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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Excursions in Early Childhood: a reality check

A few months ago, I was asked for my views on excursions in Early Childhood Education, as Rattler Magazine was preparing an article and wanted some input from practitioners about excursions and the Early Years Learning Framework (that's our new national curriculum, for my overseas readers).  Here's my response.

'Engaging with the wider community' v 'what actually happens in childcare'
I think it's important that both the people who created the new curriculum (and so understand their intent intimately) and the people who write about it, but who are not daily practitioners, understand the huge gulf that exists between aspiration and reality.
At this stage, what I see is not practitioners being pushed to rethink their practice on engaging with the larger community- I don't think it even occurs to them that they should. Practitioners are mostly struggling with what the EYLF means in terms of what they need to do that's different from before, and what will affect their accreditation if they don't do it. It's very basic. It's 'how do I record something flexible? Will I fail if I do this the way I've always done it?'
The aspirational intent has not reached ground zero, except in terms of more play-based learning and fewer designed and highly structured activities, and the aspirational challenge is more about some practitioners throwing out intentional teaching and calling a lack of structure 'play-based learning'- and some refusing to change at all or keeping their heads in the sand- so there's a bit of a tug-of-war going on. That's not statistically based, but just what I see in some of the centres I visit.
Perhaps in the long term, when we are more comfortable with what the EYLF means in terms of our documentation, daily practice and pedagogy, we might come around to seeing a need for change in the negative attitude to excursions and interaction with the community, but I doubt that this will happen for the sake of fulfilling an imposed outcome. If you took an Early Childhood practitioner off the street and asked how the children should engage in civic living while in childcare, she'd probably look at you as though you had dual craniums- because in the whole scheme of daily survival, that's the least of our concerns. Many practitioners would question whether that's actually what the outcome means. It's just so far from our day-to-day world to consider the role of very young children in the wider community.
Anyway, my view is that until the issues I mention in the following writings are addressed, excursions will continue to be avoided by most centres.
Why the reluctance to take excursions? How can we encourage services to rethink this and take a step outside their own door?
You know, I was actually surprised when I read Rattler's questions by the assumption that I (a) had taken part in Early Childhood excursions and (b) supported the concept. My experience is that most centres and carers are not supportive of excursions at all. They may like the idea in an educational sense, but the reality is just too hard. I do believe that excursions are worthwhile- but believe it or not, I have never been on an excursion with an Early Childhood centre, which puts me in a good position to talk about reluctance.
The first problem, of course, is ratio. It may be easy enough in some places to get the additional adults needed to get an excursion off the ground, but in this region you can group the parents roughly into two groups- those who have to go to work because they're struggling to pay the mortgage or the rent, and those who are on welfare because they have deep-seated problems of some sort. That's an overgeneralisation, but it's pretty close to the true picture. The first group would usually be willing and competent but don't have the time, and the second group have the time but are very rarely both willing and competent.
A few centres work exclusively on family groupings instead of age groupings, so they have a ratio of one-to-four across the board; one of these is the only centre I've worked for that I remember ever taking excursions, probably largely because the staff numbers for excursion ratio were already in situ. They were also much less precious about risk there, which was a good thing in terms of willingness to leave the four walls of the centre.
It's not like you can just blithely employ extra staff to make up the numbers. Most centres struggle just to make ends meet, even with standard in-house ratios. Money is a big issue all round, especially up here. Quite a few parents default on basic daily fees- some of them up to thousands of dollars- so why would you start thinking about organising an excursion and racking up more debt? Even if you organise incursions rather than excursions, in a region which has such a mixed socio-economic demographic not all parents will be able to pay; the centre either has to exclude some children, which is iniquitous, or pay for them. Once you turn it into an excursion, with bus fares and entry fees and extra staff and defaulters, it becomes unaffordable.
So let's say I wanted to organise an inexpensive excursion- say, a walking trip to the local library to listen to their free story time. I'd still get a 'no' from most directors. I explored this issue with directors in various centres when I was completing some assignments for my childcare qualification, so I'm not talking through my hat here.
Why? Centres which are small businesses are dead scared of being sued. We live in an increasingly litigious society- up here we have the local compensation lawyers rabidly advertising their services on TV. Directors weigh up all the things that could go wrong (and possibly send the centre to the wall) long before they consider the educational benefits of venturing out of the gate. The government plays into the societal fear explosion in the childcare regulations, and I think that's part of the problem; with one hand they give us an expectation to take children into the community, which is an added risk, and with the other they restrict us on in-house risk to the point of frustration. 
Look at the height limits for playground equipment. The regulations on height are boring our children to death out of fear of litigation- particularly our four and five-year-old boys, who are developing and testing their upper body strength. I've had a child go straight over the 'child-proof' gate and take his own little excursion, simply because there was nothing to challenge him in the yard. There needs to be some consistency.
So what could go wrong, even on a walking excursion? Aside from unscheduled toilet trips, tired tantrums and children who wear inappropriate clothing and footwear- the little things that discourage exhausted and underpaid carers from pressing the case for excursions- the first big thing that springs to my mind is possible behavioural mayhem due to our need to adhere to inclusion policies.
Before you jump down my throat and call me prejudiced, let me give you a very concrete example. When I was a preschool room leader I had two special needs children included in my room and was only provided with money for one extra pair of hands. That is not an unusual situation; I don't have any statistics on inclusion, but every centre I've attended has at least one child with ASD or a similar high need in their preschool room- most have more than one, and some have three- and one extra carer for five hours a day is what you get.
Both children were 5-day enrolments, with single parents who worked full-time; taking an excursion when they weren't present wasn't an option, and neither was getting the parents to accompany them. One had Oppositional Defiant Disorder and the other had suspected Asperger's Syndrome, with possible ADHD. Both had extreme melt-downs at the drop of a hat, sometimes simultaneously.
When I imagine trying to take those two children out of the confines of the centre, out of their routines and familiar environment with just a single carer for both, my blood runs cold. Children on the autism spectrum generally respond poorly to changes of routine, and their behaviour can become chaotic as a result. One child was at the pointy end of that generalisation. Children with ODD are unlikely to obey instructions at the best of times, let alone when taken out of their normal environment. The other child was at the pointy end of that one. Some children have a different set of needs which are hard enough to juggle in the classroom; carers are struggling already without increasing the degree of difficulty by taking them out of the centre.
If I left them behind, their parents could rightly accuse me of discrimination; if I took them with me, I would be risking a major incident and possibly endangering the remaining children due to the extreme level of attention needed to keep the two special needs children safe. It's a dilemma.
Add to that the idea of crossing roads with a large group of excited preschoolers, passing pubs with drunken or drug-addled patrons on the pavement (yes, in the middle of the day) and the possibility of a carer or parent helper calling in sick at the last moment, and it's no wonder that most of the centres where I've worked have had an unwritten 'no excursions' policy, whether they admit to it or not.
What can we do about it? It comes down to more government money for more carers, both to make ratio and to support special needs children one-to-one when out of the centre. There also needs to be a change in the “nanny-state”, litigious attitudes of our society to risk. I'm not holding my breath on either count.
A final factor which may not spring readily to mind is the simmering resentment about poor pay and conditions amongst carers. Why would you do more than you had to? Some of us are career educators with a passion for children's welfare and we don't mind going the extra yard despite the despicable wage rates, but sadly many support staff have little incentive to do that bit extra. They are struggling just to support their families; many carers up here are single parents themselves. They don't have extra energy to burn on organising an excursion. 
It's not like you'll be able to do it in your paid time- there is never a moment to spare on the floor. You really need everyone to be on-side and enthusiastic, you need adequate preparation if you're going outside the gates, and many carers just aren't up for it. If something goes wrong, you'll be used for target practice. Why would you do it to yourself? Better pay would change that, but again, I'm not holding my breath.
What is your excursion philosophy?  And what sort of excursions are useful- how can you link interests and learning, and what follow-ups can you do?
I don't think it's important for children to be 'seen' out and about. I don't think that civic involvement for the sake of how we look is an issue. In a child-centred approach, the impact on the child is what matters; it's not their job to change community attitudes. We are their advocates. That's our job.
However I do believe it's important for the children themselves to venture into the community to which they belong and feel a larger sense of identity and sense of the world. We can't assume that every child will be given opportunities to explore community resources, environments and educational experiences by their family, especially in a disadvantaged area.
Some children have a terribly limited perspective on the world due to their family's circumstances. For example, in Lismore we have children living in caravans who rarely get to go anywhere else other than to our care centres, even to play. Their parents might be agricultural workers who work long exhausting hours, even at the weekend. We have Aboriginal children living in suburbia whose main play environment is the concrete jungle of the Goonellabah skate park. I feel we have a responsibility to widen these children's horizons if we can.
Most preschool children, for example, go through a stage of being fascinated by dinosaurs. Imagine the sense of wonder if they could visit a museum where a real dinosaur skeleton was on display- the sense of scale, of the smallness of a human being compared to these giant creatures, is not something you can recreate in your classroom. Imagine the effect on a child who lived in a caravan. It puts a whole new dimension on 'big'. 
Think of the follow-ups you could do on that- how big is an elephant? How big is a skyscraper? How heavy would a dinosaur have been? -not to mention the inspiration for art and craft activities. The children would be buzzing for weeks. Can you feel your own bones? What does a human skeleton look like? What else is inside our bodies that we can't see? Can we see thoughts and feelings? What else can't we see? Can we see air? How could we see air? Let's get the balloons out... such fun, such learning!
Imagine a group of children with an interest in flying and vehicles, who were taken to the airport to watch the planes land and take off. Don't assume that all kids get that chance with their families. That gives them some sense of the teamwork that's required to get a plane off the ground- the baggage handlers and refuelling trucks buzzing around, the flight attendants and counter staff handling the passengers- as well as the wonder of that huge metal thing getting up in the air and the level of noise it produces to do so. It's a sensory experience on another level from what you can do inside a centre. 
And then you can come back and try to get different objects to fly- what an outlet for kids who love to throw things!- explore weight, explore creatures that can fly, recreate an airport with the block and vehicles, make paper planes, cross-reference to superheroes... it's so stimulating to curiosity to see real events, real people and machines in action.
Or imagine a group of Aboriginal children walking their country with an elder, looking at their plants that could be eaten or used for medicine, seeing their totems in real life, and feeling their ownership as they shared the experience with the other children. That would be a 'belonging' experience to die for. These children may not know that they have an interest in that experience before they do it, but it's in their interests to stimulate that cultural connection. It would be a brilliant start to NAIDOC week, which in too many centres is a tokenistic celebration involving a lot of red, black and yellow paint and little real understanding.
I don't mean that as a judgment on ECTs and carers, who are doing their best with limited time and resources; tokenism is just a function of our own ignorance about a very complex culture. Excursions like that also educate the teachers and touch their hearts. Emotional involvement is a vital factor in our motivation to teach Indigenous culture authentically. We don't like being told what to do. We're like kids in that way- we need to feel it, see it with our own eyes. 
And then the follow-up will just come, because the educators are engaged. What other plants can we eat? How hard would it be to live in the bush? Why is water important? Let's leave a grape in the sun and see what happens when the water goes out of it. Let's soak a sultana in water and see what happens to it. Let's turn the taps off in the bathroom when we've finished washing, because water is important.
This is what excursions should be about- enhancing the children's experiences and interests, fostering their 'belonging, being and becoming' and leading them to become a functional rather than dysfunctional part of the wider world, but also stimulating the teachers and giving them a fresh approach and enthusiasm for their programming. And I don't use the word 'dysfunctional' in a racist way; a non-Indigenous child who thinks it's okay to waste water in a country that's largely desert and heating up more every day is, in my view, dysfunctional.
From another perspective, we also need to consider the physical environment provided by our childcare centre when we think about taking children outside the gate. Sometimes it's enough just to provide variety. 
For example, children who have a wonderfully natural care centre and home environment might be hugely stimulated by a visit to town. More common, though, are play yards which have few or no natural materials present (I have seen enough Astroturf soft fall to last a lifetime, and given my choice I would tear up every last metre of it and plant GRASS). This fake play environment is not ideal for any child, but for Indigenous children whose connection to the natural world is central to their very being, it's outrageous. One of the things I love about two of the centres where I've worked is the presence of real grass to roll on and real trees to climb.
If I had my way, every child would be taken to the park to run on grass and climb trees, and that would be an excursion worth having. How can we teach respect for the natural world in an unnatural environment? How can we encourage the development of an understanding of risk if the children are never allowed to take physical risks? Yes, a child might break their arm. Children do that sometimes. It's part of the learning experience.
How can we teach the power and danger of running water if we haven't played Pooh sticks off a bridge? How can we teach road safety if we're never able to practise on a road? Excursions don't have to be large scale, expensive and complex. They can be two teachers walking a small group to the park to run around, kick a ball without fear of it going over the fence, watch the world go by, practise crossing the road safely. It can be a trip to the art gallery to look at the huge paintings, to see which ones they like, to compare Indigenous art with the other paintings and then go back home and experiment with techniques. These are the things I want to do with the children- things that are intimately related to their welfare, their interests and their understanding of their world.
Reflection after the trip is also so valuable as a learning experience. Did anything go wrong? How did you feel? How could we fix it next time? What do you want to know next? What was the best part? Were there any surprises? You can maintain excitement and a disposition to learn if you ask the right questions.
How do excursions help socialise children and provide authentic learning experiences?
In one centre I came across a four-year-old boy who refused to believe that girls could drive tractors. He was adamant, even when I showed him a photo of myself doing just that!
How I would have loved to take that child to a farm where he could see for himself that I- or any other woman- could get in, start it and away we go. In the same way, some children still believe (for example) that only boys can be doctors and only girls can be nurses, and I'd love to be able to take them into an environment where they could see both sexes doing jobs outside outdated gender traditions. Walking down the street in a small group we could see men doing hair and women directing traffic around roadworks, men arranging flowers and women driving utes and trucks.
Talking at children, no matter how skilful or well-intentioned you might be, doesn't undo these preconceptions, especially if they start from what is seen or said in the home environment. And there are very few storybooks out there to address bias in an accessible, engaging way for this age group- sadly, what's available is generally a little self-consciously politically correct and precious. We have diversity dolls, but I find I often need to point out the sexes of these to the children as they simply don't focus on that- it doesn't touch their perceptions. The children need concrete experiences which just aren't available within the walls of a centre. They need to see it in real life with their own eyes.
Taking children into an environment where they feel an expertise or ownership which is not shared by their peers is also socially empowering. How I would have loved to take one little boy's class to a dairy farm! At care, he constantly role-played feeding the cows, starting the tractor, opening gates and so on, which was what he did each weekend with his grandfather. He became frustrated that his peers didn't understand what he was doing, and repeatedly turned to me for a playmate.
Quite apart from the biological and environmental revelation for the rest of the class that milk came from cows rather than a supermarket, and that cows had to be fed on grass and then milked- quite apart from the excitement of seeing the farm machinery and animals that many of the children played with every day, 'to scale' and working and mooing in real life- such an excursion would have given that little boy the opportunity to flourish in his 'being', to teach his peers, and then to interact socially more successfully.
And what follow-ups that would give you! Imagine the role-plays that could ensue from an experience like that- and it would be the beginning of real environmental understanding. If you want milk, you have to have grassy paddocks and cows. You can't turn the whole world into a skate park or an internet server, or you'll have no milk. Simple, but a totally new concept to many mini-'iKids'.
The experience of moving around as a group in a new environment is socially empowering too. Unless the group co-operates, the experience will fail. Our preparation for the 'big day' gives opportunities for critical thinking and protective education- what if someone isn't listening and is left behind? What do you do if you're lost? What if you don't know where the toilet is and you need to go? How will we cross the road so nobody gets run over? This is all theoretical social skill, and is either not absorbed or easily forgotten until the experience becomes a real-life one with genuine risks.
Planning tips
I might not have been involved in an EC excursion, but I've been on countless excursions during my career. Planning an excursion is a major task and a huge responsibility with any age group. Make sure you've double-checked the latest regulations before you start.
You have to write absolutely everything down and have an organisational run sheet, with all the jobs spread over the calendar in a way that will mean everything happens in time. Parents are notoriously bad at getting permission slips back, for example, so you have to do that very early and then chase people.
Organising an excursion alone is a bad idea, though there does need to be a head honcho. For example, at least two people should carry out independent risk assessments and then compare notes, because it's a bit like proof-reading- you don't always 'see' everything that could be a problem. There's a huge amount of research involved before you start, from organising transport with appropriate child restraints to lining up the extra adults you need for supervision (it's brilliant if you can get a parent who's a doctor, nurse or paramedic- it takes a lot of anxiety away from the task). Spread the load! And communication with your team is vital- don't assume that something's been done. Someone has to be responsible for confirming tasks are completed and ticking everything off the master list.
Some parents will be anxious, and the only cure for that is information. A small map of where you're going, clearly stated departure and return times, a little blurb about what will happen while you're out, a concise list of what to bring (and what NOT to bring), reassurance that you've thought of medical contingencies, a contact number for the group's mobile phone in case the parent has an emergency- these things will reassure parents that the excursion is a safe experience. Make sure the parents are clearing their information pockets and getting this information. Some parents are always in a hurry, and then they get shirty because 'nobody told me'.
You also have to carefully consider the context. For example, if it's a walking excursion, I'd be making sure I caught up with every single parent face to face in the week before the excursion and stressed the importance of their child wearing appropriate footwear- it's not something you can fix easily at the last minute. You can take extra raincoats and jackets, but shoes? And don't forget to charge that mobile!


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  2. I was working in a inner city suburb childcare centre in Mel, we took children to local park and local fruit shop. Pre kinder is preparing to go to fire station, but we don't have any special needs children.


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