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This weekend I managed to sneak a little time to myself to read “Unearthing Why” , the current book for our Inspired EC Book Club. As I read through the chapter entitled “Children as Authors” I found myself nodding in agreement at the words on the page. This particular paragraph jumped out:
“Writing for real purpose draws on our natural inclination and desire to connect, communicate and influence our world. Can you remember a time when you were asked to complete a task in which you could not see relevance? To do so can be infuriating and draining. In contrast, the energy that comes from being set a meaningful and purposeful task is infectious. Why do we assume children are any different? When we engage with children around an area of their interest they are more likely to engage, even if the skills required are difficult to master.”  

​-
Britt.C and McLachlan, J. (2015) Unearthing Why: Stories of thinking and learning with children, New South Wales: Pademelon Press
After some time spent reading I began to put away the washing (ugh!) and when I walked into my 6year old sons room, was delighted to see his calendar on the wall. At the beginning of the year he began to show an interest in the calendar in our kitchen. As he developed his writing skills at school (having just commenced school) he insisted on writing the numbers in the corresponding boxes. After missing some important dates, I suggested that perhaps he could have his own calendar to record the date on. Needless to say – he was thrilled!

I think it is worthwhile mentioning that in the years prior to starting school, he was in a wonderful play based service that spent a lot of time outdoors. He was not interested in writing or drawing and although every now and then I had moments of doubt as to how this would play out when he started Kindergarten, I tried to trust in him, believing that when he was ready and interested, he would write. In the first few weeks of school it became apparent that his pencil grip wasn’t so crash hot and he was finding writing a challenge. But still, I continued to trust. 

And it worked. As he is rapidly learning sounds and words and comprehending sentence structure, his interest in writing has also increased. He now seeks out drawing and writing as tools to make sense of the world, in ways that he has never done before. He watches me write lists and makes lists of his own, he see’s me labelling things and labels things of his own. 

So when I walked into his room I wasn’t totally surprised to see his calendar looking like this. He had diligently added the numbers in, but had also taken time to write in “mum” and “dad” on the days that we will celebrate our birthdays. And then at the bottom I saw “Movies May” and I stopped and wondered…for just a moment. Until I remembered that for the last six months he has been longingly looking forward to the release of the Angry Birds movie in May and the fulfilled promise of a trip to the movies with his grandparents. So there it was, writing for a purpose. His purpose was to record something important to him. In writing our birthdays, his purpose was to remember, 

Anyone that has heard me present our popular “Positive School Transitions” workshop will know I am definitely not a fan of rote learning and writing for the sake of writing. As a writer myself, making meaning through the written word is something I value deeply, yet it needs to be a meaningful process for the child. 

So, how do we facilitate “writing for a purpose”?
  1. Listen to children – find out about what they are truly interested in and encourage them to explore and share that interest through mark making (even if it is not an interest or topic on “our agenda”!)
  2. Provide children with quality writing materials – if we want children to write, we need to give them the right tools. I wouldn’t like to sit down at my desk and have a choice of four blunt lead pencils and a broken orange crayon
  3. Involve children in meaningful writing opportunities – if you need to write a shopping list – let them help, documenting experiences on the program – ask for their input.
  4. Model writing – in our highly technological world a lot of child may not see the adults in their life write by hand too often. Let them see you writing!

Watching children learn to write is an exciting thing – seeing their ideas, interests and questions land on the page, giving voice to these inner workings, well…it’s nothing short of magical!
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In the last few weeks I have been reflecting on security items or comfort items and their presence in early childhood settings. I cannot recall what prompted me to think about this but it has been an interesting process. 

I began with thinking back to my time in a toddler room. Many of the children in my care came with teddies or blankets or even a pair of mums satin pyjamas! They clutched these items like someone thrown overboard would clutch a life preserver, as though if they let go of them, their little world would end. I could see it in their eyes, just how special these items were. Yet, we had a policy that these were kept in children’s bags until rest time, as though it were expected that this would be the only time the child may seek comfort. I can shamefully recall waiting for a child to drop their teddy as they climbed into the sandpit, then sneakily taking it to their bag, where it would be “safe.” In our minds we felt it was the right thing to do – enabling them to play freely, ensuring that the item would not be lost or damaged. But, as I reflect on it now, with the advantage of deeper knowledge, more experience and the arrival of three of my own children, I realise just how misguided this approach was. 

Research shows that the majority of children do have some sort of comfort item and that when left in an unfamiliar environment with it, they explored more, played more and cried less than those without one. So there goes our “theory” that the child would somehow be inhibited by their comfort item and that by hiding them away, we would be freeing them to play. 

As I have been reflecting on this concept, I have been watching my own children and others at shops, playgrounds, preschool drop-off and other “kid places” to see how their relationships with comfort items may be effecting their play or interactions with others. In short… it wasn’t! In fact, for some children, it was enhancing their play, giving them a prop, a way to get involved with other children – an ice-breaker even. So what would have happened if an adult had walked over, scooped up the item and said “it needs to stay in your bag until rest time”? What impact would that have had on the child’s sense of security? 

I have reflected on how I would feel as an adult to come into a completely new environment – one where the people and the place were all unfamiliar. Where the furniture looked different to the furniture at my home and the smell was different too. I would cling onto the little things that made me feel secure and comfortable, until I felt comfortable in that environment. In fact, for some adults, despite reaching a place where they are comfortable in the environment, they continue to surround themselves with photographs of family or little treasures and trinkets that remind them of home. By being able to blend ourselves and our homes/families into our work environment in some way, no matter how small, we gain a sense of belonging. This is something we strive for in early childhood settings, a fundamental part of our Early Years Learning Framework. And yet, so many services go to extremes to do this – creating belonging trees, photo walls and other “belonging” displays. Maybe a family photo doesn’t actually resonate with each child in terms of feeling secure and a sense of belonging? Perhaps we need to allow each child to find their own comfort in a way that is meaningful to them. For some children, this may mean that a teddy bear accompanies them as they dig in the mudpit, or they take a raggedy old blanket with them to paint at the easel. The important thing as that we as educators respect their need to seek comfort and familiarity in an object that is important to them. So, how do we do this? 
  1. Welcome comfort items/toys into your service – Ensure that children and families know that their comfort items are welcome in your service. You may still request that they be appropriately labelled and may need to advise that while you will do your best to “look after” the item, things happen! (such as dirt, paint etc) 
  2. Include them in experiences - If a child has a teddy that they bring to the role play space, ask if they would like a teddy carrier or pram. Always ask a child before touching their comfort item though.
  3. Avoid the phrase “you’re too old for that!” – While this may be well intentioned and you may have concerns about a child’s emotional wellbeing if they still have a comfort item at age 4 or 5, this will do nothing but upset the child. Rest assured that they probably won’t still be carrying their teddy around when they head off to high school and they will part with it when they feel ready. 

I would love to hear your experiences with comfort items in early childhood services! 

Nicole Halton
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For many years as an educator and director I was a firm believer in defending my practice and that of my service. When an assessor challenged our use of glass jars I defended the decision, providing positive examples and research. When a parent questioned the legalities of tree climbing I directed them to our benefit risk assessment, found articles, research and safety information to back us up. When an educator said “we’re not allowed to do that” I found regulations, made phone calls and got out the highlighter!

As a consultant I have often encouraged educators to defend what they do and while I still feel that way, a discussion with Tash (Inspired EC co-founder) this morning had me questioning whether it should always be up to educators to defend what they do. Instead, I would suggest that educators should feel empowered to question their challengers. Instead of having to prove ourselves… let’s turn the tables!

When an assessor challenges your practice and says “you can’t do that” ask to be shown where the in the National Quality Framework it says that you can​​ ​’t.

When another educator says “we’re not allowed to do that” ask them to find the regulation or law that says that.

Why should it be up to us to always defend what we do? If someone is putting an obstacle in the way of us providing opportunities for children (such as excursions) or creating an inspiring environment (by adding a trickle stream, for example) then they need to provide us with the hard facts – not just “Oh, I heard from Jane, who works at xyz service, that the assessor said it wasn’t allowed.”​

Of course there will inevitably be times when someone (assessor, colleague) actually identifies an issue that we have missed and that is great – when they come to us with hard facts, we are able to swiftly make appropriate change to ensure the best outcomes for children.

Don’t dread the visits from the regulatory authority, they are a great opportunity – just be prepared to ask the question “can you show me where that is written in the National Quality Framework?”​​
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Last week I left the office and decided to go for a walk around the lake. I set off and although the flies were enough to drive me crazy, the quiet and the view of the boats was just the relaxation I needed. I had walked quite a distance when I was hit by a smell. It wasn’t a bad smell, nor would I say it was a good smell. But it was a familiar smell. It wasn’t something that I smell every day and I really couldn’t (and still can’t – although it was some type of tree!) put my finger on what it was, but one whiff and I was instantly taken back to my childhood. I felt as though I were 5 years old again. This then evoked memories of my preschool – a breezy, light filled, warm, open place that I loved. That smell bought back images of my teachers, memories of playing on the huge timber fort, the three coloured balloons that told me that was my locker and my hand towel in the bathroom, even the time that one of my friends wet the bed (those old hessian stretcher beds) at rest time!

How is it that this one smell bought back such happy memories?
Technically speaking, it all comes down to the brain. The olfactory bulb in the brain is part of the limbic system, an area often referred to as the “emotional brain” and is closely linked to the amygdala, which processes emotion, and the hippocampus, which is responsible for associative learning​​​. The reason that smells trigger emotional responses or memories is due to our tendency to link a smell to an event or person or moment when we first smell it. And the reason we tend to be taken back to childhood? This is often the time when we experience a smell for the very first time.

This isn’t the first time a smell has triggered an early childhood memory for me and I am sure it won’t be the last. Whenever I smell a vegemite sandwich I am taken back to preschool! But for some reason, when this happened last week it made me think about what smells will evoke memories for children in care right now. So many services that I visit are sterile environments – often there is an overuse of Glen20. So in 20years when children smell latex gloves or Glen20 or disinfectant… they will be transformed back to childhood. I don’t think I like the sound of that.

In addition to the memory effect, smells also have the ability to impact on our moods and wellbeing. Research shows that smell can affect ​blood sugar levels, concentration and stress levels and our health. Therefore, it is crucial that we give thought to the smells our children experience in our care. Do they have the opportunity to smell trees, fresh cut grass or food cooking away? If we need to use items for cleaning or making unpleasant smells disappear, do we give thought to what we use?

Spend some time “sniffing” in your service and ask yourself… are these the smells that will positively impact on mood, health and children’s memories?

By Nicole Halton​​

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Advocacy, Pedagogy
 
I have officially had enough. The downward push of academics into early education is making me feel frustrated. Frustrated that despite that overwhelming research both here and internationally; a solid national Early Years Learning Framework that supports play based programs and professional development opportunities that encourage educators to implement and advocate for play based learning, we continue to see examples of structured academics and ridiculously high expectations in the early years. 

I appreciate that there are many amazing services and educators out there who are advocates for learning through play, but I am frustrated with those that are choosing to disregard a plethora of research that identifies that structured academics in the early years is not only unnecessary but can also be damaging. I am frustrated with those who are not prepared to stand up for the rights of children to engage in unstructured, free play. I am frustrated with those who are using academics as a marketing ploy, an attempt to lure parents in, rather than sharing research about play based learning and referring to the National Quality Framework. 

Just yesterday I was given a flyer for a brand new service opening up near me. The educator introduced herself and I asked about how many children would be in the service. She quickly answered that there would be 102 and that they would be split into 5 rooms, before redirecting me to the “innovative” reading program where children receive free books, explaining that even my young baby would receive books as part of the program. While receiving books is lovely I was actually gutted to read the promotional flyer which boasted “Guarantee 9 out of 10 children will read at level one or above by the time they start school!” 

Where do I start with everything wrong with that statement? The unnecessary pressure that this puts on the children and the educators is appalling. What happens if in a group of 20 children only five are reading at that level (which to me would be impressive. Impressive and unnecessary!)? Is all other play cancelled in favour of the reading program to ensure that children actually meet the guarantee? If so much time is spent learning to read in these early years, what will these children be doing in their Kindergarten year while other children are learning to read?

In another sad turn I was speaking with a fellow educator who is starting her daughter at Kindergarten at the local public school next year. They attended an orientation session last week and the educator found herself feeling very concerned for her child. The kindergarten teachers said that they expected the children to know several sight words before even beginning school and instructed the parents to go home and use sight word flash cards with their children!  

I just have to wonder – WHY? 
“There are no specific skills that a child needs to have before starting Kindergarten – they are not expected to know how to read or write. The main thing is that both you and your child feel confident about starting school.”
This statement comes directly from the NSW Department of Educations parent brochure Time to Start School. The brochure also strongly advocates for the importance of play in the early years for developing skills as well as crucial social and emotional development. 

So, if the Department of Education and the National Quality Framework advocate for the same thing – why is this downward push still happening? And more importantly how do we stop it?!  It really is up to us as educators and parents to put a stop to it. We all want children to have the best start to life, but by pushing academics into the early years we could in fact be doing the opposite. We could be creating a generation of stressed, over structured, over stimulated children. We need to give childhood back to children.

5 WAYS TO FIGHT THE DOWNWARD PUSH OF ACADEMICS

  1. Get educated. Knowledge is power – read anything and everything that you can get your hands on to support play based learning in the early years​
  2. ​Share what you learn. Share articles, books and information with your colleagues
  3. ​Speak honestly with families. Have a strong philosophy grounded in play based learning, have policies that support this and encourage discussion with families and opportunities for them to spend time in your service seeing the positive impact of play based learning
  4. ​Be heard in the community. Write a blog, send a letter to the editor of your local newspaper, invite the community into your play based services. Do whatever it takes to advocate for children’s rights!
  5. ​Create meaningful connections with your local schools. Ensure that families are getting consistent information and speak up to the teachers, principal or department if you have concerns.
​By Nicole Halton

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Advocacy, Pedagogy, Programming

 
Well, it is December. The Christmas season is well and truly underway and my Facebook and Pinterest feeds are filled with photos of very clever Christmas craft, decorated rooms and ideas for embracing the festive season with children. Let me begin this post with a disclaimer (probably never a good sign!!) that I love Christmas and think that it can be a really exciting time for children. I have great memories of looking at Christmas lights with my family and doing lots of fun Christmas experiences. 

What bothers me though is that in our attempts to fully embrace the festive spirit, many services and educators appear to abandon their philosophies and subsequently, children’s rights. Services who usually wouldn’t allow a stencil to make it’s way in the front gate all of a sudden have Christmas crafts were every child makes an identical footprint reindeer. Services who usually encourage children to make choices about their play are suddenly urging them to “come and make a present for Mummy”. Services who usually embrace casual, relaxed group times are working hard on Christmas concerts where all of the children are expected to perform. 

The big question…why?

Why do we let the festive season take over our services? Is it not possible to celebrate Christmas in meaningful ways that actually link in with our philosophies? 

Don’t get me wrong – I know this is not happening in every service. Some services are doing truly meaningful things with their children and families and should be applauded for this, but the influx of images on social media tells me it is definitely happening a lot.

I looked back at some photographs of myself at age 4 at our annual Christmas Concert. There I was lined up with 20 other children, all with identical santa beards and hats we had made with paper and cotton balls, singing my heart out. Sure, I was having a great time. But just down from me was a child who clearly was not having a great time, in fact he was miserable. Looking at the photo I do remember this child refusing to sing Christmas songs at preschool and being told he had to join in the concert weather he liked it or not. I like to think we have come a long way in almost 30 years… but have we? I am still seeing children making identical Christmas craft and being coerced into Christmas concerts. And it’s not just Early Childhood Services – on the weekend I watched many children being forced to sit on a strangers lap despite their vocal protests (yes I mean Santa and yes, my children did have their photo taken with him, but it was optional…I am not a total grinch!)

A few years ago I think there was a swing the other way – in an effort to be inclusive of multicultural beliefs, many services abandoned the celebration of Christmas. And while I am not advocating for that, I think there is middle ground to be found. When I was Directing, we ditched the Christmas concert tradition and instead began having a family picnic at the park – a time to be together rather than be on display. One year we had a group of children who did want to perform for their families… they chose to act out Wombat Stew, a story that had been a favourite for months. 
We made lots of materials available and if children wanted to make something they could, if they didn’t – not a problem! Naturally many children came in wanting to make, create, sing and do all things Christmas and as with any other interest, we allowed the children to lead us where they wished to go, providing provocations, materials and support as needed. We opened up a meaningful dialogue with families about our choices and how doing specific craft experiences and forcing children to make gifts really didn’t sit in line with our philosophy nor did it feel like we were sharing a meaningful experience with the children. 

This post really seems to link back to the one I wrote on Mothers Day and I guess the message is much the same. 
By all means celebrate Christmas, but please make it meaningful to the children. Please allow them to still have the right to make choices about their play and their day. 
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I have many pet peeves. Anyone who knows me well knows that there a lots of things that drive me crazy – things not being put back where they belong, crumbs in the butter, that kind of thing! But there is a phrase that I have heard too many times in my Early Childhood career and it really drives me bonkers… “they need to learn to do that, they will have to do it next year at school” 

Now this phrase (or variants of it) is often used when discussing things such as:
  • Sitting for group time
  • Lining up
  • Putting their hand up to talk
  • Sitting on the floor with legs crossed


What frustrates me about this is that these, while being perfectly possible for some children, are really unrealistic expectations for many four year olds. As educators we know that many four year olds love to run, jump, climb, twirl, skip, bounce and just generally be active, yet there seems to be a lingering expectation that when we say “It’s group time”, these active children will be able to just shelve that need to move and suddenly sit still for up to half an hour! 

A recent discussion with a passionate EC professional highlighted this issue for me once again and she made a really valid point – we don’t say “hey they are in year four, but we better make them do year 5 work so that they are used to it for next year”  

Yes, it is important for children to feel “ready” for school… but maybe the schools need to play a part in this too and be ready for these children – as they are! The downward push of assessing and formal, structured learning is disappointing and frustrating. From an early age, learning is becoming more about sitting and listening, sitting and writing, sitting and reading. What happened to doing? What happened to learning by using our senses? Howard Gardner identified the different types of learning styles and I feel that in many ways, we in Early Childhood have become great at adapting our approach and environment to accommodate these. Yet unfortunately in many (not all – I know there are some great one’s out there!!) four year old/preschool rooms, these seem to get thrown out the window as we madly try to prepare the children for school. School readiness is a sore point with me (and a whole other blog post!) so I won’t delve to deeply into it, but I really think that as educators we need to advocate for change in the Early Years of school. We need to defend children’s rights to be active, to learn through play and to just simply be kids! 

The first step in that is to stop saying “they need to learn to do that, they will have to do it next year at school” Instead, let’s embrace the now! Let’s focus on the children we have in front of us, not the children that will be completely different people in 6 months or 12 months. And who’s to say that the child who is wriggling and rolling and playing with their shoelaces isn’t listening and isn’t learning? Surely disrupting the whole group to ask them to sit still 14 times during the story is not going to benefit them or the other children? We can get so caught up in trying to prepare children for the next step, that we forget to just slow down and appreciate what they can do, what they know and who they are right now. 


Embrace the now!
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