Recording Outdoors


Sometimes it can seem as if there is only one path when it comes to recording and assessment and woe betide anyone who tries to do something different!

Earlier today I was asked by a colleague about my experiences of recording and assessing children’s work and learning while outside.   As I described in this post, I found playground chalks a valuable way to encourage children to record their learning; photographing any relevant drawing or writing meant that a permanent record could be kept of children’s work. (Although I always found that there was a tendency to take too many pictures due to the worry that there would not be enough evidence of what we had done).

I also liked to take photographs of what children were doing, for example I meant to take photographs when I took the children outside to make shadows.  However, by themselves I found that the photographs had little value.  Some of them looked posed and many of the pictures looked very similar even though the children in the pictures had demonstrated different levels of learning.  Annotating them helped but, to tell the truth, unless I made extensive notes during the lesson (which meant that I had to stop teaching) I often forgot what the pictures were meant to be showing!


Instead I found that it was more valuable to ask the children to both take and annotate the photographs, perhaps adding a description of what they were doing or describing what they had learned.  One of the things that I liked about this approach was that the work showed different levels of attainment and allowed children to challenge themselves but did not restrict individuals by differentiating through task or by labelling them.  It also meant that children tended to have a good understanding of where they were with their learning and what their next steps were, especially if I found time to listen to them tell me about their pictures.

With younger children I still used to end up doing the writing, but wrote down what children said (I found a dictaphone invaluable for this).  Tomorrow I shall describe some other ways that younger children recorded their experiences outside.

Climate Change

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These bananas have been flown from Costa Rica.  What effect does the transportation of food around the world have on the climate?

Last time I wrote about some of the unusually early signs of spring that we have been experiencing in Northern Europe this year.  Scientists increasingly agree that warmer winters are a sign of climate change.  Although it is important to keep children informed one has to be careful not to burden them with worries about things that are beyond their control.

CIEC and the charity Practical Action have teamed up to make a resource called ‘Climate Change and Children’s Voices‘ to help teachers of 9-11 year olds support children to understand some of the issues involved in climate change.  It focusses on things that children do have control over such as the foods they eat; comparing the environmental cost of eating locally grown as opposed to imported tomatoes for example.  However, it does not shy away from complications such as how people in countries that grow bananas would suffer if we were to stop buying their product.

Many of the activities in this resource could take place outdoors.  One, for example suggests that children make their own simple equipment for measuring and recording the weather.  Children could also be encouraged, as part of their work on this resource, to grow more fruit and vegetables in the school grounds to reduce food miles.  If you use this resource I would love to hear how you get on with it.


Weird Winter

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This photograph of my bees was taken on Sunday 24th January.  The bees should be forming a cluster deep in the hive; instead they are as busy as they were in the summer.  They are not alone; there reports up and down the country of wildlife from daffodils to slow worms, which is out of season, confused by the mild weather.

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This muddies the water somewhat when looking for signs of spring with younger children!  However, whether signs of spring are very early or at the expected time, noticing them can be a wonderful opportunity to involve children in ‘Citizen Science’.  This is when data is collected from a large number of ‘ordinairy’ people and used by scientists.  A good example of citizen science is the Big Garden Bird Watch (this weekend and until February 2nd in schools) which has been running for nearly forty years and has been used to track the changing fortunes of British birds.

The Woodland Trust also collects data from as many people as possible about the first signs of spring and autumn.  They ask that people look out for certain signs such as the first snowdrop flower or the first ladybird and record them on their ‘Nature’s Calendar‘.  They then use this information to track the progress of spring accross the country and to monitor long term climate changes.  If you live in the UK I think that this would be a lovely thing to do with your class and perhaps involve families too



Getting the Washing Dry!

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Yesterday was one of those horrible dank days when everything seems damp even though it isn’t raining.  I hung my washing out more in hope than expectation.  It reminded me how much my children at school used to enjoy washing the doll’s clothes and then hanging them on a home made washing line to dry.  This was something that we only did when it was a ‘good drying day’.   In retrospect I realise that it would have been more valuable if sometimes the children had hung their washing out to dry on days like this.  When it didn’t dry there would have been much more discussion.  There would have been much more opportunity to learn what actually happens when washing dries; to understand about evaporation.

As it was, in we only hung our washing out when the sun was shining and a breeze was blowing.  What things would you change about your practice if you could change the past?


Surprise and Delight

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As a teacher I believed that it was my job to ‘surprise and delight’ my children whenever I could.  In return, I believed that if I gave them enough space they would ‘surprise and delight’ me.

After the ice balloon experiment that I described yesterday I provided my class with balls of ice (one for each pair of children) and challenged them to keep them frozen for as long as possible.  Interestingly, not very many children thought about wrapping them despite their recent experince with the coat and the ice balloon.  Outside, it was sunny and the snow was visibly melting.  Some children had the idea of putting their ice-balls in the shade and one or two burried them in the melting snow.  One pair smashed their ice-ball up and then, realising that they could no longer carry out the experiment, tried to stick it back together again.

One pair of children however thought about the challenge very hard and worried that they would not be able to tell how much their ball had melted.  They then decided to draw around their ball (pictured above) so that they had a record to compare their ball with next time they checked.

If I had given the children a more structured and controlled task no doubt the pair who broke their ball would not have done so.  However, I do not think that I would have planned for reception children to carry out such careful  recording either.  I was certainly surprised and delighted when they thought to do this for themselves.  How do you make space for your children to ‘surprise and delight’ you?

More Icy Experimenting!

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Do you remember the winter of 2012/2013?  It seemed to go on for ever, as though the White Witch of Narnia has initiated perpetual winter.  Influenced by The Snowman’s Coat my class decided to run an experiment with an ice balloon to show that a ‘naked’ ice balloon would surely last longer than one wrapped in a nice warm coat!  Before we started children made their predictions.  By far the greatest number (blue) predicted that the ice in the coat would melt first, a few (red) thought the opposite and a couple (yellow) admitted that they did not know.

The ‘naked’ (the children’s terminology, not mine) balloon lasted less than 24 hours.  However, partly because the weather got colder part way through the experiment the balloon wrapped in a coat lasted for more than a fortnight.  In fact, I had to take it home with me at weekends so that I could take photographs to put on the website so that children and their families could follow the progress of the ice balloon.

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The balloon was pictured next to a familar brick so that the children could judge its size.

It was gratifying how many families were deeply engaged by the progress of the balloon.   Our class page got lots of ‘hits’ during this period.

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By the second weekend I photographed it next to an apple to show its size.

Funnily enough, even after this experience, there were a significant number of children who did not want to change their ‘prediction’.  They still believed that a coat would melt the ice!  I was not worried about this as I reasoned that they would need more than one experience to alter the nature of their belief in ‘nice warm coats’.

Chatting to children in the summer term I found that some children’s thinking had become more in line with a scientific understanding of how insulation works.  However, others who had seemed to change their minds at the time of the experiment had reverted to their original understanding.

Tomorrow I shall describe how the experiement conducted independently by one of the children in my class following this experience.

Icy Surprise

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When I went out to check the ice mobiles late nast night they were melting fast; you can see the water dripping from the bottom of this one.

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However, I was surprised to find that the one with brown leaves was still considerably largely than the one with green leaves and berries!  “Why would that be?” I asked myself.  After all, they were both exactly the same size; I had hung them out at exactly the same time and both were equally frozen solid.

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In this photograph you can see how much bigger the lower one is than the higher one.

Surely a few inches in height hadn’t made any difference?  I looked back at the picture that I took when I first hung them out.

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Mmmmm….. Could the orientation of the ice mobiles have anything to do with it?  The higher mobile is facing almost directly South.  How could I find out if this is what made a difference?

This surprise finding got me thinking.  What if I had followed the instructions on the Nature Detective site and boiled the water to make a clear mobile?  Would that have made a difference?  What if I had dyed the water I used so that the mobiles were different colours?  Would that have altered the speed that the ice melted?  What about the height that I hung them?    What if I made ice mobiles with salty water?  What if I made them with sugary water?

So many ‘What Ifs’.  I think that the best science lessons start when children generate lots of ‘What Ifs’ for themselves and then think of their own ways to find out.   How do you encourage the children in your class to ask “What if……?”


This morning the ice mobiles were gone.  There was no sign that they had ever hung in the apple tree; my experiment was over.  Tomorrow I’ll tell you about an icy experiment with my class that lasted for more than a fortnight!

Ice Mobiles

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Yesterday I was writing about signs of spring.   Today, the predicted cold night has led to a frosty world and I am writing about ice mobiles.  I originally got the idea from the Nature Detectives web site.  When I did it with my class we froze the mobiles outside overnight.  It was very exciting coming into school in the morning to find that it had worked!


Will the ice have frozen hard enough to hang the mobile up?


Phew, it worked!  Doesn’t it look beautiful?

I made mine in the freezer and have been waiting for some cold weather so that I can hang them up.

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I wonder how long they will last?

I suppose I should have hung them in different places in the garden and tried to predict which would last longest as that would have been a good opportunity to make predictions and to observe over time.

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Instead I hung them both in the apple tree.  How are you enjoying this frosty weather?

Signs of Spring

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Bare winter branches of a crab apple against the winter sky

Tonight the weather forecaster was predicting the coldest night of the year so far.  We are clearly in the depths of winter.  Nevertheless, it is not too early to take your class out to look for the first signs of spring.

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In fact, because it has been such a mild winter some signs of spring are already well advanced!  Above is a flower bud opening on a Kerria Japonica.  Below, some daffodils, well on the way to flowering.

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It is interesting though, that although some signs of spring are much more advanced than one would expect in an ‘average’ year, others refused to be rushed.

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These snow drops are just poking their heads above ground; exactly as I would expect in the middle of January.  I wonder why some plants are more affected more by variations in the weather than others?

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These hazel catkins are also at about at the same stage as I would expect for the time of year.

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On the other hand, this rhubarb is at least a month further on than usual!

If taking children out to look for signs of spring the chances are that you will encourage them to take photographs so that they have a record of the changes.  Do consider taking a sound recorder too; I wonder if there will be any change in the bird song in the weeks ahead?



There is a website linked to this book which is well worth a look.

Today I thought that it would be worth thinking about compost!  An increasing number of schools have compost heaps and they can be a great way to learn about decomposition, the needs of plants and the importance of recycling and caring for the environment.

However, there can be pit falls.

Pitfall 1:  Ideally compost should be turned from time to time to mix the ingredients together and incorporate air.  Just who has time to do this in school?  Maybe if you have some enthusiastic Y6’s or an adult who is happy to spend an hour playing with the compost heap once in a while.  However, there are many schools where there is no one available to turn the comost heap.

Solution: Even if a compost heap isn’t turned it will still rot down, only more slowly, so don’t worry if no one in your school wants to take on this job.

Pitfall 2: Compost heaps can attract vermin from rats to flies, especially if they are neglected (and lets face it they may well be neglected from time to time in a busy school).

Solution:  Please don’t panic just because I said rats!  The chances are that there are rats outside your school anyway.  On the whole, in small numbers they will do us no harm and just want to keep themselves to themselves.  However, it is important that we don’t provide places where they can hide from predators and breed!  Avoid adding cooked food, especially meat to your compost.  Also, immediately cover any vegetable peelings with weeds or grass and keep the lid on the compost bin.  If your heap seems very dry try mixing in some grass clippings or get a watering can and water it.  Even rats don’t like to live in soggy homes.  However, don’t let the heap get too soggy or it will just go slimey and smelly instead of making lovely compost for your garden.

Pitfall 3:  Especially at this time of year there is lots of kitchen waste (fruit peelings in school) and not much else.  If you are not careful you end up with a slimy smelly fruity layer on top of the heap; yuck!

Solution:  Try keeping a pile of ‘covering material’ by your bin.  This might be weeds that you have pulled from your vegetable beds, long grass collected from around your field edge or shredded paper from your school office.  Everytime you add a layer of fruit peel add a layer of weeds and/or paper.  This will help to form a much more balanced heap and avoid attracting flies and wasps too.  A well balanced heap should never get smelly.

Finally.  Do make sure that you have a lid for your compost heap.  It will help to keep the heat in and the flies out.

If you have some money to spend the book illustrated at the top of this post would be lovely to share with younger children.  It has lovely illustrations and rhyming text.  If I were still teaching an infant class I think that I would scan it into my interactive white board and plan a week’s literacy around it.  I think that older children would enjoy and learn from it too.

Even if you don’ t buy the book the website is well worth a look.  I think that KS2 children would love to learn more about worms by reading about Squirmin’ Herman.  One of the other activities helps children to sort things that can be composted from those that can not.  Learning about compost might well be an unusual take on changing materials. Observing a compost heap would be an opportunity to take part in an ‘observation over time‘ enquiry.   Setting up a remote data logger in a freshly made heap could well prove dramatic as a well made compost becomes very hot indeed!  A compost heap would also make an interesting micro-habitat for children to explore as they learned about ‘Animals including humans‘.

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To finish here is a picture of a friendly robin on one of my compost bins.  This one is actually being used to make leaf mould which is completely different to compost.  Maybe I’ll write about it in the autumn.