Standard 3.2 Use – Case study 2
The service environment is inclusive, promotes competence and supports exploration and play-based learning.
This purpose-built, community managed preschool/kindergarten is located in a regional town. The service team is committed to caring for the environment and to sustainable practice and this is reflected in their service philosophy, the educational program and daily practice. The service was built to face north, to take advantage of sunlight for heat and light. It uses solar panels and an Envirocycle system for the management of waste water. Rainwater tanks are used to water the well-established vegetable garden and the new flower garden, as well as being used for outdoor play and learning experiences. There is also a coop for chickens and ducks, which provides children and families with a plentiful supply of eggs and is a source of fun, excitement and learning for children throughout the day. The children enjoy looking after the birds and take this responsibility very seriously.
The children, families and educators of the service are actively involved in a number of community projects. These include working with community groups and the local council in the maintenance of a nearby park and regular participation in the community bushcare and tree planting programs. These projects have given children the opportunity to develop a knowledge of plants local to the area, including the skill to identify safe plants and those that may be poisonous.
More recently, the service team and management committee have developed a five-year ‘zero waste’ policy, with input from families, children, educators and the community. This policy was developed following an audit conducted by children and educators, to determine how much waste the service produced over a one-month period. The audit also gave the service a better sense of the type of waste being produced, to inform the development of the policy and their waste management practices.
Recycling is an important component of the policy, and additional recycling bins have now been set up at the service in the indoor and outdoor environments. This includes bins in the lunch area, labelled with photos of the service’s chickens and duck. Children have been taught the type of food scraps that are suitable for the birds. Other appropriate food scraps are placed in a bin to go into the service’s compost bin. Left-over water from cups or drink bottles is tipped into a watering-can that is used to water the indoor plants. The practices being used at the service has led to some lively discussions amongst the children about their waste management practices at home and has led to requests for their families to set up similar bins and water conservation containers.
Another feature of the service’s sustainability efforts is the use of open-ended, natural and recycled materials in both the indoor and outdoor environments. For example, a conversation between an educator and a group of children about where paper comes from led to an investigation about how to make their own paper using recycled materials. This investigation went on for several weeks, with children experimenting with a range of materials, including newspaper, magazines, junk mail and discarded envelopes, to see what worked best. The children were thrilled with their efforts and supported by an educator, they made a book using the paper, which described the paper-making process in words and pictures.
The service’s sustainability approach is a ‘work in progress’ as the team is continuously looking at where and how they can improve and by engaging in ongoing professional learning and critical conversations. In recent team meetings educators have been exploring and learning more about the benefits of using loose parts to support children’s exploration, curiosity, creativity and collaboration skills. These conversations were informed by professional reading, highlighting the potential of loose parts play to meet the diverse range of strengths, interests and abilities of children. This included research demonstrating the potential of using loose parts to support children’s social interactions, language development, imagination and problem-solving skills. Appropriate risk-taking opportunities, most particularly in the outdoor environment, were also discussed.
This sparked the interest of the team in doing their own investigation on how children were using loose parts and other open-ended materials to support their explorations and child-directed play. Over several weeks, educators documented children’s play in both the indoor and outdoor play spaces, capturing images of the children’s explorations, with their permission. Educators shared these images with the children and talked with them about their thinking and the learning that was occurring through their play. This documentation was used to inform ongoing conversations about what educators were noticing and thinking about and how they might build on and extend the opportunities for play and learning provided by the loose parts. It was also shared with families, some of whom expressed an interest in learning more about it.
During a recent team meeting, educators took turns in sharing their reflections and learning from the investigation. For example, one educator noticed that children were engaging in sustained play for longer periods of time, often using the same materials in a different way each day. Following a recent donation by one of the families of pine-cones, seeds, leaves and bark, an educator noticed children taking an increased interest in nature and displaying a sense of wonder. Another observed that children were actively making decisions, individually and together, as they discussed and decided how they would use the materials from one day to the next. However, educators also noted that due to specific materials being available each day according to the program plan, some children needed to request loose parts that that they knew were in the shed that had not been made available.
This led to a discussion about children’s developing sense of agency. The team revisited the definition of agency in Belonging, Being & Becoming: The Early Years Learning Framework (p.48), “being able to make choices and decisions, to influence events and to have an impact on one’s world”. Educators discussed whether children were truly able to make choices and decisions if they needed to ask an educator for materials that they couldn’t access. As a result, a proposal to introduce an open shed policy was raised.
A robust discussion and debate took place about the benefits and risks associated with children having access to the shed, with some educators concerned about child safety and others seeing the added potential for more open-ended, child-directed spontaneous projects. After further critical reflection, educators agreed to talk with the children about the issue at a group meeting, to hear their thoughts and ideas about it.
The idea of keeping the shed doors open was popular with the children and greeted with enthusiasm. During the discussions the children suggested additional ideas such as getting a second shed for storing the materials in all the service’s milk crates and baskets. One child suggested a storage unit be built, similar to the trolley used to store loose parts in the playroom. This conversation, including the different ideas suggested, was recorded in the reflection journal so that educators could revisit the children’s ideas and add further notes as the changes evolved. Educators also shared the children’s suggestions with families and encouraged them to share their thoughts and perspectives on the idea.
Educators and families agreed that the storage unit idea had appeal and it created an opportunity for the service to collaborate with the local high school’s woodwork class. The woodwork teacher had previously remarked to an educator that their students were always up for a challenge and that they would be happy to work with educators and children should an occasion arise. The children were equally excited to work with the high school students and to be involved in the design of the storage unit.
Key ideas that were discussed together included that the unit needed to have multiple compartments to keep the materials organised and easy to find, that it be an appropriate height for the children to safely and easily access materials, and that, wherever possible, it would be made using recycled materials, consistent with the service’s sustainable practices. At the children’s suggestion, the students added wheels to the unit so it could be moved around to different locations in the playground and moved undercover at the end of the day. The storage unit is now proudly in place and children are enjoying accessing the materials they need safely and independently in the outdoor environment.
Meanwhile, loose parts available to children in the playroom were also a source of inspiration for children’s explorations and self-directed learning. In a recent example, a group of children working with loose parts in the playroom attempted to reproduce drawings they had made using various materials including pebbles, shells, feathers, sticks and leaves. The educators followed up this interest by leading a discussion about how they might recreate their drawings in ‘three dimensions’, perhaps as a sculpture. The children were excited about this possibility, although wondered if the loose parts and found objects in the outdoor storage unit might be more suitable for the task than those inside.
To extend on this idea, one of the educators suggested they do some research about artists and sculptors who have worked with found objects in the past. They looked at sculptures by famous artists as well as the work of a local artist who was passionate about environmental issues. This artist creates sculptures from litter and other found objects collected from local beaches, to raise awareness of the impact of litter on seabirds and marine life.
These provocations inspired the children to come up with a range of ideas, with some working individually and others with their peers. Some children remained keen on the idea of creating sculptures based on their drawings. Another group of children, who were passionate about caring for the environment, were inspired to create a sculpture using litter, found objects and other discarded items. Other children were less interested in using the loose parts for artistic expression but continued to use them for construction and dramatic play in both the indoor and outdoor environments.
One of the parents of a child attending the service is an artist and, on hearing about the children’s interest, offered to work with the educators and children as part of the sculpture project. Other families contributed with donations of loose parts, as did local businesses, who had heard about the service’s sustainability practices and were keen to get involved. This project, as well as the service’s ongoing sustainable practices, has led to ongoing discussions with children, families and the community about sustainability and environmental awareness and creating further opportunities to collaborate on community projects addressing these issues.
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