Wednesday, June 1, 2016

A Place for Joy

We need to give each other the space to grow, to be ourselves, to exercise our diversity. We need to give each other space so that we may both give and receive such beautiful things as ideas, openness, dignity, joy, healing, and inclusion. - Max de Pree

15 years ago I was deep in a search for a preschool for my son James. I wasn't sure exactly what I was looking for, but trusted that I'd know when I stumbled across it. .

One morning we visited a small preschool tucked away on the edge of our nearby bush land.  It was love at first sight for me, and for James.  The space and the touch of wildness to the outdoors had me at "hello", and James was besotted with the old rickety bridge.

The old rickety bridge - much loved.

As I walked and chatted with the director through an outdoor area full of natural nooks and crannies, we came across three children engrossed in mixing water into dirt that was already wet from recent rain.  

"Watch this!" said one child delightedly, flinging a muddy glob to the ground.  "We are making art" she said

The director turned to me smiling, and asked: "Can you see their joy?"

Boom.  I knew then that I wanted a place where James had the time, the space and the permission to experience the joy and freedom of play.  I knew then that I wanted teachers who understood that this was important.  

Fast forward 15 years, and the time and space that children have for free play is being eroded.  

We feel the need to pick apart play to match to objectives, and plan follow up experiences.  Intentional teaching seems to have become another word for "activity".  We create spaces for play that lend themselves more to adult sensibilities, rather spaces that beckon to children, spark their curiosity and encourage them to wonder, dream and imagine.

Don't children have the right to play without undue focus on adult desired goals for planned activities?  Is there a place for free play in our preschools today?

The very idea of "being" in our Early Years Learning Framework recognises the significance of children being present in the moment and engaging with life's joy and challenges.  

Living Practice with the EYLF tells us:

Being is about children having the chance to just be themselves. It is about allowing children the time to grow at their own pace rather than feeling that we should always be rushing them onto the next stage in their lives. Childhood does not have to be hurried. Sometimes the best preparation for being five (or four, or three, or two…) is to be four (or three, or two, or one) for a whole year. Time for “being” allows children to

experience the joy and wonder of childhood; 
• learn about themselves and who they are; 
• develop deep and satisfying relationships; and 
• become fully involved with new ideas and interests.

If we over manage and over schedule children's play, if we give children less time to simply "be", do we take away an essential freedom that leads to creativity, imagination, discovery, experimentation, exploration - and joy?

This preschool nurtured the joy and wonder of childhood for my children.  It gave me some very special gifts as well.  In fact, it changed me as a teacher.

This preschool ignited the joy in teaching.    It taught me a different way of seeing and being with children.  It taught me to trust, and let go my tightly held teaching reins, and to delight in magic that happened when I did.  

This preschool taught me the benefits of slowing down.  There is so much to be in awe of when we stop and look at the children in front of us.  Slowing down gives us the space to "be" and to find the beauty and magic in the everyday.

There is a place for joy for joy's sake in early childhood programs.  If we value the joy and wonder of childhood, let's slow down and make time for it to flourish.

It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge  - Albert Einstein

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Why I Advocate for Play in Early Childhood Services

I'm an advocate for play in early childhood settings.   

We know that ‘... play shapes the architecture of the brain in unique ways; it links social, creative and cognitive skills’ (Bartlett, 2010)

Play isn't a child's only way of learning.  Of course it isn't.

Play isn't the only practice that our Early Years Learning Framework encourages educators to draw on to promote children's learning.   Educators need to have a rich repertoire of practices up their sleeves, and learning through play is only one of them.

Play is, however,  a powerful way of learning and a child's right, and it's the one I see declining in early childhood settings.  

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child affirms ‘... play as a fundamental right of all children’

I'm not an expert.  I'm not a researcher.  I'm a common garden-variety educator.  

I can, however, report from the trenches that the time and space for play in early childhood settings has declined. Since I started out as a neophyte educator over 20 years ago, I have observed that:  
  • The time children have for self motivated, self directed play has decreased
  • The time and space children have for outdoor play, particularly in natural settings, has decreased 
  • Educators experience pressure from families to include more structured academic activities in their programs
  • The word "play" is being used more to describe what are actually adult led activities
  • Educators are unsure of what their role is in a child's play
  • Educators lack confidence in seeing, describing and facilitating a child's learning in play

The Early Years Learning Framework (p. 46) defines play-based learning as: A context for learning through which children organise and make sense of their social worlds, as they engage actively with people, objects and representations.

I am not alone.  

Maggie Dent, in "Stop Stealing Childhood", includes the voices of parents and educators and professionals in related fields expressing similar concerns with the current state of play in Australia.  

Research has also shown that children are spending less time playing outdoors than at any other time in history.  In 2011, a study commissioned by Planet Ark found that there has been a dramatic shift in childhood activity from outdoor play to indoor activity in the space of one generation. 

Many educators today are continually asked to defend the role of play to families who are asking for more academic based school readiness programs.  This is a dominant discourse in our profession and those that argue that it doesn't take place are removed from the day to day realities of an early learning setting.  

It only takes a glance at advertisements for child care centres to see that in today's competitive child care market, many are feeling the pressure to entice families by promoting the academic aspects of their school readiness programs and extra curricula activities.  Play barely rates a mention.  

While it is heartening to see that the movement for natural outdoor environments in early learning services is having an impact in Australia, and there is a rise in "Bush Preschools" where children go out the gate into natural settings, we still have a long way to go toward providing our children with the opportunity to experience the space to play in environments rich in potential for creativity, imagination, discovery, exploration, awe and wonder.

Children need the room to play.

Common reasons put forward for the decline of play in early childhood include:
  • safety concerns, 
  • eroding social capital, 
  • increasing time spent in educational institutions,
  •  a rising belief that "earlier is better", 
  • an emphasis on structured activities

As Tim Gill observes:

More than ever, those of us around the world who are calling for a rethink in the way children live and learn are up against the same pressures: safety fears (and even more insidious, fear of being blamed if a child gets hurt or upset), busy and at times anxious parents, threats to green spaces within and beyond schools and other settings, the growing attractions of the media and the virtual world, and competing political priorities. 

 – Tim Gill, No Fear, 2007. 

Why does the decline in play matter?  The benefits of play are well documented and too numerous to list in any detail.  To give you a taste:

  • The intellectual, social and cognitive benefits of play are well documented.  Neuroscientific studies have shown that play leads to growth in the frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for higher mental functions. 

  • Studies in the field of experimental and developmental psychology consistently demonstrate the benefits of play based learning over instructional, approaches to learning in children.

  • UNICEF states that through free play in peer groups children "learn and practise the control of aggression, the management of conflict, the earning of respect and friendship, discussion of feelings, appreciation of diversity, and awareness of the needs and feelings of others." 

Despite these obvious benefits, play in early childhood services continues to decline.

‘... play shapes the architecture of the brain in unique ways; it links social, creative and cognitive skills’ (Bartlett, 2010)

Why does a decline in play matter?

The decrease in play in early childhood can be linked to negative impacts on a child's learning and well-being.  Peter Gray highlights the long term harm early academic training over play based programs can have on our children, especially in the areas of social and emotional development:

"By depriving children of opportunities to play on their own, away from direct adult supervision and control, we are depriving them of opportunities to learn how to take control of their own lives. We may think we are protecting them, but in fact we are diminishing their joy, diminishing their sense of self-control, preventing them from discovering and exploring the endeavors they would most love, and increasing the odds that they will suffer from anxiety, depression, and other disorders."  - Peter Gray

Richard Louv introduced us to the term "nature deficit disorder" in his book "Last Child in the Woods" to describe the negative impact of children spending less time playing outdoors, particularly in natural settings.

A growing body of evidence indicates that nature deficit disorder contributes to higher rates of attention difficulties, obesity, behavioral and emotional problems and a decrease in social, cognitive and creative development.  

‘All children and young people need to play. The impulse to play is innate. Play is a biological, psychological and social necessity, and is fundamental to the healthy development and wellbeing of individuals and communities.’ (Playwork Principles Scrutiny Group 2005)
A decline in play also has negative impacts on vulnerable or disadvantaged children, and children with additional needs.  Speech pathologist Amanda Styles writes in Maggie Dent's "Stop Stealing Childhood in the Name of Education"

Now, with the push for early formalised learning, these children are even more at risk for developing behavioural, learning, social and emotional difficulties. They will lag ever further behind their peers and as we are already seeing, there will be significant increases in concurrent problems (e.g. behavioural issues within the classrooms). Instead of having the much needed time to further develop their oral language development, self- regulatory skills and social ­emotional maturity through the much needed play experiences their attention is pushed towards formal literacy and numeracy training. "

"Perhaps most worrying, a number of studies have documented the loss of play opportunities for children over the second half of the 20th century and demonstrated a clear link with increased indicators of stress and mental health problems." - David Whitebread 
Who is advantaged when we make room for structured, academic learning at the expense of play?  In 2010 The Gesell Institute for Human Development conducted a study that asked the following questions:  
  • Have kids gotten smarter? 
  • Can they learn things sooner? 
  • What effect has modern culture had on child development?  

The answers were no, no and no.

Studies comparing groups of children in New Zealand who started formal literacy lessons at age 5 and 7 indicated that the early introduction of formal learning approaches to literacy does not improve children’s reading development, and may even be damaging. 

This is not an overwhelming case for reducing the time and space for play.

Advocating for play does not mean advocating against intentional teaching.  

Advocating for play does not mean leaving children to their own devices and placing teachers in the role of supervisors.  A quality play based curriculum relies on responsive educators who are able to sensitively observe and interact with children using their professional knowledge to support children's learning and well-being and make informed and intentional curriculum decisions.

Advocating for play does not mean letting children make all the decisions, or to be guided completely by their interests.  The vital importance of qualified and experienced educators cannot, and should not be underestimated.

Advocating for play does not mean creating a divide between structured vs unstructured, or adult led vs child led experiences.  We understand that adults have a role in learning through play, but also, as Lennie Barblett states:

"Being affirms a child's right to play without undue focus on adult desired goals for activities. So have a good look around your centre and there should be a fine balance between child initiated play activities and teacher directed or educator directed. Have a good look at what you're doing and what you're calling play. Because I've been in some centres and what they call play-based learning is not. Be very careful. Have a good look. "

Advocating for play does not mean simply trotting out the good old "Play is a child's work" or "Play is how children learn".  Advocating for play is helping people to see the value in play, in observing play, in interpreting play, in planning for play, in creating environments for play, in documenting learning through play, in articulating play and in making the learning visible to children, families and our community.  

"Early childhood educators need to be articulate, to be able to justify clearly, provide evidence for and proclaim the benefits of play-based learning. The EYLF (2009) is based on sound, proven early childhood pedagogy and practice principles. However, for the EYLF to be implemented properly, all early childhood educators need to know what play is, why it is important, how to implement and assess a play-based program and their role in it."

I advocate for play, not because I have a narrow view of how children learn and develop, but because I can see that the time and space for play in early childhood settings is decreasing.  I advocate for play because it is a fundamental human right for all children, regardless of age, gender, culture, class or ability.

We must exercise caution and not make it too much an object of adult gaze. Children’s play belongs to children; adults should tread lightly when considering their responsibilities in this regard, being careful not to colonise or destroy children’s own places for play through insensitive planning or the pursuit of other adult agendas, or through creating places and programmes that segregate children and their play. Adults should be aware of the importance of play and take action to promote and protect the conditions that support it. The guiding principle is that any intervention to promote play acknowledges its characteristics and allows sufficient flexibility, unpredictability and security for children to play freely.’ 

 - Lester and Russell 2010

I will continue to advocate for play.  Will you join me?

Friday, February 19, 2016

Fly the Play Flag

And never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that we would have to defend children’s right to play.  Nancy Carlsson-Paige 

You and me both Nancy Carlsson-Paige.  

And yet with every passing year we see the push down effect of academic learning and structured programs, heralding the reduction of choice and uninterrupted play in early childhood programs.

If we are to defend the place of play in our early childhood programs, we need to be really, really effective at describing play in action and explaining its value for children’s learning.

If we are to defend the place of play in our early childhood programs, we need to be knowledgeable about how to maximise children's learning through play.   And to share this with families, confidently and often.  

If we are to defend the place of play in our early childhood programs, we need to use this knowledge to document and assess children's learning, and to be very intentional in creating learning environments where children's play can flourish.   And to share this with families confidently, and often.

Parents only want the best for their child.  So let's do our best to show parents that the best for their child is a childhood filled with play, in environments carefully planned and respectfully prepared by supportive and responsive educators who are good at what they do.

Talk about play.  Write about it, describe it, document it, give specific examples about the benefits of play, share the play greats of early childhood.  Support your educators in becoming confident and informed professionals who can stand firm in their knowledge and beliefs, and be proudly accountable for their practice.

Marinate families in the benefits of play.  

Be the voice, go forth and fly the play flag!


Sunday, February 14, 2016

Art - process not product

Always one to guarantee a robust discussion amongst early childhood educators, that thorny old issue of art versus product driven craft has been buzzing around the interwebs again.

Let's ask one of the grand masters of early childhood, Lev Vygotsky what he has to say on the matter.

We have a rich history of early childhood pioneers and theorists who, along with researchers in early childhood and related fields have combined to draw us a clear road map for best practice.   

That map doesn't have detours and side trips for product orientated or teacher directed art and craft experiences.  

Vygotsky didn't say that process was more important than product except when you find something fun or cute on Pinterest that would be perfect for Valentine's Day.   

Magda Gerber said that good quality wasn't enough for children in child care - we need to do even better than that, and I agree.   Children deserve educators who aim for best practice in all they do, and that includes the experiences that we provide.

As early childhood educators we also have a responsibility to our profession to be as professional as we can be. That means making intentional teaching decisions that are informed by what we know about how children learn and develop.  

You won't damage children by going off on these side trips of paper plate fish or hand print creations , but you won't be giving them the best quality experience either.  Nor will you be the best professional you can be.

Let's step away from cookie cutter craft, and offer children daily opportunities to create in a myriad of ways, with quality materials.

Let's make Vygotsky - and those who went before and came after - proud.  

What might process orientated art look like?  Here are some readings that will point you in that direction - 

Art is not a Receipt for Child Care - Lisa Murphy
Creative Play in Art and Craft - Gowrie
How Process Art Experiences Support Preschoolers - NAEYC

Monday, February 8, 2016

Nothing is more Important than the Relationship

Relationships in toddler and infant early childhood settings matter.

More than matter.  Relationships are crucial for children's well-being and learning, not just now but in the future.  So why when I look at curriculum plans for nursery and toddler rooms do I struggle to find any mention of relationships amongst the colour recognition, farm animals, numbers and Under the Sea themes?

Do we still lack confidence in sharing what we know to be important?

Do we struggle to find a way to record our planning cycle for infants and toddlers in a way that is meaningful and effective, and not just a watered down version of the preschool curriculum??

  • My challenge to you is to challenge yourself to write about young children's relationships - with self, with others, with their learning environment, with the natural world.

  • My challenge to you is to learn as much as you can about how young children learn and develop, so that you can confidently share it.  So that you can see the little moments for what they are - the big moments. So you can gather a rich record of your discoveries and wonderings about each child.  Educational approaches such as Magda Gerber's Educaring®  approach; brain research; attachment theory - become an expert and then shout it to the rooftops.

  • My challenge to you is to throw away the box system of planning that just beckons you to fill it with busy work, and experiment with new ways of planning that follow the needs of your primary care group of children.  Keep going until you find something that works for you (Hint - there is no magic template!)

Make relationships so central that when you walk into the room you can see it, read about it, feel it, understand it, hear it.  Put the relationships back where they belong - at the very heart of your curriculum.

Please feel free to copy and print the image in this post to display for families - it might make a great starting point for discussion, or a springboard for your pedagogical documentation.  

Or build on it with quotes and snippets of educational research and theory.  Illustrate it with photographic examples from your own room, of different times of the day.  Or pop it up in your team room to prompt documentation about relationships.

How do relationships guide your curriculum decision making?