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The joy of programming for bugs and muddy puddles

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“Behind educators and families, physical spaces hold the potential to influence what and how children learn.” ACECQA

At Karana Early Education Centre, an Exceeding rated service in Mount Crosby, Queensland, children squelch in mud puddles that are large enough to float canoes in. They build cubbies with recycled, open-ended loose parts. And nobody minds when the children get dirty.

We speak to ECT Kisie Sharp to find out how children benefit from their philosophy of giving children a ‘natural childhood’, and how any service can begin to place more of an emphasis on outdoor play, no matter how small the space.


The first thing you notice when you land on Karana Early Education Centre’s social media profile is the number of photos of happy children playing in mud, dirt and water.

They proudly decree that their focus is about ‘Standing up for a natural childhood and putting children at the centre of our days!’.

Kisie Sharp, an Early Childhood Teacher at Karana Early Education Centre, explains what makes their outdoor environment so successful:

“Our outdoor space is very natural, grass to roll in, mud to play in, rocks to clamber over and trees to climb. Children are given free range to explore nature. They search for bugs, grow flowers and admire the beauty of the world around them. All of this promotes respect for our environment.”

Their playground offers elements of considered risk, with the opportunity for children to assess the risk and learn from it.

“Running through the trees whilst negotiating the myriad of tree roots requires calculation, navigation and control,” says Kisie.

Valuing outdoor play

To build an engaging, didactic outdoor environment, start by reviewing your centre philosophy.

  • Is it supportive of risk and nature play?
  • Are outdoor spaces valued as much as indoor classrooms?

Kisie describes her centre’s philosophy as follows:

“We believe in giving children a natural childhood, immersing them in nature and listening to their voices. We support them in their learning, scaffolding and encouraging their play to help them reach their full potential. Our goal is to build resilient children who have confidence in themselves. Children who will forever remember their early childhood as the happiest time of their lives.”

Evolving outdoor spaces

Many educators will crave a playground renovation after seeing Karana Early Education Centre’s impressive outdoor space. However, playgrounds can be improved gradually. Evaluate your current environment, brainstorm with your colleagues, and ask the children for input.

“Our outdoor area is ever-evolving,” says Kisie. “We are always looking at where the children’s interests lie and where we can improve their day. Our potion station is one of our recent additions, an invitation to play that provides a wealth of learning.”

The team have also recently built a large outdoor deck and covered it with a Bali hut structure for children to have an outdoor alfresco style eating area. This has created a beautiful space for children to come together and connect.

Programming for an environment

Karana Early Education Centre has an indoor/outdoor program that allows children to move freely between spaces.
“Environments and invitations to play are set up as provocations,” explains Kisie. “Outside there are numerous loose parts and resources for children to incorporate into, and extend their play.”

Educators can learn from their program.

  • Don’t limit yourself to planning activities, plan environmental provisions too.
  • Add something new or change an existing feature of your outdoor space, and let the children decide how they play with it.

Read ACECQA’s information sheet about the environment being the “third teacher”.

Communicating with families

Parents visiting Karana’s Facebook page for the first time are encouraged to recall fond memories of their own childhood in order to give them an idea of what their children will experience at the centre.
‘Do you remember that special natural place you played in as a child? Under the house, in the backyard, on the beach, down by the creek? Do you remember the joys of a muddy puddle? The excitement of playing in the rain? Looking at a butterfly? Watching ants? Making up games? Believing that anything is possible?

Karana Early Education Centre has gained the support of families through a clear philosophy and ongoing communication. They have a strong belief in authentic childhoods and nature-based learning, and their families understand this.

“When families initially come to visit our centre, we are very open about our philosophy and parents can see the type of environment we have,” says Kisie.

“We let them know that if it rains we will let the children go out and play in muddy puddles, we show them we have a mud pie cafe and a large dirt patch. There are no illusions about offering a clean, sterile environment.
Throughout the year, will share articles of interest about messy play with our families, and our ECT’s often inform the parents of the benefits of certain messy experiences the children have been involved in.”

Further reading:
ACECQA’s information sheet about the environment being the “third teacher”



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