Have you heard of the term "open playroom"?
What does it mean to you and how can it be of benefit to children's learning?
- Is it about giving children free access to all the resources and equipment available in a service?
- Is it about removing set times for certain activities?
- Is it about opening the doors and allowing children to roam freely between outside and inside and across different age groupings?
Shifting the focus to empowering children
Ruth Harper, Education Lead at East West Childcare and Kindergarten in Fitzroy, Victoria suggests that the concept of an "open playroom" can be misunderstood, and that it can vary according to the educational pedagogy of a service.
While we don’t officially have an ‘open playroom’ policy, our approach is to empower children to make as many decisions for themselves as possible,” says Ruth. “This includes which spaces they use, which equipment they engage with, when they eat and rest and who they play with. It’s all about us meeting children where they are at.
East West has operated as a multi-age, indoor/outdoor service for more than 40 years, but the change to a non-prescriptive daily routine, with children being able to move freely and act with agency in all the activities started about five years ago.
“We realised that when you factor in lunch and snack times, rest time, story time, and so on, there wasn’t much space left in the daily routine for uninterrupted exploration and discovery; not much time for flow.”
“The switch to a less timetabled day started with us taking a flexible approach to morning tea and afternoon tea, this was then expanded to include flexible sleep and rest times. It probably took us three years to switch to a fully flexible approach,” says Ruth.
While the children quickly embraced it, Ruth shares that it took around 18 months for them to get full buy-in from all staff, some of who were worried about the loss of the communal aspects of a shared lunchtime and concerns that some children just wouldn’t eat, or wouldn’t be able to manage their eating to maintain energy levels across the day.
“Children are so smart, and we don’t give them enough credit or opportunities to show us! In my experience children are more than capable of managing themselves and making decisions about what they want to do and when.
“This is true at almost every age, and includes non-verbal children, who are more than happy to march into the kitchen and help themselves to lunch from the fridge.”
Why good relationships with children are key to successful implementation
According to Ruth, good relationships are key to maintaining a flexible approach, especially when it comes to mealtimes. She says that it’s important to know each child’s approach to eating, and to be conscious of health and safety considerations, such as hot days, when all the children need to be prompted to drink more water.
“We aim to help children tune in to themselves so they can understand their bodily cues. Lots of children get fully immersed in an activity and don’t want to stop, in which case we prompt them to eat. We do a lot of making thinking visible—for example, on a hot day if a child is still wearing a jumper we might say: “Oh my goodness it’s hot, your face is bright red, feel your belly and tell me how it feels” rather than just taking their jumper off.
“For other children it’s about asking them to think about what their body is telling them and how to tell the difference between a hunger pang and thirst. One thing we do know is that each child will have a different response and that’s why it all comes back to the quality of our relationships and how well we know them,” says Ruth.
Edcuators positioned as facilitators of experiences
The open and flexible approach at East West means Ruth struggles with the term teacher, which she says undermines the active role children take in their own learning journey:
Children are not empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge; just like adults, they have clear ideas and interests, they are able to assess situations and make choices, about what they do when they do it. We just need to let them do their thing and try not to interrupt them.
At East West this means team members are available to support and enable children in whatever they choose to engage in, including play, but that the team consciously work as facilitators of experiences rather than as educators.
“We learn together, our role is not to squash the joy of learning, but to embrace the child-led approach to learning, along with the chaos and mess that sometimes ensues, to increase each child’s agency,” says Ruth.
There are 14 consistent educators employed at East West, with 6-7 rostered to care for the approximately 25 children who attend each day. Staff are fully empowered and receive training tailored to support their interests and professional goals.
“We’ve been making cutting edge changes to our educational pedagogy and daily practice for more than 21 years. These changes inform our training, and the training informs future changes,” said Ruth.
So, where to now?
As you know, Quality Area 1 of the NQF—Educational program and practice requires educators to ensure:
- The educational program enhances each child’s learning and development
- Educators facilitate and extend each child’s learning and development
- Educators take a planned and reflective approach to implementing the program for each child
These standards focus on delivering optimal outcomes for each child and offer educators a fair degree of scope in developing and delivering programs that best meet these standards, including the open playroom approach.
If you are considering the idea of an open playroom, you may wish to consider integrating a more holistic approach to your overall program, or to consider reflecting on how you can further integrate children's agency and decision making throughout learning environments, decision making and resources.
To learn more about EastWest and to see pictures visit their website.
Karla Wintle via Amplify! (Jan 2021). Do you have an appetite for progressive mealtimes?
Teacher Tom (July 2009). I have rule
ACECQA (April 2018). (QA1: Supporting children in decision making