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Does style triumph over substance?

Beyond 'bright and shiny'
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Danielle Bopping was one of Amplify’s earliest guest writers when she contributed to our provocation over whether parents make better educators. Danielle returns this week to examine a question being discussed in many parts of the eduweb: Danielle returns this week to examine a question being discussed in many parts of the eduweb: can a focus on the outward appearance of early learning centres distract families and educators from the most important questions of quality early learning?

All that glitters is not gold

You know the look.

It’s brand new… everything is the latest design, freshly painted, and in pristine condition.

There is a lovely foyer and parents’ area where they offer hot coffee and fresh fruit, sparkling water and maybe even a croissant still warm from the kitchen, for those who are dropping off their children.

They offer enrolment incentives such as the chance to go into a draw for a new iPad, they promise extracurricular activities, “essential” to a child’s early learning and development – French, yoga, music, drama, dancing, cooking, exercise, swimming classes – and the meals they provide are created by a chef using only organic ingredients.

Surely, if they are offering all this and more they must be a quality children’s service offering quality education and care for young children?

Gold can glitter too

Don’t get me wrong! In many cases the answer is yes: they are offering high quality programs as well as enjoying deluxe surroundings and ample expert support for specialist programs.

However, although these features often appeal to parents, (because let’s face it, first impressions count), and can sway their decision regarding which service they choose for their children, these aspects don’t necessarily indicate the quality of the service.I have often said to parents, Not all that glitters is gold. How then do we encourage families to look deeper and understand what true quality is regarding the education and care of their children?

And not just families, but educators too! Yes, we know we also can be swayed by the thought of a brand new centre with all the latest technology; where there is a place for everything and everything has a place, with all new toys, furniture, equipment and fully stocked resources and specialist-run classes giving us more time for programming and documentation.

Environment as the third teacher

In looking at services, it is important to look at the environment from a holistic point of view, not simply the physical aesthetics.

The consideration of the environment as the third teacher (after families and educators) is critically important to an early childhood service’s curriculum, but does it mean that everything must be brand new, bright and shiny?

Carter and Curtis (2011) suggest that in the simplest form:

early childhood environments should be inviting and cultivate children’s curiosity, wonder and imagination.

Perhaps the message we need parents to consider is best summed up by Loris Malaguzzi

We value space because of its power to organise, promote pleasant relationships between children of different ages, create a handsome environment, provide changes, promote choices and activity, and its potential for sparking all kinds of social, affective and cognitive learning.

All of this contributes to a sense of well-being and security in children.

We do not need the latest in technology, interior design, materials and resources to be able to achieve this. But then, if we do, are we using these external advantages to create environments that are flexible and responsive to the needs and interests of children and educators allowing them to construct knowledge together (Gandini, 1998) or are they just the outward trappings of successful management and marketing?

Increasingly, we have seen the introduction of recycled and repurposed furniture and open-ended items into early childhood services. These reflect educators’ commitments not only to sustainability, but to providing children with authentic materials that can be used in numerous ways, limited only by children’s’ imaginations. As Magda Gerber said, the best toys for babies and young children don’t do anything.

One man’s trash can certainly become one child’s, or one service’s treasure. It is these items that also provide a service with its own personality rather than the often clean and crisp, homogenised, cookie-cutter, every-centre-is-branded type feeling.

What does quality look like then?

Like many aspects of our role as early childhood educators and advocates, it is not just about educating children, but also families and the wider community.

There are many checklists floating about on the internet about what parents and families should look for when they are visiting services and considering where to send their children. I have not yet found a list that includes things like: fresh paint, smartboards, the newest toys and a design aesthetic!

As educators we know that the provision of quality education and care to young children is critical for developing their capacity for learning, resilience, self-esteem and healthy growth in all areas of development, and that as a result leads to improved health, education and employment outcomes later in life.

We also know that this can only be achieved through improved educator to child ratios, increasing the number and level of educators who are qualified and skilled, and through the implementation of approved learning frameworks. This was the purpose of the National Quality Framework.

Beauty is skin deep

We need to be encouraging families to look beyond the aesthetics and observe more closely.  The old saying about beauty being skin deep can be applied to any number of judgments, including children’s services.

We need to help families consider what aspects they value most about the experience of early education and care they want their child to have.

A service’s philosophy is a good place to start. If a parent can relate to and feel a connection to the philosophy, then they should already be getting the sense that this service may be a ‘good fit’ for them and their child.

The same applies to educators. Finding a service whose philosophy closely reflects your own pedagogy and what you value most can be the first step in finding somewhere that is a good fit, where you will feel comfortable, valued, and able to grow in your career.

Asking the right questions

You can help families to ask good questions by providing them in your information pack or on your website.  Here are some that I have recommended to parents over the years:

  • Have the educators made you feel welcome and are they attentive? Do you feel like they are taking a genuine interest in you and or your child?
  • Do the spaces feel calm and inviting or overwhelming and chaotic?
  • Are the children engaged (inspired/stimulated/challenged)?
  • Do children look like their needs, physical, cognitive, social and emotional, are being met?
  • Are there multiple spaces for children to engage in, both indoor and outdoor?
  • Are children able to access different spaces, a range of equipment and resources independently and is it safe for them to do so?
  • How are children being supported in their individual learning and development?
  • Are the educators engaging with the children respectfully, getting down to their level?
  • Can you see examples of the children’s learning displayed in a respectful way that value’s the children’s work and represents their voices?
  • Are people of all cultures and abilities, and the wider community represented in the service?
  • What opportunities are there for families to be involved in the service?
  • Are the qualifications and experience of educators on display?

Demonstrating the right answers

The question we must ask ourselves as educators is Are we doing all of the above?

Carter (2007) suggests that the questions we should be asking when investigating early childhood environments are

What does this environment “teach” those who are in it? How is it shaping the identity of those who spend long days there?

not how bright, new and shiny does it look?

Continue the discussion with Danielle and others on CELA’s Facebook timeline

Related article

This old step, by Ariane Simon

Danielle Bopping

Danielle’s early childhood career began in 1997 when she completed an Advanced Diploma of Child Care Studies. Over the last 20 years, she has worked in a variety of early childhood settings, with children aged 0-12 years, in Australia, England, Ireland and Thailand. She recently completed a Bachelor of Education (0-5) years, the Adv. Dip of Community Sector Management and a Cert IV TAE. Currently she works part-time as a preschool teacher and teaches the Cert III and Diploma of Early Education and Care to foreign language students.

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