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.

unveiling learning: when we have expectations our documentation is no longer pedagogical

By Louise Jupp

I am very comfortable admitting to my fear. What is sometimes more difficult is figuring out what I am afraid of. To have fear, to get through something, is to find your courage. Fear is frightening, courage is exhilarating! Fear immobilizes, courage calls us to action. Fear necessitates courage. Courage invites a journey. Learning is all about journeys. Journeys that are inner, unique and not visible or known until a commitment is made to listening, relationship, looking closely and giving voice.


The unknown can be pretty scary. As teachers, aren’t we supposed to be the one with the knowledge, the answers, the correct response? As the teacher, aren’t we in control? Perhaps not. Perhaps we shouldn’t be. Parker Palmer is always eloquent and wise in the examination of courage, and the role it plays in teaching and learning. Although he writes and speaks about teaching and learning communities in higher education, his wisdom extends beyond arbitrary educational divisions.

To educate is to guide students on an inner journey toward more truthful ways of seeing and being in the world. How can schools perform their mission without encouraging guides to scout out that inner terrain?

We are teachers. We are guides. Aren’t we? Should we be? Do we know the path? Can we know the path of learning for each of the students we teach if this journey involves only our “inner terrain?” How does the political body that mandates our varied curriculum documents also suggest that this very document is a map that when followed will lead us, as educators, along the right path? We are Reggio inspired and so we believe in the uniqueness of the capable, competent child. How can there possibly be one pedagogical map?

Many years ago I read The Path Toward Knowledge: The Social, Political and Cultural Context of the Reggio Municipal Infant-Toddler Center and Preschool Experience by Sergio Spaggiari, based on a speech given during a March 2003 Reggio study tour. I remembered a passage about a journey and went on a google search to find the article (available from the link above).

…Malaguzzi made a declaration of ignorance. Maybe this is the right attitude to take . . . a humble attitude, a modest attitude. Maybe this attitude is what helps us to lay out the right questions and to take the right path.

And so I pondered this pedagogical stance. The right path is the path of ignorance. The path of unknowing, uncertainty, doubt…and up bubbles the fear. But to stay with this fear, to sit in disequilibrium for a while, to hold on to that uncomfortable feeling for just a bit longer…longer…and then another emotion starts to take over. A sense of freedom, adventure, anticipation, excitement…joy! “Nothing without joy.” The expression emerges with another layer of meaning and significance. Fear, the courage to face fear, joy, the realization that this is learning. Learning is not predictable, there is no “right path”, perhaps there is no “right learning.”

Sergio Spaggiari continues to explain this learning journey

I think “walk on” is a good metaphor for what we do. There are two ways that people think about walking on or moving forward. Some people think that to walk, you need to know where you want to go and how to get there. Other people, moved by sentiment or passion, by dreams or ideals, move toward something that they don’t yet know or understand. They don’t know what their final destination will be. So there are people who think knowledge should be before the walking starts and people who think that you learn as you walk. I think it is very important to have the courage to risk finding things out as you proceed. There would be no research and no researchers if people had to know things before they set out. Researchers are people who put themselves on the line.

find things out as you proceed

I am also reminded of the first Hundred Languages Exhibit, the feeling of joy and freedom I first experienced when I saw it. The beauty of the work, the depth of questioning, the care and love given to the voice of a child’s learning. The exhibit was originally called, If the Eye Jumps Over the Wall. Sergio Spaggiari, describes the significance of the metaphor:

It meant that the children’s eyes and the adults’ eyes must see beyond the wall. This is our aspiration . . . to be able to jump over walls. Children want to go over the wall . . . to go over the wall of banality, to go over the wall of established educational procedures. That is why we chose this title for our first exhibition. It is important to acquire the skill of going over walls, going beyond boundaries, seeing limits and passing through them because, in everyone’s life, there are times when you will find barriers that seem impassable, when there are obstacles you feel you cannot overcome. To be able to go over the wall means you can topple cultural paradigms that seem fixed. It means you can turn things on their head. It means you can start with fresh eyes.

Starting with “fresh eyes” is a beautiful, invitational teaching nugget that invites joy but again, that fear creeps in. What do these eyes see? Will these eyes miss things? How do these eyes express what they see? Giving in to fear, when we ponder this reaction, is likely a challenge with the need to control. I think as teachers we make attempts to control a certain kind of learning, especially once we have made the decision that this learning will be documented.

A true commitment to making learning visible, to giving children a voice, to naming our own learning, comes with the realization that once this pedagogical documentation is shared, we, as educators, have opened ourselves up to criticism and judgement. However, if we begin the journey of documentation with a set of expectations, a list of things to look for, the documentation is no longer pedagogical. Dahlberg, Moss & Pence (1999) describe pedagogical documentation.

When we use the term ‘pedagogical documentation’, we are actually referring to two related subjects: a process and an important content in that process. ‘Pedagogical documentation’ as content is material which records what the children are saying and doing, the work of the children, and how the pedagogue relates to the children and their work. This material can be produced in many ways and takes many forms…This material makes the pedagogical work concrete and visible (or audible)…This process involves the use of that material as a means to reflect upon the pedagogical work and to do so in a very rigorous, methodical and democratic way.

The reflection on the learning we make visible through pedagogical documentation is not discussed, reflected upon, or displayed in its completed format until after it has been compiled. If we make pedagogical decisions, before engaging in the process of documentation, this pedagogy is not a piece of the documentation as the decisions were made without rigour, without method and without democracy at a point before the process even began. Ann Pelo is as always eloquent in her description of pedagogical documentation with reference to her work at Hilltop:

The process or way of being in the world, is really what it is, a way of understanding our work, or understanding our relationships with children and with each other that is about mindful presence and authentic engagement and curiosity and delight. How that all gets lived out or made tangible is the form of this thing we call documentation, this paper we put up on the wall, this document we send out to the web-page, whatever form it takes..documentation is an expression of a way of being with children. I think of documentation as growing out of deep listening and close observation, so that’s not anything that necessarily shows, its not any tangible piece. I’d say that’s a core piece of documentation, really being present to what the children are experiencing, doing, saying, playing about, arguing about, collaborating about, feeling about. So, that is a central component of documentation, that mindful piece…

Relationships, listening, authentic engagement, curiosity and delight, being in the moment at a point in time that is not predictable, that cannot be planned, this is what it is to be a teacher in “mindful presence.” We can not predict learning, we cannot know the final outcome of pedagogical documentation that has not yet transpired and similarly we cannot anticipate the criticism or judgement we might face, or need to be accountable to once this documentation is created and shared. Fear of the unknown! Well I get that one…

…and so where do we start. I returned to the piece written in honour of Sergio Spaggiari’s Reggio study tour welcome speech. In true Reggio synchronicity, the suggestions had a pleasing similarity to the many variations of Reggio inspired principles that have been written, shared and discussed including, family participation, the competent child, relationships, listening, creativity, aesthetics and beauty, organization, the atelier and the role of the teacher. At the end of the passage there were a set of questions, an invitation to teachers to ask of themselves at the end of the day.

questions for the end of the day

I often hear teachers say that they need to “cover the curriculum.” More recently I have heard a reframing of the expression into “uncovering the curriculum.” At the end of our last #ReggioPLC twitter chat, Nancy and I processed our learning and during the discussion came up with the term “unveiling learning.” The term speaks to our fear of the “unknown”, the “unseen” and yet also holds the hope, when we take hold of our courage, to unwrap the teaching invitation and behold the joy within. If we hold onto “expectations,” if we observe the work of children with a mindset the we “know what we are looking for,” if our documentation has taken voice before it has been shared, debated and contested then we have robbed ourselves of the joy of curiosity, delight, surprise and mindful presence, and simultaneously, we have produced a narration of learning that is not pedagogical.

considering our prespective

By Louise Jupp

Last week I spent a lovely day filled with the joyful learning of children both indoors and out. Of course the day was filled with my own learning as well. I started the day in the forest, warming my hands by the fire as I waited for the children from our lab school to arrive. Many of the children had been out to forest school before but we also had some new visitors.

waiting by the fire
waiting by the fire

Soon the children appeared, navigating a new path to avoid the usual route, now under a thick layer of ice. The children were excited, full of questions and eager to continue their constructions, investigations and explorations in our magical forest school spot.

construction continues on the forest school
construction continues on the forest school “house”

The forest school site seemed at first a potential challenge from an adult perspective, the forest floor in many states of seasonal change with ice patches, snow, water puddles and mud. Of course adult teachers can so easily focus on concerns for safety, caution, potentially wet clothes, possible falls and perceived chances for many frustrations. But, we have been out to the forest a few times now, and this time it is easier for us to trust that challenges are a gift to learning. States of matter, transformation of substances, solids, liquids, freezing, melting, science is everywhere and mud is such a joyful, reactive, in between kind of substance that its call was irresistible.

mud, an irresistible invitation to explore the transformation of a substance
mud, an irresistible invitation to explore the transformation of a substance

The morning passed quickly. Many of the children mastered their first knot! I got so excited that I forgot to take pictures! It was so gratifying to witness their pride as they were able to tie the rope to the logs with only a little assistance. Only a few months ago this skill had seemed an impossibility, the terminology and actions beyond the children’s ability to grasp. During our second visit we spent a great deal of time “walking out” knot words. We took rolls of yarn and went “around”, “under”, “over” and “through” the forest trees, wrapping the beautiful giants in colourful webs. Now the words were mastered and the instructions manageable. A whole new invitation to independent construction has emerged!

As the morning wound to a close, we gathered once again by the fire to celebrate our morning with a “bear hunt.” It felt good to recite the action packed story with the children, to witness their laughter and to marvel at their bravery, knowing that many of them are fully convinced that a bear resides in our forest. I must admit that the children were muddy, were wet, and a few had slipped on the ice. But, these challenges of the morning had been overcome with a sense of self-efficacy, resilience and joy and as I glanced beside me I noticed that some children were perfectly capable of keeping themselves clean, dry and organized (with the help of a bucket).

clean dry and organized by the fire
clean, dry and organized by the fire

Having said goodbye to the children, I headed out to a much anticipated visit to a Reggio Inspired Kindergarten. Thank you @AnamariaRalph for hosting and @MsJamieLy for visiting with me! It was truly a joy to immerse myself for the afternoon in a kindergarten that embraced play based learning.

The work of the children was industrious, filled with many possibilities for problem solving, facilitated by many invitations to hypothesize, reflect and build theories and every child was joyfully engrossed in a self chosen endeavour. All of the children documented their own learning through drawings, and written text (much of it invented) and always happily read to me when I asked. I was able to witness the learning of physics and group collaboration and mediation through the construction of marble ramps and pathways (Ms. Ralph has beautifully documented the children’s work here), estimation of number through cup stacking, measurement and circumference through jewellery making with wire and beads, design thinking through architectural recreation of towers, the creation of mathematical equations through the invitation to make “10”, story telling in a small world zen garden, the creation of birds in flight with plasticine and an intriguing exploration of perspective.

considering the perspective of
considering the perspective of “people” in block construction

Two children invited me to visit the construction as seen above. The beautifully coloured blocks had been stacked on the light table in front of a mirror on the wall. I asked a question about the structure, inquired about its balance, how the “tower of colour” was reflected in the mirror and the response was, “there are people inside but you can’t see them.” I was asked to look lower and discovered the small colourful discs nestled in the bottom of the structure. As I was about to ask another question, one of the children said, “but they are the little people. You can’t see the big people.” I looked at the two children and knew by the grins on their faces and the gentle back and forth shaking of their heads that this time I was not going to be shown the location of the “big people” but would need to figure it out by myself. Unable to see the “big people” from the outside of the structure, I peeked inside from the top and could still only see “little people.”

searching for the
searching for the “big people” in the tower of colour

Having searched the entire structure from the outside (much to the amusement of its builders) and still finding myself unable to find the “big people”, I slipped my phone between the mirror and the back of the tower of colour and snapped a picture. Almost by “perspective magic” I discovered the illusive “big people.”

the “big people” are found through the magic of photography

After expressing my joy (and sharing in the delight of the builders), I asked them if they thought there was another way to “see” the big people. All three of us squatted, squinted, tilted our heads and peered in the mirror but none of us could “see” them and so we returned to the hypothesis that we might be able to see the tower of colour residents through photography.

experimenting with the tools of reflection and photography
experimenting with the tools of reflection and photography

It turned out that our hypothesis was correct! We could “see” something that could not be seen with our eyes when we used a camera, aimed at a certain angle and pointed at the reflection of the mirror. Some time later I thought about the learning and was reminded of a blog post I had written some time ago about the science of light.

scientific exploration

I thought about the quote above, and reflected on my day spent with children. Scientific exploration engages emotions and thought, action and wonder, hypothesis testing and trusting in our best guess, exploration and discovery, rational explanation and relational joy, wonder, curiosity and magic! As educators we can “see” a “questioning intelligence” when we observe this type of engagement. I had observed this engagement all day. I had participated in playful inquiry, I had asked a lot of questions, documented, tested out some theories and had made some mistakes.

During our last ReggioPLC twitter chat, we had a thoughtful conversation about learning and “mistakes”, captured in part in Nothing is Perfect, a storify curated by Laurel Fynes. We talked a lot about courage and the idea that mistakes are opportunities for learning, provocations for discovery, invitations to be our authentic selves. The metaphor of stepping stones and journeys surfaced, honouring the image of learning as a path that is often times uncertain. At the end of the evening, after we had said our goodbyes, Laurel @kinderfynes reminded us of a book she had given me and Nancy @World_of_K called Wabi Sabi.

I loved the term, reflected upon it in terms of the journey of teaching and the willingness to embrace mistakes. I rushed to my book shelf and grabbed the book about the cat named Wabi Sabi to remind myself of its final passage.

Tired but glad. Wabi Sabi returned at last to her house. She curled up on the straw mat in the kitchen, enjoying the warmth there. She could smell the wind in her fur and feel her long journey’s steps deep in her bones.

The sun’s last rays stretch

a silver brushstroke shivers 

on warm clouded glass.

“Now I think I know what to call this feeling,” she said to herself. “It’s…”

“Wabi Sabi!” cried her master, seeing her. “Where have you been?”

“That’s hard to explain,” she purred, feeling simply and beautifully at home.

…and so when I arrived home, I reflected on my long, tiring, but oh so joyful day with children. I thought about my mistakes, honestly, authentically, and open to discoveries that may be unexpected.

I brought the buckets and forgot the shovels (every child asked for one), a mistake or an invitation to explore mud with all senses!

I asked children what animals they thought lived in the woods and was greeted with frightened faces, a mistake or an invitation to explore self confidence and courage.

I underestimated the speed with which children would learn the skill of tying knots, a mistake or an invitation to be reminded of the power of self directed learning.

I worried about the challenges in a wet, cold and slippery forest and some children got wet, cold and fell, a mistake or an invitation to consider self-efficacy and resilience, both essential to physical literacy and well being.

Of course, any of these situations could have turned out differently, the learning journey is often unpredictable, like the stepping stones we chose along the way. But, I think being open to this unpredictability, being prepared to go with the flow of learning, being willing to stand beside children and accept that “nothing lasts, nothing is perfect and nothing is finished ” just might be key to a Reggio inspired pedagogy.

our challenge..The Wonder of Learning
our challenge..The Wonder of Learning

…and as I re-read the quote above I am struck by two phrases, “what lies beyond the visible” and “establish connections between things which are un-joined.” Perhaps some of the things we struggle with the most as teachers are those things we cannot see, the pieces that seem disconnected or un-joined?