In this edition of ‘People and places in early childhood education’ Leanne Mits talks to the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (VCAA) about building a sense of community at Pope Road Kindergarten in Blackburn. Leanne was awarded Teacher of the Year as part of the 2019 Victorian Early Years Awards, and in the weeks following this conversation, Leanne was awarded the medal of the Order of Australia for her innovations in and commitment and exemplary service to early childhood education over more than 35 years.
Leanne speaks to the importance of relationships, respect and reciprocity as the foundation for building connections with children and families and the wider community. The Victorian Early Years Learning and Development Framework (VEYLDF) eight Practice Principles are evident in the relationship-based practice at the core of Leanne’s work.
Leanne, can you tell us a little bit about this service we are sitting in today, Pope Road Kindergarten – specifically, what type of community have you and your team built here? What do you think are the essential ingredients in building quality early learning spaces for children and families?
Pope Road Kindergarten is a community-based, non-profit kindergarten that stands as a testament to children. It is built on land donated by a person who once lived in the street as a gift to in the local community, particularly children.
Physical environment: Pope Road Kindergarten is visually appealing and aesthetically comforting. There is a large outdoor natural space with climbing trees, mud, sand, and space to ride bikes and throw balls. Inside, there's a lot of natural light and inviting learning spaces, with quality materials and resources.
Sense of community: Pope Road Kindergarten is a one-room service, with a whole-of-centre focus. Learning experiences remain available across programs and this allows for extended play where all children can see each other's learning and ideas. Children have created identity blocks, which are lovely small wooden blocks with children's names and self-portrait photos on them. The children place these near their own learning experiences. This ensures the children know that another child may plan return to this learning space and helps them to see who they can seek out to negotiate sharing materials. Importantly, it also helps them to notice and appreciate each other's thinking, learning and creativity.
We have built a strong sense of community through respect and reciprocity over a long period of time, with some newer and several longstanding staff members. The longevity of staff has great advantages, but we also have cycles of change. There is history held and new ideas coming in. We commence each day with an Acknowledgement of Country and the lands on which we live, learn and play. In many ways we see ourselves in a wider system, an ecological network where we are part of a larger community. We welcome the diversity that comes with community. We've supported many communities over the years that have been affected by hardships such as floods and bush fires. With each appeal we are inundated with support from families past and present. We can have anywhere between 15 and 40 people turn up for a working bee, and while helping the kindergarten, they can connect with other families and educators.
Building relationships: We have a welcoming experience each February called a Night of Stories. Reggio Emilia, in Italy, created this annual event many years ago. Children and families wander through the town of Reggio Emilia, stopping at various illuminated places set up to share stories. About four or five years ago, Reggio Emilia extended an invitation to early childhood services throughout the world to join them. We held our first Night of Stories several years ago. We had tee pees dotted around the kindergarten yard and inside each tent was a storyteller. Children and their families popped in and out of tents to share stories over several hours. The storytellers were all past students of the kindergarten and ranged from prep age through to 26 years old.
Families are welcomed to open days, parent nights, transition events and orientation opportunities. We communicate regularly with families through emails, and we write to the children in January before they start kindergarten. These are all opportunities, provided intentionally and with purpose, to build and strengthen relationships. Sometimes it is the tiniest thing, such as welcoming a new parent and asking them to put their phone number in our kindergarten mobile. We view this not as an administrative task but as another moment to connect with that parent and to show they matter.
A foundational area for our learning is First Nations knowledge and culture. We seek the expertise of First Nations peoples to ground and expand our understandings. Events such as National Sorry Day and National Reconciliation Week have become part of ongoing learning experiences rather than one-off events. Learning opportunities are created for children and educators to engage in deep listening and mutual respect and to highlight the value of diversity.
We are really interested in your experiences teaching during the last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. What has this looked like for you and what has it meant for your practice and relationships with children and families?
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the team came together and committed to providing continued genuine, authentic and meaningful learning experiences, even in the face of many unknowns. We all agreed that we did not want to compromise on two key things: our relationships with children and our pedagogy.
We realised very quickly that we wouldn't be seeing many of the children for much longer than first thought. So, we invited families into the learning space over Zoom, and together we documented the children's learning into memory books. We also created home packs containing cooking ingredients, recipes, items for experiments, seeds, and essentially any materials that would allow all children to share the same learning experiences, whether at home or at the kindergarten.
We thought carefully about children's sense of belonging and connection and we increased our use of digital methods. We set up a FaceTime space here at the kindergarten where children could connect with their kindergarten friends at home. Each kindergarten group wrote letters and created posters for the other group. Families shared pictures and we created digital montages. We kept familiar things going such as our newsletters and Facebook posts to families, and we learned so much more about how to use digital methods in ways that supported our pedagogical practice.
We had our share of Zoom difficulties! We talked with families about what was working well and how we could improve. We rang each of our 52 families once or twice a week to work our way through these challenges. It was all about relationships and building partnerships with parents.
Thinking about the ways you have changed your practice through the last two years, are there things that you do differently now that you may continue to do post-pandemic?
Two particular things come to mind.
For over 30 years, we have had families coming into our learning environment in the morning as a welcoming ritual and it has worked well. This changed during the pandemic, and we found that allowing children to transition into the room independently helped to grow their confidence. We have kept this going, and parents now come into the room at the end of the day, or during the session if they are providing support in that time.
Secondly, this time has shown us some very meaningful ways of using digital technology to connect and partner with families. We are continuing to use digital platforms for parent interviews and connecting with grandparents. We are also creating memory books; this is a physical book but uses some digital technology as well, and the children will take these with them at the end of the year.
Thinking about some of the advancements in early childhood education and care, what have been some of the big changes you have noticed in your career?
Early childhood practice continues to change in response to emerging research and our evolving understanding of children's learning. The fluidity and spontaneity with which we once worked has altered, but it has also evolved. We now have the Victorian Early Years Learning and Development Framework (VEYLDF), the Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF), Transition Statements, Quality Improvement Plans, Emergency Management Plans and more.
With these changes in the early years sector, educators now have additional roles and responsibilities: I am the nominated supervisor and educational leader in addition to Teacher of 3- and 4-year-old programs. These roles are critical to the quality of our service; however, we still have a way to go as a sector to fully develop these roles. The work in Reggio Emilia informs my thinking about the role of an educational leader and teacher. The educational leader role requires a sound knowledge of philosophy, pedagogy, child development and learning, and requires critical reflection to bring together this practice wisdom. I see this role as critical to thoughtfully growing our practice. This approach works well at Pope Road as I have the benefit of teaching alongside and with the people that I'm leading.
Program planning and design: Over time, we have shifted in our understanding of pedagogy, incorporating theories and approaches such as developmental domains, developmentally appropriate practice, Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences and so on. Our practice continues to evolve with emerging research. Contemporary understandings are now more clearly defined with the introduction of the VEYLDF, the EYLF and National Quality Standards. Here at Pope Road, we teach with the VEYLDF Practice Principles clearly in mind as we know that strong outcomes will follow.
Emerging research and evolving practice: I had a very pivotal moment while attending a professional development opportunity some years ago hosted by Reggio Emilia Australia Information Exchange and with guest speaker Tiziana Filippini from Reggio Emilia. The experience opened my eyes to progettazione, a way of curriculum design and working with children that makes everyone's thinking and learning more visible. Progettazione asks us to be open to children, co-constructing learning with children as they hypothesise, theorise, predict, and build knowledge and possibilities. It positions learning in relational contexts.
This opportunity was a big 'aha' learning moment for me. Coming back to the team at Pope Road, we talked about designing and creatively documenting our curriculum design in a large A3 unlined book, allowing us to think on the page. Using this approach, planning moves more organically and evolves rather than being a program that is linear or has a start and finish. This process encourages us to reflect and plan together as a team and with children. It also aligns well with the VEYLDF and brings the Practice Principles into play.
Excursions as an example of responsive change: Excursion planning now involves many more steps, and these are important from a regulatory and a risk-minimisation point of view. Impromptu excursions, annual zoo trips and annual chicken hatching are now a thing of the past. Our excursions emerge organically and as a very specific response to support children's inquiries and curiosities. We have regular purposeful outings to our local park, and we plan for this in a way that allows parents to consent to recurrent excursions. This reduces the administrative workload.
Reflective practice is one of the eight Practice Principles in the VEYLDF. We know that reflective practice is a continuous process and takes time as you need to think deeply about what you do and why you do it. Can you tell us about how you embed this practice principle in your work?
Reflective practice in action: Many years ago, I thought of reflection as a particular point in the planning cycle. I saw this as quite linear, about looking back to plan forward. Professional reflection is now embedded throughout our practice. It's a fluid, organic part of what we do.
Our teaching team meets twice a week from 8.30 – 9.00 am, and we talk exclusively about pedagogy. When these meetings follow a professional learning session, we take time to ask questions of ourselves and our practice. We will ask, What did you get out of that session? What does it mean to you? What might it mean to our practice? Why is this important? What will we change, introduce or extend? What will we try? Just like children, we are inquiring in a relational context.
Reflections on documentation: By documenting in inviting and interesting ways, we are actively encouraging families to connect with us. We encourage families to read and borrow our documentation and to ask questions and contribute to it. We have a program book open each day for families to read. This is much more than a record of activities; it tells a story about children's thinking, testing and theorizing and learning. This means outcomes for children are expressed as part of the learning process rather than being an end in themselves.
As an educational leader I watch and listen to educators in much the same way I do with children. I take time to see what I can do to support, guide and facilitate pedagogically. We talk about reflection as an opportunity, and this brings with it a different attitude. We are more open to possibilities for children, families, the physical environment, and to the wider context of children's play and learning. My professional purpose is to make a positive difference in children's lives, to support children's learning and thinking, and to belong to a learning community. I want to be an active contributor to the early education and learning sector and I've been fortunate to have opportunities to do this.