During my visit to Galway in Ireland, I met Michelle, who runs Little Acorns – a Community Childcare Centre in Kilcoona. It’s child-focused, play-based approach was becoming evident when we walked through the bright-coloured rooms with stimulating spaces and friendly staff. We were shocked to hear on arrival that childcare had only been around for the last few years and there was a low-level of publicly funded early childhood provision outside the school system (particularly in the 0-3 age group at 2% in 1990) and this was targeted at disadvantaged children. The centre now have an after-school club for junior pre-school age up to year 6. There is a pick-up bus service available making it even more accessible for children around the local villages to come along and have outdoor play, use of the chill-out room, help with homework and receive snacks or meals. The idea of the ‘afterschool club’ is still relatively new to Ireland, mothers would have put their little ones in play-group or taken them to a child-minder usually in a family home, but not have had the service of an out-of-school service for the older children above 3 years. The Irish culture would have made it uncommon for child-care because mothers were expected to be at home and the father to have gone out to work, so it was great for families to have more choice now.

The pre-school children in this setting, whose parents had the option between Montessori, Junior pre-school and Naíonra, had 1.6 acres of space to play in, Michelle was keen to show off the lovely outdoor area with green grass, some climbing structures, a ‘sand dome’, a wild garden with growing vegetables, chicken coop and a playground with a horse and cart climbing frame. We were made to feel very welcome and had a spot of tea and scones to have a chat with Michelle. She told us of some anxieties she had with starting the tool play with the small children, like using hammers, nails and wood. We suggested that she give the tools to the older children and just allow the little ones to watch and copy. This would be a natural process, like they would usually do with older siblings. a lightbulb went off in her head and she realised that the tools had been kept in the cupboard for much too long.

Her innovative approach to the children’s play and her attitude was refreshing, but despite the variety of opportunities that were available to the children, the outdoor play did seem too structured in my opinion. The groups of children would rotate round from one area to the next, rather than the open access to all options. The adults were joining in a lot with the children and whilst some children really relished in the play during our observations, others looked like they wanted to move to another part with their noses poking through the wire fence. In the closed-off playground with the fabulous horse and cart, the idea was to encourage families from the travelling community that had felt it was necessary to use traveller-only pre-schools, to send their children here. Michelle felt it was awful that they felt that they had to segregate their children. The carriage was quite high and Michelle said it was good to encourage risk-taking – great! But, they children couldn’t use the equipment until they were 4 years of age. I’m watching another member of our group walk along the bridge which was part of the carriage, one of the staff asks the children watching, “Are you four yet? What do you think guys?” – looking down to the children who were stood gawping at the very huge child on their play equipment.

“YEAHHH!!”

“Ah well, thats ok then!”

This was down to safety regs, so wasn’t Michelle’s decision. But the poor children playing ‘around’ this very exciting equipment and not being able to use it, I found quite discriminatory and just mean. The regulations that are put in place for children’s play equipment needs to chill the hell out. Its meant to keep them safe from harm, yet if those children had access to the normality of tree-climbing then they’d be climbing much higher than a piece of predictable equipment and there would be many more hazards.

The risk benefit is considered, but not for all the children. In the UK do we do this? Yes of course, we see it all the time. You go to playgrounds, soft-play centres, theme parks and in everyday life with parents telling children they can’t climb something because it’s too high, yet their siblings are allowed to enjoy. I’m not saying its always wrong, but every child is at different abilities at different ages – so those 3 year olds who were waiting for their 4th birthday to come round quickly, could have been perfectly capable of climbing those steps. Some of those 4 year-olds could have been less-capable…but don’t all children, big/small, agile/wobbly, brave/wary – deserve the chance and right to just do it?

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