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Partnerships with families and outdoor playscapes

Partnerships with families and outdoor playscapes


August 15, 2016 | By Ron Spreeuwenberg
This is a transcript of the Preschool Podcast, episode #5 "Partnerships with families and outdoor playscapes”.
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Ron SPREEUWENBERG:
Hi I'm Ron Spreeuwenberg co-founder and CEO of HiMama. Welcome to our podcast about all things for early childhood education. In this week's episode we discuss the value of partnerships between educators and families. Many families are seeking a more active role in their children's care and education and are challenging the notion of teacher’s expert. We discuss why child care and early learning programs should embrace family involvement which will ultimately benefit not only families but educators and children as well. We also discuss the hot topic of outdoor play and how it is different than indoor play, delving into how it allows for high energy exuberant play that improves both the physical and mental health of our young children. Our guest, Lynn Wilson is the author of several books in early childhood education including partnerships, families and communities in early childhood, and outdoor playscapes breaking new ground. She is a mother of four children, an early childhood educator and a former faculty member at George Brown College. Stay tuned to learn from Lynn's many years of experience in early childhood education.

So Lynn why don't we start off just learning a little bit more about who you are.


Lynn WILSON: OK. Most importantly I'm a mom of four children of whom I'm very proud. But actually most of my life has been in a teaching capacity of some sort or another and I guess I always wanted to be a teacher so I started out as a primary school teacher and started with a grade three four class and just kept working my way down until I got to the kindergarten. Then I started having my own children and I ended up at George Brown College with one of my daughters and they were looking for a kindergarten teacher and they were developing for the very first time a full day kindergarten program. So I was hired on there and I spent the rest of my professional life really at George Brow College first as a playroom teacher then as a supervisor and then finally for the last 25 years. Faculty and the early talent program there.


SPREEUWENBERG: That's an interesting background because I love speaking with somebody who's both been a teacher or educator in the classroom and then has gone on to provide value or impact into early childhood education in another way. So how do you how do you think that your experience working in a primary school and in kindergarten has influenced your work today.


WILSON: Well you know I think part of it was a real eye opener in some ways when I went to work in the early childhood environment because a lot of my formal teaching had not really looked at the development of the early years. I mean there was some basic coverage of that. But in order to be able to work in the early childhood environment I actually had to go back to school although I did it teaching certificate I needed to earn my early childhood diploma in order to participate. And so going back to school and learning things that I thought really should have been embedded in my you know sort of primary teaching training with really helpful it was really eye opening. It really helped me understand more about brain development and the importance of early relationships and attachment. So I really had an incredible opportunity as a teacher to sort of you know run the whole gamut between big kids and babies. So it's been a great ride for me.


SPREEUWENBERG: And you said you also spent some time as faculty. What was the focus that you. If you had one.


WILSON: OK. Well we did teach a range of different topics but I really, my area of expertise really was in families and communities in early childhood environments and really I suppose environmental set up, both in the indoor and outdoor environment, I’m a big advocate for outdoor play and outdoors environments as well.


SPREEUWENBERG: So those are actually two of the things I really wanted to focus on today. Let's start with the partnerships and communities point. So you're actually the author of a book called partnership's families and communities in early childhood. I guess the big question for you is why are partnerships between educators and families important?


WILSON: Oh it's such a huge area but I think what's really important is certainly in our teacher training is that a lot of the students who come to our program begin to think that their work will primarily be with children and in fact we can't work with children without working with the families. And so over the course of my teaching years I really began to understand the power of families as the primary caregiver and really understood the need for that kind of cooperation between both the teacher and the educator and to the family.

And I think all of this has really evolved over the years as well because now with full day kindergarten our children are in long term situations from an earlier age. And so now we're also talking about educators both in a classroom setting as well as in early childhood environments and the meshing in Ontario of that, where you have an early childhood educator and a trained teacher, early childhood educators are trained as well But the idea that these two different disciplines are coming together to support children and family I just I think are really amazing. And I think that you know our focus on working with families is that by working closely with families we have an opportunity to gain more information about the child and about the family itself. And so where we used to be more hands off approach to the work with our families where I'm the teacher I'm the expert you know just give me your child and I'll do my work. We work much more in collaboration because we know that we can have a much greater long term impact on children and their development as well as the support both for teachers and for parents because we all benefit from this connection that we all learn from each other.

And I think this has been such an enormous shift in our country as well in terms of immigration so that because it won't take for example all of our Syrian families that are now coming here to live a safe life also brings that element of challenge for teachers who may never have worked with a family who've lived and seen the kinds of atrocities that many of these families have experienced. So we have so much to learn from each other in terms of ways in which we can support each other. And I guess I just think that it's absolutely critical to any kind of early childhood environment to work in collaboration and to engage family in in the center. And we're where we're working.


SPREEUWENBERG: That's actually a really good point about cultural differences and background and thought about. So yeah. So critical. Now a lot of the things you're saying makes sense but is there much research behind the idea that stronger partnerships with families’ helps children’s outcomes or teachers or parents.


WILSON: Yes absolutely. There's a lot of research that's taken place over the years and I think there's greater and more emphasis in different roles in which families can play. But there's no question that all of the research points to the benefits for children and for families when they're actually engaged and they're actually connecting to the early telling environments where children are located. And it's one of the most important predictors of children school success really is related to parents self-esteem and so teachers and educators have an opportunity to support that to lead with the family's strength to support. And I really think that one of the ways that we can do this and it's a model that used to be used years ago, with a home vist, that before the new family comes to the center you would visit that home you get to know the family meet the dog get a chance to go to the child bedroom, exchange information back and forth but also to encourage families to find a way that they can actually be engaged in a really powerful way because teachers need to share that. We need to engage family so that they feel that they have a significant role to play in the life of the education of their child.

And way too often there are barriers to the ways in which we sort of create situations where families are not really welcome or we let the parents come in and clean the paint pots as opposed to let's talk about curriculum. What are the things that are important to you. What things in your culture do you want to share with not only you know with us but with all of the children and all of the families. So it's this collaboration that's just so critical and you can't do it unless families are really engaged. And if they feel part of the whole process then I think again that starts at the orientation. Right away The principal or the supervisor may have the families come in and meet other families that have been involved, look at ways that families have really contributed and the way teachers and you know families have really worked in a really significant way with each other to provide a really powerful and stimulating environment for young children.


SPREEUWENBERG: You know that's interesting. It's almost like you don't want to put on a show to parents that you're going to have them involved you have to actually have be genuine about it.


WILSON: Yeah absolutely. Absolutely. You know what one of the benefits really is also to the teacher, because the educator in the classroom, using both of those terms in a sort because early childhood educators in Ontario are called educators but primary school teachers are called teachers, so back and forth. Because we're all now working together really effectively. When teachers have an opportunity to work so closely with families I think when challenges arise during the life of the center and we know that conflict at some point or another is always inevitable, people trust each other, when the families feel that the teacher looks for the strengths within that family interaction and the more opportunities to develop really strong interpersonal relationships with families.

I think that they begin to feel more proud of the work that they're doing. And it also helps us to plan more successfully for the families when we know that there may be a new baby coming into the family. We know some great programming around that will also support the child's transition as well as the family's transition. So I mean the term partner has really been used a lot but in order to be a true partner we really need to be engaged with each other. And sometimes it's not possible to have that kind of a connection without breaking down some of the barriers that we see in place where again as I mentioned you know the teacher is the expert and families really aren't welcomed here or there's lots of ways that we can exclude families by not communicating on a regular basis that they don't know really what's happening. We need to share the power. I think that's the most the most important element yes.


SPREEUWENBERG: And one thing I think that we see quite often is a director of a child care program wants to show the parents all the good things but not necessarily the overall and true experience of what's happening in the classrooms every day.


WILSON: Right


SPREEUWENBERG: Do you have any thoughts of how those directors might be able to feel more comfortable sharing more with parents about what's happening.


WILSON: You know I think it's a really I think it's a really good point because I think most parents are passionately connected to their children and so they may understand you know intellectually what group care is but they want really the teacher to spend most of the day with their child. And so helping families to really understand the challenges of group care also paves the way for it for the teachers as well. But I think you know the supervisor or the principal needs to have administrative policies in place that really do strengthen the partnership so that there's goal setting in the policies and procedures manual, so there's a clear outline of how families can actually be involved in the center. The supervisors should really be modeling the way, being a really effective communicator being accessible being on the floor being able to answer questions and her ability to hire outstanding staff to look for the best of the best in terms of the development of the early childhood environment that they're working with.

And again to create a really strong team approach so that everyone feels as if they're on the same page. But we need to look for ways to support families because just like the teachers they're all unique and come from different backgrounds and have families of their own. We also need to be able to look at the individual uniqueness of each family and look for ways that we really can support them when they're experiencing financial difficulty or there may be some great crisis in the family it may be an extended family member in the house may be really ill. So if we don't have that information we can't really support the family. So we really need to get inside the family in order to be able to really support the child and the work that we want to do.


SPREEUWENBERG: It sounds like it almost all comes down to you know that thing that's so critical that every relationship which is open and transparent communications from both parties right.


WILSON: Yeah absolutely. Absolutely.


SPREEUWENBERG: And the good and the bad. I like your point about being transparent about the challenges that you have and your program to right. So you know maybe to me to say to parents you know we want to be as open as possible with you. But if you call us at a certain time of the day we not ne unable to answer that's likely because you know we're full capacity working with children or something right. Just so they know yeah for sure.


WILSON: I think that you know part of this breaking down the boundaries and this may not be OK with some teachers but the idea is saying you know today it was really busy. I'm really sorry. I want to give you my home number and you can call me between the hours of you know seven and eight. You know any time you're really feeling like you need to talk to me or if there was an issue during the day with the child and let's say you were on the early shift and you left at 4 o'clock then being able to call that family member at night and explain what happened. So much happens that's really creates a negative spin is when we don't communicate effectively with each other and we need to be on top of the communication we need to be in any sort of accurate and prompt so we can you know how to explain the things that that may have gone on during the day that may have been challenging or a child may have lost something that's special and you may be the only person who will know that, that is something. It's being able to go the distance because teaching isn't a 9 to 5 job. It really isn’t.


SPREEUWENBERG: Absolutely. And so I just want to circle back to one thing you mentioned very briefly earlier about parents self-esteem. Can you tell me a little bit more about what you mean by that.


WILSON: Well I think you know that today I think it must be incredibly confusing for families because you can go to the library and if you look at parenting you know you're confronted with a shelf full of experts who had conflicting opinions about raising children and it parenting is really a demanding role but it also requires ongoing support systems that extend not just at the child care center but the community in itself. I think when parents feel that they're supported that they feel more proud of their work when we can celebrate the things that they're doing that are working really effectively.

I think that that really does help them to value the work that they do as parents and we're treating parents respectfully, asking for their opinions and then we're actually using the information they give us then it really helps to provide those crucial steps to building alliances to develop this sense of we-ness between us because when we become a we then we can really truly be partners together. And I think when they see that they can do something about their child's education. I think then you empower parents to really believe you know what I can do something about my housing or I can do something about my community or I can do something about the way I'm being treated at my workplace. So I think it's a sense of empowerment and often not the foundation that that is true empathy on the part of the teacher that we really get connected to these families in a way that we want to be there for the kids. I think it's really important.


SPREEUWENBERG: Yeah it's I really like your point about showing the parents that they have a valuable role they play a very valuable right. Empower them that's so true. It's you know you hear that a lot about even speaking about the children themselves. That's obviously what we want to achieve as is allow the children to know that they're empowered and they're able to control their own destiny in terms of what they want to learn and what they want to do but same goes for the parents too.


WILSON: Yeah absolutely and I think you know the children are very quick to pick up if there is some animosity between the teachers and families. They're incredibly intuitive can really pick up on that and I think it's just so important that we really we really observe the interactions between the teachers and the families because we learn so much from them. I think that one of the things we will often talk about sort of in-house, but we don't think it's out there so much that, when we spent let's say you know a child has been in the center with us for three or four years and then along comes the next sibling and then another three and four years together when it's time for those families to actually leave to go on to primary school. It is a real wrench for daycares, you build strong relationships. It’s also a wrench for the families if this has worked really well. But the best thing you know is that if we found a really good job in early childhood environments we really prepare families to be activists in their new school environment. They already expect to be engaged. They expect their ideas to be respected. They are looking for meaningful ways to help in a new space. And so I think the early childhood you know community really have a strong sense of empowering parents to be you know advocates for their child through their whole school life.


SPREEUWENBERG: That's interesting makes a lot of sense. And we certainly support that here at HiMama for sure with what we're doing and it's you know there's always challenges but I think as a whole at least in Ontario There's been a lot of progress there.


WILSON: No I agree. Lots of strong documents now being released by the ministry I think there's a lot of really good work. And I would say having compromised our college environment training and new teachers that you know there's a lot of wonderful research going on. I have been surrounded by enormously successful colleagues that are really leading the front in terms of research in this in this area for sure.


SPREEUWENBERG: Just switching gears now from partnerships to outdoor play. So you're also the author of a book called outdoor place the place keeps me breaking new ground. And this is an interesting one and I know it's a kind of a hot topic. And let's just start again with a fairly broad- question how is outdoor play for children different than indoor play.


WILSON: Well it is exuberant play in a way that you know often indoor play doesn't allow because of the physical environment. It may well be smaller. You know it's divided into different centers where outdoor play is just really full on high energy. And we know more and more now about how important physical activity is to children. There's an enormous concern of obesity in our country and even just this week hearing about if you're sitting in that chair you know you're not going to do well in terms of longevity. We need to set the stage with young children and with teachers as well to embrace the outdoor environment in a way that's really meaningful and fun and exciting. I just think it's really important. But they do all kinds of physical disadvantages when we don't maximize that space for sure.


SPREEUWENBERG: I see it because I always feel like it's one of those things that you have a feeling that it's much better but it's hard to describe why.


WILSON: I think if you if you observe children in any indoor environments and then it's time everyone's going outside, if you just track one and two children and you look at the way they engage and the way in which they actually use the resources outside. But this also speaks to the idea that the place in the outdoor environment has to be designed in a way that encourages that kind of adventure playground type play with lots of loose parts lots of materials for them to manipulate and to maneuver.

I think one of the most pivotal books that I've read in a really long time was Richard Louv’s book ‘Last Child in the Woods, saving our children from Nature Deficit Disorder”. Nature deficit disorder has become a core word for all kinds of other organizations that have sprung up on really all over the world. There are countries that really need to weigh in and a great deal of this kind of approach to outdoor play. Forest schools in Scandinavia you know we see a growing interest in that here in Canada. And parents are becoming more and more educated about what to look for in an early childhood environment. And they're not just turning to the inside of the center they want to see what's going to happen outside. And is it inventive, is it exciting, are there lots of great things for children to do.


SPREEUWENBERG: That's interesting. I've never heard that term before. Nature Deficit Disorder. Do you think the impacts of that are primarily of a physical nature or do you think it's more than that?


WILSON: No I think it's a whole body experience. I think that we have a lot of research now about the benefits of green environments, when you're in a hospital room when you've got a window and it's a concrete wall outside your window. You're not going to heal as fast as the person who has a beautiful flowering tree outside their window. There are places in Japan where the doctors are not giving prescriptions where their patients have to go to a park and get out a park ranger to sign off that they walked for two hours because we understand more and more both from a spiritual you know sort of approach to a physical and mental approach. Being outside can be an incredibly invigorating and inspiring environment for both the adults. Teachers also respond well to these outdoor environments. There's some really remarkable ones that we have in the city that you can go and you can see what's being done. But the play is just really dramatic and it again it's the setup of the outdoor environment and it's the need for loose parts and materials and props.


SPREEUWENBERG: It seems to me like this is a field where we've only really just scratched the surface of what's possible really.

WILSON: Yes some good research coming out of University of Western Ontario. You know lots of Evergreen Brickworks are doing great programs where they're partnering with growth and impact. They partnered with us in the development of our Casa Loma child care center about a new redesign of the place. Now the problem is we needed several hundred thousand dollars to complete it. So this is not for lack of good ideas and vision. It's always about a lack of money because major overhauls in outdoor environments are really significant. And it means taking out all of those pieces equipment that adults thought children would like to use because so rarely did children get involved in being asked “what do you want to see in that space what would be fun for you. Where's your favorite place to be”.

It's amazing the insight that children might have because you know how younger and older children have to be separated on a playground space according to regulations. Well the older children talk about the little ones being stuck in that box and why do they have to be over there. Why can't we go over there. Why can't we go and read a story to the babies. So there's a lot of things in the works and you're right I think there's a real emphasis now on this but it clearly is something that we really need to focus on in terms of design. But a community approach to it so that families, architects, the landscape people, you know educators all kinds of people are involved in the design of that. And there are a lot of good tools out there now that will help you do that. So I think there's a lot that's going to happen over the next little while.


SPREEUWENBERG: But again money being one of the greatest deterrents. For those child care programs that might not have the financial means is there other options for them. Do you think?


WILSON: Sure absolutely. They could buy my book, nothing like a plug. I honestly think that in the book there are hundreds of ideas about ways in which you can engage children and not all of them clearly involve massive expensive projects. But there are many things that we could do and look just for one thing looking at storage. How are we storing our materials? If a teacher have to lug the materials outside every day it's unlikely they're going to get lugged out. And so we need to really look at design that facilitates outdoors play that using what I would do call a zone approach. So that you would have a transition zone and there would be pathways to different areas but you'd have a green zone an environmental zone and then a place for really active physical play for riding those bikes. A social dramatic play, blocks and construction tools, an arts area and then a quiet sheltered space a place to go away from everyone. Child care can be really overwhelming for some children and they do really do need a sheltered space. A place that they can just get away on their own.

So I think that there also needs to be on that playground a place for adults. If parents come and they want to engage with their children then we would encourage that. Again if there's a place for them to sit there's a place for Grannies or Grampa's in wheelchairs or you know just a swing to swing on. I think those things are also part of the development of a good green outdoor playscape.


SPREEUWENBERG: But again money being one of the greatest deterrents. For those child care programs that might not have the financial means is there other options for them. Do you think?


WILSON: Sure absolutely. They could buy my book, nothing like a plug. I honestly think that in the book there are hundreds of ideas about ways in which you can engage children and not all of them clearly involve massive expensive projects. But there are many things that we could do and look just for one thing looking at storage. How are we storing our materials? If a teacher have to lug the materials outside every day it's unlikely they're going to get lugged out. And so we need to really look at design that facilitates outdoors play that using what I would do call a zone approach. So that you would have a transition zone and there would be pathways to different areas but you'd have a green zone an environmental zone and then a place for really active physical play for riding those bikes. A social dramatic play, blocks and construction tools, an arts area and then a quiet sheltered space a place to go away from everyone. Child care can be really overwhelming for some children and they do really do need a sheltered space. A place that they can just get away on their own.

So I think that there also needs to be on that playground a place for adults. If parents come and they want to engage with their children then we would encourage that. Again if there's a place for them to sit there's a place for Grannies or Grampa's in wheelchairs or you know just a swing to swing on. I think those things are also part of the development of a good green outdoor playscape.


SPREEUWENBERG: What really strikes me is how complicated it can get when you really start to get into the details of the design. How right how much evaluation how methodical you can get about how to design an outdoor playscape.


WILSON: Right absolutely. And then it also speaks to the connection with the community. How do we involve the community in our school hours to use this facility. So in some areas they've combined adult exercise equipment right along in the children's place so everybody gets an opportunity to you know be involved in something that's really physical and an active. So it's just there are lots and lots of ways I think with lots of support and there are a lot of people in the community now who can provide that kind of support to design and to develop something wonderful.


SPREEUWENBERG: Well that's actually a perfect clothes because that brings us full circle when the community partnerships between the child care programs and great families in the community and outdoor playscapes. Well thanks so much for coming on Lynn. I do have one final question for you in which I try to ask everybody, what excites you most in early childhood education right now?


WILSON: I think it's the universal global community approach to early childhood that in North America we're no longer thinking just about our approach to things. There's so many opportunities now to connect with other countries and other ways in which they're approaching early childhood. And so I guess the thing that excites me the most is really that connection at the college we were all involved very closely with projects in Jamaica in early childhood and we learned so much about life in Jamaica as well as being able to support families back here in Toronto who had Jamaican roots. And so this kind of collaboration this kind of connection with people across the across the globe I think is really the most exciting thing.


SPREEUWENBERG: Very cool. If people want to find you online learn what's the best way for them to do that.


WILSON: Sure. I could give you my email. It's 56lynnwilson@gmail.com. I've also written a great book on grand-parenting and I have a Web site so that might also be a way for people to get in touch with me. So it is The Grandparents Handbook.
.

SPREEUWENBERG: Very awesome. And I get the sense that all the books that you've authored have a lot of really great practical things that you can take away and use.


WILSON: Yes the grandparent handbook has over seven hundred activities so you won't have any trouble engaging your grandchildren for sure.


SPREEUWENBERG: Oh that's a great idea. Thanks again for coming on.


WILSON: You're welcome. Thanks for having me. Thank you. So take care.


SPREEUWENBERG: Yes. You too.

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