by Margaret Paton
Sandhills Early Childhood Centre is a 55-place, not-for-profit long day care service in the centre of Byron Bay and is run by Byron Shire Council in northern NSW. The service has its own treehouse and forest, ‘exceeds’ the standards and its buildings are on the cusp of a major revamp to “make it more modern, and homelike, as our learning environments are a key focus for the centre”, says director Danielle Layton.
She’s been at the helm for two years as the director and council’s Children’s Services Co-ordinator, which sees her also managing three OOSH services. She’s at Sandhills four days a week and works a day at the council, where mainly she looks after compliance for the OOSH services while the co-ordinators run the day-to-day operations.
Layton says: “It sounds like a lot, but it does work. My educational leader at Sandhills comes off the floor for the full day to cover me when I am at council. My admin staff for Sandhills and OOSH help me a lot, they’re both brilliant. It’s actually better to have Sandhills and OOSH all under the children’s services umbrella”.
Sandhills has four degree-qualified teachers and council has paid seven other staff to complete their diploma in children’s services. It operates at improved ratios and the service rated Exceeding overall in its late 2013 assessment.
Long journey to Byron
Before moving to Byron, Layton worked in early education and care in all areas of management, teaching, was a council director in Randwick, and operational manager for a private childcare service as part of 25 years in the sector. She also was a consultant facilitator for CELA (as Community Child Care Co–Operative) for a decade.
“I moved up north three years ago and had been teaching at TAFE when I decided I just wanted to get back into an early learning service either community based or council,” she says.
Layton’s in good company as a newbie to Byron as most of the families at Sandhills hail from Sydney, Melbourne or elsewhere interstate, with much representation from culturally and linguistically diverse communities.
“There’s an active parent committee. When families join us, I try to get them involved in the parent committee, fundraisers and social events.”
The pedagogical philosophy is genuinely based on children’s interests and scaffolding upon this with a strong focus on the environment.
“It’s all indoor outdoor project work and building the foundations for nature. We have very limited plastic [toys] and don’t buy a lot of resources, we reduce, reuse and recycle. We are very resourceful and creative.
“Outside, I say it’s like a children’s wonderland, a magical place with the treehouse, forest, mud kitchens, gardens, chickens and flying fox,” says Layton.
The service has a vege garden and involves children from the start to when their produce is plated.
“We went to Bunnings with the pre-schoolers with a list and got all their herbs and veges to plant and now the harvest goes into our kitchen and we cook them. We educate the children on the whole process.”
Layton describes the program as “quite authentic” and, importantly, Sandhills has its risks assessments in place.
A talking point for new parents to the service is the “high treehouse and our wonderful outdoor spaces”.
“It can be quite different to what parents have experienced elsewhere in early learning. Some people will come in, look at it and may think it’s too risky, but we trust and empower the children,” she says.
“We have bonfires, too. We really allow the children to take risks and when I talk to the parents, I explain how it’s about building children’s resilience. We talk a lot with children about their feelings and emotions, how to problem solve and doing things for themselves.
“It’s important to teach them to take risks, it’s about preparing the children for life. We emphasise the soft skills – respect, empathy and communication. It’s not always about winning the race as everyone’s good at something.”
Grant leads to improvement
Sandhills recently secured a $255,763 grant through the NSW Government’s Stronger Country Communities’ Fund. It will fund revamped learning spaces, kitchen, bathrooms, laundry and staff areas.
“This building has been here since 1995, when the service opened. While it’s been painted, it’s pretty original,” says Layton.
She and her team are doing some weekend work, and will get most of the work done over the three-week end-of-year break. Out will go the original carpets to be replaced by polished timber floors and fresh paint.
“We don’t use chemicals in this service. We’ve been working on a living and breathing sustainability plan and it’s part of our QIP.
“As a service, we have a strong emphasis on sustainability. This is evident in all our rooms, both indoors and outdoors. Our service philosophy as well as personal philosophies are very united and genuinely cohesive.”