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?

A Farm Tale: Story From a Practicum Site – Boulder JCC

The Jay and Rose Phillips Early Childhood Center at the Boulder JCC has been a Boulder Journey School Teacher Education Program Partner School for the past three years. As a practicum site, the school hosts graduate students and mentor teachers. One of the resources the school incorporates into their curriculum is the Milk and Honey Farm, located adjacent to the Boulder JCC building.

Milk and Honey Farm at the J is a 2+ acre educational sustainable farm that brings the greater community together via experiential programs and activities designed to ignite wonder and discovery, grounded in vast Jewish heritage, tradition, and values. It provides a place for individuals to connect on the simplest level with soil, plants, animals, and people, for the health and well-being of themselves and the larger community.

-Boulder JCC

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On this particular day in February, a class of 2-3 year-old children was invited to visit the geodesic dome greenhouse to explore and participate in planting. They explored the plants that were already growing, as well as the fish in the aquaponic pool.

Aquaponics (/ˈækwəˈpɒnᵻks/) refers to any system that combines conventional aquaculture (raising aquatic animals such as snails, fish, crayfish or prawns in tanks) with hydroponics (cultivating plants in water) in a symbiotic environment.

-Wikipedia

The class was introduced to the baby parsley plants, started from seed by the resident farmer. They observed the leaves and root structures of the tiny plants. They discussed the process of starting seeds in trays, like the one pictured, and then transferring them to soil so the roots can spread out and the plants can grow to maturity. As the conversation unfolded, teachers documented the experience, so it could be revisited and reflected upon at a later time.

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The parsley itself is culturally significant. Parsley is one of several symbolic foods that is traditionally offered on the Passover Seder plate. Passover takes place near April each year, so these parsley plants were ready for harvest in time for the holiday. 

The Boulder JCC is part of the JCC Network of North America.  The JCC is an inclusive organization, open to members, teachers, and students of all backgrounds and cultures.A strong part of the ECC’s philosophical approach to early childhood education is the Sheva Framework. Described in detail below, the Sheva framework represents an expression of the Jewish tradition that is reflective of the inquiry and inclusiveness held by all in this community.

The art of inquiry within Judaism is a time-honored tradition. Teachers and students are on a continuous cycle of asking questions, researching answers, and co-constructing knowledge together.

The following seven values of the Sheva Framework help us to focus our intentions and serve as Jewish ‘lenses’ through which we see our curriculum and the life of our school community.

MASA/JOURNEY
מסע

Reflection, Return & Renewal
In order to move forward in a meaningful way, we must reflect upon the past.  Our travels are more important than the destination.

TZELEM ELOKIM/DIVINE IMAGE
צלם אלוקים
Dignity & Potential of Each Person
The image of the child as capable and competent is a core Reggio philosophy value.  We view children, families and colleagues with dignity. This is a lens of accountability, empathy and self-worth.

BRIT/COVENANT
ברית
Belonging & Commitment – Community
A bound and trusted relationship allows us to unite with others in pursuit of a shared vision.  It enables us to grow, take risks, and share with honesty.

DRASH/INTERPRETATION
דרש
The spirit of inquiry within human nature is the drive that aides in reflection and growth.  To question, to debate, to interpret, and to communicate are all essential components of the Jewish tradition.

HITORERUT/AWAKENING
התעוררות
When we as adults take the time to slow down, we become more aware of the miracles that exist in every moment, allowing gratitude to flow freely through us.  Young children are more apt to wonder, naturally embracing life with exuberance.

TIKKUN OLAM/REPAIR OF THE WORLD
תיקון עולם
Repairing the world is done with a spirit of generosity and a partnership with families and children to continuously make a difference in our community.  There is a sense of responsibility to perform social “acts of kindness” every day.

KEDUSHA/HOLINESS
קדושה
We envision holiness in terms of sacred time, spaces and intentions.  We find holiness at distinct times in the Jewish calendar, such as Shabbat and holidays.  We also unearth holiness in our daily experiences as we observe the interactions of children, listen to their voices, and discover life together.

-Boulder JCC

By creating opportunities for children to experience the life cycle from planting to eating, the children can develop ownership and care for their food in a rich and complex way. The values expressed in the Sheva framework offer a powerful lens through which to think about the significance of experiences such as this.

As the spring weather takes hold and a new outdoor growth cycle begins in all the spaces of Milk and Honey Farm, the school will continue to explore ways the children can explore and research the farm-to-table cycle.

hands leaves

  • How do the cultures reflected in your school impact the experiences offered to children?
  • What resources exist in or around your school community that can offer possibilities?
  • What kinds of opportunities can you offer children to build close relationships with the food they eat?

 

The Dynamic of a Band: Story from a Practicum Site – Boulder Journey School

“In order to act as an educator for the child, the environment has to be flexible: it must undergo frequent modification by the children and the teachers in order to remain up-to-date and responsive to their needs to be protagonists in constructing their knowledge.” – Lella Gandini, “Education and Caring Spaces”

At the beginning of the school year, the children in Room 14 at Boulder Journey School expressed a strong interest in performance and music. The teachers observed the children frequently discussing and engaging in play around performance and instrument design, especially in the outdoor classroom. According to Erin, the mentor teacher in Room 14, “It started with two children using materials to represent different instruments. There was a wooden platform outside that they made into a stage, where they performed.”emergenceofguitarsviashovels

The children used shovels or flat, long “loose parts” to represent guitars; they would play them together in groups. Microphones were represented as fairly tall objects that either stood on their own or could be propped. Erin recalled, “They used tall stable objects, such as shelves to balance sticks or tubes to be hands-free and reach their mouths.”

 

In addition to their interest in representing instruments, the children showed a strong interest in using their instruments to perform songs for others. Erin recalls that many children shared an interest in songs by Jeff and Paige, a local children’s group. They sang these with and to one another. They also sang pop culture hits, and made up their own songs. Ultimately the children’s’ shared interest in music and performance sparked a year-long investigation into the concepts of music, performance, and instrument design.

As an assignment for the Teacher Education Program (TEP), the teachers reflected on the incorporation of technology as an essential learning tool into the classroom. One goal of the TEP is to seamlessly weave together current theory with classroom practices. As the graduate students learned about the changing role of technology in the early childhood classroom, they also engaged in dialogue with their mentor teacher to uncover the ways this assignment would fit with the current work taking place in the classroom. Building on these conversations, the children were offered videos and projections of professional live performances to act as references in their understanding of guitars and microphones. The children were then asked to reflect on and share their observations of the videos and photos.  

Screen Shot 2017-05-01 at 2.14.28 PMAlongside their digital investigation of professional performances, the teachers worked to deepen children’s understanding and interest in performance and instrument creation through adaptations of the classroom environment. While the children started the year performing their songs outside on a wooden platform “stage”, over time the children and teachers worked together to create a performance stage with open ended materials for instrument design and exploration within the classroom. The performance area is an example of a responsive environment, one which develops in relation to the children’s interests.

guitarstrapstapeThe children also added new elements to their instrument creation. Wire, fabric, and string were used to represent the straps, plugs, and wires of guitars, banjos, and other string instruments. Room 14 teachers continued to observe the children’s interest in music, and offered new materials and provocations to spark further exploration. Teachers introduced tape to the children and supported individual and collective exploration of the properties of tape over several weeks. As the children developed their understanding of the properties of a variety of materials, including tape, teachers presented a question to the class: “Is there a way you can make microphones stand up so you can play your guitar and sing at the same time?”

The children also offered a challenge to themselves: to make a more accurate looking guitar that had a strap so you could let go of the guitar.

 

Over the course of several weeks, the teachers and children in room 14 explored and worked with multiple materials to create their own microphones and guitars. As they worked, they became more aware and intentional about the physical elements of design.

guitarprototype“With trial and error, a design was created that fit the criteria of the children,” recalls their teacher. For example, the children designed a shovel with a wire going through the hand hold and wrapped around the neck as their first prototype for a guitar. Over time, this design was adapted, and the final prototype for a guitar was established as a long piece of wood with tape used to depict frets, binder clips to hold lanyard, and wire to plug into the amp.

TEP mentor and intern teachers worked to scaffold and deepen the process of learning by revisiting and reflecting on the instrument prototypes with children. Teachers presented children with complex materials and questions that encouraged them to engage in the reflective process of critical thinking and learning.

In the children’s process of designing a microphone prototype through open-ended exploration, they considered four main elements: design, height, functionality, and stability.  While many children engaged in an independent process of design, they also tested different designs out with one another, as well as with older children in prekindergarten Room 12, who have an expertise in design and construction work.

Currently there are a few prototypes for microphones. Most involve tape, wire, tubes, and cut pool noodles, with a large container with a weight in it to act as the base of the microphone. Erin noted, “The class now seems to have a fairly strong idea of the elements that they need for each microphone. The challenge of stability is now the biggest obstacle in their path.”

exploringmics
“Our microphones keep tipping over.” – Adam, age 3.5 

As the children continue to explore the concepts of stability and functionality through their design process, they also express a passion for innovation and creativity. In addition to the elements of design, room 14 continues to explore and incorporate the various social aspects of performance into their classroom culture.

microphoneprototypeErin recognizes that the goals of the class have evolved, “We have started to look into the

different elements of performance, including dance and music, and consider the children’s interests relating to these elements. The dynamic of a band is really interesting to them right now. The social negotiation of who is going to take on what role in the band is very interesting.”

As the children continue to delve into the social aspects of performance, the teachers in room 14 hope to continue to support children’s social-emotional, cognitive, and physical learning around the art of music, instrument design, and performance.


Gandini, L. 1998. “Education and Caring Spaces” in Edwards, C., Gandini, L., & Forman, G. The Hundred Languages of Children. Greenwich, CT: Ablex.

An Antidote to Isolation: Personal Reflections from a current Mentor Teacher

rfsXyxzGOTyB8LqZtZH296errEa-02A6RCQtxFAF1RfT1fPEwwbF3kuw4mlGQg8ZYvYfpnTwqBWOt0wnHWf3oHj4PgaphYnL2c2k4LtQ1IMdgnT-Ohmx1Sybqq4T8tpxJwd3Nmo4lgxoOU_AGT9LBv_v7SyRWI7-IC6O-Uc2D6EcLoYDNPug1f67h1This post was contributed by current Mentor Teacher, Meagan Arango. It is part of a series on the Boulder Journey School Professional Qualities

There was a time early in my teaching career when I felt deeply isolated. Each day I set up, cleaned up, and closed down my classroom by myself. I spent lonely nights and weekends hunched over my computer, planning lessons. Left alone with my thoughts, I suspect that sometimes I went too far. I began coming into school on Saturdays to prep. I used my free time to watch videos of myself, scrutinizing my teaching for errors. I spent hundreds of dollars purchasing books and toys and supplies. And during those lonely times, I felt a strong and mysterious aversion to seeking help from others. I felt that my success was up to me. My colleagues were friendly and supportive, of course, but our brief conversations were most often just exchanges of complaints. And the fact was that I cherished the few moments of solitude I had in my room–it was the only time during the long work day that I didn’t feel like a performer on stage.

This was my reality before I joined the staff of Boulder Journey School. My classroom was an island. I was the lone intrepid explorer, taming the wildernesses of early learning. I wonder now how many others have felt like I did–so all alone in a field that is, at its core, about relationships.

That is why, when given the opportunity to reflect on our school’s Professional Values, I felt compelled to begin with the quality that challenged me the most when I began the Teacher Education Program: Communication and Collaboration.

Communication & Collaboration – These qualities speak to your capacity for articulate and effective communication that will ultimately support your ability to work effectively with children and adults. You will know how to engage others, as well as who to engage. You will see value in the process of gaining the perspective of others and develop social and cross cultural skills that will enable you to better take on the perspective of the other. You will be able to clearly articulate and defend a vision for the future and how your work supports that vision. You will view teaching as a collaborative process among children and adults and understand that relationships are a cornerstone of education. You will take ownership for being responsive and proactive when difficult conversations are needed. Your approach to communicating and working with others will be inclusive and empathetic, and you will have a sense of intimacy that is translated to the children. You will also be effective in written communication.

For me, the key challenge here was understanding the value of engaging others. And this is where I have to make a confession: the isolation I felt in the past was partially the result of the system I was working in, and partially the result of my own habits.

I’m one of those people who likes to feel in control. Maybe you know someone like me. We like predictability. We like getting things “done right”. And we often prefer working by ourselves–I, after all, I am the most reliable person I know! The fact is, I like doing things my way because I know I can usually succeed! Trying things somebody else’s way carries a lot more risk of failure.

When I began the Teacher Education Program at Boulder Journey School, I suddenly found myself up to my neck in exactly that kind of risk: I knew how to teach my way, and relinquishing that control was deeply uncomfortable. I was used to delivering lessons; now I was expected to offer provocations. I had been trained to identify measurable learning objectives; now I was observing the children and seeking to understand the many possible interpretations of their behaviors. I was comfortable with my rigid and consistent schedule; now I was asked to maintain a constant state of flexibility, open to the opportunities that each child, each teacher, and each chance encounter might offer us. These differences fundamentally undermine the traditional image of the teacher as the “sage on the stage”–re-positioning them, instead, as a participant whose contributions are one part of an educational project. As my notion of the role of the teacher began to evolve, I began, slowly, to give up the idea that I was in charge of things.

This was how I came to understand what collaboration could be. And it scared me. Sometimes I felt adrift. Sometimes I craved structure. And yet–never once did I sense the desperate pressure, the sink-or-swim feeling that I have had working in other settings. On the contrary, I felt supported by the network within our school. YVJlBrkoB2tiGxa4KBfnZbpPFaUef1nXqawObRVtlV9qxvjBqAoXnYn29T9KtRdKtEGKEk4mDCBQn-cIpg-0Pq4409QPjd-W7zn-xYfCRPGw9rRKmbSTqDPgMC0vkzxrD3E3QtSzfT5kpxkBJdPSajHRptKPsuocKsguPTuGY2w1VEeNenn-YjMG2cI understood, intuitively, that my mistakes, my questions, my uncertainties were good, because, for the first time, I was positioned as a learner alongside the children. The research tells us that learning is a socially mediated process–that our brains are wired to connect and we learn best with and from one another. This is the belief that motivates every person in our school to be generous with our time, our thoughts, and our resources.

And so, as I stepped beyond my comfort zone and began looking to others more, I found myself asking for help in new ways. Can I observe your classroom? Any time! Can I borrow this material? Of course! Can I pick your brain? Let’s meet! I marveled as people at every level–children, peers, families, directors, professors, and mentors–generously shared their time and ideas with me.

But even as I benefited from these generous acts of collaboration, deep down, I still believed that I could work better and more efficiently on my own. My coursework as a graduate student finally forced me to set down that final, isolating belief.

During my second semester of the Teacher Education Program, I was working with a group of peers to advocate for the creation of a “Boulder Children’s Day” to be recognized officially by the local government. Wanting to engage our school community in the project, our group proposed creating an interactive hallway display at Boulder Journey School. We needed permission. We got it. We needed approval for our content. We got it. We needed to execute a professional-grade, aesthetically-pleasing, succinct and on-message display. Here, things got tricky.

The controlling side of me was not optimistic. I knew that, alone, I could put together something that would meet expectations. And so, when we met one evening after school, I arrived prepared to lead my group in creating my vision. But as we worked together, discussing ideas, experimenting, and sharing solutions to unforeseen problems, I made a startling discovery: my idea wasn’t that good. In fact, when we tried it out, it didn’t work at all. But because we were working together, what would have been a huge setback to me alone was a minor hiccough in our shared process. As a group, we moved seamlessly past that idea, creating in its place a product that we were all proud of. The work we did together was, without a doubt, much stronger than anything I could have created alone. What’s more, at the end of the process, instead of feeling exhausted, uncertain and lonely, I felt energized. I felt proud. I felt confident in our work. I wondered: did I ever truly feel confident when I was working alone? Or did I always question–how will this really be perceived?

That, ultimately, is the strength of collaboration. Working alone, you can only see with your eyes, hear with your ears and think with your mind. Even as I write this post, I find myself wondering– am I communicating my message clearly? Will my tone hit the mark? Can I really convey my experience to this imagined reader? So here’s the truth: by the time you read this, many, many eyes will have passed over this post. My collaborators will have cut words, asked for clarification and suggested changes. And this post will be better for it. I am beyond believing that isolation leads to success. If my goal–as an educator, as a communicator, as an advocate–is to reach as many people as possible, then I must collaborate. I must ask for help. I must share and give and receive.

In a setting where collaboration is the rule, we stand to gain immense benefits when we share our work. Whether it’s planning, writing a difficult email, tweaking an area of the classroom environment or researching a complex topic, collaboration enriches both the process and the result.

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Armed with what I have learned at Boulder Journey School, I hope to never find myself on an island again.