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Open plan or open slather? Part One

Open plan or open slather_
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Does open plan really ever work!? I am new to an open plan nursery with 28 0-1s and 20 0-2s and we have room for more?

It’s just a conveyer belt of nappies, feeding, bedding and crying? I have 27 years experience and I am drowning????

Original public Facebook post, used with permission*

*scroll to end to find out what happened to the original poster

Open plan at home

Australian home design has trended towards open plan areas so strongly since the 1980s that it’s hard to imagine a kitchen as a standalone room.  Driven in part by feminist principles (not shutting Mum away over the sink) and the rise in home entertainment (no point being a Masterchef if no one can see you), and in part by renovation programs and the incremental reductions in building costs for new homes, combined kitchen/dining/lounge areas are virtually standard in Australia now.

The pattern has been less clear in early learning services. Older services may follow a classic school-room layout, or they might be in converted houses.  Rooms might change in size according to the age of the children within – or a ‘babies’ room might be the same size in total as the preschool room, but separated into play, change, and sleep areas.  Design features might include large enclosed verandah areas, or a series of connected rooms, or even a set of smaller buildings. Design has been eclectic rather than uniform, with no one style dominating over the years.

My centre is open plan and indoor/outdoor all day. We have 5 ‘rooms’ with a total of 136 children a day. We range from babies to preschool.

It can be a bit hectic but once you get in the rhythm with your team and children it gets easy. I have been there for 6 months. Open plan is not for all but i don’t mind it.

Facebook response

New world order

But the growth in new, purpose built child care centres by property developers around Australia is having more effect than just a disregard for actual demand. Property developers are experts at keeping building costs down and one of the easiest ways to do that is to put up fewer internal walls and go ‘up not out’ with several floors maximising the built area on a block of land.

Welcome to the new world of open plan, multi-storey services, where 200+ place services are commercially attractive and educators, like the one quoted at the outset of this story, must learn to operate in ‘crew’ formation: staying within ratios but collectively juggling 40 or more young children in one large open space. The original Facebook poster who inspired this story was part of a group caring for 48 children under the age of two, with room for 16 more in the allocated space.

I have seen shining new Centres with 20 place baby rooms. Sometimes families are fooled by how “beautiful” everything looks and it isn’t until you actually work in such an environment that you realise just how damaging it can be if not managed well. Really sad!

Facebook response

Group sizes vs ratios

Because, of course, open plan design does not lend itself to small groups. And how that translates into educational programming for babies to preschoolers is an interesting area that will warrant closer scrutiny by operators, academics, policy-makers and regulators in the future.

Large open spaces could also be seen as having educational advantages. Recently a northern Queensland service featured in a local newspaper promoting its provider’s decision to knock down the internal walls because this would allow ‘family groupings’ for the children.

This was, the story said, more ‘natural’ as children in a family home were in mixed age groups and not segregated according to their months of life. The reporter did not, unfortunately, query how ‘natural’ it was for children of any age under five to be spending 8-10 hours in a large open space with 70 other children, but it’s worth pondering.

Any parent or educator knows that the more children you have in a room the noisier, at times, it will be and the harder it is to keep track of individual children. Despite keeping to ratios, or even staffing above ratios, how reasonable is it to expect educators and children in a room of 70 human beings to build close and supportive relationships?

This makes me feel sick to my stomach… How on earth does this environment pass as ‘quality care’?

Facebook response

Does primary caregiving help?

Educators commenting on the original Facebook post on this topic made helpful suggestions to alleviate the stress, including focusing on small group activities and adopting strong ‘primary care’ approaches (where children are clearly allocated to a particular educator to build closer bond).

While agreeing this made sense, the original poster pointed out the logistical problems that were barriers to such approaches: “We have tried this but with shift changes and staff changes it’s not a solution unfortunately.”

Do you use key educator principles where you have your small group that you are responsible for and ensure their needs are met…you get to know them, their families and make bonds with…it becomes easier if you do it this way.

Facebook response

Good luck. Primary caregiving would make a huge relief for you, but that’s 12 people in the one room to get on board and co-ordinate.

Facebook response

What do the regs say?

ACECQA was very responsive to our request for advice on overall group sizes, and recently updated the below information to reflect the page references in its newly revised Guide to the NQF and the NQS elements.

In short, however, while the regulations are very specific around individual educator:child ratios, overall group size remains a matter for the judgment of the provider.

There are no requirements for how children are grouped within a service. The number of children is calculated for the indoor and outdoor space of the service, not per room. There is some good information on page 176 in the Guide to the NQF about indoor and outdoor space.

On top of ensuring adequate supervision and meeting space requirements, some points around good practice:

  • element 2.1.1 – being aware of and supporting each child’s wellbeing, physical comfort needs and preferences, for example avoiding overcrowding when grouping children for rest and sleep (pages 143-145 of Guide to NQF)
  • might take different approaches to grouping depending on age group and capability – eg allowing school age children to group themselves in a way that is child-initiated and appropriate for their age and capability
  • element 2.1.3 – think about how grouping supports physical activity for each child, eg how group numbers encourage or impact each child’s participation or encourage children to work together to explore, problem solve and negotiate play spaces, and consider their capability for managing risky play (pages 152-156 of Guide)
  • how the design, space, organisation and equipment of indoor and outdoor areas support groupings and group numbers, keeping in mind provision of inclusive environment, and safe physical play and activity of different age groups and capabilities (pages 178-183, 191-194 of Guide)
  • standard 5.2 – how the service’s approach to grouping support children to cultivate relationships with one another, and support each other to learn collaboratively and inclusively while learning to regulate their own behaviour and develop social skills. How opportunities for peer scaffolding are created in small and large group play, and support positive relationships between children in a variety of group settings (pages 238-245 of Guide)

Source: ACECQA response to CELA request for advice, updated February 2018.

Flexibility and common sense

Much of the National Quality Framework is built on the presumption of providers’ valuing common sense and the pre-eminent wellbeing of children. The regulations are often  more flexible than in the past because raising the professional standing of the sector means relying on good judgment and allowing educators, directors and providers to be innovative within broader rules.

Any period of reform will bring unintended consequences, however, and the framers of the NQF were not to know that planning departments around Australia would start over-riding commonsense local government decisions for children in order to support building growth: take this example of a local councillor’s anguish over the approval of a combined service station and children’s centre in Caboolture.

Is it possible that the connection between BIG services, BIG rooms and BIG groups of SMALL children needs further review?

They should bring back the rule about group size being a maximum of 3 times the ratio. I have an image of rows of babies in cots (like a jail) in my head.

Facebook response

Next week:

We look at how good building design can support children’s development and learning, as well as educator wellbeing and how different educational philosophies could adapt (or not) to large groups of young children.  In the meantime, please join the discussion of this story on the CELA Facebook timeline.

That’s a huge number for daycare! I am used to orphanages where there is frequently that number and more. It is not good for anybody and I am baffled as to why parents would enrol their small babies in a setting like that.

Facebook response

Post script

I contacted the original poster of this question recently to see how things were working out at her service. Had her initial shock settled down as she became accustomed to the group of nearly 50 under-2-year-olds? Had any of the strategies suggested by others worked to alleviate the stress on educators and children? Here is her, not unexpected, reply:

I had to leave! It was dreadful and sadly another seven educators left after I did. Domino effect I guess?! I’m at another service now with only 29 in the whole centre!!! It’s delightful!

I am so glad I experienced the other place though or would never know how wrong that type of set up is or how lucky I am to be in small service now!

Original Facebook poster, used with permission.


Bec Lloyd is the founder and managing director of Bec & Call Communication, providing professional writing, editing and strategy services to the school and early childhood education sector since 2014. In 2018 she launched UnYucky mindset and menus for happier family mealtimes. Formerly the communications lead at ACECQA and BOS (now NESA), Bec is a journo and mother of three who produces Amplify for us at Community Early Learning Australia.

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7 thoughts on “Open plan or open slather? Part One

  1. I agree with the ‘small groups’ and love purposeful, thoughtful and defined learning spaces for all age groups. I’m the owner/director of a 70-place centre in metro WA. I worked on-the-floor for 8 years before I started my own centre. Our community’s highest demand is for spaces for children under 2 years of age. The building we lease has 300sqm of internal space for us to define as we like (after taking out kitchen, staff room, admin office, hallways, toilets etc from 600sqm). In the first year, we started with a huge open plan space with only 3 defined rooms. But, as time passed, educators and I discussed what was working and what wasn’t and we changed the spaces to suit the children’s needs, rather than to maximise occupancy. This makes us less money overall, but the children and staff are happier.

    We started with a babies’ room for 6 and then ended up with a space big enough for 16, but a conscious decision was made to limit it to just 12. We have an insane demand for that age group (6-18 months), but I’m firm on the decision and will not expand to the maximum amount.

    While we have the physical capacity for 34 children under 2 years of age (if we were greedy), our service thrives on great relationships between the children, educators and families, and this would be destroyed if we tried to crowd the rooms for profit. Also, this way, no one’s drowning in routine care and educators actually have time to do a worthwhile early education program.

  2. I am appalled that Acequa and the office of early childhood have not made this an emergency priority on making changes to this type of care. It is contradictive and I am embarrassed to be apart of the industry ,working under these conditions. I am devastated that I will also have to leave this environment, due to these changes when I have been in the industry for 23yrs and at the same service for 14years.Help!!!!! Something must be done for these poor little people, we are there advocacy, and no one is helping them .Except people like us that are speaking up and saying no, but we get pushed up against a brick wall and when we cry for help, I have been told such things as good luck and if you don’t like it leave, what else am I to do if this situation is against all my values. It is not only the children, what about the wonderful staff, who will help them through this ridiculousness ,help keep there well being and prevent burnout, or is this not even possible. WHY IS THIS EVEN HAPPENNING – MONEY MAKES THE WORLD GO ROUND WHAT A GREEDY BUNCH .

  3. I hate to say this…but oh for the good old days when group sizes were capped. It is simply ridiculous to think that open plan and large group sizes work for children under five let alone for children under two. This is simply about grubby money grabbing by private and corporate providers of child care. Profits before the well-being of children and their carers/educators. Group size in early childhood is like class size at school, the smaller the better.

  4. It’s the developers, if they have the money – they can build as big and how many places they can get for their dollar. Architects are paid to make sure the more the merrier. We then get to lease these buildings at high rent at a per place figure. I have personally owned and operated 11 long day centres ranging from 41 places to 160 It is ridiculous – I only own one 41 place now (gorgeous) and building a 76 place that has rooms of only 8 under threes and 15 over threes – the children, staff and everyone’s including my own wellbeing, comes before how many can be squashed onto a piece of dirt. The Government use to have a huge say in the instigating of a new purpose built centre. Now they don’t – the developer only has to apply to the building code and ACECQA only have to be guided by the regs……answer is – don’t work for a centre that are packing them in like sardines, make a stand and do it for the children……….

    1. What a lovely person you are thank you for keeping 2 great centres that are full of healthy happy people.

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