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Childhood, Play, Risk
A few weeks ago I watched my youngest navigate the climbing structure at a local playground. She is 2.8years and is known in our family as the “wild child.” She is adventurous and risk taking and way more capable than people  (including me sometimes) give her credit for. 

As she approached this climbing structure, she quietly assessed it. She looked for the lowest point to be able to pull herself up. She moved herself around the bottom of the structure before climbing higher and higher. 

At the end of the video you hear her ask for help and while the mum in me naturally wanted to rush over and lift her down, I fought the urge and instead offered her some suggestions to help herself. She was pretty chuffed with herself when the suggestion to reach out for the other rope worked and she got down by herself! 

Children need to be given opportunities to risk assess, to make choices, to ask for help if they need it.. 

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Childhood, Play
In the last week my Facebook news feed has been flooded with the words “fidget spinner.” Apparently as a Mum to a 7 year old boy I “should” know what this means and why it is so important, but perhaps thankfully for me, the craze does not seem to have taken off at my sons school!

According to a quick bit of research (i.e google) “the palm-sized spinners consist of a ball bearing which sits in a three-pronged plastic device which can then be flicked and spun round.” 

Doesn’t sound too exciting to me, but apparently, it has kids in a spin (pun totally intended). 

Similar sorts of “fidget toys” have been used for years with children with additional needs or to promote/enhance concentration. I have to admit that I have been sceptical of these in the past and in fact, when Angela Hanscom (Paediatric OT and author of Balanced and Barefoot) was here in Australia earlier this year she spoke briefly of the use of “tools and toys” for concentration or focus and suggested that they are often used as a quick fix to a bigger problem. A problem that can often be addressed with outdoor play, gross motor opportunities and freedom to be children (roll down hills, spin in circles, climb trees). A problem that also seems to do little to challenge the “sit down, cross your legs and listen” attitude to learning that still exists in many classrooms and early childhood settings. What does the “mainstreaming” of such a gadget say about it’s effectiveness or purpose or even about children in general? Are all children struggling to focus or concentrate in class (or in life), requiring them to have something to fidget with? Or have we become a society that can’t be still, that can’t be without something in our hands (for adults, often a phone!) Or is it just another toy, another fad?

Yesterday on the news I saw that the “fidget spinner” had been banned from some schools. I thought… that’s interesting (and perhaps a little humourous). Something that was designed to promote concentration and was often suggested by various therapists and support services that I worked with when directing, was now being hijacked by children and was in fact such a distraction that it needed to be banned! One of the news presenters actually questioned yesterday how these fidget spinners were any different from Yo-Yo’s or Tazo’s or any of the other great childhood fads. And I feel like he was spot on. These really are just another hyped up plaything. They will probably come and go, like most other fads (go on…prove me wrong fidget spinner!) Chances are in 6 months time the mums who I am seeing on local Buy/Sell pages begging for someone to sell them a fidget spinner so little Jimmy isn’t the only one in class who doesn’t have one, will be wondering what all the fuss is about and why they spent their Thursday night trawling the internet for a piece of plastic!
While play, pure and simple, imaginative, digging in dirt, swinging from ropes, constructing play… that will last forever. 

Nicole Halton

* There is no doubt some children who benefit from these sorts of fidget toys and as I am not qualified in the area of special rights education, I am not suggesting that there are not individual circumstances where such toys may be recommended and highly valuable!
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Advocacy, Childhood, Community, Parenting, Play

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

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

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

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

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

By Nicole Halton
 
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On the weekend we ventured to Sydney for a family getaway. On the last day we stopped by the playground at Darling Quarter and my three little ones had a blast – climbing, sliding and swinging. As I watched the children play I also watched the adults. There were a variety of people there: those who hovered over their child, almost choreographing their play; those who sat outside the cafe, oblivious to the whereabouts of their child and those who kind of loitered in the middle! I am the loitering type – I like to be present for my children if they need support, but also am aware of their need to just play. As I was loitering at the bottom of the slide I heard some interesting adult comments:

“Wait your turn… now you go next. Okay, now it’s your turn” 

“Don’t go up the slide, its for going down.”


I stood and watched as my 6 year old decided to come head first down the slide and may have held my breath for a moment as I saw some older children start to climb up the slide at the same time. But there was absolutely no need. While the adults at the playground were worrying about children “playing the right way” or taking turns etc, the children had it sorted! And it is not just parents – educators are guilty of choreographing children’s play, of saying “this is how we use this equipment, this is how we take turns, this is how we engage with others. And, while it is important to support children as they develop both physical and interpersonal skills, if we don’t give them the opportunity to actually DO IT, we are essentially saying “we do not trust you to play.”

We need to stop choreographing children’s play. When a child pushes in front of another as they wait for the swing – give them a chance to work it out. If a child has never had another child push in front of them, they can’t understand how it feels and why it isn’t okay to do to others. Think about your own childhood – playing in the streets or the bushland with a group of children of varying ages. There were no adults to “sort things out” we just did it. We worked it out via negotiation and “kid rules.” 

We need to give play back to children… step back, they’ve got it!

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I could never be accused of not having an opinion. And I usually can’t keep it to myself either! Last week I found myself caught up in some “heated online discussion” over the use of a meme that I (and a great many others) found disrespectful to children. I won’t share that image as I found it stomach churning, but essentially it was an image that was taken of a child in a potentially humiliating situation and had been captioned “humorously” and shared online. 

I wasn’t the only one to speak up and say that I found the image disturbing, disrespectful and in breach of the rights of the child. I was impressed with the numerous educators and early childhood professionals who spoke up and articulated thoughtfully their concerns. Yet time and time again, those who spoke up were told to “get a sense of humour” “stop being so PC” and “just chill out.” So… should we just chill out?

I like to think that I have a pretty good sense of humour and I often think that in tricky situations, if we don’t laugh we will cry! I have three young children and have worked with children for 14 years… there has been plenty of laughter. But to be told that I need to get a sense of humour or chill out because I don’t find a photo of a child in a humiliating situation funny, really frustrates me. 

It was positive to see so many professionals argue key points such as:
– Has the child given their consent to have that photograph taken or shared?
– Would your first response to an unwell child or child in a tricky situation be “I’ll go get the camera!”?
– If this were in a centre (it was hard to be sure exactly where the photo was taken) and the parent saw this image, how would they feel about?
– What message did the photographer send to the other children in the space?

But for as many of these comments, there were just as many that suggested that this concern was misplaced and that these professionals were taking things too seriously. 

I have to wonder… why wouldn’t you take what we do seriously? Why wouldn’t you take the rights of children seriously? Why would you think that it is unusual to be concerned about the emotional wellbeing of young children? Or the improper use of a child’s image?  

I was happy to have professional debate about it – we don’t all have to agree on everything and I think situations like this are a great opportunity to learn and grow in our professional attitudes.  But it appears that these types of posts are proving ever more divisive, splitting the early childhood community into two distinct “camps” which I find really upsetting. Surely we are all here for the same cause? 

So how do we move forward? Well for me, it involved removing myself from a particular facebook group that seems to not be open to professional debate and instead becomes a “place of huffiness”  and I am instead focusing my energy into places where debate and discussion is valued. I will continue to encourage the educators that I meet during training and consultancy, to be reflective and open to other opinions and ideas. And for me personally – I will continue to grow. I will continue to research, to build my knowledge bank, to ensure that when I do have these professional debates I can articulate my opinion in a respectful, informed manner. 

And no…when it comes to the rights of children, I won’t “chill out!”

​Nicole Halton

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One of the best things about the work we do is when we get a few of our trainers in one room and engage in some professional discussion (with a lot of laughs and shenanigans too!) On Friday, Tash, Brooke and I were in the office doing some planning for some exciting new training sessions and we began talking about the importance of children having  the opportunity to document their own learning and just how meaningful this is.

Well, on the weekend I had the chance to see it in action in my own family! We headed to the lake for some lunch and outdoor play. As usual I was armed with my camera, taking photographs of my children and the natural environment. As my almost 6 year old balanced on nearby logs I snapped away, documenting his skill development as he became more and more confident. I took photographs of him and his sister developing their own game with magic wands, mentally documenting the learning occurring (yep, that instinct never leaves you!!)

A short while later he asked if he could use my camera. He carefully put the strap around his neck and took some “happy snaps” of the family before wandering off to explore and take more photographs. When I put my card into the computer that afternoon I was surprised to see some of the photos he had taken, to see what had been meaningful for him that day.

“These were the rocks I was throwing into the water. I was seeing how far out I could throw them and I got one out a really long way… like a hundred metres!”
“I found this feather. I think it belongs to a Cockatoo, but I didn’t want to take it home in case the Cockatoo came back looking for it, so I left it here where it could see it.”
“There was lots of boats heading out to race and this bird…its a Pelican I think, was flying around this one. I watched it for ages and it kept doing circles”
I asked him to tell me about what he photographed and I have recorded that in the captions. And this is what I love about this idea of handing documentation over to the child:

I had recorded what he was doing, what he was saying, how he was playing.

He recorded what he was seeing, how he was feeling  and what he was experiencing. What was meaningful to him.

While our role as an observer, interpreter, anecdotist (a term used by Vivian Gussin Paley) and documenter is incredibly valuable in understanding children’s play and development and building a picture of their knowledge, skills and personality, we can’t underestimate the power of handing documentation over to the child. In allowing them to document their own experiences and learning, be it through photographs or sketches or telling us a story, we gain an even greater insight into their thinking.

Vivian Gussin Paley in her book The Boy on The Beach (this was the first book for our Book Club), encourages children to dictate their play scenes to her as she records them word for word. It is during these times that we gain a greater insight as to why a small group of children insists on playing “kittens” in the home corner each day, an insight into the roles taken by each child, an insight to the goings on in their lives and minds, those things that have the ability to subtly or obviously impact on their play.

Documentation of children’s learning doesn’t need to be pretty or perfect. The photos may be blurry or the words not quite right, but the meaning… it is just there! We spend hours searching for meaning in our observations of children and by no means do I suggest that we stop doing that – it is a huge part of why we do what we do and not only gives us insight into an individual child, but into children and play in a broader sense. What I do think though is that instead of always searching for the meaning, let children tell their own story. Hand over the camera, open your ears and document what is really meaningful to the child!

~ Nicole Halton ~

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Who remembers how fun it was when you were entwined in rough and tumble play with your parents or siblings? I remember giggling, tickling and rolling around the lounge room floor, or in the backyard.

Last week I visited an early childhood setting and observed two 3 year old girls engaged in rough and tumble play and they were absolutely loving it! They giggled with delight as they hugged, tickled and rolled during indoor play time. They were not creating a whole lot of noise and were in a cosy corner of the room away from the main area, although they kept glancing towards the educators as if on alert. I wondered why they were doing this. Did they intend to stop if they realised an adult saw them?

After about seven minutes an educator spotted them and called out across the room in a disapproving tone “Ah girls, go and find something to do please”.

Is this how you would have responded? I asked myself some questions. Do I view rough and tumble play as negative? Inappropriate? Only for outdoors? Not beneficial? I wondered how the girls felt when they heard the educator’s response. Did the tone of her voice give the message that it wasn’t ok to play in this way?  As educators we have so much responsibility to keep children safe that this is often our primary consideration when we respond to them.

But do we take the time to think about why children are playing in certain ways, and how their play is a way of communicating how their needs can be met? While we have to redirect children’s play sometimes, we must also tune into what their play is telling us and create opportunities to have their needs met in other ways. Instead of making children feel that rough and tumble play is wrong we should support them to use their senses and their motor skills in other ways. It could be as simple as getting out the crash mat (facilitating taking turns jumping onto this) or playing some action songs, practicing stretching, wrapping each other in blankets, or simply supervise the children as they tickle each other just as you would any other activity …..the options are endless.

Does rough and tumble play push your buttons because it is easier to support a child to do a table activity?

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This week has seen me return to teaching after 7 years as a Director of a Long Day Care Centre. I have been bubbling with excitement about it for weeks and the first few days haven’t disappointed! I have been looking forward to having the opportunity to once again be with the children and to perhaps do a little research at the same time.

In recent months Tash, Niki and I have been talking about it being unreasonable to expect toddlers to share. This comes as a result of our delightful toddlers playing together one day a week while we work and watching them “negotiate” who gets to play with the ride on car or swing on the rope swing! Each week it seems that they are getting better and better at this negotiation but sometimes typical toddler moments erupt (thankfully both Tash and I believe in letting them sort it out – so it doesn’t stress us out too much… and we know what good mates they are!)

Anyway, back to teaching! On Wednesday I watched some children making walls with blocks and “cement” (wet sand) in the sand pit – they were very engaged and playing with a real purpose. The only problem was that the blocks were located about 5 metres away from the sand pit. Each time a child stepped away to get another block they had that concerned look on their face (you know the one – “please don’t let anyone touch my stuff!”) and when they returned and someone was near their blocks or their wall, there were angry words and sometimes tears. Now the other children didn’t appear to be touching the blocks to upset their peers – it seemed that they simply wanted to play too. I felt myself starting to say “let Johnny have some of your blocks – you have lots” then stopped. Why should Thomas have to share what he had been working so hard on with someone who had just arrived on the scene?

Fast forward to Friday and I am watching a 4 year old build a train track on the table in the room. He worked carefully for about 15minutes – planning where each piece of the track went, carefully winding in and out of the baskets of trains. He finally had it all set up and stood back (appearing quite chuffed with himself) for a moment before beginning to drive the trains around. Suddenly another child arrived at the table and began pulling the carriages apart and taking them in a different direction. Again – there were plenty of carriages that could have been shared between the two children – but should the first child really have to share?

I found myself talking to a colleague about this very issue and raised my beliefs with her. I asked if perhaps I was being unreasonable? And then she raised a valid point – we find it acceptable that toddlers aren’t yet capable of sharing, yet seem to expect that once they become preschoolers they should suddenly be able to willingly share their space, their toys, their time. I put myself in the child’s position and wondered – if I had worked really hard on something and someone else came in and started to redo it or change it in some way, how would I feel? The answer – I would freak out! Although my reaction would probably (hopefully) be more controlled than crying, yelling and stomping my feet, I would not be a happy camper!
My colleague pointed out that she will often say to the first child “he just wants to have some too. You have the right to say no, but how would you feel if you wanted to play and your friend said no”  I quite like this approach – it gives children rights, but also makes them aware of the feelings of others, encouraging them to be a respectful and considerate friend.

I would love to hear from others – is it reasonable to expect children to share? Is there an age where it should become a reasonab


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