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Childhood, Community, Parenting
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Yesterday we went house hunting with my parents. After over 35 years in the same home, they are looking to downsize and to be a little closer to family and their business. We looked at a few homes that met the criteria, but neither were “the one.” After a picnic lunch, we decided, on a whim, to go to an open home which didn’t exactly meet their criteria. We piled into the car and drove 25 minutes “out of town” to a semi rural property. 14 acres of fruit trees, gardens, a dam, undulating grassed area and two lovely homes (plus a barn and large shed!) We were in paradise. 

For the last few years, my husband and I have talked about our desire to live on an acreage. To have space, to be more connected to nature. We have also at times, talked about buying a property with two homes and sharing the cost with my parents. This is a somewhat practical decision as it makes the property more affordable, yet as we walked around the grounds yesterday, I realised that it is really so much more than that. 

In recent times I have given a lot of thought to the concept of “the village.” You know the proverb “It takes a village to raise a child”? Well I have often thought about this from the adult perspective – how beneficial, as a parent, it can be to have a village of people to call on when times are tough, or to keep you sane after a really long day with a toddler! But as we walked around this property yesterday, it became clear just how important “the village” is for children too. 

As I watched my children looking at the fruit trees and gardens with their grandparents, I realised that this was the sort of thing the traditional notion of a village was good for. The children could go off with Pop to tend to the gardens or help Nan feed the chooks or chop some firewood with Dad. Yes… my mind may have got a tad carried away. I was visualising our family living in this place and my children reaping the rewards of our own (albeit small) village. 

I feel like as a generation of parents, we seem more stressed than those before us (or perhaps we are just more vocal about our stress?) and I wonder if this is in part due to the lack of a village. Our children (well not mine because I am a “bored is good” type of parent!) are more scheduled than ever. We put them in dance classes and cooking classes and art school and sport and I wonder if perhaps we were to embrace the village a little more, if those things would seem redundant. Would they instead go and learn to cook with the next door neighbour who wins prizes for her baking skills? Would they play football in a large group of neighbourhood children? Would they wander across the street and help in the community garden? 

We need to bring back the concept of “the village” – if not for ourselves, for our children. With a wider circle of people with different ways of being, doing and knowing, just imagine the opportunities for children!

Now I’ll go back to daydreaming about my idyllic acreage, but I will also be thinking about how we create this sense of village right where we are… 

​By Nicole Halton
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Childhood, Parenting
 

I have a toddler. An unpredictable, inquisitive, amazing little human. Some days she drives me to the brink of insanity (granted, not a huge drive!) with her upending of every box, rearranging of each room and investigations of “what does this do?” Yet, she also surprises me every day with the things she knows and the connections she is making. 

Toddlers get a pretty bad rap most of the time. We’ve all heard the phrase “terrible twos” and have seen various memes about the trials, tribulations and frustrations of life with a toddler. Sure – toddlers are challenging, but when we really STOP and watch what they are doing, it is also clear just how incredible they are. 

This morning I watched part of a Netflix Documentary – The Beginning of Life. Although I didn’t get to watch it all (#mumlife), the part that I have seen so far was brilliant. It should be a must watch for every parent and educator. There were so many experts and parents sharing research and truths about children, but the standout comment for me was:

“We often say toddlers have trouble paying attention. What we really mean is they have trouble not paying attention.”

Let that sink in for a minute…

It is so true. I’ve often heard educators complain that they are not able to get their toddlers to sit for group time – for a story or songs or whatever. This comment above sums up exactly why… toddlers are too busy paying attention (to absolutely everything that grabs their interest) to pay attention (to the one thing that we want them to pay attention to) Makes sense to me! 

When we know that children learn through play – through doing, through touching, through exploring and wondering, how is it reasonable to expect them (particularly toddlers) to sit still and listen, to fight the urge to touch and explore?

Imagine you are a toddler sitting down on the floor… an educator is holding up a book and asking you to look at it, but out of the corner of your eye you can see a piece of sheer fabric blowing in the breeze. You can smell lunch wafting down the hallway from the kitchen and hear the windchimes tinkling outside the door. You spot a small ant crawling across the floor and you wonder where it is going and decide to follow it. Suddenly the book (as great as it may be) is just not so interesting. You have things to explore. 

I think we need to be really mindful, in all that we do with toddlers, of the expectations we place on them. When we have unrealistic expectations for toddlers (such as sitting for a 20 minute group time) – we set them up to fail. Instead of expecting that they keep all of the playdough at the playdough table, and then being frustrated when things are transported around the room (a perfectly normal part of development – Schema!), let’s set up our environments to cater for the unique, exploratory, messy learning style of the toddler. 

We need to embrace everything that is amazing about toddlers – look at our environments and programs through their eyes. When we do that, the challenges start to become less frustrating and we see those little moments of wonder and discovery that make what we do so very worthwhile. 

​By Nicole Halton


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Childhood, Play, Professionalism
 
Twice in the last week we have had a picnic dinner in the park. One of the joys of daylight savings and warm Summer evenings, is packing up dinner and heading outdoors. We spend an hour or two eating, chatting and playing. On both nights this week I have noticed something that made me smile and do some pondering. 

On Sunday we went to a local playground by the lake. My three children had a great time playing on the equipment and wandering along the waters edge. Not long before we packed up to head home, a group of about five people in their late teens/early twenties arrived and had something to eat at a nearby table. They then began to PLAY! They climbed over the equipment, chased one another around the park and quite simply – had a ball. My son (6.5years) was a little concerned that they were “being silly” or using the equipment in the wrong way. I reassured him that they were just playing and that they were not being disrespectful of the playground or of other people, just that they were using the equipment in different ways. 

Last night we celebrated my Grandma’s 93rd birthday by taking her for a picnic in the park. Not long after we arrived, a large number of young people arrived and began setting out witches hats and donning coloured headbands. We watched with interest. A few moments later one of them approached us to explain that they were playing a game of Frisbee (crossed with football!) and that they would try to be mindful of us being there. Grateful for the heads up, we watched as the game unfolded and actually ended up really enjoying it! It was clear that this wasn’t a competitve, organised game, but rather a regular gathering of friends…engaging in PLAY! My Grandma (who as I said, turned 93 yesterday!) also enjoyed watching the game and commented how lovely it was to see people out having fun and running around like that. She spoke of her younger days and how even as adults, they didn’t go home from work and sit on phones or TV, they actually DID stuff. They played card games or went outdoors or knitted. 

This got me thinking about how we, as adults, often forget to play. We often complain that we are so busy, and have so much “important stuff” or work to do, but then as I look around (and even look at myself!) we (as an adult collective) spend a lot time fiddling online or engrossed in social media. A few months ago we were at my parents place and the children were all happily playing outside. We were sitting in the family room, chatting. I happened to look around and all 5 adults in the room had their phones out. I felt really yuk about it (I’m sure there is a better explanation for this, but for now we will go with yuk!) here we were, all together and yet worlds apart. When we put down the phones/devices and spend our leisure time engaged in something playful, it usually brings us such joy – why don’t we do it more often?

So, as the holiday period approaches, I am inspired by these groups of playful “grown ups” that I saw in the park this week. I am going to run, jump, laugh, get messy, be silly, create and play! And I want to challenge you to do the same. Let’s not grow old and stagnant…let’s PLAY!

By Nicole Halton
 
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Childhood, Parenting
 
Self-Directed play is a time for children to learn, explore and make sense of the environment and world around them. Children can create a safe environment in order to explore and test their potential and it is one of the most effective ways for them to gain confidence in their own choices and abilities. It’s safe to say, self-directed play is a very good thing, and we as educators should be encouraging it.

The Raising Children Network lists a variety of benefits to the self-directed and unstructured play for children:
 
self-directed, unstructured play – where children decide for themselves what they want to do and how to do it – is really valuable. That’s because it gives children time to:
  • let their thoughts and imaginations roam
  • explore ideas and think creatively
  • run around just for fun.

Yet, children with disabilities are often not allowed the same freedom to direct their own play. As educators we are often so concerned with teaching the child the ‘correct’ way to do something, that we don’t stop to consider the reasons behind why a child may be doing something. To restrict the self-directed play of a child with a disability could be far worse than restricting the self-directed play of a child without a disability. Many people with a disability fall into a category labelled as ‘vulnerable people’. They’re more likely to have advantage taken of them and to be bossed about or picked on. For those reasons alone it is of huge importance that we let our children with disabilities self-direct many situations in life, starting with their play at a young age. We need to fill them with confidence and assertiveness in their choices and actions, and allow them to build upon those. 

It is all too common for an assumption to be made that a child with a disability needs to be constantly taught the ‘right’ way of doing something or learning something over and over like a drill. It is an approach that assumes the child is empty and we need to fill them with knowledge. But if we don’t fully understand their world and their perceptions, how can we be sure our corrections and teachings are indeed helpful?

Self-directed play for a child with a disability doesn’t require us to do anything different than for children without a disability. We just need to provide a safe environment and to show them that they are curious and competent learners and that we have faith in their abilities.

Some reflective questions we can ask ourselves in our daily practice and before jumping in and ‘helping’:
Why is the child playing that way?
Does it make sense to them?
Does it always have to make sense to us as adults and educators?
Is the child happy and engaged?
Do I need to intervene here?
How can I use this experience to build upon this child’s confidence?

Written by Laura McLeod
 

 
Laura McLeod is an Educator with a passion for inclusion. She has worked within OSHC programs, predominantly as a support for children with disabilities, and has enjoyed educating staff and children about disability and inclusion. 
Laura enjoys her learning and has completed the following tertiary studies: 
  • Bachelor of Health Science (Health Promotion) 
  • Graduate Certificate of Health Promotion 
  • Graduate Certificate of Disability Studies (Autism Spectrum Disorder) 
  • Graduate Certificate of Special Education 
  • Certificate III of Children’s Services
Her most recent achievement is being awarded Young Citizen of the Year for her work in creating ‘Sensory Friendly, Inclusive Concerts’ for people living with disabilities in her community and she hopes to continue making the world a more inclusive place for all.

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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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