As Jane Bickley's reception class approaches the huge, brightly coloured parachute laid out on the hall floor, they know that it has 20 coloured segments, and that there are 25 children. Some will have to share a segment from the start and all will share at some point during the lesson.
Planning for this sharing is the first subtlety in a lesson with spontaneity that's made possible by imaginative and highly detailed planning. Every activity, word, gesture and inflection of the voice is carefully designed to promote personal development for each child, as well as moving them towards a wide range of early learning goals, especially physical development.
Gordonbrock Primary School in the London borough of Lewisham has had the parachute for three years, and Jane and teaching assistant Susan Hooker have developed a repertoire of games that keeps them and the children interested. They use the parachute every third week, alternating it with large and small apparatus and floor-work. Their parachute is seven metres in diameter, so it is big enough for the whole class to sit underneath, and its brightly coloured segments invite number and language activities.
Today's lesson begins with a warm-up linked to the planned exercises. It involves keeping arms high or straight without locking their elbows, and running straight. Movements have to be quick, but controlled, and children have to learn to avoid banging into others, so that they are, literally, learning to think on their feet.
In the first main game, One, Two, Three - Up, the children start from a low point and lift the parachute as high as they can, filling it with air, while designated groups of children move across the space, aiming to get to the other side before the parachute falls on them. The instructions are clear and crisp:
"If you're blue, march across. If you're yellow, skip across. If you're green, crawl across. If you're red, walk backwards across. If you're four years old, skip across. If you're five, run across. If you're older than four or five, do the best you can" - at which Jane and Susan dash across, to great amusement.
Jane explains the muscles used in each exercise, and reinforces this as the lesson proceeds: "Now we will exercise the muscles at the front of our arms. Turn your hands over..."
Reflection and evaluation are planned as carefully as activity. Lying still under the parachute creates a sense of calm that helps children to focus on their heartbeat, and moving the parachute together develops a sense of teamwork, particularly when everyone has to lift it as high as possible from a low starting point, then keep the air in by sitting down quickly around the edge (see the Mushroom game, opposite).
There is a sense of awe and wonder about these peaceful episodes under the bright canopy, held up miraculously by the atmosphere before it gently falls. One feels that Einstein would have smiled, and so might Mozart. As he said of one violin concerto, the lesson "flowed like oil" - a fusion of science, art and excellent teaching.
* A seven-metre parachute costs pound;59 from www.nesarnold.co.uk
Ask all children to lift the parachute, but to keep it low (arms straight, but not with locked elbows, as it makes it difficult to create a fluid movement), so the parachute doesn't fill with air. Say there is a storm coming and ask children to listen for the wind whistling through the trees.
Gently move the parachute using wrists only, and talk about how it is moving and the combined effects of each small movement. Gradually build up to a storm by moving wrists and elbows, then whole arms so the parachute is lifted above their heads.
One, Two, Three - Up
Remind children about the importance of moving and working together to achieve maximum effect. Start with the parachute low and encourage little or no movement before the count. The activity works better if the parachute fills suddenly with air. Say "one, two, three - up" and encourage them all to lift at the same time on the word "up". Remind them not to let go of the parachute. As they become more experienced it is fun to all let go and to grab the parachute again when you say "catch".
An extension of One, Two, Three - Up. When the parachute is at its highest point, call out "mushroom". Everyone quickly pulls the parachute down behind them, and sits on it, cross-legged, in a circle. Encourage children to do this quickly and not to let any air escape when sitting down. The calm and quiet atmosphere underneath the tent is a good way of calming the session down if some children have become a little too excited.
An extension of Mushroom. The challenge is for the children to move beneath the mushroom to find another space, but without the parachute touching them. This becomes increasingly challenging as the middle of the parachute drops towards the floor and they have to get closer to the ground to avoid it.
An extension of One, Two, Three - Up. When the parachute is at its highest point, billowing with air, call out "ostrich". The children have to tuck the parachute around the back of their neck and drop to the floor, so they are lying on their front. Only their head is beneath the parachute - the rest of their body is poking out. This looks very funny from the outside, and the children always like to laugh when they see each other's heads poking underneath the parachute.
An extension of Ostrich. When the children are lying on the floor, say "daydreaming", so they turn round onto their backs. This seems to work better than dropping and twisting in one movement, which could twist bodies unnecessarily. When the children are all lying on their backs with the parachute billowing above them it is a great time to ask them to have a rest and listen to their breathing or beating hearts and discuss how the exercise has made their bodies feel.
This activity encourages group co-operation and trust. Children stand around the parachute and gather it tight, at chest height. They need enough room to pull the parachute tight, with arms straight. This requires a fair degree of skill, as they need to understand about co-operation and how their actions will affect the group. When the parachute is tight, they can lean back, trusting the people opposite to hold their weight. As they become more practised they will be more confident about leaning right back and be able to move slowly sideways in a circle, then faster so they are spinning round with the parachute. Do this in one direction for a short time, then move the other way to avoid dizziness.
Drop the parachute to the floor and choose someone to sit in the middle.
Raise the parachute to waist level and ask children to "add the water and powder" and billow the parachute around the person in the washing machine.
Then start to "spin" the washing by getting the children to move around in a circle, first one way and then the other. You can ask them to walk, run and skip around in different directions. We usually finish off by "drying the washing". This involves standing still and billowing the parachute up around the person in the middle.