Boys writing through play AND a brilliant activity… painting bread!

abc doesBoys Learning, Child Initiated Learning, Creativity, Environment, Mark Making, Outdoors, Talk6 Comments

I was back in Coventry this week at St Mary and St Benedict Primary School to work with the staff on further enhancing their EYFS practice and also to have a look at their very swanky outdoor area.

The school have invested a lot of money in the Early Years outdoor space both in landscaping and structures. They have even got a small copse at the back of their play area. I couldn't resist taking a couple of pictures to share.

This structure was HUGE you could literally have a barn dance in it! It is a big space to fill but SO MUCH potential…

I was drawn to the trees at the back. It was such a lovely area, not too big but still managing to encapsulate all of the elements you would get from being out in the woods.

Pauline (the Head) was telling me how they had had loads of trouble with the clay soil around the trees, getting waterlogged and becoming unusable. She said they had tried everything and that is why they had decided to have a rubberised surface put down. At first I didn't get what she was talking about but when I looked again (and I had to look really closely) it is not real bark chippings, it is the same stuff that the brightly coloured rubber flooring is made of!

Now, I am a 'natural' sort of boy and am not the biggest fan of the bright green rubber floor – but this was as close as I have seen anything come to natural, especially once a few leaves and twigs had fallen on it. For me there is no substitute for the real thing. With this stuff you don't get the texture, the smell, the same creepy crawlies, it is not real but if this compromise made the area usable, then I would be happy to make it. I was really pleased to see that they had left a large area uncovered at one side for a digging pit.

Whilst having a look at what the children were doing inside Nursery, I came across two boys who were having a very noisy game with a large stuffed snake. What attracted me to them (other than the noise) was the sort of language that they were using in their story telling.

  I didn't feel that it was appropriate to intervene so I just sat down on a cushion and very actively listened. Once they realised they had an audience the story got even more dramatic. I didn't have to try and place myself in their play, it was them who came to me for some audience participation.

The snake was hungry and it wanted 'man fingers' for it's lunch (cue man with fingers…that's me!).

I had already decided that if the chance arose I was going to get these boys markmaking (as this was an issue for the school – especially with boys). I have talked before about how if you are going to take learning into play you have to be guided by the play and not go in with a 'particular activity' in your head. This is because children (particularly boys) can smell an adult 'fake playing to get you to do a writing activity' a mile away and children's play often changes direction and theme quite unexpectedly and quite dramatically. This was the case here.

One minute Mr Snake was chomping on my fingers, the next I was being questioned about my age by one of the boys. I revealed that I was 41, which brought on a bout of hysteria! When they had calmed down they told me they were both 4 and then went on to talk about their MASSIVE birthday cakes in some great detail.

I felt his was my opportunity to get them to put pencil to paper. Their interest in the subject was high. Their knowledge was good all I needed now was the hook. On this occasion that came from me asking them if they would like to draw their birthday cakes in my stripy book?


This they did and this is what I got.

Child One

Not only have I got a large chocolate cake. I have got the numbers 1,2 and 4 (not a requirement to record until the end of Reception) and I have got 4 candles (verbally labelled) an attempt at his name and he held his pencil with a triangulated grip!

Child Two

Same enthusiasm as Child One and about the same time spent on the task, but in terms of mark making dexterity they are not as advanced. Child Two's grip was constantly changing -  mostly palm gripping. He also found it difficult to maintain a constant level of pressure so his lines were either thick and deep or very light and scrawly.

It was easy to see who was the more accomplished mark maker and also clear which next steps you would take for each child.

If these boys were in ability groups for CLL based on their mark making Child One would be in a higher group and Child Two a lower group. But, CLL is NOT all about mark making infact that is just one small part of it. If you are grouping children based on one criteria then you are potentially doing them a great disservice.

Here is a prime example of why that is the case… Once the cakes were done we were back to the snake and then we moved on again, this time to lions.

Child Two said… 'there was a lion in my house once' at which point I said that this sounded like a good story and that I would write their stories down in my stripey book and read them to the children in the other schools I visited. They both liked the sound of that.

Here are their stories

Child One  – 'Once there was a lion in my house (pause) there was (pause) I am not lying! Anyway I called the police to come and I got a sword and broke them. Then it went back to normal.'

Child Two – 'Actually it wasn't a lion in my house, it was a tiger with great big, gigantic red teeth at the back of his mouth. He had dark blue sharp ones at the front! It came sneaking to my window at the night. I went to my mummy, I yelled 'mummy, mummy there is a tiger !' She made a magic scratch down the front of its head and it died. Then I said 'hooray!'

Now who is showing the more advanced skill level? So why is he in the lower CLL group?

If Dame Tickell gets her way we will all be splitting the hand writing element from the language for writing element in our CLL and for one I can't wait!

Children should be grouped separately for mark making and talk. They are often not at the same point of development.

When we broadly group children for ease of classroom organisation we are not taking into account the fact that skills in children do not all develop at the same rate and not always in a nice predictable sequence.

That is why assessment should identify where each child is at in each of the elements of the  category that make up the 6 areas of learning. Then we plan their next steps and rather than stop their play to bring them to a learning opportunity with us. We take that learning opportunity into their play, differentiating based on what our assessment has told us.

When I was feeding back to the team at St Mary about this idea of 'discreet grouping' and the sorts of activities that you could do to engage children in mark making, I talked to them about painting bread and then toasting it for snack. They all looked at me like I was mad!

So for those of you who have never tried this I guarantee you and your children will LOVE it.

You can get them to mark make by painting their snack before they eat it!

What you need


Food colouring

White bread

CLEAN paint brushes

What you do…

Put a couple of drops of food colouring into a small amount of milk. A little of the 'milk paint' goes a long way so don't make gallons!

Picnik collage milk and colour
Just dropping the colour into the milk is a fascinating experience in itself.

Get the children to paint onto their bread. The idea is that you don't soak the bread with paint or it won't toast! You can paint both sides if you want.

Bread paint alfie

Paint bread 3
Then you just pop it in the toaster for the usual time. The whiteness of the milk makes the colours look a bit 'chalky' but the milk evaporates in the heat of the toaster leaving the colours even brighter. If you have been heavy handed with your 'milk paint' then you get soggy toast!

Picnik collage
Think of the possibilities with this activity – and not just at work, you could leave a breakfast     (a) message  (b) reminder (c) suggestion for your loved one every day!

If you do, will you send in a photo and I will post it!

Thanks to St Mary and St Ben for having me and giving me permission to blog your photos. Now go and paint your toast you non believers!

(If you want to see it live in action, here is a lovely link to Tinytots Nursery in Derbyshire



6 Comments on “Boys writing through play AND a brilliant activity… painting bread!”

  1. Just wanted to say thanks for such a great blog. I recently got your ‘From Vacant to Engaged’ book and that led me here- so glad it did! Loads of great ideas and I really can’t wait to try the painted toast (I’ve got a child starting in September who has major food issues so I’m hoping to use lots of your ideas to encourage her to try something new)- starting to ramble so I’ll just say THANKS!!!

  2. We did this activity yesterday and it was AMAZING! I’m not sure who got more out of it the kids or me. It was so simple but ALL the children wanted to be involved and I didnt have to ask ( or caljole) anybody into it. Boys , who I know have never picked up a paint brush, came to the activity with enthusiasim. In that short session I managed to cover all six areas of learning not just CLL without much effort. I took photos and stuck them to the door before home time so parents could see what we had done. Sorry it if it sounds like I’m rambling but I’m still on a high from this highly successful activity which we intend to repeat on a regular basis and even tie into themes. Thank you

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.