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

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.

2016 14632 Goodstart photo #4

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.

2016 14628 Goodstart photo #1

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.

2016 14630 Goodstart photo #2

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.

2016 14631 Goodstart photo #3

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.