This week marked the end of Carnevale, and the beginning of Lent. Lent starts on Ash Wednesday, and the day before – Shrove Tuesday – is the last day of Carnevale. In Italian it is called Martedi Grasso – Fat Tuesday – like Mardi Gras. In Australia, we know it as Pancake Tuesday. The origin of these names is the tradition of feasting on that day to use up foods that are not allowed during the Lenten fast – things like butter, sugar and eggs.
Cooking food with children at kinder is about involving them in the process. Our choice to make Australian pancakes is partly a nod to that tradition, but also partly due to practicalities. Pancakes are one of the easier things to make and cook in class.
I call them ‘fritelle’ in the Green Group program. I don’t know what pancakes are called in Italy, or whether they even eat them. But in the part of Italy I know best ‘fritelle’ are the Carnevale speciality. There, they are a kind of small donut, and are deep fried. Pancakes are also small and fried, so I figure ‘fritelle’ is a fair enough translation. But pan frying in an electric frying pan is much safer, and is something I am prepared to undertake in class.
We gathered as a whole group to make the pancake batter – burro, farina, uova, latte, zucchero e un pizzico di sale. The children took it in turns to add a spoonful of flour and stir the ingredients together. I had some keen volunteers to break the eggs, but I decided to do that myself rather than turn it into frittata by adding 13 eggs.
Another useful property of the pancake recipe is that it is very forgiving. I needed to be able to offer gluten and dairy free pancakes, and substitute ingredients work well. I had White Wings gluten-free self-raising flour, Nuttelex buttery margarine, and ricemilk. As it happened, I did not need to go dairy-free on the day, so I went with butter and cow’s milk. I made the pancakes fairly rich, with a bit of sugar, and plenty of butter and egg, so they were tasty enough to eat plain.
We cooked the fritelle around lunch time. While the children ate their lunch, I took children aside one at a time to cook a pancake with me. By doing it with one child at a time, I felt better able to control the risk, while still giving each child the maximum opportunity to be actively involved. The children poured a ladle of batter into the pan, watched the pancake for bubbles forming on top and told me when it was time to turn it, flipped it over with a spatula, counted to 20 while it cooked on the other side, and turned it out onto their plate.
Doing it one child at a time was lengthy, so it was important that the other children were not just waiting. They were engaged with eating their lunch, packing up and moving off to play. At the same time, they were in the room while it was happening, and were able to participate vicariously while others did it first. This can be important for children who are cautious about trying new things.
There is a lot of good learning to be had in an experience like this. Children are directly involved in doing something that is often done for them*. They are involved in making healthy food. They witness ingredients changing state from solid to liquid to solid. It is a memorable experience, with cultural resonance. It introduces new language in both Italian and English.
But the component I particularly noticed this time was the impact of my decision to work with each child individually to cook their pancake. I read something last year about the value of warm individual interactions with educators, where children can feel competent and appreciated. My initial motivation in setting it up as an individual activity was simply to provide close supervision around a hot frying pan. But I soon noticed it was providing a context for me to have an extended, supportive interaction with each child. And perhaps that was, in the end, the most valuable part of the whole exercise.
*These reflect various aspects of the Early Years Learning Framework including agency, wellbeing, science, memory, risk, cultural competence, language.
The next instalment of our activities with herbs was pizza with rosemary topping – pizza bianca al rosmarino.
I like to cook with yeast with my classes. It is such as great science experience, seeing the dough rise. The kids can knead the dough as much as they like – and that is a pleasure in itself.
This is a simple dough of granulated yeast, olive oil, strong white flour, salt and water. It is called pizza bianca (white pizza) because it is made without tomato. The topping is rosemary, salt and olive oil.
Our classes are less than 4 hours at the moment, and it can be hard to complete a complex activity in a day. So for this, we made the dough during our afternoon session, and then made up the pizzette the next morning. I also find it good cooking with yeast in winter in our centre, because we have heating in the floor. We can put the dough on the floor, and be sure it will rise.
We gave each child a piece of dough to work, flatten into a pizza shape, sprinkle with salt and rosemary, and drizzle with oil. We put each of them on a separate piece of baking paper, and wrote the child’s name in pencil.
We cooked it in a hot oven, and the children ate them for lunch.
Our interest in rosemary got us thinking about spices in general.
We removed all the pine cones and insects and other things that had been our nature table, and replaced them with herbs and spices.
We harvested fresh herbs from the garden. We raided the centre kitchen for dried herbs and spices, then brought some from home, and finally went to the supermarket and stocked up.
We tried to include as many as possible of the herbs and spices in two forms, placed together for comparison. Fresh and dried herbs. Whole and ground spices.
At first we left the table without comment. Children came singly or in small groups and explored the colourful powders and interesting shapes. They soon started to sniff them as they noticed the aromas.
When we joined them to talk about the display, they made comments like
‘That smells like gingerbread.’
‘My Mum puts that on my porridge.’
They had differences of opinion about which ones smell good and which ones don’t.
At mat time, we talked about the display, and pointed out the different states and types. Being an Italian class, we also introduced the names of some herbs and spices in Italian (though we did not attempt to turn it into a vocabulary memorisation exercise). We discussed how to use them. We passed them around and smelt them. We talked about which parts of the plants they come from.
When we went outside, some children were interested in seeing the living plants in the garden.
We have kept the display out for several weeks now. We don’t put out all of them all the time. We swap them around a bit. Sometimes the aroma of one or another gets stronger – especially when something gets spilt as happens from time to time. We have added screw top jars so the children can choose individual spices to smell. (Just the commercial ones they are sold in.)
Spices are a treat for the senses – interesting to look at, rich in colour, aroma and flavour. We are also finding them a rich vein of ideas for learning activities.
Our Biscotti al Rosmarino grew out of our rosemary play dough.
Actually, I need to go back a little further. I wanted to attract the children’s attention to the rosemary in our kindergarten garden. I remembered seeing posts on using aromas in play dough, so I decided to give rosemary play dough a whirl.
We took a couple of children out to the garden to collect the rosemary, then sat a small group down to cut it up. The performance of our Kiddie Kutter knives was disappointing. We found that scissors worked better.
My co-educator took the lead in making the play dough with the children, adding the rosemary, and taking the colour from its flowers rather than the leaves.
The play dough has interesting flecks of green that add texture and visual difference. It does not smell particularly strong at first, but the aroma emerges more as it warms up while you work it.
The pretty terracotta pot turned out not to work very well. The children stuffed it full of play dough when then dried quickly to the thirsty unglazed pot and was extremely difficult to get out again.
But it was the conversation while playing with the fresh warm dough that turned out to be really productive. They chatted about what rosemary is and what you can use it for, and came up with the idea of making some biscuits.
Melinda* had drawn a picture. “It’s for my Mum”, she said. I asked if I should write that for her – then thought to ask if she would like to write it herself. We settled that she would write ‘Mum’. I wrote it for her and she copied.
Melinda went to put the drawing in her bag. I asked her please to put it in her folder so it would not get bent. She was dubious about this, so I showed her the hanging folder with her name on it.
“But why doesn’t it have an A like my name”, she said. The lower case, serif font [a] is not what she is used to at the end of her name.
I got out my computer and showed Melinda her name written in CAPS and in lower case letters in various fonts. I showed her the difference between a big [A] and a little [a].
I had recently seen a blog post about writing in a tray of salt. So I grabbed a tray from the kitchen and a layer of salt and brought it back to the room.
I got Melinda to write her name in the salt. Then I showed her the difference between a big [A] and a little [a], writing with my finger in the salt.
We had an audience by then: 8 or 9 kids had a turn at writing their name in the salt. I took photos of their writing, then rubbed it out and shook it smooth again for the next child. Melinda waited patiently for another turn. She wrote in the salt a couple more times. Then she went to play somewhere else.
Noel* was not so confident at writing his name. I wrote a big [N] for him, and got him to trace it with his finger. We did it several times. Then I smoothed the salt and told him to try it himself. What he wrote did not much resemble an [N]. So we tried again. I wrote it for him, and got him to trace over it. Over and over. I told him to feel the movement, and try to remember how it felt. Then I smoothed the salt and told him to try for himself again. This time he wrote [M]. I quickly rubbed out the spare leg. “Well done”, I said “That is [N] for Noel. You wrote it yourself.”
Later, when Mum came to collect her, Melinda grabbed her by the hand. “Come and see”, she said as she pulled Mum across the room to the salt tray.
Melinda wrote in the salt. “This is a big [A] and this is how you do a little [a]” she said. And she was right.
It started with a squabble over a long cardboard tube. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted some children stabbing it with scissors, and others trying to grab it away. I jumped in and asked what they were doing. Turned out they wanted to cut it up and make guns.
So I said no to that.
And I told them I thought the beauty of that tube was its length. If we cut it up, we would wreck it. Couldn’t we think of something else to make out of it.
‘A key’, he said.
‘Great’, I said ‘Go and draw what you want the key to look like, and we will work out how to make it’.
He drew the key. He found some tiny boxes to be the teeth. (Head first in the huge basket with his feet waving while he looked for the small boxes in the bottom.) He found some masking tape, and taped the teeth to the tube. I reminded him to make it strong. I showed him how to add cross pieces to make it stronger. I said ‘It is called reinforcing’, and he nodded and said ‘My Mum told me that’.
A friend jumped in and added an extra layer of tape to cover up holes in the boxes. He had to negotiate with some others to get the short rounds of tube he wanted to make the handle end with. Other mates added a bit here and there, or talked, or watched.
I sent a few of them to draw the door. Again, he was the one who delivered.
He collected another pile of boxes and started to build a lock with his mates helping.
While they were busy, I snuck out with his drawing and copied it onto the fence.
When we went outside, I told them the Magic Door was out there somewhere. I showed them the drawing. They searched for it. They looked in the fort. They looked on the hill. They started digging for it in the sandpit.
Then one of them found it. He called out excitedly. They all came running. ‘Yes’, they said ‘ That is the Magic Door’. He went inside and brought out the key.
I sat them down in front of the door.
I asked ‘Is this a real door, or a magic door?’ And they said ‘Magic’.
I asked ‘Is this a real key, or a magic key?’ And they said ‘Magic’.
‘So where is it going to take us? Out into the lane, or to a magic place?’ And they said ‘Magic’.
I told them they could go to a magic place. They could open the Magic Door with the magic key and go wherever they like, in their imagination. I told them I would like to hear later where they went.
I took a photo of each of them using the magic key to open the Magic Door. Then they ran off to play.
Later, he made a book. He stapled 8 pages together. He cried when they came apart. I helped him make it stronger. Then he drew in it.
I managed to upload the photos and put them into a PowerPoint on my laptop in the latter part of the class. We had mat time at the end of the three hour class.
I showed them his drawings, and the key they had made. I used the PowerPoint to tell them the story of the Magic Door.
Then I invited him to read his book. He got up and ‘read’ it to his classmates. He told them about going up a high mountain, and flying on the back of a giant bird.
And we were both very pleased.
I promised myself this school year I would live by the mantra ‘no such thing as bad weather’. We would spend as much time as possible outside. We would let the children go outside in all weathers. We would let them be the judge of when they wanted to be outside or in.
This week was the first real test of our resolve.
We had no horrid heat in the early weeks of the year. Even with our late afternoon timetable, the summer classes enjoyed balmy days.
This week, after Samhain, as the leaves fell from the trees, a cold wind blew in from Antarctica. Temperatures fell. And today it rained. And rained and rained.
We did not push the kids to go out. We are starting inside. When the first child asks to go out, one of us goes to0, and a few (most) usually follow.
Today, they were not asking. We were all inside for a long time.
But eventually someone did want to go out. So we found jackets and coats and gumboots. A lot were not very well equipped. They had coats, but not raincoats. They had no gumboots. But it was not really all that cold. The rain was steady, but light. Inside was warm and dry, and everyone had a change of clothes.
Nothing to be afraid of.
I was just a little worried about their shoes. There were puddles. Muddy ones. I could change their pants, but I could not do anything to fix wet shoes. So we decided that people who wanted to walk in the puddles had to take their shoes and socks off first.
Most of the children gave it a go. Even one who had gumboots. Then they dried their feet and put their shoes back on.
I just wish we had worked out a system for recognising socks before we let the children strip them off.
I learnt a song last weekend, from Stiff Gins singer-songwriters Nardi Simpson and Kaleena Briggs. It is called Opal Rainbow, and is in Language.
Nardi and Kaleena taught us this song in a workshop. We sang the chorus with them, and they filled in the verses. It tells a story of going searching the scrailings for opals that the miners might have missed. Nardi provides evocative mime that helps support the story.
For the first couple of days, a gospel song from the same folk festival took up residence in my head and blocked out the tune of Opal Rainbow. But on my walk to work yesterday, the tune and lyrics of the chorus came back to me.
I wanted to share it with the children, but I was not sure how I could manage it, and whether they could take to it. The group I am teaching at the moment are very little. I can barely get them to join in on Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.
But as circle time approached, I resolved to sing it to them anyway. At least it might help me remember.
I had a brain wave to add clapping sticks. I could not find the good ones at short notice, but I grabbed a few pieces of dowel from a wooden construction set. (Nardi uses her thongs, after all.)
I gave each child a pair of sticks, set up a rhythm and sang to them.
They worked intently on their clapping technique. They did not care about the song or the lyrics. But as I sang to them over and over, they fell into time.
The last line of the song is chanted, and the sticks are clapped fast and out of rhythm. It provides nice punctuation to end the song. It makes the children smile.
As I finished singing for the tenth time, the children cred ‘again’.
I have a hit.
The lyrics are (have to check the spelling) :
You can hear Stiff Gins on You Tube. This song Yandool is in Wiradjuri. It is a lovely taste of their music, though not so suitable for singing with young children. I have not been able to find a performance of Opal Rainbow yet to share with you.
Stiff Gins also do workshops for children (though more for schools than early childhood, I gather). They are very engaging and great performers and teachers, as well as good musicians. Look out for them.
One of my goals this year is to give the children as much access as possible to outdoor play.
Our outdoor play area is a rich play space that offers a lot. However, there are some activities that seem naturally to belong indoors. Painting and drawing and collage and other forms of artistic expression are more often indoor activities. Finding outlets for creative expression in outdoor play requires some thought.
Painting with water works as outdoor art.
For children, art is as much, if not more, about the process rather than the product. The process of wielding a brush. The process of making marks.
When children paint with water on a fence they experience: filling the brush; the drips that run down; the feel of the stroke of the brush; the sweep of their arm; the change in colour; seeing where they have left their mark; matching up the strokes to cover an area.
Most of what they can get from painting on paper at an easel they also get from painting water on a fence. They just don’t get the product to take home.
This is ephemeral art.
And that is a good thing.
Today all those new regulations and frameworks and systems of inspection and fines and ratios come into effect. We have the EYLF (Early Years Learning Framework) or in Victoria the VEYLDF (Victorian Early Years Learning and Development Framework). We have the NQF; the Act and Regulations being brought into harmony across all states; ratios going down; qualifications going up.
Some of us are lucky enough to already be working in this way. We have to learn new language, and adjust our systems a little. But basically we are already there.
But there are others who have a lot of work to do. They may need to upgrade qualifications in order to continue in the same (rather low paid) job they are already doing well. They may need to answer to a whole lot of regulations that never applied to them before. They may be facing financial hurdles as they try to provide the same service with fewer paying children.
As I join the conversation with so many other educators about implementing the changes we now face, I fear we may be heading for a Brave New World that references Aldous Huxley more than Miranda.
There are signs that educators might be oppressed by compliance regimes that add little or nothing to the quality of education, but plenty of time and frustration to the educator’s job. There are grounds to fear that the autonomy envisaged by the EYLF will be swallowed up in long and complex mandatory protocols.
We know that middle management has its own logic. Weber calls it instrumental rationality. We know bureaucracy tends to push paper-based tasks down onto the workers at the coalface so they can produce evidence they are doing something.
Early childhood educators are vulnerable to being caught up in a web of compliance that will leave them little time or energy to be the reflective teachers that we want.
Creative educators need autonomy.
I am worried that the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing. I am worried that the good framework of the EYLF and the NQF – which ask educators to be autonomous and reflective professionals – will be suffocated by managers and inspectors and checklists and protocols that make educators scared of being punished for getting it wrong.
Fear is the enemy of creativity.
We stand now facing into a Brave New World in early childhood education. The next couple of years will determine whether we develop the kind of creative, reflective workforce envisaged by the EYLF. Or if instead it turns into a minefield of minutiae suited only to workers who are good at following orders, but not good at thinking for themselves.
A SQUAT grey building of only thirty-four stories. Over the main entrance the words, CENTRAL LONDON HATCHERY AND CONDITIONING CENTRE, and, in a shield, the World State’s motto, COMMUNITY, IDENTITY, STABILITY.”
Aldous Huxley, Brave New World