The playground as a teacher


I believe the environment is an important part of teaching as it invites children to play and, seeds imaginative and curious play from a sense of wonder and fascination.

Having a variety of experiences and resources available in a preschool environment encourages children to put their own ideas into inanimate and open ended objects.

Having set ups that are colourful, make sound, are touch sensory or require and enable movement not only engage problem solving and creativity thinking, but also lead children to share ideas with their friends as they work alongside and cooperatively with each other. Often putting out an activity for pre schoolers has the best learning outcomes when the children do something completely different with the materials, for example the tree stump put in the sandpit to act as a table for the fairy’s tea party quickly becomes a volcano with roaring dinosaurs or a launch pad for super heroes to jump from, follow their lead they are learning.

By providing an environment with open ended resources such as  jumping challenge courses to share with friends, encouraging them to take responsibility for their own learning and behaviour as they step gingerly from lilly pad to crocodile across the playground. By selecting teaching approaches, resources, technologies and learning and assessment activities that are inclusive and effective for diverse children such as unstable surfaces that have hand supports for all abilities and levels of confidence. Wobbly bridges or large flat stepping stones in the sandpit can be ideal for practicing balance and confidence boosting.

The environment and invitations to play in it are an important part of supporting and developing children’s physical and social competency. Through their developing language, relationships and knowledge of their world they laugh, demonstrate, lead and share what they find and how and why they might use it. “Watch me!”, what’s that?”, “follow me”, “can I play too?” should be heard in the playground every day.

I have hung triangles or pots and pans from trees and placed drums in clusters along walk ways just observe that no child (and some adults too) can’t resist playing at least a few beats as they pass which leads to others trying it out and creating their own play/ learning. Invitations to play support curious minds, encourage participation and lead to social learning opportunities.

Learning comes from doing and at preschool this happens mostly in social moments where the children are free to develop their own ideas about what they are experiencing and then sharing those ideas with their friends and teachers. Set the scene for the senses and let the children play.



Challenge the challengers – Take a deep breath and have a happy Queens Birthday


Back to the beginning, every child is an individual and goes through multiple stages and phases of emotional and behavioural growth. So, what makes a child tantrum or act in ways that are not appropriate? Any answer is going to change as quickly as a 4 year olds mood; everything and anything from not enough sleep to their emerging understandings of relationships, and power with peers and with you the parent.

Sure, it could be chemical related from a testosterone surge, and a lot of behaviour may be short lived and grown out of, but likely as not small children are subconsciously testing boundaries, learning their rights and exploring what and how to cope with the expectations of others. Children cannot be spoiled with too much hugs and attention, they do need to learn how to cope when we don’t have the time to do all that they request and they do need to learn appropriate timing; such as not interrupting when others are talking or repeatedly trying to sit on a parent’s knee during meal times.

Raising children requires setting boundaries and expectations and helping them to practice getting them right. They will forget, they will test your resolution to follow through, they will try to see who is the boss and they may get angry or frustrated when they don’t get their own way. Sometimes this is how we all learn to self-regulate and create our own working social theories – Remember that children like a lot of adults haven’t learnt what battles to pick and will without self-regulation ability fight on regardless of how futile. Be patient and wait for them to calm and make sure you are clear in what you expect if possible get them to tell you what the positive behaviour would look like.

The way children behave is largely how they have forged their own ideas from watching and being around the important people in lives, they are constantly learning; social expectations, boundaries and what is acceptable in your family and culture – these are not inbuilt and will be learnt over time with every child picking up different concepts at different times.

My strong belief is in the adage that “you get more from bouquets than brick bats”, focus on positives e.g. “you really helped so well this morning getting your bag ready for school or brushing your teeth when I asked” or “I loved the way you said please and thankyou at the café today” (not mentioning or briefly mentioning the current situation). Paint a picture of what the child can do right, get them to see themselves as champions of the behaviours you want to achieve. Proximal praise can be a helpful strategy, where you lavish praise upon another child close by for their positive ways of doing, once again helping the challenger to see what is preferred with the bonus that they will want to be the one on the end of a teacher or parents glowing praise next time.

Sticker charts and rewards may induce change and could be a good part of a short term strategy if a child is really resisting. My understanding is that role modelling positive behaviours, checking there is nothing physically wrong, – you may have heard of the baby that wouldn’t stop crying? It turned out there was a strand of hair wrapped around her little toe – agony! Hair gone = happy baby. Does your challenger have a splinter, wiggly tooth or ear ache? Sometimes you need to ask what’s bothering them, building social relationships with peers or even siblings can be a minefield for young players. Changes in surroundings, misunderstandings or low confidence with peers might manifest in angry outburst at unrelated times such as a tantrum over meal choice or what clothes to wear, so try to find out what else their minds are trying to contend with not just the outburst of the moment.

Be consistent, be confident with what you want the child to learn and be patient. You can be firm and caring. You may never get thanked for laying down the law and it may hurt you more than it hurts them, but being clear on what you want your 3, 4 or 5 year old+ to understand will support positive change.

Being timely with dealing with negative behaviour, getting down to the child’s level and keeping your voice as calm as any stressed parent can, are all important techniques for diffusing the bubbling “DOH What are you doing!!” moments, and help give you time as the adult to see that there are reasons why everything occurs.

Take a deep breath, wait for the pint-sized challenger to calm enough to listen, a few minutes at most so they won’t lose the reason you are talking with them, then work on the why’s and where too’s.

The smallest of our society face the biggest challenge of learning to be just like us. Make their challenge your challenge and guide them


They can work it out



Why do we sometimes stop child initiated play? Is it our own individual sense of how safe we perceive a particular activity? Or is it just how we do things around here?

There is a plethora of research to indicate that children especially boys learn best by doing. Being active and creating their own play enables children to problem solve and grow socially while using their imaginations to challenge themselves.

I have heard myself in the class room using, “Inside voices please”, “walking feet” and, stop! or, don’t jump off that … (usually a chair but sometimes table or bookcase). Getting children outside should be not just about lowering the noise levels or the perceived dangerous play but more about using their bodies to get their thinking into motion.

Busy wet days make any space acoustically challenging and active play can be limited to space constraints, so opportunities to provide activities in between showers such as a high box to jump from to a crash mat or follow the leader through gardens are great teacher inspired curriculum. Providing resources such as hula hoops or any throwing and hitting games like T-ball or throwing at a target are good ways to engage children in using up energy and helps them learn how their bodies works while working alongside others,but we should be encouraging children to create their own play from their own interests and strengths.

Now children and heights make a lot of us nervous, the same with water. For kids the higher the tree to climb or the deeper the puddle to jump in the better – what kid doesn’t want to climb up on the roof given half the chance? When you see an activity that follows a current interest such as climbing and jumping I believe adults should support it  – when children form lines or take turns and encourage each other without any direction or influence from outside they are practising social cues, problem solving and self-regulation all the while the grow confidence in their emerging abilities – Awesome! So why when children do something unorthodox like repetitively climbing through a playhouse window do we stop play? Adults support children’s learning by ensuring that any activity is safe and understanding the value of that learning before acting to curb play.

If we don’t do something because we haven’t before or because someone else  viewed similar play through a different lens, are we not limiting the imaginations of children to that of our own? Just because we as adults couldn’t or wouldn’t do an activity should not mean our curious explorers should have their contribution to play and learning devalued or dismissed.

A quote about growth and learning sums up my thoughts on encouraging challenging play. “If you always do what you have always done you will always have what you have always had”. The more children try new things the more ideas that they will have to build on.

I would like to illustrate the idea of thinking about why we do things with a little story I heard many years ago about asking the question “why do we do this like that? –  A young woman is preparing a roast while her friend looks on.  She cuts off both ends of the roast, prepares it and puts it in the pan.  “Why do you cut off the ends?” her friend asks.  “I don’t know, My mother always did it that way”. The question made her curious, so during her next visit home, she asked her mother, “How do you cook a pot roast?”  Her mother proceeded to explain and added, “You cut off both ends, prepare it and put it in the pot and then in the oven”.  “Why do you cut off the ends?” the daughter asked.  Baffled, the mother offered, “That’s how my mother did it and I learned it from her!”

Her daughter’s inquiry made the mother think more about the pot roast preparation. “Mom, how do you cook a pot roast?”   “Well, you prepare it with spices, cut off both ends and put it in the pot”.  The mother asked, “But why do you cut off the ends?”   The grandmother’s eyes sparkled as she remembered.   “Well, the roasts were always bigger than the pot that we had back then.  I had to cut off the ends to fit it into the pot that I owned”.

To build confidence in children and encourage them to contribute and use imagination in learning about the world around – we as parents , teachers and responsive adults need to stand back sometimes, respect the child’s machinations and value their work.

Let them jump in puddles and climb through windows (when it’s safe) and not stop them because that’s how we were taught or because that’s how we have always things.


The force is strong in all children

It’s good to remind myself that play is the way for early childhood learning and that being an early childhood teacher requires supporting, facilitating, encouraging and sometimes being part of that play but above all we are professionals who are there to protect that right, observe, assess and guide that learning by being present.

The following is from an article I found in the Washington Post, you can read the full article at

[The decline of play in preschoolers — and the rise in sensory issues]

By Nancy Carlsson-Paige

“Play is an engine driving children to build ideas, learn skills and develop capacities they need in life. Kids all over the world play and no one has to teach them how. In play children develop problem solving skills, social and emotional awareness, self-regulation, imagination and inner resilience. When kids play with blocks, for example, they build concepts in math and science that provide a solid foundation for later academic learning. No two children play alike; they develop at different rates and their different cultures and life experiences shape their play. But all children learn through play”.

Supporting imaginative play

It’s not just about providing games and dress ups. Giving time, opportunity and open ended resources to young minds, supports an endless amount of imagination and learning in play. Recent playground experiences where a good supply of large objects tyres, pipes, crates etc… led to amazing cooperative and social play inspiring leadership, confidence, cooperation and a chance to stretch problem solving skills – (we also got a pirate ship a castle a car a train and a crane:)

Junk modeling or the use of “loose parts” is where natural or synthetic objects are found, bought, or upcycled —acorns, hardware, stones, aluminum foil, fabric scraps, Children can move, manipulate, control, and change items within their play. Loose parts are alluring and beautiful. They capture children’s curiosity, give free reign to their imagination, and encourage creativity.

Open ended resources (sometimes  known as junk) supports open-ended learning, enhance play, and empowers children to create their own learning experience. With loose parts, the possibilities are endless.

“Children acquire their first math skills and understanding of numerical concepts when they manipulate small loose parts, like blocks and bottle caps, by sorting and classifying and combining and separating them. Once they begin integrating loose parts into their games, you commonly hear them start to count and see them arranging the parts in specific sequences, patterns, and categories by color, type, number and class.” Lisa Daly and Miriam Beloglovsky, authors of Loose Parts: Inspiring Play in Young Children.

2, 4 , 6, 8 is testosterone what we really hate?

Behavioural challenges in toddlers and young children can have multiple causes. There is a large amount of conflicting research around what affects little boys behaviours, with no real evidence to suggest that it is just a burst of testosterone. I believe that a number of factors including hormones such as testosterone, and environmental and social experiences affect children’s abilities to self regulate, communicate and adhere to socially accepted and expected norms.

  • Are the adult’s expectations of a child’s behaviour right for that child’s developmental stage? – preschoolers just don’t think like adults!
  • Are boundaries and expectations taught in positive ways that the child understands? – convince the child it’s the behaviour you want to improve and that you love them always.
  • Are there any socio-emotional issues that are affecting a child’s actions/reactions? Family violence/abuse? post natal depression? poverty? or attachment disorders?

There is very little reading available around 2 year olds (terrible two’s) other than their struggle and frustrations to communicate, learn social rules and concepts while dealing with their families fast paced worlds.  There is little to suggest testosterone is the culprit.

Early language development can be attributed to lower testosterone with at least one study suggesting that this is why girls talk earlier than boys, can communicate better and get less frustrated equaling less challenging behaviour.  Higher levels lead to less early language and a toddlers preference for larger groups and later aggressive play. (Alexander,2014; Friederici, et al. 2008). This must not be read in a vacuum and will only play one part in how a child learns and copes with different situations. Having positive role models and present supportive adults should be seen as key to positive learning out comes.

Children grow and learn so rapidly and there are a multitude of reasons why they might have challenging behaviours. Check your own behaviours, expectations and strategies for helping wee ones through this awesome time in a child’s life.

Snippets and articles for further reading.

“Increased testosterone may be linked to increased levels of aggression 1. But there is certainly no link between testosterone and inattention or over activity 2. So, if Mr. four years old suddenly started to fight or behave in an aggressive manner it could be linked to an increase in testosterone – however, a four year old who does not listen or is generally acting up is not likely to be caused by any hormonal changes”. (Evidencebasedparent, 2014).

“What’s Really up With a Four Year Old Boy’s Behaviour Then?

In short – Us, me, you, parents, adults, society…….. We don’t really “get” normal little boy behaviour, which is strange given that around half of all adults have been one. Little boys (and that is what a four year old is) need to play, play, play, play, play and play some more. They need open space, nature, air. They need trees to climb, balls to kick, mud to squelch, frisbees to throw. They need to be allowed to use their amazing imaginations and explore the world with their whole bodies” (Ockwell-Smith, 2014).


Alexander, G. M. (2014). Postnatal testosterone concentrations and male social development.

Evidencebasedparent , (2014)

Friederici, A. D., Pannekamp, A., Partsch, C. J., Ulmen, U., Oehler, K., Schmutzler, R., & Hesse, V. (2008). Sex hormone testosterone affects language organization in the infant brain. Neuroreport19(3), 283-286.

Ockwell-Smith, (2014).

The Runners High


You may have heard of it the “runners high”, the chemical reaction in the brain that tells you that you love running. Of course you don’t, it’s the endorphin’s acting as painkillers that make us feel exhilarated and euphoric. If you are lucky enough to experience this you will want to get that hit again.

Now recently Rod Dixon who won the NY marathon 33 years ago was inducted into the hall of fame, and said “It’s not the race, it’s not the finish line, it’s the journey and how it changes lives,”  And he is right, people start running for all kinds of reasons, but it is what  can be gained along the way that keeps you going Do you run to prove a point such as in the 2007 Simon peg movie “Run fat boy run” and your mates told you that you wouldn’t or even couldn’t – damn cheek! Or like when the surgeons told me I wouldn’t run again after a severe ankle injury? A certain stubbornness makes us step up and take the challenge. Maybe it’s to gain a sense of belonging and meet new people? to see new places? to lose a few pounds? or just to de-stress, running has many rewards including that chemical driven elation gained from just getting out there and doing it.


The idea of running to compete or challenge yourself  seems like an obvious reason to run, and sure all those long lonely training hours pounding the pavement need to have a reason or a goal – Can you improve your time? Beat your mates in the local half marathon? Or win your age group?  Some just run to finish, collect the t-shirt or medal and get the kudos of having “knocked the b*****d off”, when the high wears off it’s still good to bask in the smug glory of knowing that you have done what so many have not (and for so good reason do not want to). Of course some love the excitement of the start line, the cheering crowds along the way and even more so the finish line some 20 or 40 (or even 100) kilometres away. But as Rod said it’s not really about the running at all.

Camaraderie also known as a spirit of good friendship is contradictorily part of the lonely long distance runner’s mix. While many run for fun (a mildly sadistic, self flagellating fun) and others run to compete most want to enjoy their high with other people. Some join clubs to participate in events and meet new people, to gain a sense of belonging with like minded souls. Having stories and experiences to share while building relationships encourages you to keep going and improving, “Any achievement is so much more special when shared with others”. While the road to long distance running can be lonely, regular events and travel to special destinations with a group can really add to the anticipation of that high. There are many tour companies specialising in taking groups to international events like the New York or great wall marathons where shared memories of that experience of a lifetime are made.

Now another good reason to pull on the running shoes is your own health – mental, physical and spiritual. Health studies show that outdoor exercise can improve moods and reduce levels of anxiety. The feel good chemicals released into the body can help fight depression, while increased fitness and metabolism help to produce better body self images. Great you’ve lost a few pounds, you’re sleeping better and you are de-stressing but wait there’s more! What about spiritual health? Yes, there is something amazing about communing with nature as you run alongside the Kaiapoi river on a spring training run with water sparkling and the shady willows whispering urging you on – just another few k’s or over a majestic mountain pass like in the Motatapu challenge from Wanaka to Arrowtown as you go cross country over the Alpine ridge and gain a sense of nirvana as your body goes into shock from the cold and intense exertion, the time spent with your own thoughts gives opportunity to solve problems and contemplate your world as if being without the deafening noise of modern communication gives your brain a time out to think and recharge . Time to meditate and be as one with the road or trail can be great for problem solving or come to up with new ideas. Think about running even in a group, or alone as real quality “Me” time.

While we may not all want to become ultra marathoners like our own Lisa Tamati on the 200+ Kilometres Badwater race through death valley, some of us just may want to keep running until we are like the octogenarian couple who recently finished an Irish marathon – holding hands no less! Or 85 year old Ed Whitlock who in October, ran the Toronto Marathon in 3:56:38. It is amazing to see that the quest for the runners high knows no age limit.

It’s not about the finish line or even the running itself, we all could get addicted to the runner’s high and learn to revel in the supporters chants of “run Forrest run”. There are many reasons people start to run; Health, companionship, challenge or just a sense of achievement but it’s the thirst for more that keeps people going.


Be Present, so much learning can be seen as kids have fun

Takahia, stomp! E peke, Jump!

5 4 3 2 1 Houston we have no problem

Learning to launch a rocket required a lot of focus, practice and determination for nga tamariki as they used their bodies, knowledge and social skills to support each other.

Using a toy rocket that requires a jump or stomp to force air through a tube which pushes the rocket many metres into the air required the acquisition and practice of many skills in the playground. Using ideas about their own bodies and the amount of force required or even body parts (2 feet versus 1) was great learning as some children were observed to have challenges around jumping and landing 2 footed on a small air bag. Other children were heard to encourage their peers and quickly took up the use of “E peke” jump to pass on the idea that more force would be better from 2 feet rather than a stomp from 1.

There was good perseverance in gaining the right technique and also in being able to conform to the social expectation that lining up was the rule for this impromptu experience. While the more able 4 year old’s became competitive in how high they could get the rocket, some younger ones looked for support in joining play,. Using older children and teachers to encourage and invite others into the exercise worked well and gave confidence to those trying something new in the gross motor area.

Something so simple met the different needs of so many in the space of about 30 minutes, just by being alongside a group fluctuating from 10 to 15 and allowing them to self regulate we all gained some valuable learning.


Let’s fight!

Just read an article written about a book called Raising Boys. I was particularly interested in the why’s of wrestling with young boys. I must say I was a bit perplexed also to read that a 14 year old’s testosterone is 800% more than a toddlers – that explains a lot of my teenage years!

Dads, and other adult male carers engage in play fighting or wrestling for fun, but it has serious learning implications; Fun and noisy can also lead to anger followed by the learning of boundaries, rule setting and ultimately self regulation.

Play wrestling teaches little boys when to stop. I love the idea that through fun rough housing as a 3 or 4 year a boy can learn to self control his anger in adult life and know when to back off.

All the more reason to promote active play with a present adult, if these are the benefits then Let’s fight!



Time for change

Giddy up I say, it’s time to play. For more than 5 years in the same role I studied for my degree in teaching, I have finally begun to mold my own beliefs. I am grateful for my beginnings and every person I have observed and worked alongside, for each one has helped me decided how I want to be part of children’s learning.

Last Friday the awesome Kristy brought us tickets to to see Nathan Wallis talk about the development of 3 – 7 year old’s WOW one of the best talks I have seen. I am reinvigorated and re inspired to push the message that under seven year old’s grow and learn best by having a responsive adult support and acknowledge their emotions, strength’s, interests and encourage their developing working theories in the context of their community and culture – Whew that was a mouth full!! but this is what I believe.

Now armed with Nathans research backed ideas, a philosophy of engaging children’s minds through activity based wonderment and a understanding and nurturing disposition I’m ready to take on a new challenge. Had a great first day at my new centre in Kaiapoi and am looking forward to making a difference with new families and colleagues.