Guest blog written by Sarah from @misstassicker
“ Tell me and I forget, teach me and I remember, involve me and I learn”- Benjamin Franklin.
Anyone who’s ever watched a student play with blocks has seen play based learning in action. Building tall towers and watching them come tumbling down then building them up again in a different more stable way. This is an example of how students explore the idea of shape, height, balance and cause and effect from a very early age. Trusting the natural yearning of children to learn about their world through their own curiosity is at the centre of play-based learning.
It is important to understand that in order to implement ‘The Walker Learning Approach’ (WLA) in its entirety you will need a leadership team who is completely invested, committed and supportive of the model. When engaging in conversations it is important to remember that the more school leaders understand about the evidence behind the pedagogy, the more empowered they will be to implement the approach. Explicitly highlighting the connections between inquiry-based learning to school improvement agendas, Department Focus documents, National Quality Standards, Early Years Learning Framework and the Western Australian Curriculum will increase the likelihood that you will have ‘buy in’ from your leaders. This is a topic I hope to discuss in more depth soon as it is extremely relevant to my journey. Today I hope that my blog will leave you with some practical tips to adopt in your practice no matter your situation. I’m calling all those who believe in the power of play but are unsure of where to start. By sharing my personal tips, I hope to inspire you to be brave enough to make a change, no matter how small.
I have been teaching for eight years, but it was only in the last few years that I became acquainted with Walker Learning. I was lucky enough to have worked with a leadership team who was enthusiastic and eager to adopt the approach. I attended professional development days, visited other schools, bought resources and completely overhauled the way I did things. The WLA helped me find a deeper passion for teaching that I never knew existed. It made me question whether during all the years I’d been teaching – were my learners truly learning?
As Educators, ‘preparation’ is a word we throw around a lot. We understand that a key factor in any effective teaching is linked closely to a large amount of preparation, right? Setting up the environment takes a huge amount of preparation, the sourcing of resources and mapping out the journey all take careful consideration but the greatest type of preparation that was required when implementing the WLA was personal preparation; to become comfortable in sharing the decision-making process with the children.
Now I’m not saying your days will be spent with your feet up on the desk, coffee in hand and your planning drifting away in the breeze as you watch the children play and learn in the background. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. This type of approach to learning takes a deeper level of educator presence, engagement, responsibility, knowledge, accountability and understanding of the learner. It involves adults actively participating , guiding, extending and engaging with students to deepen the learning process. Educators are responsible for creating the conditions for discovery and engaging the learner though purposeful and meaningful experiences. It’s not about what you as the educator cover, but rather what the learner discovers. By definition curiosity, exploration and discovery are the fuel for learning. So, with that how do you create an environment which fosters this?
Revamping your whole classroom environment like I did can be a very overwhelming, daunting and an expensive task. Typically, The Walker Learning Approach divides the room into eight mini learning environments , however when starting out try to focus on setting up only a few small investigation areas. Pick an area you will be able to resource easily and feel comfortable in. Science/nature lend themselves well to inexpensive resources and can be found all around you! When setting up an investigation space you need to think open ended materials that can be used in more than one way; there is no ‘right’ way to use something!
The most successful learning tools are those with endless possibilities. Always think natural resources over commercially bought plastic ones. Materials such as wood, hessian, glass (yes, real glass!), fabrics and other living resources such as flowers, herbs, pinecones, bark and twigs are all provocations that can provide all sorts of open-ended learning experiences. Investigation areas need to be kept dynamic to maintain learner interest. This can be as simple as adding new provocations and items to the area. Searching the Walker Learning hashtag on social media will guide you to a whole new magical word of environmental inspo!
Listening to the conversations your children are having is often a great place to begin. One of the very first investigation tables I set up was using garden herbs, spray bottles and a mortar and pestle. By listening and observing the children in the playground I was able to see that they adored making all sorts of wonderful potions . By bringing this into my investigation area and adding books about the senses , clipboards and some paper I was able to provide my children with the opportunity to practice science concepts, as well as written and oral language skills, all of which flourished organically. Measurement concepts were effortlessly discovered, and procedural language also become intuitively introduced. You can see that by adding even just one area into your classroom the scope of curriculum concepts taught is vast. For those not in a Walker Learning School, justification for setting up a space like this comes from allowing children the opportunity to transfer the skills taught in explicit lessons into real word contexts. It’s vitally important to set aside time to enjoy these areas with the children so you are able to question, scaffold and extend children’s thinking. You will be surprised how many teachable moments just pop up while you are actively exploring with them. You can learn so much about your children by becoming a learner alongside them and the personal connection formed as a result is authentic.
If changing the environment seems too extreme for you, perhaps you would feel more comfortable integrating the role of the photographer and reporter into your classroom. With a move to visible learning in schools, the learning intentions which are an integral part of the WLA approach are on display for both learners and their families at all times. Assigning a photographer and reporter for the day or session is a great way to guide children’s learning and for you to gain insight into their understanding. Typically, a photographer is assigned a task whereby they take photos of a predetermined item or situation which relates directly to the learning intention. For example, photographing someone using full stops during investigation time, or taking photos of children measuring in the block area. A reporter is used to collect data either by interviewing students or checking and recording situations such as daily weather or documenting plant growth. Reporters and photographers can work independently or together. A comprehensive list of ideas for the reporter and photographer can be found by visiting Early Life Foundations and searching ‘reporter and photographer fact sheet’.
Children love having these roles and it’s a really great way of guiding children towards the learning intentions whilst they play. I will never forget the day that I observed a little five-year-old girl in my class call the reporter/photographer over to document what she was about to say. “ Quick record this, I’m about to say something really important” were the exact words she used. This really made it clear to me just how valued the children feel with this sort of approach. They understand that their words and actions are so important. Revisiting the data collected by both the photographer and reporter during the reflection time is crucial and this adds value to the children’s play and allows you to link their discovery and exploration back to the curriculum and learning intentions. Children love seeing photos of their work up on the interactive whiteboard or watching and hearing videos of themselves. Having a special photographer and reporter vest make this role super fun too! Lanyards and badges also work just as effectively.
Change can be terrifying to students and adults alike, but I assure you it is worth taking the leap! Through taking a risk and adopting the approach I have been able to renew my excitement for teaching. Using play to learn is something that just makes sense. Unfortunately, it’s all too common for play to become buried amongst the highly structured formal learning practices engulfing schools. It is my challenge to you to be a voice for the children, find your passion for play and make change. Play is a child’s language and we as educators need to be an advocate for this. Through a Walker Learning approach you will be able to provide experiences for children which foster intrinsically motivated, lifelong learners with the skills to take into the 21st century. Education is not the filling of a vessel, but rather the lighting of a fire inside one’s soul.
Follow me on Instagram ; @ misstassicker and be sure to follow my new business venture @teach_outside_the_box. Walker inspired investigation boxes plus many more dramatic play boxes will be available to rent soon!