Learning embraces nature play

Sue Motley is committed to early childhood learning and has a great ability to listen, learn, connect and enthuse. She also implements extraordinary innovations for her centre and its surrounding community, journalist Bronwyn Ridgway writes.

As Director of a community preschool, Motley's initiatives are now engaging the region and bringing big thinkers, great achievers and hands on change agents from across Australia: notably women from Baya Gawiy in the far reaches of the Kimberley in Western Australia.

For Motley, it’s all about “education and actively working with the community on cultural and environment issues with a particular focus on Indigenous collaboration and participation.”

Teachers and support staff in any school or centre could learn many lessons from the journey taken by Motley, her team and the community of Armidale Community Preschool in NSW.

“We have over 30 nationalities represented at the preschool as well as every type of family that you could imagine. No one is the same here, so no one feels different; we now have 85 children enrolled,” Motley said.

In the last few years, the preschool has worked with the Ngroo program, facilitated by the DET NSW, which aims to build relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, to address the barriers that may prevent families accessing early childhood services.

Projects deliver innovation

Involvement with Ngroo has increased enrolments of Aboriginal families from one to six. As Motley says, this changes from year to year, but the families are now enthusiastically engaged in the preschool projects; one parent has consulted extensively and developed an Aboriginal education plan, another has painted a bush mural in the preschool foyer, while another parent painted a rainbow snake for the Street Library and Giving Rack.

There are now two educators on staff who identify as Aboriginal and they help all staff build connections with local elders, local families, other Aboriginal educators in schools and early learning centres in the region.

Beyond the gates

Beyond the centre’s immediate community, significant links have been forged with Armidale TAFE, the University of New England, the Early Years Nature Connections Group, the Thalgarrah Environmental Education Centre and numerous leading specialists in health and development.

Connections in and around the preschool have flourished, and the centre has grown and developed under Motley’s leadership; the preschool environment transformed from a traditional plastic jungle into a calm and natural space.

The journey hasn’t been without challenges, infused with cultural considerations, inclusion of children with additional needs, refugee and international families.

Cultural inclusion

“Fire and food cross all cultures and will usually get people talking; I’ve found cultural awareness is embedded by building and maintaining respectful relationships,” says Motley, supported by a committed management committee and a vibrant and involved community.

Described as having incredible drive and an ability to bring all comers together to move forward, Sue Motley’s skills and sense of inquiry appear to have developed at a young age. An adventurous child who spent most of her time in the great Australian outdoors, she then lived as a teenager in Indonesia and was inspired by the cultural diversity there.

She went on to become a nurse then midwife but after a back injury, Motley took an administrative job at Armidale Community Preschool in 2004. Enthused by her new early childhood learning environment, Motley completed a Certificate III course then a Diploma, then a Bachelor of Teaching (birth-five years) in 2012. In 2014 she was appointed Director/Nominated Supervisor of Armidale Community Preschool, steering the centre through a funding crisis then on to a new and exciting horizon.

Inspiration and change

Inspired by innovative practices, the centre and its team have implemented gradual change towards a natural preschool environment. This includes systematic changes to early childhood education, so that it better reflects early learning concepts and pedagogy in a natural setting.

Armidale Community Preschool has been involved in various projects including hosting pre service teachers from Nauru, the Ngroo project, the ELLA language program, a Good for Kids research project and a University of New England research project investigating nature play in early childhood. In 2017 the centre installed a Street Library and Giving Rack and in 2019 the team initiated a playgroup in collaboration with Pedal Early Service for siblings and families. A few years ago, they initiated a School Readiness evening and now all primary principals and early childhood services in the Armidale region get together for one evening and invite all parents to participate.

In 2018 the centre hosted an incursion featuring Aboriginal dance, then the preschool children and educators went on an excursion to the Aboriginal Cultural and Keeping Place where they played Aboriginal games and explored the bush tucker garden and labyrinth. Lessons learnt there have been introduced into the centre’s activities.

In 2018 Motley brought together an exciting group, planning and implementing a two day Nature Play conference at Thalgararah, in conjunction with Dr Sue Elliott (UNE), Matt McKenzie (Principal Thalgarrah Environmental Education Centre), and Fran Hughes (NSW TAFE and Early Years Nature Connections Group).

But it was after Motley took leave without pay and worked at Fitzroy Crossing at Baya Gawiy Early Childhood Centre for three months to experience Aboriginal culture, that she saw the need to bring some of Baya Gawiy's wisdom and teachings to Armidale and NSW.

Dynamic influences

The overwhelming success of the 2018 Nature Play conference has led to a second Nature Play conference in September this year. Funding through Rotary Central Armidale has made it possible to bring two Aboriginal educators from Baya Gawiy in the Kimberleys to participate and share their extraordinary knowledge, experience and practice.

Attended by teachers and educators from throughout NSW, Nature Play 2019 was booked out within days. The program was shaped to inspire schools and centres to move toward nature play, significantly changing their programs and learning environments. The conference included innovative and experiential learning sessions on Indigenous aspects of nature play, nature and wellbeing, navigating nature policy, culturally diverse journeys, nature’s seasons, bush walks and nature pedagogy and sustainability. Care for country, Motley says, is the fabric of Aboriginal culture.

Footprint on their doorstep

Always looking at their own daily practices to improve and diminish their environmental footprint, the Armidale Community Preschool team are exploring the feasibility of using bamboo nappies and wipes and providing or selling nude food lunchboxes and wet bags on enrolment. They have recently replaced plastic utensils and plates with washable items and now are investigating the use of washable and reusable products instead of paper.

With the geographical region in the grip of severe drought and on level four water restrictions, the preschool staff work with the local council to develop ways to conserve water, such as educating the children about water conservation and using small buckets from their handwashing to water the plants and vegetable garden. Using drought funding from NSW Department of Education, hydropanels will soon be installed on the preschool roof to gather drinking water into a bubbler system for the children.

The centre hosts students from local high schools and support agencies to provide worthwhile experiences and exposure to an early childhood setting. Community organisations such as Rotary and representatives from the Aboriginal community and local government are invited to preschool functions and they are involved with activities programming and assistance.

A street or community pantry has been recently installed by Bateau Bay Men’s Shed and there are plans for the area in front of the preschool to be more of a community destination with seating and vegetable barrow with surplus produce from the preschool vegetable garden.

An extraordinary example of inclusivity, interwoven with sustainability, Aboriginal culture and nature play, Armidale Community Preschool, its team and its community have become powerful agents for change in education at all levels throughout Australia.

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Baya Gawiy

Baya Gawiy is an early learning unit at Fitzroy Crossing in the Kimberleys. The unit is a centre for Indigenous knowledge and learning and provides culturally appropriate care for children up to four years of age.

The unit offers a Goodstart Secondment Program, which offers short term employment with experiential learning to qualified early learning teachers and educators. Those on the secondment program work alongside Indigenous teachers and educators, engaging with the region’s Indigenous heritage, contemporary cultural practices and the community.

Training for local educators is promoted and it helps to build staffing capacity. This in turn allows more children to access the unit’s quality early years program, providing smaller staff/child ratios and enhanced educational programs including going out on country to deliver important learning opportunities.

Early Learning Coordinator at Baya Gawiy, Louise Perrott, says “the most important factor if you’d like to participate in the Secondment Program is to come with an open heart and an open mind. There is so much to learn and we welcome qualified early learning teachers and educators to work along side us. Many of the children here have behaviours and dispositions that fall in the high level, often with speech and hearing delays. If a teacher or educator is looking for a challenge would like to see through the eyes of an Indigenous child, this is the place for you. We go on country, which is one to two hours away, and as Sue Motley found, it’s a rich Indigenous cultural experience with the children and their families.”

Baya Gawiy is committed to strengthening the power of women and their families to create culturally rich, engaged and healthy lives for Indigenous peoples living in the Fitzroy Valley and beyond. Baya Gawiy’s vision is driven by shared core values, guiding principles and behaviours.

Enquiries about secondments are welcomed, email eclumanager@mwrc.com.au or phone (08) 9191 5000, or sign up for the Baya Gawiy newsletter on www.mwrc.com.au