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.
We always celebrate Carnevale in our Italian kindergarten program. Carnevale is an Italian cultural tradition with a child focus so it is a natural fit for us. We take some inspiration from the Venetian Carnevale. Our celebrations include things like masks, constumes, and traditional pre-Lenten foods. We also continue the Australian kindergarten tradition of making pancakes in class.
One of the things we do is invite children to wear dress ups to kinder. This year, with Easter falling quite late, we have started dressing up the week before Ash Wednesday, and the dress ups have the been the focus of our week.
Some children stuck to the same favourite costume, while others chose a different one each day. There were no restrictions on what they could wear – a Carnevale tutto vale.
It is convenient that Shrove Tuesday falls so early in the year, as this is a time when the curriculum focus is often on Identity. We are getting to know the children and settling them into a sense of belonging in the group.
Wearing a costume allows children to explore and play with identity. They can enter into fantasy play in that role. They can adopt different ways of behaving. They can explore taking on aspects of personality.
This week, we particularly noticed how Paw Patrol costumes created opportunities for different combinations of children to connect with each other. The costumes scaffolded social play by giving children a known role to perform, pre-established by their shared knowledge of the Paw Patrol world.
We also noticed how some children who have been a little socially reticent seemed released by the costume. They appeared more relaxed, and leapt into social play with an ease we had not seen before. It was as if the freedom to pretend to be someone else gave them an opportunity to perform an identity with more social confidence.
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.
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.
See how beautifully our red eggs turned out.
I found proper Orthodox egg dye in our local supermarket. They had two types in fact. For one the method involved cooking the eggs in the dye. I chose the one where you boil the eggs first, and put them in dye at room temperature. Much easier at kinder.
I got the kids to draw on the eggs first with wax crayon. They are quite young, and new at kinder, so just getting the crayons to make any kind of mark was a puzzle for them. We dyed them and watched them turn bright red. The children were as fascinated as any teacher could hope.
I had planned to polish them with oil as well – remembered to bring a rag from home. But we had plenty to do without that.
A new boy was a bit upset. He has a Greek name. I rightly guessed he would made some eggs with a grandmother. We drew on and dyed an egg together. It made a great link between school and home. +1 for belonging.
We painted on egg shaped paper and searched the garden for little plastic eggs with chicks inside.
Several families had remembered my request to bring in Easter egg wrappers. We used them for collage, on (vaguely) egg shaped paper.
We sent the red eggs home.
So that is what we did for Easter in the end.
We have one week to go until we break up for the Easter holidays.
There are some quite strong traditions around Easter in kindergartens. Making little baskets to put eggs in. Easter egg hunts. Imagery of eggs, chickens and rabbits. Talk of the Easter Bunny.
When I taught an Italian-English bilingual program, I always made a point of choosing different imagery for Easter. I drew from the Italian artistic tradition, and used doves and lambs. The dove is a traditional symbol of the holy spirit. The Italian Easter cake – colomba – is dove shaped. The lamb is a traditional icon of Christ as the ‘Paschal sacrifice’ – the Lamb of God. A lot of Australians eat lamb for feast days, including Easter. I did not tell the children the story of Easter, though. It feels a bit solemn for 3-4 year olds.
This year, I am teaching three year olds (mainstream) and I find I don’t want to ‘do’ Easter with them at all at the moment. I think it would be meaningless for them this week. I have asked them, and they don’t really remember last Easter, when they were 2. I don’t want to give them chocolate Easter eggs. I think they get enough sugar elsewhere.
We have chicken hatching at the moment. We chose the weeks close to Easter on purpose, for the egg connection. But we are not being very explicit about it.
When we come back after Easter feels like a better time to include this celebration in our curriculum. After they have experienced Easter recently, and with their more powerful three year old ability to store memories.
A lot of my class has some Greek heritage, and Greek Easter is the week after western Easter (15 April this year). I think I fancy dying some red eggs with them, like the Greeks do. Perhaps we will do some collage with Easter egg wrappers. We could paint on egg shaped paper. We can talk about what the families did for Easter. About families and celebration and holidays. And see where that takes us.
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.
We are used to educators whinging about having too many students. Lamenting a small class is not so common. But that is my problem now.
I am used to teaching 22 students. At 25, I get a bit stressed. 18 is great. 15 is ok. Even 12 at a pinch.
But at the moment I only have 5. And it is not enough.
After I have set up some activities, dealt with the separation anxiety, done some intentional teaching and had some quality interactions, I feel like I need to back off a bit and give them some space. I don’t want to be in their faces all the time.
So I write a few obs, and twiddle my thumbs for a while until somebody needs me.
The thing is, I know there are educators that are geared to work with 4-5 kids all the time. I have these kids for 2.5 hours. I don’t know what I would do with them for a whole day, like they do in FDC. The rhythms and patterns of their work are another world to me.
I suppose it goes to show how our habits and skills are particular to one setting (or age group or timeframe) and do not automatically transfer.