THE MAGIC OF CHILDREN'S PLAY!'

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

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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.
:)

 

As a preschool educator, mothers day and fathers day have always caused me a degree of mental anguish each year as they inevitably draw closer on the calendar. The reason for my anguish is twofold. Firstly, I adopt an emergent curriculum approach when planning the preschool program for the children within my care.  Such an approach is far from conducive with the concept of demanding that children sit down and churn out ‘craft’ style gifts that have little or perhaps no meaning to them.  Clearly, I am in no way suggesting that the children do not love and cherish their fathers and that they wouldn’t be delighted to present them with a gift, but I do feel that the subtle meaning behind honouring there father on a designated day probably eludes a child of four or five years of age. Secondly, and from a personal perspective, I grew up in a family whereby my parents didn’t really rate these days very highly, particularly in light of their growing commercialism, and this has no doubt resulted in me adopting similar views when I became a parent myself. Nevertheless, as an educator, I must acknowledge that these events are now firmly established cultural traditions within our society that are cherished by many of the families attending our preschool service. So to help myself reflect on the original motivation and history behind the decision to commemorate fathers (and mothers) day, I did some research. I was certainly hoping that I would find a little more substance to the decision beyond rampant commercialism.

Mothers day commenced in America with its origins being in the  peace-and-reconciliation campaigns of the post-Civil War era. The motivation behind what were called  “Mother’s Work Days”, was to bring together the mothers of Confederate and Union soldiers.

The campaign to celebrate a national fathers day ( History of Fathers Day) came about as follows:

On July 5, 1908, a West Virginia church sponsored the nation’s first event explicitly in honour of fathers, a Sunday sermon in memory of the 362 men who had died in the previous December’s explosions at the Fairmont Coal Company mines in Monongah, but it was a one-time commemoration and not an annual holiday. The next year, a Spokane, Washington woman named Sonora Smart Dodd, one of six children raised by a widower (father), tried to establish an official equivalent to Mother’s Day for male parents. She went to local churches, the YMCA, shopkeepers and government officials to drum up support for her idea, and she was successful: Washington State celebrated the nation’s first state-wide Father’s Day on July 19, 1910.

From my reading, I got the distinct feeling that the message behind the establishment of these days was founded on commemorating the hardship and sacrifices parents endured for their children in what were times fraught with significantly more danger and adversity than those which face our current generation of parents. The impetus was clearly based upon building honourable and respectful relationships and promoting a reverence for the selflessness that characterised (and still does!) parenthood.

Then came the inevitable commercialisation. Opportunist retailers seized upon the chance to make a quick buck.

“In 1972, in the middle of a hard-fought presidential re-election campaign, Richard Nixon signed a proclamation making Father’s Day a federal holiday…  Today, economists estimate that Americans spend more than $1 billion each year on Father’s Day gifts.”

Can you believe that figure? $1 billion each year! Know how better could that money be spent.

So, I returned to the idea of relationship building. Surely that is what mothers day and fathers day should be all about in this day and age?

The idea that began to grow in my mind focused on giving a gift that was far removed from the repugnant commercialisation of our time and that in fact could not be deemed as having any monetary value at all. I settled on the idea of a gift from nature, which ended up being the humble stick, the very thing that a father would have greatly valued as a child.  The motivation was all about helping each father to make a connection with their child by recalling their own childhood experiences and to strengthen their relationship by spending time together. Hence the idea of a Magic Stick with an accompanying poem came into fruition.

The children at our preschool are constantly collecting and playing with sticks, as most children do, so to introduce the idea of making a magic stick for Dad was meet with great joy and enthusiasm. We all felt that every Dad really should have a magic stick and would be truly bereft without one!

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And so here they are…

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The photographs don’t do the sticks justice as they truly are very sparkly!

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And not one is the same as another!

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Accompanying each magic stick was the following poem:

For My Superhero

Today I have something for you,
A magical treasure to behold,
It is a stick, 
I grant you it,
Wielding stories to be told.

When you were just a small wee lad,
You loved a stick or two,
But now it is a state so sad,
That you’ve cast all sticks from view.

So take this stick into your palm,
And feel its familiar fit,
Close your eyes and sense the calm,
As you quietly sit a bit.

With this stick, please journey a while,
Wandering through your child-like mind,
Wrench open that fragrant memory file,
Abandoned sticks a strewn you’ll find.

Take hold of your stick, brandish it,
Then to the door we’ll flee,
For the magic of its impish wit,
In nature is set free.

Come with me to a place on high,
Up to the garden wall,
Here we’ll see the dragon’s fly,
And we’ll smite them one and all.

Your stick will sail the puddled seas, 
To save a bug a scurry,
That tumbled from the wind-blown leaves,
Swirling ‘round in a fearsome flurry.

Stick hastily points into the sky,
To silence that monster squall,
And as the time ticks slowly by,
The delicate leaves do fall.

Stick taps out a tune upon a rock,
A rhythmic sensory delight,
As a fairy in a rose petal frock,
Dances towards the night.

The day is done we must confess,
Time to relinquish our day in the wild,
But grasping tight to your stick no less,
You have memories anew to be filed.                    
(Karen Green)

Presented as appears below:

My Superhero

When I was in the process of formulating this idea, I mentioned it to two of my close blogging friends and challenged them to write a poem too.  So here are theirs as well, just brilliant!

Firstly, there is this clever one by Candy Lawrence from Aunt Annie’s Childcare.

Remember back when dads were boys
and went outdoors for all their joys?
No iPods, iPads, laptop games
and friends shared more than Facebook memes.
Kids climbed up trees and built with rocks,
made houses from a cardboard box,
played chasings out of adults’ sight
and no-one asked if it was right.
Outdoors was great. You’d run and run.
You’d play with sticks- just like this one.
“Don’t poke your eye out!” called your mum,
but never stopped you having fun.

Now plastic fills a young child’s life;
outdoors it’s feared we’ll get in strife.
We’re watched like hawks and sticks are banned,
outdoors you’re saying “Hold my hand!”
Our freedom has been locked away;
childhood was different in your day.
We need to run, get wet, get cold
and laugh and yell before we’re old.
We’re asking, “Dads! Please let us play
the simple, fun, old-fashioned way.
Outdoors is best for girls and boys
and simple sticks can still be toys.”

And then this lovely one from Alec Duncan from Child’s Play Music.

Hold this for me, Dad – it’s not a stick.

Really it’s a wizard’s staff,
And we will fight dragons together,
Heroes, side by side.

But wait, Dad – it’s not a wizard’s staff.
Really it’s a fishing rod,
And we will catch fish together,
And dangle our toes in the water.

No, no, you see, Dad – it’s not a fishing rod.
Really it’s a shining horse,
And we will ride races together,
As the earth shakes beneath our hooves.

Oh, I know, Dad – it’s not a shining horse.
Really it’s a hammer,
And we will build a house together
To keep us warm when the cold wind blows.

And the best thing, Dad – do you know the best thing?
Outside there are more sticks,
So many stories waiting to be told:
Let’s find out what they are.

We’ll write them together.

Taking the time to reflect on practice and determine the true meaning behind the things that we do just because they have always been done, often brings about greater understanding and improved practice.

:)

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