May Murray’s story
In recent times, outdoor classrooms have been in vogue. They are seen as innovative and creative: they connect children to nature and allow educators to extend their pedagogy and look “outside the box” of intentional and play based learning.
Research by advocates of outdoor learning espouse the benefits of risky play, exposure to weather and freedom to explore in an age where electronic screens and formal curricula for 2-5yrs is becoming ‘normal’.
What is happening outdoors is crossing over to how educators teach in the indoor environment. In our practice of outdoor learning we have found it is not necessary to change pedagogy when we change environments.
May Murray Early Learning Centre is a 24-place long day care centre on the fringe of suburbia in a pocket of Marrickville. We cater for children from two years to six years with a small team of five educators in an early 1900s house. Inspired by an article in an early childhood journal about a preschool on the Mornington Peninsula, we introduced the Cooks River Kids program, our outdoor classroom on the Cooks River, in late 2015.
Engaging our families in the program was easy. They attended meetings, signed permission notes and attended our planting day. The planting area was prepared by Council’s biodiversity team. They dug the area, added nutrition and new top soil. When families arrived on that Saturday, they worked with their children to place the native plants in the garden space, then planted and watered them. It was an event that truly built that sense of belonging to that space and community to the centre.
The following month the program was officially launched at the Cooks River Kids site. A sign was created by a local Aboriginal artist and revealed on the night signified by a smoking ceremony and opened by a Councillor added with lots of food and joy.
Noticing the change
After a few months of the Cooks River Kids, we began to reflect on our pedagogy and noted a change once down at the river. Discussions were had at team meetings and with the children. We explored multiple perspectives around the noticeable shifting of ‘being’ paradigms, according to which environment we were in.
At first it was confronting to even say that we were responding differently to children, but it was an unconscious change. We discovered that pedagogical change was imminent as down by the river we have no set routine to follow; we spend valuable, intimate time with the children. There is no nappy change, lunch breaks, constant counting of ratios or programming to contend with. Real connections are made with each Cooks River Kid.
The child that struggled with routine, suddenly blossomed and, she investigated nature, collected flowers, grouped them in categories and became a scientist.
The child that was four and struggling with toileting, with his parent frustrated and concerned, was able to reveal to an educator that he was scared and anxious. This happened while sitting on the pirate ship (a big boulder on the hill) and came about completely unprompted by the educator.
Let’s take action
At our annual planning meeting we unanimously decided that we wanted to replicate this style of learning back at the centre. We changed our perception of routines and introduced more flowing approaches to our everyday experiences and practices.
2We introduced progressive lunches. This allowed children to continue their play and eat when they chose. We opened up all the learning spaces, both indoors and outdoors for children to feel they have agency over their day and simply educated ourselves that we could maintain ratios without the constant head counting. We handed the set up of the centre environment over to the children and they chose what went where.
Children as citizens
During this time, the May Murray team was also involved in an Inner West Council Children and Family Services research project titled “Children as Citizens”. The project evoked a lot of critical refection and aligning pedagogies to the United Nations Rights of the Child.
The biggest understanding from the project was that we must listen to, understand, and respond to children’s cues, rather than responding to what we think children are telling us.
Thus, by providing children the opportunity to “just play” on the Cooks River we created an environment where children are empowered to have a voice and make a difference.
As a result of this, educators within our small inner city service have redefined our teaching and learning. We have changed how we program, how we observe and how we listen to children, highlighting that pedagogy is continuous and can be transferred from one context to the next.
Meet the author
Beth is a life-long resident of Sydney’s Inner West. She is an early childhood teacher with three adult children, who has spent some time in the Department of Education, but was drawn back to the wonder and rigour of the early childhood sector.Beth has worked with Marrickville Council Children and Family Services since 1989 and is currently the director of May Murray Early Learning Centre with the now amalgamated Inner West Council. May Murray is a 24 place service in the suburban pocket of Marrickville in a small house on the same street as the local school and two blocks down from the Cooks River.The philosophy of Inner West Council’s Children & Family Services has enabled Beth to implement a number of innovative programs. They reflect her personal pedagogical principles and also reflect the community philosophy and belief in what a childhood can look like.Programs established include the Cooks River Kids, an inner-city outdoor classroom on the banks of the Cooks River and a co-constructive, child-centric curriculum linked to the Children as Citizens Research Project conducted in 2016-2017. The project data was then used to add children’s voices to the Inner West Council’s upcoming Community Strategic Plan