More than a worm farm: Supporting children to be environmentally responsible

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

Young children have the greatest stake as citizens in the future. ~ European Panel on Sustainable Development (2010)

Viewing children as agents capable of being active participants and enacting change in their world is integral to the guiding principles of the National Quality Framework and the approved learning frameworks. Children’s rich potential as active agents of change for their environment is integral to 2018 NQS Element 3.2.3 – The service cares for the environment and supports children to become environmentally responsible. Research and NQS assessment and rating data indicate that some services can find aspects of caring for the environment, and supporting children to become environmentally responsible, challenging. This month, I step you through a number of strategies to support this quality practice.

What does ‘environmentally responsible’ mean?

Environmental responsibility builds on the important foundation of children’s care, wonder and appreciation of the environment, and fosters accountability, agency and advocacy. Article 29 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child reminds us that:

  • education should prepare children to live responsibly and peacefully in a free society
  • education should teach children to respect the natural environment.

Responsibly is not passive; it requires engagement and the potential for action. Supporting children to become environmentally responsible requires meaningful opportunities for children to engage in authentic experiences and to be active participants and decision-makers. Responsibility is, therefore, more than physical resources, such as a worm farm or a set of recycling bins. While these can be wonderful experiences for children, responsibility engages at a deeper level. For example, decision-making about maintenance of the worm farm or monitoring of the amount or type of paper going into paper recycling to understand its source.

Responsibility engages children in critical thinking, problem solving and action. It might invoke questions such as: What does this mean? What do you think? What could you/we do or change? How could you/we do it? How will you/we know it has changed?

Education FOR the environment

Associate Professor Julie Davis (2015) from Queensland University of Technology describes meaningful environmental education opportunities as more than education ‘IN’ the environment – nature education experiences in the outdoors – or education ‘ABOUT’ the environment – children engaging in the natural sciences, recycling or conservation. Education ‘FOR’ the environment is about understanding human-environment interactions and interdependence and their impact on sustainability. Environmental responsibility focuses on the child and their potential role as citizens and agents of change for sustainability.

It is important to also consider that ‘the environment’ is your service and the interconnected environment which may be beyond your doors or gates. The broader geographical, social and cultural environments in your community are fundamentally connected to your service environment. In a rural community, this may include a local water catchment, while in an urban community this could be your neighbours on other floors of the building. Providing children with experiences that allow them to make connections between these environments will enhance their understanding. For example, exploring where a service’s waste water drains or what native bird habitats are available beyond a service’s garden.

Education for sustainability

Environmental responsibility and educating FOR the environment are central to the concept of sustainability. Sustainability has been described as ‘meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ or ‘enough for all forever’.  However, depending on your personal understanding, experiences, philosophy, values and beliefs, sustainability can be a complicated concept to define. Sustainability will have different meanings to different people.

As the environment and sustainability involve ‘big ideas’ and thinking on a scale beyond one’s usual context, it can pose intellectual and emotional challenges. This can be exacerbated when engaging with children, families and colleagues. If personal knowledge, beliefs and values are still forming, how can we confidently support and educate others?

Recognising that different individuals will have different understandings and perspectives on the environment and sustainability is a useful starting point for critical reflection.

Supporting environmental responsibility

In ‘Inspiring environmentally responsible preschool children through the implementation of the National Quality Framework’ (2017), Krista Pollock, Jane Warren and Peter Anderson from the University of Wollongong have proposed three key ways to support children to be environmentally responsible.

1. Involve children authentically

It is essential that children are considered as capable change agents. ‘Transformative pedagogies’ that value and build on children’s knowledge and experiences, and provide opportunities for them to participate in real life issues that are important and relevant to them, provides empowering opportunities for decision making and problem solving.

Educators who listen to and respect children’s ideas recognise children’s capabilities and help them develop the sense that their ideas and opinions matter. They support children to explore their world, to ask questions, to express ideas and to learn from their mistakes. When children are supported to develop decision-making skills and to make appropriate choices for their own wellbeing, they realise the choices they make may impact on others. When children are given choices and control, they begin to understand the connection between actions and consequences.

2. Collaborate with families

A ‘whole-of-setting’ approach that involves meaningful collaboration with children, families and community enhances the potential for quality practice. Welcoming, respecting and drawing on the voices, priorities and strengths of all community members will ensure practice is relevant and tailored to the service context.

Drawing on sociocultural theory, the researchers suggest encouraging families ‘to reflect on their own early childhood experiences with, and connections to, the natural environment’. Reflecting on personal influences can highlight their potential impact on children’s foundation knowledge and experience. Drawing on home experiences and culturally-valued knowledge can also build communication and connection between home and service practice. This can, in turn, provide insight, perspective, sharing and feedback on environmentally responsible actions.

3. Engage in critical reflection

Reflect on your own understanding of environmental responsibility and sustainability and how this has been informed. Reflection can enrich decision making, increase awareness of influences and bias and provide goals for continuous improvement. Supporting your own, ongoing learning journey through professional development, and accessing resources to foster a deeper understanding of sustainability, are also highly recommended.

A good starting point for reflection is to undertake a sustainability audit to help you assess your service’s current practices and contribute to a Quality Improvement Plan. Cool Australia has a number of resources, which can be found through a search under the keyword ‘audit’

~o~

We hope this month’s blog has given you some starting points for your own learning journey. Please access the many resources on the new ACECQA website and those recommended below. We would also love to hear about your own experiences supporting children to be environmentally responsible. What have been your challenges? What are your successes? How have children been agents of change? I encourage you to leave a comment or share your story below.

Further reading and resources

ACECQA – Guide to the National Quality Framework

ACECQA – Guide to the NQF reference list – Quality Area 3: Physical Environment

ACECQA – We Hear You – Sustainability blogs

Cool Australia – Educator and student resources

Davis, J. (ed.) (2015) Young Children and the Environment: Early Education for Sustainability (2nd ed.), Cambridge University Press, London.

Early Childhood Australia – Talking about practice: Embedding sustainable practices, NQS PLP eNewsletter (67).

Pollock, K., Warren, J. & Anderson, P. (2017) ‘Inspiring environmentally responsible preschool children through the implementation of the National Quality Framework: Uncovering what lies beneath theory and practice’, AJEC, 42(2), pp. 12-19.

The cycle of self-assessment and continuous improvement: What do you need to consider? Part 4

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

In the previous instalment, we explored the way collaborative relationships with families and the community can contribute to your quality improvement processes and goals. In part four, I want to build on this collaboration and focus on how engaging children’s voices and ideas in your decision making can reflect your service values and philosophy, as well as encourage and support children’s agency. 

Part 4: Engaging with children’s voices in service decision making – Are we truly listening? 

The right of the child to be heard is set out under Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). It establishes the right of every child to have their say in decisions that affect them and to have their opinions taken into account. The articles within the UNCRC are embedded within the guiding principles of the National Quality Framework (NQF) which apply when making decisions about operating education and care services and working to meet or exceed the National Quality Standard (NQS). Similarly, the approved learning frameworks explicitly incorporate the Convention and highlight the central role of children’s rights in the provision of quality curriculum decision making and service delivery.

The NQF, NQS, approved learning frameworks and the Early Childhood Australia (ECA) Code of Ethics (as a professional standard) apply a strengths and rights-based approach that positions children as active participants in their learning and as owners of rights, respect and agency. The concept of ‘agency’, applied within the NQS and approved learning frameworks, refers to children’s ability to ‘make choices and decisions, to influence events and have an impact on one’s world’ (Early Years Learning Framework, p.45; Framework for School Age Care, p. 41). Even very young children have preferences, make choices, and have the ability to influence others, actively construct their own understandings and contribute to others’ learning. Having a sense of agency is closely linked to the key concepts of being, belonging and becoming, and to developing a strong sense of identity.

The process of embedding the 2018 NQS provides an opportunity to reflect on how your self-assessment and quality improvement processes meaningfully involve children’s input and welcome their feedback and suggestions. Remember, children are the best source of advice for matters affecting them – as the quality improvement goals you are seeking to make mainly benefit children, it makes sense to engage them and reflect their voices in the process.

The 2018 NQS also supports you to consider how self-assessment and quality improvement processes are informed by and reflect the values, beliefs and philosophy of your service. For example, if your service philosophy values children as ‘active participants and decision makers’, how might this belief be embedded and enacted in your self-assessment and quality practices?

Questions for consideration:

  • Do your self-assessment and continuous improvement processes encourage children’s developing sense of agency by embracing their input  and incorporating their decisions and ideas? Are children provided with the sense their ideas and opinions matter?
  • What strategies are used to encourage children to express their ideas as fully and richly as possible? Are the processes accessible, inclusive and meaningful to children? How do you respond to children’s comments and criticisms?
  • How do your self-assessment and quality improvement processes reflect Article 12 of the UNCRC: ‘Respect for the views of children’? Do you consider the way your decision making ‘affects children, their right to say what they think should happen and have their opinions taken into account’?
  • The approved learning frameworks note that ‘viewing children as active participants and decision makers opens up possibilities … to move beyond pre-conceived expectations about what children can do and learn’ (Early Years Learning Framework,9; Framework for School Age Care, p.7). How does authentically listening to children inform your work as an educator?

~o~

In the final instalment of this series, we will further explore the importance of your service philosophy, the way it guides all aspects of service operations and your approach to achieving quality outcomes for children.

 

Read the complete series:

The cycle of self-assessment and continuous improvement: What do you need to consider? Part 1

The cycle of self-assessment and continuous improvement: What do you need to consider? Part 2

The cycle of self-assessment and continuous improvement: What do you need to consider? Part 3

The cycle of self-assessment and continuous improvement: What do you need to consider? Part 4

The cycle of self-assessment and continuous improvement: What do you need to consider? Part 5

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.

Health and wellbeing

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

Strong sense of wellbeing

We now know through research that brain development in the early years can significantly impact on a person’s long term mental and physical health. A strong wellbeing in the early years lays the foundation for improved outcomes in later life.

The importance of supporting children’s wellbeing is recognised in the National Quality Standard, Quality Area 2: Children’s Health and Safety. It is also outlined in Outcome 3 of the Early Years Learning Framework and Framework for School Age Care: Children have a strong sense of wellbeing.

“Wellbeing includes good physical health, feelings of happiness, satisfaction and successful social functioning. It influences the way children interact in their environments. A strong sense of wellbeing provides children with confidence and optimism which maximise their
learning potential.”*

Relationships, experiences and environment

Responsive relationships, engaging experiences and a safe and healthy environment all play a role in supporting children’s healthy mental and physical wellbeing.

“To support children’s learning, it is essential that educators attend to children’s wellbeing by providing warm, trusting relationships, predictable and safe environments, affirmation and respect for all aspects of their physical, emotional, social, cognitive, linguistic, creative and spiritual being.”**

This involves educators considering healthy development holistically and working towards improving skills such as physical development, cognitive skills, self-expression, social skills, resilience and self sufficiency skills.

Mental health

Mental wellbeing is as important as physical wellbeing to children’s overall health. It is important that educators are familiar with and promote positive mental health and wellbeing in children.

Mental health and wellbeing refers to a person’s psychological, social and emotional wellbeing and is affected by the context of each individual’s circumstances. Mental health difficulties relate to “…a range of challenges that people may experience in their thoughts, feelings or behaviour.”*** Mental health difficulties are not the same as mental illness or neurological disorder.

 

*Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations [DEEWR]. (2009) ‘Belonging, Being and Becoming – The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia’, Outcome 3: Children have a strong sense of wellbeing, pp. 30 and Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations [DEEWR]. (2009) ‘My Time, Our Place – Framework for School Age Care in Australia’, Outcome 3: Children have a strong sense of wellbeing, pp. 29.

**Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations [DEEWR]. (2009) ‘Belonging, Being and Becoming – The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia’, Outcome 3: Children have a strong sense of wellbeing, pp. 30 and Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations [DEEWR]. (2009) ‘My Time, Our Place – Framework for School Age Care in Australia’, Outcome 3: Children have a strong sense of wellbeing, pp.29.

***Hunter Institute of Mental Health. (2014) ‘Connections; A resource for early childhood educators about children’s wellbeing’, Key Concepts, pp. 13. The Department of Education and the Hunter Institute of Mental Health have developed ‘Connections; A resource for early childhood educators about children’s wellbeing.’ This guide promotes understanding in children’s mental health and wellbeing, and includes reflective questions, case studies and fact sheets.

A copy of Connections is being distributed to education and care services throughout Australia. Electronic copies are also available from the Department of Education website.

Further reading and resources

Alberta Family Wellness Initiative. How Brains are Built: The Core Story of Brain Development
Alberta Family Wellness Initiative. Executive Function.
Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. InBrief: Executive Function: Skills for Life and Learning
Early Childhood Australia. Professional Learning Program. E-Learning video. Getting to know the NQS. Episode 3 Quality Area #2

 

 

Brain development in the early years

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

There has been much discussion recently about the critical periods for brain development. Strong evidence exists that experiences in the early years of life have long-term consequences. This is because development occurs at its most rapid pace during early childhood.

Early brain development research has shown that experiences in this time play a pivotal role in sculpting intellectual capacity, personality and behaviour.

In April, UNICEF hosted a meeting where 16 scientists across the fields of neuroscience, biology, epigenetics, psychiatry, nutrition, chemistry and child development met to discuss and debate the influence of experiences in the early years on brain development.

A key message delivered at this meeting is that development of the brain lies not only in genes but also in the experience and opportunities offered in the child’s environment.

According to Dr Suzana Herculano-Houze*, genes determine the parts of the brain that are formed, their size and main routes of connectivity; this mostly occurs during embryonic development.

Once the child is born the brain is still in the process of gaining neurons and synapses with endless possibilities of how these neurons and synapses will form, and what the brain will strengthen and retain. This will depend on the environment it must adapt to.

Studies indicate that the development of synapses occur at an incredible rate during the early years of life. Factors such as health, nutrition and environment in these years all impact on an individual’s future ability to learn, adapt to change and show resilience. A positive, nurturing and stimulating environment for children can have a profound impact on their long-term mental and physical health.

The findings of this meeting reiterate the importance of creating opportunities for optimal experiences in early childhood, as well as the vital role of early intervention in addressing children’s needs and reducing risk that may have lifelong implications.

Further reading and resources
Acting Early, Changing Lives: How prevention and early action saves money and improves wellbeing
Engaging families in the Early Childhood Development Story
A practice guide for working with families from pre-birth to eight years