Children learn better when they are actively engaged in talking, drawing, reading and writing about items and experiences that are meaningful to them. Not only does this sound sensible – it’s grounded in the latest peer-reviewed research into the brain and learning. And it’s been one of my core beliefs about how children learn for many years. But how do we get children actively engaged in writing and reading about meaningful items and experiences? Let’s answer that question by unravelling the story of Bo Bear’s Backpack.
The centrepiece of the backpack:
The centrepiece of Bo Bear’s Backpack is a soft toy. I have always used a toy animal because most children are interested in animals. This year it’s a bear. Other years it’s been Ziggy Zebra, Tim-Tam Tiger, Cloe Crocodile, Twin Teddies… If the idea for the animal springs from a class event or a unit of work, so much the better.
I added the AFL football to Bo Bear’s backpack to spark the interest of boys. The AFL football and backpack were a fortunate coincidence – only a few days prior, the children had a visit from AFL player ‘Fish’! So the football and backpack immediately connected all the children with an exciting meaningful experience.
Naming the bear:
We had great fun preparing Bo Bear’s backpack on Friday. First, the little brown bear had to have a name. We gathered in our mat area and brainstormed names that started with ‘b’. The children came up with 11 possibilities which I scribed on the small whiteboard:
In the afternoon we voted for a name. Baby, Bo and Barney won with 3 votes each – a tie. It was down to Baby, Bo or Barney. We voted again – this time by secret ballot. The children went to different parts of the room, wrote the name they wanted for the bear on a piece of paper, folded it and placed it in the box I was holding. The result – 7 votes each! Our bear was still unnamed. One child said, “We could vote again.” So we did – once again, by secret ballot (more meaningful writing and numeracy).
This time Bo won – much to the chagrin of the Barney supporters! One girl commented, “Bo Bear doesn’t have the nice sound of Barney Bear.” I silently agreed, but replied that we had to go with the name that most people liked. Democracy in action! Bo Bear was named and ready to go in the backpack.
- Bo’s journal
- Writing pencils and a packet of wind-ups
- 6 books about bears and/or ‘b’
- ‘Snap’ number cards
- A small football
What happens when the backpack goes home?
I choose a capable child (with supportive parents) because the first entry in Bo’s journal needs to be a quality ‘model’. At home, the child…
*plays with Bo Bear and shares the toys and books with the family
*draws and writes about Bo Bear (or another interest) in the journal
*reads the journal to the parents
*reads the books with his/her parents
Some parents insert photos of their child playing with Bo Bear.
What happens the next morning?
The next morning, the child shares the backpack with the class and teacher. S/he talks about playing with the soft toy at home. The child reads the sentence from the journal and shows the drawing and writing to the class. We celebrate the child’s efforts. S/he may show which backpack books were read with the family. Sometimes I read one of the backpack books to the class. Comments, questions and discussion arise from other children.
Once the Journal is full, it stays in the backpack as another book to read and we make a new journal to add to the pack – more reading and writing and sharing!
Bo Bear’s Backpack ticks 10 learning boxes:
Not only do children become better readers and writers, but activities like Bo Bear’s Backpack tick 10 of the ‘keys to learning’ boxes:
*Interests embedded in the learning
*Immediate and cycled repetition
*Exercise – playing with the football
*Interactions with interested others
*Stimulating the senses (auditory, visual, tactile)
*Encouraging higher order thinking
Learn more about Backpack Activities:
See ‘Backpacks to Go’ in Teaching Strategies for Literacy in the Early Years (Swan, 2009, p. 6-10). Extensions include:
*An Author’s backpack
*Email Granny’s backpack
*Traditional tales backpack
*Rhyming stories, songs and chants backpack
In addition, there are backpack resource websites and parent letters.
Click on the photo below to view a list of all 41 literacy strategies: