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Advocacy, Childhood, Community, Nature Kindergarten, Nature Play, Outdoors, Pedagogy, Play, Professionalism, Risk


I sat watching the children.

They were restless and destructive. I know the deconstruction schema is a ‘thing’ so that didn’t phase me.


We went for our weekly walk to the library. The children always gravitated towards the park. Why weren’t they as excited about ‘Story Time’ at the Library? I wasn’t allowed to take them to the park. It was too risky. Something just wasn’t making sense and I was so dissatisfied with my work. There had to be more. I really felt the need to break out of this safe mould I was in.

I did some research and realised nature based early childhood education was where I wanted to go. It made sense and I was certain that it would make sense for the children too.

It took me 12 months of searching before I started to find a model that fit Family Day Care. It was scary but I knew this is where I needed to be both for the children and for myself too. It would take a change of practise and a change in what I was taught Early Childhood should be.
I had started to develop my nature based Pedagogy.
 
I believed that children should be free to climb trees if they felt capable; splash in the river if they wanted to.
There were so many untouched nature spots where we live – it seemed a shame for the children not to be outside burning off energy and directing their own discovery.

And how better to have children care about the environment than them being emotionally invested?
During my research phase I heard the words risky/risky play, children’s work, child directed.
 
Risky play to me once I understood it wasn’t about danger but about trust in the children to know how to keep themselves safe. How to show them how to be safe. It’s about the adults in their lives managing the danger and them managing the risk. Rarely have I seen or heard of a child placing themselves in a risky situation and becoming injured injured. Bumps, scapes and close calls are all extremely valuable learning experiences. Bumps and scrapes teach resilience. Close calls help us to understand consequences. 


‘Children’s work is play and play is children’s work’
is a phrase I hear often and they are one and the same. The work/play a child does is so incredibly important for their development and is exciting to watch.
One day I was sitting by the river with a child who was so deeply into what he was doing. He was lugging massive branches from one part of the river to another. I mean these branches were probably 8 times his weight and easily 15 times his length. Some would say he was ‘just playing’’ It is more than just playing. It’s understanding how the brain works, ideas, body movements and how they see themselves.

Can I make this happen?

How do I?

What happens if?

How does it work in relation to… and so many more powerful questions. It’s any wonder children are exhausted at the end of the day. They work so hard navigating their way through childhood!
 
Child directed has been a buzz word for as long as I can remember. With invitations to play so thoughtfully set out that Miss 2 had spoken about last week were knocked down in 2 seconds and not revisited again .
To me child directed is where you sit and listen and watch. I don’t mean supervise but really watch what the child/ren are doing. If you are really lucky you may even hear what they are talking about. I tend to follow up a serious interest as soon as possible; if I can. I give them the tools to move on with their current fascination. Otherwise I’ll gather the resources and next time that line of development appears I’ll introduce it. Having said all that being out in nature more often than not offers the children the next path from their interest.
 
These aspects all are integral parts of nature play but not all parts. Nature play is a living, growing, evolving concept. Not even the children know where it may take them. This is the beauty of nature play. You never know what’s around the corner and nether did I as I stepped forward into nature play based Family Day Care.


I really hadn’t seen any Family Day Care based services when I first realised my path and I certainly had no one to ask. So as I always do I put it out into the world to see what came back. Within a few months I’d found out about a Scheme called Inspired Family Day Care. They were new, but from what I’d read about their philosophy it was the direction I wanted to take. I emailed them and followed up with a couple of phone calls. We talked for a long time. After years of feeling disillusioned I had found my new home. Within 6 months I was registered and had signed up.
Sunshine and Puddles Family Day Care was born.

 
Saying that leaving what I’d known for 10 years was scary was an understatement. It was safe and predictable. And that kept the children safe. It took me time to find my feet and at first I felt like I was drowning. So many decisions to make. So much had to change in my thinking too. It’s not like all the answers are all laid out for you. It’s different for everyone. You have to find your own path. So for the first 6 months I started working on my service environment.
Sold my softfall mats.
Slowly got rid of a lot of my plastic resources.
I started gathering what I saw as authentic resources that were sustainable or of the very best quality. I wanted things that not only looked good but felt good and had many uses. Who know that these were open ended resources! It really wasn’t a big thing in country New South Wales then so I felt quite revolutionary. Later on I was also to discover loose parts! Well, that was the real game changer! All the things I’d always been told were dangerous and risky for children to have access to. Not to mention tools!

As I became more confident in offering these things, the children became more confident in wanting to use them. It didn’t take long until there were nails in just about every surface available. As their confidence grew so did their need to discover more. It was about this time that a wonderful Nature Pedagogue by the name of Niki Buchan came to Bega and took the children and myself down to the river one icy cold winter morning. Surely the children wouldn’t go in the water right which would mean I’d have to go in with them? It was freezing and I don’t mean cold. I actually remember there having been a frost that morning. But as you know children being children they were in the water in no time. Bright red noses and enthusiasm in tow they were in. And would you know it they had the best time. Exploring, climbing and experiencing. I was stunned. I’d never seen these children so engaged and happy. There was so much told about the waters movement, how big the sticks were and barely a mention about the cold water – it was almost like it was irrelevant! It was my epiphany. This was what I wanted for the children. This is what I wanted for me too. It felt right. It felt like we belonged here.
 

Our first full visit was a couple of months later when it was a bit warmer and the children had shown they were ready for an extended visit. I also had provisioned my back pack. And I was ready for the apocalypse I was so organised. The back pack was so incredibly heavy that my back was sore for days afterwards. I can now travel to the river with my off road trolley or just the basics and we can still have an amazing time. I take no ‘toys’ just some twine, a pocket knife and a few other bit n pieces. The children do the rest with their hands, minds and bodies. Their imagination and sometimes even a good dose of boredom sees some of the most intense play.

When the children are in the zone I stay well out of the way. Its not my job to tell them what and how to do what they need to do. I can’t know what’s going on in their heads. I wouldn’t even hazard a guess. Each time an adult interferes in a child’s work/play session it changes it and probably not for the better. I try not to speak to the children. My job is to observe. If they choose to include me in their work then I’ll happily join in but I do try to make sure they are in charge of it. I’m happy to follow their direction. But mostly they are happy to periodically look and see where I am or come tell me something. I do listen attentively when they are talking to me, each other or themselves. I can gain an understanding of what’s happening at that moment in time.

I consider myself honoured to witness the children doing what nature intended them to. Be in nature.

By Linda Tandy


Hi, my name is Linda and I have been a Family Day Care Educator for approximately 15years. The last four years have seen a shift in my pedagogy and practice and I have delved deeply into nature based family day care. I am an educator with Inspired Family Day Care NSW. I believe children learn and flourish when they are given the time, freedom and space to be fully in the moment and lead their own learning. I have a strong interest in children having access to the outdoors in all seasons. I trust the children to know what they need and I am happy to observe them from a distance and facilitate their learning if they need assistance. 





























































































































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Environments, Nature Play, Outdoors, Parenting, Play


Early in a child’s life, parents safety-proof their homes to ensure that the most common injuries do not happen to their child by covering outlets, setting up gates, placing locks on cabinets and drawers, and padding edges of furniture. However, parents with children on the autism spectrum have additional and numerous safety concerns, stemming from common autistic behaviours that can result in minimal to far more serious injuries. These safety concerns can last beyond the first couple of years of their child’s life, well into adulthood. Often, behavioural traits resulting from autism cause an inability to understand and respond to environmental dangers and therefore pose an increased risk while outdoors. Providing a safe, accessible, and functional space for autistic children to run, explore, and play in is essential to providing them with a good quality of life, and gives peace of mind for their parents.

 

Creating Boundaries

Having a fun and beautiful backyard is the goal of most homeowners and parents, but autistic children benefit from a fence or similar barrier, in the event that the child is a wanderer, experiences sensory overload that results in anxiety, and/or is impulsive. It only takes one moment for a child to wander off, and a child with autism has increased chances of slipping away toward a place that perhaps has caught their attention in the past or is attractive to the eye. While a fence can’t completely prevent a child from venturing off, it is an obstacle to overcome, and it affords parents and caregivers the ability to glance away for one moment without worry. If you’re doing any work in your yard, make sure you have the proper equipment, including garden gloves.

 

Water Safety

Bodies of water are attractive to children with autism. Homes near natural bodies of water or that have a swimming pool pose a danger for children who do not possess the basic swimming skills. Parents should teach their children how to swim and water safety because basic water safety knowledge reduces the danger of accidents and drowning. In addition to swimming lessons and water safety, taking the extra precaution of installing a fence around the pool or before access to a lake reduces the chances of unsupervised access to water.

 

Signs, Alarms, Bells, and Whistles

While boundaries stop or slow down a wanderer and swim lessons and water safety can reduce risk, noise and visuals are useful tools to utilize with an autistic child. Children on the autism spectrum are typically sensitive to noise; therefore, installing an alarm on a gate or in a pool that sounds off whenever someone enters without warning will not only alert parents and caregivers of a potential dangerous situation, but may also deter the child from proceeding. Children on the autism spectrum have various degrees of difficulty with communication and may not be able to process verbal instructions. Visual displays that are posted around certain areas of the house are an effective tool to convey a message because they are repetitive and eye-catching reminders of what is expected. For instance, posting a red “stop” sign at a door, gate, or exit will remind a child with autism of what they need to do and that the area they are about to enter is either prohibited and/or unsafe. Additionally, the visual will remind them to pay attention.

 

Parents of children with autism have to take extra measures to ensure safety, practicality, accessibility, and functionality. While the task can seem daunting, there are many tools and resources available to parents to adapt their home to their child’s needs. Not every child on the autism spectrum is attracted to water in the same way or is prone to wandering to the same degree. Therefore, each family will need to assess risks and adapt using lessons, barriers, alarms, and visuals to their particular situation.

 

Written By Danny Knight – www.fixitdads.com

Photo Credit: Unsplash

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Community, Pedagogy, Play, Professional Development


We love Instagram. It’s highly visual and really inspiring. We love sharing on instagram…. but more than that – we love seeing what services and professionals are getting up to. We love seeing the engaging environments, the creative play provocations, the commitment to early education and care. 

We follow over 400 different Instagram accounts, so it is hard to dwindle it down to a few favourites… but we are going to give it our best shot (in no particular order!) 




1. @littletorquay  – 
Beautiful images that capture the simplicity of play


2. @checkinthehandbags – “Do you ever wonder what lovely preschool environments & invitations to play look like after the play? Toys missing? Check in the dressup handbags!” Love this one! There is often so much focus on the aesthetics of playspaces (which is not a bad thing!) but this account focuses on the messy, authentic delight of play! 



3. @stone_and_sprocket – We couldn’t not mention our good buddy Bec, whose feed often gives us a giggle with her quirky little insights. She also has awesome PD, bush playgroups and so much more to inspire educators. This gal is our go-to for all things behaviour and inclusion particularly!

Photographs via stone_and_sprocket on Instagram

4. @raw_and_unearthed – “Playbased learning in the wild. It’s authentic. It’s real. It’s early childhood Raw&Unearthed, the way it should be.” These guys are total nature play advocates! Their photos of adventures in the bush (including cave exploring!) are enough to make you slam the laptop shut and get outdoors


5. @natureplaysa – the Instagram account for one of Australia’s leading nature play organisations is just divine… whimsical, woodsy and inspiring. 


6. @invitationtoplay – beautiful, simple images that really do invite play. 


7. @inspiredfamilydaycare – our very own family day care team has it’s own Instagram account and it always makes us smile. So many wonderful educators being supported to explore the great outdoors with children in NSW, ACT, VIC and QLD. 

Photographs via inspiredfamilydaycare on Instagram
We’d love to hear from you… what are some of your favourite Early Childhood Instagram accounts?

And of course… find us on Instagram! @inspired_ec

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Art, Nature Play, Parenting, Play

Are you a playdough master? Or… perhaps you are like me and the thought of making playdough fills you with fear?! 

Too oily…

Too crumbly…

Too lumpy …

Too sticky …. 

I used to struggle to make playdough when I was working in a service and used to always find a way to offload that task to a much more capable educator! But, when I had my own children I quickly realised that unless I wanted to buy the chemical laden, smelly, expensive store bought playdough (all good if that’s for you… but it wasn’t for me!) I needed to learn how to make it and make it well. 

Luckily I stumbled across a simple “no cook” recipe and have since tweaked it and made it my own. This morning we made yet another batch of playdough, this time using BEETROOT to colour the dough. 

Ingredients:
2 cups plain flour
1/2 cup salt
2 Tablespoons of Cream of Tartar
2 Tablespoons of olive oil
1 1/2 cups of boiling water
Beetroot juice to colour

Directions:
Combine all dry ingredients and oil in a bowl
Add boiling water and stir until combined (it takes a little while and a good strong arm!) 
Add beetroot juice
Using your hands (be careful…it will be HOT) knead the dough to combine and smooth out any lumps

And the most important step…. PLAY!



 
 






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Childhood, Nature Play, Parenting, Play, Risk



To the over-protective parent…


Firstly I would like to acknowledge that just because I have an early childhood education degree and 12 years professional experience, does not make me a better parent than the wonderfully dedicated parents I know. I certainly have my challenges, as do all families.  I use the television as entertainment to have a rest at times and have been known to have McDonalds because I just can’t be bothered cooking. Being an Early Childhood Teacher does however give me underpinning knowledge as to how  play and engagement in potentially controversial processes impacts children’s thinking, doing and learning.


As I sit here (yes, at midnight because my mind is whirling with thoughts!) and think about the opportunities I have given my son, who is now 5 and about to start primary school, I reflect on the experiences which have impacted his learning and may be criticised by the so called ‘helicopter parent’. Apologies in advance!


Yes, I encourage my son to walk up a slide at the park, to negotiate taking turns with those wanting to come down, to build leg strength, muscle tone, balance and coordination –  because getting up a slide, particularly at 2 years old is much more challenging than coming down. We know with the increase in children’s screen time and exposure to technology, there is a decrease in active play and this is manifesting in lower muscle tone and body strength of children in general today, when compared with children from prior generations (Hanscom, 2016).

 

Yes, I promote the use of stick play because we all know children (particularly boys) will use sticks for anything and everything and if we don’t give them opportunities to use them, to safely navigate them and to devise a set of agreements to keep themselves and others safe, how will they learn to do this when unsupervised and using sticks themselves?

 

Yes, I let my child pour his own milk on his Weetbix at 3 years old despite losing half a litre of milk on the floor 10 minutes before we have to leave for preschool. Why? Because he is using initiative and taking responsibility. He is developing pro social behaviours and becoming an independent citizen of the present. Yes, mess is not fun at the best of times (particularly for me- it is my shark music) but the outcomes for him are far more important to his lifelong learning.

 

Yes, I allow my child to go barefoot in the public park. Why? Because we live in a society where sensory issues and flat foot syndrome are on the rise and exposure to all the sensations of nature and the navigation of uneven surfaces will promote healthy physical and sensory development. Yes, I realise there could be a very very small risk that a hazardous incident, such as a needle stick injury may occur, but with the acknowledgement of drug addiction today and the many available needle disposal boxes, it was probably more likely I was to step on one 25 years ago when it was rare children actually wore shoes… anywhere!

Yes, I let him pick those crackers up off the floor at the supermarket and eat them because I had watched him persist for 3 minutes trying to open the packet without wanting any assistance or necessary intervention for the very first time and so not allowing him the pleasure of enjoying them with a huge sense of pride was completely trumped by the fact he may contract some minor germs (or more likely build his immunity!)

 

Yes, I have taught my son from 3 years old (with the support of his wonderful educators at preschool), how to safely engage with fire and allow him to use fire in particular situations, like when away camping and using a flint rather than a common household fire lighter that may be laying around the house. I do this as he understands the context in which fire is safe and is less likely to take unsafe risks with fire later on in childhood. He has often been observed reminding friends and family the agreements of safe fire use, such as keeping shoes on around the fire and knowing that even when there are no flames, fire can still be hot. Children are more likely to be burnt when flames are not evident as they associate the red flame with heat, yet the damage can be very similar. Exposure to real situations with fire will build their skills in assessing and managing the risks and therefore less likely to have a serious incident.  

 

No, I am not a free spirited, no rules mum. We still set boundaries, we still have routines and if we are faced with challenging behaviours, there are agreed consequences, but I give him ample opportunity to learn his way and in turn promotes his continuous love for learning and independent being!

 

It is with these thoughts that I encourage you to consider how protected is too protected? How does sheltering children from the inevitable because of your ‘shark music’ or anxieties as parent, impact your child not just now, but later in life?
Children are innate risk based learners. With or without your supervision, guidance and support they will try by doing. Allow them to make appropriate decisions that affect them and in turn start independently solving their own problems. After all, you won’t be there forever!

As I sit here, 25 weeks pregnant with baby#2 and emotional about sending ‘baby’ #1 to school next week, I reflect upon these moments and how competent, creative and capable my son has become. He is really ready for his next journey and I need to give myself, husband and other significant people in his life credit for this.

Now all I can think is… let’s do it all over again!

Mistakes and all… we have learned and we have lived!


Until next time…

Written by Kate Higginbottom

Mother and Early Childhood Professional

Empowered Early Childhood Consulting and Resources.



Kate Higginbottom has been in the early childhood profession for over 12 years, the last 10 of which she has been a Centre Director, working across diverse long day care settings from private, to organisational and now the community based sector. She holds a Bachelor of Teaching (Early Childhood) from the University of New England and qualifications in training and assessment. Kate currently manages the operation of a community based service in Newcastle. Kate supports early education and care services through her business Empowered Early Childhood Consulting, as a consultant, with a particular forte in quality governance and leadership. Kate recently presented at the European Early Childhood Research Conference in Italy, where she, along with 5 other Newcastle based colleagues were awarded the 2017 Practitioner Research Award. She also has written for a number of early childhood publications and blogs, including Rattler and Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE).Kate has worked in a variety of advisory roles including on the Early Childhood and Primary External Advisory committee for University of Newcastle and the Queensland Workforce Council PSCQ for the Gold Coast.

 

 

 

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Childhood, Pedagogy, Play

This week we launched our exciting new TimberNook program. This amazing program, which is the brainchild of US Paediatric Occupational Therapist Angela Hanscom, has a strong focus on children getting outdoors, strengthening physical skills, building resilience and getting back to play! The facilitators of the program play a really important role, yet there is a very hands-off, stand back type of approach… and for good reason. I have written about the concept of interaction vs interference before and while many educators agree in theory, putting it into practice can be a little tougher. Which is why we have put together some practical tips for educators to “back off out of children’s play!” 


3 Questions NOT to ask Children at Play:

1. What are you doing? 
If a child wants you to know what they are doing… they will tell you! While this question is often well-intentioned, with educators wanting to know more about the child’s play and thought processes, it can lead children to question if they are doing the right thing, to wonder if their play is appropriate or “normal.” We also need to think about what we hope to garner from asking this question, that we wouldn’t be able to learn from simply observing. 

2. Can I play? 
If a child wants you to play… they will ask you! When we ask a child to play, we send the message “you need me.” In fact, children don’t need us, yet it has become an ingrained belief that they do and many feel that they need an adult to drive or guide the play. So why do children feel that they need us to play? Because from birth, we have “entertained” them. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t engage with infants or young children (this is very important for language development and strengthening bonds) but we do need to make time for all children to be “left to their own devices” so that they feel confident in their ability to play! 

3. Can I write that down/take your photo? 
I am all about consent. Children have a right to decide if they are photographed or have their personal words and ideas recorded. But, we need to be mindful about how we do this. The other day I watched a child working with pipes and water, connecting them on a hill to make a water run. He worked carefully and thoughtfully and silently. Had I stopped him to ask “can I take a photograph?” I would have interrupted his thought process and ultimately, his play. Instead, I took a few photographs from a distance (the benefit of a DSLR and a long lens!) and after he had finished I showed him the photographs and asked if I could keep them and use them or if he wanted to delete them. Most children are indeed delighted to have their ideas and voices recorded, yet others prefer not to, so it is important to find a way to seek consent, yet not disrupt the play. In your own setting, you may have the opportunity to ask children prior to play what they would prefer, giving them the option to say “please don’t take photos of me.”



It’s not always easy to step back and let children play. As early childhood educators we are usually taught to engage, to question, to play. There is definitely a time for this, but children also need a LOT of time to play. They need long, uninterrupted blocks of play. They need time and space to think and create. They need opportunities to make decisions and choices in their play. They need freedom to play how they want to play. They need to feel like they are not under the watchful eye of adults! 

While not asking questions might seem counter-intuitive or may leave you wondering “but how will I know what is happening, how can I document the learning, how will people know that I am doing my job?” staying quiet and tuning in to your observational skills (looking and listening) can actual reveal even more about children and their play! 

2

Art, Pedagogy, Play

Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing – Salvador Dali

They sit side by side painting. He is 7 and she is 4. 


She begins painting her (almost trademark!) rainbow flower, each petal a different colour, while he begins with a series of black circles. She completes her flower and stops to watch him for a moment. She can see his circles beginning to form something. She retrieves another piece of paper and washes her brush. As she begins the black circles on her page he says “she’s copying me!” to which I respond: “she must be inspired by you.”  This simple explanation satisfies him and they both quietly return to their work, he creating his vision and she replicating it. 

We see the scenes often in early childhood settings. A child sits building a tall tower with the blocks, arranging them in a specific way before another arrives and begins using the same approach to tower building. Elsewhere, a child has adopted an accent and is “playing mum” in the home corner, giving away all sorts of “family secrets” as they imitate her behaviour and language! 

Children are natural imitators because the world is new to them.

They imitate to make sense of things that they may not understand.
They imitate to process ideas.
They imitate to try new ways of playing and working. 
They imitate because they see another child experiencing enjoyment or success. 
They imitate because their experiences of the world are still relatively limited. 

Many years back, I was working in a preschool room team. We were still exploring our own identity and at times that meant imitating.

We imitated because we thought someone else knew better. 
We imitated because we saw what worked for others. 
We imitated because we were learning about new ideas and ways of doing. 

We saw ideas in books and we tried replicating them in our program. We saw photographs of experiences and environments that inspired us and altered ours accordingly. We imitated and we played with ideas and we observed and asked questions. 
And then we made it our own. 

Its the same for children. Often they will imitate others, but the end result varies. Perhaps they just needed a little inspiration to get going. In our preschool room, we often observed children peering around the side of the easel to see what their friend was working on before even picking up a paintbrush. As they painted, they would take breaks every few minutes to peek around the side and check on their friends progress, returning to their own to make adjustments. When we established an art studio in our space, one of the key elements was that children were able to paint and create side by side. We began to see even more of this artful imitation. One child’s idea could lead to a whole group exploration! 

Another feature of our art spaces was often the inclusion of a provocation. An idea that stemmed from our understanding of the work in the early childhood services of Reggio Emilia, Italy. We would place an artwork, book or an object or jar of flowers beside the painting area. At times we questioned if this was too prescriptive, if it led children to create only in a particular way. Yet, we found that while some children were inspired by the provocation, others chose to ignore it and set about bringing to life their own vision. For some children the provocation was merely a start point, while others chose to replicate it in its entirety. So how is this different to “today everyone is going to paint on this stencil of a bird”? The key is in the choice. That and the ability to make it their own. Just the same as how we adults took what we were seeing in exemplary programs and approaches, imitated and then adapted to make it our own, no two artworks will be the same, even when the inspiration is the same or where one child imitates another. 

She  had watched as he painted the white frame of the bicycle, yet she chose yellow. While she was clearly imitating his work, inspired by his vision, she had a vision of her own – a vision of a yellow bike! His arched rainbow became a flat rainbow for her (who usually, interestingly paints arched rainbows!). 


In this case, the imitation was a great example of scaffolding. He, an older child, unwittingly supported her to go above and beyond what she had previously been able to create. While rainbows were already in her repertoire, had you asked her before this to paint a bicycle, you almost certainly would have heard “But I don’t know how!”  Yet , during the process of imitating him, she found that she could in fact paint a bicycle, she expanded her skill set, and no doubt – these new elements, such as the carefully crafted wheels, will make their way into other artworks of hers. 
Children are great imitators, so give them something great to imitate – Anonymous
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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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