Adventurous play and independence help kotahitanga flourish
Every day offers the promise of outdoor adventures for children at Aspiring Beginnings Early Learning Centre in Wanaka. The centre’s design, which reflects the parents’ wish to reflect turangawaewae, has the children enjoying an environment that connects them with their local landscape.
The early learning centre is blocks away from the foreshore of Lake Wanaka but there are many links to it for the children.
During planning consultation, parents said that they wanted adventurous risk to be encouraged and wanted children to have rich interactions with nature and the local landscape.
The outdoor space at Aspiring Beginnings reflects those wishes. Water is visible throughout, and the children talk about family activities like skiing, boating and mountain biking.
Manager Jen Rawson says, “Nature contact and family life inspire conversation and language development in children. Our culture of learning includes supporting the growth of social competence, holistic wellbeing and responsible risk-taking.”
Locally sourced schist and rocks, gravel and alpine plants are part of the outdoor area, as are the many contributions from families, such as a huge log from a farm, milk crates, and pots and pans that were donated for the mud kitchen. A picnic table has been made from recycled farm wood.
“We are teaching the children about the importance of making the best of what we can source locally,” Jen says.
Outdoor play all year round
The outdoor area is used all year round and that means children play amongst indigenous plant life, such as tussock and flaxes. The additional land was bare until two years ago, but did have some established trees, which the children are encouraged to climb, knowing that teachers can help them if necessary.
“Parents said they wanted a place where children could get their hands dirty,” Jen says. “Our children love playing in the mud kitchen, climbing, and splashing in the rain and puddles.”
During the initial community consultation, the children said they wanted a water slide. As a result, a parent built one, and it is used even in winter. Mountain biking is big in Wanaka, so there is a lot of space for this.
Landscaping reflects environment
Parents helped with landscaping work such as laying paths, and they created a living tepee out of sticks of willow, bent into shape, which the children love because it is a small, enclosed space. The tepee is another reflection of the local environment, as mature willow trees line the lake edge.
The centre is largely on a flat site surrounded by houses. Parents wanted the children to be able to see the lake and mountains as they played, so a small raised area was built at the back of the site, with a fort which they can climb and from which they can see the view.
A raised mound was created at the front of the site beside the drop-off zone. This is called the “tooting mound” because parents in cars toot goodbye to their children who wave them off while standing on top. It is also a perfect slope for tumbling down.
Trucks are a constant sight in Wanaka because of the town’s growth and children use little dump trucks in the play area to move rock, sand and gravel around. Recently a group of parents did some moving of their own – wheelbarrowing in fresh sand for the sandpit.
One of the parents, Anna, is new to Wanaka. She says, “A big effort is made here to connect with parents. We are encouraged to participate fully and the play space is exceptional. The whole site is a classroom, but it’s the community values that brought me in the door. It’s one big whānau.”
Design helps learning
The layout, both inside and outside, was designed to maximise the amount of protected space where spontaneous play can develop without interruptions.
The flow-paths for movement are clearly separated from the play areas, nooks and crannies.
In planning the centre, Jen and her team worked with educational consultant Robin Christie of Childspace in Wellington. Robin says playing is the way children make sense of the world and the layout of an early childhood centre is very important.
Jen says, “Robin was only involved in the initial draft plan, he sparked our excitement and opened our eyes to what we could possibly achieve. The plan then evolved through consultation with whānau, tamariki and wider community.”
Making sense of experiences
Te Whāriki describes this as ‘working theories’ – evolving ideas and understandings that children develop as they use existing knowledge to try to make sense of new experiences.
“Look at a playground as you would look at a house – as a series of rooms joined by a corridor,” Robin says.
“Huge open spaces are confusing for young children who are trying to learn, as it interferes with their play. If they are having to look over their shoulder to watch out for a frisbee coming at them, or someone approaching in a horse suit, it’s distracting and they can’t focus.”
Risky play is vital
Risky play is vital, he says. “Adult-supported risky play is an important part of children’s development. They need to know how their bodies work in space, to develop their motor skills, and experiment with how they can influence and respond to the world around them.”
If children are not allowed to do risky play, they will seek it out, Robin says. “Risky play is thrilling and exciting for young children, and it is safer to do it in an early childhood environment than elsewhere.
“The role of kaiako is to help them assess those risks through negotiation and conversation, including questions such as, ‘How can you do this safely? What do you think could go wrong?’ These questions stimulate thought, analysis and assessment by the children.”
“The layout and design of a space is incredibly important as a platform to enable learning and agency. For example, lowering the height of swinging equipment allows babies to get onto it by themselves without needing an adult to lift them up, and that is very empowering.”
Design reflects community
An early learning environment should also reflect its community and geography, Robin says.
He works with early childhood centres around the country to design spaces. Recently he partnered with Mt Cook Preschool in central Wellington, which is close to the Pukeahu War Memorial Park where national Anzac Day services are held. A small version of Pukeahu (Mt Cook) has been included in the preschool grounds.
“It helps children discuss the meaning of the memorial, and to connect with it, and that expands their vocabulary and knowledge,” he says.
Robin has also worked on the design for an early learning service in Ruatoria, which has a model of its maunga, Hikurangi, as part of the playground.
He says the Wanaka partnership between the families and the preschool team has been important.
“The community in Wanaka has really nailed it, and that will be incredibly empowering for children learning there.”
Tips for designing a learning space
- Maximise the number of protected spaces where children will not be interrupted as they explore spontaneous play.
- Empower children and give them agency to make decisions and access areas they will be using, such as water areas and storage facilities.
- Connect children to nature, including animals and plants of the local area.
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