Rethinking Why We Banned “Be Careful”: Risk, Recklessness and Rebellious Action

wild energy

Over the last month I have been asked several times why I went hiking in icy caves in the winter having very recently gotten my energy back after a post chemo blood count plunge. Because I could? The photo above was the last one I took before slipping on the ice and breaking my shoulder. Not the best way to end the day, particularly as I was in the caves at the time and soon discovered it is physically impossible to haul yourself up a 25 foot rock face when you have injured your arm to that extent. The first question I asked the surgeon was “why can’t I lift my arm?” to which he responded, “because you can’t lift your arm.” (If at this point you are wondering how I got out of the caves, it involved over 30 rescue personnel from three counties. Go big or go home. Really, I would have much rather been able to just go home).

my sling

And so this incident has had me thinking a lot lately about risk. What it is? How do we recognize it? Why is it important? What are its educational implications? To answer some of these questions, I do what I usually do and went back to an earlier reflection where I wrote about teachers using the phrase “be careful” in our Forest School. Every time I heard these two words it grated. I really believe that the phase is said out of habit and also from a place of genuine concern and care but I think that what children hear when an adult says, “be careful” is “you are not capable”, “you do not know how to keep yourself safe”, “you are not able to make your own decision.” So we banned the phrase. And in so doing we embraced risk. Children need to take risk, adults need to take risk; risk is a manifestation of that energy that pours through us all.

what makes childre safe

When we began KOLTS Forest several years ago we engaged in a research study where we closely considered the well-being of children in nature. One of our tasks was to keep pedagogical reflections around our work with How Does Learning Happen, Ontario’s Pedagogy for the early years. I went back to reflect on these notes as I considered risk. The reflective questions and my responses follow below:

Well-Being: Nurturing Healthy Development and Well-being

“Children thrive in programs where they can engage in vigorous physical play in natural outdoor spaces and playgrounds that present manageable levels of challenge. While these environments need to be safe, it is also important for them to provide children with interesting opportunities for a reasonable degree of risk taking (HDLH, p. 29).

Question for Reflection:  How can the environment be considered to encourage children to engage in manageable risk?

It was impossible not to consider parallels between the indoor and outdoor environment during the time spent as a researcher and educator in forest school. Indoors, manageable risk is of course always considered (sometimes with the intent to avoid it) and hopefully included as a planned but also in all likelihood, an artificial challenge. There seemed to be very little need to encourage children to take risks in the forest. Logs called out to be balanced upon, trees called out to climb, mud lay in wait to engulf rubber boots, crawling, illusive creatures waited for a brave small hand to pick them up. The area beyond our immediate Forest School classroom was a constant draw. Here there were much taller trees to climb (managing the fear of height), lakes to gather water from (managing the risk of falling in), steep hills to navigate up and down (managing the risk of tripping and losing balance), logs to cut open (managing the risk of sharp scissors).

After a short period of time we agreed to rethink and then abandon the use of the term “be careful.” It was shocking to come to the realization of how frequently this term is used. A child trips and an educator says “be careful.” A child accidentally knocks another and an educator says “be careful.” A child balances on a fallen tree and an educator says, “be careful.” This term, “be careful”, although it might be seen as a term of endearment or caring, is also likely to be seen by children as a comment on their ability and their self efficacy. Was the tripping purposeful or simply something we all do when we walk through the forest and are confronted with an unexpected root? Does a warning of caution actually assist a child to balance in a more efficient manner? Does this term “be careful” also unintentionally say to a child: “I see you are not capable of keeping yourself safe?” In Forest School we agreed that in fact the children are capable of self sufficiency when it comes to considering the safety involved in manageable risk.

Over time educators were asked to inquire of a child who asked for assistance to climb a tree or balance high on a log, “Do you feel comfortable?” If the answer was “yes”, then the child was invited to try on their own, suggested with the rationale that children should not be “assisted into” situations involving some risk where they do not have a sense of their own comfort level and ability. If the answer was “no”, then the response was usually, “don’t do it then.” It was heart warming to notice that most children at this point did engage in the risky activity anyway. I wonder if asking for adult help is a habit for children? Does this request for help, even when the courage and ability to try out the risk exits, suggest that children feel a heightened need to ask permission? Might they feel that only an adult has the power to assess their ability?


“…refers to a state of being genuinely involved and interested in what one is doing. For children, this happens in play that evolves from the child’s natural curiosity – active play that allows children to explore with their bodies, minds and senses, stimulating them to ask questions, test theories, solve problems, engage in creative thinking, and make meaning of the world around them” (HDLH, p. 35).

Pedagogical Reflections on Engagement:

Question for Reflection:  What barriers exist that may limit some children’s ability to engage in active exploration, play, and inquiry? What adaptations and changes might be made to ensure the inclusion and participation of every child? 

In the early days of KOLTS Forest School the children seemed to reenact a “relationship dance” from scripts they had developed indoors with both adults and children. The “strength” in relationships seemed to rely on dependance, reassurance, assistance, the superiority of adult knowledge, and in some cases what appeared to be an unnecessary level of supervision, monitoring, rule reminding and comments of caution. These early relationship parameters did little to support the drive of children to be independent, powerful, free, exploratory, courageous and to experiment as they tried out new challenges, terrain and invitations to take risks.

Over time the importance of trust became evident. Some educators relaxed as they observed children making decisions about their actions and explorations, based on their abilities, interests, comfort level and the potential for engagement. Throughout the seven weeks, some educators held on to the practice of hand holding, some judgement of messiness and unnecessary safety warnings. These practices had a noticeable impact on the sustainability and depth of active exploration, play and inquiry.

Pedagogical Reflections on Expression:

Expression: Fostering Communication and Expression in All Forms

“Traditionally, educators have found that much of their communication with children involves directing them – giving instructions, telling children what to do, and correcting their behaviour – rather than really connecting with them in a meaningful way. However, an approach that emphasizes listening, responding to, and building on child-initiated communication and conversation can be a more effective way to promote children’s language acquisition and their development of social skills, empathetic understanding, and ability to pay attention. Asking for and considering children’s ideas in joint dialogue can help to strengthen their sense of autonomy, their competence, and their critical thinking skills” (HDLH, p. 41).

Question for Reflection:  How can you make sure that every child, regardless of his or her communication abilities, is heard?

I feel such a strong bias here that it is difficult to separate observation from a strong and heartfelt belief. Teaching and learning is about a community of individuals who have come together for a common purpose. A cornerstone of this community is respect of each other and of the Other (the capital “O” designating and Other, anyone who is not you). Because the forest school was emergent, educators (although they spent a great deal of time planning around children’s emerging discoveries and leads and in pedagogical dialogue) were unable to anticipate what might happen. The meaning making came from the children as they moved in and out of the forest school space. We could not predict the appearance of elusive salamanders, growing in a rotten log, flowers falling from trees, osprey swooping over our heads or fish swimming up to us at the shore of the lake anymore than we could predict the water that went from snow to rain to sun, cold to warm to cold again.

When educators have preconceived ideas and expectations of what children will or even might do in a more traditional classroom space, they can easily adopt a “directive” stance to education, as they take ownership over the process. Because children are who they are, curious, quick, divergent, whole body learners, this approach is doomed to be challenging, thus creating even more opportunities for the educator to tell the children what to do in a spiral that keeps the educator in a position of power and control and the child at the mercy of limited and prescribed freedoms. In the forest, there is a consent and beautifully varied invitation to be free. Rules are based on safety and as such are almost never broken. When one child steps over a logical boundary, another child gently reminds them, almost always before an educator can do so. The children work, play, live in community with one another in the forest.

Question for Reflection: What preconceived fears do you have about enabled risk taking? and how can you find a way to overcome these and find a balance that you feel comfortable with?

My biggest fear is the discomfort felt by adults. I have observed that when an adult feels uncomfortable around a child engaging in risky play, they unintentionally “over help” which in turn makes the situation unsafe. For example, reaching out to grab a child’s hand when they are already balanced high on a log is bound to make them lose their balance and fall.

The word “enabled” is also a challenge. It takes courage on the part of an adult to trust that a child is capable of assessing their ability to take risk. My background as an early childhood educator and a professor is filled with health and safety cautions and precautions. I have not been accustomed to seeing children stand by a lake, balance on a fallen tree, carry scissors around a forest or work with a stick. I found balance in the continual demonstration of confidence and capability in the children. Over the course of the seven weeks we did not so much as pull out a band aid. How many teachers can say the same of their indoor teaching practice?

So the bottom line about risk is that children need it. “It is a powerful catalyst for growth that helps them develop good judgement, persistence, courage, resiliency, and self-confidence” (David Sobel ~ Nature Preschools and Forest Kindergartens). Risk is good for children. Risk is essential for children. But risk is also essential for humanity, democracy and freedom.

Tightly constrained by the enfeebling of a risk-averse, health-and-safety-obsessed society, many children are unable to light fires, paddle canoes, make shelters, use knives or cope with darkness. Further, children are discouraged from acts of physical courage and this is more serious than it appears, for we learn with our bodies as well as our minds – or rather we learn with the mind-body – and when we see our physical selves modelling bravery, our sense of moral courage, political courage, emotional courage or intellectual courage is heightened.

Jay Griffiths ~ Kith

Powerful, sobering words from a women whose work is a plea to return children to the freedom, spirit, awe, wonder and adventure of nature. This call is not just for the benefit of the child but a strong political call to bring people back to nature, nature with all the risks that come with it, before it is too late.

…insidiously demanding that children must always seek permission for the most trivial of actions, that they must obey the commands of others at every turn. Children today are not being beaten into obedience but being eroded into it. The risk-averse society creates a docility and a loss of autonomy which has a horrible political shadow. A populace malleable. Commandable. Obedient.

Jay Griffiths ~ Kith 

So I clearly believe in the essential nature of risk. But was it this human need for risk that brought me into that deep icy cave? I don’t think it was. Some might say it was reckless and I think this is a term we need to think about. To be reckless is to have no regard for hazards or consequences. A risk poses a chance of injury. A hazard poses a likelihood of injury (Sobel, 2016). Children need to be protected from hazards as they don’t recognize them as such. An adult who recognizes hazard and choses to forge ahead anyway is by definition being reckless. In fact in my adventure that winter day I even broke my own rule, asking my daughter to help me because I was scared and unable to repel down the cliff on my own. Why?

risk on log


In considering my choice the word reckless didn’t quite work for me either. The decision seemed to me a bit unwise but I never imagined broken bones, police officers, firefighters, search and rescue and paramedics! But there was something there that kept niggling at my subconscious and when I went back to my reflective pedagogical notes above I found what I was looking for, “power and control”, “limited and prescribed freedoms”. 

I think when a person has power and control taken away, when they feel like what they are able to do is limited and prescribed, by illness, medication, treatment, they react. In the same way when children are without freedom and control because they spend their days being managed and directed about by adults they too react. This reaction can easily be mistaken for risk. It can easily be mistaken for recklessness but I think it is something else. So what is it? My new word, rebellious action. “When people feel their freedom and power has been taken away they engage in rebellious action” (Jan Redford ~ End of the Rope: Mountains, Marriage and Motherhood). 

I got sick and I had to be careful all the time and I gradually lost my power and my freedom. I went into that cave just because I could. Just because I wanted to feel powerful and free. Children who lack power and freedom might be reckless, might engage in rebellious action as I did but children who are invited to take risk will just be children who are powerful and free.



The Power of Reframing

Looking back over my last post brought fond memories of time spent in the forest and surprise at how long it has been since I have given myself the joy of writing.

Much has happened in life and learning over the past several months that has stopped me from writing. I have travelled far and wide while teaching internationally, tackled new courses in my college teaching at home, developed and facilitated professional learning in Forest School, finished my Foundations Certificate in Self-Reg and have become a cancer survivour. Through all of these life experiences I have found myself engaged in the process of reframing.

Shanker SelfReg® always begins with reframing. The concept of reframing is grounded in the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Reframing constitutes an “aspect-shift” in how we see and categorize the world around us. Perceptual, experiential and creative components are all involved. 

My original plan for my final project of the Self-Reg Foundations course was to develop training modules for Early Years Educators. A few months before my course completion, I found out that I needed major surgery. I worked around this unexpected life event in all avenues of commitment, but being a “class-half-full” type of person, I believed that in 6 to 8 weeks I would be fully recovered. I was not prepared for a diagnosis of Stage 3 colon cancer. Many things changed, including how I might finish my course and my chemotherapy. Having been inspired by the idea of reframing (later in this post I have shared other examples of reframing in my practice) I revised my final assignment to combine my knowledge of self-reg and my emotionally charged concept of chemotherapy.

Finding balance in the forest

reframing chemotherapy

In hindsight the experience was in some ways not nearly as frightening as I thought it might be and on the other hand a terrifying life experience I couldn’t possibly have imagined. I am no longer the same person I was but both before and now in my recovery after treatment, reframing has had a profound impact on my worldview, my appreciation of life and my role in having cognitive, social and emotional control and perspective of my own life experiences. I feel less “carried along by life” and much more like my own agent of change.

Having recently listened to the Beyond Words podcasts of @ThinkInEd on voicEd, I was inspired to give the word reframe some deep consideration, particularly as I considered the importance of my “shift”, in thinking, perception and experience. I did a bit of googling and discovered the following definition:

To reframe, then, means to change the conceptual and/or emotional setting or viewpoint in relation to which a situation is experienced and to place it in another frame which fits the ‘facts’ of the same concrete situation equally well or even better, and thereby changing its entire meaning.

I loved the idea of changing our viewpoint in relation to a situation by placing it “in another frame.” But, not just any frame we chose, specifically a frame which “fits the facts” equally or in a way that might be better. The facts remain, it is the way that we view, conceptualize and then respond to them that changes. Chemotherapy is awful but improving my chance of survival by 40% (actually 25% but I filled my cup full to 100) is pretty awesome! In an instant this life experience moves from one of pain and suffering to a “better frame” of healing, resilience, growth and strength. I will continue to reframe. I will need to continue to reframe. It is an ongoing process.

Earlier in the Self-Reg Foundations course I utilized a reframing lens to consider one of my earlier blog posts, documentation as research and an invitation to reflectI think there is great power and value in returning to our reflective teaching moments to consider them again, particularly with a new-found idea or discovery. In this case, I was particularly interested in reframing my understanding of a particular child. The revised post is shared below with an explanation of the new self-reg insights.

The original text is in black and the new self-reg reflections are in red. The self-reg steps are inserted in green. 

1. REFRAME (originally my view on teacher as researcher bias, now on my view of behaviour and stress)

We must, as researchers (and as “stress detectives”) be open to the unknown (the varied, complicated and individual processes of self-regulation), the unexpected (attractors and stressors are unpredictable), to the possibility that our unspoken assumptions (about the behaviour of others, particularly children) will be proven incorrect (behaviour as a manifestation of stress not intent). Of course we are human (and so we all have stress, triggers, attractors, and different self-regulation pathways), we have researcher bias (and so we forget that what causes stress for one person does not for another) and we all can only hope for “partial sight” in our study of learning (we will find lenses that work but there is no “one size fits all” and this sight must come with a reminder to ourselves to see with “soft eyes” and that our lens must be constantly scrutinized and changed), but shouldn’t we begin the process with full commitment to impartiality and the possibility of discovering the unknown? (as we are in relationship in self-reg we cannot be impartial but the journey most certainly is filled with the unknown) We know we see with a lens but can we be more cognizant in naming that lens (will this process perhaps help the self reg paradigm revolution)?

2. RECOGNIZE the stressors (the story of one child below focussed on the SOCIAL and PROSOCIAL domain)

So what does this mean in practice?

Last week, I was documenting a group of children in our Forest School. The picture below captured my attention.

the professional gaze: developmental significance

The moment pulled me in (and that of another teacher) instantly. The child in the middle struggles for less than a moment to move the large heavy log and within seconds, children appear from around the forest to help him (this particular child was in a constant state of stress. Indoors he was alone, isolated, played with no one. I am not sure he is able to ask for help. He has special rights).

No one asked why, or where the log was going, they merely followed his “back up beeper” sound (a noise made by this child whenever something large is being moved in the forest, an idiosyncratic habit that is extremely practical and highly safety conscious) to the directed location (the sound this child makes whenever he is indoors, caused the other children PROSOCIAL stress as they found it annoying. In turn, this highly sensitive child experiences this stress and becomes more stressed himself. Outdoors this stress is gone and this same sound is an adopted practice of safety).

3. REDUCE the stress

My “developmental lens” was front and centre if I am to be honest. As an early childhood educator, I now have a permanent developmental checklist etched in my mind, and this one zoned in on “personal, social development.” I was enamoured by the caring of the children, the willingness to help and support, the trust given to one child whose ultimate goal was unknown. Of course there is nothing wrong with this lens, it serves me well and helps me to be a better observer of children and their learning. But what if I ended my documentation here? (what if I ended my stress detection here, without considering the other self-reg domains for this child?)

Later in the morning, I walked over to see what had become of the large log and I was greeted with a half completed (at least that is my theory) collection of materials, arranged in compositional research (Reggio-inspired terminology for a process children engage in where they place materials in relationship to each other in a manner analogous to writing a sentence, a mathematical equation, notes on a music scale, any process that involves placing symbols together in a meaning making format). Here of course, as I thought about my thinking, I realized that my “Reggio inspired lens” had awoken and was now influencing my documentation. The work can be seen in the image below. (now with my self-reg lens I am thinking of the importance of considering stressors for this child across all domains. His SOCIAL and PROSOCIAL stress is so much more obvious that I think I may have stopped there. What insights might I gain in the COGNITIVE domain)?

compositional research

As I stepped back to get another picture, I realized that there was an almost identical triangle shape at the opposite side of the log composition. One triangle (on the left) is formed with a forked stick and the large log, the second triangle (on the right) has been created by placing two sticks in relationship to the large log to form the triangle shape.

triangle log composition

I just re-read this part of the blog and remembered another story I had documented about his child. Putting the two together gave me a new insight about his stress in the COGNITIVE and EMOTIONAL domain. Below is a story about this child and relationships:

One forest school morning one of the children sat down beside me on a log and I asked what he had been up to. He replied, “visiting the lonely Trilliums.” Despite my commitment to the pedagogy of listening, the belief that to teach is to listen, not to talk, and my commitment to giving children the space to make and share their own meanings, I almost blurted out, “oh, because their heads are drooping” (as these plants reach the end of their lives, the flowers bow their heads, like saying one last goodbye). I didn’t say anything however, bit my tongue and said, “why are they sad?” These were his words: “Trilliums grow in threes and in ones. The threes are happy because they have two friends. The ones are sad because they have no friends. They are lonely and so I visit them.” I was speechless, awed, intrigued, amazed and had a new insight into this very young little boy.

So when I put these two stories together, the expression of relationship through geometry in the sticks and log and the expression of relationship through the numbers of trilliums I have new insight into possible COGNITIVE and EMOTIONAL stressors for this child! His affect is flat when he is calm and hard for others to read. When he is stressed his emotional response is extreme and causes others to distance themselves from him. Relationships are hard for him. BUT he can see another’s perspective and be reached himself through MATHEMATICS! He sees relationships very literally but as the trillium story illustrates with emotional insight as well. His pathway to connections with others (which reduces his stress as documented in the first story above) is not “typical” but is clearly there.


I marvelled at the children’s relationship with materials, with shape and with space and then as I took one more step backwards, I realized where the logs had been placed. Although we have no visible boundaries in Forest School, these logs mark the exact place on the path where our Forest School ends, and our “walking adventures” begin. Here is the spot that marks the end of “personal freedom” and the beginning of “supervised excursion.” (at this point I wondered about the only domain I had not REFLECTED on as I revisited my documentation. BIOLOGICAL stressors are so abundant for this particular child that I just realized I stopped thinking about them. I think that relationships with this child have become so strong in the Forest that these particular stressors and noticed and a self-regulation pathway is well underway BUT, no I also think there is much more to reflect on).  I asked myself…how might these logs represent independence? Relationship to place? (and here I wonder about the bigger picture in the BIOLOGICAL domain. What behaviours have become entrenched, for this child? For me? Here I think there is much “unwiring” to be done. For him, a pattern of stress response. For me, a lens still highly attuned to a child development paradigm).


…and so, I had taken several steps backward, to gain a better “view through my lens” both literally and metaphorically. I had, in a similar manner, travelled back and forth in my reflections, and in my research from my initial query of social cohesion and the willingness of children to come to the aid of one another, to questions with a far greater scope, ones that invited a lens akin to a magnifying glass. I knew I needed to keep looking and to keep looking closely. “Looking closely”, another lovely lens! I had no answers but was left with the challenge and joy of many compelling questions. (and now my self-reg task is to respond to these questions. I have come full circle to my goal in taking these courses. To change the way we “teach” child development so that it has a self-reg lens and then this child, and many others will be seen, cared for and taught within an entirely different  paradigm).

And as I re-read and re-reflect on this particular re-written piece I am reminded of the power of reframing through a paradigm shift. I think we need to use reframing as an invitation to re-think some predominate questions and views we might have with respect to children and the ways that we teach and parent them. During the self-reg course, Dr. Stuart Shanker made a comment that stayed with me:

We really want to get rid of that question: how do we socialize a child? It’s a question that sets us up to have some sort of a power dynamic. It’s a question that is, without our realizing it, pushing us towards seeing our role either as a parent or a teacher as forcing these little brutes to become social. In fact, there’s another body of research and this is Bruner’s whole approach.

The mention of Jerome Bruner, one of my education heroes, inspired me to write about him and his call for a revolution:

I have a few heroes in education and Jerome Bruner is one of them. He left this world in 2016 at the age of 100, the same year he spoke at his last conference. When I think of socialization, society, community, education and story, he always comes to mind. Jerome Bruner, an honorary citizen of Reggio Emilia, described the city as his “second home”, and the Reggio approach to education as being “devoted not to a product but to a process. It is not about accumulating know-how or knowledge, but about how one uses mind and heart. The first and most revolutionary principle in the Reggio approach is both that individuals are not, as it were, isolated from one another, and that human sensibility is based on sharing of minds and hearts in dialogue and interaction” (p. 30).

I started a Forest School a few years ago and we began our research with the ideas of well-being and mindfulness. One of the resounding findings we discovered was that the forest, when seen as a classroom, is missing the dynamic of power. In the forest the children made their own discoveries, measured their own ability to take risk, chose to honour invisible walls, acted collaboratively and kindly toward one another and quickly built a culture of learning and being. Bruner had a beautiful way of describing learning as a self-created culture.

“A method of instruction should have the objective of leading the child to discover for himself. Telling children and then testing them on what they have been told inevitably has the effect of producing bench-bound learners whose motivation for learning is likely to be extrinsic to the task – pleasing the teacher, getting into college, artificially maintaining self-esteem. The virtues of encouraging discovery are of two kinds. In the first place, the child will make what he learns his own, will fit his discovery into the interior world of cultures that he creates for himself. Equally important, discovery and the sense of confidence it provides is the proper reward for learning” (Bruner, 1979, p.123-124).

Bruner of course is famous for the ideas of “discovery learning” and the social constructivist theory of “scaffolding” and so his contributions to our understanding of what it means to learn and teach in the early years is immeasurable. His famous publications focus on what we might understand as a traditional classroom environment. Much of his public speaking focussed on the child in the earlier years of education. During an international conference in Italy, Bruner shared his thoughts in a speech called, Each place has its own spirit and its own aspirations. He started his speech with the following thought:

“I believe that we are living in a revolution. It is not just a revolution about schools but a revolution about the nature of society and how we want to live our lives. If I had to choose a distinctive name for this revolution, I would call it the “inward turn”. It has taken a long time for us to recognize that the condition of human dignity is not only from the point of view of objective freedom, but also from the point of view of our subjectivity.”

Bruner’s reference to a revolution in our lives, our education and our way of being in culture with each other reminds me of the frequent invitation I hear while taking this course to join a self-regulation revolution. Paradigm shifts, re-framing, re-storying are terms we have all heard while taking these courses together. There is great power in re-thinking a framework.

In 1996 Bruner wrote in The Culture of Education, “All stories begin with shared premises.” In education we start a story, one that has very deep roots. I wonder if we forget to continue the story? Bruner’s work provides pedagogical narration for one of my favourite panels in the Wonder of Learning, an international travelling exhibit documenting the work of Reggio Emilia preschools. The panel documents a project called, shadow stories, the poetics of an encounter. The story shares a beautiful meeting between children and shadow and the meaning they make of the encounter. On the panels that recount the shadow story, Bruner’s thoughts on story are also shared. “Every story starts with the assumption there is some acceptable, canonical state of the world. What starts the story going is that the expectable, the predictable, canonical state of the world gets violated” (2006). We start education with ordered expected, accepted, predictable assumptions and then the children arrive. I think at that point the story is really meant to get going, but does it? Do we have the courage to violate the canonical state of education?

In my readings of the work of Jerome Bruner I am always struck by his dedication to the possible. In 1998 he gave a speech at an international conference in Naples called “The City of the Possible”. I shared the beginning of his speech above. At the end of this speech Bruner shared his thoughts on how we might come to a better understanding of our world and who we are as humans within this world by starting with children. His ideas of the importance of self in the early years remind me again and again of what I am learning about self-regulation.

  • “A preschool should create some degree of self-esteem. But what is so interesting about self-respect is that you can’t just respect yourself. To respect yourself, you also need to respect others. Now I don’t think there will ever be a curriculum in self-esteem. But, on the other hand, it’s in the way you conduct a class that allows children to feel that they are recognized, to feel that they recognize others, that they are individuals.”
  • “The preschool should make a child feel “located”. That is to say, you want him to feel in a place, you want him to feel related to others who are in that place, you want him to have a sense that where he is located is where he can do things with other people, where he can collaborate with somebody. It’s a place where you live, where you collaborate with others, where you get angry at others, where you love some things, you hate some things – it’s a place, there.”
  • “What we want schools to do is to make children feel that they have a sense of agency; that is, the children feel that they know how to do things and can depend on themselves, that they can succeed in doing something well” (Bruner, 1998).

I am profoundly inspired by Jerome Bruner. One of my greatest regrets was that I never saw him speak in person. His last public speaking event was in New York at the Wonder of Learning Exhibit. One of the things he spoke about was possibilities. Below is part of his introduction to the exhibit call, the pursuit of the possible:

“What is unique about human learning is its dedication to possibility. When we human beings learn, the act of learning carries us beyond what we have encountered and propels us into the realm of the possible. The human learning process is not simply about acquiring knowledge about what we have encountered: it is dedicated to “going beyond the information given.” There is no other species on the face of the earth so dedicated to the pursuit of the possible” (2011).

Pursing the possible is at once both inspiring and daunting but also what I think makes teaching, parenting and connecting with others in meaningful relationships worthwhile and life affirming. First we connect, and then we might teach.

And so I leave you with a few questions:

  1. How can you reframe your own life experience?
  2. How might a reframe change the trajectory of a child in your life?
  3. What power does a reframe paradigm shift hold for education and our image of the child?
  4. How will you pursue the possible in your life, your teaching, your relationships?


considering math, relationships and snakes in the grass

During our last #ReggioPLC twitter chat I posted a picture of a ball of snakes I stumbled upon while visiting KOLTS Forest School.

Excited by the discovery I called a few children over to see. The conversation took a quick mathematical turn, followed by several theories (and a wonderful demonstration) as to why a snake sticks its tongue out so much.

I approached two children, closest to the snakes and asked if they would like to see them. I asked the girls to walk softly and speak quietly so that we didn’t disturb the snakes in their home. After watching the snakes in silence for several moments one of the girls asked how many there were and I responded, “How do you think we could find out?” The answer not only warmed my heart, it reminded me of my love of the beautiful world of mathematics.


“Well”, responded Anna (names have been changed), “let’s say its a family, and in the family there is a Nona, a Mommy, a Daddy, and a baby. How many would that be?”

“Hmm”, I responded. “Tell me who is in the snake family again?” Anna repeated, “a Nona, a Mommy, a Daddy, and a baby” and as she said the name of each family member, I raised a finger on my right hand to correspond. I waited a moment and then raised my eyebrows at Anna and was greeted by a similar eyebrow raise, followed by the query, “so how many are in the snake family?”

At this point I would likely have used my other hand in the problem solving dialogue but my left hand was being held quite firmly by Lily (name changed). Lily is the strongest and most brave person I know in the forest, however her bravery comes with the need to hold my hand firmly for moral support. Minus one hand, I pondered how to respond. There was no need. Lily cleared her throat and said, “Anna, I will show you how this works. Now, you say the names of the snake family again and Louise you do the thing with your fingers.” As Anna repeated the names of the four family members, I raised a finger for each on my right hand. Without letting go of my left hand, Lily used her free left hand to gently touch each of my fingers as she repeated, “Nona, Mommy, Daddy, baby” and then said to me “keep your fingers up”, looked at Anna and said, “now watch how this works.” As she once again touched each finger she recited slowly, “1, 2, 3, 4. There are 4 snakes in the family.” Anna shook her head in agreement. We watched for a few moments, one of the snakes rapidly stuck its tongue in and out and from there the conversation took a turn to ideas about this snake behaviour.

Later, as I reflected on the snake family moment, I was touched by the central role of relationship in the mathematical dialogue, the assumption by Anna that a group of snakes must be a family and the connections she made to her own family. The relationship between myself and the two girls, from an emotional stance was lovely, but also the challenge we collectively took on as we attempted to utilize “finger math” without the availability of all our fingers, fingers busy with the task of holding hands, a choice that contributed to our well-being and our sense of belonging, cornerstones of our early years curriculum, How Does Learning Happen.

Math itself, particularly numeracy, is about relationships. An understanding of number and quantity for example is developed when we put “all kinds of things into all kinds of relationships.” Remembering this quote, I headed to my bookshelf to grab a few of my favourite math resources. The first was Number in Preschool & Kindergarten (1982) by Constance Kammii. At the beginning of the chapter entitled, Principles of Teaching, Kammii reminds us that although she speaks of teaching number, “number is not directly teachable.”She goes on to suggest six principles of “number teaching.”

  1. The creation of all kinds of relationships – Encourage the child to be alert and to put all kinds of objects, events and actions into all kinds of relationships. (Anna put the ball of snakes into the relationship of family with the names of four family members). 
  2. The quantification of objects – Encourage the child to think about number and quantities of objects when these are meaningful to her. (Lilly helped Anna to apply a number to each member to determine quantity).
  3. Social interaction with peers and teachers – Encourage the child to interact with her peers, figure out how the child might be thinking and respond according to what might be going on in her head. (My pause invited Lilly to intervene, both Lilly and I went with Anna’s family analogy to help her with number and quantity). (p. 27)

When we discussed the power of math outdoors during our twitter chat, Nancy made an insightful comment about “teaching” math, in response to Scott who suggested that math outdoors is “experienced” rather than “taught”.

Having read Nancy’s comment, I continued to reflect on math and the way I have most commonly seen it taught. There always seems to me to be a disconnection from children’s innate and intuitive nature to create relationships between things in their world and to express their understanding of these relationships with a more structured, universal approach to “teaching” number and quantity. I knew I would find a pleasing quote from David Hawkins on my book shelf and was rewarded in The Roots of Literacy.

Children’s curiosity and investigative talents can lead them into genuinely mathematical subject matter. This induction can and should take place along with, or even well ahead of, their mastery of the arbitrary, shorthand, written code and rules of operation that we now impose and wrongly call mathematics. There is by now a considerable body of research that shows that a major source of many children’s difficulty in acquiring these arithmetical skills is a matter of unmotivated rote learning. This learning is often dissociated from their native understanding and so also from their talents for extending it (p. 150).

And here lies one of our biggest challenges in the “teaching” and understanding of mathematics. Does it really serve any purpose if we only acquire the ability to perform on a test at some later point in our academic journey? How well are we preparing students to utilize mathematics as an everyday language and an indispensable tool? I thought about these concerns and wondered about the challenges involved in teaching mathematics in a way that each student experiences her own unique cognitive structure. Are we able, as educators to honour and facilitate this necessary freedom?

The object for “teaching” number is the child’s construction of the mental structure of number. Since this structure cannot be taught directly, the teacher must focus on encouraging the child to think actively and autonomously in all kinds of situations. A child who thinks actively in her own way about all kinds of objects and events, including quantities, will inevitably construct number. The task of the teacher is to encourage the child’s thinking in her own way, which is very difficult, because most of us were trained to get children to produce “right answers” (Kamii, p. 26).

I thought once again of Anna and Lily and the family of snakes. I believe in a few short moments, number and quantity was grappled with and grasped.

And so another two weeks have past and Nancy and I are still wondering about the word “teach” in juxtaposition to “experience” in terms of math.

What does it mean to experience math?

What is the difference between experiencing and teaching math?

What is the role of the environment? What is the role of the educator?

How do provocations and invitations invite numeracy? Mathematical thinking?

How might documentation inform our practice in “teaching” mathematics?

Please join Nancy and myself for our next #ReggioPLC twitter chat at 9pm EST Tuesday May 10th to share your thoughts!

provocations and invitations: reflections on the differences

Since our last #ReggioPLC twitter chat, I have spent a great deal of time, thinking about and inquiring about provocations and invitations. I still believe, that as educators, we often use the terms interchangeably, and frequently, within the same sentence, thought or explanation, as if one term is needed to explain the other.

While at our lab school I asked several of the early years teachers about their definitions of provocations and invitations. There seemed to be some consensus that provocations were a result of observation of children’s actions, interests and investigations, reflections on the meaning of these endeavours and a subsequent choice to provide an intentional response (a provocation) to elicit further response from the children. Invitations were described as a less intentional response, something provided to the children with the intention to spark a reaction, rather than sustain one. One educator embraced the spark metaphor in her response. “an invitation is the spark, a provocation fans the fire”.

When I first walked into the lab school, bright light drew my attention to work children had done with clay, wood and the representation of a tree. Educators added a real tree branch before the children arrived, framed by the light from the overhead projector. During my class break I stepped into the hall to document some of the children’s work.

trees in clay

As the children continued to thoughtfully place clay on the tree branch, I spoke with their teacher, as she shared her thoughts about provocations, and I certainly felt like I was witnessing one. The work with the image of the tree and clay, the driftwood on the tree cookies, had been created by the children. The addition of a concrete representation of a tree, more clay and the light were added provocations meant to elicit a response. She had observed attention to detail, balance, making meaning of trees, speaking with clay, and had provided an opportunity for the children to continue their work.

Teachers endeavour to continually provoke children’s natural propensities to search for meanings, to pose questions of themselves and others, and to interpret the phenomena of their own lives. (Cooper, The Hundred Languages of Children, 2012).

I returned to my class for the second half. Once class was over, I peaked into another lab school classroom to see what had transpired since the early morning. I knew I wanted to document the work the children had been engaged in around inclines and ramps, but my eye caught a display in the middle of the room.

invitation to look closely

My initial thought was that an invitation had been created to look closely, knowing the magnifying glasses would enhance this process. I felt like this display was an invitation as it felt like a gentle temptation, not a provocation “something that must be responded to, that we cannot ignore” (Wein). I assumed the pine cones, crystals and crystal snowflakes were chosen for their complexity and aesthetics. I may have been correct, but a moment later, a child walked up to the table, picked up a snowflake and looked at me. I picked up a crystal and did the same. In silence we tried out several different crystals. After several moments, we took the image altering material from our eyes and smiled at one another. Perspective, viewpoint, distortion, opacity, refraction, explored and enjoyed in total silence.

Perspective Provocation

The invitational intention above was to look closely, to think about artifacts of winter with wonder. What transpired through my exploration and my engagement with another child was perspective, literally and certainly socially as we built connection and relationship through our altered viewpoints. The intent was invitational, but the materials, provoked multiple interpretations and discoveries. I pondered intention, intentional teaching and intentionality as I continued on with my intent to check out inclines and ramps.

inclines & ramps

The work the children do with logs and ramps, along with the interest they display in the movement and transport of sand, lead teachers in the room to provoke further investigation of the principles of incline and movement. After a period of time spent dropping sand on the top of the wooden curves and watching it slide down, the children continued the investigation of the movement of sand down an incline by placing sand at the top of the green ramp, resting on the side of the sandbox. This work was provoked by educators, through the careful selection and placement of materials, after observation of children’s intentions and actions and reflections on possible learning.

Once you have taken the time to observe and reflect, it’s time to act on your thinking. After observation and reflection, you will be deciding whether you want to plan a response or if you need to find out more. One way to make that decision is to provide a provocation or a set of invitations for the children and then watch for the response (Stacey, Emergent Curriculum, 2009).

Time for one more visit. I knew that the children in one of the other classrooms were also very focussed on investigations with inclines and ramps. This continued work was evident but once again I was drawn in by the light of an overhead projector. As the educator began to explain the children’s work, once again a young child stepped in silently and very methodically gave me a definition of green with materials.

provocated by colour

The children in the class had been given many invitations to explore with colour and scale. Recently their work had moved to a much larger scale as they expressed their knowledge, using materials as a language.


The materials we choose to bring into our classrooms reveal the choices we have made about knowledge and what we think is important to know. How children are invited to use the materials indicates the role they shall have in their learning. Materials are the text of early childhood classrooms. Unlike books filled with facts and printed with words, materials are more like outlines. They offer openings and pathways by and through which children may enter the world of knowledge. Materials become the tools with which children give form to and express their understanding of the world and the meanings they have constructed” (Cuffaro, Experimenting with the World, 1995).

And so I continued on with my day, off to teach another class, conscious that I was still wondering about intentionality, of materials, in our actions as educators, and where intentional teaching might fit in. A few days later, I did some research on the intentional teacher and found the quote below:

To be “intentional” is to act purposefully, with a goal in mind and a plan for accomplishing it. Intentional acts originate from careful thought and are accompanied by consideration of their potential effects. Thus an “intentional” teacher aims at clearly defined learning objectives for children, employs instructional strategies likely to help children achieve the objectives, and continually assesses progress and adjusts the strategies based on that assessment. The teacher who can explain just why she is doing what she is doing is acting intentionally—whether she is using a strategy tentatively for the first time or automatically from long practice, as part of an elaborate set up or spontaneously in a teachable moment” (Epstein, The Intentional Teacher, 2007).

And this quote made me think about our continued struggle with the differences between provocations and invitations. I wonder if there is a question about teaching decisions here as well. Intentional teaching has much to do with planning, curriculum and assessment. Intentionality is not about providing provocations and invitations with intention. Intentionality is the result of a mental state, the ability of the mind to form representations. Intentional teachers use intelligent materials to invite and provoke meaningful interactions and investigations, hypothesizing the learning that may take place. Intentionality happens when representation or meaning takes place in the individual mind. We can invite exploration and investigation with moments or materials with the intent to spark specific types of learning but as this learning happens within unique and individual minds, we cannot truly provoke the same learning for all involved.

The teacher sometimes works inside the group of children and at other times outside, around the group. From either vantage point, the teacher observes and selectively documents the children’s words, actions, interests, experiences, and activities. The teacher also observes and documents her own words and actions. Such observations are needed to interpret what is happening with the children and to make predictions and projections about how to go forward; on this basis, the teacher intervenes, joins with the children and their experiences and activity, and facilitates or provokes next occasions for learning-always in negotiation with the children and on the basis of agreement with them (Edwards, The Hundred Languages of Children, 2012).

As I reread the quote above, a few words stood out for me, observation, selective documentation, interpret and make predictions and projections. There is uncertainty in these terms. There is guess work in these terms. There is a process that is not democratic on behalf of the teacher. These words suggest processes that are at times uncomfortable, often uncertain and always requiring courage. But then there is the joy….“the teacher intervenes, joins with the children and their experiences and activity, and facilitates or provokes next occasions for learning-always in negotiation with the children and on the basis of agreement with them”. In the end we provoke again, we negotiate and agree and hopefully as teachers we learn that to teach is to accept with grace and humility a constant state of dissonance and disequalibrium, knowing that each nugget of knowledge comes with many more questions.







what is the difference between a provocation and an invitation?

During our most recent #ReggioPLC twitter chat, participants were asked to suggest what we might discuss next. Many of us were compelled by this question:

Environments are invitations for inquiry. These environments have the potential to promote learning processes where children engage with one another and with meaningful materials exploring, constructing and representing their understanding and theories. During the summer of 2014, Tracy Pickard and Cheryl Emrich invited other FDK educators to open up their classrooms by sharing photographs that would inspire others to think critically and carefully about the choices they make while setting up their space. The video is inspiring and filled with invitations for the viewer to think critically about the power of a learning space to provoke learning:

Having reread the introductory paragraph to the video above, I am reminded that I have used the terms provocation and invitation in a way that suggests they might be utilized interchangeably. I know I am not alone in this habit. In an effort to think more reflectively about where these terms might “overlap” and “relate”, I took a quick peek in the dictionary (actually I googled the dictionary, but I don’t think I am alone here either)!

Invitation – something that encourages someone to do something or that makes something more likely to happen; written or spoken request for someone to go somewhere or do something.

Provocation – an action or occurrence that causes someone to begin to do something.

Right! So now I am thinking that the Full Day Kindergarten classrooms we just peeked into in the video are invitations. The thoughtful arrangement of furniture and selection of purposeful materials and loose parts encourages children to engage in playful inquiry. However, as educators I don’t think we can be certain of the children’s actions, choices or type of engagement. Tracy and Cheryl produced another video, Thoughtful Intentional Provocations filled with examples of what I often think of as invitations but now wonder if the more appropriate term is provocation. Enjoy!

Lovely! But when I finished and watched and then checked the definitions of provocation and invitation above, I noticed the second part of the invitation definition: “written request for someone to do something.” So here I think is the overlap between the two terms. I think the other overlap might be the sense of self determination, freedom and personal choice in the practical use of these terms in our teaching and pedagogical commitments.

And so in answer to Greg’s, @Mr_Marshal, question, are provocations and invitations distinct? I think they are. When we invite engagement as educators we think more holistically, and hope that our thoughtful, reflective and pedagogically sound arrangement of environments and materials will result in learning. When we provocate, I think that our actions and intent are far less transparent, and in many cases, a specific action is requested. There are many examples of questions that provoke action in the video above. Below are some of the question I created for the Canadian iteration of Cultivate the Scientist in Every Child:  The Philosophy of Frances and David Hawkins.

balance rocks

tall structure

I hadn’t looked at these provocations above for some time. They do clearly request a specific action. They might only be viewed as invitational because there is no requirement or demand attached, they were left for exhibit viewers to act upon or not. Similarly, in my visit to Anamaria Ralph‘s kindergarten class, I noticed many provocations displayed around the room, gently requesting a response.


I am still thinking about this question. I am not sure there is a “correct” answer, but I plan to continue my investigations before our next #ReggioPLC chat on Tues. Feb 2, 9pm EST. Please join us!

discovering identity in the forest

By Louise Jupp

We can never think of the child in the abstract. When we think about a child, when we pull out a child to look at, that child is already tightly connected and linked to a certain reality of the world — she has relationships and experiences. We cannot separate this child from a particular reality.

Loris Malaguzzi

capturing you

Who are you? Who am I? Who are we? These questions are ones I would assume we ask of ourselves, others, and I would hope ones that we also think about in the context of our teaching and learning communities. Having recently spent 7 weeks in a pilot Forest School, joyfully engaging with a group of very fascinating 3 year olds, I discovered I was reflecting on these three questions a lot. A few weeks into the program, one of my cherished Forest School colleagues asked, “Why aren’t the children transferring the skills they learn in the forest to the classroom?” I reflexively responded, “because I don’t think it has anything to do with skills, I think it is about identity.”

needing a climbing tree

Social inclusion, participation in forest activities, and play groupings at our Forest School were initially determined in part by gender, “friends,” ability and age. Comments such as “baby hats,” “boys can’t play here”, “I’m not a big girl,” “you can’t play here, “you’re not my friend” and “you can’t come” were peppered in the children’s conversation. These judgements and comments were less surprising to me as I reflected on the experience of most children in child care where individuals are grouped by age, advanced to a new room by age and whether intentionally or not, are often segregated, or at least frequently referred to by gender, age and sometimes ability.

These qualifications and requirements for the right to free and self chosen participation and entry into social groupings in Forest School quickly disappeared. As the time in the forest grew, so did the children’s apparent acceptance of each other, in terms of both identity and ability. Several weeks into the Forest School experience, children not only willingly accepted into their play children of varying abilities, gender and traits, but they sought each other out as a certain skill base or talent was required. Strong children were called to carry heavy buckets of water and logs, observant children were solicited to find insects, worms and caterpillars, those with good balance were asked for help to climb trees and balance on logs. As time progressed the children began to identify themselves with self chosen names, the “collector”, the “smasher”, the “helper”, the “finder” and the “superhero.”

Meeting at the fire

As children sit around the campfire (even when not lit we gather here) at the end of each morning and we talk about our time spent in the forest, I often ask, “what did you do in the forest today?” One of the children said, “I collect.” I misunderstood her and asked again and she held up her metal bucket full of forest treasures to me and said, “See, I collect. I’m a collector.” Soon many of the children labelled themselves, “I’m a smasher,” “I’m a finder,”“I’m a helper.” Some were more specific, “I find salamanders” “I find spider webs.” I was very touched by the response and later thought about the children and the roles and identities they were forming for themselves. I couldn’t help but wonder about their indoor classroom and thought to myself, “where is there a place for a collector?” Would a smasher find his identity indoors without constantly being berated for inappropriate behaviour? Is the finder constantly reminded to put the materials back where they belong? Would a helper get a chance to discover their identity in a classroom where the teacher has all the power and solves all the problems?

collecting snails

I think that as educators, researchers, reflective practitioners, we might need to revisit and rethink the communities we have developed with the children we teach. Can we nurture and honour the identities formed by the children even when these identities do not easily or smoothly fit within the learning space? I believe it is possible, but not without much reflection and change. 

finding salamanders

As children naturally discovered each others talents in the forest, they sought each other out to gain assistance with their plans, to discuss their ideas about where to find or how to gather water, logs, bugs, flowers, acorns, worms and salamanders. After the first few weeks, children gathered each other for meetings and snack, noticed when someone was not at the campfire and requested that we wait for all to arrive.

Children who were otherwise excluded in the indoor classroom environment shared a sense of engaged belonging in the forest. Comments such as “I work here”, “I tell people things”, “friends will come to my Birthday now” were noted as an indication of a sense of inclusion. Some children whose behaviour had seemed “out of place” indoors, became leaders outdoors as their strong skills at finding, organizing, problem-solving and seeing things invisible to others, became invaluable in forest exploration and inquiry. I think children are included when a sense of community is developed in a place where everyone is invited to find, state and live out their own place in a classroom space as defined by their unique identity and outlook on the world.

the smashing tree

It is in community and relationship with others that we form our identity. To begin a relationship, teaching or otherwise, with the stance that each individual is unique in their qualities, interests, gifts and abilities might be a strong start to strong relationships. It is imperative as educators that we revisit and reflect on our image of the child. If we continue to see children as first and foremost a group of children at a certain age, all with similar developmental characteristics and needs, we miss completely the possibility of developing a truly meaningful and deep relationship with another human being. I believe that once we start to see children as they see and define themselves, as they create and present their own identity and sense of self, then the sense of belonging for each child will follow naturally.

the climbing hill

Because of this child built, forest cradled community, there is great acceptance among the children of individual needs, preferences and personal identity. A child with exceptionalities who sits alone in the classroom is now heard as he leads the tour of spider webs in the logs. A socially excluded child in the classroom becomes a leader in the forest as he invents safe ways to move heavy logs, and creates a gift of loose parts to our invisible forest school walls. A child who is challenged to walk without stumbling indoors, runs joyfully down a root strewn path a few weeks later, calling out to a friend ahead. Children’s voices come in a hundred different languages. Children can hear one another, no matter what language is spoken. Adults are the ones who need to learn again how to listen.

climbing tree

I believe that being in and with nature, truly being a part of nature is essential to our formation of identity. I believe that we do not develop fully when we develop without a strong and meaningful connection to the outdoors, beyond parks and playgrounds, the wild, unpredictable outdoors. We connect in the forest because we discover a part of ourselves that we may not have even known was there but we also connect because we discover that we need others to help support us in our work as we all have different talents and strengths. We are better as a community, happier, more successful in our pursuits when we are together in the forest, when we work together in the forest. We appreciate one another, we see another side of one another that may have no place or voice indoors and as we grow into ourselves, we find we love one another. We may not be friends, we may not appreciate all the qualities we discover about each other, but in community, like in a family we discover a love, we feel a strong sense of belonging, we have an acceptance of the Other, and there the true relationship begins.

documentation as research and an invitation to reflect

By Louise Jupp

Two weeks ago during our bi-weekly #ReggioPLC twitter chat, we began (more accurately returned to) a conversation on documentation. The questions posed, before the chat began, were inspired by Nancy Niessen’s (@World_of_K) blog post, Documentation as an Adventure.

From my own perspective, I think we touched on the first two questions, generated even more questions than answers (also a sign of a great conversation I think) and ran out of time before reflecting on the final two. At the beginning of the chat the idea of  “visible communication” was raised.

I was compelled for the rest of the chat, and often during the next few weeks, to come back again and again to this comparison. We have discussed what makes documentation “pedagogical” and I recently wrote about my views on the role “expectations” play in our documentation. But the question, shared in the tweet above, made me feel like we had, and needed to, take a step even further back than where we had begun. We had discussed our views on the “pedagogy” of documentation, but we had not fully explored the idea that our work around the recording of learning, the making of this process visible, might not even be documentation. I think we agreed that there is much more to documentation than visibility, communication, and our perceived impressions and ideas of learning. And so I came back to a question I have posed many times, is it possible to document first, reflect and find meaning after?

…and in the posing of that question, the invariable comparison between documentation choices and acts, and the choosing and wearing of different lenses appeared in the conversation.

As the weeks passed, I stayed in “discomfort” with my focus on our documentation lens. I felt sure that the decision to chose a lens, as a documenter, before the process of documentation began, was the act that was not only impacting teacher reflection, but also “disqualifying” our documentation as valid research. When we engage in a research study, write a paper, a thesis, apply for a grant, make learning visible, we gather data in an attempt to address our research questions. Yes, we chose the question, but we engage in the process of research with an open mind and heart. Certainly, we can only look for answers and evidence that support our hypothesis, but then we also know that our research is not sound, and serves little purpose. We must, as researchers be open to the unknown, the unexpected, to the possibility that our unspoken assumptions will be proven incorrect. Of course we are human, we have researcher bias and we all can only hope for “partial sight” in our study of learning, but shouldn’t we begin the process with full commitment to impartiality and the possibility of discovering the unknown? We know we see with a lens but can we be more cognizant in naming that lens?

So what does this mean in practice?

Last week, I was documenting a group of children in our Forest School. The picture below captured my attention.

developmental significance

The moment pulled me in (and that of another teacher) instantly. The child in the middle struggles for less than a moment to move the large heavy log and within seconds, children appear from around the forest to help him. No one asked why, or where the log was going, they merely followed his “back up beeper” sound (a noise made by this child whenever something large is being moved in the forest, an idiosyncratic habit that is extremely practical and highly safety conscious) to the directed location.

My “developmental lens” was front and centre if I am to be honest. As an early childhood educator, I now have a permanent developmental checklist etched in my mind, and this one zoned in on “personal, social development.” I was enamoured by the caring of the children, the willingness to help and support, the trust given to one child whose ultimate goal was unknown. Of course there is nothing wrong with this lens, it serves me well and helps me to be a better observer of children and their learning. But what if I ended my documentation here?

Later in the morning, I walked over to see what had become of the large log and I was greeted with a half completed (at least that is my theory) collection of materials, arranged in compositional research (Reggio inspired terminology for a process children engage in where they place materials in relationship to each other in a manner analogous to writing a sentence, a mathematical equation, notes on a music scale, any process that involves placing symbols together in a meaning making format). Here of course, as I thought about my thinking, I realized that my “Reggio inspired lens” had awoken and was now influencing my documentation. The work can be seen in the image below.

compositional research

As I stepped back to get another picture, I realized that there was an almost identical triangle shape at the opposite side of the log composition. One triangle (on the left) is formed with a forked stick and the large log, the second triangle (on the right) has been created by placing two sticks in relationship to the large log to form the triangle shape.

triangle log compositionI marvelled at the children’s relationship with materials, with shape and with space and then as I took one more step backwards, I realized where the logs had been placed. Although we have no visible boundaries in Forest School, these logs mark the exact place on the path where our Forest School ends, and our “walking adventures” begin. Here is the spot that marks the end of “personal freedom” and the beginning of “supervised excursion.”  I asked myself…how might these logs represent independence? relationship to place? I had replaced my “lens” that had been focussed on different but no less important questions about the children’s relationship with balance, symmetry, a mastery of symbolism and the significance of shape.

…and so, I had taken several steps backward, to gain a better “view through my lens” both literally and metaphorically. I had, in a similar manner, travelled back and forth in my reflections, and in my research from my initial query of social cohesion and the willingness of children to come to the aid of one another, to questions with a far greater scope, ones that invited a lens akin to a magnifying glass. I knew I needed to keep looking and to keep looking closely. “Looking closely”, another lovely lens! I had no answers but was left with the challenge and joy of many compelling questions.

The following week, we returned to the forest and, as is usually the case, others have enjoyed our Forest School space. Structures are removed and new one’s are added. The children were inspired by the very large log structures balanced against the trees (we hypothesized that these adult student’s were inspired by the construction of the young children). I invited the few children gathered at the base of a tree to rebuild a new “log home.” One child pointed to the largest of the logs lying at our feet and asked if I could balance it against the tree. I did, but then carefully showed him that it was too large to stay there by itself. He stood and pondered. Some of the other children placed items at the bottom of the log as seen below.

log balanced from bottom

The child who stood thinking bent down and handed me a forked stick. He pointed to the middle of the log and said, “put it there,” “it will stay up then.” And it did! I was surprised, at the decision to balance from the centre, rather than the end as the other children had done (and as I post this photo, I realize that these children have also utilized a forked stick). And then suddenly I recalled the earlier work with forked sticks (two sides of a triangle!), logs, balance and symmetry. How had the work the children had done with shape, space, and balance on a two dimensional surface, affected their working knowledge in three dimensions? At this point my lens, directed at these three year old children was “awe struck.”

log balanced in middleI will return to the forest tomorrow, armed with my many documentation lenses. Which one I will utilize, I am never quite sure. I am pretty sure however, that I need to look first and then, after reflection, find the pedagogically sound lens, and then once I have documented, considered, reflected and then reflected again, has my research truly begun.