Pokuru School (TLIF 5-082) - Learning through play: Making thinking visible Publications
Project Reference: Pokuru School (TLIF 5-082) - Teachers of Pokuru School’s years 1 to 2 students had found that play-based learning (PBL), conducted as a regular part of the learning programme, was working well for most learners. However, others did not seem as engaged or curious as they would hope. The teachers wanted to explore how they could make systematic changes in their teaching practices to make more effective use of this time.
Author(s): (Inquiry Team) led by Dianne Shariff and Natasha Dunne
Date Published: February 2019
The implementation of an approach to observation that enabled close monitoring of children’s choices in this time was part of an approach that enabled teachers to better understand learners and how to interact with them in ways that extended their thinking and learning. An important shift was to end the practice of withdrawing some children for ‘explicit teaching’ time during PBL and to capture ‘moments of learning’. These could then be used for reflection upon how to better meet the children’s needs.
Today, I spotted R. setting up two planks of wood on a slope in the rock pit. He then placed the blue tub on the top. I asked him what he was planning. He said he wanted to see how many conefulls of water it would take to make the tub slide down. He estimated about 10. He steadily began filling and emptying and counting conefulls of water. B. came along and was keen to help. He got some chalk and marked down the conefulls so R. didn’t have to keep track. What a great collaboration! When I next saw, they were up to 13 conefulls and the blue tub was full but hadn’t slid. R decided it was a ‘fail’. I disagree, R., what a great experiment you conducted today.
Learning snapshot, Phase 2
Having all teachers available to roam and interact with children enabled more sustained interactions that helped children become more purposeful in their play. Provocations and activity stations were recrafted to align more closely with the curriculum while igniting children’s curiosity.
The big learning for these teachers was that purposeful play-based learning for children required purposeful teaching by them. Close observation and really getting to know their learners enabled the implementation of teaching practices that were innovative, consistent, and effective.
This project was led by Dianne Shariff and Natasha Dunne. The team also included Sheree Germann, and Nicky Frederick.
Joanne Walker (University of Auckland) was the project’s critical friend.
The inquiry story
This inquiry unfolded in two main phases, in July–December 2019 and February–December 2020. In the first phase, it involved four teachers and 49 learners in years 0–2. With roll growth, it expanded to involve 77 learners.
What was the focus?
The focus of this project was on Exploration Time – a regular block of time when most children engaged in play-based learning while one teacher led small group explicit teaching sessions. The other teacher roamed, observing children and interacted with them to prompt, elicit, and extend their thinking. Teachers had noticed that while many children were comfortable initiating play and forming friendships, others engaged in the same activity repeatedly or sought teacher direction before attempting to explore. They wanted to shift their practice to help all children, but especially a selected group of target children, become more curious and agentic.
In what ways would changing our Year 0–2 classroom learning environment to support children’s curiosity and engagement in purposeful exploration and challenges impact on:
- teachers’ approaches to participating in new ways of engaging with children to enhance learning;
- teachers noticing, responding to, and extending children’s interests; and
- children’s agency (including key competencies thinking, participating and contributing, and relating to others), particularly for target learners?
What did the teachers try?
The first phase focused mainly on collecting information about teachers’ and children’s beliefs and practices regarding Exploration Time. The team found that they had reasonably similar ideas about the purpose of PBL and about the role of the teacher in setting up the learning space with provocations and activities, creating a safe and cooperative environment, and extending the learning. They also had similar beliefs about its importance for children, the need for teachers to be enthusiastic about it, and the value of learning stories. However, their sense of confidence about some of the teaching practices it requires varied. All four reported some confidence in ‘using play-based learning’, ‘writing learning stories’, ‘coming up with ideas/topics/tasks for play areas’, ‘organising the exploration spaces’, ‘making links between the play activity and curriculum and/or key competencies’, and ‘ways to capture children’s learning related to PBL’. They reported the least confidence in helping children to tell their own stories.
The teachers were influenced by research about the importance of children exploring different roles through PBL and building and sustaining relationships. They developed an observation tool and protocol that could be used to conduct environmental scans during Exploration Time. They used this to code the types of play target children were engaged in and with whom. By recording this at 15-minute individuals, they collated a rich resource of quantitative data. Learning snapshots were created capturing moments in time. Children were also interviewed about their views. The data revealed that children didn’t, as a group, prefer one particular play area, all thought Exploration Time was fun, they liked playing with friends, and had different ideas about the role of the teacher. (These tended to centre around care rather than learning.) The amount of time spent exploring varied, and some spent a lot more time than others in the explicit teaching sessions or doing follow-up or self-selected work. On average, children tried one or two activities per hour, but this also varied a lot. In general, the target children were more social during the scans than the teachers expected, though they did make choices to play alone when there were opportunities or interaction. There was a big difference in the number of learning stories written for different children.
Some new practices were trialed in Term 4 2019. These included having more teachers roaming and inviting a parent to assist. This was intended to increase opportunities for interaction, enriching oral language, and extending learning. The teachers trialed more provocations and stations, and these were more deliberately designed with a theme or purpose in mind. For example, an arts station was introduced with a new focus artist each week, whose style children were expected to emulate. Instead of explicitly teaching mathematics, reading, or writing, provocations included curriculum activities, such as using a variety of materials to experiment with shape and measurement. Play areas such as the slide and field were shut down to reduce the number of choices the children had and encourage them to try different activities or play. A new reporting system was designed to enable better reporting against the key competencies. Teachers wrote learning stories to capture children’s learning actions. They were expected to reflect upon these stories, noting what went well and what they would do differently. Over time, these were replaced by the learning snapshots that captured moments in time. These were shared with whānau on Seesaw.
The changes made in 2019 led to a range of positive outcomes. Teachers observed more purposeful play, positive learning interactions for themselves and the children, and quality learning talk around the new provocations. Their own reflections had become more detailed and specific, and the observations prompted professional conversations regarding children’s skills and understandings and what they might need.
The second TLIF phase and interventions occurred in 2020, based on what had been learned in 2019. The explicit teaching sessions were stopped to enable all four teachers to roam and all children to participate. The teachers trialled a variety of different strategies to encourage all children to participate in a range of activities. These including adding or removing particular tools, equipment, activities, or provocations; modelling how to problem solve; and scaffolding how to describe learning and investigations. “Big Part Fridays” were introduced where a range of large pieces of equipment are made available for exploration.
Debrief sessions were introduced after the morning break for children to talk about their inquiries. Teachers also had briefing and debriefing sessions where they could discuss what was happening for children and how to address any issues. Individual Exploration Books were introduced where children could keep records of what they had produced during Exploration Time. Teachers found ways children could tell their stories even if they could not write much (for example, one teacher introduced a comic book app). The ‘snapshots’ became ‘captured moments’ that replaced the learning stories and were collated for each child.
What happened as a result of this innovation?
While responses still vary, all teachers now feel much more confident in implementing play-based learning. This includes the ability to help children tell their own stories and link play activities to the curriculum and key competencies. With more adults roaming, teachers have time to pause, ask children questions, and listen to their explanations.
Moving from learning stories to ‘captured moments’ enabled teachers to greatly increase the amount of data collected for each child and to connect this to the curriculum. This is evident in the statistics; at the end of Phase 1, the target learners had an average of eight learning stories each but, by the end of Phase 2, there was an average of 40 captured moment entries across all children. The captured moments caught learning experiences that ranged across all key competencies and most learning areas. The Exploration Books complement this information.
Organising this information systematically and putting it on display enabled the teachers to track what was happening for each child. They could reflect on what happened, share ideas, and ‘trouble shoot’ together. They could write reports for parents that better communicated each child’s unique learning pathway – not just what they were learning, but how.
Children are becoming more engaged in purposeful and extended co-operative play. Teachers have noticed how creative and independent children are, especially on Fridays. Children say this is their favourite part of the week. Some children chose to apply their learning from the classroom to activities during Exploration time. Children are showing initiative, taking it upon themselves to teach others during Exploration Time. Older children show new children around and include them in activities.
Teachers and parents are communicating more frequently through sharing captured learning moments on Seesaw. Parent feedback about this and the new reports is positive, with parents saying they feel the teachers really know their children.
What did they learn?
The teachers learned that though close observation and being very intentional, they could implement play-based learning in ways that greatly increased the frequency and quality of learning interactions. It was important to let go of the explicit teaching time and have more adults roaming and available to help the students use their time more purposefully. The combination of qualitative and quantitative information, its systematic organisation, and the engagement in joint critical reflection enabled thoughtful planning. It also meant teachers can recognise and address potential problems before they became too difficult. The collaborative approach they took meant that they could be innovative at the same time as maintaining consistency in their teaching approach.
Biermeier, M. (November 2015). Inspired by Reggio Emilia: Emergent curriculum in relationship-driven learning environments. Young Children. 70(5), 72-7
Briggs, M., & Hansen, A. (2012). Play-based learning in the primary school. London: Sage Publications Ltd
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