From soaring towers to inclusive playscapes: Exploring the journey of children’s participation

How can we give children more opportunities to contribute meaningfully? To their services? To their community? To their cities and world? Bridget Isichei, an early childhood educator and former director of UnitingCare Jack and Jill Preschool Grafton and area manager for Goodstart Early Learning, writes this month about the journey of children’s participation in an exciting council playground project.

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A collaborative design by the children at Goodstart Early Learning Grafton

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child tells us that children have the right to have their voices heard and their opinions considered.

For most of my own career, enacting this meant asking children to contribute to the design of their play-space or encouraging them to develop their own behaviour guidelines (in line with National Quality Standard Element 1.1.6). More recently, I have been engaged in a project that has changed my thinking about this. I now realise we can do more and dream of a world where children are given the opportunity to contribute meaningfully to community discussion, and mould the cities and towns that they live in from the day they are born.

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A contribution from the children at Westlawn Preschool Grafton

The project started during my time as the Director of UnitingCare Jack and Jill, when a group of preschool children wrote to the Clarence Valley Council to express their opinion that their town had insufficient playgrounds, and asking if they could design a better one. To our delight, the council agreed at the perfect time since they had budgeted for a new playground the following year. Within just a few months the council saw the value of consulting young children and invited three other early education and care services to become involved. As the director of the preschool that originally approached the council, I was given a place on their committee.

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“You can sit on if you have no friends and someone will come to play with you.” – UnitingCare Jack and Jill Preschool Grafton

Some of my strategies and key learnings from the project were:

At first educators held large groups and expected every child to contribute:

We reflected and decided that although children have the right to participate, they don’t have to. We set up a learning space in each service where children could visit and record ideas if they were interested in the project.

We expected all educators, park designers and council members to know why children have the right to participate:

We spent time explaining the benefits of children’s participation and voice to all stakeholders.

We asked children to contribute ideas without giving them the tools, knowledge and resources they needed:

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A contribution from the children at Westlawn Preschool Grafton

Educators decided to hold small group times for interested children to increase their knowledge about playground design, recycling and inclusion. The designated learning area was set up with books and information about the project so the children could revisit the area and build skills over time. Continuous learning, high expectations and intentional teaching were therefore critical elements in making the project successful.

Children came up with too many ideas to use:

Children were encouraged to reflect on and refine their ideas. Children were given the opportunity to consult with each other and park design professionals to find out if their ideas were practical. By revisiting these ideas regularly, children were able to develop their thinking.

The design for the new park now includes signs written by the children, has equipment that is inclusive of all children, recycling bins, a very tall tower, sand and water play and children’s art. The park will have a special seat that ‘you can sit on if you have no friends and someone will come to play with you’. When a child suggested this, I knew that this inclusive idea was very important, but something an adult would be unlikely to think of.

Children have unique perspectives, and the world is a lesser place when we don’t listen to them.

References

UN General Assembly. (1989) Convention on the Rights of the Child, 20 November 1989, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 1577, p. 3.

Beyond the Fence – extending children’s experiences outdoors

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Kylie Keane headshot

Beyond The Fence™ is a program offered at Forrest Out Of School Hours Care (FOOSHC) in Canberra where children play outdoors, build cubbies, climb trees, excavate the creek, have mud  and water fights and relax outdoors. Kylie Keane, Educational Leader at FOOSHC, shares her story. 

More than 100 children have ventured Beyond The Fence™ which takes place in a small, yet spacious nature strip adjacent to Forrest Primary School. These children all continue to amaze each and every one of the dedicated group of educators who work with them.

The program started in 2014 and is roughly based on the concepts of Nature Kindergartens and Forest Schools in the United Kingdom. It acknowledges the Playwork Principles and advocates for what the principles suggest play should be:

Play is a process that is freely chosen, personally directed and intrinsically motivated. That is, children and young people determine and control the content and intent of their play, by following their own instincts, ideas and interests, in their own way for their own reasons. See more on the Playwork Principles fact sheet

While the ideas of reconnecting children with nature are still prevalent, the underpinning philosophy of Beyond The Fence™ is children experiencing I did it moments; the first time they manage to light a fire, climb into a tree, or saw through a piece of wood. The program allows for risk taking and exploration, promotes an attachment to nature and the land, facilitates play and problem solving and develops survival, resilience and self-regulation skills.

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We are often asked how a program like this is possible. What about the regulations? How do you manage the risks? In the beginning we took advice and guidance from a number of industry experts, and all the educators underwent training with the educational leader before facilitating the experiences.

There is nothing in the regulations that prohibits children from enjoying these types of experiences or us as educators facilitating them. It is about striking the right balance and weighing up the risks versus the benefits. Many Benefit Risk Assessments were penned before the pilot program, however it was the children’s contributions along the way that made these documents so valuable. The team of educators view children as capable, competent and active participants in all aspects of the program, and as such, the relationships that have formed are one of the most rewarding aspects of this amazing journey.

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Family information sessions also contribute to the success of the program. We share not only the who, what, where and how but also the why with families and in turn they are our biggest advocates.

Beyond The Fence™ helped two children work through what had been a relationship fraught with bullying; to the point where one of the families was going to move their child to another school. The program gave them a reason to stay and saw the two boys graduate to high school as mates.

Beyond The Fence™ provides so many children, and educators alike, a place to play, take risks, explore the land and their identity, and to simply be.

Supporting indoor and outdoor play

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

Play based experiences are a vital vehicle for children’s learning and development. Research shows the inherent relationship between sensory learning and children’s enhanced cognitive, social and physical development. This is because children gain understanding about the world by seeing, touching, tasting, smelling, moving and hearing the things they are learning about.

The National Quality Framework encourages educators to consider how the physical environment, and the way that indoor and outdoor spaces are designed, will support children’s learning. Quality Area 3 of the National Quality Standard identifies that a service’s physical environment should be safe, suitable, appropriately resourced and well maintained. It also needs to be organised to support the participation of all children and implementation of the learning program. Recognition of the learning potential of environments is noted in the learning outcomes of the Early Years Learning Framework, which encourages educators to ‘create learning environments that encourage children to explore, solve problems, create and construct’ (p.15).

It is important that we don’t underestimate the value of the learning promoted by being outside. Outdoor environments offer challenges and countless opportunities for healthy active play, while also learning to assess and take appropriate risks. Educators can enhance the choice and quality of learning experiences by supporting flexible use and interaction
between indoor and outdoor spaces. Children can learn about and respect the interdependence between people and nature by using their senses to explore natural environments.

Supporting indoor and outdoor play

When designing and planning the learning environment, consideration needs to be given to children’s individual interests, skills and capabilities. The design of the play environment helps to promote independence, decision making, interaction, relationship building and testing theories.

Engaging in sustained shared conversations by respectfully engaging with children allows educators to extend and support children’s thinking and learning. The image below from the Victorian Early Years Learning and Development Framework shows the balance between guided play and learning, adult led learning and child-directed play and learning.