The journey of opening a Nature Kindergarten and Why?
I’ve been asked to share our journey about opening Mayfield Nature Kindergarten. In combining some of the “why’s” along with some of the “how’s, hopefully I’ll be able to create a picture in your mind that illustrates our vision and values that underpin our work with children.
Firstly, a little background about us. I (Sharon) have a background in early childhood having worked as a Group Leader, Assistant Director and Director, and I’ve also taught in Primary schools from year 1 through to year 6. After having our own children, I resigned from teaching in schools, and my husband Scott and I decided to open our first childcare centre. We were very fortunate to find a lovely little centre in Karana Downs, which was fairly close to home. Two years later we opened two more centres in Springfield and Capalaba.
We were fortunate when we found Karana that it already had the most beautiful, natural playground for children full of dirt, rocks, grass, sand and trees. When we purchased Springfield and Capalaba, they were what we would call “McDonald’s playgrounds”. They were a plain, boring, artificial, sanitized, plastic spaces – not a blade of grass, a piece of dirt or a natural item in sight. Before opening both Springfield and Capalaba, we bulldozed the artificial playgrounds and transformed them into beautiful, natural spaces with sandstone boulders, mud pits, grass, trees, sand, timber and logs. We purposely furnished these 2 new centres with natural timber furniture and focused on creating beautiful natural spaces indoors to match the beautiful, natural outdoor spaces we had created. Plastic toys were few and far between and we tried to acquire natural materials and loose parts where possible. Over time, we’ve made big changes to the indoor environments at our Karana Downs Centre and the team have really focused on creating more homely and natural spaces.
A few years ago we heard about the lovely Claire Warden, and thought she aligned beautifully with our beliefs and philosophy about natural spaces and environments for children so we wanted to learn more about “ Nature Pedagogy“ approach meant. I went off to a single day presentation and when I heard the statement about children having access to nature inside, outside and beyond all day every day, it firmly planted the vision in my mind of having a child care centre on a large property so that children could have this amazing opportunity every day. It’s taken a while, but we finally found a beautiful property of 155 acres, with a gorgeous little Queenslander Cottage built in approximately 1902, with bush, dams, and river access that would be just perfect for a Nature Kindergarten. We bought the property, quickly did some renovations and started the process of speaking with council about the application process.
Unfortunately, this has been the most frustrating part. When we spoke with council back in September 2015, they were about to go through some code changes, so we were advised to hold off on applying until the beginning of 2016. The new code didn’t actually come to our council until the March of 2016. When the application was submitted there was further information requited about the pod we were going to build for children’s toilets and the waste system, and it seemed that no-one wanted to quote on that job. Eventually we found someone, but then there was extra information required and extra costs involved for having signage on the property. We’re finally at the stage of public notification, but it’s also now the end of October, and the public notification will be up until mid-December. We’d hoped to be able to open the Kindy in 2016, but we are still with council, and we are still waiting ….. a very frustrating place to be. Once we have council approval, the pod needs to be built, and then we need to go through the child care licensing process. It’s all a much longer process that we would have ever anticipated, so my advice to anyone else would be – patience!
When planning for Mayfield Nature Kindergarten, we thought really deeply about what we wanted it to look like and feel like. We knew it was going to be a small and intimate space with a maximum of 27 children, but we also didn’t want it to feel like a “centre”. We wanted the space to feel like a home. We didn’t want the children to be separated into “rooms” or “groups”, we wanted every child to belong to the whole space, and we wanted every educator to belong to every child. When we furnished the Kindy, we didn’t want it to “look” like a centre, we wanted it to look like a home, so we’ve purposefully selected lounge suites, coffee tables, buffet cabinets, bean bags and dining tables that you would find in children’s homes.
We have been feeling the beginning of a wonderful shift in the thinking of some families who attend our current child care centres. For a long time now, many families have believed that children needed to have “structured programs” so they can be “ready for school”, and play has been seen as a frivolous waste of time. We are starting to feel however, that the research about the importance of play as the primary means of learning for children is finally making an impact on a few families. Families are specifically seeking out our centres because we have such a strong focus on children having authentic childhoods, children connecting with the natural world and children being seen as capable, competent, independent and creative thinkers who can have significant input into their own day. The children in our services can choose if they want to play inside or outside, the can choose to eat when they’re hungry, and sleep if/when they are tired.
The old model of child care saw adults as the complete controllers of the day, and adults had a full dictatorship over the children in their care. Children would have no choice and no real voice. An example would be that 9am was a whole class group time, 9.30 was a whole class morning tea, 10am was the designated “indoor play time” and 11am was the designated “outdoor play time” etc. It was very inflexible, and followed an adult clock, and an adult agenda. Each set of educators only really knew the children directly in their care, and it didn’t really matter whether the children were interested in the group time or if the children wanted to continue playing – they had no choice, they had to sit at the group time or pack up when the teacher said. Reflection upon this practice saw that teachers spent the majority of their time trying to control the behaviour of children who weren’t interested. “Cross your legs”, “stop touching so and so”, “you’re not listening” were commonly heard at group times. “Lets let the children out for a run” was often heard if the inside time got too rowdy and loud. “Stop wriggling” and “close your eyes” was often heard at the compulsory sleep times from 12pm until 2pm. Thankfully, we’ve grown and learnt a lot about children’s natural rhythms, routines and flows and we’ve listened to the mountains of research about developmentally appropriate practice and working respectfully with children.
At our services, each child is at the centre of our decision making. We don’t just have 1 routine for the whole group; we have multiple routines for all the children in our care. We don’t coop children up inside; we allow children a choice to be indoors or outdoors. We don’t make mandatory eating and sleeping times, we allow children to listen to their bodies and decide when they feel hungry or tired. Putting children at the centre of the equation respects each child as an individual and empowers children to make decisions. It gives children a voice and allows them to make choices that are right for them. Some people think “they will just run wild”, however in our experience, children make good decisions for themselves, they become deeply engaged in their learning and their social/emotional maturity grows significantly. We often hear the saying “they have to line up when they get to school”, and our response is that they learn that very quickly – it’s not a hard skill to learn, and they’re more developmentally ready to line up when they’re older. We often hear the saying “they can’t eat when they want at school”, and what we have found is that school is starting to listen to the developmental needs of children, and many are implementing a snack/break time earlier in morning as they too are beginning to consider the best developmentally appropriate practices for young children.
In Queensland in Prep (4.5 years – 5.5 years), they have been trialing a program called “Age Appropriate Pedagogies”. What it basically means is “the art of age appropriate teaching” which really means “play-based learning ” – because that is what is age-appropriate for prep. Why aren’t they using the word “PLAY”? There is such a cultural aversion to the word “play” within our community. Play has been seen as bad. Play has been seen as a waste of time. Play has been seen as inferior. The government now knows that play is imperative, play is valuable and play is the best way for children to learn, but they are battling against a belief in the greater community that play is a waste of time. So – they decided to call it “age appropriate pedagogy” because the greater community won’t really understand that it’s a fancy word for “play-based curriculum”.
Bringing the story back to the development of our nature kindergarten, we recently had an interesting conversation with two members of staff from ACECQA. One of the topics of conversation was about the weekly trips to Mayfield. We described the opportunity for the children to engage with “raw nature”. We spoke about children accessing only items in nature for their play, we spoke about the different areas the children would play and the increase in creative capacity and problem solving back at the service. One of the questions we were asked was “So there is no intentional teaching?” This was such an interesting question because everything we do at Mayfield is intentional. We intentionally don’t bring extra resources, we intentionally let children source items from nature in their play, we intentionally notice and discuss items in the natural environment, we intentionally speak about the flora and fauna of the land, we intentionally speak with children about their curiosities and questions, and we are very intentional about leaving time to explore, wonder, discuss, problem solve and create.
Intentionality is something that is often misunderstood. Some think of intentional teaching as sitting down at a table doing worksheets, others think of intentional teaching as reading facts out of a book, some think of intentional teaching as researching on the internet, but there are a thousand other ways teachers are being intentional, and even the art of being the silent pedagogue is a very intentional practice. Intentionality moves well beyond teaching abc’s and 123’s.
At Mayfield, every choice we have made is intentional – from the homely set-up, to the ages, to the furniture, to the resources, to the philosophy. Every facet of the Kindy is intentional. There will be intentional teaching and learning around the natural elements of earth, light, water and air. There will be intentional teaching and learning around farms, rivers, dams, vegetables, fruit, seasons, weather, cooking, and a million other opportunities that present themselves each day, often sparked by children’s questions and curiosities. Do we need bright, plastic equipment with a pre-determined purpose… no, we will provide children with a multitude of loose parts that children can use in an infinite number of ways, whilst engaging their imaginative and creative minds. Every choice and decision we make is carefully thought about, with children at the heart.
We can’t wait until we can finally open the doors to Mayfield. We’ve already delighted in having our Karana children out each week, but it will be such a great feeling of achievement and satisfaction to finally realise our dreams of opening a Nature Kindergarten. We believe the families in our local community will embrace this beautiful space, and we can’t wait to see children and their families play, grow and learn in this beautiful space.
Written by Sharon and Scott Kneen
Owners of Eskay Kids – Karana Downs, Capalaba, Springfield & Mayfield