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.

 

Talking About Race

In the 2016-2017 school year, educators, families and graduate students participated in a research group examining the goals of Anti-Bias Education. Click here to read more about this group.

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Marissa Tafura, photo from https://www.rmpjc.org/about-us?lightbox=dataItem-iyuwsnvz1

As part of their continuing conversation, Marissa Tafura from Empowering Kids met with educators from the Boulder Journey School Teacher Education Program (BJSTEP) to discuss the importance of engaging in conversations about race. Marissa focuses on equipping teachers and families with the tools they require to enter into dialogue with young children.

 

 

 

We reflected on the following questions:

 

 

How often do teachers and parents talk with children about race?

  • Marissa recommends using very descriptive colors to name race and to make it personal by referencing someone you know who identifies with that race. Be sure to model that it is okay to notice and talk about race, while recognizing that those conversations may look different in public and private spaces.

 

How can we challenge the normalization of whiteness and diversify materials offered in classrooms and homes?

  • Marissa recommends sharing why some images or narratives make you uncomfortable. For example, “I don’t like that the only brown skinned person in the book is the one opening the gate to the zoo.”

 

How do we name race as an important part of one’s identity?

  • Marissa made the comparison to how we talk about gender and accept that gender identity is important to our self concept. She encouraged us to do the same with race and not shy away from it.

 

How can we raise children who are able to identify injustices and take action?

  • Marissa recommends empowering children. She suggests that adults should include narratives that challenge the idea that people of color are always victims.

 

 

Marissa recommended the following website on teaching tolerance: http://www.tolerance.org/  She also recommended this article: http://www.wdsnyc.org/file/documents/CHILDREN-ARE-NOT-COLORBLIND.pdf

We look forward to continuing our work with Marissa and plan to schedule a meeting for Boulder Journey School parents as a next step. You can learn more about the importance of talking with children about race by visiting this blog: http://family-garden.org/talk-kids-race/

 

Here are some additional resources:

Book Lists

30 Asian & Asian-American Children’s Books

Spreadsheet of Books

10 Books That Empower Kids to Stand Up and Speak Out

Best Multicultural Books for Children

50 Indian Books Every Parent Must Read to Their Child

28 Books That Affirm Black Boys

Building a Diverse Anti-Bias Library for Young Children (multiple resources)

Children’s Books That Tackle Race & Ethnicity

Multicultural Book Lists for Children: 60+ Book Lists, including 10 Amazing Multicultural Picture Books About Helping Others, Multicultural Adoption Books for Kids,

Best World Religion Books for Kids

40 LGBTQ-Friendly Picture Books for Ages 0-5

Books Featuring Children of Color Where Race is Not the Point of the Story

Children’s Books Featuring Kids of Color Being Themselves. Because that’s enough.

Indigenous and First Nations Kids Books

Guide for Selecting Anti-Bias Children’s Books

5 Things to Keep in Mind When Gifting Books to Children of Color

A Book Subscription Box Created for Black Children

Talking to Kids About Police Brutality: A Community Resource List

 

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.” 

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.