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PictureSource: Unknown (via Pinterest) – Please note, I think they space is great and would love to see an “in progress” or “after” photo simply to see how children responded!
This morning I found myself pondering my house. Despite spending a fair chunk of the morning tidying, cleaning, packing away and trying to make it “beautiful”, I was reminded of something I once read to the effect of “when I am dead and buried will people say ‘gee she had a clean house’?” While it feels important to me at the time, I seem to spend hours every week, doing the same things over and over (the joys of having three small children!). Why? Will my children remember that? Or will they remember time spent reading stories together and running around in the backyard under the sprinkler? 

This morning I started to think about how this related to Early Childhood. Let me preface by saying that I think a high quality environment is important (we even deliver a training session on it!) and that children are deserving of an environment where care and respect has been shown for materials and where they feel inspired. Yet sometimes I see photographs of play spaces that have been set up for children where clearly, a substantial amount of time has been taken by educators. They are beautiful, no question about that, but do they change the educational and well being outcomes for the children? Will the children think back fondly of their time at “preschool” and say ‘I remember that amazing dinosaur land that was set up with the handcrafted volcano”? Or will they remember the connection they had with their educators or the fun they had digging in the mud with their friends?

​I’m not suggesting that we should stop creating beautiful play spaces for children. Children deserve to have their imaginations sparked by beauty and items of interest. However, it has become apparent in many Facebook groups and in general conversations with educators (and a quick browse on Pinterest!) that the focus on the aesthetics of a play space may in fact be detracting from the play that is occurring there! When we spend so much time designing the space and fretting over “the children wrecking it” we can miss the magic that happens when children play. 

It’s kind of like Instagram. So many people have these beautiful feeds featuring carefully arranged and photographed images of their amazing lives. I’m not suggesting that they don’t in fact have amazing lives, but amazing lives can also be messy. Amazing experiences aren’t always pretty. And so it is the same with children’s play. Play isn’t always pretty. I feel like we all know this, yet the photographs that are shared online are predominantly the ones of aesthetically pleasing play spaces. We rarely see the “in progress” or “after” shots. As a sector we need to starting sharing these images. Sure, continue to share the beautiful space that you created, be proud of the work you have put in, but let’s also see the play and the remnants of play! If we take the focus, even slightly, off the aesthetics we will see that what really matters is about the children, it’s not about us. Instead of coveting photographs of a beautiful play space, let’s covet the magic of the play that is occurring.

That’s what we should be aiming for – children engaged in meaningful, enriching, enlightening play!

It was 2006 and Tash and I were working in a community based service. As a team, we had established that we needed a new outdoor play space, one that allowed children to connect with nature, take risks and really get back to basics. Working with the educators, children, families and community, Tash designed a trickle stream that was to make the most of a then unused space at the side of our building. The vision was for a rocky, sandstone river with a pond at the bottom, where the water would circulate through hoses and run across the rocks. The idea was that the children could immerse themselves in our creek bed.  There were some concerns from educators about how this would work under the regulations (the regulations at this time were much stricter around the use of water) but instead of being weighed down with “we can’t do that” we thought “how can we do that?” 

We worked closely with the our Children’s Services Adviser (as it was known at the time) to ensure that we were meeting the regulations and when we were finished, we invited her out to have a look at the space and she was thoroughly impressed. We often had visitors to the service say “have you had accreditation or a licensing visit (as they were both known at the time) I can’t imagine they are happy with it” and we were delighted to say “yes to both and in fact – they love it!”

The reason for telling this story is not to toot our own horns, but to remind educators that things are possible and that it is important to check your facts with the regulatory authority. During training sessions, consultancy visits and even in discussions online, we often hear:

” Oh that’s great, but we wouldn’t be allowed to do that” 
” The assessor told us we couldn’t do that”
” How did you get around the regulations?”


It’s actually not about getting around the regulations. It is about being prepared to ask questions. Not sure if something meets the regulations (which by the way are far more encouraging of risky play now than they were back then)… ASK! Hearing from another service that “it’s a requirement to do it this way”…. CHECK THE FACTS. Just because someone says it is so, doesn’t make it so. There are a lot of myths in early childhood! Have an assessor say “you can’t do that” … ask them CAN YOU SHOW ME WHERE IT SAYS THAT? 

We need to be advocates for the child’s right to play and take risks and sometimes that means asking questions, challenging thinking, doing more research. Don’t just hear one answer and accept it as gospel! 


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Yesterday marked the start of school holidays in our household and with a six year old, three year old and one year old… it’s certain to be a busy three weeks! We started the day with some outdoor play – hours spent riding bikes, playing in the cubby and jumping on the trampoline. After lunch we decided to do some painting. Here is where it all went a little haywire!

We set up the acrylic paints (you know the ones… they don’t wash out of anything!), some jars of water, brushes and some canvas sheets. The three year old and six year old were in their element, mixing colours and narrating their process and their product to me. But the one year old… was not happy. See, she had been left out. I had not made a place for her to explore and so she began climbing on the table, stealing their brushes and making a general nuisance of herself. I quickly found some less permanent paint and paper for her and gave her a brush. A brush which she promptly cast aside in favour of a pencil that she use to stir and poke at the paint. She wasn’t interested in “painting”, she was interested in the paint. 
And so, I let her explore the paint. She dug in it, she poked it, she rubbed it between her fingers and held it out for me to inspect. And it was then that I began to think about the way in which we often (not always) approach painting in the early years. Over the years I have heard phrases like “keep the paint on the paper” or “don’t mix the colours up, you are ruining them” countless times. While we claim to value process over product, in saying things like this, we undervalue the fact that paint is simply a material. Sure, it often is used to make marks on a page, but it’s not its only purpose. 

When we provide materials and experiences for children we need to just let them be. Let them explore, create, discover… let them just play
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In the last blog post They Wrecked It I talked about the lengths we educators sometimes go to set up beautiful, engaging play spaces. This led to some discussion about whether we actually need to “set up” the playspace and reminded me of the concept of “Deconstructed Role Play” which seems to be far more popular (or at least by that term) in the UK than in Australia. The basic concept of a deconstructed role play space is to support the ever changing creative thinking and play of children. Think about the child who has spent all morning on the way to preschool, thinking about how they would like to be an astronaut and play in the rocket ship area that is set up in their room at the centre. She arrives, ready for her next mission and is dismayed to find that the rocket ship, with its dials and space suits, has been replaced by a hairdressing salon. She doesn’t want to play hairdressers and spends the next 20 minutes wandering the room aimlessly. 

Now think about it differently. The same child arrives ready to play “spaceships” and walks back into the dramatic play space where they are numerous baskets featuring various props, open ended materials, boxes and creative play items. She can build her own rocket ship, she can use fabric to create a space suit. Her friend, who doesn’t want to play this game finds the hairdressing prop basket and starts her own game. Side by side they engage in their own dramatic play, at times merging their games to create something altogether new. By providing open ended play materials and environments, we enable children to choreograph their own play. 

Getting back to last weeks post, I was primarily referring to playscapes or small world play. Why can’t these be deconstructed too? Why do we need to 
“set them up” for children? I often wonder if sometimes when setting up these elaborate scenes we inadvertently create an expectation of “this is how this should look” or “this is how we play dinosaurs”. 
A plain table with props for jungle play – a basket of bark, seed pods and rocks, a small container with blue stones that could become “water”, a plant, a book for inspiration and research and a basket of animals. Children can set up and play in a way that suits them. 

When we provide children with opportunities to set the scene themselves, the play that unfolds is amazing. It often goes in a direction completely different to our expectations. They might ask for additional props, they may bring items from other parts of the room. We don’t need to show them how jungle play “should look”, we can simply provide the props, the space and the time. Children don’t need to be taught to play, but we have to accept that their play might look very different to what we had imagined! We need to let go!

We could also take it one step further and provide a variety of props for a variety of play scenes. Why have just jungle play because three children are interested in it? If we deconstruct the small world play, how would that look? One (or more?) blank tables, baskets of props and open ended materials… total and utter freedom of play!
This morning I stopped myself just in time. I was outside with my three little ones and I happened to look over and see the state of the fairy garden that I had lovingly and carefully created for my daughter over summer. The once pristine fairy village, complete with river and bridge, toadstool homes and sweet little fairies and gnomes was now a wasteland, appearing to have been trampled by an ogre! I was just about to comment on the destruction that had taken place, thinking to myself “why did I bother?” when she returned to the fairy garden and I got a glimpse into her play. She was playing a very dramatic game with the fairies and indeed there had been some destruction – a storm! As I listened to her playing and observed the way she made changes to the garden, to suit the progress of her play, I felt relieved that I hadn’t commented, that I had taken just a moment to observe, to really see what was important. It didn’t matter that it was a “mess”. To her, it wasn’t a mess. Why did it need to look pretty? Why did I feel so personally affronted that she had “rearranged” the play space? After all… it is a PLAYspace! What else should I have expected her to do there?

This is not just a problem isolated to my own backyard. It is something playing out in early education services around the country (and possibly the world) each and every day. Educators are spending copious amounts of time creating beautiful, inspiring play spaces inspired by beautiful books, Pinterest and other social media. There is nothing at all wrong with that! Showing a commitment to aesthetics and a respect for the physical environment and resources provided for children is something we deeply value and discuss in our High Quality Environments training session. Where the problem arises is when we, the educator, take too much ownership over the play space. We have this idea in our head of how it should be played with and what it should look like and when we return from our lunch break to find the space in a state of “disarray” we have a tendency to feel frustrated. Frustrated with our colleagues for not “looking after it”. Frustrated with the children for “wrecking it.” 
Why? Because we spent so much time on it!

If you are sitting there nodding, thinking “oh I have done that!” you are not alone! When working in a centre, particularly in the first few years, I often found myself feeling frustrated with the children “wrecking my play spaces”
I needed to stop and ask myself:
  • Who is this play space for? – The children
  • What is it’s purpose? – Play
Two very simple questions (and answers) that changed the way I thought about creating play spaces. I didn’t stop investing time into creating aesthetically pleasing play spaces, but I did stop stressing about what they looked like as the day went on! I started really watching the way children were playing in these spaces and valuing the process of the play and the way in which it altered the physical space. I started looking at the “wrecked” play space as evidence of play rather than mess. And at the end of the day, when the time came to pack away and prepare for the next day, we reset the spaces – returning little animals and logs to their original place. 

When we change our thinking, when we look at things from a different perspective, we are able to not feel so offended when children use a play space or leave a play space in a way that is different to what we have expected. 



 




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On the weekend we ventured to Sydney for a family getaway. On the last day we stopped by the playground at Darling Quarter and my three little ones had a blast – climbing, sliding and swinging. As I watched the children play I also watched the adults. There were a variety of people there: those who hovered over their child, almost choreographing their play; those who sat outside the cafe, oblivious to the whereabouts of their child and those who kind of loitered in the middle! I am the loitering type – I like to be present for my children if they need support, but also am aware of their need to just play. As I was loitering at the bottom of the slide I heard some interesting adult comments:

“Wait your turn… now you go next. Okay, now it’s your turn” 

“Don’t go up the slide, its for going down.”


I stood and watched as my 6 year old decided to come head first down the slide and may have held my breath for a moment as I saw some older children start to climb up the slide at the same time. But there was absolutely no need. While the adults at the playground were worrying about children “playing the right way” or taking turns etc, the children had it sorted! And it is not just parents – educators are guilty of choreographing children’s play, of saying “this is how we use this equipment, this is how we take turns, this is how we engage with others. And, while it is important to support children as they develop both physical and interpersonal skills, if we don’t give them the opportunity to actually DO IT, we are essentially saying “we do not trust you to play.”

We need to stop choreographing children’s play. When a child pushes in front of another as they wait for the swing – give them a chance to work it out. If a child has never had another child push in front of them, they can’t understand how it feels and why it isn’t okay to do to others. Think about your own childhood – playing in the streets or the bushland with a group of children of varying ages. There were no adults to “sort things out” we just did it. We worked it out via negotiation and “kid rules.” 

We need to give play back to children… step back, they’ve got it!

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I could never be accused of not having an opinion. And I usually can’t keep it to myself either! Last week I found myself caught up in some “heated online discussion” over the use of a meme that I (and a great many others) found disrespectful to children. I won’t share that image as I found it stomach churning, but essentially it was an image that was taken of a child in a potentially humiliating situation and had been captioned “humorously” and shared online. 

I wasn’t the only one to speak up and say that I found the image disturbing, disrespectful and in breach of the rights of the child. I was impressed with the numerous educators and early childhood professionals who spoke up and articulated thoughtfully their concerns. Yet time and time again, those who spoke up were told to “get a sense of humour” “stop being so PC” and “just chill out.” So… should we just chill out?

I like to think that I have a pretty good sense of humour and I often think that in tricky situations, if we don’t laugh we will cry! I have three young children and have worked with children for 14 years… there has been plenty of laughter. But to be told that I need to get a sense of humour or chill out because I don’t find a photo of a child in a humiliating situation funny, really frustrates me. 

It was positive to see so many professionals argue key points such as:
– Has the child given their consent to have that photograph taken or shared?
– Would your first response to an unwell child or child in a tricky situation be “I’ll go get the camera!”?
– If this were in a centre (it was hard to be sure exactly where the photo was taken) and the parent saw this image, how would they feel about?
– What message did the photographer send to the other children in the space?

But for as many of these comments, there were just as many that suggested that this concern was misplaced and that these professionals were taking things too seriously. 

I have to wonder… why wouldn’t you take what we do seriously? Why wouldn’t you take the rights of children seriously? Why would you think that it is unusual to be concerned about the emotional wellbeing of young children? Or the improper use of a child’s image?  

I was happy to have professional debate about it – we don’t all have to agree on everything and I think situations like this are a great opportunity to learn and grow in our professional attitudes.  But it appears that these types of posts are proving ever more divisive, splitting the early childhood community into two distinct “camps” which I find really upsetting. Surely we are all here for the same cause? 

So how do we move forward? Well for me, it involved removing myself from a particular facebook group that seems to not be open to professional debate and instead becomes a “place of huffiness”  and I am instead focusing my energy into places where debate and discussion is valued. I will continue to encourage the educators that I meet during training and consultancy, to be reflective and open to other opinions and ideas. And for me personally – I will continue to grow. I will continue to research, to build my knowledge bank, to ensure that when I do have these professional debates I can articulate my opinion in a respectful, informed manner. 

And no…when it comes to the rights of children, I won’t “chill out!”

​Nicole Halton

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One of the best things about the work we do is when we get a few of our trainers in one room and engage in some professional discussion (with a lot of laughs and shenanigans too!) On Friday, Tash, Brooke and I were in the office doing some planning for some exciting new training sessions and we began talking about the importance of children having  the opportunity to document their own learning and just how meaningful this is.

Well, on the weekend I had the chance to see it in action in my own family! We headed to the lake for some lunch and outdoor play. As usual I was armed with my camera, taking photographs of my children and the natural environment. As my almost 6 year old balanced on nearby logs I snapped away, documenting his skill development as he became more and more confident. I took photographs of him and his sister developing their own game with magic wands, mentally documenting the learning occurring (yep, that instinct never leaves you!!)

A short while later he asked if he could use my camera. He carefully put the strap around his neck and took some “happy snaps” of the family before wandering off to explore and take more photographs. When I put my card into the computer that afternoon I was surprised to see some of the photos he had taken, to see what had been meaningful for him that day.

“These were the rocks I was throwing into the water. I was seeing how far out I could throw them and I got one out a really long way… like a hundred metres!”
“I found this feather. I think it belongs to a Cockatoo, but I didn’t want to take it home in case the Cockatoo came back looking for it, so I left it here where it could see it.”
“There was lots of boats heading out to race and this bird…its a Pelican I think, was flying around this one. I watched it for ages and it kept doing circles”
I asked him to tell me about what he photographed and I have recorded that in the captions. And this is what I love about this idea of handing documentation over to the child:

I had recorded what he was doing, what he was saying, how he was playing.

He recorded what he was seeing, how he was feeling  and what he was experiencing. What was meaningful to him.

While our role as an observer, interpreter, anecdotist (a term used by Vivian Gussin Paley) and documenter is incredibly valuable in understanding children’s play and development and building a picture of their knowledge, skills and personality, we can’t underestimate the power of handing documentation over to the child. In allowing them to document their own experiences and learning, be it through photographs or sketches or telling us a story, we gain an even greater insight into their thinking.

Vivian Gussin Paley in her book The Boy on The Beach (this was the first book for our Book Club), encourages children to dictate their play scenes to her as she records them word for word. It is during these times that we gain a greater insight as to why a small group of children insists on playing “kittens” in the home corner each day, an insight into the roles taken by each child, an insight to the goings on in their lives and minds, those things that have the ability to subtly or obviously impact on their play.

Documentation of children’s learning doesn’t need to be pretty or perfect. The photos may be blurry or the words not quite right, but the meaning… it is just there! We spend hours searching for meaning in our observations of children and by no means do I suggest that we stop doing that – it is a huge part of why we do what we do and not only gives us insight into an individual child, but into children and play in a broader sense. What I do think though is that instead of always searching for the meaning, let children tell their own story. Hand over the camera, open your ears and document what is really meaningful to the child!

~ Nicole Halton ~

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As with many of my blog posts, this is inspired by some very interesting discussions and comments I have been seeing in some of the early childhood networks on Facebook. Reflective practice seems to be getting a bad rap.

These pages are often used by educators to share room setup photographs, ask for advice, share art/craft ideas and to discuss practice in general. Seems like the perfect place for discussion. Except when it’s not.

It has been happening for a long time, but seems to be rapidly getting worse. Each day I see educators posting Easter craft ideas or asking questions like “how do I get the children to sit for a 30 minute group time.” There will inevitably be people who say “that hand-print bunny rabbit is brilliant – off to do that with my kids!” and “make the disruptive ones sit beside you” but then there are those who challenge the practice. Those who ask questions. Those who encourage the original poster to reflect. And those people seem to be quickly labelled as bullies. Bullies?! Really?!

“The Early Years Learning Framework encourages educators to be reflective of their practice, stating:

“Drawing on a range of perspectives and theories can challenge traditional ways of seeing children, teaching and learning, and encourage educators, as individuals and with colleagues, to:
• investigate why they act in the ways that they do
• discuss and debate theories to identify strengths and limitations
• recognise how the theories and beliefs that they use to make sense of their work enable but also limit their actions and thoughts
• consider the consequences of their actions for children’s experiences
find new ways of working fairly and justly. “

And so when these passionate professionals question practice or debate theories or ponder on the appropriateness of saying “hi girls” to a group of professionals made up of both male and female educators, are labelled as bullies – I get pretty annoyed! 

Are they not simply “challenging traditional ways of seeing children, teaching and learning?” 

Today I read a comment along the lines of ‘not every little thing needs to be reflected on or over analysed.’ I couldn’t disagree more, it’s how we learn. Just because we reflect on something, doesn’t mean it was wrong or that we need to change, just that we are open to seeing our practice from another perspective. 

This afternoon I had some time to myself while my husband took our little ones for a swim, so I relaxed by listening to our good friend Jeff A Johnson and Lisa Murphy’s podcast – Child Care Bar and Grill. I had multiple episodes available to catch up on, but an episode titled “breaking up” called to me. For the next half an hour Jeff and Lisa used the metaphor of breaking up with a partner to convey how it is to broach the idea of rethinking practice, with another educator. The general gist was that you as an educator may have done some reading, research and reflecting and realised that making children line up for 10 minutes to wait for lunch, a practice that has been happening in your service for years, was unreasonable. You have been thinking about this for awhile and have given thought to what new practice may replace this and what this would look like. You are prepared to “break up” with this practice (or may have already). Your colleague on the other hand, is none the wiser. As you approach them with the equivalent of the break up speech “we need to talk”, they may feel defensive, in shock, an impending sense of dread even. They may not be so open to change, after all they haven’t done the reading, research and reflection. With this in mind, we need to have a gentle conversation. We aren’t going to just not have the conversation because they “don’t want to” or “aren’t there yet”. Lisa and Jeff made this point so perfectly for me, that it has given me so much more to think about!

I have seen many people becoming defensive of suggestions made by very experienced, knowledgable and passionate professionals, feeling them an “attack” of some sorts. I have seen other educators criticise these professionals for “bullying” less experienced educators, suggesting that they will “drive them out of the profession.” When I was in my early years of early childhood education, I craved the wisdom of those who had been there before me. I longed for them to share advice, insights, links to readings and research. I wanted to be better. I still do. 

So, should we reflect on every little thing? Of course we should – it is how we grow, how we evolve. Just because another educator suggests that our handprint craft may not be considered best practice or that our habit of making all children rest on beds for 1hr may not be respectful of children’s individual needs, it doesn’t mean we should put our tail between our legs, delete our post and go and sulk in the corner. It is an opportunity for us to say “thank you for your feedback. Can you provide me with some more information/links etc to support me to reflect on this further.” It is an opportunity for us to “break up” with our practice and start a new relationship with a new practice. 

I would love to hear your thoughts! 

Nicole Halton

Thanks again Jeff A Johnson and Lisa Murphy for a brilliant podcast that helped me to reflect and for the awesome metaphor of breaking up! Y

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