Making bubbles: Scientific research in early childhood settings

In the lead-up to National Science Week, Little Scientists Australia talks to We Hear You about the often simple, everyday ways education and care services can integrate STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) learning into their environments and programs.

Children's hands full of bubbles using chemistry outdoors

‘Look how many soap bubbles I made!’ Ben exclaims enthusiastically. Sarah, his teacher, is excited: ‘Wow, this is great! How did you do this?’ ‘I blew into the soap bubble water with the long yellow tube and now my bucket is full of bubbles,’ he replies. ‘This works much better than stirring it with a spoon’. ‘I have an even better idea!’ Ben’s friend Julia says. ‘You could stir really, really fast with an egg whisk. I am sure that makes the most bubbles!’ Sarah has an idea: ‘Well, these are some interesting assumptions, but wouldn’t it be good to test what actually works the best?’ The children are excited about Sarah’s suggestion and want to explore this question in a more scientific way.

Sarah, the educator in the soap bubble story above, is an example of many Australian early childhood professionals who are strong advocates of co-construction and inquiry-based, child-led learning. More and more education and care services across the country are integrating scientific exploration and discovery into the children’s routine, based on the strong belief they benefit tremendously from early opportunities to discover the world in an open and creative environment.

Little Scientists Australia offers a professional development program for teachers and educators to support the implementation of inquiry-based STEM learning. The program offers a range of hands-on workshops designed to encourage and promote scientific investigation while giving insights in educational concepts and methods. A key concept of Little Scientists is an inquiry-cycle approach which supports structuring children’s discovery process.

To demonstrate how scientific research in an early childhood setting could be done, let’s return to our soap bubble example:

In the morning, Sarah and her preschool group explored and played with home-made soap bubble liquid: blowing, stirring and shaking the liquid. Sparked by Ben’s discovery that blowing into the liquid worked better than stirring, the group decided to investigate further. Drawing on the previous scientific explorations and experiments facilitated by Sarah, the children knew how to proceed:

  1. First they came up with a question to investigate: ‘How can we make the most bubbles?’
  2. Secondly, the group hypothesised what method they believed could result in the most bubbles. A critical part of research is identifying the children’s assumptions and to hypothesise individually which method will work best and why.
  3. At this stage, the children were almost ready to try things out and to experiment, but first they had to agree on preparations and how to document the results: ‘What items will be used to produce bubbles? What materials will be needed? Where should the experiments be conducted – inside or outside? How can they document their results?’ The children decided to draw pictures of the different experiments and take photos or make videos of the most impressive ‘soap bubble mountain’. There are countless ways to document, for instance co-constructed and dynamic approaches such as Claire Warden’s Floorbook Approach.
  4. Once they agreed, they were excited to start exploring and experimenting! This was (and almost always is) the most extensive phase of their research. The children had various attempts and setbacks. At one point the group split into smaller ‘research teams’ and some children left the group. For three days, all the bubble experiments were on hold because the children were distracted by jumping in the rain puddles…Then one of the children brought in a picture of the world’s biggest soap bubble and suddenly the research was back to full speed.
  5. Scientists of all ages are excited to see the results of their experiment and to share them with their peers. Our Little Scientists from the bubble experiment were no different: They observed their experiments and Sarah encouraged them to describe the outcomes to the others in the group. This step offers various opportunities to engage children in the process while supporting their communication skills and language development: ‘What have you noticed? Has something changed? Why are you surprised about the result? What could we try next?’
  6. When the children were satisfied with experimenting, observing, describing and documenting their findings, they reflected on the outcome and discussed their initial assumptions: ‘Could the initial question be answered? Did the yellow tube really work much better than the stick, even if you stir as fast as possible? And how did Julia’s egg whisk perform in the overall ranking? Did the children have any further questions, and did they think their research could be improved? The children came up with plenty of input, new ideas and assumptions for further bubble experiments…

Learning opportunities like the soap bubble experiment arise every single day. Most young children make numerous investigations and ask inquisitive questions about everything. And how do educators and families respond? We often don’t know what to say because we don’t have an adequate answer or have never thought about this before. The good news is – if we implement an inquiry-based learning approach – it doesn’t matter! It might even be an advantage not to know the answer. Scientific exploration and research give children and adults the opportunity to explore, to problem-solve, to cooperate with others and to be even more excited and curious about the world around us.

A provocation to take back to your next team meeting might be how the educators in your service are engaging with STEM in their programs.

Little Scientists is one of various organisations across the country providing fun and engaging events for children during National Science Week (12-20 August 2017).

To learn more about the Little Scientists, their professional development program and the Little Scientists Conference for early childhood educators and teachers in September, visit the website.

Start a conversation about quality

In this month’s We Hear You blog, we look at how children’s education and care educators can shine as professionals, translate the sometimes complex language of the sector, help families better understand their child’s potential and explain how this work supports children’s physical, emotional, social, language and cognitive development. 

The education and care sector has demonstrated professionalism and dedication embracing the concept of continuous quality improvement and new national standards introduced under the National Quality Framework (NQF) in 2012. Over the years, the commitment shown by the sector has opened up a community dialogue about the importance of education and care for children’s holistic development, and the progress the NQF has made in raising the professional status of educators.

Why is it then that relatively few parents and carers know about the commitment to quality in early childhood and outside school hours care services?

We are providing families with information about the wide range of services in Australia and the importance of quality through Starting Blocks, our family-focused website. We also publish the ratings of services on the national registers and the Starting Blocks website. This empowers families and carers to make informed choices when selecting a service for their child and helps them to understand the critical elements that make up a good quality service.

Recently, we collaborated with states and territories to develop new logos to help services and providers promote their commitment to quality and their overall rating to families. We want the new logos to help parents and carers to be more confident in their selection and to appreciate the professional role of educators in meeting the needs of their children as unique learners.

NQS quality areas and quality ratings

Educators are the vital first point of contact for families seeking education or care. They trust you to look after their children – to keep them safe, happy and developing skills appropriate to their age and interests.

Building close relationships is what great educators do really well – engaging with families about their expectations, providing regular updates and sharing children’s experiences – and is a key component of the National Quality Standard. These close relationships present opportunities to discuss the importance of quality practice and how a high quality service, in turn, contributes to their child’s smooth transition to, and success at, school.

Your service’s rating logo also provides a chance to educate families and the community about the wonderful work you do in your service as a professional educator. These are opportunities too good to miss.

Visit the Starting Blocks website for fact sheets and infographics to share with families. Like the Starting Blocks Facebook, Instagram page and ACECQA Facebook page for regular updates and information.

We improve what we measure

In her first We Hear You blog as the Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority (ACECQA) Chief Executive Officer, Gabrielle Sinclair shares her thoughts about the National Quality Framework and a recent visit to the Northern Territory.

One of ACECQA’s functions is working with regulatory authorities to educate and inform services and the community about the National Quality Framework (NQF).

Since 2012, educators, services, schools and governments have undertaken a significant journey in implementing the new laws, regulations and the National Quality Standard.  While it took time to get across the detail of the new national system, over 88% of services have now been assessed and rated, with 73% rated Meeting National Quality Standard or above. Over the next five years, our challenge is to continue the quality improvement journey and support parents and carers as well-informed consumers of education and care services for their children.

In my new role as ACECQA CEO, I am learning a great deal from you about the diversity of communities across Australia; the unique circumstances in which services operate; the rich experiences of families; and the way we all respond within a national framework.

Recently, I was delighted to be given the opportunity to meet with the Northern Territory Minister for Education and speak at the 2017 Leaders’ Conference in Darwin. I was impressed by the determination to raise quality in the NT and the unique way leaders in both sectors were enriching children’s experiences and improving learning outcomes.   The continuous quality improvement journeys shared by Principals Leah, Joe and Graham, highlighted the critical fact that good leadership is all about results.  To achieve better results, they spoke of giving a voice to the expertise and knowledge of early childhood educators, teachers and local families.  They reflected on the immense value of listening to and understanding the perspectives of children.

During my visit to local services, I met with very insightful educational leaders who were deeply connected with their local communities.  At Nightcliff, there is a strong partnership between the early learning centre and the school with the aim to give young children a seamless experience from long day care to preschool and on to school and outside school hours care. The results are tangible. The physical and sector barriers are being removed; the early learning centre and the school are sharing quality resources; families are welcomed; and the focus is very much on building confident, enthusiastic young learners.

In both education sectors and in every jurisdiction, we are listening to inspiring educational leaders who share their stories.  Although each experience is unique, a common reflection is that improved, sustained results are unlikely to happen without a commitment at the highest level; a deep understanding of the NQF and the roles we all have; a determination to improve beyond a single point in time; respect for the early childhood profession; and genuine partnerships with families and the community.

We have learnt so much since 2012.  It is worth sharing our own NQF journeys with others – across services, sectors and borders – and with our families.  It is a truism that everything that gets measured gets better and, as Joe reflected, do our children deserve anything less?

Bush Kinder

Rhonda Livingstone, ACECQA’s National Education Leader, speaks with Tina Thompson, Koori Preschool Assistant at Berrimba Child Care Centre in Echuca, Victoria about their bush kinder program.

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Every Monday at Berrimba Child Care Centre, children aged three and above are taken into the bush for a three hour program of exploring and activities. These visits provide opportunities for children to connect to the land, live their culture and explore nature, as well as scientific and maths concepts.

Tina Thompson, Koori Preschool Assistant at the service, says the program fits well under the Belonging, Being and Becoming: The Early Years Learning Framework by linking with the five learning outcomes identified.

Tina spoke to me about the smoking and Welcome to Country (in language) ceremonies that educators and children collaboratively participate in to recognise the traditional owners and to cleanse their spirits. She talked about the valuable opportunities for children as they play and explore in the bush, giving time to leave behind any troubles they may be experiencing. Tina explained how “children need to know their culture, identity and be strong and proud, knowing and valuing their rich culture”.

Science is a feature of these excursions into the bush with lots of discussion about the natural creations. For example, children were fascinated with the drying mud; Tina laughingly reported that children, at first, thought it was chocolate. The children talked and theorised about where the water goes. “It is really important to get our culture back and being out in bush kinder is a great way to connect with the ancestors and to thank Mother Nature for all the beauty around us,” said Tina.

img_0293An example of an effective learning experience occurred when children at the service learned how to make a canoe under the guidance of Uncle Rick, an esteemed Aboriginal elder and strong male role model in the community. Educators take iPads to record the rich learnings, and share these with families and others in the community. “Children are learning about sustainability. Aboriginal people for generations have only taken what they needed; it is important for children to learn to respect and care for nature and follow in the footsteps of their ancestors,” she added.

Last year, the children made a humpy (a shelter) in this beautiful natural environment. The educators were available to help and guide but the initiative, ideas and problem solving came from the children. “They are amazing,” Tina noted, explaining how they cooperatively gathered the sticks and worked out how to build it so it would stay up. During each visit, they would add to the structure, help each other, and play in and use it in a variety of ways, allowing each other space to explore, work and play.

“We might turn over a log and study the bugs, but we don’t take them away,” she said. “We talk about our totems and why we don’t eat our totem. We don’t take the bugs, insects, stones, sticks or anything we find, just study them and marvel in the beauty of nature.”

“We have a lot of strong leaders in our community and children in our service are showing skills that will make them great community leaders of the future, leaders who can advocate and fight for the needs and rights of our people. The children are teaching their parents and family members.”

The identified benefits of the bush kinder include:

  • increasing evidence that children’s inner wellbeing is benefitted by being outdoors as the natural environment enhances their health, learning and behaviour by supporting personal and social development, as well as physical and mental health
  • the sense of calm and restoration gained from spending time in the bush
  • providing children with a connection while they are young, and the hope they will build a sense of belonging and respect for the country as they grow.

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Back at the service, educators can regularly be observed putting ochre (traditional Aboriginal body paint) on the young children and babies, and singing songs in language and dancing along. Tina pays respect to her colleagues Leona Cooper (jokingly called Boss Lady) and Joyce Ward, two women strong in their culture and relentless advocates for their families and community. These women work long and hard to ensure no child falls through the cracks and to advocate for these opportunities to continue to enrich the lives of children in the Echuca community.

To finish, Tina draws my attention to a quote from Jenny Beer (from the Aboriginal language group Wergaia):

“…if we don’t learn our language, then our kids, in future generations will be like us, looking for our identity, going through that identity crisis.”

Further reading and resources

Nyernila – Listen continuously: Aboriginal creation stories of Victoria

Forever Learning – A digital story from Berrimba Child Care Centre

From soaring towers to inclusive playscapes: Exploring the journey of children’s participation

How can we give children more opportunities to contribute meaningfully? To their services? To their community? To their cities and world? Bridget Isichei, an early childhood educator and former director of UnitingCare Jack and Jill Preschool Grafton and area manager for Goodstart Early Learning, writes this month about the journey of children’s participation in an exciting council playground project.

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A collaborative design by the children at Goodstart Early Learning Grafton

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child tells us that children have the right to have their voices heard and their opinions considered.

For most of my own career, enacting this meant asking children to contribute to the design of their play-space or encouraging them to develop their own behaviour guidelines (in line with National Quality Standard Element 1.1.6). More recently, I have been engaged in a project that has changed my thinking about this. I now realise we can do more and dream of a world where children are given the opportunity to contribute meaningfully to community discussion, and mould the cities and towns that they live in from the day they are born.

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A contribution from the children at Westlawn Preschool Grafton

The project started during my time as the Director of UnitingCare Jack and Jill, when a group of preschool children wrote to the Clarence Valley Council to express their opinion that their town had insufficient playgrounds, and asking if they could design a better one. To our delight, the council agreed at the perfect time since they had budgeted for a new playground the following year. Within just a few months the council saw the value of consulting young children and invited three other early education and care services to become involved. As the director of the preschool that originally approached the council, I was given a place on their committee.

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“You can sit on if you have no friends and someone will come to play with you.” – UnitingCare Jack and Jill Preschool Grafton

Some of my strategies and key learnings from the project were:

At first educators held large groups and expected every child to contribute:

We reflected and decided that although children have the right to participate, they don’t have to. We set up a learning space in each service where children could visit and record ideas if they were interested in the project.

We expected all educators, park designers and council members to know why children have the right to participate:

We spent time explaining the benefits of children’s participation and voice to all stakeholders.

We asked children to contribute ideas without giving them the tools, knowledge and resources they needed:

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A contribution from the children at Westlawn Preschool Grafton

Educators decided to hold small group times for interested children to increase their knowledge about playground design, recycling and inclusion. The designated learning area was set up with books and information about the project so the children could revisit the area and build skills over time. Continuous learning, high expectations and intentional teaching were therefore critical elements in making the project successful.

Children came up with too many ideas to use:

Children were encouraged to reflect on and refine their ideas. Children were given the opportunity to consult with each other and park design professionals to find out if their ideas were practical. By revisiting these ideas regularly, children were able to develop their thinking.

The design for the new park now includes signs written by the children, has equipment that is inclusive of all children, recycling bins, a very tall tower, sand and water play and children’s art. The park will have a special seat that ‘you can sit on if you have no friends and someone will come to play with you’. When a child suggested this, I knew that this inclusive idea was very important, but something an adult would be unlikely to think of.

Children have unique perspectives, and the world is a lesser place when we don’t listen to them.

References

UN General Assembly. (1989) Convention on the Rights of the Child, 20 November 1989, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 1577, p. 3.

2016 is drawing to a close, let’s celebrate

This time of year is an ideal opportunity to reflect on the year coming to an end and all the opportunities and excitement a New Year brings. This month on We Hear You, we turn our attention to how we recognise and celebrate achievements and plan social occasions, such as Christmas celebrations, activities and events.

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When thinking about authentically including religious, cultural and/or community activities, experiences and events within the learning environment, it is important to consider the diversity within the group of children, families and educators at the service, as well as the communities in which the service is located. Another consideration is the learning opportunities such experiences offer for children. For example, planning open-ended activities and experiences has the potential to support children to be involved learners and further develop their creativity and problem solving skills.

In thinking about and planning for celebrations such as Christmas, educators also need to ensure they are respectful of the cultures, beliefs and values of the children, their families and the educators at the service. Anne Stonehouse’s Celebrations, holidays and special occasions resource sheet has tips to ensure ‘special occasions are celebrated in ways that recognise, respect and strengthen children’s appreciation of diversity and difference’. For many children, families and educators, Christmas is an important celebration in the calendar. However, as Anne notes:

While it is important to acknowledge holidays in a children’s service, there are a number of issues to be aware of. Not everyone celebrates the same holidays. Christmas and Easter, for example, have their origins in Christianity and are not universally observed. Some families may acknowledge the secular aspects of Christmas, and are happy for their child to participate in the celebrations in the service. It is crucial to know families’ views, respect them and avoid either a child participating in something the family objects to, or creating a situation in which a child is singled out or left out.

Extending this thinking to the ways we authentically embed culture in our environments, practices and programs, the Early Years Learning Framework (p. 16) and the Framework for School Age Care (p. 15) describe cultural competence as being ‘much more than awareness of cultural differences. It is the ability to understand, communicate with, and effectively interact with people across cultures’.

The Cultural Connections Booklet provides a framework to support further reflection around the celebrations that are relevant for the children, families and community of your service. This allows us to have more meaningful, engaging and child focused events and activities that are based on children’s individual identity, culture, capabilities, agency and family traditions, making our practice less tokenistic and more authentic.

Valuing families’ decisions about their child’s learning and wellbeing underpins our principles and practices. When we are active partners working together with the children and families, we can embed different cultural perspective in our services. This fosters a deeper sense of belonging and allows for more meaningful participation; everyone has an opportunity to actively contribute to the process and children feel a sense of connectedness to their learning.

Strategies to embed meaningful cultural competence in your service might include:

  • Developing a resource kit, drawing on resources (such as professional journals) and agencies (such as the relevant Inclusion Support Programme provider) that can assist in building your knowledge and skills.
  • Involving children in the planning and evaluation of celebrations that are important in your service, and to them. This allows for a deeper sense of agency and belonging.
  • Thinking about maximising learning opportunities for children. For example, does encouraging children to practice their observation and drawing skills by drawing a Christmas tree enhance their learning more than just colouring an adult representation?
  • Involving families, educators, other staff and your community in discussions about what celebrations are important to them and how you could include them in your service in respectful and meaningful ways.
  • Reviewing and reflecting on your current policies and philosophy. Do they mirror your service’s beliefs, goals and responsibilities around inclusion and cultural competence?

As an end of year treat, take some time to reflect on how you can celebrate Christmas in meaningful ways. Consider how celebrations can tie into acknowledging progress in your Quality Improvement Plan, sharing children’s learning and valuing each team member’s contributions to the service throughout the year. Drawing on the reflective questions in the approved learning frameworks is a great place start to your critical reflection. For example, as a team reflect on the questions to broaden your approach or lens in relation to the different ways children, families and educators experience Christmas activities and celebrations:

Who is advantaged when I work in this way? Who is disadvantaged? (Early Years Learning Framework, p. 13 / Framework for School Age Care, p. 12)

Other questions you might like to consider:

  • How is cultural competence embedded in your service and reflected in your philosophy? What does it look and feel like?
  • What celebrations are important for the families in your service?

Further reading and resources

Helping families understand quality

This month on We Hear You, Jessica Annerley, Chief Executive Officer of Bruce Ridge Early Childhood Centre and Preschool talks about helping families understand the National Quality Standard, and building support for quality education and care.

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Our service was rated Working Towards National Quality Standard (NQS) between 2013–2016. Conversations with families at the time were focused on why we achieved this rating, why we felt it was an appropriate rating at the time of the assessment, and what we were doing to improve our practices.

Our educators recognised the importance of including families in our quality improvement journey, helping them understand the quality areas, and what we were doing to support their child’s learning, development and wellbeing.

We used the information in the assessment and rating report as the basis of our Quality Improvement Plan (QIP). We then shared this in a formal process with families, along with our philosophy and policies, and asked our families what they felt we were doing well and what we could improve in relation to the NQS. After integrating this feedback into our programs and practice, the hard but rewarding work paid off in October 2016 when we celebrated the outcome of our reassessment with the families from our service. We are all thrilled to have achieved the Exceeding NQS rating, and look forward to our ongoing journey to achieve excellence.

exceeding-300-rgbIt was great timing with the release of the new NQS logos. So far the Exceeding logo, which is displayed on our website and signature blocks, has been a useful conversation starter, helping new families understand a little more about quality education and care.

Having achieved Exceeding NQS in all seven quality areas, our conversations with families are less about the areas we are doing well in and more about the areas that support our philosophy and that we feel passionate about as a community. Unique aspects of our service, such as our relationships with the community, the professional learning and development our educators are committed to and our ‘Bush School’ program, are often topics we discuss with families. We also outline how they directly link to the NQS and support children’s learning on a daily basis.

The assessment and rating process is another opportunity for us to talk to families about the NQS. It helps families recognise the value of what we do, and helps refocus the importance of our profession and the way it contributes to the outcomes and benefits for children both in the early years and later in life. We believe it’s a step towards improving what is a largely undervalued and underpaid sector at present.

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Families are often surprised to hear that prior to the National Quality Framework there was no national law, regulation or mandatory curriculum framework. This leads to conversations around professionalising our sector and mandatory qualifications for educators. It provides an avenue for us to talk to families about the importance of early childhood education and care – that is, not just child care.

Educators are often a family’s first experience of education for their child, and we play an important role in helping them understand the sometimes confusing terminology, complexity and importance of the NQS.

Looking for resources to help you talk to families about individual quality areas and the NQS? Check out the Guide to the NQS – the summary paragraph before each quality area might be particularly useful.