History is dotted with stories of trailblazers and their struggles to convince the mainstream of something that eventually becomes popular. We are ultimately indebted to them for improving things, and wish that we’d cottoned on sooner. Badass educators are familiar with this narrative, and it is important to celebrate the successes of passionate advocates whose efforts are improving things now, and support those advocating now, as we’ll be benefiting in the future from the changes they bring about.
Ahead of her time, connecting children to their natural environment in a homely setting before it was considered important, Margaretha Prendergast is a wonderful leader with an amazing story. This badass educator was a progressive and determined woman whose hard-fought achievements have been improving the care of children for over 30 years.
Milford Lodge was not your typical mid 80s childcare service. Margaretha Prendergast founded the centre in Buderim, Queensland, with a vision to start a childcare centre amongst an idyllic farmyard setting allowing children to learn, have fun and connect with nature. Her daughter, Molly Stewart, recounts her mother’s pioneering work and inspiring story to keep the centre running against tedious over-regulations.
“Mum and Dad purchased the house that ultimately became Milford Lodge in 1981. They then moved to Victoria but returned and opened the child care in 1986,” Molly said.
“While she was living in Victoria Mum also cared for two other little children and was trying to find decent childcare for all the kids in her care. She couldn’t find anywhere that she would leave her children, she just thought they were horrible, sterile, and clinical. They were mostly all government owned back then. When she moved back here to Buderim and saw the same thing, she thought she could do a good job looking after children out of our beautiful Queenslander home. So they excavated under the house in 1986, and started Milford Lodge.”
“The original licence for the first lodge was for 25 children with the house situated in a farmyard setting featuring ponies, chickens, ducks, and other farm animals. With Dad being a builder, we had the most amazing play sets in the late 80s and early 90s.
“The centre did close one year when our family moved to Tasmania, but things didn’t work out there so we returned and reopened Milford Lodge, luckily never having sold the house. Dad did additional renovations and added rooms to the existing home.
“Mum had opened the service as an extension of her home, and as a result, everyone benefited from all the beautiful soft furnishings she had made for the home. She’s pretty handy on the sewing machine! Gardening was also a big thing for her so of course she got the children involved and learning in the garden. She understood the value of real life work for a child’s learning about the world – in other words, their education.”
These wonderful days came to an end during the late 90s and early naughties. Molly calls them the ‘destructive years’ which took place over a ten year period. She attributes them to over-regulation by different government entities that claimed the majority of the things that made Milford Lodge so special, including the outdoor play equipment and animals.
“It’s not that long ago, as recently as 2006 when this was happening,” says Molly.
“We had to get rid of our chickens, our ponies, and all our animals. Mum held on to aspects of the centre for as long as she could. She got handed many non-compliance letters over that period, basically saying she has a few weeks to get rid of things or they would shut her down. Mum threatened to chain herself to the council pillars a few times for not getting her way on things. One of the last things that happened in the late naughties was that a licensing officer unbelievably suggested she would need to get rid of the grass because it was dirty.
“One of the last animals to go was a budgie because they found a feather on the veranda (tiles) of the Avocado Cottage – the Babies Room. It was very difficult for Mum to have all that hard work and love put into the place and have it called unsafe and dirty. She simply believed that children should be happy and engaged, and incredibly this was something she had to fight for years to have acknowledged.
“Lots of different government entities made life difficult for her. There were different accreditation people, where on one hand we had a fabulous lady in 2005 who just loved us, but then we had another one and they basically focused on policies and documentation, and didn’t really appreciate interactions or children just being happy. It was very paperwork based.
“Other centres who had their head honcho fill out all their paperwork maybe did well while their outdoor spaces might have been absolutely shocking – all plastic fantastic with no nature for the children to play in. That was in vogue at the time, all the plastic toys would come out of the catalogue.
“Most centres that popped up all over the place through the 90s were all based on the minimum requirements for spaces, indoor and out. Milford Lodge currently has enough outdoor space for over 250 children, but we only take up to 100. And we are about to have even more licensed outdoor space! Mum was always disgusted by many of the other outdoor ‘play spaces’ – which are not thinking about the children at all, rather about how many children they can jam into a space to make money.
“I got handed a quality checklist not long before the EYLF framework came into place, which stated there had to be so many dolls per child and so many push-pull toys, etc. They even had issue with our dress up rack. I’m a lifesaver and had lifesaving shirts for the children to play with. We had lots of other donated uniforms and loose fabrics from families, but I was told that we needed to have 12 child size uniforms from the catalogue. I’m so glad we don’t have to do that anymore.
I think Mum found those years quite destructive, though it’s validating now to see the uptake of things like nature play.”
Margaretha’s passion throughout the difficult years stayed strong because she believed that ‘natural’ was best for the children. Molly also works at the centre now and is also a big believer in the power of the farmyard setting to calm the children.
“I’ve seen it first-hand, I’ve got a little one who just started now and within the first day I worked out he loves the chickens. Just take him to the chicken coop and he’s fine. I see it with most of the children, the animals definitely have a calming effect.”
Molly fondly remembers what made the centre great.
“I think their care level was exceptional. They did cooking, they looked after the animals, they played group games, they sang, we collected the eggs and had a veggie garden – we were actually really sustainable way back then, but ironically were made to take all of those things away”.
“I think the other thing Mum did with Milford Lodge that makes it special is that she opened her home to people, and you can’t replicate that. It was back in the day when childcare wasn’t as common, you didn’t have double incomes and most of the first users of the centre were single mums.
“It was the first privately owned childcare centre in the Sunshine Coast. Mum was so ahead of her time that in some ways she was quite isolated. Now her practices are highly regarded within the childcare community.”
Margaretha has been out of full-time work since 2008, but is still involved in Milford Lodge.
“She does come back to Milford Lodge to do some gardening with the children and pony rides,” says Molly.
“She still makes our curtains and repaints rooms at Christmas time and that’s enough for her.”
Luckily for Milford Lodge, when the Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) came in they could start to put things back again, such as the animals and gardens.
Now, thanks to social media, Molly and Margaretha have come into contact with like-minded educators and are able to host learning opportunities at Milford Lodge and enjoy the fruits of their years of advocacy.
The tight knit community in Buderim have also been a source of recognition for Milford Lodge. After the EYLF was introduced in 2012, Buderim community was very supportive with resurrecting most of how the centre used to be. Excursions recommenced in 2012, at the introduction of the new regulations and framework, and the community have welcomed the children with open arms.
Milford Lodge now cares for up to 100 children, and though it’s not exactly the same, it has reclaimed much of what made it so engaging and unique.
Margaretha Prendergast was one of the original badass educators who advocated for nature play and children’s engagement before it became recognised as fundamental in early childcare. Her work was pioneering and it is a real honour to recognise an amazing, driven and talented educator and her legacy. Bravo Margaretha! Thanks also to her daughter Molly for sharing her story with us.
Yesterday, we hosted Educator Unchained in Brisbane. Did you go? We’d love to hear your feedback! We’ll have a blog all about it ready soon.