So, I spent the day in Reception. After not spending an awful lot of time down there in the last two terms, I thought it was time to right that wrong. Plus, having read Bold Beginnings, I figured I should get down there quick before they’re forced to do anything else other than play.
Over the day my time was split between the four classes. The children were, I was told, incredibly excited about my visit due to some of them not even realizing they had a headteacher. I gave the Reception team carte blanche with my timetable just so long as they protected my hour’s lunchtime in order for me to catch up with my emails, check that the rest of the school was surviving without me, and, have my nap.
I had made sure I was dressed for the occasion. Gone were the Saville Row suits and silk ties…the thought of my herringbone weave being stained with snot, playdough, paint and glue was too much. Instead, chinos, jumper, sensible shoes and knee pads. I looked, and felt, every part the early years practitioner.
As I arrived so were the children entering the classroom. In they skipped, taking off their coats and tapping their name on the whiteboard register to confirm their attendance before selecting their lunch. Then, after dismissing their parents, and catching up with their friends, they promptly busied themselves with the range of activities already out at the tables. I crouched down next to a little girl who had picked up a felt tip and was writing an ‘X’ on the piece of paper that covered her entire table. Impressed that she was that far through the alphabet already, I thought I’d use this opportunity to get her to explain to me what she was learning. ‘What are you doing?’ I asked. She looked at me like I was an absolute buffoon for being unable to grasp such a simple act. ‘I’m marking my treasure on the map.’ She announced. I stood up and looked again at the giant piece of paper and, sure enough, it was a massive map onto which she was marking an ‘X’ just under a palm tree.
A moment later and we were all sat in a circle counting pennies to buy a range of pirate merchandise. I was slightly concerned that the teacher had an unhealthy obsession with seafaring burglars but quickly realized that the term’s topic was pirates. So, when it was my time to buy an eye-patch, I turned to the child next to me and bellowed ‘Ahoy there me hearties, that patch there, it be worth 5 pennies now pay up or I’ll make ye walk the plank so I will!’ After the tears subsided I was put in charge of the till and told to simply collect the cash in exchange for the goods.
Hesitantly, at first, the children queued up to buy the merch. Some counted out their pennies as carefully as my old Mum counts out her coupons at Lidl. Some preferred to exchange their handful of pennies for fewer coins with the equivalent value. One child tried to exchange a cutlass for a compass, resulting in me throwing him out the shop saying that this wasn’t a pawn shop and if he thought those items were worth the same amount he was a ship’s fool. He seemed to find this hilarious and spent the next ten minutes trying to repeat this exchange, much to my annoyance and my other customers’ glee.
Then, it was to the next class where everyone was reading. We went through our phonics – with actions – and recognized some matching words. I took a smaller group of boys out to investigate some nonsense words using our blending skills. I’ve never seen children so delighted to put a collection of ‘real’ words inside a pirate’s treasure chest. I was a bit cross to have to put the word SEF in the dustbin. I tried to explain to them that this was a very important word and formed the backbone of the school’s development plan. But, they just laughed and said I was being a funny man.
When I returned to the class there was a little group of children exploring the icebergs at the back of the room that contained a pirate’s lost treasure. The group were delighted with the opportunity to play around with the icy blocks: slipping them out of their hand and back into the tub; smashing them together in attempt to release the treasure; rubbing them with their fingers to make little craters; holding them for as long as they could before their hands froze. And all the time they were talking to each other and sharing their thoughts:
‘Our teacher must have drilled little holes in them and pushed the treasure inside.’
‘It’s hard but it melts into water bits when you smash it.’
‘The ice is white because that’s the colour inside the freezer.’
‘You make the ice by putting bowls of water into the cold oven.’
I resisted the urge to ‘correct’ every little misconception they spouted. Instead, I kept asking follow-on questions that encouraged them to take their thinking to the next step, forcing them to evaluate the logic in what they were saying. And, when they could see it might not be logical at all, they happily changed their original conceits without a moment’s doubt. I was so proud I immediately made them sign life-long agreements to never sign up to edu-twitter.
After lunch I was back in class where it was super-fine-motor-time. How quickly can you fill a container using nothing but a bowlful of ink and a pipette? Some of these children will have knuckles the size of hams the way they were showing off their pincer skills. Then it was time for the special guest: Old Pirate Tom. A bit of hot-seating that would help the children use their question words. As I squeezed into one of their tiny chairs, waved my hook around and tried to remember what accent a pirate has, I was bombarded with ‘what’ ‘when’ ‘how’ ‘why’ and ‘who’ questions that put my improvisation skills to the test. Now, it’s not for me to tell you how convincing my portrayal of a pirate was, but, needless to say, there’s a group of children who, every time they go out to sea, will never forget the teachings of Old Pirate Tom: may Neptune bless his soul, and may he one day be reunited with his left hand, as the shark who took it be banished to the darkest depths of hell.
Finally, I was asked to support a group of children (who were far less tired than I was at this time of day) in preparing their pirate paper for their treasure map. It took a surprisingly long time to convince them to scrunch up their perfectly good piece of paper and tear along the edges. But, they got over any reservations once they began washing the paper in tea to make it well and truly aged. I used this time to chat to them about what they would put on their treasure map. The usual stuff: beaches, blue sea, palm trees, coconut trees, mountains, grass, a trail, an X, some dolphins, a turtle, a mermaid, a bottle of rum, a car, a treehouse and a collection of telegraph poles that could be connected to a satellite, so Mummy could still watch Emmerdale. (Didn’t think of that did you Robert Louis Stevenson?)
And so ended my day in Reception.
But what did I learn?
Well, I learnt that not a minute is wasted. I had, after all, only experienced a mere fraction of the opportunities that are available to the children throughout the day. Every single activity that was planned (and there were lots) was grounded in their topic and designed to help them develop a practical skill or learn a little bit more about the world. The adults were focused, at all times, on capturing and stretching the children’s learning. Observations were being made continuously and were cross-referenced by the outcomes laid out in the EYFS framework and Development Matters. Specific needs were met. Children benefitted from direct teaching that explored the concepts and ideas that were then taken further as the day continued.
It was playful. It was purposeful. But, above all, it was bold piratey.