Monday, 31 January 2011

Whole brain learning or rolling down the hill with Frank

·        Whole brain, whole body or rolling down the hills
The more we know about the brain and how we learn, the more the idea that everyone learns in the same way is being re-examined. Theorists like Ken Robinson , Tony Buzan, Howard Gardener and Colin Rose all refer to the different functions of parts of the brain in learning.  Their theories explore the ideas that each individual learner has preferences in their learning styles influenced by past experience and biology and that each person learns in a different way.
Schools and teachers are starting to take this on board but to provide the perfect environment where individuals can learn and explore in their own way then there can be no better place than to take it outside and make it flexible and child-centred.  I used to work with a group of school age children in an after school club, that met outdoors, all year round. One boy there was the initiator of many of our best ideas. He was bold and adventurous and showed many of the qualities of leadership and imagination that make him an asset to any group. So you can imagine why his mum thought that coming to the club was a valuable experience for him when at school he was disengaged, unenthusiastic and struggling to keep up. The difference in his motivation and achievement was in a greater part enabled by the environment we were in.
Outdoor play and learning supports children’s ability to develop because the learning that takes place in outdoor environments doesn’t just focus on one way of learning. Rather it involves the whole brain, body and all the senses in the learning.  The natural environment is never the same as when you left it the day before. You may see a feather that has fallen in the path, a bird or a flower that has just unfurled. That wasn’t there yesterday. There are so many interesting smells, like rich leaf mould or wild garlic, the air is full of the sound of birdsong, the ground underfoot changes texture, now boggy, now springy with pine needles, you put out a hand to steady yourself and feel the rough texture of bark, and if you find some blackberries, wild raspberries, or fresh new beech leaves, and who can resist having a taste? This multi sensory experience ensures that with support everyone can access immersion and their potential can be extended through activities, which act like springboards into the natural environment and into learning.  Learners are actively, physically involved; learning and playing outdoors is not a spectator sport.
The environment is flexible and responds to the children’s involvement in it, giving them feedback. The immersion that a learner can experience needs to be followed up with the opportunity to feedback, reflect and evaluate their experience for contextual learning to take place.  In any rich natural environment the naturally occurring affordances offer a variety of tasks, and different ways to engage with them, being outdoors allows children to plan, do and review what they have done, all in the here and now. In short many of the factors which are said to be key to accelerated learning occur spontaneously in rich environments for outdoor play and learning.

Author: Lily Horseman

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Child led learning or how it feels to not be in charge.

Giving control over content and intent of play and learning to children.

Child-led learning sounds like it should be easy, just see what the children are interested in and excited by and then follow it. Actually, when you put it like that it is easy and in the context of outdoor learning  allowing the children to lead can be wonderfully simple to implement. There is so much to discover and interact with. It is hard NOT to be learning.  Where child led learning becomes more challenging is in the personal internal battles you face as a practitioner.
I am thinking for example about a time when a group of children decided they would have a ‘bug market’ where they could trade things with each other. They decided they could bring things from home, or trade conkers, interesting leaves and other found natural things.  They asked us to provide materials for signs, sheets to set things out on and they left the session really excited about the upcoming Bug Market.
It was only after they left that we started to realise the gaps we had left open, what sort of things would they bring from home? What were the ethics of trading live insects? Who would decide what trade was fair? How would we agree the rules?
One of the key lessons I have learnt over the years is to never imagine that I am in charge. It can be a real challenge to master my ego, not listen to the voice that says “Well, I know best because I am an adult.”  Or allow the part of me that already sees how this could go horribly wrong to be too dominant. 
When the children arrived for the Bug Market it seemed that the children had all understood what the rules were to be without me having to get them into a discussion. No-one brought their favourite toys to swap, you don’t have insects in a bug market, (and apparently I should have know this!) and the adult role seemed to be to keep currency moving around as more people wanted to be stall holders than to barter.
But child led learning doesn’t start the moment you decide to step back. When I walked into a woodland with a group of nursery children, most of whom had never been in a woodland before, it’s almost like they couldn’t see the potential, and didn’t know yet how to interact with it. It took a few sessions of going back to those same woods, with practitioners and staff providing encouragement and permission to the children to collect things they saw, asking them to describe their finds and to interact with them, to follow trails of feathers and touch mossy stumps and smooth leaves. Then the children started to notice and to lead. A long worm stopped us in our tracks as we walked up the path. The children are acutely observant, “it is coming towards me,” “now it is going to you,” “it is a letter C for Callum” “it feels sticky, like a fish” They put things in its path to see if that changes the direction it goes in.
When, during the following session we brought magnifying glasses and pictures of the minibeasts they could find they responded really positively and were quickly immersed and interested. Child-led learning can take time to emerge, as group dynamics settle and the children gain the confidence to lead and to believe their ideas will be listened to.  This is one of the reasons why effective outdoor learning takes place over time.  They start to see your role as a provider of resources, ideas, ways and means rather than the instructor, which can often run counter to the normal relationships they have with teachers and other adults.
The natural environment is an unpredictable place, you never know what you will find. You can plan and prepare for certain learning experiences to take place, and they may happen, but what you cannot plan for and only be receptive to, is the unexpected.
"In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable."
–General Dwight D. Eisenhower
Sometimes like with the Bug Market, the children are explicit about the direction they want to take, sometimes child-led learning comes about by following a particular line of questioning and sometimes an observation is the key. In the first week in the woods with another group, William picks up a sharp stone and uses it like a tool; another child watches him and copies, using a stick with the same motion. It occurs to me they are whittling. Even though I don’t usually bring tools in this early in a programme their behaviour intrigues me and I bring potato peelers for them to whittle with for the next session.
Outdoor play and outdoor learning provide enough scope for each child to be following his or her own line of enquiry and for them to collaborate with other children and adults. But those internal battles I mentioned... how do you feel about how you are perceived in your role? Not by the children, but by other practitioners, visitors, parents and parent helpers, a passing head teacher or an Ofsted inspector. What happens when the lines of enquiry that the children choose to follow includes squishing living things, making weapons, having battles....?

Article by Lily Horseman