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Thursday, March 29, 2012

My perfect playground

There's such a lot of talking going on about outdoor play that I've started to think about the huge variety of outdoor play areas I've seen. As a casual, I visit so many play spaces that I've got ample opportunity to compare their effectiveness- so here's a description of my perfect playground, compiled through my experience of watching real children play.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Thoughts on obedience and the morning rush hour

I have never liked rushing. I'm one of those people who tends to be early for things rather than late, who tends to prepare everything well in advance so the last minute panic is avoided. I'm the one who packs my lunch the night before, or portions up the leftovers so I've got a week's lunches in the freezer. Anything to dodge that feeling of being too rushed to think straight. Any time I get lazy and decide to just leave things to the last minute, I regret it sorely.

So I guess that's why I find it relatively easy these days to slow down for children (and I'm not talking about school pedestrian crossings, either- I'm talking about day-to-day living). I don't let myself feel rushed; I like watching kids, and the way they approach things.

It wasn't so easy when I actually HAD a child of my own and a full time job, mind you, when I lived in a world of deadlines and had a child who liked to experiment with the power of dragging the chain. My son seemed to take delight in making me late by simply refusing to get ready. I have a hideous memory of getting so furious one morning that I actually put him in the car in his pyjamas; another day I drove a hundred metres down the road without him. (I might add that nothing I did back then improved his behaviour in the morning. All I did was entertain my son with the results of his expert button-pushing, or occasionally make him cry without making him comply in the least.)

Aunt Annie is no saint, believe me. Aunt Annie used to lose the plot in the morning, just like the rest of you.

So I won't pretend that slowing down for kids in the morning will be easy for any of you who are in that world right now. But it really is worth the effort to stop expecting instant anything from kids, if you can possibly manage it.

Take Grant, for example.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Aunt Annie's on the warpath

Did you see the movie 'Erin Brokovich'? (If not, why not? It's awesome, and it's a true story.) That movie is very much on my mind today.

I think the scene that is most imprinted on my brain is the one where Erin sits in a stranger's living room telling a mother exactly what is making everyone in the area sick, from the children with bleeding ears and noses to the parents and children with cancers. It's lethal pollution in the water, courtesy of the local chemical plant.

And that mother is frozen in horror as she puts two and two together. You hear her children laughing, and see them cavorting in the family swimming pool through the window behind her. And she suddenly comes to her senses and rushes out, screaming "Get out of the water."

And your blood runs cold, as hers did.

Aunt Annie really doesn't like getting political. This is a childcare page. But sometimes the importance of advocating for children overcomes my desire to be Switzerland and not offend anyone's political leanings.

This is one of those times, because our children's health is being compromised right now, right around the globe. We have Erin Brokovich situations springing up wherever coal seam gas (CSG) mining has been allowed to happen- we've seen it in the USA, we've seen it in Queensland here in Australia, and it's heading into my local area now. Other countries are in similar positions- Canada, New Zealand- anywhere where there are CSG resources and people willing to ruin the environment for a quick buck.

What's happened in Queensland has been a salutary lesson about what happens when people take quick bucks without considering the consequences. In Queensland, around Tara and Chinchilla where the mining has been established for some time, there are children who are suddenly getting headaches, getting unexplained bleeding from their noses and ears, suddenly crying as they take their baths and coming out red all over where their skin has been burnt by the chemicals leaching into their water supply. There are agricultural properties destroyed by the infrastructure, noise and pollution of mining, with the water sucked out of the water table; they are unliveable, unsaleable and certainly no longer worthy of leaving to the children. There are water taps which billow gas when you turn them on; yes, some people can now light the tap in their kitchen sink. Hardly child-friendly.

This is real, this is happening, this is not a movie.

And children don't have a voice in politics, so I'm going to do some yelling for them. Tomorrow I'm going to see my local political representative Chris Gulaptis, reputedly a supporter of mining at all costs, to ask him how he can possibly justify his position and his government's position on CSG mining- a position that compromises the health, safety and sustainable future of our children.

I'll be asking him why he thinks it's okay to breach the articles of the UNICEF Convention on the Rights of the Child, which is a legally binding, non-negotiable set of standards and obligations. Article 24, for example, recognises the child's right to health. Article 36 recognises the child's right to protection from exploitation prejudicial to any aspect of the child's welfare.

I'll be asking him why, as an Early Childhood educator, I'm expected by the government to teach respect for the environment (EYLF Outcome 2), while the government who set that outcome in place permits the modelling of complete lack of respect for the environment.

I'll be asking him how it's okay to create stress levels for families affected by local CSG mines which result in families walking off their uninhabitable and unsaleable properties with nothing to show for their work and investment, and nothing to leave to their children. I'll be asking him if it's okay with him that the mining activities are leaving behind them a trail of depressive illnesses severe enough to lead to parental suicides.

I'll be asking him how it is okay to strip a country of its non-renewable energy resources and sell them offshore, without developing renewable energy resources for the use of our children in the future.

I'll be asking what our future's children are going to eat and drink, once agricultural land has been razed for mining and the water supply compromised.

Am I angry? Too right I am. Children are powerless, and our politicians don't give a damn about their future.

So what can you do, as parents, as educators, as advocates for children?

Living on rural land? Don't allow CSG miners onto your property, regardless of how much money they offer you and how much you think you need it. Don't sign access agreements. To do so will compromise your children's health, not to mention their (and your) future assets. It will also compromise the health of your neighbour's children. How will you sleep at night then?

Spread the word, especially to rural families you may know. No matter how much they need the quick-fix money offered by CSG con men, it won't buy back their children's health. It won't compensate for the loss of their land value and peace. (Have you heard the noise of a CSG well? It's abominable.)

Living in the city? Join a pressure group like GetUp and sign those petitions. They make it easy for you to add your voice, regardless of how busy you already are. Politicians understand votes. It's really the only thing they understand. They need to know we actually give a toss about this.

It won't matter a damn how well you raise your children if there's no clean water, and nothing to eat. You may not be personally affected- yet. But you can raise your voice for other people's children, as I am doing.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The internet is bigger than your backyard

A kind and genuine colleague of mine had a terribly upsetting experience the other day. Some cowardly troublemaker accused him- anonymously, via the internet- of being a pervert, presumably because he had the hide to be a man working in early childhood.

Now, this post isn't about the pros and cons of men working in EC. (My view, for anyone who's interested, is that our children would benefit greatly from seeing more committed men in nurturing EC roles, and anyone who makes a knee-jerk judgment based on an EC worker's gender needs a cold shower and a quick soapy mouthwash.) No, this post is about what happened next, and how we are insulated from seeing the diversity of the real world by our little cyberspace cocoon.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Depression and childcare

I belong to a small discussion site on the net, where like-minded early childhood workers can mull over sensitive issues in private. One of the issues that's come up recently is the rate of depressive episodes amongst members of our group; to our amazement, we discovered that over half our group members grapple with  depression on a fairly regular basis.

And that made me think.

I can't imagine that depressive personalities would gravitate to a demanding, underpaid, often frustrating profession like childcare by choice. Surely if we knew we were at risk, we'd avoid professions like this one like the plague.

But wait, maybe it's the other way round. Perhaps there's something about childcare that activates depression in those who are that way inclined. (And of course, childcare may well have the same effect on parents who are that way inclined... so if you're a depressed parent, read on...)

Though on the other hand, perhaps it IS often the extra-sensitive, emotionally tuned-in types who do go into caring professions like childcare in the first place, without realising it's making them a sitting duck for depression. People who lack a tough outer shell themselves can empathise with the vulnerability of children, and can feel a call to protect and nurture them. Anyone want to argue with that?

I'm not a mental health expert. I'm just thinking out loud because I'm in a hole right now, and because some people in my profession (who I've never met but have come to care about) also admit to falling in holes. Often.

So, what does Aunt Annie- a sufferer from depression herself- have to offer on this subject that might be the least bit helpful to others?

Well, I can offer you my observations about the nature of 'us', those with depressive tendencies, versus the nature of 'them', the non-depressives. Maybe that will give us some hints on where we need to change or work on ourselves.

Or maybe we'll look at some features of depressives and non-depressives and decide that being depressive about childcare is actually functional, and feel more comfortable with our lot.

So here's my view of the difference between 'us' and 'them'. Please feel absolutely free to argue the point in the comments, because your view may well help elucidate things.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Turning parents on to risky play

If you've been following the groundswell of research and opinion online about risky play, you'll know that cotton wool care should be a thing of the past. It's a dinosaur. It's counter-productive. Kids need to be taking risks- it's part of their developmental learning curve. Kids need to be allowed to maybe hurt themselves, in minor ways, now and then.

Sadly, when we remove our ostrich-heads from the sandpit of cyberspace and look around us, we see that not very much has changed. Many carers would still rather stop kids from doing something than take the risk themselves of having to find the Band-Aids and write an incident report. (And explain it to the parents at pick-up time.) Many parents would rather swaddle children in cotton wool than feel the guilt of allowing their child to hurt themselves when they could have prevented it.

So what on earth can we do? How can we get the message across?

Well, not by sitting here on the internet bleating about it- that's for sure. We all know that the people we need to talk to aren't reading this.

To get the message across, we also have to take some risks. As advocates for risky play, we have to risk telling uncomfortable truths about risky play to parents who don't want to hear them. Who may see our comments as a negative judgment on their parenting style. Who may think us lazy or uncaring for wanting their children to engage in play that might hurt them.

And there is no easy way to change human behaviour. There is no quick way to change human behaviour. To achieve change we must be patient, be committed, and above all be brave.

Are you brave enough to try to change parents' thinking about risky play?

Here's a radical plan.

First, you put a large notice in a prominent place. Somewhere the parents can't miss it.


Be prepared to explain yourself when parents comment.

Next you start changing what you display in your daily photos. Parents love to look at photos of their children's daily activities, don't they? And come on, be honest: you censor what you take pictures of, don't you? You only photograph things that make you look like a 'good carer'. A safe carer.

A risk-free carer.

I dare you to decorate a prominent part of your centre with photos of children doing risky things. You know they do those things every day, whether you forbid it or not.

"Why on earth would I do that?! The parents will scream," you cry!

Yes they will. (Many of them will- not all. You may be surprised who supports you.) Some will be up in arms. And that is your moment to talk about the benefits of risk, because you have their attention.

What are you going to say when the parents start objecting to this unsafe environment?

Here's an uncomfortable truth about risky play: children who want to take a risk will frequently do it behind your back if you forbid it in your presence. Share that fact with these parents.

Make a poster of that fact, and display it with the photos of your centre's children sneaking around the corner and playing with sticks. Or shimmying up the shade cloth supports, to the very top. Or standing up on the roof of the fort. When the parents ask awkward questions about what these children are doing, that's your cue to explain human nature. Children are programmed to teach themselves risk assessment. We are getting in their way by stopping them, and there are life-long consequences if we succeed.

Truth is very uncomfortable, isn't it? Are you tearing your hair out and screaming "I CAN'T DO THAT!!!!"?

Yes, you can. You have to start a conversation with even the most resistant parents. You have to make them see that controlled risk is desirable, because otherwise you either get uncontrolled risk or no risk. BOTH ARE DANGEROUS FOR CHILDREN. You're an advocate for children, aren't you? Aren't you?

When I was doing my uni assignment on risky play, I became invisible behind my camera. I wasn't working that day; I was just taking pictures and observing. I'd read the research that found that children take risks out of the adults' sight if they're not allowed to do it in an adult's presence. I simply stopped intervening, until the kids forgot I was an adult. Then this was what I saw.

I saw kids having fist fights.

I saw kids playing with sticks- in this case while running around on the balance beams.

I saw kids piling blocks into wobbly towers, climbing onto them and leaping off...

...and sometimes falling off. And crying. And then pretending they weren't crying, because then I might say "I told you not to do that." (I didn't.)

I saw kids 'misusing' the play equipment.

Go on. Tell me that doesn't happen in your playground. Of course it does.

And yes, of course it's a risk to just admit that children get up to this stuff regardless of our attempts to supervise them and make rules... unless we also made it very clear that this is normal, and necessary for their development, and we are scaffolding it and allowing it because we are good teachers who care about the children's future. We have to make it clear that the children are learning vital things when they do this. We have to make clear to the parents the consequences of a risk-free childhood.

We have to make it clear that we are failing in our duty as educators if we stifle risk.

And so you need a sustained campaign- Rome was definitely not built in a day. Also, Rome was not built by the faint-hearted. (How fair dinkum are you about this? Hmmm?)

(Building Rome may require you to educate your educators, too. If you have dissent in the ranks you'll never win the parents over. It's called 'professional development'- do it. Do it first, if this is an issue.)

The long haul means keeping attention on the issue. Toss a few bombs into each newsletter; make posters of these 'bombs' and stick them on the parents' noticeboard. Referenced, factual, clearly expressed bombs are what you need. Like these:

Children who aren't allowed to take risks are more prone to anxiety conditions later in life. No risk = fear, insecurity, anxiety, lack of self-esteem.
         -Sandseter & Kennair, 2011

Without risky play, children don't learn risk management. (This is not something you want your child to learn behind the wheel of his first car.) 
           -Little & Wyver, 2008; Curtis and Carter, 2000

Risky play teaches analysis skills. (They're vital for academic learning.)
           -The Plowden Report, 1967

Children learn by experience, not by being told. No risk = no experience of risk = no learning about risk = inappropriate risk-taking later.

Are you getting the idea? You have to be strong, persuasive and succinct. Nobody is going to read a whole paragraph- parents are busy people. You need sound bites. In bold. In a box.

Let's go back to those photos. Across the top of your pictures of risky play, put appropriate sound bites about risky play. Underneath, you need a succinct analysis of what the children are learning by playing that way. (You might also want to add how you helped to scaffold their risky play, if you have the sort of parents who do stand and read the noticeboard.)

Fist-fights? Superhero play? This teaches concepts of power, self-control and empathy. You are scaffolding this by talking about it at mat time and encouraging the children to make their own rules around it. (Well, you are, aren't you?)

Playing with sticks? That child was showing an important marker of mental development by using a stick as a symbol of a sword. And of course you guided the play by replacing the sticks with pool noodles, didn't you, and discussing cause and effect? Did you poke holes in the mud with sticks, to see how easily they penetrate soft surfaces? Did you discuss what happens if sticks go in eyes? Did the children make rules for using sticks? Did the need to use sticks as swords diminish once it wasn't a way of rebelling?

As for those wobbly blocks- the children are learning vital lessons about balance, control, building rigid structures, risk factors, cause and effect... and you'll discuss that too, won't you? I found the children were so keen to talk about what they'd been doing in the playground and do their own risk assessment, as long as they could see the photo of themselves doing it.

Look, it's not going to happen immediately. You can't walk into your centre with a different attitude to risky play next week and expect that everyone there will go along with you. But you can't sneak it in, either- you have to make it an event.

Have you got the guts to do it?