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Little Bodies Need to Move!

Monday, May 1, 2017 - 15:05

How an integrated approach to H&PE in kindergarten is serving Ontario’s youngest students

Kindergarten students have a variety of backgrounds, interests and temperaments, but there’s one thing they’ve got in common: “They never stop moving,” laughs Colleen Walsh, a Registered Early Childhood Educator (ECE) at St. Anne Catholic Elementary School in Burlington. Being in motion is a big part of the way our youngest learners make discoveries—not to mention that it’s vital for their health and well-being.

Luckily, since its release in June of 2016, the Ministry of Education’s Kindergarten Program has been guiding educators in how to integrate learning about health and well-being into the program expectations and pedagogy related to all aspects of kindergarten—and, as students engage in play-based learning that takes an inquiry approach, it’s all about exploration and discovery, and it rarely involves sitting still for long.

In kindergarten, active play and learning go hand in hand.

With the introduction of the new Kindergarten Program, Health and Physical Education (H&PE) is no longer considered a subject in Ontario’s kindergarten classrooms. Instead,it’s a way of life. “We spend most of our day focusing on health and physical education—whether we realize it or not,” says Walsh.

“Movement activities, skills, and concepts are integrated throughout the day,” explains Anne McNeill, a kindergarten teacher at Sacred Heart of Jesus Elementary School in Burlington. “There are opportunities to explore materials and equipment in the classroom, during outdoor play and in the gymnasium.”

Furthermore, since many kindergarten students’ daily routines have been largely adult-directed up until the point they begin school, a large part of each day is spent helping students to develop self-regulation skills related to their well-being. This includes listening to their bodies for cues about when they feel hungry, when they need to move, when they need a rest, and when they need to use the bathroom.

Educators build on students’ strengths.

The Kindergarten Program is based on the view that all children are competent, capable of complex thinking, curious, and rich in potential and experience. However, as children begin kindergarten, figuring out where their individual strengths and needs lie takes time and attention.

“We’ve embraced the whole concept of understanding developmentally where each child is at, then meeting their needs to move them forward along the continuum,” explains Catherine Ure, Principal at Fraser Mustard Early Learning Academy in Toronto—a school that works only with kindergarten students—660 of them, to be exact.[i]

“A good way to assess where students are starting from is to play basic games,” suggests Walsh.“Throwing a ball, running, skipping, taking turns. From there, we can make observations about what they find enjoyable or challenging.”

According to Matt Gugula, a specialist H&PE teacher at Rockford Public School in Toronto, much can also be gained by watching students on the playground structure. “It gives me great insight into their basic fundamental movement skill abilities, as well as how they interact socially,” he says.

H&PE connects to the four frames.

As student strengths and needs continue to be identified, H&PE activities present opportunities for educators to make connections to the four frames of the Kindergarten Program:

  1. Belonging & Contributing;
  2. Self-regulation & Well-being;
  3. Demonstrating Literacy & Mathematics Behaviours; and
  4. Problem solving and Innovating.

“The four frames are a way for educators to structure their thinking about learning,” explains McNeill. “They’re not a way to divide expectations, times of the day or educator responsibilities.”

While H&PE relates most obviously to Self-regulation & Well-being, connections can be made to all four of the frames. For example, H&PE relates to Belonging & Contributing as students engage in group activities that require cooperation.

“The open-endedness of some of the activities also allows for children to be creative in how they play with different types of equipment,” explains Gugula, highlighting the relationship to Problem-solving & Innovation. For example, he recalls a lesson where he set out hula hoops in the gym for the children to practise jumping, but instead they decided to use the hoops to make a long train that they marched around the gym.

Meanwhile, other activities can support Demonstrating Literacy & Mathematics Behaviours. For example, students can respond to a story being read to them by listening to words that describe movement and doing that movement as the story is shared (“jump,” “run” or “freeze”). Or they may explore words used to describe location and movement as they respond to and use words that describe spatial relationships (i.e., forward, backward, in, out, over, under, rotate, turn, slide).

Time in the gym means more time to move & explore.

Although H&PE is integrated throughout the day, going to the gym or other large activity space—often for a 30 minute period several times a week—presents different opportunities for learning.

“My kindergarten classes are a mix of structured and open-ended play activities, usually centered on developing a fundamental movement skill set,” says Gugula.“For example, throwing and catching, bouncing, rolling, travelling, cooperation, etc.”

Even simple routines such as lining up and walking single-file to the gym, responding to a signal (i.e., tambourine, music) telling them to start and stop and becoming accustomed to new sounds—bouncing balls, louder-than-usual voices, or music—are an important part of learning in the gym.

Inquiry leads to lively lessons and deeper learning.

Taking an inquiry stance is good teaching at all grade levels, but as kindergarten students are just beginning to explore and discover, encouraging them to ask questions and supporting them as they investigate to find answers can be especially powerful.

“An example of an inquiry stance related to H&PE could be the shift from teaching a skill, such as how to catch a ball, to giving a child a ball and asking the child what could be done with it” explains McNeill. She finds that students are generally eager to demonstrate their prior knowledge, as well as their new discoveries to their peers. In many ways, the learning tends to take on a life of its own—leading both students and educators in unexpected directions.

“In the same way, as we explore well-being and health, we can ask children to reflect on how things make them feel, to describe the times and spaces in which they feel safe, to create a space in the classroom that gives them that feeling, and to recognize the signs when their body needs something like water, food or rest,” says McNeill.

H&PE specialists are part of the Early Learning Kindergarten team.

The core kindergarten team consists of a teacher and an ECE, but a specialist H&PE teacher (if a school is fortunate enough to have one) is another important member. “An H&PE specialist can make kindergarten teachers and ECEs aware of resources and different opportunities for movement,” says Gugula. “They can also tell them what’s in the equipment room and about opportunities for active play other than in the gym or on the playground.”

At the same time, the kindergarten teacher or ECE plays an important role in making an H&PE specialist (who likely sees hundreds of students each week) aware of the strengths, needs and interests of kindergarteners. “I’m with the students more than the specialist teacher is,” Walsh points out. “I can say ‘this is what they’re interested in’, and ‘We just tried this game. Can we bring it into the gym?’”

There are many ways to document learning.

H&PE used to be a subject box on students’ report cards. However, now that the learning is integrated throughout the program, this is no longer the case. What’s more, evaluation in kindergarten isn’t based on achievement but rather on evidence of growth in learning.

This means that all the Kindergarten educators constantly work together to gather evidence of student learning in a roomful of children who are always on the go. “This is an area of challenge,” McNeill admits. “Time is always the big ask.”

“My school is very fast-paced,” agrees Gugula. “Sometimes it just isn’t possible to sit down and have a conversation about ninety kindergarten students with six teachers and ECEs.”

Some kindergarten teams swear by checklists, while others use Post-it Notes, or a mapping technique that tracks children’s activities throughout the room. Still others rely on technology, including  various apps or Google docs for tracking and sharing information. 

For Walsh, however, a picture is worth a thousand words. “I constantly have a camera or iPad in my hand,” she says.“If I take a picture I can see that he can throw, she can catch, he’s cooperating, etc. It’s a solid piece of evidence.”

Principals can be strong role models and supports.

Principals and other administrators are also important members of the learning team. Not only can they help to ensure that the physical environment is safe and engaging (i.e., by providing funding for appropriate equipment and H&PE-related professional development opportunities for staff) they’re also powerful role models for students.

“Seeing them walk around with water bottles, for example,” says Walsh, “encouraging healthy lunches and snacks, and talking on the announcements about the importance of taking care of our bodies can go a long way.”

According to Ure, principals also play a vital role in encouraging educators to meet in small groups to come up with innovative solutions for meeting student needs and can help to address any needs teachers discover in the classroom or that are known to exist in the school community. At Ure’s school, this often takes the form of helping to facilitate parent engagement evenings on topics like packing healthy lunches or encouraging self-regulation.

Playing safe is top priority!

Safety is always top priority in a kindergarten classroom, and members of the learning team should be sure to follow and model safe behaviour themselves.

Keeping the rules and routines for the classroom, gym, common areas and outdoor spaces consistent and making sure they’re clearly articulated also helps to ensure student safety. One way to do this is to involve the students in co-constructing safety rules. “I usually ask children at the beginning of the year or activity: What do they feel they need to do in order to be safe?” says Walsh. “They usually have the right answers. Plus, if they tell us what the rules are they’re more likely to follow them,” she adds.

Don’t forget to reach out for support.

The Kindergarten Program itself should be an educator’s first stop. “[It’s] designed to be an interactive learning tool,” explains McNeill. “Within the document there are live links, videos, articles, questions for reflection and stories from classrooms around the province.” The program also contains links to useful resources on the EduGAINS site.

“I’d suggest turning to Ophea’s Early Learning Resource, for sure,” says Gugula. Not only does it address a variety of skills such as jumping, kicking, personal safety and the body and hygiene, but it was specifically designed to help kindergarten teams with the implementation of the Kindergarten Program and is available for free download in both French and English.

Have a Ball Together!—a guide for parents, caregivers and educators of children 0–6 years old from Best Start. This online resource encourages physical activity by providing facts, tips, activity ideas for all spaces and videos to show the information and activities in action.

And don’t forget that learning from other educators and community members is a great way to make connections and build skills. It could mean talking to the teacher in the classroom next door, approaching public health for resources, or even reaching out to an educator halfway around the world.“Social media professional learning communities—especially Twitter—have been extremely useful for me,” reports Gugula.

Healthy Kindergarteners, Healthy Kids, Healthy Adults...

It really is hard to sit still when the new Kindergarten Program, with its integrated focus on health and well-being, gives us cause to jump up and celebrate. After all, when learning and healthy living go hand in hand, we’re not only helping students get off to a strong start in the classroom, we’re also sending a message that staying active, eating well and managing our well-being are essential parts of daily life—and that’s something our littlest learners will see reinforced throughout their years in school... and that we hope they’ll carry with them into adulthood.

[i] Special thanks to Liisa Smith, Special Education Resource Teacher at Fraser Mustard Early Learning Academy, for her contributions to this article.