Stuffing around with nature

Stuffing around with nature

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We humans are really slow learners.  I don’t necessarily refer to learning as in growth, development and education – I mean learning as in reflecting on the paths we take in life, and realising that we aren’t doing so well.

There has been a huge shift in the world, when we are looking at the sustainability of Earth.  Have we shifted far enough?  NO!  Nowhere near.  We have a long road ahead of us before we finally really start undoing the impact we have had on Earth.  We have taken nature for granted.  Every step of the way.  As a human race, we put on our blinkers, we topped up with greed, and we went about destroying the very thing that sustains our lives. Nature.

But this is not a post about sustainability of the Earth and its resources.  No, sir!  ….or Madam, or maybe I should say, just “No”.  This is about the way we have also decided to rebel against our very essence.  The way we have decided that we know better than our creator.  Our bodies and brains are intricately designed with purpose and function.  We learn best through our natural instinct and interaction with the world.  Our bodies develop when left to do so freely.  Our minds remember things when we experience them over and over.

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Naturally, we are not designed to be forced into age segregated institutions.  Naturally, we are not designed to sit still for long hours at a desk being ‘instructed’ on the ways of the world.  Naturally, our body needs to move.  Naturally, our minds need to experience.  Naturally, our souls need to connect with others.  Naturally we need nurturing in our lives – both from others, and toward others.

We were made to LIVE in this world.  It is nature.  Play is nature.

“Perhaps play would be more respected if we called it something like “self-motivated practice of life skills, “ but that would remove the lightheartedness from it and thereby reduce its effectiveness. So we are stuck with the paradox. We must accept play’s triviality in order to realize its profundity.
~Peter Gray,  Free to Learn

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We have destroyed our Earth, with our neglect of the natural world.  Our attitude of greed – nature is “not enough” – has seen harm come to our planet.  And we are having the exact same effect on our children.  Adults want and expect more and more from children, younger and younger.  The competition between parents is fierce.  “Whose child is excelling the most?”

We are stripping the nature out of our children – the natural instincts that see them develop and grow.  And we are doing our best to create some sort of synthetic race of living breathing human robots.  We need to cut back our unrealistic expectations, our demands, our boxed in thinking.  We need to give children spaces to play that open their minds, hearts and imaginations.  Spaces where they can discover, move and mould their own environments.  In a nutshell – where they can PLAY!

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Just as we are becoming more aware that we need to stop our greed and care for our natural world before it is too late, we need to let go and care for our children.  We need to step back and give them room to rejuvenate.  Childhood is a time of magic.  Magic that feeds the heart and soul, and makes beautiful memories.  But also, the sheer magic of the way we are so intricately designed to weave our way in the world.  We need to cut out the interference and allow nature to take its course.  We need to feed our children on a diet of time and space – so they can play and learn and grow and develop…..just the way that nature intended them to.

It’s time to stop stuffing around with nature.

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Just breathe

Just breathe

 

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“Just breathe.”

Those words echo around in my mind.  They have served me many times over the years.  They serve me right now, as I try to make sense of things going on in the world around me, in my life, in my mind and heart.  It’s a concept I’ve had engraved in my soul.  So that when I am having trouble reconciling my feelings, it is what I always come back to.

“Just breathe.”

I’ve spoken those words possibly thousands of times, to probably hundreds of children.  When their emotions overwhelm them.  When they don’t understand how else to react.  When they are hurt, sad, angry, disappointed…… any time they are overtaken by what they are feeling.

“Just breathe.”

Children are thrust into this world, where confusion often takes the ability to function highly from any of us.  Imagine what it is like, when you have your years of experience in the world stripped away.  And something happens to give rise to raw emotion.  Emotion that we know, if unkempt, can completely consume us.  How would we cope sometimes, if we didn’t have the fallback of just stopping to take notice of our breathing.

“Just breathe.”

And while it is the most natural thing in the world, it’s important that we teach children its value.  That we can come down to them, our eyes level, and talk them through.

“Just breathe.”

In through the nose.  Out through the mouth.  Slowly.  Steadily.  Breathe.  In.  Out.  Calm.

“Just breathe.”

It works.  It’s proven.  And best of all, it provides little humans with a technique they can use all by themselves, once the idea of it has formed that pathway in their brain.  Once it is etched there for them.  Once their soul understands the value.  In.  Out.

“Just breathe.”

It’s something we can do – when there is nothing else we can do.  It suddenly gives us some power.  Because when our whole body feels like it is hurtling out of control, it is unfailingly there for us.  The ability to draw breath.

“Just breathe.”

 

Allowing greatness

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I’m not quite sure what you’d call this……. Nesting? The collecting of many items from across the playground….. the piling up of said items. What I did notice was how the children then loved to climb in and around the pile. Over, under and through. I watched for quite some time, mesmerised and absorbed in their play. Thinking about what it was exactly they were achieving. A huge amount of spacial awareness – both the environment and their bodies. I’m sure as they were lifting, carrying and placing there was learning about size, weight and balance (there was considerable thought to the ‘placement’ of many items). There were social interactions going on – cooperation, agreement, collaboration, solidarity. Oh yep – I’m an early childhood professional – I can go through that big long list of outcomes, and apply a whole heap.
Fact is, in the end – these children were driven by innate actions. All of which see them file more information in their brains about their world. And the BIGGEST thing, is that they were enabled. Nobody stopped this seemingly aimless activity going on. People just went about their own stuff as this group slowly stockpiled everything in the yard that wasn’t tied down and that wasn’t being used by somebody else. Is it important that we ‘know’ what is happening? Or is it more important that we allow it to happen?
Children need to be able to engage themselves fully in what they are doing. When we break it up – they lose the purpose behind their play. When we impose rules – we destroy the learning that would have occurred. Much of this type of play can be related to Piaget’s theories around schemas. Repeated patterns in play.
We can learn a lot through this play – if we keep our distance. More than anything else, we can better understand how to support children’s learning. When we have a strong grasp of theory and drivers, it enables us to support the environments to allow play to occur naturally. As it was intended.  So having a yard full of the ‘stuff’ that children need, is essential.
Oh, and the other thing that I can learn – is to stay grounded. To let go of my controlling nature. And know that instead, I am supporting greatness.  When we empower children in their play – they build on the skills they are requiring for their here and now, and also for their future.  There is no part of children’s play that does not support this idea.  And there is nothing more satisfying that seeing the joy in play – as children come together. Nothing really at all.

In pursuit of Excellence

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Today I sat and started the long and dubious task of writing our re-application for our Excellence Rating in our service.  It’s been an interesting three years – a time that has in some circles seen me rise to ECEC “Rock Star” status.  As the first service in Australia to receive the award, we were spotlighted pretty strongly.  It’s not always been easy.  And at times, it’s outright hard.  When everyone watches and judges your every move.

I’ve been of two minds as to whether I even wanted to go there again.  My good friend Narelle, who also holds an Excellence rating hit the nail on the head – twice!  Firstly that it now feels like an obligation, and secondly – that we have created a monster!

I decided to tell the whole story in the reapplication.  The part that is almost what I call the ugly truth of it all.  And as I was writing this little ‘prelude’, I decided I wanted to share it wider than the Excellence panel in ACECQA.  I think everyone should read it.  So here it is, in first draft form, but pretty much as it will leave my hands.  And this is so others get some grasp of the struggle of this all, and my innermost feelings about being graded, rated and assessed.

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Firstly, before I begin this re-application, I’d like to say a few things and address this process.  I’ve become quite wary of this system.  The whole rating system.  As I delve further and further into researching the way we work with children, I become quite despondent of the way we treat, prod, poke and test them throughout their lives.  Almost like they are nothing more than a statistic, or something to grade adults that work with them by.  Why is any of this necessary, can we not just let life evolve.  Let people be.  Bring in some joy. 

I recently read an excerpt from the Norwegian Framework Plan for the Content and Tasks of Kindergartens.  It says:

“The children shall be able to develop their creative zest, sense of wonder and need to investigate.”  What government document in our country comes close?  This addresses children at their core.   It goes on to say “The Kindergartens shall meet the children with trust and respect and acknowledge the intrinsic value of childhood.  They shall contribute to well-being and joy in play and learning….”.

I’m worried that we have forgotten that in essence, what we are dealing with is childhood.  Pure and simple.  We ought be concentrating on far deeper things than “outcomes” in a curriculum framework.  If we would allow life to happen – we would meet far more than these prescribed outcomes.  We are so focused on them, that the real stuff is being pushed aside in favour.

As I write this, sitting at our property that has become our “Nature Kindy” visit site (Mayfield), having watched a small group of children and two educators head off down the hill to the river…… I recall what has so far happened for these children today.

These are the things they learned just in the 20 minutes from leaving our centre, to arriving at the site……. They learned about speed limits and why they are important. They learned about why it is important for children to not be left unattended in a car (the tag on the car seats says so).  They learned what the word “unattended” means.  They taught one another how to whistle, and had huge laughter and joy in their attempts.  They learned about left and right.  They talked about and planned what they would do during their visit.  They recalled their previous visit, and addressed rules (all by themselves!).  And WE learned to be humbled in the presence of children as they share their lives with us through conversation.

Where are the outcomes?  Does it even matter?  Are we too obsessed?  And what does this mean?  For me, it means have we become also too obsessed with our own outcomes?  What if we had no rating system?  Where would we be?  What would our work look like?  For us – I can, hand on heart, say that we would be in the exact same place.  Because we care about caring for children.  We care that they get the best out of life every moment they are with us.  The “tick” of approval really doesn’t mean all that much.  Is it an acknowledgement of our work?  I guess so – but I come back again to asking why that is needed.

Why are we re-applying?  Is it because it is now hard not to?  Been there, now have to retain that standard?  (But would that standard be any different with or without the tick? – NO!).  Is it recognition?  Not really.  There’s plenty of recognition when we just sit in our space and see how wonderfully joyful our children are.  Is it obligation?  (To who?).  The one reason I can think of – is that it allows us to showcase at a different level.  It allows us to back up what is possible.  It allows us to say – being different than “the norm” is okay.  It allows us to advocate for children.

Yes, we can do all those things still without a rating.  But the truth is – OTHERS care an awful lot about ratings.  We see that in the tagging of what is “Exceeding” practice constantly.  What I am finally learning – is that this Excellence Rating gives us some punch.  It makes others stop and listen.  It backs us up, and then allows others to have ‘permission’ to put children first.

And so, here I sit – doing this application – that at some part of me, goes against everything my heart believes.  But I DO do it – with the intention that it can help change the way things are in some spaces.  That it CAN do something for the betterment of early childhood practices beyond the scope of our service.

And so now – enjoy the story of our journey over the past three years, and our thinking into the future……

And that part?  That part you might never get to read.  I feel this deep seeded, ingrained, imbedded ‘something’ inside of me – that obligates me to do what I can to even make a difference to one other child (and hopefully many more).  And yes – I’ve created a monster.  But it’s my monster – and I’m gonna keep feeding it.

Better a broken bone….

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I came across this important article again this morning, that I am sure I shared back when it first came out late last year.  It’s a reminder to me of the importance of the environment we allow at Karana, where children DO often come up scraped and bumped, but where also they are experiencing an authentic, natural childhood, that WILL ground them in risk management processes.

A very old saying I know – “Better a broken bone, than a broken spirit” – also whispers in my ear.  I never broke a bone as a child – but boy did I long to wear that plaster trophy of honour that several of my friends did.  I cannot say it was quite the same breaking a bone as an adult – it was more of an embarrassment than a rite of passage, and I’ve done it several times.  I did however, always learn a lesson from it.

The temptation to cotton wool children against injury is high. None of us ever wants to see a child get hurt. BUT, it is also an important part of life.

I’ll never forget for instance, that going down a very steep hill on a scooter with no brakes – is NOT a good idea.  My knee still wears the scar of that lesson from many decades ago.  From that – I learned to watch the bigger neighbourhood kids negotiate the hill we lived on.  I noticed how they didn’t go STRAIGHT down, but instead did a zig-zag formation across the road.  Turns out they weren’t just doing that to be “fancy” – they were protecting their knees!  And so from that little episode – I learned an important lesson about managing risk.  If I’d just been stopped in the first place?  Or told how to go down the hill?  Well, I sure wouldn’t have that ugly scar on my knee – BUT I also wouldn’t have learned WHY.  These days, ask me about steep hills and wheeled things – and I’m all over it!

Sometimes we have to fail, to succeed.  And in fact – I’m very sure that the biggest life lessons I’ve learned, came from my mistakes and failures.  Often a case of misjudgment, of lack of understanding or skill….. but ALWAYS a case of there being a risk, and taking it anyway.  When we really think about it – what do we do in life that ISN’T “taking a risk”.  For me, stepping out of bed in the morning is a risk.  There’s a good chance that I’m going to tumble.  I could stay in bed, where it’s safe…. sure.  But where would that get me?

I love to see children pushing themselves.  I love to see them climb higher than they ever have before.  I love to see them feel the wind as they race around behind big dump trucks.  I love to see them building forts and constructions that go higher than they can reach from standing on the ground.  I love to see them shimmy up a pole to touch the shade cloth at the top.  I love to see them jump from rock to rock, or log to log.  I love to see their bodies experience gravity as they jump from high places to the ground below.  I love to watch them rough and tumble together………

It is from all these places, that I remember the joys and thrills of my own childhood.  And sure – sometimes there is pain involved.  And my scars are a good reminder of that.  BUT my!  Am I proud of those scars, and the part of my life-learning they represent.

When risk meets comfort….

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I pride myself  on the autonomy and agency that we give to children within our setting.  It is certainly a far cry from the days when children were micro-managed.  Perhaps I’m exaggerating a little there – but probably only a little.  There was a time when we did so much to stifle children’s play.  All those things aside though for now – as much as we afford children their risk taking nature…… there are times when my stomach sits in my throat.  One of those just happened for me a couple of days ago.

I was on one of my “just happened to need to go out into the playground for some important reason” – so important I’ve no idea what it was, nor did I probably even then.  Fact is – I love being out there.  So I stayed a while and scoped out what was going on.  Also a favourite pastime of mine.  Lots of little groups of children and Educators adorned the yard.  But two children in particular caught my attention.

Mr J. and Mr T. (no, not the wrestler!) were hanging out together on the big Bali chair.  They had pulled over two long wooden planks and had secured them under the back of the chair.  To their credit, I watched them carefully check the overhang at the back, tip and test the planks, do a “wobble test”, before seeming to concur that all was “safe” and ready for play.

I was nowhere near close enough to hear what was going on – but it very quickly became apparent, that they were “walking the plank”.  Then off the end they would jump, spurred by one another, into the sea below.  How there was not a higher level of protest, I’m not sure.  Because I was soon to find out that the waters were infected with man-eating sharks.

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The game started quite tamely, and it was a pleasure to sit back and watch the social interaction and sheer joy as their game unfolded.  I had also been highly impressed at the “safety checking” and risk managing…… until……. my comfort zone was overtaken.  Very quickly, the game escalated for these two boys – and carefully walking to the end of the plank and jumping off, was no longer satisfying.  They began to go out together, stand on the end of the plank, and then jump enthusiastically up and down…… literally raising the back side of the chair off the ground!  This is a big heavy chair – and so it was not such an easy feet to be moving it this way.

Here came my stomach in throat moment!  And what happened next, is something that I really truly need to congratulate myself on.  I resisted every urge I had to call out “NO!”, and every other urge I had to race over and stop the game.  Instead, I very casually made my way over  and stood beside the chair.  I am the biggest advocate in our centre for letting children engage in risky play.  So it was with a very measured idea that I took my path – mind you, the “measuring” happened with record speed.

Almost immediately that I reached the zone,  I was warned of the danger  – “Trisha, there sharks!  Get on the boat!  Quick!”.  So up I climbed, relieved not to have been snapped up by huge jaws.  And there I was – smack in place to facilitate the next flying jump.  Perhaps even more terrified for my life on this boat I understood was about to start rocking!  Mr J. said to me, “We walking the plank”.

“Aaaah.”  I agreed.  Then reached inside and chose the words that did not shut down the risk assessing these two had clearly done for themselves.  And so I continued….. “I was watching you from over there.  And I just wanted to tell you that I was a little bit worried that when I was seeing you jump on the plank, the chair was tipping right up.”

Puzzled looks went to one another and then came back at me, so I explained myself again, and told them what I saw.  Mr J.’s face changed from puzzlement, to concern.  “No jumping?” he asked me.  So I gave it back to them, asking “What do you think?”.  He then sidled along the plank very gingerly, being ever so careful, got to the end, sat down, and SLID into the ‘water’.  “Like this?” he asked.

We continued to have a little more conversation, with me encouraging them to think about at what point, the risk became a danger.  They had several goes at walking and jumping in – even adding a little bounce at the end of the plank.  But the big jumping never returned.  A space was reached where all was well with the world.

I feel so very liberated to think back on how this all panned out.  But I also feel warm in my heart, that two little boys – at the age of three and a bit – were able to gain a little more skill and thought in their risk assessment.  It is SO important to us in our setting, that we let children in on the risk.  That they find their boundaries.  When children are supported to take risk, and to take some responsibility for maintaining their own safety – they learn to move through our world with a level of independence and skill that will be required as they get older, and the risks have higher stakes.   And while I intervened on this occasion, I know that is also our role as the adults in their lives.  We have that place – and it’s an important one.  Sometimes we don’t always get the balance right…… sometimes we step in too quickly…… sometimes we stand back for too long.  This time, I am confident I got it pretty right.  I’m growing as an adult in the lives of children.  And I’m so grateful that they have patience with me while I do.

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Wine & cheese….

I wanted to call this blog post “chalk & cheese”…… because my visit to Takoma Park Cooperative Nursery School  today was kind of just that!  My first impression was that the program that Lesley runs could not even be considered anything at all akin to what WE do. I did wonder for just a little bit, if I had wandered into an alternate universe….. because it was not at all what I expected.  The Takoma Park I thought I knew from Facebook posts, and what I first hit, were so different.  And I’ll say a little more about the place I “knew” later!

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But as I reflect more and more – I think “wine & cheese” is a FAR better fit.  Because wine and cheese compliment one another perfectly.  Like a match made in heaven!  I’ve never been to a co-op school before….. we don’t have them in Australia.  All I really know about how they run, is from Teacher Tom and also from Lesley’s blog!  It has shown me how little of a sense of place we can get from a blog or from posts.  I think what I expected to see, was a version of how we operate within our service – only with children coming and going for short times.

Suffice to say – the time within the school is quite scheduled….. but upon reflection – is there really any other way to do blocks of time like that?  And still benefit children in a profound way?  Possibly not I’d say.  Once I’d gotten over my initial shock factor – I settled in to just being there and allowing my little mind to open wide up.  And it was then that I found that balance of how things need to be so different.

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I also have to say, I was spellbound with Lesley’s communications with the children.  Her command of space.  Her eloquence….. the way she so gently nods her head with a sly smile to show her agreement.  Her obvious passion and exuberance for working with children.  I even saw her mannerisms reflected in children as they asked “whaaaaaat?!”  Each time I heard that – it brought a smile to my face.

 

What I did connect most with in my time, was the outdoor play!  Probably because it was my familiar space.  Walking out into that playground, was like stepping into a surreal world.  It portrayed itself just like the posts I am used to.  And there, in the back, was the blue shed.  The one that has really caught my attention of late with children climbing to the roof.  Was I really standing in this same space?  A BIG “pinch me” moment happened within.  And just looking around at the incredible spaces that children have created over time – that so many of us have followed.  It was like magically stepping into the pages of a favourite book.  Now THIS was just exactly what I had expected.  I also asked myself why this was so?  Ah yes – it’s what I know.

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But now I have a different knowing.  Lesley Romanoff – she is DA BOMB!  Her thinking challenged me immediately.  And this, I know, is what it is all about.  I watched her in the second session facilitate drama play with children…… and just WOW!  This is special.  Yes, it’s so much more scripted than what I am used to.  But I also saw how she scaffolded the children – and how once her work was done, she just sat back and watched the play unfold.  I definitely have more to learn from this marvellous teacher.

Tomorrow the children are having their forest day.  I was a little sad that I won’t be seeing this – but at the end of the day after a long chat, I ventured down to the “forest space”.  I saw and stood on the tree crossing the creek!  I saw the site of the “blue house” (sans the blue tarp roof).  More stepping into a book moments.  I walked over the space with Lesley as she did her checks for tomorrow.  And then I went back to the great lady’s house for a coffee.  I’m still pinching myself right now.  And I think I’ll continue to for quite some time when I look at those photos.

And again – finally – my thanks goes to the wonderful families and children, for sharing their lives and spaces with me.  And my thanks to Lesley for welcoming me with such open arms, into her service and her home.  A virtual stranger from a distant country – who now feels like a close friend.

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