Agency Vs. Being the adult.

Agency Vs. Being the adult.

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I call myself a fierce advocate for children’s agency. I like to think that I am current, progressive and contemporary in my thinking and practice.

The children in my world experience a great amount of freedom.  They get to make decisions about their days that many would only dream about.  <insert mental image of a child lying on a grassy green mound, staring up at the sky with a big empty fluffy white thought cloud>  They get to choose when they eat, play, sleep, poop, sing, read, climb…….. you get the picture.  There is an exponential amount of freedom for them.  And they love it.  It facilitates joy.

There are some things they don’t get to choose though.  For instance – they don’t actually get to choose that they come in the very first place.  Very few of them anyway.  They come because the adults in their lives make that very significant decision for them.  For some it is because parents are working, for some it is because parents need their own space for a time for their well-being, for some it is because parents feel they need something more and different than home provides.

While I would be so bold as to say and assume that most children enjoy most of their time with us – they aren’t really given the agency to make that decision.  Don’t get me wrong – this is not a bad thing. It is because we as the adults in the lives of children sometimes have to make choices for them.

Giving children agency, does not mean that we stop being the adult in their lives.

One thing I know about me – is that I am adult.  Just that.  There are times when I have to help children through a situation.  There are other times I need to make decisions FOR children…. in their best interests.  It is my job as an adult to make sure that the children in my world are safe from harm.  It is my job as an adult to ensure they know how to keep themselves safe from harm.  So they don’t always get completely free reign.  There are times when we have to step in.  There are times when we have to direct.  And there are times when we have to say no.  Of course – we can also choose exactly how we go about those things too.  We can certainly do it without creating a dictatorship. or making children feel inferior.  It’s not about superiority – it’s just about having been on this earth for much longer, and knowing more about it – the joys and the perils.

There are several things that speak to me, telling me that no matter how much agency I wish to afford a child – I HAVE to, at certain points, be their rock.

The Early Childhood Australia Code of Ethics calls me to “act in the best interests of children” and to “create and maintain safe, healthy, inclusive environments that support children’s agency and enhance their learning”.

The Early Years Learning Framework states that, “Children’s agency, as well as guidance care and teaching by families and educators shape children’s experiences of becoming.”

Whilst giving many statements around children making decisions in their lives and having control – the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, article 3:  “States Parties shall ensure that the institutions, services and facilities responsible for the care or protection of children shall conform with the standards established by competent authorities, particularly in the areas of safety, health…..”

As professionals, many of us use and promote the concepts of the Circle of Security in our work with children.  The top part of which promotes a secure base for children to be in, and experience the agency of their world.  The lower part creating that foundation of a safe haven for children, where adults keep children protected by their very presence.

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There are many places that support agency for children, but also rule the line for the need of the existence of adults in children’s lives, and their input.  And aside of all these professional directions – there is the plain old human instinct we are given.  We don’t allow children to put themselves in harm’s way.  We teach them that the world is not an innocent place, and that they need to be and act in certain ways to protect themselves.

As we strive in our work to allow children agency to make decisions – let’s not forget that we have a responsibility to them to keep them safe.  And while I love nothing more than to see children in control of their world, there is a certain specialness allocated to us, to also be their champion, and to be the one to wrap our arms around them at the end of all that is said and done.

“Agency” and “Being the adult” to not have to be in competition with one another.  There can be a harmonious balance.

“Always: be BIGGER, STRONGER, WISER, and KIND.
Whenever possible:  Follow my child’s need.
Whenever necessary:  take charge.”

Environments matter.

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This beginning time of the year in our country, sees literally thousands of Educators across Australia scrambling to “get ready for the new year”.  And one of the things about the new year, is that it seems to always want us to make new beginnings.  I often wonder about this notion.  Why is it that time seems to just cut off, and then start again?  I mean, it’s really just a change of calendar dates…… isn’t it?

There does seem to be a huge focus on environments.  And I guess a new year is a great excuse to reflect, rethink, declutter and make changes.  What I do think gets missed in the process is the deeper thinking around why we are doing all this.  And who we are doing it for.  There is some argument that it is the “child’s space” and so the space should only be reflective of the child’s needs.  My issue with that thinking, is that there are adults who also live in these spaces….. spend a great portion of their lives here in fact.  Should that not entitle them to some consideration in design also?

“Our environment, the world in which we live and work, is a mirror of our attitudes and expectations.”
~Earl Nightingale (American Entertainer)

I recently heard the statement that we should wait until we observe the children in the space, before we make any changes.  Wait?  I know in our environment, we already have a good knowledge of the children that will be in the rooms, and we’ve done some thinking and reflecting on what they will need, and what changes we might make to best accommodate them. And there have been some changes.

It’s nice for children to begin their transitions to new rooms that have already considered them, rather than waiting until they officially become part of the room to give that any air time.  Imagine if we waited to make changes for a child who uses a walking frame – to ensure that there is clear access around the room and to all areas for him. That’s an extreme case obviously – but that doesn’t mean that this same type of consideration is not valuable for all children.

We’ve also done a lot of reflecting on spaces, to consider what we can improve as a general function. We’ve done some of that end of year assessing.  We’ve done some visioning.  We’ve put our spaces under a microscope.  Examined them.  Through different lenses.  Seeing the room as though you are a parent.  A child.  An educator.  Heck – even an assessor.  What are the things those people see?  And ensure if you are looking from the lens of a child, that you are at the level that their eyes see the space from.  On your knees.  Sitting.  Even lying on the floor in the case of babies.

Reflection on how and why environments are changed, is definitely something that should be engaged in. And doing this with a knowledge of the children who will be in the space is imperative. That doesn’t mean having to wait until they are actually there though.  There is a lot we can do to spaces before the children bring their moving vans in.  We can use what we know about children in general, and how space can be utilised.  Ensuring that we are providing intimate spaces for children to be.  Alone and in small groups.  By using low and open vision furniture to make divisions.  By avoiding the temptation of creating a ring of little pods around the outside of the room.  By creating clear paths for children to make their way around.  By creating a sense of order about the space.  By considering what the room will need to cater for in terms of routines – children eating, sleeping, resting.  By making our space a living space – one that oozes our values, beliefs and philosophy.

img_1539Children are deserving of beautiful and carefully planned environments.  Environments shape behaviour.  They influence opportunities for learning.  They help us, or they hinder us.  They support relationships.  When your environment calls to children, from the moment they set foot in the space……. when warm and welcoming is the feeling that erupts from deep inside…… when you walk into a space and let out a long breath…. a sigh…… those things are the things that matter.

As you move through the beginning part of the year – of course this is when observations of children interacting in the space will allow you to make the space truly reflective of the people within in it.  But remember – as educators – we matter too.  This is our space too.  These are our lives together.  And together, we create harmony.  Enjoy creating new spaces for the new year.  Do it thoughtfully.  Do it with knowledge.  Make it matter.

Children are filled with an innate sense of wonder about the world around them.  Create spaces that will feed their hunger to discover and learn, to build on knowledge.  Create spaces to dream and fill children with awe and fascination, that will spark imagination.  Create spaces that will nurture hearts and souls, and support loving relationships.  What you create matters.  It matters a lot.

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“You can dream, create, design and build the most wonderful place in the world, but it requires people to make the dream a reality.”
~Walt Disney

 

What do they really want?

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At this time of the year, there is a surge in the debate of children “Graduating” from Pre-School/Kindergarten/whatever it is that you call the year before starting school.

In our centre – we call it the Possum Group.  This group of children – these capable little humans – whose days with us are right now very numbered.  We feel like it’s a sad time.  And in many ways it is.  These little people have often staked claim on a piece of our hearts.  Four and five years old, and some of them we have known their entire lives.  It literally brings tears to my eyes, to think about them leaving us.

But this week – we got together with them, and their families……. and we celebrated them, and their time with us.  We are still getting good at this.  So don’t get me wrong – I think there is still a long way we can go to making it better.  But every year, we do a bit more reflecting, and then the next year, we become a bit more open, and things change.  One thing that never changes though – is that celebrations are important.  This is a big time in children’s lives, and it is special to come together to not only recognise this change – but to come together to create joyful memories.

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“…our image of the child is rich in potential, strong, powerful, competent, and most of all,  connected to adults and other children.”  ~Loris Malaguzzi

I wonder if there will come a time, when this celebration is completely in the hands of the children – and to be honest, it’s what I strive for.  We still seem to take it on in our adult capacity quite a bit.  We’re still learning.  That’s what I like about us.

But this year, for the first time – the planning process DID start with the children, and asking them what they wanted.  I think we put words into their heads, because they wanted to call it their “Graduation” when we discussed that.  I don’t think a child would necessarily come up with that word to describe this on their own.  But “Graduation” it was.  For now.  We used our Floorbooks, and we consulted WITH children.  Asking them what this celebration would look like,  how it would happen.

They got very adamant about a cake.  They really wanted a cake.   Specifically – a chocolate cake with pink icing.  Because I think that children and celebrations and cake all go hand in hand.  Don’t they?  And the decorations?  Well – they wanted very specific lollies, sprinkles, and they wanted to write on it themselves.  So, that’s what happened of course. And as for the way it turned out – I’ve never seen a better “Graduation” cake in all my years.  It touched my soul.  It was their work of art – completed together, and might I add, very proudly displayed!  They wanted balloons, streamers and a big sign.  They wanted to have a photo show, and they chose their own music – “Geronimo” and “We Will Rock You”.  They even went through probably thousands of photos, to choose the ones they wanted to depict their year.

We had our input also.  We did have a time of seating everyone.  To bring these little people forward one by one, and give them the chance to tell everyone what they’ve loved about their time with us.  We presented them all with a special keepsake card with photo and poem, as well as a little native tree – which we offer them to plant in memory of their time with us.  This is a tradition we started a few years ago – and it is our part of input into the celebration.  Because I believe we deserve a bit too.

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We had invited our reading volunteers along, and the children thanked them with a box of chocolates and a bunch of flowers.  As for Keith, who drives the bus out to Mayfield (bush kindy) for them – well, his time honoured gift was chocolates and a water gun.

Short speeches by the teachers and myself, and the viewing of the slideshow, followed by the cutting, and of course eating of the cake.  The children able to do what children do best – and get their play on – whilst the adults had the chance to reflect with one another, and spend time together.

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The place was filled with parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, godparents and close friends.  The circle of security was tight.  All the people there, who really mattered.  Even a set of grandparents all the way from Adelaide for the occasion.  We do pride ourselves on those extended relationships.  They are special to us.

What will next year bring?  I believe it might be even more relaxed again.  I believe that the children’s voice will speak even clearer and louder.  Because we are getting so much better at letting go, trusting children, and remembering that after all – this journey is all about them.  It’s about the memories that they can create and hold.  And not for a minute, do we want to control what is important to them.

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“Sometimes, you will never know the value of a moment, until it becomes a memory.”
~Dr Suess

 

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.