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Spice it up

Spicy nature table

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.


Salt writing

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.


*names changed

The Magic Door

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.

Intentional jellyfish

Niki Buchan prompts us in Too many questions to be more thoughtful in how we intrude on children’s own explorations of the world.  If we are in too much of a hurry to turn something into a ‘teachable moment’ we can be in danger of turning every experience into the same experience of rote learning colours and numbers, rather than pausing to see the real potential unfold.

What I really like about this post is how Niki shows us both sides of her actions as a teacher.

Niki stands back to let the children explore for themselves.  But she is also ready with her own input at the right moments.

When the children are scared of the jellyfish she is reassuring and informative.  She teaches the children how they can safely touch the jellyfish without being stung.  She encourages the children to see the jellyfish as interesting, and worthy of more attention.  These elements come from her own agenda of encouraging explorative play in a natural environment, though they are also responding to the children showing interest.

Niki also shows us how she was able to find a moment when it seemed right to talk about measurement.  She shows us how she travelled with the natural rhythm of the children’s play, but also saw potential to introduce some of the adult agenda of maths learning.

In this experience, emergent and intentional exist simultaneously. Niki’s story shows us that emergent curriculum and intentional teaching are not opposites that need to be addressed at different times of the day or use different formats or teaching styles. In the best moments of our teaching, they come together.

Niki also takes beautiful photographs.


When we put big ideas into practice with young children, it can look deceptively simple.  Often, we do things instinctively or following tradition.  But if we pause to unpack the ideas embedded in our action, they can turn out to be profound.

Teacher Tom wrote today about how democracy should be something we live all the time, not just on election day.  An approach that permeates our whole culture. As with other important ideas we wish to live by, we do well to embed democracy into the experience of early education if we want it to permeate the rest of life.

Re-reading the question posed recently on the EYLF* facebook page
‘How do you record children’s voices in curriculum decisions?’
I reflected on how this strand of the framework is about children learning a democratic cast of mind.  When children are involved in making real decisions about their education, they are not only more engaged in their learning, they are also learning about democratic decision-making.

Educators in that conversation reported a number of ways they record children’s voices. One approach was to observe (and record) children’s actions. Through their choices and conversation, we can observe children making decisions.  Our thoughtful observation of these choices is a form of communication – one of the 100 languages of children if you like.  When they choose, one of the things children are doing is telling us what they like or want.  When we build on those choices in our planning, we show that we have heard them.

The cycle of choice, observation, responsive planning becomes a conversation about curriculum.

Other educators reported a more overt approach to involving children in curriculum decisions. They actively ask children what they would like to do.  They involve them in designing and setting up play areas.

Children suggested and helped set-up this 'hairdressing salon'.

Some educators described their routines for overtly involving children in decisions – and also involving the children in documenting those decisions:

“We have a children’s program book. We sit down together and children are chosen to go into the storeroom and talk about what’s in there and what they’d like. The children who are still in the playroom talk about what they’d like (from memory/knowledge of the resources we have) and where they’d like it, and have the opportunity to draw and write their ideas in the book. This is then displayed with their name.”  (Joanne Pitronaci)

“We have a large sheet of paper each day for a brainstorm of what each person would like to do on the day. The heading is “Program’ (all the children call it the’ program’ and know what a program is). I scribe for the children and write down all the things that they suggest with their names next to it. I also draw a little picture depicting each activity. There may be several names next to one activity. By the time the brainstorm is finished it looks like a web. At rest time I glue a few little photos of children doing some of the activities and children can also write their names next to all the activities that they actually did. Children often stand next to the program and point/discuss what everyone has done. It is very much a ‘working document’ and can be added to during the day – children can draw little pictures or write their name next to activities they have done. This is children taking ownership of their own program and learning. They love it. I also add one thing that I would like to do during the day so in this way I can include any extension activities from previous observations. When I have 2 weeks worth of program sheets I make them into a big book and children love looking back at them.” (Janine Vercoe)

I am impressed.


(* Australia’s early childhood education framework)

What my peach tree told me

I had planted three dwarf fruit trees in my front garden. Neglect had allowed a shoot to escape from beneath the graft.  It shot up boldly towards the sky. I looked at it, really too late in the season for pruning, and thought perhaps I would actually like a taller tree there.  I left it to grow.  The following summer, it produced a modest tasty crop of yellow clingstone peaches that were great for cooking.

It is spring again now, and my view out the living room window is the blossom on my wilful peach tree.  It is bold blossom. Big single pink cups with a dark heart. Sparse on the tree, but more determined to resist a puff of wind than the pretty white stuff on the nearby plumcot. It fills my window beautifully, framed by leadlight.  It brings spring into my house.

Sitting here enjoying my blossom, it reminds me of the value of not overplanning, of not jumping in to intervene, of letting things run their own course. The thing that unfolds as I observe thoughtfully can be better than what I had planned.