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Ten simple provocations

As I mentioned in this post, this summer, I’m strewing daily provocations (doses of inspiration) for my two little Beans to chance upon and hopefully delight in. Strewing is simply the spreading out of materials of interest across your house for the children to discover for themselves. Designed literally to provoke and stimulate, they’re open-ended invitations to play and explore, for which there should be no predetermined end goal other than to watch where the child takes it. Super simple to set up, and yet fascinating to observe how the child reacts and how the materials inspire them. Sometimes it goes in the way you’d predict and other times, not at all!

I thought it might be helpful to share some of the provocations I’ve left out for the Beans in the last couple of weeks and how they explored them. They’ve been hugely popular. As I was writing this, Bean8 came running up to me to tell me how much she loved it when I left out provocations for them. I asked her why she liked them so much and her answer was, “because it doesn’t matter what we do with them; we can explore them in whatever way we like.”

Provocation 1. An invitation to be an artist:


This new set of oil paints and paintbrushes was kindly given to them by one of their aunties last Christmas. In all honesty, they’ve sat on the art shelf since then, accessible for the children to use, but clearly not discovered. When I included them in this provocation, Bean8 chanced upon them first and her response was, “Wow, am I really allowed to use these special new paints?” accompanied by whoops of excitement and jumping up and down (my children go in for whole body expressions of emotion!).

She scurried off to move all of the items onto an outside table by the rose garden for more inspiration and set to creating a beautiful painting to give to me as a present for my upcoming birthday, singing to herself in the process. She takes great pleasure in creating things for the loved ones in her life, be they family or friends: this seems to increase the importance of the task in her mind, making it real work that has an intrinsic value and also providing a way for her to show the abundant love she has to share.


Provocation 2. An invitation to be a scientist:


What’s interesting about provocations is that you can’t help but have an idea about how you’d use the items you’re laying out for the children, but they often go in directions you don’t anticipate. For example, in my mind for the above provocation, I envisaged them practising using a thermometer each to measure the temperatures of just boiled versus cold tap water, and then examining the effect on the temperatures of adding ice to each bowl. Or something of like that. I thought they might write down their measurements. If it was me, I’d take temperature measurements at intervals over a period of time after the ice was added to see how quickly the temperature dropped.

What actually happened was this. Whilst they did spend some time playing with the thermometers measuring the different temperatures of the waters and adding ice to the bowls to see the impact on the temperature, they were more interested in getting the salt out of the cupboard and adding that to the mix. They added some to the hot water and then to the cold water which was mixed with ice. What they noticed was that all the salt dissolved very quickly in the hot water, but that it was much slower in the cold water with ice.

So, without realising it, they discovered for themselves the impact of temperature on the rate of a solid dissolving in a liquid. Not bad for a provocation that took me only two minutes to set up! Maximum gain for minimum input!

Clearly, we could have set this up in a more scientifically accurate and structured way, by measuring the time for the salt to dissolve and making sure they used exactly the same quantities of salt. But that would have taken the joy out of discovering it for themselves and would therefore have been much less impactful and likely to be remembered.

We had a quick discussion about why the salt dissolved faster in the hotter water: the water molecules are moving faster in the higher temperature because of the additional energy, and therefore more easily break apart the salt molecules when they come into contact with them. They loved the concept of the molecules in the hot water whizzing around like crazy to avoid getting their toes burned, while the molecules in the cold water being too cold to move very quickly and just wanting to snuggle up and stay still – a spot of anthropomorphism that might help them remember this scientific principle! They also enjoyed acting as a hot water molecule colliding at pace with their “salt molecule sibling” versus a cold water molecule meandering gently towards them! Learning in a physical way is always much more appealing to Bean7!

Provocation 3. An invitation to be a geologist:


They found these interesting rocks, which seemed to contain a crystal of some sort, whilst playing in a river bed with some home ed friends. As happens with many special stones, shells and sticks they find on their adventures, they were left in a pile on the floor of the craft room and promptly forgotten about as they moved on to yet another exciting passion or adventure. So, I pulled out the most interesting of them and laid them out with a few choice items as shown above.

Both children found this provocation simply irresistible! The invitation to bash a rock with a special rock hammer is not to be missed! Nothing earth shattering was discovered (no pun intended!), but they spent a happy time extracting the crystals from the rock, identifying them (it was concluded that it was halite (we think) and not quartz as originally predicted) and examining them under the microscope.

Provocation 4. An invitation to be a poet:


I knew a few favourite poetry books combined with a posh notebook and pen would be a sure-fire way of enticing Bean8, my budding author! It was interesting to see how she approached this provocation. She spent quite a bit of time reading through some of the poems. Then, she decided to take one of the Roald Dahl Dirty Beasts poems (The Lion), write down the last words of all of the rhyming couplets, come up with two new alternative rhyming words for each couplet (which still rhymed with the original couplet) and create her own poem, similar in style to the original, with these new ending words. Certainly not something I would think of doing; she’s far more creative than me! Here’s the revised Lion poem she came up with:


Provocations 5, 6 & 7: Invitations to be a linguist

Provocation 5. Practising their Spanish writing skills:


The scrabble set is in our games cupboard and the stamp set in the craft room for anyone to play with anytime they like. No restrictions. And yet, if you set up a provocation like the one above, and include these items, both children act like they’re some exciting forbidden toys for which they need to ask permission to play with… This happens with every provocation and it never fails to amaze me.


Bean7’s response when he happened upon the above set up: “Oh mummy, please can we play with scrabble pieces to make the words, please!”

“Oh, go on then! You’ve twisted my arm!”


Provocation 6. Practising their Spanish pronunciation:


This is a summary of one of the tracks of the Michel Thomas CDs that we use to teach ourselves Spanish, which aims to teach the difference between the two different ‘to be’ verbs used in the Spanish language. They’ve already listened to the track, understood the lesson and practised forming the sentences verbally. But leaving this out with an invitation to use my phone (a highly prized activity since they’ve don’t have phones of their own) to record themselves makes practising that much more alluring!

And practise they did, recording each other saying the various Spanish sentences about Pablo; watching them back; spotting each other’s errors; and repeating. In the process, without realising it, they corrected and improved their own pronunciation. They were also keen to record a conversation between the two of them about Pablo and for that they needed to know how to say, ‘he has a fever’. They looked it up on the internet and included it in this cute short conversation (they asked me to film them both).

Provocation 7. Learning new Spanish vocabulary:


They’ve become quite addicted to this Spanish KLOO game in which they have to put together Spanish verbs, adverbs, nouns, adjectives and conjunctions to make sentences, with additional points available for the correct translation. They were already familiar with Pack 1, Eating & Drinking, so I left out Pack 2, Clothing, for them to try. They jumped straight in as soon as they spotted it, playing in the garden until they’d learned all of the new vocabulary for this pack!


Provocation 8. An invitation to be a mathematician:


So not strictly a provocation (as there is an intended outcome), more of a maths puzzle, but I thought I’d include it in this post as both Beans love maths challenges set by MrJ on the courtyard! This one was for Bean8. As an example, he highlighted ten paving slabs on the courtyard and, starting at 1, multiplied each progressive number by 2, so 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512. Then he set her the challenge of working out what number you’d need to multiply by in order to exceed one million in the tenth box for the first time.

I have to admit that I thought this would need more explaining than it did; she took one look at it, understood what she had to do and realised she had to use a combination of estimation and trial and error to work out the answer. Realising that multiplying by 10 would mean getting to a million by the 7th box, she decided to try multiplying by 5 each time. She enjoyed spotting the patterns (like from box 4 onwards, every box ends in 125 and 625 alternately) and filled in the ten boxes, demonstrating that multiplying by 5 would mean the tenth box was 1,953,125, over a million, but by quite a long way. So, then she tried multiplying by 4 and realised this only produced an answer in the tenth box of 262,144, significantly under the million mark. Therefore, she concluded the answer to the maths puzzle was that you had to multiply by 5 to first get over a million in the tenth box.


This challenge really made her think around the problem and use her logical reasoning skills to come up with a sensible approach and estimation for the first trial and error test. She also practised her maths calculation skills in the process. I suspect that if she’d been presented this exercise in a text book, she would have panicked and possibly even given up and come to me for help. But as it was presented as a puzzle set by Daddy on the courtyard, she met the challenge with a really positive and resilient attitude, enabling her to easily solve this tricky puzzle. Furthermore, she enjoyed it. I think we’ll be setting more such courtyard maths challenges in future!

Provocation 9. An invitation to be a naturalist:


They recently found this provocation, started to identify the wild flowers using the identification guide and write labels, but their attention was side-tracked by a more compelling imaginary game involving naming the chess pieces after important historical or current figures: Sir Walter Raleigh is currently having a fantastic time playing with Thomas Becket, Queen Elizabeth II and Queen Victoria! Sometimes the provocations are successful and sometimes they don’t work as well. That’s OK. They’ve asked me to leave this one out though, so they may well come back to it and explore further.

Provocation 10. An invitation to be a puzzle solver:


The simplest of the lot, but one which they spent hours playing, improving their spatial awareness and having fun! Proving that it doesn’t have to be a complicated, Pinterest ready, beautifully laid out provocation to be effective!


What are your favourite provocations?

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