Smart Gym

Gym class, like so many epic activities, begins with a community of learners, warming up together. Stretch – bend – stretch – reach. Then children separate into small groups and work, each at their own level, separately challenged to do their very best.

The purpose, like all other gym classes is to have fun together, challenge each other, and move. The difference is that e.p.i.c. students are moving to learn. Students get a full body work out and awaken all of their senses as they jump on the trampoline, hang and then go over the bar, somersault down the wedge and balance on a low balance beam. The goal is to help students develop skills that will help them be successful in the classroom: self-regulation, small motor skills and body awareness for starters.

Teachers at e.p.i.c. School decided it would be fun to run a small study to determine if gym class really had any impact on classroom work.

What did teachers do? Students were already in the daily habit of signing in, both first and last names so it was decided that it was possible to measure any changes in small motor skills by recording the differences (if any) in the quality of printing before and following gym class. What happened? It was discovered that following gym class, our students couldn’t print at all! Oh no! Students work so hard in gym, their muscles were tired, making the simple task of holding onto a pencil, extra challenging. The ‘study’ was adapted (and we learned that children required a rest following gym). After a rest period, children were again asked to sign their names, and ta-da! All of that muscle work translated into better pencil control when printing and students didn’t even know they were learning to print in gym class. Epic!

Learning to Tinker. Tinkering to Learn.

Thomas Edison had a rough childhood. He didn’t start school until the age of eight and was deemed unfit for education by the schoolmaster. At age ten, Edison built a chemical lab in his cellar and not much later, built another laboratory in the back of a train. He was industrious and tenacious but the real ‘take away’ form this story is that Edison, the inventor who has greatly influenced life around the world, is a model for how to be resourceful, create opportunities to test ideas as well as learn from failure – all at a very young age. This is the inspiration behind e.p.i.c. School’s very own Tinker lab!

A quick peek into what happens in e.p.i.c. School’s Tinker Lab: Students have fun, explore and get messy, but the lab is also full of focus and purpose, and succeeds at generating the desire to figure out how things work, as well as inspire new ideas. The best example is having children work alongside each other to make scribbling machines, and in the end, no two look alike. Children aren’t given a recipe on how to build, instead they are given the basics and then, they have to think, they have to become problem solvers. What can you do to make your scribbling machine move differently? Can you make it with only 2 markers? Can you think of something to use other than markers?

Easy Way to Teach Self-Regulation

Excerpt by E. Pooley for Today’s Parent

As parents, we’ve all been there. Tapping our foot repetitively during an important meeting to try and stay awake. Blasting the music in the car to keep from nodding off after a late night up with a sick child. Or, taking a warm bath to soothe frenzied nerves before going to bed. It’s called self-regulation — and most of us engage in these alerting or soothing activities several times a day. Turns out kids need to self-regulate, too. They just need a little extra help identifying when their engine is running too low — or too high — and some strategies for reaching an optimal level of arousal throughout the day.

At school, children need to reach just the right level of alertness to learn. That means being ready to focus and listen — and feeling calm and centred in the classroom. At e.p.i.c. School in Toronto, teachers have introduced several programmes which teach children to self-identify if their engines are in working order and then employ techniques to get them running “just right.”

For example, a racing heart, restlessness and fast breathing are all signs of an engine running “too high.” On the other hand, difficulty focusing, trouble keeping eyes open or heads up are signals a child’s engine may be running “too low.” The engine analogy is one that is simple for e.p.i.c.’s preschool and kindergarten children to grasp, says principal Carolyne Cybulski. The challenge then, she says, is to come up with alerting or calming strategies to help bring kids back to their optimal zone.

With some kids, it’s as simple as chewing gum in class, a practice that is becoming more accepted in Toronto schools. Why? The repetitive motion of biting down on something can be very grounding for children who are restless or fidgety. For other children, sitting on a bouncy yoga ball instead of a desk chair provides just the right amount of input to their nervous system to keep them engaged.

Other classroom tricks? Asking kids to hold onto weighted cushions during circle time to improve concentration. Or having teachers use microphones to disperse sound and drown out distracting background noise. – At e.p.i.c. School, the children even help to unpack the school supplies. This type of ‘heavy work’ not only helps to include the children and make they feel like contributing members of their learning community, but it helps young children to self-regulate in the same way that exercise helps adults with stress. Now parents can chant – “you need a break, sure, do a chore!”

Our favourite flavour of gum graph

An excerpt from an article by Erin Pooley for The Globe and Mail

A growing body of research suggests the gum chewing habit may actually be beneficial when it comes to important classroom skills such as concentration, alertness and memory. Cybulski started encouraging her tiny charges to chew on sugar-free gum a few years ago, after an occupational therapist recommended the strategy for one of her students. The anecdotal benefits have been impressive, she says: Less fidgeting during circle time, increased attention and decreased anxiety. “Children learn through their senses – and oral activity can be very calming,” said Cybulski. “The act of chewing gum also provides constant sensory input to the muscles in the jaw and ears and we find it helps children to concentrate better.”
Recent research backs her up. Earlier this year, a study in the British Journal of Psychology found that participants who chewed gum maintained better concentration during the latter stages of a monotonous, 30-minute audio task. The gum chewers also had faster reaction times and more accurate results than the group without gum. Scientists aren’t exactly sure why chewing gum improves attention, but have hypothesized it may increase heart rate and blood flow. “This would result in more oxygen and glucose being delivered to the brain,” said study co-author Dr. Andrew Johnson, a psychology professor at Bournemouth University in Dorset, England, in an interview. “It’s also possible that the motion of chewing helped to maintain attention because participants were moving a little, rather than sitting stationary.” Previous studies have also demonstrated that gum-chewing is associated with reduced stress, enhanced mood, greater alertness and improved test performance.

Although all of these studies involved adults, there’s no reason kids as young as four years old can’t reap the cognitive benefits of chewing gum, said Carol Vickery, an occupational therapist in Calgary. “Chewing gum is soothing – but it can also be quite alerting. Those sluggish times right before recess – or when they’re having to sit still for a while – are ideal opportunities to give children gum,” she said.

It’s also a more socially acceptable habit than sucking on shirt sleeves, fingers or pencils – behaviours many young children exhibit when they’re anxious or need extra sensory input, says Cybulski. “To break a habit, you need to replace it with another one,” she said.

Gum is also a good tool for children who find it hard to focus in noisy classroom settings. “It actually helps to dull background noise by activating the Eustachian tube[in the ear],” said Vickery. As for Cybulski? She’ll continue to allow gum in the classroom as long as the kids respect the rules. “We don’t want to see it, and we don’t want to hear it,” she said. “But the benefits are great, the research supports it, and most of all, it helps.”

Early Literacy Isn’t Easy Peasy Lemon Squeezy!

Teachers at e.p.i.c. School have never stopped learning, organizing, planning, and thinking about the many facets of the school’s early literacy programme. Whether they are training with various literacy approaches or reading the ample material on the subject, they continue to collaborate to develop a programme that incorporates the complex science of literacy development with an active, and thoughtfully designed literacy curriculum. In one short skill building class, the children sang songs with actions, printed on bumpy boards and each other’s backs while guessing the letters and using the whole body to help integrate learning. It is clear that the skills practiced regularly move beyond letters and sounds in order to provide the kind of foundational skills needed to become strong readers. “Today a reader, tomorrow a leader.” (Margaret Fuller)

e.p.i.c. Students Help to Restore Atlantic Salmon to Lake Ontario

Real-life learning took on a new meaning at e.p.i.c. school when students and teachers set up an Atlantic Salmon hatchery…in the classroom!

Having learned about the importance of restoring wild Atlantic salmon to Lake Ontario, the students used an array of language, literacy skills, math and inquiry skills to care for salmon eggs. From filling the tank (how many liters of water does it hold?) to daily meetings to record observations such as water temperature (is it still 4°C?) and even recording the process in art projects and journal entries, the children became intimately familiar with the life cycle of the salmon. “When children learn about living creatures by caring for them, and learn about the salmon environment by creating and maintaining it, children achieve a deeper level of involvement.” said e.p.i.c. Principal Carolyne Cybulski, “this project sparked their interest and imaginations in the way that only a hands-on project can.”

Finally, the big day arrived. After a bus ride to Greenwood Conversation Area, the students learned how to release the over 90 salmon fry into their natural habitat. The children cheered as the fry, one by one, swam into the stream and off to a new life. “The best part was letting them go,” observed one young student, “Now they’ll be able to grow into big fish in their new home.”