Standing up for a Natural Childhood – Reflections on an Action Research Project

During 2016 a group of passionate early learning and community services professionals came together to participate in the Health and Community Services Workforce Council’s Action Research Project – Standing up for a Natural Childhood over an eight month period. This project was facilitated by Sue Inglis and participants were mentored throughout the project by April Cunningham.

The purpose of this Action Research Project was dear to the hearts of Sue, April and the participants, who came together over shared interest on the importance of children being exposed to a natural childhood. The group spent their time together in deep conversation to gain a greater understanding of children’s mental and physical health and wellbeing, which helped the participants to clearly see how young children were being affected by the way they were living their young lives.

Participants were concerned about the amount of time children spend on screens, the lack of play and freedom to explore and create, the disconnect with nature and the subsequent shift to more sedentary lifestyles for children. The participants felt the urgency to create awareness and to consider their roles as advocates for children’s lives. Participants felt passionate about children’s fundamental rights to play, and to play freely in nature because they were aware that this is where they are likely to experience the pure joy of freedom, and this is where they will develop their important connection to, and respect of, our mother earth.

Participants also recognised that they could draw on the wisdom from the traditional custodians of this land and wanted to explore the value of deepening respect for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ways of doing and being. They could see that through better understanding the practices that had allowed a deep connection to country for thousands of years, they too could be better equipped to live their lives with calm, awareness, respect and meaning.

Through action research and joining forces around this topic participants focussed on these big issues. It was both exciting and emotionally moving.

The action research process can be daunting at first. For many of our participants in the project, this process was a new way to work. Some of the participants initial comments on starting the project were, “We need to rethink how we might inspire the other educators to come on board”, “At this point, I am thinking deeply about how our adult influence affects children”, and “I need to do more reading and work out how best to research what is happening in our workplace so I can get a clearer picture”.

Creating a space that allows individuals to search for the questions that really need to be answered and spending a lengthy time allowing the process to unfold, is often not a luxury afforded in busy and dynamic workplaces. Participants in the project wanted to encourage their fellow teams to delve more deeply into the topic of natural childhoods, finding new meanings that would improve the practices in their service and ultimately the outcomes for the children in their care. Each group created a research question that their teams could take the time to explore. They would then go back to their services and look more closely at the current perspectives and practices, and gain opinions from their communities that would further inform their thinking. Teams found this action research process unearthed truths about their service that allowed them to see more clearly the direction they should take to create change.

Action research is a process that allows participants to make a real and lasting difference. Each time they meet they continue to forge their understandings and to deepen their knowledge and commitment to the cause. There is great value in the networking that occurred within the 8-month project. Hearing the perspectives of others allowed participants to ‘see’ a new way of thinking or working. Equally, the process of action research is one that can continue to be used again and again within services to tackle the issues that we would like to create change around.

“We realised that this was achievable. We could see that action research creates positive changes within our centre. We certainly felt challenged at the start. Such big ideas, it seemed too much at once. So we drew back and started at the beginning. Simple, small steps to really get somewhere. Change does not have to be too big and all at once. It can be small, gradual and not scary. We know that this process will be ongoing.”

Through this action research project, participants have forged change that has contributed to the collective impact that we can all make right now. Some of the participants felt personally changed by this project, perhaps even driven to find new meanings for their chosen careers.

At the end of the project participants were asked to reflect on the most significant impact this project had on the participant themselves or their community. We share below a couple of examples of responses that emerged:

“It has given us the confidence to feel better equipped to embed Indigenous culture into our everyday practice. It has also given us the knowledge that when we teach children about nature it is far more than just sustainability but a deeper awareness of the Indigenous perspectives and their connections with nature. It has also given us a clear direction of where we want our Kindy curriculum to be heading into the future and that nature is an integral part of it. Our families have become more involved in participating in our nature-based program and contributing to it. They have donated resources, spent time in nature with us, shared stories and pictures and they have also been involved in planning our bush tucker garden. I am kind of sad it is coming to an end! I feel like it has encouraged me to learn and inspired me to make changes that I might have otherwise just left on the ‘to do’ list. “

“Participation in the action research around ‘Standing up for a natural childhood’ was a natural progression from our extensive journey into embedding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives on our teaching practices and learning environment. Cliché but it was ‘life changing stuff’ for our entire kindergarten community which extended to include many community members beyond our kindy fence line. Our respect for children’s rights to not only play but to play immersed in nature and our respect for the land, our First Nations People and in particular the Joondoburri tribe here on Bribie Island has deepened……….more than words can describe!”

This article is adapted from a project report written by Sue Inglis and April Cunningham who were the Facilitators and Mentors of the Standing up for a Natural Childhood Action Research Project delivered throughout 2016.

Our next Action Research Project – Standing up for Inclusion, Equity and Social Justice in Early Childhood commences in June.  Enrolments and deposits must be completed by Monday 10 April 2017.  You can find out more here