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Child learning new technology at Early Start Discovery Space

Technology embedded in early learning centres serving low-income communities is enhancing the professional development for educators and subsequent learning and development impact on children.

How can early childhood educators mitigate the risk of children falling behind, both intellectually and socially?

It’s an all too common scenario. Children from low socio-economic communities, often located in suburban and regional areas face a greater level of vulnerability. In many cases, this is due to the lack of access to quality early childhood education.

The early childhood education and care centres in these communities acknowledge that kids up to five years of age are at the highest risk of slipping through the gap, in learning, development and health – specifically in the skills of language development and self-regulation.

With the correct interventions and professional development, the longer-term cognitive and social development of these children can be positively impacted.

A unique research facility dedicated to children

The University of Wollongong’s early childhood research, education and community facility, the Early Start Discovery Space  is Australia’s only ‘children’s museum’ and the first-of-its-kind in the world to be based on a university campus.

More than 150,000 visitors each year pass through the doors of the Discovery Space – a centre designed around experiential learning activities, exploration and fun. The Space aims to help nourish the connection for children between play and learning.

With a strategy to align early childhood learning with early childhood education and care frameworks, Early Start facilitates unique research surrounding early childhood education and community engagement.

Early Start’s mission is to continuously improve the lives of children and those who work with, or care for them. This is achieved by focusing on four key research themes: food and movement behaviours; self-regulation and cognitive development; families, learning and interaction; and play, pedagogy and curriculum.

Early Start Discovery Centre

A technological lifeline

To achieve one of the University’s key priorities to enhance early childhood educational quality, UOW funded the installation of specialised technology in 41 early childhood education and care services located in disadvantaged areas across NSW and the ACT, including nine Aboriginal child and family centres established by the Federal Government.

This technology, specifically web cameras and video conference software, enabled these centres to be directly connected with the UOW Wollongong campus, including the Early Start Discovery Space, permitting researchers to engage with educators and provide additional support and professional development. This also allowed researchers and staff to engage with the children and open up a world of new experiences to them through virtual connections.

Early Start researcher Senior Professor Tony Okely from UOW’s Faculty of Social Sciences, says the University is invested in leveraging the technology to deliver the best possible start in life for children who are more vulnerable to falling through the cracks.

“We have an engagement team that works with the identified centres, to add value to what they’re doing. We collect data, look at the quality of environments they’re in and continually work with them to be able to improve practices in their centres.

“It’s like a learning lab for us. We’ve got all these centres who we partner with that are at varying degrees of engagement with us. They are part of the journey to see if together we can improve some of the outcomes in their settings, and for the children that attend those centres,” he explains.

Senior Professor Tony Okely at an early learning centre

Cross-centre collaboration and virtual playtime

According to Senior Professor Okely, not only does the technology allow UOW researchers to gather crucial data on the behaviour and development of children, it also enables professional support and virtual experiences like no other.

“The technology can be used in a number of ways, including for centres to connect with one another, and to help build their capacity and develop their leadership skills for the purposes of mentoring other centres – particularly those that are further along the journey.

“We also use it to link into the Discovery Space by offering virtual excursions for those who are in rural or remote areas such Walgett, Lightning Ridge or Brewarrina in the far reaches of NSW, and not able to bring the kids here physically. Using an online video conference platform, the children are transported into the Discovery Space through their interactive whiteboards and engage with staff in a variety of experiences,” he says.

Bellambi Point Community Preschool near Wollongong reported a notable difference in the pace of learning development as a direct result of children being exposed to the technology while at the centre.

Many children who were moving into formal schooling had been struggling with the transition. When the first cohort of children who had used the technology at Bellambi Point Community Preschool moved into kindergarten, one of the school teachers identified these children as more settled, and the transition to using technology in the kindergarten classroom was much smoother.

Where she would normally spend much of Term One familiarising them with the SMART board and how to use it, she said she was able to move beyond that to more learning and interactive experiences much earlier due to their existing familiarity.

Kids using a smart board

Using data for good

Senior Professor Okely says a key part of the approach taken with the Early Start Engagement Centres has been to collect data on the children, educators, and quality of the learning environment and feed this back to the centres with the aim of improving child outcomes.

“Some of this can initially be quite confronting, but the centres realise our aim is to identify areas which they may wish to prioritise moving forward. We refer to this as a responsive research model in which we, the researcher, respond to the needs of the centres by providing data that they can use to drive change.

“To provide a snapshot of what’s happening, we feed the data back to the centres in a way that’s appropriate to their context. This opens up a conversation about the data and the centre’s priorities, and what the focus should be,” he shares. “It also provides additional support and guidance for services and educators as they work through the National Assessment and Ratings processes.”

Kids interacting with technology in an early learning centre

Harnessing expertise to impact educators and children

With the data available, UOW early childhood experts collaborate with the engagement team to develop research-based training resources to aid the professional development of educators.

“It uses a combination of best practises around professional development, content experts and innovative models of delivery to offer training to even the most remote areas of NSW and the ACT. Continuing to work with educators to see changes in practice and outcomes for children is core to Early Starts work with the Engagement Centres,” Senior Professor Okely explains.

The Early Years MODEL

Insights highlighting opportunities to better understand and respond to children’s development and needs using technology available in the centres, inspired UOW researchers to develop The Early Years MODEL (Monitoring and Observation for Development and Early Learning).

“The Early Years MODEL is an approach to the development and dissemination of tools for early years practice, including monitoring children’s learning, development and wellbeing. It empowers and supports educators to assess children’s developmental progress. With this information, we can better support the next steps in a child’s development,” Senior Professor Okely shares.

“Without tools like this, it is difficult to combine everything we know about each child to determine where they are up to in each area of their development – their self-regulation, language, numeracy – and what educators’ next steps should be to support each child’s continued progress.”

A strong international collaboration

UOW’s Early Start has become an internationally recognised early childhood education facility, garnering interest from around the world, including high-profile visiting professors from Oxford University, Erasmus University, University College London and Stanford University.

Senior Professor Tony Okely says they have engaged in collaborative projects around the world and established MOUs with leading childhood development organisations, particularly in Singapore, China and Hong Kong.

He says the uniqueness of Early Start as a multi-disciplinary establishment has piqued the interest of industry colleagues in Australia and internationally, allowing UOW to go out to the world with best practices in early childhood education and intervention.

“We have a responsibility to be a flagship to the rest of the world around advocating for children; for child development and for conducting international research and having international leadership. We work with peak organisations as well to be part of that narrative around advocating for children,” he reinforces.

Investing early for long-term results

UOW’s ultimate goal is to empower the centres to drive these evidence-based practises themselves with the University’s support, rather than the University telling them what to do.

He says lot of research has been done surrounding the importance of investing in early childhood.

“If you invest one dollar you’re going to get up to four dollars return down the track,” he says referencing the status quo. “With vulnerable children, that ROI figure goes up to 17 dollars.

“If we can get as many children into high-quality early childhood education and care as possible, we’re going to prevent so many problems down the track and we’re going to give these children the best chance to achieve the best possible outcomes for their life – there’s good evidence to support that and that certainly does drive us.”

Early Start at night

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