Inspiring Spaces: Risk, Choice and Playful Learning

By: Cindy Green B.Sc., RECE. I am grateful to my long time friend and colleague, Diane Kashin for inviting me to accompany her on a journey to present in, and visit Adelaide, South Australia. Upon return from our adventures there are so many experiences that we continue to reflect on regarding the multiples perspectives evident in both South Australian and Canadian contexts (Ontario).Through EChO (Early Childhood Organization of South Australia), Lisa Burman, Consulting Through Pedagogical Change organized and invited us to visit; Alberton Primary School, Blair Athol North Birth to Year 7,  Rostrevor Kindergarten  and il nido Children’s Centre for Early Childhood Development and Parenting. “Inspiring spaces” both indoors and outdoors seems to barely sum up our visits to each of these settings, nor does “inspiring educators”. It is evident that these settings truly embrace and are influenced by the big ideas and principles inherent within Carla Rinaldi’s report to South Australia, Re-imaging Childhood (2013). Carla is pictured in the report at one of our favourite places in Adelaide, Rundle Mall sitting upon a famous sculpture.

Carla Rinaldi at the Rundle Mall

There are so many thoughts that come to mind when reflecting on the visits to these programs but as a start, I plan to share my observations and wonders about the indoor and outdoor environments, risk-taking, offering children choices and the power of learning through play and inquiry. Welcoming first comes to mind. Australia’s national Early Years Learning Framework, Belonging, Being and Becoming highlights the importance of solid relationships between children, their families and educators, and it is these relationships and their steadfast image of the child as competent and capable that is visible upon initial observation. Everyone connected to children’s learning radiates such pride in place and practice. While writing this post, I am reflecting on the joy that children experience when they are offered opportunity to learn within environments that are innovative, respectful and abundantly provisioned with loose parts. We were drawn to the authenticity of the materials and furniture that was most often “upcycled” dining room tables and chairs, coffee and end tables as well as shelving. Imagine a classroom that is referred to as a “studio” where children choose where to sit, at what physical level and with whom. Children from 7 to 12 years of age are grouped together all day in these 2 schools, everyone learning from and with one another.

Dining chairs and tablesClassroom without traditional desks2

Within the children’s centres, the preschools/kindie programs and reception (year one) cozy spaces were everywhere, indoors and out. Draping fabric, intentionally placed furniture and various nooks and crannies created spaces that were inviting and inspiring. There were numerous loose parts and a clear absence of commercially manufactured close-ended toys, plastic or otherwise. To my delight I saw baskets of open-ended fabric pieces that were available and being used by the children, supporting their symbolic play.

Cozy indoor places

Now on to outdoor spaces were children are given the freedom to choose to play indoors or outdoors throughout the day. The door is open, inviting the children to engage within beautiful and naturalistic environments. The weather does not dictate time for outdoor play and neither do the teachers. Children in these programs eat lunch and snacks outdoors and environmental conditions do not distract. Some of the outdoor spaces are within covered verandahs and under large canopies, so rain nor intense sun prevents the outdoor experience. The open door created cool conditions within the indoor space during our visit. If children were cold they chose to leave their jackets on indoors.

Shoes as an option for indoor and outdoor play! What are the benefits and risks for this practice? Bare feet connect children to the ground, providing them the proprioceptive input that informs body posture and gait. According to Madeline Avci OT, in her article The Benefits of Being Barefoot, (2016) “research also suggests that children who are barefoot tend to be less clumsy and use a more natural gait making them more stable and less likely to trip.” However, there is risk involved in playing barefoot! Someone might stub a toe or catch a cold. On a damp and cool day during our visit to a kindie program, we watched in awe as children played in puddles, barefoot, in rain boots or in sandals. An educator informed me that all children have a change of clothes and they will change from their damp/wet clothing if they are feeling uncomfortable. At that point I realized it’s also a choice to change into dry clothing! Within our context, we would probably ensure that all children changed clothes.

Playing in sand and water2

Back to the earlier mention of the availability of large pieces of fabric for pretend play. Children were observed wearing fabric “cape” style while dragging them through the wet sand, while jumping from the climbing structure and when rolling the large wire spool. Not once did we hear “be careful or that’s too dangerous”! While a child was walking on the rolling spool, there was an educator there holding the child’s hands to enable him to propel the spool forward and backward with his feet. I was particularly fascinated by how the child was firmly holding the teacher’s hands, not the other way around. The teacher informed me, (so the child could hear), “this way, he is in control of his body and how tight he has to hold on”. Ah, another example of honouring the child as competent and capable!

The value of and connection to nutritious food is a priority in early learning programs in Australia. Check out the map to see the prevalence of kitchen gardens. Fresh fruit available to children throughout the day is evident on the platter that sits on a low table in Amanda’s studio (some fruits and vegetables are donated, some are grown in the abundant school gardens and some purchased). Children in the kindie programs were seen having snack outdoors or indoors. The children choose when to have snack, where to enjoy it and when. Australia values “feeding minds, bodies and futures.” Connecting children to nature, including food sustainability is of utmost importance as children “grow, garden, cook and share” in “Kitchen Gardens” that are in the school yard playground and other community settings, (Nettle, 2010, Growing Community: Starting and Nurturing Community Gardens). During our visit to a kindie, Dannielle (a consultant) noticed a child struggling with a bread and butter knife while cutting some vegetables. Upon her recommendation, and subsequent to a discussion about benefits and risks, the early childhood educator offered a serrated knife to the child who was able to manage more easily.

Cutting with Serated Knife

We are really compelled to share our experience at one school that shines in terms of innovation. I (Cindy) first learned of negotiated curriculum from Margie Carter and Deb Curtis and Susan Stacey but seeing it in practice in this context brought me close to tears as I observed Amanda (learning advisor in Red5) plan the flow of the day with each child in her class (11 in total). The respect between this teacher and the children (who have presented with behavioural and/or learning challenges) was evident as each child chose their daily schedule of opportunities. Under Amanda’s thoughtful guidance, each child welcomed and trusted her input.

planning book

We learned so much from our time in Adelaide. As we head into summer, our new friends are in the midst of winter. Seasons ahead and time zones apart the experience has been amazing. Before we head into our vacations we like to share some other inspiring “noticings” from our visits with more to come:

  • Educators are gracious, passionate and open
  • Relationships set the foundation for independent and co-constructed learning
  • Children are honoured as decision-makers and risk-takers
  • Connections to place and nature are prevalent
  • The culture of food and its connection to learning: growing, harvesting, cooking and sharing
  • Sustainability and protection of the planet and its species, including recycling and upcycling
  • Self-regulation as children gain competence in managing stress on their bodies and minds
  • Openness to professional practice and life-long learning
  • Educators observing and listening to support learning and safety
  • A hub under one roof supports children and families
  • The interest in de-institutionalizing learning environments and practices
  • Pedagogical documentation is a work in progress
  • Belonging, Being and Becoming has shaped Ontario’s How Does Learning Happen?
  • AND, nobody in Adelaide wears UGGS!

10 thoughts on “Inspiring Spaces: Risk, Choice and Playful Learning

    • Hello Cynthia. We loved the upcycled furniture as well. Beautiful woods, some with carved features, various heights and certainly not institutional!


  1. As I read and then re-read certain paragraphs, I could not help but to marvel at how a simple ‘open door’ would enhance the quality of the environment in which I teach; not withstanding the ability to allow the grass to tickle my bare toes! ((sigh))

    Liked by 1 person

    • We were inspired about the open doors as well. It demonstrates that environments encompass both indoors and outdoors, both of value especially when the children are deciding where to be and when!

      Liked by 1 person

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