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.

Why are we so afraid to march to the beat of our own drum?

This month on We Hear You, Meghan Woods, an early childhood teacher and member of the Educational Leadership Working Group at Gumnut Cottage, located on the campus of Macquarie University in Sydney, reflects on the important role of a service’s philosophy and the key issue that might be driving practice in early childhood education and care services across Australia.

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In the last year I have had the opportunity to attend a variety of different professional training sessions. Meeting educators from all across NSW, I recently found myself reflecting on a recurring driver in all of our conversations. While there was always passion, energy and knowledge, there was often also a sense of fear. Regardless of the topic of conversation, this fear, this anxiety, was lurking in the background. At times, it was underlying in our conversations, at others it was clearly articulated: “Is what we are doing right?”

My reflections seemed to be suggesting that there is an underlying anxiety in some early childhood educators around their pedagogy, the programs they are delivering and how they are documenting their practice, as well as the way this might affect their rating as a quality early childhood service.

Today, I was sitting in our outdoor space when I was handed a book by Caspar, one of the two-year-olds in my class. His smile said that he wanted to share this book with me. So we found a spot on a rug and began to read.

Many of you would be familiar with this book – Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae and Guy Parker-Rees. As I began to read, I couldn’t help but smile. The story had me drawing a direct parallel between my earlier reflections and the tale of a giraffe who had no confidence in his ability to dance, and who, with the support of a wise cricket, discovered he could be the best dancer once he found the right music.

So, how can we as educators find the music that we need to be the best we can be?

I believe that our music can be found in our service’s philosophy. The philosophy is the one document in a service that is unique and only applicable to that service. It communicates the distinctive rhythm and beat that is created when we work together with children, their families and our team of educators.

With that in mind, here is my challenge to our leaders in early childhood services: Does your philosophy clearly communicate the distinctive rhythm of your community? We need more leaders who can embrace their inner wise cricket and help us all to establish the music that we need to be our best dancers/educators.

Our responsibility as educators is to find the music that allows us to be the best dancers we can be.

Are we salsa dancers, ballroom dancers, jazz dancers, tap dancers, break dancers or head bang along to 80s rock dancers?  With so many styles of music, how can we be sure which is the right one for us?

Music can be so varied, however it still contains fundamental elements. In all music, you find components such as rhythm, melody, harmony, dynamics, texture, tone or colour. In this same way, our approaches to our teaching, documentation, programs and practices need to be underpinned by our fundamentals – the regulations, the Early Years Learning Framework and current research. We need to be mindful that our music must also be reflective of our community and sector. It is dynamic in nature. It is an expression of who we are and what we value.

As a sector, we need to be like a good radio station – we need to be broadcasting and celebrating the unique role that early childhood education services play within the Australian community. We have a deep connection with a huge number of families and work in partnership with them to nurture the future generations of the Australian community.

Exploring and connecting with nature

Educators at Goodstart Red Hill had long admired forest kindergartens from afar, never really considering how that might look in an Australian setting. Then they realised they had an amazing and diverse environment right on their doorstep. Skye Devereaux, Early Childhood Teacher and Educational Leader, writes this month on how Goodstart Red Hill developed their Nature Space program.

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The Educational Leadership team at Red Hill had a goal to provide all our children with regular opportunities to connect with nature and develop a sense of wonder, curiosity and respect for the environment around them. We wanted children to develop a love for nature and the world in which they live, in the hope that they have a strong connection with the environment they grow up in and, maybe one day, will figure out how to fix the environmental issues they inherit.

The planning process was extensive, spanning many months from when the idea was born in late 2013. We identified a nearby wild space with access to Ithaca Creek, which our service backs on to, and a wonderful enclosed forest space. Excursion plans were completed, along with a variety of risk and benefit assessments for the different activities we imagined would take place. We consulted with the Goodstart Health and Safety Team, seeking advice and guidance. The Red Hill educational team participated in training with Nikki Buchan, an educational consultant, on bush schools and the benefits of wild nature play. An event was then held to inform parents about the Nature Space program where we invited feedback and answered questions.

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After this preparation we began taking small, mixed age, focus groups of children to the wild space, observing how they engaged in the space and the supports they (and we) needed.

We hosted a weekend Clean Up Australia Day event with our families, introducing them to the wild space. Fifty people from our learning community attended and our risk and benefit assessments were displayed through the wild space.

At the end of February 2014, we began taking whole class groups out to the wild space. Each class, from toddler through to kindergarten, ventured out for one morning each week between 10am and 11.30am. We packed our little red wagon with first aid essentials, water bottles and baskets for collecting, and let the natural environment seize our imaginations and guide our play.

Since beginning our nature play program, the children at Red Hill are noticeably more confident and resilient learners, with an adventurous, enquiry based approach to learning. Through their play in the wild space they have become proficient at self-risk assessment, and approach risky play with careful consideration and minimal, respectful support from their peers and teachers.

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The children have learned to slow down and spend time to look, watch and wonder. The Nature Space program allows time for the children to imagine and create using only what the environment provides. A log becomes a baby, crushed bark some snow and a bouncing log becomes a rocket, a horse or a broomstick.

Children willingly collaborate and support one another in the challenges presented with determined perseverance and confidence in their eventual success, if not this week then perhaps the next. The older children, now with several years of play experience in the space, share their stories and pass down skills to the younger children and so each new year group learns about the Magical Forest, Sunshine Hill and The Giant’s Chair, each named by children who have now passed through the dense trees and leafy carpet for a final time. They are creating new, oral histories but at the same time are curious about the original occupants of the space, wondering what came before.

In the two and a half years since the program launched, the way we inhabit the space has changed somewhat. As the environment and our knowledge of it have developed, so too has our play. While our time was initially focussed on the creek and Sunshine Hill, now we play almost exclusively in the forest.

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Make believe play has emerged as the prevailing form during the visits, with games and ideas carrying over weeks and even months.

Mindfulness has become a focus of the groups’ visits with children engaged in before and after practices of being, reflecting on their presence in time and space.

Our hope continues to be that these children will grow up with fond childhood memories of their time spent in this space with us, and leave us having developed a strong connection to and understanding of the world around them.

Celebrating diversity at Larapinta Preschool

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Harmony Day on 21 March was an opportunity to celebrate Australia’s diversity.

This month, we hear from Jenny Ashenden, Teacher in Charge, at Larapinta Preschool in the Northern Territory about their daily practice and programs that encourage respect, curiosity, and develop children’s knowledge, particularly in regards to its local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

At Larapinta we use a parent’s eye to understand where children have come from and a teacher’s eye to plan for where they are going to as learners. This means that age, gender, position in family, developmental levels, prior experiences, strengths, needs, cultural backgrounds and family expectations are used to inform our pedagogy, planning and practice.

We strive to create a sense of belonging for the families and children that attend Larapinta Preschool. There is an emphasis on developing and nurturing partnerships with families, local community services and children. Each year we revisit and update the Larapinta Preschool Philosophy to ensure we have a clear understanding of how we can act in a respectful manner towards all cultures.

At our preschool we believe that relationships and partnerships form the foundation for learning and inform our daily practice and long term planning. As we are based in the Northern Territory, we have a particular focus on Indigenous communities but we celebrate and embrace all cultures of our children, families and staff.

Learning at Larapinta

Community partnerships

Working alongside organisations in our community helps develop our understanding about Indigenous perspectives in our local context. Some examples of these partnerships include:

  • partnering with the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress Health Service through the Preschool Readiness Program
  • provision of a playgroup organised and run by Indigenous staff members – initially established for Indigenous families but extended to welcome all local families
  • attending a Central Australian Early Childhood Educators’ Association meeting, organised by one of our preschool staff members – learning about the world view of traditional owners of the land around Alice Springs via a cultural explanation of how local landmarks and sites of significance were created.

We also make use of the expertise of staff. Last year we celebrated NAIDOC week by organising an excursion to the Alice Springs Desert Park where children and educators worked together to cook kangaroo tail and damper the traditional way, in the hot ashes of a campfire.

Partnerships with families and children

We strongly believe families are the very first teachers and we work in partnership with them. Simple strategies include greeting family members in their home language, having daily conversations, communicating via email and having a suggestion box for feedback.

A ‘My Place’ poster is on display for families to share events, interests and questions from home. Children are encouraged to share their stories in class.

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Parent meetings allow us to learn about the backgrounds and cultures of families in detail. A parent shared her childhood memory of a lantern walk, a German tradition celebrating St Martin, and we organised a version that was adopted by the Larapinta Community the following year.

Just a small selection of examples of how we do this when working with and supporting our children and families are:

  • staff build relationships that can be nurtured over time as families return with younger siblings
  • educators exhibit pictorial and photographic displays so children and families can see themselves reflected in the program and learning environment
  • our end of year performance celebrates and reflects our similarities, differences and diversity and children are encouraged to wear traditional clothing.

Resources

The Harmony Day website has a number of resources and activities to assist educators to embed respect and celebration of cultural diversity into practice, policies and programs. These include lesson ideas, lesson plans and activities.

Let us know on the ACECQA Facebook page if you have any other ideas or activities to share with educators.

Giving children a voice in their community

Michelle Gujer, Manager of Docklands Children’s Program and Georgie Meyer, Melbourne Museum’s Education and Community Program Manager, share a rewarding project showcasing children’s sense of agency and partnerships with their community.

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Michelle Gujer:

The Melbourne Museum is redeveloping its children’s gallery and as part of the project decided to consult with educators, early childhood specialists, designers and health professionals to make the space as unique and innovative as possible. The initial plan was to include children at the testing stage of the project, but we helped the Museum team see the value in including children’s thoughts at the planning stage.

How were children’s voices heard?

The children’s ideas and opinions were captured at every stage of the redevelopment and it’s a real credit to the Melbourne Museum’s commitment to their educational program.

After meeting with our Leaders Group and brainstorming ideas, the Museum team organised workshops and gave each child a design board to create their own unique museum. Educators scribed the children’s thoughts as they talked though ideas.

The Museum team then set up mirrors, cardboard boxes, rope, streamers, lights and animal noises and watched how children of different age groups engaged with different materials and tactile/sensory experiences. The younger children jumped right in to this. At first they were throwing cardboard boxes in their excitement but then settled into making fantastic dens with the boxes and pieces of fabric.

This showed both the Museum team and educators that you don’t always have to be just two steps away. You always have to be mindful and watching, but there’s value in giving children the opportunity to show you what they are thinking in their own way, without prompts and questions. Activities like this are a beautiful way of showing children’s expertise, especially at the pre-verbal stage.

It all starts with a conversation

My advice to Educational Leaders looking to make connections with the community is to start a conversation because you never know where it’s going to take you. We received an initial invitation from a Melbourne Museum through a mutual colleague which kicked this amazing opportunity into motion but the really important thing is there was willingness on both side. We could have provided feedback via email on the initial consultation and left it at that but instead invited the Melbourne Museum team to visit and engage with our Leadership Group. It’s about valuing everybody. Everybody has knowledge and ideas; especially children.

Georgie Meyer:

What Melbourne Museum discovered

Working with Gowrie Docklands has given museum staff a rich understanding of, and respect for, the opinions of young children. Our workshop sessions demonstrated that pre verbal children have a lot to say, and Gowrie staff showed us how to listen.

Our new Pauline Gandel Children’s Gallery is specifically for children aged six weeks to five years.  Through our time spent with the Gowrie children, we’ve seen that this is a very broad and diverse age range and each age and stage of development has particular needs and interests. We’ve also learnt that children are drawn to experiences that offer a balance between the familiar and unfamiliar. For example, they recognise and love a mirror, but even more so if it’s placed on the ground and can be stepped on.

Children are curious about nature, animals, (friendly) monsters, hiding places and surprises. They move, crawl, climb, dance and jump as a way of learning, not just a way of ‘letting off steam’. And the exploration of music and light appeals to all age groups, particularly when children can immerse themselves in the experience.

Listening to this feedback, we have incorporated many of the children’s ideas into the new Children’s Gallery. The space will have activities relevant to each age group, including tactile, hands-on experiences for younger children and narrative, games and social play for older children.

Familiar animal specimens from our collection will be on display, including birds, butterflies, a zebra and a leopard, which will lead children into an immersive multimedia experience. Children will enter this ‘Camouflage Disco’ full of lights, patterns, movements and sounds that will surprise and delight with a crawling crab, tiger stripes, a swimming fish, and giraffe spots.

The garden will be completely renovated allowing for nature play, exploration and outdoor movement. Rocks and minerals representing those in the Museum Collection will form a rock garden and crystal cave. An accessible sandpit will be home to a life-size dinosaur skeleton, the long-necked Mamenchisaurus, inviting children to excavate fossils. And the Victorian Aboriginal creation story of Tiddalik, the thirsty frog, will feature in a series of sculptures that end with a fountain offering water play.

We plan to continue our consultation and evaluation sessions with young children throughout 2016. We also hope our youngest co-creators will attend the launch of the new gallery later this year so we can thank them for their generosity, advice and ideas.

A smooth transition from pre-school to school

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Quality early childhood education and care services play an important role in supporting children and families in the transition to school. Lei Ding, Educational Leader at Hilda Booler Kindergarten in Sydney, writes about her service’s approach to supporting the transition.

Nurturing children’s abilities to succeed in school is a strong focus of our program at Hilda Booler Kindergarten. We work closely with children, aged three to five, to develop a play-based program that fosters social, creative, language, cognitive and physical skills. By supporting these areas of children’s development and focusing on building strong relationships, we’re able to develop their confidence as they transition to the school environment.

Relationships with families

Keeping families informed and discussing issues that relate to each child is also an integral part of our transition to school program. Communicating with families about their child’s skills, strengths and interests can support them during the transition. It’s about helping families decide when their child is best placed to begin school and reassuring them that the responsive, positive relationships they’ve built while at preschool will help them along the way.

Building a strong foundation for success

At Hilda Booler, children are supported to work on their learning journals. These help educators identify children’s skills and abilities and identify areas we believe children can build on. We then embed these into learning and play and take a holistic view of the child, considering, for example children’s skills related to language and literacy, numeracy, fine motor and self-help.

Scaffolding learning

Children are involved in the entire life cycle of the vegetable garden at our service, from planting seeds to harvesting the vegetables. Outcome 4 of the Early Years Learning Framework acknowledges children as confident and involved learners that develop a range of skills. Dispositions such as creativity, cooperation, persistence and imagination can assist children in the transition to school.

We created a visual arts story-board to support children’s understanding of the growing cycle. Using visual prompts educators encouraged children to organise, record and communicate their ideas and found the exploration of complex concepts, thinking, and hypothesising helped develop problem solving and research skills.

Making connections with local schools

Hilda Booler opens its doors to local primary schools in the area including Glebe Public, Forest Lodge Public and St James Catholic Primary. We seek every opportunity to celebrate with the schools for things like Book Week and school concerts and recently visited St James as part of our transition to school program. These visits give children opportunities to connect with the ‘big’ school, make ‘big’ friends, get to know the school environment/facilities, and classroom tasks.

We all make transitions in our lives. Sometimes we feel confident about these changes and sometimes we are anxious about how we may be viewed by others and how we will fit in. Children are the same. Helping them to become familiar with the school environment and expectations will make the transition less stressful and fearful.

Resources

Benefits of higher educator to child ratios

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1 January 2016 marks the next national consistency milestone for educator to child ratios. While changes to ratios have been planned since the introduction of the National Quality Framework in 2012, the coming months are an important time for educators and providers to check if they are affected, and prepare for any changes.

This month, ACECQA’s We Hear You blog hears from Linda Davison, Coordinator at Clarendon Children’s Centre Co-operative in Melbourne on the benefits of higher ratios for children and educators. For more information on the 1 January 2016 ratio changes in your state and territory, visit ACECQA’s ratio page.

I have worked for Clarendon Children’s Centre Co-operative for almost 28 years. Originally a St Vincent de Paul property dating back to 1923, the building has been a community managed and Commonwealth funded child care centre since 1988.

Our partnerships in the local community have developed over the years and we are well-known for providing high quality early education and care in South Melbourne. The sense of community and belonging in the centre is extremely strong with many friendships formed between children, and families, that endure long after the children have left our care.

The centre has three playrooms catering for up to 40 children, aged from birth to five years, at any one time. We have always had a policy of operating at a higher educator to child ratio than required by regulations and our children benefit from having extra people on the team. Educators have increased capacity to focus on children’s learning, to break away from repetitive routine and to be active in sustained conversations. Disruption is also minimised for children when educators go on leave.

For educators, the tangible benefits of higher ratios are very clear, including more one-to-one and small-group time with children, reduced stress, more flexibility and more opportunities for professional development.

A less tangible benefit is the sense of recognition and respect it conveys for the professionalism of our educators. They are our greatest resource and most valuable asset. Improved ratios mean their working day is more balanced and they have increased opportunities to pursue their own professional learning and development.

We are committed to ongoing learning with close to 90 per cent of educators holding a diploma qualification or higher. Nearly all team members are actively engaged in further education, training and professional development. The result of this is a more stable educator team and greater continuity for our children.

We currently work above the ratio requirements so we won’t be affected by the upcoming ratio compliance timeframe of 1 January 2016. However, I believe providers will see the benefit in the long run with reduced turnover, higher educator engagement and flexibility to deal with ups and downs of centre life.