Childcare: Down on the farm
Learning to balance on one leg, rolling around in the hay and watching a farmer cut silage for the cows – just your average day at Little Moo- Moos Playschool, recent winner of a major childcare award. Sinead O'Carroll finds out more
" TODAY was another typical day," explains Catherine Dwyer, owner of Little Moo-Moos Playschool in Co Dublin on what is the first official day of summer, "but the children will remember it because they got to break up bales, roll in them and throw the hay over each other."
Obviously passionate about what she does, Catherine says she is blessed to be part of these memories.
" Especially since the sun came out today," she adds. Catherine set up Little Moo-Moos with her husband Rory – that's Farmer Rory to the children – in the autumn of 1999 simply because she wanted to spend more time with children.
" We were living in a rural area – on a dairy farm – and there were no childcare services in the vicinity. A lot of my friends' children had no idea about farm life but were interested in it so we decided we would incorporate it into pre-school learning," she explains.
Although Skephubble Farm seems like a throwback to the past – what with the children's nature walks, brown bread baking and blackberry picking – there is a lot of forward thinking in terms of the education the children are getting at Little Moo-Moos Playschool.
Catherine, who has 33 years of formal childcare experience, tells me they have links with all the local schools, which they visit each year.
" We ask the junior infant teachers what they would like us to do to prepare the child for primary education and we take that on board when setting out our timetables," she says.
" The teachers want the children to be able to button their own coats and manage by themselves in the bathroom but also to be able to ask for help when they need it," says Catherine.
"So we teach them these basic life skills and they just grow in confidence. We have received great feedback from all the schools. When our children leave they are confi dent little things, completely ready for big school."
The pre-school is purpose-built and is kitted out with four different rooms for various age categories – the two-year-olds are called the " baby lambs", while the the two-and-a-half-year-olds are the " ducklings". The older children – from three to five – are the " bunnies" and then there are the pre-schoolers.
There are students with additional needs in each of the four classes and to highlight the inclusive nature of the school, Catherine reveals that everyone learns Lámh sign language.
Each class has a different curriculum but the ethos is the same throughout the school, which Catherine and Rory say is similar to that seen in the schools of Sweden and Germany.
" We give each child responsibility. They then grow in confidence and become leaders," explains Catherine. " We are there to nurture them when they need it though," she adds. " We'll give them what they can handle."
Each child at Little Moo-Moos is in charge of a patch of the garden and they must water and care for it daily. They grow and pick their own vegetables, which eventually become the ingredients for their lunches (which they also help make!).
There is a strong ethos behind each task the children do. According to the teachers and farmers at Little Moo-Moos, organic gardening with the children helps establish healthy eating habits as they are more inclined to taste and enjoy food they have grown themselves.
Gardening gives children a sense of achievement and they also learn to respect the environment.
" They're each in different groups in charge of various tasks. You can see them become more responsible with each day. They don't want to miss school because they might let someone down. We work as one big team on the farm," continues Catherine, who has nine other people working in the school with her.
In terms of the learning that happens, the teachers are adamant that they get to know each child individually. They figure out what each boy or girl is interested in and what stage their development is at. They then set to work on group and individual projects that will suit them.
The farm and the outdoor life are continuously linked into the curriculums. Little Moo-Moos is designed to foster learning through the exploration and discovery of the fi elds, farm and animals that are outside or within a short distance of the classroom door.
THE OUTDOOR LIFE
Regardless of the weather, all the kids get wrapped up and go out for a walk every day. They learn their colours by looking at the shades of the grass, the sky and the animals. The children feed the animals – the farm keeps baby calves (which the kids have watched being born), hens, ducks, donkeys and horses.
" The impact the animals have on children is wonderful," says Catherine. " Especially on the boys and girls with additional needs as they have such a calming effect."
In the ultra-sanitised age we now live in, I ask Catherine if the parents were originally reluctant that the students go outside regardless of the weather. "A little," she says, "but we wrap up well with dungarees and wellington boots. We don't have too many children calling in sick and our attendance is always high."
And the school's approach has been vindicated by not only the wonderful feedback from parents and schools but Little Moo-Moos was recently recognised by the Irish Pre-school Play Association (IPPA) and the National Children's Nurseries Association.
Catherine and her staff won the Award for Outdoor Provision 2011 at the associations' fi rst Early Childhood Ireland Innovation Awards. Little Moo Moos is also in training with the IPPA for Siolta, the National Quality Framework for Early Childhood Education, and Aistear, the Early Childhood Curriculum Framework.
For further information see www.littlemoomoos.ie, call 01 804 1695 or email littlemoomoosplayschool@ gmail.com.
Mother & Babies