Working with regional and remote communities virtually and face to face to enhance outcomes for children and their families.
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 regional and remote areas face a greater level of vulnerability. In many cases, this is due to the lack of resources and support for quality early childhood education.
The early childhood education and care centres in these communities acknowledge that children up to five years of age are at the highest risk of adverse impact to their learning, development and health – specifically in the skills of language development and self-regulation.
With the correct tools – and professional development to support educators to effectively use these tools – the longer-term cognitive and social development of these children can be positively impacted.
A unique research facility dedicated to children
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. This facility brings together early childhood research, education and the community to change children’s life trajectories.
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.
The Discovery Space stimulates curiosity, nurtures creativity, builds confidence and provides opportunity for social connection, communication, learning and independent discovery. Activities are designed to allow children to take control of their own learning as well as sharing the experience as co-learners and creators.
Early Start’s mission is to 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.
A technological lifeline and virtual playtime
To achieve one of the University’s key priorities to enhance early childhood educational quality, Early Start researchers are working on developing online tools to support educators understand the development of an individual child. UOW has also 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, to allow children to participate in virtual tours of the Discovery Space and help create a community of practice.
The Discovery Space offers virtual excursions for those who are in rural or remote areas, such as Walgett, Broken Hill and Wilcannia in the far reaches of NSW, who are not able to bring the children to physically visit. 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.
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 experiencing vulnerabilities.
“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.
Early Start has an engagement team that works with the network of centres, adding value to what they’re doing. They 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.
Of the 41 centres, 32 are located in some of our most disadvantaged communities (combined Socio-Economic Indexes of Australia decile between 1 and 4) and almost all of them support families dealing with complex issues or living in vulnerable circumstances. Close to 35 per cent of the children and families are from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds.
“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,” Senior Professor Okely explains.
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.”
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 Start’s work with the Engagement Centres,” Senior Professor Okely explains.
The Early Years Toolbox
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 Toolbox.
“The Early Years Toolbox 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 as 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.”