THE MAGIC OF CHILDREN'S PLAY!'

Why all the fuss about outdoor play?

Over the years, our preschool has developed a strong committment to embracing the value of outdoor play and learning. This undertaking has largely been driven by the emergence of significant research evidence which underscores the many developmental benefits afforded to children when they are given regular opportunities to connect with the natural world.

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Suggested further reading:

Peter Gray, ‘Free to Learn’

https://www.amazon.com/Free-Learn-Unleashing-Instinct-Self-Reliant/dp/0465025994

Richard Louv, ‘Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder’

https://www.amazon.com/Last-Child-Woods-Children-Nature-Deficit/dp/156512605X

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Accordingly, this research has influenced policy makers and curriculum framework creators.  All Australian early childhood services that are regulated by the National Quality Framework are encouraged to provide children with access to the outdoor environment at all times. In fact, to do so is regarded as a hallmark of high quality. The Guide to the National Quality Standard affirms that, “Wherever possible, children need opportunities to be outdoors as much as indoors. “This can be achieved with well-designed integrated indoor and outdoor environments that are available at the same time” (p.89).

ACECQA (2013). ‘Guide to the National Quality Standard’.

http://files.acecqa.gov.au/files/National-Quality-Framework-Resources-Kit/NQF03-Guide-to-NQS-130902.pdf

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Why introduce risk into the preschool setting?

The natural environment affords children many opportunities to develop knowledge and skills which will help them cultivate and sustain their emerging autonomy, resilience, and a capacity to assess and manage risk during play. In essence, the skills required to manage risk constitute critical life skills which should be thoughtfully considered when educators program for children. The process of living is never without risk and it seems completely absurd to withhold that knowledge from a particularly vulnerable demographic.  As parents and educators, it is important that we provide children with appropriate opportunities to identify and respond to their innate ‘fight-or-flight’ response; that uncomfortable ‘gut’ feeling that represents our own natural warning system. In fact, we actually do children a grave disservice when we attempt to eliminate all risk from their lives. Whilst the intentions are benevolent, the outcomes are disadvantageous.

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The national Early Years Learning Framework supports the notion of exposing children to appropriate levels of challenge in order to enhance their developing competence in assessing and managing risk:
Outcome 1

Children develop their emerging autonomy, interdependence, resilience and sense of agency when they take considered risks in their decision-making and cope with the unexpected (DEEWR, 2009, p. 22).

Outcome 3

Children become strong in their social and emotional wellbeing when they make choices, accept challenges, take considered risks, manage change and cope with frustrations and the unexpected (DEEWR, 2009, p. 31)

Outcome 4

Achieved when educators: “plan learning environments with appropriate levels of challenge where children are encouraged to explore, experiment and take appropriate risks in their learning” (DEEWR, 2009, p. 35)

DEEWR (2009) Belonging, Being and Becoming: The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia.

https://docs.education.gov.au/system/files/doc/other/belonging_being_and_becoming_

the_early_years_learning_framework_for_australia.pdf

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Why provide children with access to fire?

Harnessing and manipulating fire is a quintessential human activity. Historically, all cultures have been fuelled by fire, invoking an extraordinary range of traditions. Beyond intellect and language, the ability to control and manage fire is an achievement that has set humans apart from all other animal species.

In 2013, Jerry Adler wrote, “Wherever humans have gone in the world, they have carried with them two things, language and fire. As they travelled through tropical forests they hoarded the precious embers of old fires and sheltered them from downpours. When they settled the barren Arctic, they took with them the memory of fire, and recreated it in stoneware vessels filled with animal fat. Darwin himself considered these the two most significant achievements of humanity. It is, of course, impossible to imagine a human society that does not have language, but—given the right climate and an adequacy of raw wild food—could there be a primitive tribe that survives without cooking? In fact, no such people have ever been found.”

Adler, J. (2013) ‘Why Fire Makes us Human’ Smithsonian Magazine, June Issue.
http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/why-fire-makes-us-human-72989884/

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Historically, fire is fundamental to our sense of ‘belonging’ and constitutes a link to our evolutionary success as a species. Glenn Kelly, a Nyungar Aboriginal and an environmental scientist from Western Australia, offers an Indigenous perspective on fire:

“’Karl’ (fire) is at the very heart of our culture. In our language, ‘karl’ not only describes fire, but also our immediate or nuclear family. This is referred to as ‘hearth’ in academic circles. It represents the importance of fire as a centrepiece for family and daily necessities of life, such as cooking, warmth and light. An extension of this is ‘karlup’, the name given to my home country. Literally translated, it is the place of my fire, my family place, my home.

Fire and smoke also have a prominent position in our ceremonies. While light is the most important thing a fire provides, the smoke can also be used to cleanse spirit. Even in contemporary times, fire remains at the centre of family and other gatherings.”

Kelly, G. ‘Karla Wongi Fire Talk.’

https://www.dpaw.wa.gov.au/images/documents/fire/karla-wongi-fire-talk.pdf

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How might preschool children benefit from experiences with fire?

  • A fire gathering has the potential to enhance a sense of belonging and partnership within a community.
  • Fire symbolises important aspects of our history and culture, and by providing children with fire experiences we are continuing this long tradition.
  • Experiences with fire will enable links to learning in relation to Australia’s Indigenous history and contemporary Indigenous spiritual practices.
  • For many children, lighting a fire and cooking in the outdoors will be an exciting new and rewarding experience.
  • Bushfires are a relatively common occurrence within the Australia landscape and fire safety awareness is a valid addition to any educational program provided for young children.
  • Experiences with fire will facilitate links to learning regarding the impact bushfires can have on the natural landscape inclusive of the flora and fauna.
  • Lighting a fire with children provides an opportunity for them to directly experience and gain knowledge about the nature of an open flame within a safe and controlled environment.
  • Lighting a fire with children provides them with an opportunity to develop a healthy respect for fire and the necessary skills to keep themselves safe around fire.
  • Experiences with fire will help facilitate links to learning about fire safety procedures around the home and within the neighbouring community.

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DET Vic. ‘Fire Awareness for Children: Prep – Grade 6.’

http://www.education.vic.gov.au/Documents/school/teachers/health/fireawarep6.pdf

CFA Vic. ‘Junior Fire Safe: Teacher Resource for Years Prep to 2.’

http://www.cfa.vic.gov.au/fm_files/attachments/kids_and_schools/junior_fire_safe_complete.pdf

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Where and how do we start?

The proposition of introducing fire into an ECE setting is not something to be broached lightly or without the accompaniment of a considerable amount of deliberation, research and planning. Ideally, it should be undertaken as a collaborative endeavour engaging all relevant participants in the decision making process. It is vital that participants are able to work cooperatively as a team to consolidate a comprehensive understanding of the implications of the proposal. Together, they must formulate and approve an official set of procedures and/or guidelines to inform practice. It is crucial that the team are able to validate why they believe the introduction of fire is an important addition to the children’s program and demonstrate that they have made an assessment confirming that the perceived benefits outweigh the associated risks.

Our service generated the following policy documents to guide practice:

  1. MANAGING RISK IN PLAY PROVISION POLICY
  2. RISK-BENEFIT ASSESSMENT FOR FIRE-PIT USE
  3. DYNAMIC RISK-BENEFIT FLOW CHART

You may find the following document to be a useful guide:

Ball, D., Gill, T., & Spiegal, B. (2012). ‘Managing Risk in Play Provision’ (Play England).

http://www.playengland.org.uk/media/172644/managing-risk-in-play-provision.pdf
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It is essential that you consult with your local council laws regarding open air burning. Our service is located within the Shire of Yarra Ranges and we were able to obtain the following documentation online:

Open Air Burning Local Law 2007

http://www.yarraranges.vic.gov.au/files/assets/public/webdocuments/planning-building-health/community-compliance/policies-strategies-community-compliance/open_air_burning_local_law_2007.pdf

Open Air Burning: Residential Bushland Areas

http://www.yarraranges.vic.gov.au/files/assets/public/webdocuments/planning-building-health/community-compliance/policies-strategies-community-compliance/residential_bushland_areas.pdf

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For many educators, the prospect of formulating the required documentation necessary for getting a fire-pit up and running may present as a daunting process, however, I can assure you that the hard work is without question, well worth it. The children and staff at our service have absolutely loved incorporating fire into our outdoor program and together, they have gained much from the experience. On a personal level, it put a huge smile on my face the first day I headed for home with the smell of fire permeating my hair and clothing.  It embodied the lingering evidence of a wonderful day spent outdoors with the children. For an early childhood educator, what could possibly be more captivating and rewarding?

Not so long ago in a Facebook forum, I offered my thoughts on what I believe to be the precarious tension that exists between the Australian ‘National Early Years Learning Framework’ (EYLF) and the ‘National Quality Standards’ (NQS). The NQS constitutes the assessment and rating instrument of the ‘National Quality Framework’ (NQF).

NQS & EYLF

Here is a transcript of that Facebook post:

There is a niggling discord that exists for me when attempting to marry together the philosophical underpinnings of the EYLF and the NQF.  To be fair, my concern is perhaps not the NQF so much as the accompanying NQS and A & R process. The EYLF is infused with ideals that embrace the celebration of diversity. It encourages educators/services to form respectful, collaborative partnerships with, and in, their community; responding to their local socio-cultural context.  As a consequence of the introduction of the EYLF, we should be seeing the development of greater diversity in service provision as educators/services seek to meet the needs and aspirations of the families and children within their local context. The EYLF provides just enough ‘scaffolding’ to allow services to construct programs that reflect the uniqueness of their context.  Unfortunately, what appears to have been given to us with one hand (the EYLF), was then swiftly taken away by another (the NQS). The EYLF assumes and/or credits EC educators with the capacity to create ‘quality’ programs for their local community whilst the NQS doubts their professional competency.

When we begin to participate in the discourse of ‘standards’ as prescribed by the NQS, we become ensnared in the bureaucratic act of chronicling ‘sameness’ and ‘uniformity’.  The innovative art of tailoring programs to meet the needs of ‘the local context’ becomes subservient to measuring and comparing against standard criteria that honour homogeny.  I am firmly of the belief that the NQS is falling far short of its intended goal!  What represents ‘quality’ across multiple contexts can never be uniform in nature!

If I could wield my magic wand, I would pull the plug on the NQS and A & R process (the bath water) and gladly watch them gurgle down the drain while keeping a hold on the NQF (the baby).  In essence, I would retain the ‘guiding’ framework but remove the process that fosters ‘standardisation’. Measuring and judging the work of professionals through a process representative of a ‘power over’ relationship (love a bit of Follett!) is not the way to improve quality. It only breeds anguish, frustration, antagonism and contempt.

But how do we ensure quality is achieved in services that are performing less than desirably?  I would like to see the current ‘Assessors’ employed by our regulatory authorities replaced by ‘Pedagogical Consultants’ with qualifications, experience and longevity in the ECE field.  They should be hands-on consultants (not bureaucrats!) who work collaboratively with services; investing in a ‘power with’ relationship to improve service quality.

“To lead people, walk behind them” ( Lao Tzu).

How has this frictional relationship become problematic for practice?

Since posting this opinion piece on Facebook, I have been contemplating the influence this proposed dissonance may have had on the courage and resilience of the early childhood profession.  In particular, I am referring to those educators working at the coal-face and implementing the EYLF under the umbrella of what could be considered an imposing and conflicting NQS instrument.  Based purely on a subjective appraisal of a variety of discussion forums on Facebook, I have certainly sensed that many educators are displaying a high degree of anxiety, confusion and uncertainty when attempting to weave both documents together in practice. For some educators, this appears to have triggered a palpable, fear-driven reluctance to’ trust’ in their own capacity to facilitate practice appropriate to their context.  In essence, they are struggling to cognitively reconcile the relative freedom the EYLF offers them to create program formats and develop documentation processes that reflect their unique local context against the antithetical nature of a NQS that privileges uniformity. This tangible angst appears to have fuelled a growing misconception that a golden formula ‘must’ exist that defines the ‘right’ mode of practice, if only it could just be harnessed. Certainly, many educators seem to be desperately searching beyond themselves and their context for a ‘sure fix’ solution to reconcile their anguish. I believe the NQS has been particularly effective in bolstering this state of affairs.

When in doubt, clutch at straws?

Undeniably, this could hardly be considered the best response.  However, personal observations would suggest that it is happening, and it is happening a lot.

It would be fair to acknowledge that for most people, experiencing a moderate level of anxiety, challenge or cognitive dissonance can be disturbing and uncomfortable. However, being open and receptive to these feelings provides the prerequisite ingredients to facilitate a capacity for critical reflection.  Why? Because a degree of uncertainty leads to questioning, and questioning leads to growth; conversely, certainty leads to a closed mindset, and a closed mindset leads to stagnation. Although, a state of stagnation may have the potential to engender a calm and relaxed composure, little that could be considered positive or creative emanates from its languor. So the message here is to embrace uncertainty. Uncertainty is okay. Uncertainty is good for you. Uncertainty stimulates a growth mindset. Uncertainty fosters critical thinking. In fact, we really need to shout it out loud…  UNCERTAINTY IS A GOOD THING!!!

The beauty of embracing uncertainty is that it may just liberate educators from feeling the need to clutch at straws or seek out sham ‘quick-fix’ solutions or ‘time-saving’ templates.  It has become a concern to many within the profession that there is an ever increasing emergence of unqualified and inexperienced individuals seeking to prey on the vulnerability of educators within the early childhood field. These swindlers aim to exchange shoddy templates and largely plagiarised materials to line their own pockets with educators meagre, but hard earned money. The advent of social media, particularly Facebook, and the ease with which these unscrupulous individuals can now create ‘professional-looking’ websites and glossy templates has certainly helped them market their inferior product. Their efforts represent a disgraceful exercise in deception, and are a conduit that educators should seek to avoid. The best available support options for educators have always been, and remain, seeking out trusted and experienced mentors for sponsorship and guidance, and pursuing professional development opportunities from highly qualified, reputable and respected consultants within the field.

It is a given, and in fact mandatory under the NQF, that educators commit themselves to an ongoing cycle of pedagogical growth through the linking together of performance appraisal and professional development requirements. Why? Because embracing the art of Pedagogy is an enduring relationship that necessitates embarking on a voyage of continual discovery; one that extends far beyond the finality of a graduation ceremony. Importantly, amidst that journey, a treasure-trove of experiences and encounters can be unearthed and connected to advance an educator toward an elevated wellspring of cognisance. The voyage harbours the potential to deliver those delectable and inspirational ‘Ah-ha!’ moments.  When an educator engages in an ongoing cycle of performance appraisal and professional development, they are encouraged to think critically and make explicit the areas of practice within which they personally need to secure a broader, more detailed knowledge and understanding.  Without doubt, it is an intellectually stimulating process, often arduous and challenging, but definitely one that can never be ‘fast-tracked’.

And now for a final word on the NQS.

Having read this far, readers would no doubt acknowledge that I am not particularly enamoured with the NQS.  So to ensure transparency, it is probably prudent that I declare that this viewpoint is not in any way a response to a negative experience with the assessment and rating process or the NQS. I am the Director of a service that was assessed and rated not long after the NQS were initiated in 2012. All-in-all, the experience was quite short lived (one and a half days) but not particularly conducive to accurately appraising the unique qualities of the service. The assessor was moderately pleasant and measured in her interactions, but simultaneously tenacious in checking the required ‘boxes’. Ultimately, we received an ‘Exceeding’ rating.  For a short while we were somewhat buoyed by the outcome, but at the same time, there remained a niggling disquiet about the process.

When we initially received and started to scrutinise our draft assessment feedback, we were struck by the subjective nature of the transactions that permeated the application of the NQS instrument.  In addition, we were perplexed by the vague semantics involved in distinguishing between what constituted ‘meeting’ and ‘exceeding’ the NQS with regard to many elements. Stunned and floored, it became disturbingly evident that the difference between receiving a ‘meeting’ or ‘exceeding’ rating on an element could be centred upon the mere presence or absence of one word!!! ONE WORD!!! Given that the insertion of that ‘one word’ was at the subjective discretion of one individual, the process simply seemed to amount to absurdity!!! Deep disillusionment resulted in the service providing our Regulatory Authority (RA) with a detailed feedback report specifying the concerns we held with regard to the A&R process; specifically our misgivings surrounding the nature and application of the A&R instrument.

Three years have now transpired since our A&R experience and today I find myself absorbed in an article that was published in the Australasian Journal of Early Childhood called, ‘Constructs of quality in early childhood education and care: A close examination of the NQS assessment and rating instrument’ [40(3) 2015].  Jen Jackson from Victoria University is the author of the article, and her previous experience includes the role of Lead Assessor in Victoria. Unsurprisingly, Jen’s analysis alludes to and substantiates many of the reservations our team had exposed back at the time of our assessment.

Within the article, Jackson makes the following judicious observations:

”In summary, the assessment and rating process involves two points at which the assessors must exercise professional judgement: in determining if an element is ’Met’ or ‘Not Met’, and then determining whether a standard is Meeting NQS or Exceeding NQS (if all the constituent elements are ‘Met’). Due to the procedural rules that govern ratings at the quality area and service levels, these decisions have significant consequences for the overall outcome of the assessment and rating process for the service. The integrity of the process therefore depends upon these measurements being consistent and defensible” (p.47).

“Consistency across assessors, or inter-rater reliability’, is a significant concern, as the levels of subjectivity involved in observation systems makes them ‘particularly subject to error’ (Sandilos & DiPerna, 2011, p.69)” (p.47).

“Consultations from the 2014 national review of the assessment and rating process suggest that the combined strategies of inter-rater reliability supports and text-based tools have still left room for improvement in the reliability and validity of NQS assessments (Woolcott  Research and Engagement, 2014)” (p.50).
Mmmmm….  So what do you think? Is NOW a good time to pull the plug on the NQS and A & R process?

The tradition of building fairy houses appears to have originated from a cluster of islands off Coastal Maine, USA.

“It is thought that fairies first left Tir na nog, the land of eternal youth, about 65 million years ago, to help heal the earth from the devastating effects of the asteroid impact that plunged the world into darkness and chaos.  It is believed that the origin of the four fairy clans – air, water, fire and tree fairies – can be traced to this time.  As little as 10,000 years ago, fairies are said to have been living commonly and openly in the Irish and Welsh countryside, serving as healers and holding fairy court where accused violators of natural law could be heard and reprimanded.  These “fairy circles,” as they are called, evolved into community gathering places where important events such as the turning of the four seasons and the birth of the full moon are celebrated.” (see Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens)

ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON - FAIRIES

Towards the end of 2013, our preschool commenced activity on the creation of a large outdoor fairy garden. This will be the focus of a future blog post as soon as it has been completed. Unfortunately, in a not-for-profit preschool environment, we have to live by the motto ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’, as finances are often tight.

1 Fairy Garden

In a corner of this large fairy garden, we have a miniature fairy garden housed in an old wheel barrow. The children adore the wheel barrow garden and demonstrate a deep reverence for its presence. Their imaginations often work overtime as they conjure up images of  the rambunctious small folk activity that goes on in this wee garden at night when the playground lies empty and bathed in moonlight. Several children race to this corner of the playground everyday on their arrival just to ascertain if there is any evidence or clues as to the late night antics of the fairies and pixies.

On one such morning, a group of children decided that the fairies were really in need of a fairy home, a place where they could be safe and comfortable. They talked excitedly about how they might be able to make one and determined the materials that they would need. They located sticks and paper-bark and began the process of building. There were a lot mathematical conversations involved in their endeavours as they determined the length of sticks they required, the size of the paper-bark pieces they would need and the overall shape of the structure. Their problem-solving skills were put to good use as they worked with materials that didn’t always respond to their expectations. The children eventually requested string and scissors as a means of securing the materials together. Creating knots was a new skill for the children to master.

2 Fairy House

On completion, B. determined that the fairy house needed decorating and searched the playground for suitable materials.

3 Fairy House

4 Fairy House

5 Fairy House

The following day, the children decided that the fairy house was in need of a door. The fairies clearly needed some privacy and protection from the elements.

6 Fairy House

7 Fairy House

So construction continued. They determined that the T-pee style house would need a triangular shaped door and searched for suitably sized sticks.

8 FairyHouse

A few drops of rain certainly didn’t hamper their progress.

9 Fairy House

10 Fairy House

Paper-bark was woven through the triangular shape and the door was securely tied onto the house.

11 Fairy House

12 Fairy House

Perfect!  A job well done. Now to see what the fairies think of their new home. 🙂

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Fairy Houses

I recently purchased this gorgeous little book overflowing with delightful images of fairy houses created from found natural materials. I think the children are going to love it!

🙂

In her book, Play Matters (2nd Edition), Kathy Walker proposes:

One of the teacher’s roles is to provide a rich range of opportunities for children to explore, investigate, involve and engage in purposeful, personalised and meaningful experiences, so that a number of different types of play, thinking, reasoning and understanding can occur”.

Providing children with rich learning opportunities directly linked to their own emerging interests, socio-cultural experiences or elements of their environment (the third teacher), should be fundamental to curriculum planning.

One of my favourite methods of intentionally providing a provocation for play, based on the criteria mentioned above, is to create small ‘table-top’ playscapes. The purpose of this post is to share some of the play-scapes I have created over the last few years with the hope that I might provide some inspiration to fellow educators in the early childhood field. In most instances, it has taken some time to collect many of the elements found in each playscape, but the effort has definitely been well worth it in terms of the enormous joy and opportunities for engagement and learning they afford the children.

Some of the playscapes shown below have been presented in previous posts so you may find additional information about them by clicking on the link below the photograph. 🙂

MULTICULTURAL AND INDIGENOUS PLAYSCAPES

Indigenous Playscape

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Chinese Playscape

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Japanese Playscape

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STORY (LITERACY) PLAYSCAPES

A Nice Walk in the Jungle

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View here

Goldilocks and the Three Bears

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View here

The Three Billy Goats Gruff

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ADVENTURE PLAYSCAPES

Pirate Playscape

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View here

 Space Playscape

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NATURE PLAYSCAPES

The Frog Life Cycle

1 - Copy

View here

SEASONAL PLAYSCAPES

Summer Playscape

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View here

Autumn Playscape

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View here

Winter Playscape

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View here

Spring Playscape

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View here

If you are concerned about children ‘trashing’ a playscape that you have gone to great lengths to set up, then this post may be of help to you ~ View here

I hope you have enjoyed this playscape journey and have been able to find some inspiration for future planning.
🙂

 

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