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Advocacy, Childhood, Community, Parenting, Play


Lately I have been doing a lot of thinking about interest based learning. As someone who worked with young children in the early 2000’s, when the concept of “emergent curriculum” was quite popular, I have always been a proponent of interest based learning. I always felt that by observing the children and understanding what they were interested in, I would be able to plan a program that facilitated those interests. Yet, over the last few years as my understanding of play has deepened to a level I perhaps never thought possible, I find myself critical of the concept of interest based learning and to be quite honest, of the whole concept of a program. 

Recently I have been listening to the Child Care Bar and Grill Podcast series on Peter Gray’s definition of play. We were fortunate enough to bring Peter to Australia a few years back (and again later this year – yay!) and I greatly admire his work, but it has also really challenged my thinking about what we do in early childhood. I feel like everything I learnt at TAFE all those years ago, and even when doing my degree, actually has very little bearing on how I view early childhood education now! 

Almost daily on various early childhood Facebook groups, I see questions such as “my toddlers are interested in trucks and only want to play with the trucks in the dirt, how can I extend that?” followed by an abundance of suggestions for songs, books, craft activities and other ideas for “extending” the truck interest. Every time I read these I wonder – why are we hijacking children’s play?! Why can’t we let them play in the dirt with the trucks for weeks on end if that is what they want to do? Why do we feel the need to do more than that? Surely children can be trusted to direct their own play and if that looks the same for weeks on end, is that actually a problem? 

I feel like the early childhood profession has come a long way in recent years, with most educators and services claiming to value play, yet I wonder if they truly understand play. I don’t say this to be condescending. I was once there myself. I was always looking for the children’s interests and then latching on to them and launching projects (some of which, I might add, lead to some amazing discussion, insight etc) and thinking “yes, I am facilitating children’s interests and play.” But, as I do more and more research on what play really looks, feels and sounds like, I know that I was so far from the mark. 

IF I COULD GO BACK IN TIME

I find myself daydreaming of what I would do now, with the knowledge I have now. I would start by ditching the “program”. Although our program was always very basic, there was still the expectation that there would be things added to support children’s interests. If we have an environment where children are free to explore, create, access materials and have meaningful connections with adults, who are responsive to their needs/requests etc for resources to build on their play, then is there a need for that to be planned a week in advance? Instead of focussing on getting educators to plot out the program and link to the EYLF, I would focus on inspiring educators to be critical thinkers and to respond “on the fly”, to question, to reflect, to adapt the environment in response to the children’s play. I would spend more time being present than “observing” or “supervising” or even getting involved in the play. I would spend less time creating Pinterest worthy small world scenes and more time embracing the messiness of children’s play, when they are free to play in the way that they desire. I would give children more time. Time where they choose what it is that they want to do, how they want to do it and who they will do it with. 

A UTOPIA PERHAPS?
Okay, it sounds like some sort of play utopia to me, but I know that there are educators out there reading this and thinking “you’re crazy lady.” And… maybe I am! But I honestly feel that we have gone too far. We have injected ourselves far too heavily into something that should be natural to children. We are guilty of micromanaging children’s play to the point where it no longer resembles actual play, and is now some sort of play mutant. You might also be reading this and thinking that not doing a “program” would be lazy or poor teaching. In fact, I think it is quite the opposite. When we plan a week (or even more) ahead, listing what we will do and how we will do it, it is easy for our practice to feel routine or mundane. We have a pre-conceived notion of what each day will look like. On the contrary, when we have no real plan (that is, the plan belongs to the children) we need to expect the unexpected. We need to be more tuned in to the play, we need to be more responsive, we need to be able to think on our feet. That’s exciting! There will also, no doubt, be educators saying “but what about routine, that’s important” or “how will they be ready for school?” My answer to those sorts of questions is usually that there is enough routine in a child’s day without adding more, and just because you give children control over their play and their time, does not mean that they won’t actually embrace some sort of routine for themselves – we need to give them more credit. The school “readiness” thing is something that get’s me worked up and I have blogged about it many times before, but I can say with confidence that the research supports play. Children have opportunities to develop the physical, social and emotional skills needed for the transition to school, during their play. They have 13 years to sit at a table and write, to sit cross legged on the mat for story time, to count to 100 or recite their ABCs – early childhood need not be the place for this. We have a brief window (how I wish it were more) to embrace play in its truest form, let’s not invade that with unnecessary expectations and rote learning!

As educators (and as a society in general) we need to give play back to children. We need to let them do with it what they will. 

By Nicole Halton
* I strongly recommend reading Peter Gray’s article (hyperlinked above) and also listening to the Child Care Bar and Grill Podcast series on “defining play”
* I may have borrowed the term “hijacking play” from the amazing Kisha Reid from Discovery Early Learning Center


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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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One of the great things about what we do at Inspired EC is spending time in different services, giving us the opportunity to see a broad range of ideas, perspectives and practices. There is however one practice which is present in the majority of centres we visit and it predominantly looks the same, no matter where we are… group time. 

In many centres (not all!) if you walk in at group time you will see:
  • An educator sitting on a chair 
  • Said educator holding a book up for everyone to see
  • Children being asked to sit cross legged on the floor (The amazing Alistair Bryce-Clegg talks extensively about the inappropriateness of this, particularly for young boys whose muscles are not designed for this type of sitting at this age) 
  • Children who inevitably struggle to sit cross legged on the floor and instead roll around or chat to their friends or play with the puzzle on the shelf next to the group time space
  • Children excitedly calling out their favourite parts of the book or pointing out interesting images on the pages of the book or asking questions about the book…or something completely irrelevant! 
  • An educator who has to constantly remind one child to stop calling out or ask another to keep their hands to themselves

Sounds like fun right?! 

This is not fun for anyone, yet for some reason many educators continue to put themselves and the children through this daily ritual, often with the logic that “they will need to be able to sit in a group at big school” Well that maybe true, but does it meant that we need to push it now? In the vein of last weeks blog post – perhaps this is something that needs to be worried about – WHEN THEY ARE AT SCHOOL!

Recently I visited an amazing service and spent some time observing educator practice. During this time I watched a group time with 3.5-5 year olds. The bullet points above played out almost like a script and I sat there wondering – why do we do this? Why do we find it necessary for all children to listen to the same story at precisely the same time, despite saying that we are led by children’s interests? As I observed the other educators in the room preparing for lunch and sleep times, tidying the room and doing other tasks I felt as though I had my answer, or at least part of it. A large group time enables us to “contain” all children in the one area and “keep them busy” so that we can get things done. Sure, it is a challenge to keep the room running, keep them tidy and complete programs and paperwork, yet I wonder if this is the answer? This is not a criticism of those educators, as they are doing what the majority of educators (myself included) have done for years, this was just a moment in time that prompted me to reflect. Perhaps there are ways of engaging the children, making these things a shared responsibility, a collaborative effort? If we do need to have a large group time – are books really the best choice?

I am a HUGE lover of books. I love to read with my own children and always loved to read with children when I worked in a service, however I rarely enjoyed group time and I think that was a result of the constant attempts to have children sitting and listening and not touching other people! I think books are important for children and should be readily available and educators should make time to read stories with individual children and small groups of children as interests and opportunities organically arise. When we read a book with an individual or a very small group of children, we have the time to have meaningful conversation about the book. When we read a book to a large group, trying to engage up to 20 children in meaningful conversation becomes onerous, drawn out and often very unpleasant!  

Don’t get me wrong – there is merit in doing things in large groups, but I don’t believe that expecting all children to sit quietly and listen to a story is the way to go. If you are going to do group experiences, think about giving children the opportunity to move or be loud, or actually engage with one another – after all, isn’t that the purpose of being in a group? Working together, interacting with one another…building relationships? 
Perhaps we should save the books for small, meaningful engagements with children and instead do social, active things with a large group. Think storytelling with puppets, large group games, music, dance, drama. Things that actually encourage children to be involved, to be active and to interact! 

Let’s rethink group time!
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 It’s a lovely autumn day. The sun is shining, the birds are singing and butterflies are moving from plant to plant. Wind rustles through palm fronds and if your oldest child stands on their tip-tip-tip toes they can just see over the windowsill to the outside. They can see a gorgeous brown lizard sunning itself on a rock.  You are sitting on a comfy couch in your local community hall, surrounded by single use plastic toys discarded on the floor and a chaos of children running in circles, stepping on each other and generally just climbing the walls. You’re nursing your second cuppa and a half eaten chocolate cookie. Whilst you like the chance to chat with other mums, you find it all a little stressful.  You can see your child would much rather be outside and if we’re going to be honest, you probably would too. But playgroups are much easier to run inside, where children are pent up securely, aren’t they? And what about toys? Children need toys, don’t they?  With recent statistics showing that most children spend the majority of time indoors, on a flat screen or in front of a small screen, what children need is an outdoor environment they can explore, take ownership of, love and enjoy.

 
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Family day care educator Kathy Springate with seedlings for the children
 It’s no longer a radical notion, with pioneering authors such as Richard Louv discussing the dire need for children to immerse themselves in outside play, and more recently articles running in The Huffington Post and Parenting Magazines almost daily discussing the benefits of outdoor environments for children. The difficult question then becomes where?  As a co-ordinator and family day care educator, I found it almost impossible to find a regular outdoor gathering with other educators or families in outdoor appropriate environments.  That is until I discovered the wonder of community gardens.  Often open only limited hours, community gardens are an incredible way to connect with your local community, volunteers and other families, as well as immerse children in the wonder of propagating seedlings, planting, weeding and harvesting.  Many towns and suburbs have them and they are filled with an abundance of friendly folk, lush green environments and the brilliance of an outdoor classroom. Most Community Gardens are fully fenced, making them a wonderful playground for parents who are learning to let go of their helicopter wings.  
The Oaklands Street Community Garden’s Garden Gathering was established with the particular aim of bringing families, carers, and family educators together – regardless of scheme- and allowing the children to immerse themselves in child-led gardening activities or general unstructured outdoor play. There is a myriad of things for the children to access- watering cans, gardening tools, seedlings, vegetable patches, fruit orchards, worm farms and compost bins.


There are mounds of soil, trees to climb and large areas to run. A curlew pair hover in the bushes by the wishing well and there is always a lizard, bird, beetle or butterfly to pique a child’s interest.

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Family day care educator Juan Perez pulls the weed trolley while children navigate and push
 There are plans to incorporate fire work when winter comes in, and a pizza oven that is just waiting to be fired up again.  In the time that it’s been running, I’ve never heard anyone complain that they are bored, there is always as much or as little to do as the child wants, or can find.  There’s no mess of plastic toys to clean up and no craptivities– just an abundance of fresh air, smiles and exhausted children at the end of the session.   Find your nearest community garden, take the time to get to know them- you will find they are an amazing bunch of people that love the sound of children laughing amongst the trees, and are keen to pass the joys of gardening to the younger generation. You’ll find that community gardens really are the perfect place for playgroups!  ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~  Katchia Avenell is an Early Childhood Educator and Family Day Care Educator Mentor with Inspired Family Day Care
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