Transported to a gardener's world
Giving children choices about what they learn and how they learn it helps to motivate them. It also improves their understanding and retention. But surely it's too much to expect infants and pre-5s to make sensible choices about their own learning?
Not at all, says Aileen Roan, principal teacher at Gargieston Primary, Kilmarnock, where the early years worked a day a week last term on a cross-curricular summer project whose main themes - garden centre, travel agent and ice-cream shop - were chosen by the children.
"At the start, the teachers asked their classes separately what summer made them think of," says Ms Roan. "As we got ideas and wrote them down on a big piece of paper it sparked other children to suggest things. Some even came in next day, having talked to mums and dads, with more ideas on bits of paper.
"We pulled it all together into a topic web. It wasn't hard because the same things came up from all the classes."
The next step was to match each of the five teachers with a subject area - from language, art, ICT, maths and science - which they would explore in rotation with all three stages, in the context of the themes and activities suggested by the children.
"We came together, looked at what the kids had come up with and talked about which subject we'd be comfortable with.
"That was important, since it was the first time we'd tried this, and the teachers needed to be happy with what they were going to do."
So then all that remained was for each teacher to plan lessons linked to the main themes for each of nursery, P1 and P2.
Given the huge strides in development and learning that children make in early years, preparing lessons for nursery children was a little daunting at first, confesses Anne McIntosh, the P2 teacher, who opted for the literacy lessons.
"I was the first to take the nursery, so I was a bit concerned. Until this year I'd been teaching P1 though, and there's not a lot of difference between end of nursery and start of P1. We've concentrated on the alphabet, getting them talking to me, telling stories, listening to them. It has gone well."
But this is one aspect of the project that's likely to change this session, says Ms Roan. "We'll have more collaborative planning. We'll also tackle a different project each term, since this has worked so well."
The initial purpose of the project was to improve the transition from nursery and make the little ones feel part of the school even before attending full-time.
"They'd be over here every week, getting familiar with the school, staff and resources, and would then be confident when they came here in August."
"Through the chamber of commerce we've also been making links with local businesses, such as The Travel Division and MGM Garden Centre, who have been coming in, talking to the kids, giving them things to do and answering their questions. The children love it. It gives them a real-life context for everything they're doing.
"We've had Ayrshire Glen Ice Cream coming out to explain to them how it's made and, since they are a farm, that it comes from cows."
Once set up, the project works really well, says Ms Roan, and helps create a feeling of an early years community, rather than three separate stages. "This year I would like to take it a bit further by mixing the three stages together for the lessons.
"That's probably too ambitious for the start of the session. But by the third term I think we might all be confident enough to give it a go."
BETTER BY HALVES
Towards the end of a maths lesson motivated by a colourful garden visitor, nursery teacher Jackie McColl is reinforcing the learning and getting feedback from her P2 guests.
"Is it hard to find a line of symmetry?"
"No, you put a line down the middle and get two halves the same."
"So if I halve my face this way is it symmetrical?"
"And if I halve it this way?"
"`Cos you don't have eyes on your chin."
"Very good. So then we made symmetrical paintings. Why was that easy?"
"We put paint on the first page, then we folded it up and squidged it down. Then we opened it and it was the same pattern."
"It was just like a butterfly."
"Yes it was. So now who knows what a line of symmetry is?"
"It's a line that has the same on both sides, like a mirror."
"Very good. Now I want you to tell me how well you've worked. A quiet clap means you didn't work hard. A loud clap means you worked super.
"One, two, three ."
Early years hands might be small, but they make big sounds. And early years brains make sound choices.