Porirua East Kāhui Ako (5-058) - How might teachers better understand and support the expression of three- to seven-year-olds in play-based settings? Publications
Project Reference: Porirua East Kāhui Ako: Best Start Waitangirua, Corinna School, Maraeroa Kindergarten, Moira Gallagher Kindergarten, Maraeroa School, Nuanua Kindergarten Toru Fetu Kindergarten, Windley School (TLIF 5-058) - Teachers of three-to-seven-year-olds in Porirua East were keen to grow and explore their implementation of play-based learning – an established pedagogy in early learning settings, but less familiar in primary schools. Initially, they were particularly interested in how it might be used to grow children’s verbal and written language and hoped to achieve greater continuity in children’s learning experiences as they transitioned to school.
Author(s): (Inquiry Team) Project leads were Tami McCarten (Corinna School), Alexandra Owens (Maraeroa Kindergarten), and Kathleen O’Hare (Maraeroa School), Charmaine Zarate, Lynda Broadbent, Saane Mafi, Claire Stenhouse, Helen Unuia, Maria Tierney, Razia Farun, Jacki Newell and Sharee MacDonald
Date Published: May 2020
As teachers explored research and its application to their practice, they became increasingly aware of the multiple ways in which children express themselves and how the children’s competencies often surpassed teachers’ expectations. They learned the value of stepping back to observe and of responding thoughtfully to what a child is expressing, and how. They also learned the value of becoming involved in children’s play, but on children’s terms. For some teachers, there was new learning about the importance of supporting bilingual and multilingual children to express themselves in their own language, regardless of whether these are shared by the teacher. For all, teachers reconfigured their notions of control about ‘inappropriate’ play, increasingly recognising it as children’s ways of working through issues and ideas.
I provided support for six-year-old child Abraham, who needed some time out of class, as he was struggling to cope with the structure. I invited him into my office by offering him a cup of Milo and suggesting that we could do our mahi together. Abraham accepted the Milo, calling it his “coffee”. He then proceeded to calm himself while he drew. As he drew, he described his brain picture in great detail to me. The brain had two hemispheres with the lines coming from this representing his emotions and actions. The black spots inside his brain were the thoughts – which led to his emotions and actions. He was able to express himself fluently and in detail. As he talked, he was making sense of what he had drawn and the connections to what had been happening for him.
Teacher learning story
The teachers involved in this project are developing a new model for understanding and supporting children’s powers of self-expression. The model reflects their recognition that self-expression is closely tied to identity and involves all dimensions of a child’s being – mind, body, and spirit.
This project had three leaders: Tami McCarten (Corinna School), Alexandra Owens (Maraeroa Kindergarten), and Kathleen O’Hare (Maraeroa School). The other team members were: Charmaine Zarate (Best Start Waitangirua), Lynda Broadbent (Corinna School), , Saane Mafi (Moira Gallagher Kindergarten), Claire Stenhouse (Maraeroa) School, Helen Unuia (Nuanua Kindergarten), Maria Tierney and Razia Farun (Toru Fetu Kindergarten), Jacki Newell and Sharee MacDonald(Windley School).
The project had two critical friends: Dr. Louise Taylor from Extend Education and Dr. Anita Mortlock from Te Herenga Waka/ Victoria University of Wellington.
The inquiry story
This collaborative inquiry focused on three- to seven-year-old children, attending an early learning centre or school in Porirua East. It involved twelve teachers, six of whom worked in early learning settings and six in primary schools. There were three cycles of inquiry over the course of a year, with each teacher focusing on a target group of children. To support the management of a complex project, involving a large amount of data, teachers met in both small groups and whole-group hui.
What was the focus?
The teachers in this project wanted to investigate how to support three- to seven-year-old children to express themselves within the context of play-based learning. Through their inquiry, the team hoped to:
- improve collaboration and pedagogical alignment between early learning and junior primary school settings in Porirua East
- deepen their insights into children’s thinking processes when engaged in play-based learning, and use these insights to challenge deficit thinking about children’s capabilities
- develop consistent understandings about what play-based learning is in a primary school context and how play-based learning can help children learn to articulate their learning in writing and talk and develop the key competencies.
The team formulated the following innovation statement:
We would like to know whether changes made in teacher pedagogy and the continuity of practice across sectors will have an impact on improved confidence and competence in using expressive language for our 3–7-year-old learners in Porirua East (decile 1) ECE and schools.
The team intended to use their inquiry to develop indicators of effective practice for engaging in dialogue with children during play-based learning. These indicators would form a matrix that teachers could use to assess children and evaluate their own practice.
What did the teachers try?
In the first cycle of inquiry, the teachers sought to investigate how children were expressing themselves in play and what teachers were doing to support children to engage in dialogue and express themselves.
In the second cycle, teachers worked through a series of rapid learning cycles to explore how to support and enhance teacher–child dialogue in a play-based setting. This approach meant that teachers’ inquiries often evolved. For example, one teacher began by wanting to ask what she could do to improve the children’s ability to express themselves and moved on to thinking about how she could improve her own ability to learn from observing them.
The intention in the final cycle was develop the matrix mentioned above. As discussed below, the team moved from this to the creation of a bespoke model that captures what they learned.
What happened as a result of this innovation?
There were some slight differences in experience for primary school and early learning teachers. With play-based learning established as pedagogical approaches for the latter, the learning was more about having existing understandings challenged. Primary school teachers had more to learn about the pedagogy, but in both contexts, there were surprises to be had in what was revealed about children’s competence when their natural ways of expression were observed. From an initial focus on talking and writing, teachers were able to identify over thirty ways in which children can express themselves, including body language, facial expressions, waiata, and imaginative play. The teachers found that the shifts they made to foster self-expression were successful in facilitating positive outcomes for children and establishing a foundation for ongoing improvement.
Specific changes in teacher pedagogy included:
- closely observing children and using it to better understand them
- consciously standing back and taking time to respond to children’s play
- challenging their own assumptions
- being more deliberate about their responses to children
- paying closer attention to children’s preferred means of expression and aligning their response more closely with this
- using the physical environment as a teacher (for example, setting up provocations or setting up spaces for children to withdraw and engage in dialogue)
- modelling how to enter and sustain play
- accepting invitations to join play and accepting play roles offered to them by children
- gifting children language within a play context
- supporting children to use their home languages, whether or not the teacher shared those languages
- becoming less judgmental about children’s play, means of expression, and the ideas they expressed.
The outcomes for children included:
- feeling greater trust that they will be listened to
- receiving individualised support that better met their needs and desires
- enjoying more meaningful learning experiences
- finding ties between their sense of identity and their means of expression (“I am a dancer”)
- feeling more engaged and motivated through having greater agency
- having greater freedom to express themselves, including in times of stress
- having more opportunities to self-regulate and find their boundaries
- being allowed to follow where their play took them and to work through issues for themselves
- learning from modelling about how to enter and sustain play
- enjoying more sustained play
- influencing each other’s play, including by taking on coaching roles
- making greater use of their home languages to express themselves
- bringing their cultural practices into their play
- being able to talk about what drives their learning
- teaching the teacher.
As the teachers learned more about the multiple ways children may express themselves and be supported in that expression, the language and communication matrix became inadequate. They wanted to shift from a central focus on verbal expression to one that perceived language and expression more holistically, recognising the connection between mind, body, and spirit. Consequently, they are developing a model that draws on Mātauranga Maori (particularly seeing expression as involving the whole child and being situated within whānau contexts), anthropology, positive psychology, social psychology, and social constructivist play pedagogy.
The new model has three intersecting circles for mind, body, and spirit. Whatumanawa (rightful expression of emotion, relating to intuition, flow, and opportunity) is at its centre. The model continues to develop, but the teachers say it is already having a significant impact on their thinking about what potential exists for noticing, recognising, and responding to when seeking to strengthen relationships with and understanding about children and then to extend children’s abilities to express themselves.
The approach of combining small group meetings with whole group hui proved both efficient for a complex project and helpful in strengthening relationships among teachers. Teachers applied what they learned about noticing and responding to children to be more attentive to the different ways their colleagues might be expressing their thoughts and feelings. The combination of early learning and primary school settings also built shared understandings, so that teachers feel that there is now greater continuity for children and whānau transitioning from early learning to school.
What did they learn?
There were three main areas of learning from this project:
- For play-based pedagogy to be effective, teachers need to learn to shift the locus of control to children, allowing them greater agency over their learning. With a focus on expression rather than children’s vocabulary, teachers observe knowledge and skills to a more sophisticated and complex degree through play compared with that which the children could articulate verbally. In addition, when teachers tap into children’s play meaningfully and enable agency, children have opportunities to influence the curriculum, potentially making it more accessible and meaningful for them. Further, effective play-based approaches facilitate more than intellectual learning. When teachers step back and allow children to express more risky ideas (for example, around violence), they can enable children to find their place within the group, make sense of difficult issues and achieve catharsis. That is, play can be therapeutic.
- While language is important, childhood expression is more complex than words and encompasses the mind, body, and spirit. Play narratives that may be troubling for teachers provide a context within which children can work through issues and conflicts. Moreover, it provides a fruitful opportunity for teachers to examine their own pedagogies and values. Children have a right to expression, and their teachers should trust in their wisdom, resilience, and ability to take ownership of their socio-emotional development. Teachers need to ‘change the script’, stepping back to allow children to define their own parameters and modes of expression, while also stepping in the right moment to become more involved in play or to engage in meaningful dialogue. Further, culture is embedded within children’s identity and means of expression. Play-based learning can provide a rich context within which children can use all their languages and engage in the translanguaging (the act of strategically using their languages as an integrated communication system).
- Creating a supportive professional community within which teachers learn from each other enables practice to be deprivatised and teachers to critically explore their individual and shared issues. Teachers can transfer learning about effective pedagogy to their interactions with each other to grow an increasingly vibrant learning community.
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For further information
If you would like to learn more about this project, please contact the project leader Kathleen O’Hare, Maraearoa School Principal, at email@example.com.
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