Foundations for success built on play

Making the transition from preschool to school is traditionally a huge step for children and parents alike, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

Kindergarten students across the Maitland-Newcastle Diocese are taking part in a new project, Successful Foundations, and it is proving the secret to learning really could be as simple — and complex — as child’s play.

Successful Foundations is a positive, play-based action research project that transitions early learners to school and helps establish collaborative relationships between children, families, teachers and the community.

As Education Officer (Early Learning) for the Catholic Schools Office (CSO), I developed Successful Foundations along with education consultant Dr Cathie Harrison, formerly senior lecturer in Early Childhood education at Australian Catholic University.

Successful Foundations supports the CSO’s Early Learning Policy and strengthens classroom practices. This year, another eight schools are adopting the program after it was piloted with great success at 11 schools in 2019. The strength the Diocese places on relationships underpins the program.

“Relationships are everything in teaching and the Successful Foundations Action Research Project really helps to build relationships and understand the kindergarten child and what they know,” said Suzie Monks, a teacher at Holy Name Primary School, Forster, which began implementing Successful Foundations for the first time this year.

Sarah Dormand from St Francis Xavier’s Primary School, Belmont has also begun implementing the project in her kindergarten class for the first time.  

“Successful Foundations is about developing a healthy respectful relationship with the children and us as teachers,” Ms Dormand said. “It’s a two-way process and the most important takeaway is that we are agents of change.

“We are at a precipice where we are really getting to shift the way we are approaching education because we’re right at that foundation level, and the significant thing for all of us, the community, parents, educators, to keep in mind is that play is research.”  

In the first five weeks of school, kindergarten students are given a learning block at the beginning of each day to engage with a variety of open-ended, play provocations. The hour of play learning provides students with the opportunity to actively demonstrate their funds of knowledge, build relationships and become familiar with the context of the school. It also provides opportunities for teachers to become familiar with students and their families.

“This bridging process is where we as teachers and researchers are learning to realise and acknowledge that the child is a unique, curious, independent, capable, competent natural researcher and that’s how we’re viewing them and that’s what our approach will be,” Ms Dormand said.  

When children immerse themselves in play, it provides a powerful tool for learning and wellbeing. Our educators set up meaningful provocations such as dramatic play, which might be a florist’s shopfront, or building environments or outdoor spaces. These are designed to engage the students and provide us with a pedagogy of listening, observation and documentation.

We step back and observe students so we can see all their capabilities. We’re seeing their interests and all the things they can do — not just literacy and numeracy — but socially and through problem-solving, collaboration and creativity. It’s all there in Successful Foundations.

Tania Kranias from St John the Baptist Primary School, Maitland said the professional learning provided to staff had been a useful prompt to consider learning from the students’ perspective.

“Children go from playing eight hours a day at preschool and day-care, having five weeks’ holidays and then jump in and are told ‘here’s your books, here’s your pencils, let’s get writing and here’s a reader, let’s start reading, and here’s some maths questions’,” Ms Kranias said.

“Some children are just not capable of doing that straight away. Some children are keen, some have no interest … This whole process is allowing us to open our thinking and our minds and get to know the children.”

Cathy Hogan from St Catherine’s Catholic College, Singleton agreed with Ms Kranias and said “children learn at different speeds so taking into account all the children’s previous experiences is important”.

After piloting Successful Foundations last year, I carried out extensive pre and post surveying of teachers and principals and had conversations with students and their families, all of whom reported positive outcomes. The project works well because of the collaborative approach of working alongside children and teachers.  

Mary-Anne Jennings, principal at St Kevin’s Primary School, Cardiff, is buoyed by the potential the Successful Foundations project will have on students’ learning in Kindergarten and beyond.

“As the name Successful Foundations suggests, kindergarten sets up children for the rest of their educational journey, if not for life,” Ms Jennings said. “If we have a foundation where they have driven their own learning, they’ve developed a growth mindset in that ‘I learn through play, I learn through making mistakes, I learn through doing what I’m interested in’. And their visible learning — ‘I’m here, but I have to go there, and that’s how I’m going to get there’. It sets them up for the rest of their life, so they are never afraid of failure.”

“In hindsight, Successful Foundations is actually returning to years ago when I first started teaching kindergarten where play was such an important part of the curriculum, which wasn’t overburdened with academia. The children grew and developed at their own level. It was fantastic. Successful Foundations is coming full circle, a 360-degree turnaround.”

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Kim Moroney

Kim Moroney is the Education Officer - Early Learning with the Maitland-Newcastle Catholic Diocese Schools Office.

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