and Scientists

I once read an article that captivated me. As I was reading it, all I could think of was the children in my classes over the years who play with sand. And I thought of all of the times we've had to defend the practice of play as well as playing in the sand throughout the years. This article, Riddles In The Sand was written in 1996. Maybe more research has been done on sand. Maybe scientists and physicists understand how sand works now, at least more than they did in 1996. But as I read it, I was reminded that children are scientists. Children are physicists. Children are engineers. Every day, across the world, children are involved in theorizing, in planning, in trying out theories, and in finding 'proof' for their discoveries.

I was captivated, am still captivated, by the article, by the medium of sand, and by the idea that children are scientists. That is the purpose of this blog post. I wanted to put pictures to the words. I wanted to give credence to children and their play. I wanted to show that just as physicists and engineers theorize and experiment with materials, the idea to experiment, to theorize, begins in childhood. It begins with play. 

Riddles in the Sand
Physicists completely understand a solitary grain of sand. Why, then, are they at a complete loss to explain a mere handful of the stuff? 

"That not even a physicist can explain why sand behaves the way it does seems astonishing. Sand is neither invisibly small nor impossibly distant; observing it requires neither particle accelerators nor orbiting telescopes. The interactions of grains of sand are entirely governed by the same Newtonian laws that describe the motion of a bouncing ball or the orbit of Earth about the sun. The odd behavior of a layer of sand bounced up and down on a tray should, in principle be entirely knowable and entirely predictable. Why, then, can't Behringer [the physicist mentioned in the article] simply take a bunch of equations describing the motion of all of the individual grains, put them in a very large computer, and wait--for years, if necessary--until it spits out a prediction?" (p 2/9)

"Because the language of physics does not contain a vocabulary for granularity, engineers must treat granular material as either a liquid or a solid. These approximations work most of the time, but occasionally they lead to disaster....when the grains come to rest against one another they form intricate, quasi-self-supporting structures. That is why adding more grains to the top of a silo often does not increase the pressure delivered to the bottom at all, but rather increases pressure outward agains the sides of the silo." (p 3/9)

"Engineers who design buildings and roads, on the other hand, assume that under stress the supporting (and granular) soil will behave like a deforming solid, much the way plastic does. Once again, this convenient approximation occasionally leads to disasters." (p. 3/9)

"...if engineers understood the physics of soil better, these disasters might have been avoided." (p. 3/9)

"If you really want to describe what sand is doing in any given situation, you have to know which modes are dominant and which sets of equations you'll need to employ.... (p. 7/9)

"You just have to recognize that not everything you do is going to shake loose major pieces of knowledge... But collectively, and on rare occasions, experiments will come along and make a significant impact. It's like looking at a distribution of avalanches- you have a lot of little ones and, every once in a while, a big one." (p. 9/9)

(*all notes are from the article Riddles in the Sand by Fred Guterl, November 01, 1996. All pictures are mine)

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Music Fun!

As many of you probably know by now, we enjoy singing in our class. I’ve occasionally record us singing and reciting poems, and I thought you might enjoy a couple of samples.
Our first poem inspired our snowmen shown above (click on the link, the slide may download to your computer):
And our song “Snowflakes are falling down” is a special favourite. We made crystal “snowflakes” to go along with this song:
Here is the link to this song:
Snowflakes are falling down

*NOTE* If you click on the poem link, a powerpoint of the poem/song with the words and the recording will download to your computer.
*ALSO* We had a big snowstorm just after I took the picture of the crystals hanging in the window. Now it looks more "authentic"

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Time: Two Hours of Play

The original post was dated Jan 13. It is now Jan 30 and here is an update:

Ever since we started playing for 1 1/2 to 2 hours a day, this is what I've noticed:

1- The play is deeper, more thought provoking
2- They play is less frantic- they know they have time. They know they will have a beginning, a middle and an end that will be satisfying for them.
3- They are quieter when they play
4- (with the exception of 3 or 4) They are choosing a wider variety of activities. They are choosing literacy games and math games. 
5- The art that is created has more depth. It isn't just markers on paper anymore, they have added other media (the art shelf has been stacked with a variety of materials, they are just now getting to them)
6- When it is time for direct instruction, the sit and listen longer
7- I have to do less direct instruction

Now, I know there are other benefits that I am not listing here, and I know some of these behaviours could be seen as where the students are developmentally, but from everything I have observed, there has been no negative consequences to the prolonged play time. Which, of course, does not surprise me. When I meet with a student or two in a small group or one on one, they are more focussed on what we are doing, because they have confidence that they will be able to get back to their other play without missing too much time. This has only been a positive experience for us all.

I did something crazy yesterday. I let my students play for two hours. It was the best two hours we've had in a long time, and guess what? We'll be doing that from now on. Two hours of uninterrupted play time every day. Two hours to theorize, experiment, build, problem solve, create, learn, teach.

It started with a phone call. One of my friends at our provincial department of education phoned just before our Christmas break wondering if I'd be interested in being a part of a small group of kindergarten teachers who are being tasked with finding a way to return kindergarten to being more child-centred. Our province touts its kindergarten program as being play based with integrated curriculum, but as time has passed it's becoming more and more like a subject based program: first we have literacy, then we have math, then we have writers workshop... etc. I know many kindergarten teachers are feeling this push, and we are finding it harder and harder to push back. That phone call got me thinking about my own practice in the classroom, and I realized that while I talk about trusting students, and letting them play, more and more lately I have not been putting what I preach into practice. That phone call was a wake up call for me as well.

Over our break, I had to ask myself some tough questions. If I say we need to trust students to manage their own learning, am I doing that? Sometimes. If I say children need time to play in order to work through their learning, am I allowing the proper amount of time to do that? Again, sometimes.

Because I could not answer a definite yes, I knew it was time to re-think my practice.
-What will I do while they play that long?
-What if someone comes in and asks what's going on?
-What if they come in and want to know why I'm doing what I'm doing?

Here's what happened:

While the children were playing I was able to sit with a group and play a rousing game of letter go-fish. One of those students needs extra work in letter recognition, and I was able to sit with him, in a stress free environment, and have some fun while working on the letters.

I have another student who comes in every single day stressed out because he is anxious about Writers Workshop. No matter how many times I tell him that I don't expect him to have everything perfect, that I will help him, he still stresses over it. He spent a long time with a buddy building "a car building" in the block area. Then he went to the art area because he wanted to make a picture for his mom. I asked him if his mom ever asked what he did during the day, and he said yes. I suggested that he draw a picture of his structure so he could show her what he did. He thought that was a good idea but wasn't sure how to do that. I was able to model how I would draw the picture, then he was able to take that risk and do it himself. Because we had this time, I suggested he write down at the bottom what it was, and I was able to talk him through that. No stress, no tears, no anxiety. It was a big breakthrough for this guy.

Then, another guy, who struggles with some fine motor issues, was watching us and he decided to draw a "crabby patty" he had made in the kitchen area.

All of this would have been impossible if we didn't have the time. If we only had a half an hour of free choice time. Because we had such an extended time to play, children were able to play in more than one area, were able to begin a task and complete it. They were able to spend their time talking out ideas and problem solve with their peers. 

After our play time, it was recess, then we had snack and our specialty class. When the students came back to class, we all sat down as a group and we talked about our big play time. I asked them if they enjoyed it (of course they did) and if they'd like to do that every day (of course they do). So I put up on the board a list of things we "have to do" every day, things we "should do" every day, and things we "want to do" every day. Then I put up a simple time schedule and we filled in the blanks. As a group we were able to see how we can still fit in everything we "have to do" and "should do" and even the things we "want to do" and still have a big play time. 

We still have Writers Workshop and Guided Reading and Math. We still have large group instruction, but we don't have to spend time teaching things we already know. I can introduce the concepts, then they have the opportunity to work on these in their own time and space (and if they don't 'chose' to do it on their own, there is still time to 'encourage' them while still allowing them lots of time to play). Those of us who might need a little extra help can get that now during our large block of play time. We can play games and even have some one on one time. So many times I feel like I don't get a chance to sit down and play with the kids, get to know them. 

I am constantly asking, what happens if we trust children? What happens if we truly value play, value it enough to allow our students to actually play? Because when we trust children, we give them the tools they need to become self-motivated, we give them the responsibility for their learning. We help them find the gift that already resides in them. Children are capable, but too often we take that away from them. Let's give it back.