Making Signs


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Young children know how to use signs to get their message across .

One Monday morning, at the making table Euan very carefully placed a cork to the end of an icy pole stick and attached it with lots of sticky tape.

‘It’s a pipe,’ he said, as he put it in his mouth.  When the other children saw it they all wanted one.

‘My dad smokes a pipe’, said Euan.

‘My Dad, and Grandpa, and Great Grandpa smoke a pipe!’ said his friend, Fred. Later, when I talked to Fred’s Mum, she said that none of them smoked at all – let alone a pipe. Fred had created a story by imagining these three close people were pipe-smokers, and he used them as characters in his story.

On Tuesday morning, the children made more pipes… and so it all started over.‘Janet look at this’, said Euan, laughing. He was holding a pipe up to a Teddy bear’s mouth. At this point I gave in to my uneasiness about the children playing with the idea of smoking.

‘I think we need a NO SMOKING sign up in here,’ I said.

A few minutes later Euan came over to where I was sitting with some other children.

‘Janet, are you going to make that sign that says ‘no smoking’? he said. His thinking had shifted from the idea of making pipes and smoking, to the idea of making a sign to tell people not to smoke.                                                                                                                                                                                                                  

The first sign we made was:

No Smoking

The No smoking sign became a model.

No pushing

No poking in eye

No pulling hair

No snatching

You can't punch

Given the time and the opportunity to express their ideas as signs the children put into written words  the underlying tensions can so quickly bubble over when they are playing

I wondered if there were too many ‘NO’ signs. ‘What about a sign that says:

Be Friends?’ I said. There was deafening silence! Somehow I was there, but ‘not quite there’. (You know, selective deafness?). I wrote it anyway.

‘Does this sound OK?’ I said. Just, ‘Be Friends’?’

‘To Each Other’, said Rachel.

‘Yes. That makes it just right. What about this one: ‘Be Fair?

Again, no-one took any notice of me. I wrote the sign then set it aside so I could help the children make their’s. They stuck the signs all over the room, up on the walls, and the doors, and the furniture – places where they would be easily seen, and pointed out when needed.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   

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Rachel made an announcement

Rachel's Mum

At first, Lucas wasn’t interested in sign-making. He was nearby, playing with the blocks.  He picked up two pieces of wavy wood, put the ends together.

‘Look, Janet’, he said. ‘I’ve made some pincers’.

‘Would you like a rubber band to join them together?’ 

I took a break from the writing signs to look for rubber bands. Jorge asked if he could ‘have one of those things like Lucas has’. I brought a handful of rubber bands for the group of children who had moved into the block corner. The pincers became mousetraps, which can be dangerous if you don’t know where they are.

‘Janet, can you make a sign?

The new set of signs warned everyone to look out for mousetraps:

Beware Of Mousetraps                                             

Look Out For The Mousetraps.

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Do Not Step On Them Or You Will Get Trapped And Cry.

‘Did you say ‘die’ or ‘cry’? I asked Lucas. ‘Cry,’ he said.

Were these signs for the people or the mice?

Michael drew a picture of a gun.

‘Can you write, No Guns’, he said.

Earlier in the day Michael had made a Power Ranger gun out of cardboard. He couldn’t wait to show it to his Mum. When she picked him up, he described its powers to her in detail.

Michael was juggling two stories, each from a different point of view. For one story he had made a gun to use with his friends in a Power Ranger story play. In the other story he had made a sign to ban guns. Within an hour or two he played around with an  issue that constantly confronts teachers and parents of young children – gun play.

Anxious adults warn children about the dangers of real guns, and the terrible effect of violent solutions to problems in our world. Children are pressured not to play games that include weapons, fighting and killing. But, in play, Michael made a cardboard gun, and a sign that said ‘No guns’. Through play he made a distinction between the real world where guns are prohibited and where signs can be used to invoke that rule/law, and a make-believe world where you can safely imagine yourself in many different roles and situations.

Many more signs were made on that day:

No Stepping On Drawings

 Make Sure The Ladders Are Safe (one of the few non-No signs)

 No Going Into Janet’s Office When Janet Says No

 No Looking In The Cupboard If Janet Says No (you never know what might jump out and catch you!).

Oh Dear!

All morning rain was stopping and starting. We’d go outside to play, get caught by a shower of rain, and rush back inside, then we’d try again when the rain stopped. But…another shower of rain, rush back inside…

‘We could have a sign about that posted on the door’, said Rachel. So we made one:

Today It Is Raining.    And It Is Stopping.

And Euan made up a sign-chant:

No smoking / No smoking / Everywhere / No smoking  

At mat time I told the children a story about a man who wrote a sign.

‘I want to tell you a story about a man who wrote a sign. I heard this story from my husband’s brother’s wife’s Uncle Otto. It is the story about an old man, called Peter, who lived in a hut, hidden among trees, in a place called Purvis Gully. Old Peter grew a small garden around his hut and one day a stray cow got in and ate his garden down. Old Peter took a large sheet of iron and with a paint brush in very large letters he wrote PLEASE MRS COW KEEP OUT! Do you think Mrs Cow took any notice of this sign?’

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Webs of Learning                                                                                                                    

In a vibrant, complex early childhood program, intersecting webs of learning are infinite.                    When I reflect on what I have seen and heard, I decide that children are the ones who spin two of the most complex webs of learning – Play and Story. But I must also weave some webs. Like the web of ‘Time’ – time to talk, to experiment and to imagine. Time to set off in different directions. Time to make friends, to argue, time to belong. Other webs allow children to move around freely, to express their own ideas, to care, to know, and to be led into the far-reaching worlds of literature, music, art, drama, dance, literacy, mathematics and science.                                    

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When adults and children share and enhance each other’s learning there can be much more hope for our world.




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