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Environments

Last week I was delighted to visit a service that is preparing to open – the beautiful Our Place Play School in Nelson Bay, NSW. Although Inspired EC worked in collaboration with the owners to develop the outdoor space, this was my first visit. Wow. That was the first word that entered my mind when I stepped through the front gate and then into the amazing environment. This is an eclectic and aesthetically pleasing environment that has been designed for children under 2 years of age. But beyond the beautiful, there is clearly a philosophy of independence, of play, of respect, of nurture… this is a PLACE OF YES!

As I sat and watched some little ones “road testing” the space, it was clear in an instant that this was a place of yes. This is a concept that is widely regarded in respectful parenting and caregiving circles and essentially means creating spaces where children hear yes rather than no. In this article, the author speaks of how until they begin to crawl, infants very rarely hear the word no. Suddenly, once they are mobile – everything is no! 

Play spaces should be yes spaces. The environments we provide for children need to be engaging and playful and beautiful, but they should also be places where children, particularly infants and toddlers, are free to explore schema, to test theories, to create. Places where the educators are not spending their days saying “no” or “stop” but instead are watching, listening and really seeing play unfolding naturally. This is what happens when we stop saying no. Sure, there are times when we do need to say no, but when we create a play space that offers yeses (taking resources from one part of the room to another, using materials in ways that might differ to their intended purpose or accessing resources independently for example) we save our “no” for the time when it is really important. I guess you could liken it to the boy who cried wolf. If we find ourselves saying no too often, eventually the “no” loses it’s impact! 

A place of yes is not just a physical environment, although that is an essential element. Our pedagogical practice is equally important. 

So, how do we create a PLACE OF YES?

> Only have things in the environment that children can explore! If you don’t want it touched – don’t put it there!

>Think about where you place extra resources, adult supplies or belongings. 

>Support transporting – it is totally normal and reasonable to expect children to move resources from one part of the room to another. It all goes back eventually

>Stop and watch before you respond. So often we react “we don’t put play dough in the cups!” If we stood and watched for a moment, we may get an insight into the child’s play and thinking… and that can be pretty damn amazing!

>Ask yourself: who is this environment for? Why are we here? Those questions alone should help put things into perspective! 

>Talk with colleagues about respectful care giving and the idea of a “yes space”

>Choose resources and materials that support discovery, exploration and play. Open ended materials are the best!

>Finally, put yourself inside the mind and body of a child. How would you want to play in the space? What would you want to explore? 


When we create yes places where babies and toddlers can explore freely, can help themselves to resources, can use those resources in a variety of ways, we minimise many of the frustrations that we often see in this age group and as a result, minimise the “behavioural challenges” we may often face.

Say YES!
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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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Last night a question on an Early Childhood Facebook page made me stop and think. It was about how to display the birthdays of children in the room. My initial thought was “why do we even need to display them?” followed soon by my next thought “well how would it be done at home?” My suggestion to the educator was to use a simple calendar. 

This really straightforward question led me to reflecting on what it means to have a “homelike” environment. The majority of services and educators I encounter state that they provide a homelike environment for children and while the intention is definitely there, I wonder how many of them actually achieve it. And whose home is it even like?

With so many different personalities, cultures, socio economic backgrounds and family/parenting styles in our communities, how do we create a homelike environment? Is it about nice lamps and floor rugs or comfy chairs? While I think aesthetics play a role, I think the real key to a homelike environment is deinstitutionalising it! Placing less emphasis on the elements that make an early childhood care environment feel like a production line. 

So how do we do that?
  1. Involve the children and families – By really getting to know them and valuing their individual culture (not just racially either) we can incorporate these into our environment in meaningful, non-tokenistic ways. Encouraging families to contribute items to the environment is a great way to do this.
  2. Rethink what you put on the wall – Many centres I visit have walls that are covered in signage - directions for educators and families. Eventually there becomes so many of these that they all blur into a big mess of paper. Of course there are some items that must be displayed (e.g. emergency evacuation) however before you put signage on the walls think – does this need to be displayed or just accessible? If it needs to be displayed, try to keep your displayed signage consistent – use the same paper, the same fonts, frame them. 
  3. Step away from the catalogues – We get some great (very thick!) catalogues in Early Childhood that are filled to the brim with toys, equipment, furnishings and more and while these can be beneficial, I think it is important that we seek out eclectic items from a range of sources. When every piece of furniture is purchased from the same place and matches perfectly it can create a more institutional feel. Using a variety of materials, sizes, shapes and colours can help to create a warmth reminiscent of many homes (it’s also usually more cost effective too!)
  4. Display art and documentation thoughtfully - I love seeing children’s art and documentation of their learning displayed in services, yet i think it is important that this is done thoughtfully. Rather than sticking paper all over an entire wall, consider framing art work or using albums that children can sit together and look through. If documentation and art is displayed on the wall, maintain it – ensure that it isn’t ripped or dog-earred, this shows the children how much you respect their work. 
  5. Give thought to routine spaces - Nappy change spaces, bathrooms, sleep spaces and meal spaces should feel comfortable, familiar and friendly. Use photographs, plants, storage baskets to reduce clutter (that just gravitates to these places!!) and other items to make these spaces inviting for children. These spaces are a necessity in Early Childhood settings, yet we can make them feel less like a production line. I have been into cot rooms that are essentially four white walls and four white cots with some laminated signs on the door for recording sleep times etc. For the majority of children, this isn’t the sort of environment they would be sleeping in at home. We do not want babies to be overstimulated, but a few simple items can make the space feel more familiar and comforting. 
  6. Ditch the fluorescent lighting - Fluorescent lighting has the ability to make any room feel like an institution. Primarily used for its efficiency, it is possible to get light globes for lamps and other lights that are efficient and environmentally friendly and provide a warm light . Better still – utilise natural light where possible!
  7. Remember that a homelike environment is meaningless if the people in it aren’t warm and familiar in their interactions – What makes a house a home is usually the people inside it, the memories, laughter and experiences created there. We can have a beautiful, welcoming, “homelike” environment for children yet  if we don’t engage with children in meaningful, loving ways… it is really just for show!

​I’d love to hear how you make your Early Childhood environment homelike?

By Nicole Halton

​P.S – Family Day Care Educators really do have the upper hand here! 😉
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We are passionate about nature play. It is evident in what we write, what we share, the training we deliver, the playgrounds we develop and in the educators that are part of our family day care service. So when I hear someone say that nature play is a fad or “the thing right now” I take it pretty personally! 

Nature play can mean different things to different people, but to me it is the opportunity for children (and adults!) to engage in authentic, meaningful ways with the natural environment. That natural environment will look different depending on your context. It does not necessarily equate to a “forest school”! If you are in a coastal area your natural environment may be the beach, dunes and grasslands. If you live rurally it may be dirt, scrub and gum trees.

This morning I spent a few hours in the backyard with my 5year old, 2year old and 8 month old. We spend a lot of time outdoors and I find that all three (and me!) are much more content outdoors. This morning we found a small moth on the side of our table and I helped Bodhi place his hand out, encouraging it to climb on. We watched as it fluttered on his hand. “His wings are so delicate”, he said. And I wondered how, at five, he knew what delicate was. Yet as I watched him for the next hour with this tiny moth crawling up his arms, on his back and in his hair, it became clear. He knows what delicate is because of moments like these. Moments of quiet, authentic engagement with the natural world. And it was then that I was certain, nature play is no fad, no “approach”, it simply is and always should be, for all children.

So why is it still considered a fad? Particularly in a country where no matter where you live there are natural environments. Our country has bush, beach, lake, creek, dirt, desert, rainforests, fields, gardens, mangroves, wetlands, mountains and more. And even if venturing into wild spaces is not an option for you (although it easily can be!) you can ensure that your immediate physical environment encourages children to engage with the natural world, 

The benefits of nature play and connectedness are undeniable and this morning as I watched my 5year old engage with a moth, my 2 year old follow a snail and my 8 month old playing with bark, rubbing her tiny fingers across it, it was just so clear how important nature is. 
Supporting nature play doesn’t mean that every thing needs to be made of wood or stones, it is about real connections. So, here are 7 ways to authentically engage in nature play:
  1. ​Go BAREFOOT - Otherwise known as Earthing, the practice of being barefoot has many health benefits and also enables children to get “feedback” from the ground, supporting motor development. Dirt and grass also feel great between your toes!
  2. Look for WILDLIFE – Even the most urban areas have wildlife such as snails, spiders, ants and birds. Look for wildlife together, ask questions and hypothesise 
  3. CLOUD watch - Lay on the grass on your back and watch the clouds. Many children love to describe what the clouds look like, conjuring up images of bunnies and dragons, while others may want to know what the clouds are made of. Cloud watching discussions are often magical
  4. Pick FLOWERS – my kids love picking flowers to put in a glass on our dining table before meals. It is becoming somewhat of a tradition, despite the fact that we are not green thumbs and don’t really have gardens! They still manage to find “flowers” and watching them find the beauty in what we adults call weeds, is enough to make me smile
  5. LISTEN - simply spending time outdoors with your eyes closed will uncover a range of natural sounds. We have done this and heard birds, bugs and even the trees
  6. COLLECT – My toddler is often referred to as “the collector” – she loves filling bags, boxes, baskets and trolleys with all sorts of treasures. In an attempt to harness this, we make collections of stones and shells and leaves. These are often used in games and play for weeks after! (reminder – teach children to only collect items that have fallen on the ground, not to remove from trees etc and to be mindful of creatures)
  7. Use TECHNOLOGY – Most nature based articles will encourage you to ditch technology in favour of nature, yet it is possible to use the two together in meaningful ways. As I heard Peter Gray put it once – digital technology is simply a tool of this generation, much like the bow and arrow would have been for early man. My son is fascinated with photography at the moment, so has taken a liking to using my digital SLR camera to photograph trees, leaves, birds and anything that takes his fancy. 

I would love to hear some of your favourite ways of engaging with the natural world!

By Nicole Halton
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This image and quote says it all… perhaps the real question is “Why not outdoors?”

Part of what we do at Inspired EC is to design outdoor play environments. We aim to create environments that are so rich and engaging that no equipment is actually necessary. This approach stems from the experiences of Tash and myself. Many years ago we found ourselves working in a centre that was clearly on a journey. The indoor environment was one of the most engaging that I had seen at that time, the documentation of learning and project/play based program was strong and meaningful. As for the outdoor space…not so great! A very large space, it was predominantly wet-pour rubber softfall. One day while playing a game of hide and seek it became abundantly clear just how much the space was lacking – there was nowhere to hide!

Over the next few years, with a lot of vision, passion and hard work that outdoor play space evolved into one that is now coveted by other services and educators. It became an environment that requires nothing more. If no toys or equipment were bought out each day the children would still be engaged. This is what is so amazing about the outdoors. By allowing nature (plants, trees, grass, rocks, dirt…) to exist in our outdoor play environments, we open ourselves up to endless opportunities for play and exploration. 

– Nicole
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