Nature Play On Vancouver Island

Nature Kindergarten On Vancouver Island

Reggio Inspired Inquiry: The Kindness Project

a lovely example of students generously offering support to a peer 
by quietly gathering nature's loose parts so that she could focus on 
design and construction of her mandala during our fall free 
exploration at Neck Point 

Last year Kindergarten students in my class worked on a project for months! As they deepened their understanding they learned so much about themselves and each other. I wanted to share this powerful project because as I moved with them through the months I witnessed a profound change and growth of understanding and kindness.

Reggio Inspired Practice: The Kindness Project

During the past few years I have worked to transform my full-day Kindergarten learning environment to reflect a more authentic experience for students. I wanted to move away from expecting children to be ready for school, towards the concept that schools should be ready for children.  I wondered if an increased understanding of younger children ages 3 to 4 would help me better prepare for the broad range of children entering kindergarten.

I began with visiting local preschools and getting to know their programs, teachers, children and families. I noticed the emphasis on storytelling, observation and documentation of children’s conversations. The slower pace and respect shown towards these younger learners by the adults was powerful to observe. Juxtaposed with this I began to read more broadly about early learners and attend early learning workshops on the island. One of the best learning experiences has been the walk and talk conversations with my early learning peers and the gift of time with a Reggio inspired preschool teacher.

During my learning journey, I made subtle changes to both my Kindergarten program and learning environment. I removed some closed play activities and offered more opportunities to play with loose parts. Daily schedule changes involved moving to a daily flow with expanding blocks of time for exploration, student led literacy blocks and a greater emphasis on process over product across the curriculum. I  increased the outdoor learning component of my program in order to grow student relationships and self-regulation.

Immediately I noticed two things; that there was an increase of physical space in the classroom and secondly that I had much more time to observe and interact with the children.

I began to be more aware of the conversations occuring amongst my students. One morning I overhead a child talking about another child using the term “bully”. I wondered what that word meant to the child and if other children were using that language? Did they understand it? This really intrigued me and I decided to discuss this with the children.

Discussion with the children: What does it mean to be a bully?
Immediately the children were interested and had a lot to say. I sat down with children in small groups and asked

Me: “What does it mean to be a bully?”

S: (a five year old girl) “being mean”

S: (a six year old boy) “not sharing”

Me: “tell me more”

S: (a five year old girl) “hitting”

S. (a five old boy) “saying no you can’t play but not everyone is a bully, sometimes you can be kind”

Me: “Interesting, so then what does it mean to be kind?”

S: (a five year old boy) “looking after someone like if they fall and have a hurt you can get some ice”

S: (a six year old boy) “saying thank you”

S: (a five year old boy) “yes, saying please too”

S: (a five year old girl) “like holding hands or giving a friend a hug”

Me: Yes, helping, tell me more

S: (a six year old boy) “like sharing your toys and building the marble ramp together, giving a marble to everyone”
This was followed immediately with a chorus of children telling me all the different ways that they share.

Listening to the children talk about their views made me think that they equated meanness with hitting, not sharing and exclusion while they equated kindness with being helpful and sharing. I also wondered if they noticed that they themselves were sometimes “mean” according to their own definitions.

This conversation made me think that perhaps there was an opportunity to focus on positive thinking and explore kindness with the students.

In my mind kindness was a much more complicated concept than giving and sharing and I wondered how I could expand their thinking? I decided to reflect on my role as their primary teacher, being intentional about expectations, modelling and language along with observations of the children’s daily activities and how they interact with each other. Stepping back to observe continued to be the most powerful tool for learning about the children’s interactions with each other.

In Reggio Emilia, teachers frequently consider a child’s question and then relaunch it. I decided to try this approach.

Re-launching the question: What does kindness look like in our lives?
I revisited our question with the whole class using structured talk, Think Pair Share, a familiar framework. Our question became five questions and the children wondered why the same person was mean sometimes and kind at other times. They wondered if animals were kind and could we change a mean feeling into a kind feeling

Classroom Environment: what changes could be made to encourage kindness based on my discussions with children and anecdotal notes?
I began by introducing Vivian Paley’s Everyone is Welcome during one of our conversations. The children weren’t sure they wanted to do it I suspect because they liked controlling their play partners, but I convinced them that we should try it as we were learning about kindness. We compromised and chose to try it during our morning exploration time. We were already doing it during any table work and carpet time as the y children did not have assigned seating.

Also since we spent four mornings a week outdoors the children felt that it was only fair to have “everyone is welcome” during our outdoor exploration time as well. During school recess they decided not to follow that rule (although they actually did follow the rule once it was embedded in the program). Following a bumpy start, most of the children began to accept everyone into their play with only an occasional child refusing.

It was interesting for all of us to learn that most often the refusal had nothing to do with exclusion but rather that their play skills and language needed some development.

It was also interesting that children perceived the refusal as being mean when it meant something quite different. Bridging these conversations became an important support that I was able to offer to help the children understand that it was more about language and play rather than being mean or unwanted. It’s not that I wasn’t already doing this (we all do) however the difference was that I was being explicit and it often emerged as a topic during our conversations about kindness.

I chose to use storytelling to help expand their understanding about kindness and their understandings of meanness. I regularly shared stories in which children solved their own social problems, highlighting differences, compromise and problem solving. A favourite book was This Is Our House by Michael Rosen, a gentle tale about kindness and acceptance. I stepped back and gave children time to solve their social problems, encouraging them to use peaceful solutions, compromise and language to express their feelings and explain their thinking.

Acts of Kindness
The children decided to track their kind acts by having a secret kindness detective who would report to me in private when they observed a student’s kindness. At the same time I eavesdropped and observed kind comments and acts.

We created a kindness tree and covered it with hearts, which included quotes from the children and adults in our community.  Sometimes we would pick some of the quotes to talk about and they would share their stories about what they observed and experienced. It was through these conversations, stories and examples that the word empathy emerged and children began to care about each other in a deeper way.

As their understanding of kindness developed they created a Kindness tree in the school foyer and covered it with hearts modelled after Jim Dine and wrote key words on the back. Later the children took their hearts home to share with their families. The school secretary wrote a beautiful letter to the children thanking them for making the foyer so beautiful and welcoming.

To nurture an understanding of empathy, I invited a parent with a newborn to visit us each month. Baby Ana’s monthly visits became a cherished day. We would count the days until her visit, discuss what questions we would ask and make predictions on what changes we might observe and hear about. In between visits the children loved to connect with Baby Ana when she came to drop off or pick up her son.

Eventually, the children wanted to share their learning outside of our classroom space with other kindergarten classes and the school in general. They baked surprise cookies and received a wonderful letter from the receiving students. They crafted beautiful hearts for the custodians and spontaneously decorated the school hallways with beautiful drawings. Eventually the children moved to the building exterior to draw a kindness wall using sidewalk chalk. The culmination of the project was collecting canned goods for the food bank.

We worked on this project over many months, circling back to our questions as we noticed growth, new learning and understandings. Throughout this time the concept grew and included being helpful, inclusion, listening, generosity and most surprisingly peer to peer conversations began to emerge on how they could be kind, respectful and work harder.

The children learned that sometimes you are mean because you are hungry, feel sick, tired or sad.  They learned that everyone can be kind but also everyone can be mean. This changed the children’s whole perspective towards children who did or said something mean. Instead of being angry or trying to exclude, they would try to figure out what the problem was by asking “are you hungry? “Would you like to join us”, or making positive statements “I am glad you came, we needed another person to play the game.” I found this perspective very empowering for the children and my respect for their thinking grew alongside.

Some bigger surprises were the risks that children took asking if they could join into play, especially the younger children who were shy or had less language.

Our Aboriginal EA who accompanied us once a week to the forest or seashore commented that she was just amazed at the collaborative approach to play and learning embedded in our classroom. As we watched and listened to a group of children working to solve a math problem using sticks, we were awestruck by their sophisticated language, gentleness with each other and the respect shown for ideas and contributions.


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