118: what do you want to be when you grow up?

This week I was invited to be part of an event at New City College’s Epping Forest campus, which is where Thing 1 is going in September to study Theatrical, Special Effects, Hair and Media Make-up. She has a plan: she wants to do this A-level equivalent qualification and then wants to be apprenticed to a tattoo artist. It’ll use her art skills, she enjoys it and there are a number of career routes she can go down after this. University is not for everyone, and if that’s the route she wants to take then my job is to support her (I may draw the line at being a tester for mad make up though). I had no clue what I wanted to do at 16 (I was 29 by the time I worked it out) so this sort of plan is pretty impressive.

The event was a business breakfast followed by a speed-dating style mock interview session with some of the students, which I always enjoy as I’m really nosy I like interviewing people. It was also an opportunity for me to network with the curriculum managers whose courses the museum could be supporting. We discussed cultural capital, which has slipped down the priority list even further since Covid. I have already been in to the college a few times to work with the childcare students about learning through play, and a few years back I spoke to the Skills for Life group about careers.

Organised by Jill, the Industry Placements and Work Experience Manager for the New City College group, the breakfast and interviews were a great event where I got to meet an adorable wedding and bespoke evening dress designer, a local policeman, people from the local secondary schools, people from a nursery franchise who have worked with my beloved for years, an ex-policeman now specialising in safeguarding and business development, and a transformational life coach (OK, this was my friend Miriam) as well as others.

I met lots of students, too – well, 12 of them, as we each saw three students in each ‘speed’ session. We’d been given a set of questions in three sections, and the plan was that with the first student we’d ask questions from the first section (the usual ‘why this role/why you’ queries); with the second question and student we’d ask them more about themselves; and the third student would be asked questions about career and ambition. None of the students had any idea they were about to be subjected to this, and had been dragged kicking and screaming (or at least slouching and mumbling) from their learning rooms.

We had a real mix of abilities and courses: childcare and cabin crew in the first session; drama and Skills for Life in session two; and business and IT in sessions three and four. Some of the students were clear, confident and launched into the spirit of things. One of the cabin crew students made me laugh (internally of course) when I asked her what she’d do if a customer arrived who was late for check in and was being quite forceful: her immediate reaction was ‘call security’ and if – and only if – the customer apologised to her properly then she’d talk to them. Then she told me that the most important skill needed in the cabin crew role was communication and customer service. Bless. The business students all wanted to do events management, as they’d clearly just had a module on this, and the IT students just wanted to lurk in a basement and solve people’s problems remotely (why yes, The IT Crowd was actually a documentary, didn’t you know?).

Based on a true story?

My favourite group were the Skills for Life students, many of whom needed a lot of encouragement to come and talk to us. Jill brought me a particularly anxious one with a ‘come and talk to my friend Kirsty, she’s lovely’. The student, A, was so clearly uncomfortable that I set aside the questions and we just had a chat: A told me that they didn’t know what they wanted to do, but they really loved video games and drawing. Their parents had told them that this was rubbish and they’d never get a job doing that, so we talked about all the different aspects of game design (storyboarding, writing, artwork, sound design etc) that weren’t coding and I told them about Rex Crowle and his career in game design. I asked them if they’d heard about Big Creative Education who do game design courses as well as other creative skills, and then at the end of the session I introduced them to another lovely person rather than leave them floundering. I made a point of speaking to them at the end of the session, giving them the web address of BCE, and suggesting they looked at the journey planner on TfL.

I spent some time after meeting A fuming quietly about people who don’t support their kids: it’s really hard to remember at times, but our dreams are not theirs.

Me.

Another student from this group, E, was also brought over to me. Her passion was drag shows, which she travels all over the country to see, and she wanted to be a make up artist because of this. She had no idea about the theatrical and special effects make up course, so I signposted that and suggested she spoke to her tutors about it. We didn’t do any interview questions, but both A and E went away feeling reassured and having broken through a barrier about talking to unknown adults.

Miriam and I debriefed over lunch at Fresko in Debden Broadway and put the world to rights before heading home for an afternoon of meetings, an evening mercy dash bearing coffee to Harlow, and ferrying the kids to Scouts where Thing 3 managed to get covered in tie dye despite wearing an apron.

Things making me happy this week:

  • the epilogue for the last D&D campaign
  • building my character for the next campaign
  • a cool pool on very hot days
  • fresh strawberries, loganberries and raspberries from the garden
  • watching the parakeets
  • the 11 degree drop in the bedroom temperature last night! The cats were also grateful (see a melted Lulu in this week’s cover image)
  • more excellent course feedback
  • making jewellery for the school fete
  • tiny coot chicks cheeping on the lake this morning

See you next week!

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

A Question of Identity/The Soul of Discretion/The Comforts of Home/The Benefit of Hindsight- Susan Hill

The Midnight Hour – Elly Griffiths

113: magic carpet ride, anyone?

This week was my first day out with the Imagination Playground big blue blocks since last summer – as is now traditional whenever I’m down for delivery, it rained, but fortunately not enough to put the children off their play! This booking came as a result of one of my teacher training sessions, where I used the tabletop version of the blocks as part of a DT session.

The school, Children’s House, is one I have visited before briefly: it has a very beautiful but sadly at risk mural by the artist and writer Eve Garnett whose One End Street books I loved as a child. It’s an interesting place – designed by architect Charles Cowles-Voysey based on Maria Montessori’s vision of an ideal learning environment for young children, opened by the author H.G. Wells in 1923 and visited by Gandhi when he stayed at Kingsley Hall as a guest of Muriel Lester. It’s a nursery school, so filled with tiny, curious little under fives who love to play.

Planned as an opportunity for parents to join their children for a play session, we kicked off with a small group of adults and children but it quickly grew as more kids decided to join in. We had our blue blocks, swathes of fabric in different textures and colours, marker cones and plastic play balls, and piles of shiny crinkly emergency foil blankets, and laminate floor underlay cut into strips and shapes. Kids adore these last two things for some reason!

Way back in the mists of time I trained as an early years teacher so am a big supporter of open-ended play and loose parts as part of child development. The big blue blocks were designed by Cas Holman for just this purpose. We have the largest version – just over 100 pieces, from long ‘pool noodles’ to chunky rectangles which were bigger than the children. We have added various other bits (see above) to the kit to bring more colour and what we have ended up with is a bright, pop-up experience that works for all ages.

I had a great day, and so did the children and adults: the headteacher was unable to resist appearing in the sessions to get down on the floor and play, which is always a good sign, and we’re going to visit their federated school in a few weeks as well. The channels in some of the blocks inspire creations like marble runs which work with the plastic balls, and the size of these runs mean a group of children can all join in. Once one child starts, the others join in, adding to structures and building on ideas to make them bigger and better. The sheer size of some of the blocks means co-operation is necessary to manoeuvre them into position. With the aid of adults, dens were created using fabric and the playground structures, allowing all sorts of imaginative play.

With the younger groups (the three year olds) there was a high level of additional need in the form of hearing impairments so the bright colours and textures of the kit became sensory experiences. The wonderful thing about open-ended play is that it’s impossible to get it wrong and the possibilities are endless.

The older children – four year olds – brought their story telling powers out to play with them. We built the tallest tower in the world so we could reach the teachers’ biscuits, and we built a boat to go on the sea with. At one point I got taken on a magic carpet ride to the seaside where we had ice creams and went for a paddle before going on a rollercoaster and then flying back home. All around me I could hear other adults discussing what was happening around them and making plans to buy fabrics and other things to add to their own blocks. I was quite sad to leave at the end of the day!

This week I am working with Key Stage one and two children as well, which is a less open-ended but just as creative session. Let’s just hope (for my team’s sake!) that the rain holds off.

Hope your week was as much fun as mine!

Kirsty x

I also…

What I’ve been reading:

Abbatoir Blues/When the Music’s Over/Sleeping in the Ground – Peter Robinson

101: Let us play

Over the last few weeks I’ve listened to a four part podcast from the BBC World Service’s The Compass, called ‘Why We Play‘. Each part explored a different phase of life, from childhood through to old age, and the impact and potential benefits of play. It covers things like video games, which can help adolescents navigate issues around anxiety and depression; why we shouldn’t stop playing in old age; the importance of play in making sense of the world in the early years; and how play can increase productivity at work. I won’t go into too much detail here but it’s an interesting listen.

As part of a team developing a museum dedicated to young people, where play is one of the key themes, we bang on about play a lot. I even go off to colleges and universities occasionally and talk about how important it is, referencing people like Johann Pestalozzi, Friedrich Froebel, Maria Montessori alongside toy designers like Patrick Rylands.

PlayPlax, 1968, Photograph: David Levene/Guardian

You may not recognise Rylands’ name but for people of my generation his toys will have been part of your childhood. He was the creator of Playplax, which – along with its direct descendant Super Octons – was still a staple part of nursery kit in the late 1990s. He talked about Playplax as something that was ‘just stuff’: there were no pre-determined outcomes, only what the child made of it.

“A toy that does everything by itself, does nothing for the child. The main purpose of a toy is to enable children to enter into a world of make-believe, as it is in this way that children relate to reality.”

Patrick Rylands

The power of these little perspex squares is amazing: when we were doing some training with a childcare setting in the summer on how to use the big blue blocks we took the Super Octons along and several of the adults latched onto them and spent ages with them. A teenage girl at Epping Forest College made a set of sunglasses in a session which she was very proud of. People love the simplicity of slotting the shapes together, of mixing the colours and building up and out. The blue blocks (and Lego, and any building kit!) have the same effect – they are an invitation to play, to build and create.

Where was I? Oh yes, banging on about play again. Going out and talking to teenagers can get a bit depressing at times as a) they don’t want to talk back to me, so getting them to answer questions is like squeezing money out of HMRC and b) they often tell me that you stop playing when you stop being a child. The definition we often use, both in the sociology and the play sessions, is that childhood lasts from birth to puberty, although we do discuss legal and social definitions as well. They talk about play – when I can get them to talk at all – as something they ‘used to do when they were young’ (thanks, 15 year olds!) or as something they do with younger siblings or cousins.

There are many definitions of play, especially when you start getting all academic about types of play and things (it’s Sunday, so I won’t) but the very simplest one, the one I use when talking into the teenage void, is that it’s something you choose to do for enjoyment and recreation, rather than for a serious purpose. If you ask them what they do for fun, they tell you that they go and hang out at Westfield (other shopping centres are available, apparently), play online games and so on. Some may play football or skateboard, some might have a hobby that they enjoy, and some – very occasionally – admit to enjoying the odd board game at Christmas or with family. They then often mention Monopoly, which to me is less a game and more a form of hideous torture, but there we are. I’m still not sure they agree that their non-game activities are ‘play’ but at least they are talking to me.

Before I joined the museum, the Importance of Play session finished with a chance for the students to play with various toys that they had seen in the galleries – a teddy bear’s picnic, dolls house, Playmobil sets, building blocks etc – and their task was to set them up as they might if they were inviting nursery children to join in and then we’d discuss what children might learn. This might be fine or gross motor skills, social skills, colour matching or maths. After several months of the teenage void I noticed that as we walked into the classroom the students were more interested in the activities than in the talk, so I flipped the session and invited them to play at the start of the session. It was a revolution, as far as I was concerned, and the sessions became much more open: they’d play, and then we’d ask them the same questions about what young children might learn. But now they’d answer me, and they’d talk about their own activities, and were more confident in sharing their prior knowledge.

The podcast (see, you knew there was a point) made me think about whether I was practising what I preached, to coin a phrase. Am I playful enough in my adult and work life? You all know what I enjoy doing – I make things, I hurl myself in lakes and so on – but do I play?

Sometimes, I admit, I forget: having to be a proper grown up and keep other people alive, negotiating peace settlements among children, being the grumpy one that makes them turn the Minecraft off and so on are not conducive to playfulness. But I sing and dance in the kitchen while I cook those dinners and spin passing children into a twirl, and sometimes have the urge to bake a cake and smother it with Smarties ‘just because’. When London sister and I went to Ireland for our niece’s First Communion there was a bouncy castle and we regressed entirely, spending a lot of the afternoon on it and ganging up to bounce our mum off the apron at the front; playing with the niece and nephew and being entirely silly. When we have our big family holidays the various children often accuse us of being childish, as we tend to get a bit giddy.

Things 2 and 3 do enjoy board games and both of them will help me if I get a jigsaw out at Christmas, and Thing 2 likes to play with beads and make things. Thing 1 enjoys playing with make up and will be doing a course at college next year which will teach her about special effect make up. Popular games here have been Tsuro, Mijnlieff and Horrible Histories’ Stupid Deaths games, as well as traditional fare like Pop-up Pirate, Hungry Hippos and Connect 4. My mum bought us Sorry!, in a vain attempt at revenge for the Christmas when she got so annoyed at being sorried once too often that she threw it across the room and we’ve never let her forget it. It failed – I just saved it till she came to stay and made her play it with them.

Last September I joined a Dungeons and Dragons campaign – I used to play when I was at uni, so when I was invited to join this set of characters that I’d already made voodoo dolls of at the Dungeon Master’s request, I jumped at the chance. So every Thursday night I wander off down the road with my dice and my tablet and for a couple of hours I’m a bardic gnome (or possibly a Gnomic Bard) with a magical dragon plushie I haven’t brought into play yet, a set of spells and a good excuse to make extremely silly puns on a regular basis. And I love it – I’m still finding my feet and sometimes my dice hate me and conspire to kill me, but it’s so much fun. Some weeks are tense and battle filled (I got grappled by a giant monstery thing!) and other weeks are completely daft and giggly (last week we ‘helped’ someone with the world’s most uncomfortable first date) but I love it. Some weeks, if we have people missing, we end up playing board games and that’s great too. One of my lovely colleagues also plays D&D, and we often sit over coffee and talk about our campaigns – neither of our partners play, so we can nerd out in safety!

A secondary school I visited a few months ago, which is for boys with social, emotional and behavioural needs, has a D&D room. These boys can go and work through different scenarios in a safe space, giving them a set of coping skills they can apply in real life. They might not run into owlbears or svartalves in the streets of East London but the skills they learn are very much real.

All our new learning sessions will have elements of play as well as imagination and design, so I’m learning to build it more into my work life. Enforced playfulness in work life can be excruciating, especially when confronted with ‘role play’ activities in training sessions, but being more playful in how I build activities is definitely more fun!

So, I might not be entirely playful – but I’m working on it….

With that, I’m off to do the ironing and then I’m going to play with some yarn. See you next week!

Kirsty x

The House at the End of Hope Street/The Dress Shop of Dreams/The Witches of Cambridge – Menna van Praag

The Memory Shop – Ella Griffin

The Innocent – Harlan Coben

Doctor Who: Tenth Doctor Novels vol 1 (Audible)

100: What I did in half term

This feels like a pretty momentous week, what with it being my 100th blog post and so on, but in reality it’s been one where I have mostly been unconscious at 8.30pm every night after a full-on day – yes, even on Friday when London was being battered by Storm Eunice, for which I have been soundly told off by the clan.

As I may have mentioned once or twice before, the museum I work for is in the middle of a spectacular reinvention and part of the process is making sure we have young voices throughout the museum, reflecting what’s important to them in the 21st century and co-creating work with them which will be on display. I am attached to the Design gallery, where we are exploring some key messages – one of which is around sustainability. Our target age range (though anyone can use the space) is 11-14, and so we’re working with a local youth service called Spotlight.

Spotlight is the sort of youth space that I would have loved to have access to growing up (heck, I’m pretty keen on it now!). It has media spaces like a radio station and tech rooms, a boxing gym, dance studio, cafe, games room, fully equipped music studio, health and wellbeing services on site, friendly and accessible youth workers who have a great relationship with the young people and (where we’ve been working this week) an art and fashion studio. This last is underused, as it’s a space where the young people aren’t quite sure what they can do in there, but hopefully we’ve changed that this week!

The project kicked off on Tuesday with a trip to the V&A all the way over in South Kensington, with 15 young people, the designer Scott Ramsay Kyle who was the creative on the project, one of our freelance team, a few Spotlight staff and me all on a minicoach bringing back memories of school trips for the adults at least. In stop/start London traffic it was a miracle we only had to pull over once for a girl to be sick, but it was a close call!

The V&A is still closed to the public on Tuesdays so the young people (YP) were in VIP mode – we fed them lunch, where they were joined by our Director and some of the curatorial and learning teams, and then we took them to Gallery 38 where our collection is currently being stored and conserved in preparation for going back on display in 2023 when Young V&A opens. Katy and Trish, two of the curators, showed them some examples of historic clothes and talked them through some of the processes used to make them. The YPs were amazed that sustainability was a ‘thing’ several hundred years ago although not so much in the 1960s. I won’t go into too much detail here as I have to write an ‘official’ blog post about the project soon.

We spent some time in the fashion gallery exploring clothes through the ages, mark making in their new V&A sketchbooks and focusing on detail and embellishment. Watching children and YP make the mental connections between new and existing knowledge is always a joy – the gaggle of Year 8 Bengali girls who had been learning about the East India Company in school spotted a dress made from the very fabric they’d been learning about, which caused a twitter of excitement and recall of history lessons. Only one of the YP had been to the museum before, on the previous project so the space was very new to them. South Kensington is a long way from Poplar both physically and psychologically, and while many had been to the Science Museum or the Natural History Museum the V&A hadn’t figured. Being able to sprawl on the floor to draw, to have access to all the knowledge they needed from curators and to navigate the space on their own terms made the galleries accessible.

VIP access to the fashion gallery

The rest of the week was back at Spotlight with fluctuating numbers of YP – but always a hard core of two or three who came along all week and surprised themselves with what they created. Wednesday was all about fashion and nature, so we worked with two creatives on different aspects of this. Hanna Whiteman explored natural dyes with the YP, helping them create swatches from red cabbage, turmeric and safflower and exploring the effects of different additives. Memunatu Barrie worked from cut flowers and textures found in the park outside, exploring how to create texture and line on paper. We finished up with a dye experiment, hanging the sleeves of a pink hoodie into the dye vats overnight. We only had four YP that day which given the messiness and excitement of the dying was probably a good thing! We were also joined by Maraid Mcewan, our inclusive designer in residence who came along for the rest of the week.

On Thursday we broke out the deadstock fabric and charity shop finds and introduced some sewing skills – curator Trish joined us again, and we explored mark making on fabric with embroidery thread and layering using bondaweb and felt. Some of the YP took their hoops and threads home to work on, as they were so engaged in the process. Trish, Maraid and I also got pretty attached to ours, as did Lydia the brilliant youth worker. There had been an SEND open day in the morning so we attracted a range of YP with different needs in the afternoon, and as there were so many adults it worked really well in terms of the level of assistance we could provide. As I know from helping the Things sew at home, it’s much easier with many pairs of hands to help thread needles and untangle knots! Although our target range for the project was 11-14, the centre works with YP with additional needs up to the age of 25 and we will be an inclusive museum so everyone was welcome to join the session.

On Friday, despite Storm Eunice making an appearance just before midday, we saw 15 YP over the day – some carrying on with their embroidery, some remaking clothes by embellishing and adding materials, some discovering the studio for the first time as they had only signed up to the centre on the previous day. There was some knitting, some draping on mannequins, fabric painting, more bondaweb as the YP customised clothes, but such a creative buzz all afternoon. We sent them all away with their hoops and embroidery (‘what – we can keep them? They’re for us?’) and the things they’d made. The injection of coffee mid afternoon from the cafe was much needed – if you find yourself down in Poplar in need of refreshment, the cafe makes quite possibly the best chocolate brownies I have ever tasted, and a good range of other food at very reasonable prices too.

Other quotes from the week included ‘I’m eleven years old and I’ve made two outfits in two days!’ (one of which was his own interpretation of a 17th century waistcoat he’d sketched on Tuesday), and ‘This is the best place EVER’ from one of the new sign-ups.

Although Scott and I were shattered by the end of the week, we were blown away by the talent and creativity we’d seen over the week and we can’t wait to go back to finish up their co-creation at Easter.

See you next week!

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

Torchwood – First Born (Audible)

Ninth Doctor Novels vol 2/Tenth Doctor Novels vol 1 (Audible)

The Lost Art of Letter Writing/The Witches of Cambridge – Menna van Praag

Ink and Sigil – Kevin Hearne

82: thinking like designers – or possibly chickens

This week I took my new school session out to Thing 3’s primary school to test it on Years 5 and 6 – still playing with blue Imagination Playground blocks, but this time the tabletop version which are definitely easier to carry around. Added to these were scraps of fabrics, pipes, string and other loose parts, building on the work we’ve been doing over the summer.

The session, called ‘Think Small’, is an introduction to user-centred design, helping children to understand the iterative design process, work collaboratively and communicate ideas, and finally to work creatively with materials. These are some of the 5Cs of 21st century skills and are the some of the building blocks for learning in the new museum.

Photo and chickens courtesy of Chinami Sakai

We started by thinking about chickens, and what they need to be safe and happy: brainstorming ideas as a class, and then looking at the Eglu. The chickens in question can be seen above – Mabel, Doris and Tome, who belong to one of my colleagues and who were previously commercial egg-laying chickens. We’re in a relatively rural area, so some of the children already had experience of chickens, and were keen to share their ideas. ‘Space to play’ was the most important thing according to one child whose granny is a chicken keeper. We looked then at the Eglu, a chicken house which was designed to make it simpler to keep chickens in garden and which you can see on the left of the picture.

We moved on to talking about what pets we have at home – cats, dogs, guinea pigs, chameleons, geckos, the odd bird and tortoise, hedgehogs – and how they need different environments. I split the classes into four groups, and each team picked a mystery bag with an animal model. As a team they generated a list of things their animal needed which became their ‘client brief’. They were surprised to discover that they wouldn’t be the designing the home for their animal, but had to swap their briefs with another team. Each group then became ‘animal architects’, looking at the brief together and each child designed a home that they thought met that brief. The hardest bit, we discovered, was when the children had to decide which design from their group met the brief best and would be the one put forward to the ‘clients’. Some groups decided quickly, while others needed some support.

The materials the children were given

The clients gave feedback on the designs and then the architects used the creative kit to build the chosen design, incorporating the feedback, and finally the groups looked at all the designs while the architects talked us through them.

Over the four sessions I refined the format and changed some of the timings, and delivering it to the different year groups allowed me to see how it works with different abilities. The classes are quite small, with less than 25 in each which meant four groups in each session was viable. One thing about working with ‘animals’ was that it gave all the children a chance to shine and share prior knowledge from their out-of-school experience rather than reinforcing classroom learning.

I didn’t let them use sellotape or glue, so they had to come up with other solutions to hold objects together or in a particular shape. One boy shone as a project manager, helping his team realise the design he’d created.

Feedback from the children themselves was entertaining: one of them informed me that he didn’t know DT actually involved ‘making things’, another was keen to find out more about making structures stable. Apparently it’s harder to build than to draw, and it needs more brain power than they expected. Building with blocks takes a ‘lot of thinking’. They were surprised when they had to swap their animals to let other people build their ideas; DT is not just on a computer; and it was interesting to think about what other people need. One asked how long it takes to become an architect, so I’m counting that as a win! One wanted to know if I was really Thing 3’s ‘actual mum’.

Thing 3, of course, was mostly just concerned that I didn’t embarrass him too much…

Meanwhile…

As you can see I have some sewing to be getting on with! My first foray into swimwear, for example: a two piece that will be easier to get out of in the winter swimming. The water was 12.6 degrees this morning, so we’re on our way to single figures. There’s also been cross stitch in the evenings, which I’ll share when it’s finished. See you next week…

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

Forests of the Heart/The Onion Girl – Charles de Lint

Comet in Moominland – Tove Jansson (Audible)

78: speaking as a ‘nice to have’…

Back in 1999, when I was still a Tower Hamlets primary school teacher, I taught a year 3 class. It was a typical class, with the full range of abilities from ridiculously bright to identified levels of SEND. It being Tower Hamlets, the intake was both socially and culturally very diverse, with the usual levels of kids on free school meals, in social housing, etc. This was in the glory days of ‘education, education, education’, as Tony Blair would have it: I didn’t agree with a lot of his policies but that one I could get right behind.

One child in my class was B, a very sweet boy who these days would probably have been identified as having ADD. I tell a lot of trainee teachers about B when I am talking about the importance of museum visits, and the need to offer children a range of learning activities to meet different styles of learning. His cartoon equivalent would be The Simpsons’ Ralph Wiggum: I was never sure how much of what happened in the classroom actually went in and he was a by-word for vague in the staffroom.

Like most year 3 classes, we covered Invaders and Settlers – Romans, Anglo-Saxons and Vikings, and during the Romans topic I organised a trip to the Museum of London for an object handling session. These school trips are so important: yes, they are ‘nice to haves’ but they are also the experiences which build cultural capital for children, and what I like to call London capital. London, especially diverse and poor areas, is not a city but a connected group of small villages. People tend to stay hyperlocal, and museums are often not on a family’s agenda: a day out costs money, even when museums are free, and there is often a feeling that a museum is ‘not for them’ (that’s another rant for another day). School visits help children experience the tube, the museum, social norms and more – it’s never just about the workshop. This is particularly important with families where the children have English as an additional language, and the parents may not have any English at all.

Anyway, back to B and the handling workshop. The facilitator held up an object – a wax tablet and stylus, in fact – and asked the children if they knew what it was. My class looked at him as if they’d never even heard of Romans…. except B, who put his hand up. I braced myself for a Wiggum-style non sequitur and out of his mouth came an explanation of what the object was, how it was used and re-used, and the name of the writing implement. My jaw dropped. 29 children’s jaws dropped. And he flew for the rest of the session. He knew what things were, he was confident in sharing his knowledge, and I went away with an entirely new view of one small child. I’m not saying that the effect lasted for ever – but we had seen hidden depths and I made sure that object-based learning made more frequent appearances in the classroom.

These visits and other experiences are ‘nice to haves’, yes, but they also provide key learning experiences for children who are not auditory or visual learners. It would be nice to think that teachers could just talk at children for 13 years and they would leave school knowing all the things they need to know, but for many children that isn’t the case. They need these ‘nice to haves’ to embed their learning and to help them connect understanding and knowledge. There have been so many occasions since I left the classroom and became a museum educator where I have seen the same thing happen to other teachers: a floodgate opens in a child’s mind when the connection is made, and both teacher and learner go away with a new understanding.

This week, for example, a child with autism focused for longer than he’s ever focused before on one thing: building with the blue blocks. Over three days this week we saw every class in a primary school, working on coding, creativity and collaboration and giving children a chance for some physical play, some kinaesthetic learning. The headteacher came to see us on our last day and said that so many parents had come to her and said their children hadn’t stopped talking about their session when usually they answer ‘dunno’ or ‘can’t remember’ to the ‘what did you do today?’ question. Teachers had also raved, and would we come to their other school as well please. These sessions were a ‘nice to have’ too, as are those days when companies like Time Steps or History off the Page come into school and your kids spend the day immersed in history and come home with peg dolls or Stone Age bread.

You may well wonder what’s brought this on. Read on…

This week, Google offered up this article for my reading pleasure. I’m quite sure that inciting me to fury probably wasn’t its intention, but that was the result. The article was about how schools would tackle the issue of ‘catch up’ following last year’s closures. It talked about schools focusing on the poorest pupils, ensuring they had food (gasp!) and ‘going out visiting’ (ditto!). Apparently this meant that they weren’t providing an education offer for all children. It was acknowledged that private schools had three times as much money than state, which was nice to know if not really much of a revelation.

Who knew that children might need to eat? Who knew that their families might need to eat? Who might have suspected that the poorest families, who rely on school dinners to ensure that their kids are guaranteed a hot meal every day, might need pastoral support – especially when dealing with a government who were prepared not to feed these kids in the holidays? When their parents, if they were working at all, were furloughed on 80% of a minimum wage that wasn’t enough to live on anyway? She didn’t mention digital poverty, which meant many of these children were trying to work on their parents’ phones, or the problems with getting laptops to these children, or unreliable/non-existent broadband. I have sung the praises of Marcus Rashford before – although I haven’t mentioned Maro Itoje who campaigned for children to have access to laptops and the internet during Covid. (Gavin Williamson, the mercifully-now-ex Education Secretary, managed to confuse the two earlier this month.)

Selfishly, though – speaking as a career ‘nice to have’ – that wasn’t even the paragraph that made me most angry. It made me pretty angry, because – working in Tower Hamlets – I believe that schools made the right decision and the wellbeing of their pupils absolutely should have been their priority, especially at the beginning of lockdown. None of us had a crystal ball and could not have known that we’d still be doing lockdown learning a year later.

No, this was the one that really got me: “‘Nice to have’ things could be cut out for worst-hit pupils” to ensure that pupils are ‘catching up’.

Apparently, most catch-up would take place in pupils’ “main classrooms with their normal teachers”. They referred to a “sort of everyday magic that teachers do of really motivating children to want to learn and introducing them to the whole curriculum, taking them through in a well structured way with the minimal wastage of time…There are experiences, ‘nice to have’ things that are often built into curricular, and I suspect a lot of those will get cut out for the children who have missed the most.”

The comments follow guidance which warned that “time is not infinite and so, alongside identifying what content from missed topics should be prioritised, careful consideration must also be given to choices of teaching activity”. “Do the pupils who spend a lesson on the Egyptians wrapping their friend in toilet roll remember the details of Egyptian religious beliefs, or do they just remember the fun activity,” the guidance said.

Well, speaking from experience, I am pretty sure they remember both….because the practical activity embeds the learning into their brains. Learning is supposed to be fun. The teachers you remember decades later (for good reasons) are the ones who made lessons memorable, and not the ones who treated you as vessels to be filled with knowledge. I think if we take away the ‘nice to haves’ we run the risk of not a lost generation of learners but a disengaged generation of non-learners. There is no one size fits all, which teachers have known for years.

Speaking as a kinaesthetic learner…

I like to keep my hands busy, as you know – and apparently so does the person who said all the things above. She knits through meetings as it helps her focus. I do wonder sometimes what goes on in people’s heads.

Anyway…as well as finishing the socks I have been working on for ages, I started a dragon scale dice bag (and then started it again when I realised I’d done it upside down) I also made these pouches which can be used for jewellery, shiny rocks, dice, sewing kits and more. They have little compartments and again were made of fabric leftovers.

The blue one is from a tutorial by Wandering Hare on Etsy and the patchwork one is from a free tutorial by Serendipity Studios, found here. Both very similar, but the second one has a padded bottom which will keep your preciouses safe from knocks!

That’s it from me then – see you next week! There’s a bacon sandwich with my name on it….

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading

Unseen Academicals/Going Postal/Making Money – Terry Pratchett

Thief of Time/Wyrd Sisters – Terry Pratchett (Audible)

77: ‘I saw this on the movies’ – twenty years on

I’ve seen a lot of posts this morning on social media headed ‘twenty years ago…’. Twenty years ago I was a nursery teacher in Hackney, and on the afternoon of the 11th of September (or 9/11 as the Americans would have it) we opened the nursery door to let the parents in.

‘Have you seen?’

‘Did you hear?’

These were the days before smart phones, before computers in everyone’s pockets, so no – we hadn’t heard, but we went to the staffroom after sending the kids home and someone had set up the portable TV. Along with the rest of the world we sat in silence and we watched and we cried. Our year 4 teacher joined us: her brother worked in the second tower. The shock and fear in her face was terrible to see. The skies were silent over City and Stansted.

As the evening unfolded we drifted home and carried on watching: there was nothing else to do but to watch the news roll out.

The next day I went into school, because life goes on. Our year 4 teacher had had no news and was with her family. When she returned the following week she was like a ghost: her brother was still among the missing when I left the school the following spring.

Far from the usual chaos and noise generated by 30 four year olds, my nursery children were subdued and thoughtful: at four they were really too young to process what was happening, but knew something important was going on in the world.

J (a small East End boy who would usually spend the morning hoovering in the home corner dressed in a wedding dress, daring anyone to comment) sat on the carpet with M, another small boy with a tendency towards boisterous play. Over and over they built two towers from blocks, and ‘flew’ their hands into them. No sound effects today, just silent building and destruction all morning. I sat on the floor with them for a while, talking to them about what they were doing and how it made them feel.

Another child, B, watched the tiny TV we had set up on top of the cupboard and said ‘I saw this on the movies last night. It made my mummy cry and I was scared.’

Many of the children needed more reassurance that day, and most of them played out – as children do – their thought processes and feelings. It was a quiet, serious morning in what was usually a space filled with noise and colour.

I talk about this day a lot when I am teaching sociology, childcare or teacher training students about the importance of play in helping not just small children but older ones to process feelings and experiences. It was a moment when theory became reality and I watched children make sense of the world through the play environment around them: small people trying to understand something that was consuming their adults and that had impacted on their lives.

I don’t know whether those four year olds remember where they were on 9/11 but that day, and the one that followed, will stay with me for ever.

(Cover image credit: Photo by Carsten Schlipf from FreeImages)