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Childhood, Parenting

A few weekends back, I went camping with the family. We headed out to a 6000 acre cattle farm with no electricity, no television, no computers, no phones. IT WAS AMAZING. 

While we take regular opportunities to unplug and head into nature on the weekends, it is usually only a couple of hours at most and before you know it we are home and the phone is ringing or the “I’ll just check my email quickly” is creeping back into my vocabulary. This camping trip was 2.5 days of complete and utter disconnection… yet was the most connected time we have had in a long time. We slowed down. We seemed to have so much more time. 

I have been thinking about this a lot lately, particularly as a question around technology in early childhood settings was raised in a Facebook group in the last few weeks. This is something that I have had internal struggles with in the past, and I think many educators (and parents) do. Let’s look at an average early childhood service and even just society in general… 
How do we document? Often on a computer or tablet, after taking a thousand photos on a digital camera (don’t get me wrong, I am a photography nut!) 

How do we communicate with families? Well, I hope that the personal conversations are still happening, but there is often a lot of email and app based communication systems in use, due to time, shifts etc. 

How often do we walk past a group of people sitting together, each on their phones? Probably way too often. This is something that I am becoming more and more conscious of and while I get it, there are times when things need to be done – texting to check on a sick child, transferring money, checking in on a work email, it seems to be that we are relying on technology for social interaction more and more, when real living breathing people are right there with us. 


The point here isn’t to guilt anyone into abandoning technology (and for the purposes of this article, I am talking about digital technology specifically). Technology has a place and has made some amazing advancements in the way we live our lives, but there is a real risk of it taking over! And this is where my struggle appears. The world is a place of technology, children see us using phones and tablets and computers every day, and often for large chunks of the day, it makes sense that they want to use these too. I am not anti-technology. Right now my son is building a yoga studio on Minecraft. But, I think we need to be wary about how we use digital technology in early childhood settings. Giving a child an iPad or plonking them in front of the TV for 30 minutes peace to cook dinner is something that many parents will confess to – I know I do (whatever saves my sanity I say!) But, when we know the impact of excess screen time on children’s development  surely we have an obligation as early childhood professionals to not contribute to that. 

That being said, I have seen some wonderful examples of children working together to create something using digital technology, or interests being enhanced by research online. It is possible to be mindful in the way that we use technology in early childhood settings – it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. 

But what I noticed on our weekend of “nothing” was how much the children did. There was no “I’m bored” or “what can I do now?” it was calm and yet busy. 
They had time (and freedom)
to wander
to watch bugs
to kick a ball
to look for wombats
to read books
to play board games
to go for bush walks
to PLAY
 

And, as an adult in that setting, having no phone or iPad or computer calling me, urging me to write or contribute to online discussions or play Candy Crush, I benefited too. 
I listened more
I asked more questions
I wondered more
I read a book
I went for bush walks
I stargazed
I had good, robust conversations with real people
I PLAYED! 

We can’t unplug every day. I need to work and like most jobs now, a large portion of my work requires me to be banging away at the keyboard. But I have made an effort to not be so plugged in, to do things that make me feel good. And as a result, my children are wanting to plug in way less too. In early childhood settings, we should be unplugged as much as we can be. The time will come where these children will be teenagers or adults who are slaves to their phones/computers/tablets/whatever technological device is the “thing” in another 15-20 years! 

Instead of rushing them into digital technology with the idea that “it’s a part of their world, they need to know it” perhaps we can decide that “play is their world, they deserve to know it.” 


Are you worried that without digital technology children will miss out on important STEM skills? Then our new book is for you… 
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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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Advocacy, Childhood, Parenting
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Yesterday afternoon as we spent some time outdoors, I watched my littlest (who will be 2 on Saturday! How did that happen?!) rifle through the storage box and find a basketball. She takes it over to the basketball hoop and started trying to throw it into the hoop. Of course, the basketball hoop is substantially too high for her. After several attempts, she too recognises this.
“Can’t reach it!” 
I repeat her words back to her “You are having trouble reaching it?” 
“Yep. Too high!” she replies. 

She goes and gets a different ball from the box and then returns to the basketball hoop. She starts trying to throw the ball again and as, yet again, it falls very short of the hoop, she begins to show signs of frustration. In stereotypical toddler fashion, her little body appears to melt towards the ground, her fists are clenched and her voice is getting very whiny.
“Can’t reach it!” she says again. 

It is right here in this moment that I need to decide if and how I will help her. It is so very tempting to find a solution for her, to help her reach the hoop, so that she may experience the satisfaction and I will not need to “endure” the angst, the tears, the whining. But, several things play out in my mind:
  1. She is only little. While this emotional outpouring may seem extreme to me – this is obviously a very big deal for her. She is feeling frustrated, perhaps disappointed, and although she has quite an extensive vocabulary, she simply isn’t capable of the rational processing and articulation of the problem that I am, or even a slightly older child may be. 
  2. She is capable. My image of the child is that of being capable, creative and quite simply – amazing! That image of the child can be easy to remember when working with slightly older children, yet I KNOW that she is all of those things. 
  3. What will it teach her if I step in and solve her problem? 

Just as I am considering how to proceed, how I can scaffold her to come up with a solution – she beats me to it! I see her start looking around the backyard. Her eyes land on a small black stool and she wanders over to it. She squats beside it for a moment, then picks it up and brings it over to the basketball hoop. She places it beneath the hoop and begins throwing the ball in the air. 

It doesn’t make it.

But it’s okay. She doesn’t cry or throw herself to the ground. She looks at me and smiles, “almost!” 
And then she says “You lift me up?” 
And I do. 
Not because I want to fix it for her, but because she asked. And that was part of her problem solving process. She got there… because I left her to it!

By Nicole Halton

* Rainbow hearts to cover the bareness of a happily playing toddler!!
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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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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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Interested in knowing more about Schema? Our cards are the perfect resource. Click to view
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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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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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Yesterday I shared a post on our Facebook page that encouraged adults to play in nature and it got me thinking about how much we, as adults who advocate for play, really do play ourselves. 

This morning in my news feed, Facebook was kind enough to show me my memories for today and one of those was this amazing photo series that I took of my husband two years ago as he backflipped a scooter while jumping on a trampoline. The photo instantly bought a smile to my face as I remembered how determined he was to “nail it” and the laughter that was had by all who were there as he simply played. He is pretty playful by nature and sometimes I find myself envying that. 

This year I decided to change that feeling and embrace more play for myself and I would encourage you to do the same.

When I was working in my former service, I had a great team who were all pretty playful. We often had water fights with the children, rolled down the hill with them, had turns on tyre swings, found ourselves knee deep in mud and plenty of other playful, fun things. Families always used to comment that it was so lovely to see our educators actually playing with the children and not just supervising. And it made our work day more enjoyable! 

So, as advocates for children’s play, let’s practice what we preach. 

Instead of watching the kids at the park on the flying fox…. have a go!

Instead of laughing at the little ones sliding on cardboard down the hill… do it!

Instead of worrying about our hair getting wet…have a water bomb fight on a hot day! 

​This article from the Huffington Post highlights some great points and basically the message is clear – if play is so important for children (as we know it is!) how can it not be just as important for adults?

I would love to hear your thoughts – are you playful?

By Nicole Halton


We have some great resources on play, including these stickers, posters and books
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This awesome sticker is available for just $1 on our website!
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