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.

Connecting with communities

 ACECQA’s National Education Leader, Rhonda Livingstone provides insight into National Quality Framework topics of interest.

Standard 6.3 of the National Quality Standard (NQS) highlights how helping children contribute to their community can improve children’s wellbeing and learning.

When educators make connections within the wider community, they advocate for children’s rights to be seen as active citizens who contribute to society. Children’s understanding of citizenship and stewardship develops and the community is reflected in the service program, practice and operations.

Early Childhood Australia’s Code of Ethics includes a set of statements related to engaging with the community, advocating for children’s rights, and promoting shared aspirations for children’s learning, health and wellbeing. These statements also emphasise the value of learning about the community to:

  • enhance practice and the educational program, ensuring it is reflective of the context and community priorities
  • promote community understandings of how children learn.

It is useful to find out what is happening in your local community and identify national or international events that children can be involved in. This can help children to feel a sense of belonging in, contributing to and influencing their world.

Recent posts on our We Hear You blog highlight the practices of two services that have effectively engaged with their communities. Larapinta Preschool in the Northern Territory focused on developing and nurturing partnerships with families and their local community by working alongside organisations in the community to develop an understanding about Indigenous perspectives in the local context. Gowrie Victoria Docklands worked with the Melbourne Museum on the redevelopment of the museum’s children’s gallery, advocating for children’s ideas and suggestions to be taken into account in the design and development stages of the project.

Making links with the local library, schools, Indigenous communities and family support services, for example, can help build understandings and make relevant and authentic connections and partnerships in the community. The Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) also is a useful source of information about your community, that can inform decision making.

Engaging in authentic and respectful community celebrations is also a great strategy for building children’s understanding of their community and respect for diversity. You might like to develop a calendar of relevant community events and add national events appropriate for young children and their families, such as Children’s Week (22-30 October), NAIDOC Week (3-10 July), Book Week (20-26 August 2016) and Literacy and Numeracy Week (29 August-4 September).

Further reading and resources
Creating a sense of community – KidsMatter
Working with communities – AEDC

 

Sustainability in children’s education and care

Sustainability

Rhonda Livingstone, ACECQAThis month ACECQA’s National Education Leader, Rhonda Livingstone, promotes sustainability and looks at why it’s important for children to explore values and develop an appreciation of the environment.

Living sustainably means living within the capacity of the natural environment to support life and ensuring our current lifestyle has minimal impact on generations to come. Sustainable practices relate not only to the natural environment, but also our society and culture, including aspects such as consumerism and community well-being.

As the need for greater sustainability becomes more apparent globally, so does the importance of embedding sustainability in children’s programs. Through hands-on experiences and relevant educator pedagogies, children can explore and learn about their local contexts and environmental issues. They can develop the creativity and critical thinking skills necessary to make informed decisions for change, improving the quality of their lives, and those of future generations.

Practicing sustainability empowers children to construct knowledge, explore values and develop an appreciation of the environment and its relationship to their worlds. This lays the foundations for an environmentally responsible adulthood.

Sue Elliott, Senior Lecturer from the University of New England, NSW, says ‘early childhood education for sustainability is a transformative and empowering process actively engaged in by children, families and educators who share an ecocentric worldview’ (Elliott, 2014, p.15).  An ecocentric worldview is one that embraces all the Earth’s life forms and physical elements, not just humans.

When there is an alignment of philosophies, ethics and beliefs in a service, sustainability becomes the norm and has a positive impact on children’s learning and the wider community.

The Early Years Learning Framework, the Framework for School Age Care and the National Quality Standard promote embedding sustainability in all daily routines and practices. Services often find elements relating to sustainability under Quality Area 3 challenging to meet.

Holistic approach

Educators typically focus on sustainable practices and activities for children in the outdoor environment. However, it is important to embed sustainability more broadly in all aspects of service operations. A holistic approach to sustainability is essential, acknowledging the natural, social, political and economic dimensions as defined by UNESCO (2010).

Sue Elliott (2014, p. 52) offers the following questions to get started on a journey of change:

  • What practical first step or action priority could we engage in that best reflects the interests and/or strengths of this community?
  • How will we decide on the most relevant and achievable action?
  • Which stakeholders in our service may have an interest in this action priority?

Other questions for reflection include:

  • What strategies do we use to foster children’s capacity to value and respect the broader environment and appreciate the interdependence between people, plants, animals and the land?
  • How are children involved in the environmentally sustainable practices already existing at the service and in the community?
  • What connections have we made within the local indigenous community that support a deeper connection to the land?
  • How will we maintain the inspiration and momentum for the journey of change?

Starting point

Nadine McCrea (2015, p. 64), Associate Professor at University of New England, suggests the following sustainable practices as starting points.

  • create edible gardens for sharing and/or cooking produce
  • implement an energy saving policy including heating, cooling, lights, appliances
  • practise green cleaning
  • be active citizens for sustainability in local community projects
  • collect natural materials for play ethically, only taking a few and using respectfully
  • install a solar hot water system
  • reuse and repurposing materials for play
  • create a second-hand children’s book or clothing exchange for families
  • use forest-friendly paper products
  • avoid disposable, single use items
  • investigate local indigenous environmental knowledge
  • implement a sustainable purchasing policy including local products and minimised packaging

What other possibilities might be relevant to your education and care service?

Network

Educators might consider joining a sustainable education network for ideas to engage in sustainable practices. Current networks include:

The Early Childhood Environmental Education Network has developed the Eco Smart for Early Childhood – a sustainability filter for Quality Improvement Plans along with a version designed specifically for family day care educators. Other useful resources include:

References and resources

Davis, J. (Ed.) (2015). Young children and the environment: Early education for sustainability (2nd edn.), Port Melbourne, Victoria: Cambridge University Press.

Elliott, S. (2014). Sustainability and the Early Years Learning Framework. Mt Victoria, NSW: Pademelon Press.

McCrea, N. (2015). Leading and management: Early childhood settings – Inspiring people, places and practices. Port Melbourne, Victoria: Cambridge University Press.

NSW ECEEN (2012). ECO SMART for Early Childhood – A sustainability filter for Quality Improvement Plans. Sydney, NSW: OEH ET & NSW ECEEN.

NSW ECEEN (2015). ECO SMART for Early Childhood – A sustainability filter for Quality Improvement Plans Family Day Care revision. Sydney, NSW: OEH ET & NSW ECEEN.

UNESCO (2010) Four dimensions of sustainable development. Retrieved 25 September, 2014, from http://www.unesco.org/education/tlsf/mods/theme_a/popups/mod04t01s03.html

Young, T. & Elliott, S. (2014) Ways of thinking, acting and relating about sustainability. Deakin West, ACT: Early Childhood Australia.

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

Cycle of planning

ACECQA’s National Education Leader, Rhonda Livingstone provides insight into National Quality Framework topics of interest.

What is meant by an ongoing cycle of planning?

Children and adults alike are ongoing learners and we all develop and learn in different ways. The cycle of planning helps educators to purposefully support children’s continual learning and design meaningful learning opportunities.

The Educators’ Guide to the Early Years Learning Framework and the Educators’ Guide to the Framework for School Age Care recommend that the curriculum/program decision making process be a cycle of:

  • information gathering
  • questioning
  • planning
  • acting
  • reflecting

Educators create learning opportunities by challenging and extending a child’s current learning and development. To do this, an educator must first gather evidence which involves observing and meaningfully documenting knowledge of the child’s current learning. The learning frameworks, National Quality Standard and regulations are not prescriptive about how documenting should be done. But it does need to be meaningful, relevant and helpful in making children’s learning visible.

Educators then question how they can use the evidence gathered. The practices, principles and learning outcomes in the frameworks can be helpful in guiding how educators further plan the environment, resources, teaching strategies and effective ways to monitor and assess children’s learning.

Further reading and resources

Educators Guide to the Early Years Learning Framework pp. 10- 13
Educators guide to the Framework for School Age Care pp. 11-20
Early Years Learning Framework, pp.9–19
Framework for School Age Care, pp. 5- 18
Department of Education and Children’s Services South Australia. Reflect Respect Relate
Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations. Early Years Learning Framework in Action, Stories 13 and 31.
PSC National Alliance. How to Series.Effective Curriculum Planning and Documentation Methods in Education and Care Services
Early Childhood Australia. National Quality Standard (NQS) Professional Learning Program e-newsletter 57. Planning the program
Children’s Services Central, et al.What’s pedagogy anyway: Using pedagogical documentation to engage with the Early Years Learning Framework.
Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority.VCAA Early Years Exchange includes a template for using the ongoing cycle of planning.

 

 

 

 

 

Embracing the assessment and rating process

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Being assessed and rated can understandably be a nervous time for educators. ACECQA caught up with Vashti Hicks, an Authorised Officer with the Queensland Department of Education and Training, to discuss her role and how services can prepare and embrace the assessment and ratings process.

Tell us a little about your background

 I have been in the early childhood sector for 16 years. I started as an assistant in a privately owned service but soon discovered that I wanted to focus on teaching. I then completed my diploma before taking on a group leader role.

Following this, I had the opportunity to take on the role as a service Director, which I undertook for five years. I was lucky to stay at this service for 11 years and felt supported in my growth in the sector. After a short break, I took on a position with the department focusing on monitoring and licensing, I have been here for five years and am looking forward to many more.

How do you think the National Quality Standard (NQS) has improved quality education and care?

With the changes to the National Law and National Regulations and the development of the NQS, approved providers, educators and families have come together to ensure wonderful outcomes for children.

Services can think outside the box and engage their educators and children in new and exciting ways, which they may not have looked at in the past as early education programs tended to be structured and ‘one size fits all’.

Additionally, with the law and regulations looking at operational requirements, it’s positive to see a framework that has raised the benchmark and for services to focus on continuous improvement.

Can you describe some of the innovative ways you have seen services approach the Quality Areas or Standards?

Services are embracing being able to change their indoor and outdoor environments to feel more natural and homely. Many are sourcing design ideas from collaboration websites such as Pinterest and finding inspiration for using natural materials that allow children to explore living and non-living things.

I’m delighted when I visit services where the outdoor space has become equally as dynamic and important in terms of learning by using things like wooden materials, gardens and mud pits.

We have definitely seen an increase in services and families building stronger relationships, including families participating more in the program, giving feedback and services using families’ skills and incorporating these into programs. One service that I visited had moved away from displaying children’s artwork on the walls to photos of children’s families that created a homely learning environment.

What preparation do you do before a visit?

I try to develop a relationship with my services to ensure that they are ready for the assessment and rating process. Prior to visiting I read through their Quality Improvement Plan (QIP) and identify strengths and improvements that they have highlighted and discuss these.

If I have additional time, I call the service and speak to the nominated supervisor and ask if there is anything I need to know for the visit such as: allergies, staff that may be away or any other major changes that have occurred. Asking these questions makes me aware of how the service operates daily.

I encourage services to make contact with their assessment authority before their visit as developing this relationship is an important step in ensuring the assessment and rating is as stress-free as possible.

If you could offer services a word of advice, what would it be? 

I would recommend services to:

  • embrace the process (see it as an opportunity to show your service off to the world)
  • breathe, discuss and reflect
  • ensure you’re prepared (knowledge is power, use the National Quality Framework Resource Kit)
  • highlight your service’s strengths.

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.