Some of the pupils at a Fife primary were feeling bereft of duties. But now they are helping with the nursery children. Su Clark reports
The pupils of P4-5 at Pittenweem Primary in Fife were feeling a bit disgruntled last year. Having discovered they were the only older pupils in the village school with no formal responsibilities, they were feeling left out.
The oldest pupils were playground monitors, wet play co-ordinators and buddies to P1s upwards. But the 18 or so children in P4-5 had no one to look after and no tasks to fulfil beyond their classroom. So Elis Reekie, the P4-5 teacher, and Adam Alexander, the nursery class teacher, came up with a solution: they would let the middle school class buddy up with the nursery class.
"This class is ideal for nursery children because they are not so big, physically. P7 pupils can look like adults to a three-year-old and that can be quite scary," says Mr Alexander, who has been at the school for 15 years, the past three as head of the nursery.
"It also fits in with family groups. Many of the nursery pupils have brothers or sisters about three or four years older than them, although we try not to buddy up siblings unless they ask for it."
Mrs Reekie has now retired, but the new P4-5 teacher, Joyce Wilson, has embraced the programme. Originally the children got together once a month, but Mrs Wilson is happy for them to go through to the nursery every three weeks. The children also get together twice a week for Shake Up, Wake Up exercise sessions.
"During the warmer months, the whole school does it together," explains headteacher Elaine Paterson. "But when it is colder and they have to do it in the hall, we can only let two classes do it at a time. So the nursery children come through to the hall with their buddies.
"It means they are familiar with the school and the older pupils, which makes transition so much easier. They just feel more comfortable, more secure."
Getting the children together so often helps build a bond that the school hopes will last until the older pupils leave.
"These children will remain buddies to the younger ones now as they move up through the school. By the time the older children leave, we hope the younger ones will become senior buddies themselves," says Mr Alexander.
The buddies have also made it easier for the school to take the children out to events. At Christmas the whole school went to see a pantomime in Dundee.
"Normally we would have to ensure we had enough parents along for the nursery children, but this year they linked up with their P4-5 buddies, who walked them on and off the bus and sat with them during the performance," says Mrs Paterson. "The nursery children behaved beautifully in the theatre. It was a total success."
The main buddy sessions, when the older children join the younger ones in the nursery, last for about 30 minutes, with 10 minutes at the end for a story and song. Most often the time is spent on free play, with the older children doing whatever the younger ones want.
But Mrs Wilson and Mr Alexander have clear learning outcomes identified. The nursery children are benefiting from peer mentoring; engaging with slightly older children who can help them improve reading and writing skills, and developing other skills through play.
Meanwhile, for the older children - 14 boys and four girls - the role of buddying a smaller child helps to build a caring, sharing approach to school. They are able to build up their own confidence and sense of responsibility, and are given the opportunity to be effective contributors.
This fits neatly with Scotland's national priorities for the type of people schools aim to produce, but there are other, specific, learning outcomes in the Curriculum for Excellence.
Mrs Wilson recently linked the nursery class and P4-5s in a healthy eating project, where the older children made soup and the nursery children joined them to eat it.
Before Easter, Mr Alexander got the nursery children to make rainwater collection systems out of plastic bottles. This activity complemented the sustainability studies for both groups.
"The P4-5 children are able to talk to the primary children about the environment, as well as helping them measure how much water they've collected," says Mr Alexander. "It covers more than one topic."
The water collected is being used in another project which the older children are doing, on plants. This involves growing potatoes in the nursery garden for a competition.
"We are sort of growing them together," says Sean Allan, 9, who is buddy to Alex Birrell, 4.
In another session, the older children have been considering what the aims of nursery education are.
The project was Mr Alexander's idea, and it has helped the older children understand the benefits they bring to the younger ones. Now, when they sit down with one of the nursery children, the pupils appreciate that it is a learning experience for the younger child.
The older pupils have also had class discussions about the behaviour of small children, making them aware that three-, four- and five-year-olds can sometimes be shy or moody and may not want to play; their behaviour can be erratic.
Alice Rundel, 8, has been paired up with Kirsty Bamrick, 5. They are playing together in the home corner, with Kirsty dressed in a large, black-brimmed hat.
"I like having responsibility," says Alice. "And it is good getting to come through to play."
Kirsty agrees with the playing bit: "I love having a buddy because I have someone to play with."
Suddenly she picks up a small pink hair band and declares she is off to decorate her pony. Alice hesitates, not sure whether to continue with the interview or to follow her. She smiles apologetically as if to say "It is my job".
"We watch how the children play together," says Mr Alexander. "If there is a breakdown, we mediate.
"I get them doing something creative together so they can rebuild their bond.
"However, if there is an obvious clash - and this has happened on a very few occasions - we would find new buddies."
Pittenweem Primary is a small school with just over 100 pupils and there are not enough buddies to go round, so some pupils have responsibility for more than one youngster. Alice has a second buddy, Megan Adamson, and Ethan Russell, 9, has three.
"I had Roan and then Olivia came, so I was her buddy too. But Skye wanted to change her buddy and she asked if it could be me," explains Ethan.
Skye Christie, 4, is tall, confident and talkative, and emphatic that she wanted Ethan to be her buddy "because he's funny".
Ethan reckons it could be because he knows her big sister. But it does make it a rather exhausting session for him.
"I don't plan what I'm going to do, I just make it up as I go along," he explains.
"Today Olivia wanted to play inside, but Roan and Skye wanted to be outside. So I played with Olivia for a wee bit and then I went and played with Roan and Skye."
The buddy sessions always end with a story, and sometimes a song. Alex is sitting close to Sean on some blocks as Mr Alexander reads Jack and the Beanstalk. She looks comfortable and confident, while Sean is obviously proud to have the responsibility.
"It is the best," says Alex, grinning at Sean. "It is fun."
PURPOSEFUL PLAY ON THE TIMETABLE
Most of the P4-5 buddy sessions in the nursery are unstructured, allowing the children to simply play together, but the teachers have organised some events to link in with the P4-5 curriculum.
At Easter assembly, the primary pupils performed on stage with the nursery children. They sang One Potato, Two Potato, which helped the nursery children learn to count. It also fitted with a P4-5 project to grow potatoes for a competition.
During Health Week, the primary pupils spent an afternoon making soup in the nursery after the smaller children had gone home. The next day the nursery children made bread, and then both groups got together in the dining hall to eat their soup and bread.
Mr Alexander asked P4-5 to consider what the aims of nursery education were and to illustrate them. During art, the pupils did a series of drawings showing reading, drawing, painting and more. These now hang on the wall.
Twice a week, the P4-5 pupils do Shake Up, Wake Up exercises with the nursery. "At first, the nursery children just stood and watched, but now they join in," says P4-5 teacher Joyce Wilson.
The exercises are done in the hall during the winter, but as the weather gets better, the plan is for the whole school to do Shake Up, Wake Up together outside.