Playdough Provocations: Treasure Maps!


Treasure Maps!  The book in the background is My Map Book by Sara Fanelli.

This provocation combines three of my favourite things: play dough, loose parts, and maps! Children often have a natural interest in map making – and why not? Maps are often associated with fantasy and appear frequently in children’s books. They also appear in many electronic games, are used in many vehicles (I had a student lecture me on the benefits and uses of GPS recently), and can help children make sense of their environment. Map making is also an accessible way to engage beginning writers as they can include any combination of pictures, symbols, and words.

For this provocation we were aiming for “treasure maps” as these were the kind of maps appearing in the children’s play at the small building centre and sand table, but the materials were open ended enough that the children could really create whatever they wanted with them. It is important to me that although we have an idea of what we think the children might do with the materials we set out, there is always room for the children to use the materials creatively.

First, the children rolled out their sandy play dough. Then, they used the loose parts to create a map on the dough – blue gems for rivers, stone walkways, flower gardens, forests, stick bridges, etc. The children were encouraged to draw their maps and landmarks on a treasure map recording sheet (you can download a copy here: My Treasure Map). We had gold coins that the children hid under their playdough maps. We talked about marking the location of the treasure on their maps with an “X” and had great fun trying to figure out where the coins were hidden by reading the maps the children had created.


We continue to be impressed with the children’s ability to record their creations on paper. The children put a lot of detail into their maps – looking carefully at the shape and location of their landmarks and choosing coloured markers to match their loose parts exactly. Here are some pictures of the children’s work:


S.E.: My island has a fire, a tent, a garden, a forest, a river with a bridge going over it, and a house. Can you tell where the treasure is hidden? I marked it with an ‘X’!


B.B.: I made a treasure island. The guy is guarding the treasure. I put an ‘X’ to show where the treasure is.


C.G.: I hid two coins! I made a river with a bridge, a house, a forest, and a garden. There’s a jungle too!


F. M.: I’m making people on the sticks so they can look for the treasure.





Have your students shown an interest in map making? What are some of the ways you’ve responded to this interest in your class?

The Super Hero Inquiry Project


Last year my class was absolutely OBSESSED with Super Heroes. They were everywhere in the children’s play, indoors and out, but most especially at the small building centre. It really all started with two boys who began creating super heroes out of linking cubes. After sharing their creations with the class, more and more children began turning up at the small building centre to make and play super hero games.


Can you guess who these Super Heroes are??

At the same time all this was going on, one of my favourite bloggers was also experiencing some Super Hero mayhem in her class. Mrs Meyers began posting some amazing STEM ideas based off the characteristics of Super Hero stories (along with many other super hero related questions, which she wrote about in her blog here:

All of the ideas we tried were hugely popular and led to a lot of experimentation and conversation in our class. We added some of our own provocations based on the children’s overall interest in certain materials (e.g., Plasticine, Lego). Here is a gallery of some of our work:




This STEM flying challenge was VERY popular and led to a lot of collaboration and teamwork. In fact, many children challenged themselves to come up with multiple ways of making these Duplo characters fly. One group of boys was ecstatic when they figured out how to make a catapult. For days, Duplo Super Heroes were flying across the classroom!


Another gem from Mrs Meyers! Our students loved making their own spider webs and looking in the non fiction books to learn more about them.

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By far the most popular provocation was this one which gave the children an opportunity to create a Super Hero out of Plasticine (modelling clay). Most students came here often to make a number of different Super Heroes. We loved sharing these at reflection time and talking about the aspects of the costumes that helped us identify each Super Hero’s identity. I was amazed at how detailed these creations were! We had a collection of Super Hero readers which I gathered from the library that the children were intent on consulting as they worked to make sure they got everything just right.


A few of the super hero readers we had out in the classroom. These were SO popular – even the most reluctant readers were eager to look at these.

One of the thinking routines we relied on heavily for this project was “Can…Have…Are…” This unique take on a concept web really helps focus the children’s thinking on a specific topic. We used it to organize our thinking about villains, specific superheroes like Spiderman, and about Superheroes in general. Each time we used it, the children got more skilled at communicating their ideas.


What Superhero inquiry would be complete without some creative costume making? The more we talked about superheroes, the more interested the children were in developing their own superhero personas. We used small cardstock cards to make masks and plastic table cloths to make capes.

We wrapped up our learning with a “superhero day” where everyone came to school dressed as their favourite superhero.


In addition to celebrating our learning with a Super Hero day, we also celebrated by creating a display of our work. The children were so incredibly proud to see their work on display and could often be found admiring their work with classmates and friends.


A BIG thank you again to Mrs Meyers for sharing her class’s learning online and continuing to inspire me and my students!


The Snowman Poetry Project


Previously, I blogged about our Snowman Poetry Project using playdough snowman creations as the basis for our creative writing. You can read about it here:

Well, last year we took this project to a whole new level by using the Chatterpix App to present our written works. The children absolutely LOVED recording their poems using the app and making their playdough snowmen come to life!

As before, we started by having each student make their own snowman out of playdough and loose parts. Each creation was photographed for the project. I saved them digitally and also printed a hard copy of each picture for the children to use when writing their snowman poems.


Prior to writing our own poems, we spent some time examining poetry together. Since the children were going to be writing about snowmen, I chose a poem about making a snowman called “Snowballs.” This is a rebus rhyme, which I like because it shows the children how a picture can be used in place of a word (something many children did when they wrote their own poems – e.g., drawing a scarf instead of writing “scarf”). It also uses a counting pattern which many children were inspired by. The poem ends with the word “Snowballs!” which we emphasized is a nice way to finish a poem in an exciting way.


Poem by Vera Trembach from Rebus Chants Volume 1: For All Seasons 

After writing their poems, the children uploaded the pictures of their snowman creations into Chatterpix and then read their poems aloud. You can see from the videos below that the results were pretty fantastic! The children were extremely proud!









One of the things I like about the Chatterpix app is that it motivates even the shyest students to share their work. It is a “low risk” way of sharing, because the children can record their work until they get it the way they want (we usually go to a quiet place to record) and we share the video on the whiteboard so the children don’t have to stand in front of the class if they don’t want to.

Have you been using Chatterpix with your class? What other apps do you find useful and engaging?


Playdough Provocations: Inventor’s Workshop!


If you are looking for a way to jazz up the materials at your playdough table, I have a tried and tested provocation that I’m sure your students will love: The Inventor’s Workshop. I stumbled upon this amazing idea while perusing one of my favourite blogs: The Imagination Tree. On her blog, Anna has a list of over 50 ideas for using playdough which I go to whenever I’m in need of some inspiration. You can find her list as well as her recipes for playdough here:

Before the children visited this centre, I set them up with some schema about what an inventor is by reading The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires and Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty (both titles pictured above). I have my own collection of technology cast-offs, but I also wanted to involve the children in the creation of this centre so I sent home a note asking parents for any old electronic materials that we could use. The very next day we got an awesome assortment of old wires (which we trimmed for ease of play), speakers, remotes, cell phones, etc. which we sorted into our loose parts tray. I also added some plastic caps and metal loose parts I had in my loose parts bin.

In addition to the playdough and a collection of loose parts, I also wanted the children to record their creations on paper. I created a recording sheet with “My Invention” at the top. I also provided the children with a new kind of paper to sketch on: graph paper. I told them it was a special kind of paper that planners and inventors might use. I even modeled how to draw a creation I made by sketching and labeling the parts of my machine (like the on/off button, etc.). The children couldn’t WAIT to give this one a go!



“This is the ‘off’ button!”


These students were working independently until they realized they could connect their inventions together with a long wire. They were so excited about this discovery!


“This is a ‘potato maker’ – it can make all kinds of potatoes: chips, french fries, mashed potatoes…”


This student took time to colour and label her drawing to match her creation. “I put a check mark to show that it’s done!”


“A Tic Tac Toe machine.”

One of the interests that developed from this provocation was an interest in robots. This was in part due to our experimentation with the apps ChatterPix and ChatterKid. Both versions of the app are nearly identical but ChatterKid has a three second countdown before it starts recording so that students know when to start talking.


Basically, ChatterPix allows you to bring photos, drawings, and creations to life. You simply “draw on” a mouth and record your message and your image will talk! Here is a sample that one of my students made. This particular student is generally quite shy, so him having the confidence to not only record something but then share it confidently with the class at reflection time was a breakthrough (you can click on the link below to see the video on Twitter)!

Here are a few of the robots the children created:

What I liked most about this provocation  (besides the fact that it is engaging, creative, and fun!) is that it provided so many opportunities for our students to engage in literacy behaviours. The children were actively telling each other about their inventions as they worked, negotiating the use of special materials, and of course recording and writing about their inventions. During reflection time, the class was rapt with attention listening to each other describe what their inventions could do and how they were made. Many students were inspired to visit (or re-visit) this centre after hearing about what their classmates had created there.

Have you ever tried an Inventor’s Workshop in your class? Are you using ChatterPix with your students? I’d love to hear about what you’re doing!

In the Art Studio: Plasticine Art Inspired by Barbara Reid


This month we have been inspired by renowned Canadian author and illustrator Barbara Reid. Barbara Reid has worked on some of my class’s favourite read-alouds: Picture a Tree, Perfect Snow, and Subway Mouse. When reading, we often discuss how an artist may have created their illustrations. My students were very interested in how Barbara was able to achieve such realistic and detailed pictures using Plasticine.

Lucky for us, Barbara Reid has created a series of tutorial videos which you can find on YouTube (links below). In her videos, Barbara talks about how she goes about creating her artworks: from the planning stage (researching, sketching a picture), to creating a background, to adding fine details and textures to her work.

Video: Making Plasticine Pictures with Barbara Reid Part 1

Video: Making Plasticine Pictures with Barbara Reid Part 2

Video: Making Plasticine Pictures with Barbara Reid Part 3

For this project, I cut our Plasticine into very small pieces so it would be easy for the children to manipulate (and because a little goes a long way!). I arranged the pieces in small containers by colour. I also included some of Barbara Reid’s books and a non-fiction book about Barbara Reid herself. We also had dry cloths for wiping our hands (as Barbara suggested) and some tools for adding texture. For the planning process, the children had pieces of cardstock and pencils for sketching. We made our Plasticine pictures on small canvas boards I found at the dollar store. The children were extremely excited to do their work with “real artist materials.” For me, it is very important to give the children beautiful and authentic art materials to use and work with. Their art is more than deserving of quality materials and in my experience, they seem to take their art more seriously when they perceive materials to be “special.”  For this project, the strength of the canvas boards was an added advantage, as it made it easier for the children to spread the Plasticine.


During the planning process, I really didn’t meddle too much in what the children were sketching or wanting to create, thinking the children would figure out on their own what was going to work and what wasn’t. For example, the first group of children who visited the studio realized that creating people with Plasticine was a big challenge, and advised their classmates accordingly during reflection time. Spreading the Plasticine was also a challenge for some (and a great fine motor muscle workout!). Some children took a few sessions to complete their backgrounds, pausing and coming back later to give their fingers a rest. Other children wanted to persevere and complete their backgrounds so they could get to adding their flowers or bugs or animals. If you’re wondering how long it took the children to complete their pictures, it varied between one session (about half an hour) to a few days, depending on each child.


Y.A.: “I want to make a picture of a cat.” 


A.J. spreads the Plasticine to make a sky. “I’m mixing the colours. A little bit of dark blue and a little bit of light blue.”


Y.A.: “I’m making my grass like Barbara Reid. I’m rolling snakes and making them flat like grass. I’m doing a pattern: light green, dark green, light green, dark green…”


R.A.: “I’m making a little mousey like Barbara Reid. It’s just like The Subway Mouse.”

Here are some of the children’s completed art works. I have them displayed on a low chalkboard ledge in our classroom and the children can often be found admiring them!


S.C. “I made a rainbow and a little girl is camping in the tent.”





Honestly, the children were SO proud of their completed art works. They loved showing them off during reflection time and talking about the process they used to make them. During one reflection session, we started talking about how Barbara Reid gets her Plasticine pictures in the pages of her books. One student remembered that Barbara’s husband photographs her art for her so the pictures can be used as illustrations. One student suggested that we take photographs of our work and use the pictures to make a book by writing our own stories. I loved that the children were inspired to create their own stories, so we set up a story-writing invitation.

At the writing table, I gave the children some mini easels to place their art on. I put out plain paper and some black pens. The children could choose to write about their own work or a classmate’s work that inspired them. This proved to be a popular invitation! Some children returned each day to write a new story! We loved listening to each other’s stories during reflection time – some children’s stories were so popular, the class asked them to read it aloud more than once.


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E.H. “Once there was a little ladybug. She wanted to rest on a flower. The red flower was wet but the purple flower was just right. The End.”

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“I went out on a stormy day.”

We are still in the midst of our story writing. I was interested to see the emergence of a narrative voice in the children’s work and am curious about exploring this further with the class. Stay tuned!

Playdough snowmen…inspiring young poets!


Well, here in Toronto this week we got an early blast of winter with 5 cm of snow. It was perfect snow for packing and sculpting too – which meant lots of opportunities for making snow creatures! So, in honor of our first snow of the season, I thought I’d share a wonderful playdough activity that provides many opportunities for language and literacy skills.

This activity begins with a poem (which we explored as a class during Shared Reading time) and a provocation at the playdough table. Here is the set-up:


The children were encouraged to construct and decorate their own snowman/snow creature. While they worked, the children talked about their experiences in the snow and were encouraged to describe their creations. Each snowman was photographed (in fact, most children were keen to snap the picture themselves!).

Here are some of our snowmen:

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The photos of the children’s snowmen were printed and added to the writing table where the children were encouraged to write poems about them.

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Here are some samples of what the children created:



Snowman has a smile

But he is meltie

So we put a blanket over him

But he melted




Snowman, snowman

How are you?

Are you cold?

Are you meltie?


Boo Hoo.


Snowman Mommy

Snowman mommy

I love you.

Snowman mommy,

You love me.



ABC Snowman



Lion snowman



Snowman ABC


Don’t break the snowman.


I like snowman.


Snowman 1 2 3 4

1 2 3 4 carrot

1 2 3 4 eyes

1 2 3 4 smile

1 2 3 4 buttons

1 2 3 4 scarf



This student had some very creative words of his own to add to his poem! He was hesitant to write the words on his own so I scribed them for him, but encouraged him to write the title and special ending words “Splash! Coocoo!” on his own.

We were so impressed with the children’s creativity and enthusiasm throughout this project! Each day, we dedicated some of our class reflection time to listening to each other’s poems. Here are some things we did to help the students achieve success with this activity:

*The topic developed out of the children’s own interests in making snow creatures outside.

*The poem we read helped the children understand/think about the process of making a snowman and served as a model for the type of writing we wanted the children to attempt (poetry).

*We talked about the features that made the snowman poem interesting and fun for us to read. There was a particular emphasis on the ending of the poem and how it was an exciting finish.

*The children had an opportunity for hands-on exploration with materials. The conversations we had while making the playdough snowmen lay the foundation for our poetry writing.

*We wrote several poems together as a class (modelling) prior to students attempting to write their own poems.

*All students were encouraged to write a poem regardless of their level of skill in writing.

*All children were celebrated for their creativity and success.


Autumn Playdough Provocations II

playdough leaf

This playdough provocation was inspired by the tree study we have been doing this term. In our weekly art lesson the children were able to practice drawing a portrait of a tree in the schoolyard and began to notice the parts of the tree as they sketched. I wanted to extend the children’s thinking about trees by getting them to focus on smaller details – like how the leaves attach to the branches.

For this provocation I put three different colours of playdough, some tree branches, leaf cookie cutters, leaves, and toothpicks on the table. I wanted the children to see a real example of how leaves attach to a branch and also have an opportunity to notice the details in the leaves themselves. The toothpicks were there as a tool for the children to add details to the leaves they cut with the cookie cutters.


I think the results were quite beautiful! Here are a few examples of the students’ work:


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For more Autumn playdough provocations and the recipe I use for my playdough, please visit the link below: