Learning Through Outdoor Play: Interview with Dr. Diane Kashin
Dr. Diane Kashin shares with us her experiences in the childcare industry, from working directly with children to teaching early childhood education through outdoor play and her role as a founding member of York Region Nature Collaborative, an outdoor learning centre.
Learning Through Outdoor Play: Interview with Dr. Diane Kashin
Thank you for agreeing to chat with First Discoverers. First off, can you explain what initially drew you to working in the early years sector?
I wasn’t initially drawn to the early years. I wanted to be a high school history teacher. When I was training for this it was a time of declining enrolment and the teachers who were supervising my placement experiences were being laid off! I decided to focus on family before career. At home with two little ones, I realised how little I knew about young children and decided with support from my wonderful husband and mother to go back to school to pursue an early childhood education diploma. Not only did my training support my own growing family (by the time I graduated, I’d had my third child), it helped me realise the importance of the early years! Many, many years later I taught a course about the history and philosophy of early childhood education, so I guess in a way, I realised my first career goal! However, I have never regretted becoming an early childhood educator. It is my most important academic achievement – it is more significant to me than my master’s or doctorate degrees.
“We need to be able to see ourselves as competent and capable researchers of play and learning!”
What skills would you say are absolutely vital for a childcare professional?
I would say that the most important skills are in the interpersonal realm. Relationships should be at the heart of early learning. Childcare professionals should be skilled at establishing and maintaining responsive relationships with children, families, other educators, and community members. At the same time though, childcare professionals should have strong interpersonal skills and be able to see themselves as skilled professionals. Each one of us should take on the responsibility to elevate the image of those who work in the early years. To do this, we must begin with ourselves. We need to be able to see ourselves as competent and capable researchers of play and learning!
What would you say makes a successful childcare setting?
When I walk into a childcare setting and see in the environments both indoors and outdoors an obvious commitment to play and learning I would consider that successful! When children have access to open-ended materials and experiences and educators are observing, documenting and sharing their interpretations of the play, I consider that a successful setting. When I look inside and see blocks, accessible materials for process art experiences, books displayed with respect and a dramatic play centre, I am satisfied that the basics are there. When I see open-ended materials (loose parts) throughout and an absence of plastic, single-purpose toys, the beliefs and values of the setting and the educators are apparent. When I see schedules that allow time for long, uninterrupted indoor play and outdoor play, to me that is success! Success does not come without hard work and a commitment to excellence. There must be policies that allow time for educators to meet, reflect and plan together. There must be a commitment to all who are a part of the setting to feel a sense of well-being and belonging.
In your view, what should children ‘learn’, or ‘gain’ from their time in early years care?
Children should learn to care for and respect others as well as their environments. This needs to be done naturally. It won’t come from direct teaching but over time as children see themselves as active contributors and co-learners. If they see themselves as active, contributing citizens after their time in early years care that means more to me than whether they know the alphabet. I would love to see all children learn to be active and contributing citizens. I don’t mean citizens of the future – but I would like children to see themselves as active and contributing citizens in the here and now.
How has the childcare industry changed during the time you have been involved in the sector?
When I started close to 40 years ago, I was very focused on practice. I wanted to find the best playdough recipe. I wanted to learn how to set up activities related to an overarching theme. I was very focused on being able to conduct an effective circle related to that theme. I did know, perhaps instinctively, that children learn through play, and made sure that what I set up involved self-direction and that there was ample time for the children to play. I did not really understand pedagogy and the theoretical foundation of early learning. I see more and more focus in the early years profession on pedagogy and theory. This will go a long way to helping to elevate our image of ourselves and the image others have of us. The industry has evolved into a profession, and that has been the most significant change that I have seen.
What would you say are currently the biggest problems that childcare settings face?
Time or the lack of it! I think if there was more time for professional learning, more time to meet with team members, and more time for documentation and planning, stress would be relieved, and practice would be improved.
You’re currently the chair of York Region Nature Collaborative, can you tell us about your involvement and about its mission?
I have been thinking about the legacy that I am leaving to the profession that I have loved and feel so fortunate to be a part of for so many years. I have worked directly with children at the beginning of my career in a childcare centre. I then became the director of the program but eventually left to teach early childhood education at the same college where I got my diploma! Most of my career has been spent teaching early learning to diploma and degree students. I feel so fortunate to have even a small about of influence on their careers and know in part that is my legacy. However, it is my work with York Region Nature Collaborative that I feel is going to live long after me! About seven years ago, I was invited to visit an amazing property that was acquired by our local conservation authority. They were interested in expanding their work to include the early years and they thought that perhaps I could help them to open an early years centre focused on nature.
After many meetings and many opportunities to explore the property, we realised that impacting only a handful of children was not enough. We wanted to reach all the children in our community and beyond. It is the mission of the YRNC to support children’s access to nature every day in meaningful ways. We are currently refining our mission as we recognise the importance of reaching out and including our Indigenous communities as they know so much about the land as a teacher. Our mission is now to explore ways to establish and maintain respectful and reciprocal relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities for the benefit of our youngest learners. Since we started the YRNC I have served as the chair of the collaborative and have supported all of our annual events including the Family Adventure Walk in the Forest which we put on every fall and is free for families, as well as our spring conference The Land as Our First Teacher: Establishing and Maintaining Relationships and The Rhythm of Learning in Nature, which we offer every summer as an ECE nature retreat!
“I can feel in my own bones that there is nothing like playing and learning outside”
At what point in your career did you recognise the importance of outdoor play and learning?
As I child I was very connected to nature. I played outside every day, joyfully engaging in risky and unstructured outdoor play! As I got older I lost my connection to nature and as a busy mom of three, I tried to get my children to go enjoy outdoor play in the ways that I did, but the competition of the indoor entertainment of video games, movies, and computers kept them inside way too much. I should have gone out with them, but I hadn’t realised then what I knew as a child and what I know now about the importance of nature. It was only after that invitation to visit the property known as Swan Lake which gave birth to the YRNC did I truly recognise the importance of outdoor learning. Now because I spend so much time outside with educators, children and families I can see, and I can feel in my own bones that there is nothing like playing and learning outside. There is no substitute. There is nothing else more important to the future that I can see – outdoor play has the opportunity to revitalise early learning and change the nature of childhood.
How important is having access to adequate outdoor facilities and equipment to a setting, and what advice would you give to childcare professionals that perhaps find it difficult to access a natural environment?
Believe it or not, it is not that important! All we need is the sky! My suggestion is to be resourceful and create natural outdoor environments for children. We can create container gardens that attract butterflies and give children opportunities to experience growing vegetables and herbs. We can find a small patch of grass and dig for worms. We can “adopt” a local tree and gift it with clay creatures and watch over it throughout the year and the seasons. We can find an open field somewhere and give children the opportunity to run free! Or find a sloping hill and they can slide down in the winter or roll down in the summer. They can play in the mud in the spring or jump in the leaves in the fall. Nature has it all. We don’t need to spend money on fancy facilities or equipment but if you have access to both of those all the better!
Can you tell us more about the Reggio Emilia approach and how that has inspired your career?
I could write a book about that! I can vividly remember sometime in the nineties attending a workshop for ECE faculty where I was introduced to this wonderful approach that began shortly after the end of World War II. At the time, I learned about the guiding principles of the approach which centre around the image of the child as capable and competent. I began to study the principles and they became a part of who I am. I remember when I realised that reframing our image of children could extend to my image of myself and my image of the adult students in my classes. I return to the principles of the Reggio Emilia approach often and I encourage others to not only learn about the history of the approach but to delve deeply into thinking about and relating to the principles. Rather than think of it as being Reggio-inspired, I consider myself as being in dialogue with the principles of the approach. I have realised that I can never know everything that there is to know and that being in dialogue with the approach is contextual. How I have interpreted the approach relates to my own context of being an adult educator and provider of professional learning. This has inspired me to be in continuous critical reflection about my work and to seek out the perspectives of others. I look to the same theories and philosophy that underpin the Reggio Emilia approach and that guides my work as well. I am a social constructivist. Like Loris Malaguzzi, I am inspired by Lev Vygotsky and every day, I think about his words, “It is through others, that we develop into ourselves”.
What would be your advice to anyone considering a career in childcare?
Think about why you are considering this career and recognise that what you know going into the profession should evolve and even transform every day as you learn from children and others. I would suggest that if you don’t see yourself as a life-long learner don’t work in childcare. If I only knew what I knew when I started, my understanding of play, learning, and child development would be very limited. I would advise others to be open to change and the cognitive dissonance that happens when new information collides with old. Learning something new should inspire you to be continuously improving your practice. Consider yourself as a status quo disrupter but be cautious about others who may resist change. Always work from a foundation of kindness towards others.
What makes you most passionate about the work you do?
I have had so many conversations about what it means to be a passionate early childhood educator and whether passion can be taught. I think my passion derives from my knowledge that every day I can make a difference in the lives of others especially children, their educators and their families.
And finally, If you could choose just one, what would you say has been your best ‘I love my job’ moment?
My job has changed over the years. I went from working directly with children to supervising a childcare centre. Then I taught early childhood education for decades. Now I am an independent consultant and I present workshops, keynotes and offer on-site support and training. I can think of many times over the years when I caught myself thinking how much I love my job, but the most profound experiences have always been the moments when I was doing something that was without remuneration. The best moments of my career have been when I was giving back in my volunteer work with the York Region Nature Collaborative. This is my passion project! During these experiences, the feelings of being involved in reciprocal relationships have been intense and profound. The last time I felt this was during the York Region Nature Collaborative’s first annual Land as Our First Teacher Conference: Establishing and Maintaining Relationships as we explored ways of learning from the Land that honoured the traditional teachings of our Indigenous communities. I knew that exploring ways to establish and maintain good relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities will benefit all of our youngest learners. When I do this type of work it is from the heart. When my heart, my hands, and my mind are fully engaged I can sincerely say, I love my job!
We hope you have enjoyed this interview and are interested in more of our range of Childcare Conversation features.
Dr. Diane Kashin has worked in the childcare sector for nearly 40 years and has experience working directly with children, supervising a childcare centre, and even teaching early childhood education. A founder of York Region Nature Collaborative, an early years centre focused on nature, Diane now works as an independent consultant presenting workshops, delivering keynotes and offering on-site support and training.
If you’d like to find out more about Dr Diane Kashin and her work you can visit her blog Technology Rich Inquiry Based Research, follow her on Twitter at @DianeKashin1 or check out her available books here.
Our Childcare Conversations series aims to showcase a cross section of leading voices from the world of childcare talking about their roles, offering advice, comment and views on topical issues. This time around we’ve decided to shine the spotlight on outdoor learning and have chatted to several early years experts to gain their insight on the inclusion of the outdoors in child development.