Small World Play: The Benefits of Miniature Fantasy Lands

Six times a year, Boulder Journey School collaborates with Hawkins Centers of Learning to hold evening workshops, open to the community. The topic of each workshop varies; however each experience offers time and space to engage in the three phases of Messing About, as proposed by David Hawkins.

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“[Fantasy] is the mother of all possibilities where, like all psychological opposites, the inner and outer worlds are joined together in a living union.”

Carl Jung

As part of our Professional Development series, Messing About with Teaching, we invited educators to explore the history of small world play, as well as to spend time engaging with miniature fantasy lands.

As participants entered the room, they were greeted by hundreds of miniatures, ranging from medieval characters to marine creatures. Amidst these figures were a series of loose parts and trays that could act as landscapes. In some settings, the figurines and landscapes were a logical pairing; in others, they were incongruous.

The participants examined the tables and chose which sets to sit near.

“Each of us have such different spaces. You look at some of these different classes or visit and think, ‘Oh I wish I had that.’ But you work with what you have, and the children work with what they have. How you set things up highlights what you have already. And I think that was a really big learning experience for me.” – participant reflection

To begin the evening, we explored the history of Small World Play – a practice rooted in psychotherapy and inspired by science fiction writer, H.G. Wells.

The ‘World Technique’ in play therapy was developed by Dr. Margaret Lowenfeld in 1929. The goal of this methodology was to offer children an avenue to explore and communicate their thoughts and feeling through non-verbal strategies. (http://www.creativecounseling101.com/sandtray-therapy-class-history-of-sandtray-therapy-student-1.html)

Her outstanding contributions sprang from her recognition that play is an important activity in children’s development and that language is often an unsatisfactory medium for children to express their experiences. She consequently invented non-verbal techniques that enabled them to convey their thoughts and feelings without resort to words. – The Dr. Margaret Lowenfeld Trust

Lowenfeld herself was inspired by the book Floor Games by H.G. Wells (1911), in which the author of The Time Machine explored fantasy lands with his own children.

(http://www.creativecounseling101.com/sandtray-therapy-class-history-of-sandtray-therapy-student-1.html)

Lowenfeld’s work has extended into classrooms, where teachers and children create and use these settings and figures to explore intra- and interpersonal relationships, as well as to explore the world on a manageable scale. Careful observation of children, and as we discovered during the workshop, ourselves at play with these small worlds offer myriad insights into personalities and learning styles.

Participants “shop” for figurines to use in their play.


Consider this dialogue excerpt from the reflection session at the end of play*:

Kathy and Steve know each other, but in a very limited capacity. Andrea, Brian, and Emily all work closely together, Andrea and Brian as co-teachers, Emily as their Pedagogical Support. Nina and the rest of the participants in her group all teach at the same school.

Alex (facilitator): How did you react to the spaces that you had?

Kathy: I’m very introverted, so to avoid that, I stepped away. I really like ledges and small spaces, so I wanted to take my figures over to the small space.

Steve: I was worried that I had co-opted your space. But it turns out we are of a very similar mindset.

Andrea: It’s interesting that you thought about that. I didn’t even consider infringing on someone else’s space. I just built, and he started building this way, and I was like, well, that’s the edge.

And, I don’t like to work in small spaces. I would have preferred to work on the floor, but I didn’t feel there was adequate space for it.

Brian: It felt like it was a small space, but I embraced it. I mirrored [Andrea’s]. It’s kind of how we work in the classroom; we’ll mirror each other. I mirrored this, and I just worked with my space. Emily’s phone ended up in my way, so instead of just moving it, it became a wall to my space. I felt like the space was too small, so I shifted the scope of my idea. I used the phone and built around it.

Andrea: Whereas, if Emily’s phone had ended up in my space, I would move it to a different space and define, “Here’s your space.”

Emily: And Brian would just work around it.

Nina: The way our table was set up, with the mirrors on each side, it didn’t even occur to us to split up or to change the setting in any way. There was this big piece in the middle that anchored us and drew us to play together.

*participants’ names have been changed


Through our work with these materials, and with each other, we gained understandings of the learning process. Following this workshop, we found ourselves watching children’s work with figures and playscapes through a new lens.

Do you offer spaces for small world play in your context? Share those experiences in the comments.

 

Camden and Olivia Use a Tool

As a school, we use video documentation to guide our work with children. One crucial piece of working with video is revisiting the video, analyzing it to pull out questions for further research or to reach new understandings of children’s and teachers’ motivations. We practice analyzing videos with interns and mentors.

Below is a video and write-up that we have shared with Videatives, an organization with whom we partner.

Camden and Olivia Use a Tool

Camden and Olivia, both 3, are on their third day of school. Both are brand new to an already established class of children. While using the outdoor classroom, they have discovered a tool is needed to move the handle of the zip-line to the rider’s position.

 

Olivia, who is next for a turn to ride, is actively cheering Camden’s efforts.

 

Camden is using a tool that is appropriate for the job, however tripped up, literally, by an extra material on the ground.

 

At 0:44, Camden realizes the white tube lying on the ground is playing some part in his setbacks. At 0:54, the white tube does not act as he is expecting, and he throws it to the ground, his face conveying that he is on the verge of frustration and giving up. He makes a brief moment of eye contact with the teacher (behind the video camera).

 

Consider: According to the Zone of Proximal Development, this would be an ideal moment for scaffolding from the teacher. In this instance, the teacher chose to remain silent – ultimately a decision that paid off for Camden. Did the eye contact act as the teacher’s scaffolding (did it communicate, ‘I’m here, I’m present, you can do this’)? How could the teacher’s interaction here have altered Camden’s next steps? As a first experience at this school, how will this interaction shape Camden’s sense of self-efficacy within the school community?

 

At 1:00, Camden revisits his initial strategy with the longer black tube. He is successful, now that the white tube is gone. At this point, the teacher joins in with a cheer.

 

Consider: How did Olivia’s encouragements act as scaffolding? Did the teacher’s voice become stronger because she added it as a collaborative celebration rather than a top-down instruction?
Also consider: When Camden switched to using the white tube, was his motivation that he recognized the white tube was a key ingredient in some way and did not recognize that its role was merely to be moved?

Oliver Goes to the Moon: A Video Analysis

As a school, we use video documentation to guide our work with children. One crucial piece of working with video is revisiting the video, analyzing it to pull out questions for further research or to reach new understandings of children’s and teachers’ motivations. We practice analyzing videos with interns and mentors.

Below is a video and write-up that we have shared with Videatives, an organization with whom we partner.

“[Study] results indicate that children may sometimes be confused about the nature of imagined objects, although these confusions do not occur all the time. Thus, it is not the case that children are either perpetually confused or perpetually clear about this distinction between imagination and reality.” – Weisberg, D. 2013.“Distinguishing Imagination from Reality.” The Oxford Handbook of the Development of Imagination. P. 82 

The video opens on a child, Oliver, 3 years old, sitting inside a structure composed of fabric and piping. It is a little hard to see in this video, but there is a projection of a space scene on the fabric in front of him.

He is holding his hands about “steering wheel distance” apart and making a steady hum engine noise in his throat. About 15 seconds in, the sound in his throat catches. He continues with the sound, now a broken hum (we will use the onomatopoeia “hm-hm” for the broken sound), for about four seconds. At this point, Oliver’s eyebrows knit together, and he looks down.

“Why did it just go “hm-hm”? He picks up a block and, while examining the block says, “We need to stop it for a sec. We need to stop it because it just went ‘hm-hm’” He makes the broken sound again a few times.

His teacher, Charlotte, who is holding the camera, asks, “That’s not how it’s supposed to sound?” Oliver shakes his head, no.

Charlotte asks, “Alright, are you going to fix the engine so you can keep traveling to the moon?”

Oliver looks to the projection of space. He points to a spot, “Maybe to that over there. I’m supposed to drive over there.”

He then arranges a series of loose parts (pvc type piping) in front of him and says, “Beep-beep- beep-beep,” while poking at the blue block he was holding earlier.

Charlotte holds up another loose part, “Oli, here’s some tools.” He takes them from her and proceeds to touch them to the piping, concentrating intently on his work.

A question to consider is, how did Oliver write the script for his play? From his initial actions and his teacher’s initial attempt to redirect him to flying to the moon, it seems that the script was to fly a spaceship to the moon.

Did Oliver’s voice break, causing him to hear the engine as breaking? Or was that intentional? His initial look of confusion implies that for a moment, he may have truly believed the spaceship was broken. Did he temporarily forget that he had control over the script?

As Weisberg noted in her study (link above), “It is not the case that children are either perpetually confused or perpetually clear about this distinction between imagination and reality.” Where did Oliver sit in this distinction?

Pendulums, Paper Airplanes, and Wind Tunnels: A Study of Aerodynamics

We believe in honoring the history of the land we temporarily occupy. Bob Stanley was the first American to fly a jet plane…. There is a history of innovation here, of boldness. We embrace it.

Stanifesto, Stanley Marketplace, Home of OPENair Stapleton

Once a month, we partner with Hawkins Centers of Learning to offer Professional Development workshops to our faculty, graduate students, and the community-at-large.

Many of these are hosted at Boulder Journey School, some are held on the campuses of our partner schools, as a way to further our collaboration. The February, 2017 workshop was held at OPENair Stapleton – a brand new campus located inside an old airplane hangar. It was a fitting spot, as the content of the explorations were: Pendulums, Paper Airplanes, and Wind Tunnels: A Study of Aerodynamics.

We gathered in the OPENair Maker Studio with 3 sets of materials:

  • Pendulums
    • Pre-made pendulums
    • Stands and jars
    • A variety of strings
    • Sticks
    • Funnels
    • Washers
  • Paper Airplanes
    • Print-outs of patterns and instructions
    • A variety of paper weights
    • Scissors
    • Paper Clips
  • Wind Tunnel
    • A pre-made Wind Tunnel
    • Loose parts including paper, feathers, plastic, and more

Most of the workshops are structured to offer participants time and space to engage in each of the three phases of Messing About, as defined by David Hawkins.

We opened the evening with a discussion of aerodynamics (engaging in the square phase – the unpacking of theory). The word aerodynamics invited mixed emotions, ranging from panic to giddiness. Lindsay, a Denver-based teacher, shared that thinking of aerodynamics reminded her of her father and Girl Scout camp, while another teacher mentioned that the word itself made her stomach clench.

We read the definition of aerodynamics:

aerodynamics: noun

the science that studies the movement of gases and the way solid bodies,

such as aircraft, move through them

Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary

the study of the properties of moving air, and especially of the interaction between the air and solid bodies moving through it.

The Oxford American College Dictionary

Using the definition as our starting place, we developed initial questions to guide us before working with the materials (engaging in the triangle phase – a time for choosing a path and narrowing the focus). These questions were mostly vague – one of them asked simply, “What do I do with this stuff?”

As the teachers worked, they tracked new questions that were developing for them.

One group of teachers reflected on the evolution of their thoughts when working with the wind tunnel. When they first approached the materials, they wondered how they had been chosen – how would such heavy materials fly?

This initial question evolved into new questions:

  • What combinations of materials work well together?
  • How can we alter heavy materials to give them more air surface and lift?
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When heavy plastics are combined with feathers, they gain enough surface area to achieve lift.
  • How can we alter the way the materials enter the wind tunnel to boost their lift?
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Heavy materials that are put into the wind tunnel from the top interact in a different way than heavy materials that are put into the wind tunnel from the bottom. This inspired the question, “How do we distinguish between flying and falling?”

A group of teachers who focused their attention on the paper airplanes reflected that their ultimate goal had been performance.  They wanted to land as many airplanes as possible on the mezzanine.

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They developed systems for testing the different airplane designs.They reflected that they were able to begin developing systems because they had been offered time and space to mess about with materials and ideas, and wondered, “What systems would the children develop when offered similar time and space?”

The pendulum players reflected that as they entered into the work they were faced with so many variables. Through the workshop, they altered the materials in the cone (sand, paint, water, heavy bobs, etc.), the shape of the cone, the length of the string, the height of the string, the type of string. They realized, when offering pendulums in a classroom, they would need to pare down their choices and determine a variable for their focus. One teacher from the group reflected that although we tend to think of a strong environment as one that offers limitless possibilities, sometimes, “a well-designed environment is one that narrows the possibilities to support the investigation of one variable.”

Without having the time and space to play with pendulums and their many variables, the teachers reflected they would be intimidated, or clumsy, in offering them to children. Through their play, the teachers were able to make decisions about how to sharpen the focus for children.

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What materials flow smoothly from the pendulum to paint designs on the paper? What materials are well balanced inside the cone to come out smoothly enough to watch and slowly enough to sustain prolonged movement?

During our final reflections, one teacher noted that she had come to the experience tired from a day at work. She was not sure what to expect.

What she uncovered was that play, for her as well as for children, offered, “Joy, joy, joy.” 

Anti-Bias Education

During the 2015-2016 school year, Boulder Journey School mentors and directors formed a research group, centered around the book, Leading Anti-Bias Early Childhood Programs: A Guide for Change (Early Childhood Education) by Louise Derman-Sparks, Debbie LeeKeenan, and John Nimmo. In the 2016-2017 school year, this group expanded to include families’ and graduate students’ voices, examining the goals of Anti-Bias Education.

John Nimmo, EdD, Assistant Professor, Early Childhood Education, in the Graduate School of Education at Portland State University, Oregon and a recipient of the Social Justice Award and the Excellence through Diversity Award at University of New Hampshire, has been working with Boulder Journey School as we engage in these dialogues.

In January, 2017, John visited Boulder and met with over 25 Boulder Journey School mentors, graduate students, and parents to discuss anti-bias education, why it is important, and special considerations when engaging in anti-bias education in a school for young children.

We reflected on how we respond when there are differing points of view in one classroom.

We wondered if we have a responsibility to model that many points of view can exist together peacefully, in the classroom and in the world.

We were curious if parents anticipate that their children may learn about perspectives that are different from their own while at school.

To further the conversations, we discussed possible responses to the following classroom scenarios:

  1. A teacher invites parents to share the holiday music that they listen to at home in order to play the same music in the classroom. A parent responds that this is a fantastic idea, as long as none of the music is religious. Is it appropriate to ban one family’s religious beliefs from the class but not another family’s support of gay marriage, knowing that these two families have quite different value systems?
  2. How do we respond when a child asks if a girl can be a boy? If a girl can marry a girl? Why some people don’t have homes? Why people have different skin colors?

We used the goals listed below as points of reference:

THE GOALS OF ANTI-BIAS EDUCATION

(From: Louise Derman-Sparks & Julie Olsen Edwards, 2010. Anti-Bias Education for Young Children & Ourselves. Washington DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children. p.xiv.)

  1. Each child will demonstrate self-awareness, confidence, family pride, and positive social identities.
  2. Each child will express comfort and joy with human diversity, accurate language for human differences and deep, caring human connections.
  3. Each child will increasingly recognize unfairness, have language to describe unfairness, and understand that unfairness hurts.
  4. Each child will demonstrate empowerment and the skills to act, with others or alone, against prejudice and/or discrimination.

THE GOALS OF AN ANTI-BIAS EDUCATOR

(From: Louise Derman-Sparks & Julie Olsen Edwards, 2010. Anti-Bias Education for Young Children & Ourselves. Washington DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children. p.21)

  1. Increase your awareness and understanding of your own social identity in its many facets and your own cultural contexts, both childhood and current.
  2. Examine what you have learned about difference, connection, and what you enjoy and fear across lines of human diversity.
  3. Identify how you have been advantaged or disadvantaged by the “isms” (e.g. racism, sexism, etc) and the stereotypes or prejudices you have absorbed about yourself and others.
  4. Explore your ideas, feelings, and experiences of social justice activism.
  5. Open up a dialogue with colleagues and families about all these goals.

We value holding a space for conversations around these questions and goals and are grateful to the multiple perspectives shared and analyzed by the voices of our mentors, graduate students, and families.

 

 

Thinking about Families’ Voices in the Classroom

On a cold evening in January, in the cozy Teacher Education Room of Boulder Journey School, educators from Boulder and Denver gathered for an evening of discussion, centered around how we support families in participating as active protagonists in the classroom community.

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Maureen Condon, Boulder Journey School mentor teacher, shared work from her toddler class. As a class of children who were all brand new to school, it was imperative for the teachers to find the threads that would support their transition and carry the children into their citizenship at the school. Observations of the children, followed by subsequent dialogue with families, led to the class adopting baby dolls for each child in the class. This adoption sparked a year of partnership and collaboration that carried this class through multiple layers of investigation. To read more about the baby doll investigation, read Care, Community, and a Collection of Babydolls.

Following Maureen’s presentation, participants were asked to reflect on their own strategies for engaging families in partnership. The group shared specific strategies:

“Using text messaging can cut through the clutter of emails.”

“We use SeeSaw. The microphone app allows ELL children to speak native language to their parents who don’t speak English.”

Participants were also asked to uncover strategies to support increasing reciprocity among families:

“Creating a culture of openness that encourages dialogue is the foundation for thinking of strategies.”

“Creating a welcoming culture increases dialogue.”

“Creating a culture of openness and welcoming supports families in voicing their concerns as well as their joys.”

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Participants from schools in Denver share reflections on the strategies available to support family collaboration.

Meagan Arango, Boulder Journey School mentor teacher, shared a story of investigating risk with a class of preschool-age children. She shared her personal reflections about how risky it felt for her to even brooch the topic with the families in her class. Would it reflect negatively on her as a teacher? Would it suggest that she didn’t care about the children’s safety?

Through communication and carefully documented experiences, Meagan and her co-teachers, graduate students in the Boulder Journey School Teacher Education Program (BJSTEP), offered experiences that changed her image of children.

With the support of the families, I was able to tackle a topic that felt too dangerous to research on my own. Because of that research, my image of the child was transformed, as I discovered how my fears had stymied my faith in their ability to assess risk. Because of the ongoing dialogue we maintained, I believe the families benefitted from these discoveries as much as I did. – Meagan 

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In addition to Boulder Journey School Mentors,  BJSTEP graduate students and alumni, and teachers from schools in the surrounding area, we were joined by educators from across the United States and Canada via Twitter. Read a recap of the Twitter conversation on Storify.

We hold professional development workshops monthly. They are open to everyone who can attend. Current BJSTEP members are always welcome to the evening workshops for free, while alumni attend for a 50% discount. We work hard to keep the workshops affordable for all members of our community at a $20 registration fee. Learn more about the Messing About workshop series.