Early Childhood Up in a new space

Kindergarten students at Barring Djinang Kindergarten. Photo: Meredith O'Shea

It isn’t the sort of place you expect to find a kindergarten. Up on the fifth floor of the ultra-modern South Melbourne Primary School, a group of three- to five-year-olds are playing in a large sandpit, clambering up and down a grassy knoll, climbing over a climbing frame and hop-scotching around half a dozen tyres. A few friends are chasing each other along a wide wooden ledge beneath the high glass walls, totally inured to the vertiginous view of freeway and office towers beyond.

Despite – or perhaps because of – the school’s somewhat brutalist exterior, walking into Barring Djinang Kindergarten is like stumbling upon an oasis. The grass is fake, but the manifold wooden surfaces are real, as are the herb and vegetable beds, not to mention the sandpie left to “heat” on the large timber stove.

Lead educator Colleen Meyer says she has done her best to include as many natural materials as possible to keep the surrounding concrete jungle at bay.

Kindergarten students at Barring Djinang Kindergarten. Photo: Meredith O'Shea

“All the research suggests that learning through play is so important, using your hands and having that sensory experience,” Colleen says. “It’s been interesting as an educator here, when it hasn’t been so easy – when there are no trees to climb and no big sandpit set up with grass. It’s been good to test myself like that.”

Colleen was attracted to the job because of the challenge it presented – a brand new kindergarten atop an innovative vertical school. When she first walked in, there was little but pine floorboards and high, hotel-style windows. In place of the usual garden was a spread of concrete, hemmed in by high walls made of acoustic glass that do an impressive job of silencing the surrounding traffic. Working with such a neutral, atypical space has made her more conscious of the sort of practice she wants to put in place.

“It’s forced me to think about how much of what you do as a teacher is because of the room you work in and the outdoor space you have. When you come to a new space and you can put your mark on it, you have to think about what is really important and why you’re doing things.”

‘The weather is one way that Barring Djinang Kindergarten does feel very connected with nature. Up on the fifth floor, things can get pretty spectacular.’

She has gone out of her way to “green” the space as much as possible, adding pot plants, a worm farm, compost and a vegie garden. The ever-popular sandpit proved unexpectedly challenging as nobody had thought about how to get that much sand onto the fifth floor. (In the end, it came up in the same lift the kids use every day.) An excursion to the new park across the road has also become a regular feature.

Colleen says giving the kids a sense of being out in nature is essential, particularly given that most of her diverse cohort – her students speak Korean, Mandarin, Spanish, Arabic and Tamil at home – live in city apartment blocks.

“A lot of our families are living in high-rise buildings and they recognise that their children need to get out more, so we’re very focused on that. Unless the weather’s appalling, we’re outside. The kids take their shoes off and run around. They need to experience these things.”

Colleen Meyer with her students. Photo: Meredith O'Shea

The weather is one way that Barring Djinang Kindergarten does feel very connected with nature. Up on the fifth floor, things can get pretty spectacular.

“A massive storm came in last year and the kids set up chairs and sat and watched it through the window. Now, whenever there’s a storm, they go grab the chairs. We also often all sit down and watch the sun setting behind the city.”

This year, the natural world has encroached further, with bugs finally finding their way up to the fifth floor and, hot on their six heels, a family of corellas that enjoys perching atop the glass fence. But the kids are equally enamoured with their own bird’s-eye view of the urban landscape, enjoying watching the flow of freeway traffic and the cluster of tiny passengers at the neighbouring City Road tram stop.

Kindergarten student at Barring Djinang Kindergarten. Photo: Meredith O'Shea

Colleen says that, while young families once tended to move away from the inner city to the suburbs, she’s noticed an increasing trend for them to stay put. Given that, and increasing development, it’s likely that this sort of kindergarten will become more common in the future. Her advice for those who follow in her footsteps is to expect the unexpected – and take advantage of it.

“Be open minded! Because we’re on the top floor, the first few fire drills were really stressful for everyone. Now we walk down the stairs whenever we go outside or for an excursion. It’s just become part of our practice. We recently had to evacuate and it went really smoothly – because they’re used to it.”

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