Academic research delivers enriching experiences for children in Early Start Discovery Space’s newest attraction
The University of Wollongong Early Start Discovery Space’s newest attraction, Crawlers’ Beach, is already proving a hit with newborns to two year olds and their carers, a number of whom have been putting it through its paces before the official launch on Wednesday, 29 March.
What the littlies don’t realise as they toddle up and down the jetty, explore the submarine, crawl over the sensory beach towels and spend tummy time on the sea creature pillows, is that everything in Crawlers’ Beach has been designed to stimulate their physical, intellectual and social development while they play.
From the activities themselves to the colours and materials used, every aspect of the experience is supported through valid evidence, said School of Education Community Links Coordinator for the Early Years Judy Daunt.
“Everything is there for a reason,” Ms Daunt said. “It’s not just there because we want children to have fun – of course we want children and families to have fun – but it’s informed fun, evidence-based fun that stimulates learning and development.”
Early Years Academic Director Dr Cathrine Neilsen-Hewett, a specialist in child development and education from birth to five years, is part of the committee that oversees the design of new Discovery Space experiences. She says Crawlers’ Beach is an excellent example of the synergies created by having the Discovery Space on the University campus.
“One of the unique things about the Discovery Space is its part of the University and can partner with researchers who are working in child development and get our input about the types of experiences that benefit children,” Dr Neilsen-Hewett said. “Every aspect of their developmental needs was taken into consideration: their perceptual needs, their physical needs, their social, emotional and cognitive needs.
“We designed the submarine with a wavy mirror on the bottom half so that when a baby sits up the mirror is at eye level; mirrors play an important role in the development of self-recognition and self-concept in infants. The jetty is at a height where babies or toddlers can pull to stand if they are not walking independently and can then cruise around. There are sensory mats for younger infants which are designed to support visual and perceptual development.
“It’s an inviting and engaging place, but it’s also developmentally appropriate.”
Early Start Discovery Space is the only facility of its kind anywhere in the world that is part of a university. Early Start Academic Director Marc de Rosnay, a professor of child development specialising in children 0 to 8 years, said that while children’s museums elsewhere draw on early childhood research, having the Discovery Space embedded in the university creates a relationship that is deeper, more far-reaching and multifaceted.
“What we are striving for at Early Start is a seamless integration between research, teaching and the experience that children have in our Discovery Space and in our community outreach programs,” Professor de Rosnay said. “The Discovery Space allows families to come in with their children and have experiences that enrich the child and parent and which we know are important for the child.”
And just as Discovery Space experiences are informed by research done by Early Start academics, their research in turn will be informed by children’s interactions with the Discovery Space.
“This is a place for people to come and have a rich experience with their children, but there are times when we need to pay close attention to how children interact with the experiences,” Professor de Rosnay said. “Now is a good example of that with Crawlers’ Beach – we need to know if it’s working. Generally, we rely on feedback from staff and parents, but we’re also developing a way of scrutinising those experiences through a research lens, and looking at how children’s experiences here affect their development over the longer term.
“We have a wonderful opportunity here at Early Start to demonstrate a model of research into children’s play-based experiences. This will allow us to better understand how children learn through their activity and therefore create richer experiences for them. At Early Start we are using research and collaboration to better understand the ways in which early childhood puts in place lifetime learning trajectories; a challenge that we need embrace particularly for children who are highly vulnerable.
“The challenge of Early Start is to be more than just a research institute. We want Early Start to enrich the student population, the local community, the outreach community, and ultimately the nation through innovation, research, and sustained community engagement.”
About Crawlers’ Beach
Like all Discovery Space experiences, the key design elements at the Crawlers’ Beach enhance the benefits of learning through play.
Babies’ eyes are the windows through which they learn about their new world, but early vision can only make out light, shape and movement. A newborn can see about 20 to 30 centimetres. Black, red and white have been selected for the majority of the colour palette as they provide a good contrast for little babies to make out the patterns and shapes. The other colours have been kept to soft, natural palette so as not to overstimulate the children.
Self-awareness and self-recognition
Children learn through watching and observing others, imitating the actions and intentions of others to learn new skills. Mirrors can help to develop a child’s self-awareness, self-recognition and vocabulary. By talking with a child when using a mirror the child may smile, reach out to the ‘other’ baby and slowly point as they recognise themselves. Mirrors have been placed along the jetty’s edge to be at the height for a baby lying on their tummy, or crawling, while the mirrors placed on the outside of the submarine, allow for those children pulling themselves up ready to walk also being able see themselves.
Playing on the floor helps strengthen a child’s neck muscles to assist them in holding their head up. Rolling, crawling and pulling up helps a child build muscles and upper strength, which will benefit and help them as they begin to walk. The soft sea creature pillows have been designed for parent and child to comfortably sit during tummy time and connect with one another. The beach towels have been created to provide sensory elements and further tummy time. Children can pull at the tags, feel the different textures, look at the various animals in the fabric and imitate the different facial emotions.
Gross motor skills
These develop as a child begins to reach and grasp for objects you dangle over them. The submarine and jetty’s edge have been built at an appropriate height to provide support for a child to pull itself up to a standing position. They can practise their balance and become confident to take their first steps.
Gentle activity is just as important for a baby’s development as the bigger movement play. This quiet time can help encourage fine motor skills and coordinating small finger movement as a child manipulates different objects. Reading with a baby involves interactions and communications with a book. You can start at the back or in the middle, it doesn’t matter for little ones. Sharing attention is a very important social and cognitive skill, actually telling the story can come later. A treasure chest is provided filled with appropriate books and toys.
Why no technology?
Australian guidelines recommend no screen time for children under two years, switching off your own screen and giving your baby your full attention will help your babies development and learning.
(Source: University of Wollongong)