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.

Assessment and rating for family day care service providers

The assessment and rating process can be a nervous time for educators and providers.

To coincide with National Family Day Care Week earlier this month, we chatted to Eugenia Gabbiani, a family day care educator at the City of Casey in Victoria, about her experience being assessed and rated and her advice for other educators.

Tell us a little about your service

The City of Casey Family Day Care commenced in 1995 following amalgamations of family day care services in surrounding local government areas that created the largest family day care service in Australia!

Our service remains the largest, currently operating at an average level of 800 equivalent full time places with around 235 educators offering care in their homes to over 2500 children with help from 18 very supportive members of our coordination unit.

How did you prepare for your assessment and rating visit?

The City of Casey has been preparing educators since the commencement of assessment and rating by providing training, advice and information to ensure we are aware of the expectations.

Before the visit, I talked to children in my care about the people coming to see us that day and also spent some time making sure all my documentation was up to date and easily accessible for assessors.

Did you have any concerns or were you nervous about your assessment and rating?

On the day of the visit, I did get nervous. I think it is natural for anybody being assessed on their work performance to be a little nervous. Though once the assessors arrived and the process started, my nerves eased quickly as we were able to show them our service.

Overall I was confident, as we offer high quality education and care every day regardless of being visited.

Do you have any advice for family day care service providers that are due to be assessed and rated?

All educators, not just family day care, have a responsibility to provide the best quality of care every day. When preparing for an assessment, my advice would be to have all your documentation up to date, easily accessible and ensure children’s files are readily available as the assessor will ask to see this documentation.

Make sure that you know what you do – this means know your emergency procedures. Take time to familiarise yourself with regulations as the assessor could ask you questions about this.

Have your activities ready to reflect your program and what your children have chosen for the day. Have your observations available.

We are a multicultural society; include diversity in your activities. I know that children in our service enjoy learning rhymes in other languages. If you have children from other cultures, learn basic words in that language and greet children and families with “good morning” in their mother tongue. Document this so that assessors know you are doing this.

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An Australia Day activity at Eugenia’s family day care service.

Importantly, be proud of the fantastic job you do as an educator. Display your certificates, diplomas, awards and commendations. Not just for the assessor, but for everyone who comes into your service.

Display your children’s artwork as they too are very proud of their work. Have photos of children doing some of the activities planned by you and the spontaneous ones initiated by them. You can also have a ‘community board’ where you can place pictures of the places you frequent with the children.

These recommendations are not just for the assessment and rating process but for your practice. My main advice for family day care educators, and all educators, is to ensure your service is a high quality one all the time, not just when you are being assessed and rated.

Treat assessment and rating as an opportunity to show off your practice to the assessor, let them see that you are prepared and proud of the education that you provide.

You might also like to read our Embracing the assessment and rating process interview from last year with Vashti Hicks, an Authorised Officer with the Queensland Department of Education and Training.

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.

Gowrie

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.

Embracing natural spaces and communicating with families

This week on We Hear You, Natalie Cowley from KU Lance Children’s Centre at Millers Point in inner city Sydney tells us about how her service has made plans for continuous quality improvement after its assessment. Natalie has been working at KU Lance for a year and a half and has been teaching in early childhood for almost eight years.

At Lance we have achieved a beautiful, calm and natural environment, using only natural materials and no plastic materials in any of the spaces. Our reasoning behind this is we believe children deserve to have beautiful things to engage with and to develop a respect for the world around them.

When I first started at Lance with Donna, the centre was very different. This was not the focus, as Donna and I had previously worked together at another centre where we incorporated the ELYF and used natural materials. Knowing what kind of positive effect this has on children and their development, we focused our time and energy on changing the focus of Lance.

Within a year, we had changed the environment to be more nature focused, plastic free and over all a beautiful place to be. Interactions with children and the quality of care & education greatly improved and become the focus. Many of the staff did struggle with this change, most being able to learn from it and finding a new philosophy. Our practices improved with these changes, which allowed for strength in particular NQF quality areas (1, 2, 3 and 5).

Our assessment visit was early to mid last year and we received a rating of exceeding standards overall. There were a few areas that we were recommended to further improve in as we received a meeting standard in two areas as opposed to an exceeding. From this we further developed our natural spaces, both indoor and outdoor. Focusing on children and family involvement in the program and room set up, ie asking for suggestions or parents to help bring things in or get involved in classroom experiences such as cooking etc.

An area we needed to spend more time on was parent and community involvement. A lot of the families in the centre are quite busy and work long hours and often do not have time to come and contribute to the program, be involved in centre happenings or have time to read the program, journals and documentation. I thought of ways in which I could improve this and get more parent and community involvement. Donna (our director) suggested that we email families the daily diary. We began doing this a couple of months after the assessment and the response was overwhelming. Families loved receiving the daily diary while at work and would respond via email or mention at pick up how great it was to get an insight into their day while they were at work. From this great response, I came up with the idea to start a centre blog. Updating every 2nd day with learning stories, photos and centre happenings. This has also had a great response, with the parents looking at it often and commenting on posts with ideas/suggestions or positive feedback. The quality of our family interactions improved greatly from these changes, being able to communicate through social media has allowed for a lot more family involvement and from families that may not of shown much interest (due to time restraints) previously.

Natalie Cowley
Natalie Cowley

I have been working for KU Lance for a year and a half now and have been teaching all up for almost 8 years. Our director Donna has been at Lance for over two years and teaching for over 20 years. Since our quality assessment, we feel our service has come far in providing an exceeding standard of care for all the children and families attending our service.

Images of KU Lance Children’s Centre’s natural spaces:

KU Lance outdoor space

KU Lance indoor space KU Children's Centre