Prepping for Prep ?

I’m watching her as she draws in her book. She is sitting on a chair at the table. She slides off, stands up and leans on the table. She is still drawing. She dances on the spot then stretches. Her legs slink out sideways, her bottom wiggles and her chair tips. She is still drawing. She moves to the floor and lays on her tummy, but even still she jumps up to ask me a question, find a thing she needs, and then return to the floor. Still drawing. She’s alternating between tummy, cross-legged and kneeling positions. Still drawing. She’s been fully engaged in her drawings for 30 minutes and hasn’t been still at all. After half an hour she declares “I’ve had enough of all this work!”, then goes off to find a chicken and ride her tricycle back and forth on the patio with her chook tucked under her arm.

Watching her move through this ‘simple’ act of completing a drawing, I realise how my little girl is still built for thinking AND doing – not thinking OR doing. And for her, both thinking and doing are accompanied by talking, singing, moving and using space. Looking at this busy girl, who appears to be self-propelled by curiosity and singing, I realise that she’s six years old now, a big school girl, and she’s still so SO very little.


She’s still delighted by nursery rhymes. She still skips as she walks. She still puts her shoes on the wrong feet. She still fills her day with stories and songs. She can still fill hours riding a tricycle with a chicken on her lap. If she’s not moving in some way then she’s sick. Or asleep. This little one has to feel life with her whole body, every waking moment of it. What would have happened if I had insisted she sit on the chair and work at the table? She can do it, but I guarantee that she would have lost interest in her drawing, and gone off to play somewhere else.

She was five and a half when she began prep at the beginning of this year. In Queensland prep is the year before first grade, and you must be five before the 30th of June in the year they enrol, which means that children as young as 4.5 years may start school. It’s too young, isn’t it? I wonder how all those little people (with all the same developmental impulses to move, make sound, touch, discuss and explore) can fit in a space together. At tables and chairs. Doing work. Not touching each other. Quietly.

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I can’t get over the irony of preparing for prep. Prep IS the preparation year. It is designed to be the transition year to gently introduce children to academic concepts and school culture. What is there to prepare for? Being smart? Being still? Remembering to be good and not touch each other? How do you leave the world of pure play and enter this place called school, where it seems children must deny their natural mode of being and learn according to the expectations of others?

My children have been blessed with their schooling, having had the joyful experience of early education where it is understood that children must move and talk and touch and create and be surrounded with nature and wonder. Prior to my daughter starting school she enjoyed playful adventures at kindy with her friends. She was not expected to sit and complete a task with an academic subtext (presented as ‘play-based’), or even one that was pretending to be academic (worksheets). She was not expected to arrive at school with a complete knowledge of the upper and lower case letters, blends, sight words, numbers to 20 (forwards and backwards) or any idea, beyond what she had worked out by herself, of mathematical processes.

Because that would be silly, wouldn’t it? To learn the stuff you are going to learn before you need to learn it? When you are four?

In many early education services this is happening. Kindy programs are referred to as ‘Pre-Preps’ and despite offering quality ‘play-based’ learning, are still described as programs that prepare children for the ‘formal rules and routines for school’. Is learning about formal rules and routines when you are three year old more important than playing?

Prep is not compuslory in Queensland this year but next year it will be. Children as young as four-and-a-half years will be required to attend school. The prep curriculum is becoming more formalised, despite the fact that the Foundation Curriculum itself is still quite open for playful learning. Kindergartens (‘Pre-Preps’) are beginning to offer academic content, despite the fact that the Early Years Learning Framework does not require this. This is known as the ‘pushdown’, and we are hearing passionate early childhood advocates and worried parents talking about this with growing concern.

There are more useful ways to prepare for prep:

Play. Don’t do stuff for children if they can do it themselves (and even if they can’t!). Explore materials. Climb and hang and swing. Fall and get hurt. Get sticky. Read books and tell stories and sing songs. Go for walks. Bake. Sleep. Love animals. Plant things. Light campfires and cook damper. Play in the rain. Bury dead pets. Talk with people. Find out how things work. Go for night walks. Draw and paint. Tie things up with string. Be curious. Use sharp tools. Feel feelings, especially the big ones. Cuddle. Be safe and polite. Rest. Breathe. Be bored. Daydream. Play.


Through self-directed play children learn about boundaries, respect, self-awareness, healing strategies, needs of others, safety, community, creativity, thinking for themselves. If teachers, including prep teachers and early years primary teachers, forget to include plenty of time for these natural childhood experiences, daily, then a game of catch-up ensues, which may extend well into primary and secondary years. Children will have to learn all these things about themselves sooner or later AND still be expected to progress through curriculum at the same time. I feel stressed just thinking about it. It is my belief that this is why there is such a focus on developing resilience in primary schools now.

My daughter is not in school at the moment. She and her older siblings love their school, and will return, but are having a home-school ‘sabbatical’ for a while because we want to have some fun together. At six, she is in the older range of preppies, and she’s still so very young. All preppies SHOULD be able to twitch and wriggle and have as much time and space as they need, just to complete a drawing. They shouldn’t be rushed through activities due to timetabling. They should not have homework. They should be able to take a tricycle-and-chicken-break (or equivalent!) when they need to. They can learn about letters and numbers without using desks.  At home my daughter is learning through her own playful discovery every day, and is covering the Foundation curriculum practically on her own.

The only preparation required for this kind of learning is time, space and play.

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Homemade Tooth Powder

I have made a personal commitment towards sustainability in my home. It’s never going to be perfect, because the realities of suburban family life, budgeting and ease of weekly shopping mean that packaging sneaks in no matter how hard I try to avoid it.

I can make small, manageable changes though, to begin with. Starting in the bathroom, my family and I don’t use shampoo or conditioner to wash our hair, just hot water, so there is less packaging there (as well as less harmful ingredients in our waterways). We clean our bathroom with vinegar, bicarb, water and essential oils and use old washers to clean with, rather than paper towel. I’m not a regular cosmetic user and am happy to use ingredients from my kitchen for my skin, so there is savings in dollars, packaging and harmful ingredients there too. We’ve been making our own laundry powder, with great results, and the most recent thing to go has been the toothpaste.

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No more tubes going to landfill. No more standing for hours staring at toothpaste options in the supermarket or health food store, trying to find one that will have minimal impact on health, environment or budget. No more messy toothpaste globs stuck in the sink (and other interesting places) from children’s independent tooth-brushing efforts. With children there is the inevitable sprinkling of powder around the sink, but as the ingredients are the same ones we clean with, this is MUCH easier to wipe up!

Here’s our simple recipe. We like it so much that my children have added it to the books where they keep their favourite recipes. We mix this up together, add our chosen flavourings and shake it all up. We keep our tooth powder in individual containers, so we can have our own flavourings too. You could also add coconut oil to this if you prefer more of a paste. I’m personally not very fond of the taste of coconut oil, so I leave mine as a powder.

  • 1 part white bentonite clay
  • 2 parts bicarb soda
  • a few drops of essential oils

The idea is to wet your toothbrush, tap off the excess water and then dip into the tooth powder. Whatever sticks to your toothbrush will be enough to brush your teeth with. We have been using this for three months now and find our teeth feel nice and smooth afterwards and our gums are healthy. I’ve read that the bentonite clay adds minerals for your teeth, among numerous other benefits, but to be honest I’ve not looked into this too much, as I find the softness of this clay creates a nice texture and is useful for counteracting the saltiness of the bicarb, which took a little getting used to at first.

I made my first batch with a few drops of lemon, ginger and melaleuca essential oils. This was yummy! We’ve since used peppermint (the current favourite) and in my last batch I added some cinnamon powder … perhaps a bit too much as it tastes a little like brushing my teeth with a muffin.

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The Essence of the Simple Doll

lavender baby 4.jpgI still remember the pure joy and delight that my daughter expressed when it was her turn to take care of Lavender Baby, a  doll that my daughter’s kindy teachers made. Lavender Baby was intentionally created to be simple, uncomplicated and neutral, embodying the essence of the simple doll. She was open and ready to give and receive whatever any child needed, and each child engaged with this doll in a different way. When she came to our house Lavender Baby appeared to be more than happy to submit to some fairly intense mothering. She was immediately shown all around our house, attended all outings, buckled into the car seat, was hugged, sung to, tucked in, woken up and fed many times a day. She didn’t mind hours of trampoline bouncing and listened with enraptured silence to an endless stream of stories.

IMG_2771Every child needs at least one uncomplicated, neutral friend. We referred to Lavender as ‘she’, because that is how my daughter identified with her, however Lavender didn’t mind being a ‘he’ either. Lavender was made to be available to a child without making a statement about what that child’s feelings, activities, gender, fashion or preferences should be. That’s the beauty of the simple doll. They are so agreeable, so ready to be whoever you need them to be. She was just there as she was for whoever needed her, always there to be a mirror to your soul to help you experience your feelings from outside of you. How many toys these days are created to be a part of that flexible and responsive process of growth and learning?

Now, I’m not making a comment on whether or not it is right to have formed dolls with fashionable hair and clothes – my children have enjoyed those too and so did I as a child – however many commercial toys often come with backstories and while a child may then make take this doll and play with it as they like, this backstory will always be a part of that doll’s character and purpose. I know many a Barbie, Jedi or My Little Pony has been played with in a multitude of creative (and sometimes experimental!) ways, which allow children to create meaning and expression, however I am not yet convinced these toys are as readily open, flexible and available to the young child’s spirit in the same way as a simple doll.

green ninjaOver the years, through explorations with children in nature, I have found other ways to enjoy simple dolls outside. Dolls can be made from cloths, hankies, wrapped sticks and grasses, stitched leaves and sawn branches. I made this wrapped doll while watching some children play on the field. I thought it could be a dancing elf, and had intended to take it home for the outdoor doll house but when I showed it to a child his eyes lit up with delight and he said, “A Green Ninja? For me?”

Well, of course it was a Green Ninja for him. We each immediately found our own meaning and relationship with this doll. I gave it to him and immediately he incorporated it into his play. It later disintegrated, but not before Green Ninja had served his purpose by completing many adventurous missions with his 4-year-old friend. Green Ninja will be a joyful memory.

cloth dollAnother simple doll can be made with a cloth. I recently told a story at playgroup about a giant with cold feet, and I made the giant by knotting a large cloth as I told the story. This story was passed to me by my mentor and I have been sharing it for years. I love the reminder contained within the story, that delight can be found in the simple things. Demonstrating to a child how a doll can be made opens possibilities for children to incorporate this into their play on their own. A doll is always around somewhere.

On a smaller scale, I have used knotted hankies to make simple dolls for children too – when a little one is sad and needs comfort, a pocket friend can be made from a hanky so that a loved one is always nearby. I have a story to share about this too.

And then, of course .. there are the dolls that nature provides us. Stones, seedpods, sticks, leaves and lumps of wood. Even Bird of Paradise flowers have made some excellent puppets for storytelling. There is an image of my daughter storytelling with these flowers in the slideshow below.  Some of our nature toys have been decorated, and others have been used without.

Children have the imaginative ability to provide their own decorations, characteristics, voices and backstories. The simpler the toy, the more the child is required to develop flexibility with their imaginative, language and creative thinking processes. And the simple doll is always waiting there for you, to be whoever you need them to be in that moment. That is the essence of the simple doll.

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Where the Muse takes you …

By Geira Jen McCormack, 2010

Slipping away

Wafting on the breeze

Light as a feather

Lifted with ease

Carried away on the tide

Smooth as silk

Dreaming with eyes open wide

Into another world

Where anything is possible

And all ideas are


Money is no object

And neither is time

This is the place

Where wisdom supports news ideas

Take flight on fledgling wings

In-spirit-ing inspiration

Gifts from the faerie realm

For you to make of what you will

To use or save or work on moment by moment

For leadership, creation, encouragement

For others to see things

Through your eyes

linden in stone spiral

Learning outside the fences

The Only Fence. NKNPNumala Kinder Nature Play believes children must have opportunities to learn about their world, in their world. This has meant sticking together, doing a little exploring, trying some new experiences and being brave sometimes.

In moving beyond the security of our own fencelines, our comfort zones where everything within is known and safe, the jarjums and I have learned so much about boundaries. Through our play in nature we have learned that each person’s zone of comfort is different, and that its a risk to step out of it. We’ve also learned that our friends have got our back. We hold hands and offer support and encouragement and we learn about fear … safely. And together. When one of our friends is feeling uncertain, the others know just what to say:

“Are you feeling worried? I felt that way too at first. This is what I do to feel braver…”

“Would you like some help? What can I do?”

“Do you want some help to pump up your courage? Here, I’ve got your hands”

“Why don’t you watch us until you are ready? Or try it this way instead?”

“I’ll give you a clue. Watch out for this bit, it’s tricky”

In this way the jarjums are acknowledging risk and learning to greet challenge. They know its hard to try new things when you don’t feel confident in your skills yet. They know that feelings are real – whether it is concern about leaving your mum, not liking the look of that spider, the feel of mud on your toes, uncertainty of walking through tall grass or fear of falling off a branch. It doesn’t matter what it looks like, they all know how it feels. They also know that we can’t make anyone step out of their comfort zone until they are ready to move that fence by themselves. But we can be kind.

I wonder, if we never ventured out into the world and just stayed in our comfort zones, might we have had these experiences and opportunities to build relationships, confidence, resilience, trust and sensible decision-making? I reflect on these jarjums, and myself, and realise how wide our comfort zones have now grown, and how happy we are in them.

Children can do it, and so can the big-people. We forget sometimes that our comfort zones have fences that can be moved. It takes effort, courage and community support. The rising interest in nature play is starting to challenge the comfort zones of early childhood education in Australia, and so it should. The Early Years Learning Framework supports children’s learning and participation in their world. Can we honestly say that we are encouraging “Belonging, Being and Becoming” if we remain within the walls and fences we have constructed for children based on our own comfort zones? We need to revision those fencelines, and when we step beyond them we look first (both for danger and adventure), hold hands, say kind words and feel the feelings. And as we go forward together we learn more about our world and how to be in it.



Play, Reflect, Represent

At Numala Kinder Nature Play I encourage children to participate in the reflection and documentation of their own play, whether that be in family day care, playgroup or at Nature Day Camps. Even my own children at home create visual representations of their thinking and creating! It seems natural for us to reach for paper and art materials when we have an idea, and in this way the visual arts become an integral part of our thinking processes.

I’d like to share with you a visual representation and creative plan created by my son when he was 8 years old. At this stage my son was reading and writing a little, however with his hearing loss this learning had been slow and he still preferred to communicate visually.

He’d been sick for a week, though I knew he was starting to feel better when he was lying on the couch looking at a pile of felt circles I had been cutting out.  He asked me what they were for and I replied that I wasn’t sure yet – I just didn’t want to waste my scraps and they were too bulky to store so I was cutting them into shapes that I could use later. He was staring at them so intently, and about 10 minutes later he got up to do some drawing. About half an hour later he came back with a big grin on his face, and two pages of visual instructions:

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I was so impressed with his conceptual layout of the process. This is the kind of stuff we did in high school art classes: visualise the concept, plan it out and then create it. Can you work it out?

1) Tie a knot on the end of your thread

2) Thread the needle

3 – 9) add circles of varying diameters

10) use your (left-handed) scissors to cut the thread

11) tie a knot on the end

12) your finished item should be a stack of circles from largest to smallest.

His threaded stack of felt circles isn’t a new idea at all of course – I had intended to use them for threading eventually. He didn’t know that, however, and his plan was completely his own: an accurate representation of his thinking processes. At another time I might have helped him add written instructions or labels to his plan, however as he was feeling unwell and his plan was already so clear, we didn’t do that this time.


In the Numala Kinder Nature Play playgroup and family day care programs I like to support the young children I work with in a similar way. At 3 – 5 years of age, however, we might use visual representation in a less formal way to explore the idea of visually representing play. We reflect on their play or creations, rather than to plan their play. In this way we begin to practice logic, order, sequencing, as well as reflecting on successes, unplanned events, surprise discoveries and mistakes that may have occurred along the way. The children eventually become ready to begin planning their play and creations, and with my older family day care jarjums I might challenge them to create a plan before they play now and then. We occasionally begin our day by reviewing our previous journal entries, making a new decisions based upon our discussion.


2016-06-05-12.51.50.jpg.jpegWhen reflecting on play, and creating a visual representation of their play process we tend to gather together before lunch with our journals. We do not reflect this way every single day (sometimes we just play and play and play) but if it has been a game, theme or creation the children have been revisiting, it is good to spend some time looking at how it has developed. I might have an informal conversation with children while we look back at photos and other entries in their book. I might demonstrate a way they could record their play while we talk – such as a flow chart, cartoon sequence, or a collection of images and thoughts that we collate. I might ask questions like “what was your first idea? what did you need? how did that go? did you have to make some changes?”. Together we will all use a variety of art materials in our journals to record the happenings of the mornings play. I always encourage children to add their own words, thoughts and images and I record children’s comments for them if they don’t feel like they are able to do it for themselves.2016-06-05-12.44.21.jpg.jpeg

For my older Numala Nature Day Camp children, we may plan a process such as this together if we are going to work together on a project such as building a raft or a shelter. At other times we’ll just dig in and see what emerges and reflect on it later. Either way, visual representation is almost always a part of our play experiences.

With lots of opportunities to frame thinking in this way, it can become second nature to create a visual representation. My son still often reaches for paper and pens to represent his thinking or to reflect upon how things went. He was still feeling unwell when he created this plan and was too tired to test out his instructions. The next day, however he was very keen, and here is the result.


His 4 year old sister thought it was pretty awesome, and perhaps in a gesture of appreciation he then continued to make her a felt story mat, and his littlest sister a little felt kite. Felt scrap craft turns out to be a great way to convalesce (and it solves the problem of what to do with all those little pieces I was hoarding).


Story: Pingin and the River Ninjas

This story has evolved over a few weeks of play. The jarjums have been playing Ninjago and Ninja Turtles for a few weeks. Initially there was some great cooperative play and action, soon though, their play became a little bogged down in specifics (which character had which colour and power, who would be which character, why there couldn’t be more than one of each character …) We had a good discussion about it and have explored ninjas in a few ways, documenting our discussions in our group book, and also undertaking a little ninja training of our own: we looked at a few youtube martial arts clips and incorporated a little of the basic white belt taekwondo forms into our morning circle – a business that has been taken on very seriously.

This story came about after spotting a turtle in the river, who was just hanging there with its nose above water. We could see the shadow moving under the water, then it just disappeared. I said to the children, “It moves like a ninja!”, and they all enthusiastically agreed. This story evolved from here, with the children and I exploring it in painting, puppet play, cooperative play and conversational ‘wonderings’. I saw it as an opportunity to incorporate the ninja play in a purposeful and skillful way, taking the focus away from the specifics of the commercial characters, and appreciating the skills we can observe in our own native creatures. The Eastern Water Dragons are a common sight around here and we love the way they run straight into the river with barely a splash when they spot us.

This story also carries a therapeutic value as it explores how Pingin (Yugambeh word for river turtle) finds the courage to move into play with others, surprising himself and his friends with his own unique expert skills.

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A Nature Story written by Jennifer McCormack in collaboration with the children of Numala Kinder, February 2016

Two little nostrils popped up above the water line, and hovered there for a moment. The nostrils were attached to the nose of Pingin, the saw-shelled river turtle, who could swim in the same spot for a long time, his little flippers moving back and forth to keep him afloat. At the top of the river he could see what was going on at the riverbank, but he rarely came out of the water, except occasionally to rest on a log or a rock for a moment. Mostly he hid under the water, stalking the fish and frogs who were to be his lunch.

A pair of Eastern Water Dragons, who were sunning themselves on a log nearby, called out to the turtle “Come on – show yourself! Why is it always just your nose? Why don’t you come out and hang on the rock here with me?”

Feeling shy, Pingin took a big deep breath before slipping under the water and disappearing like a shadow into the river weeds. The Eastern Water Dragons shrugged, “Oh well, he has to come out sooner or later”.

Pingin swam around behind the log the Eastern Water Dragons were sitting on, and climbed onto a rock next to them. “It’s not true. Sometimes I come out and watch”, said the river turtle.

The Eastern Water Dragons, who hadn’t heard the little turtle climb out of the water behind him, jumped with surprise! One of them fell into the river with a great splash by mistake. “Hey! You startled us! You are one stealthy river turtle, do you know that? We’re going to go play do you want to come?”

Pingin shook his head and said “I’ll watch from here.” He tucked his head into his shell, so he could only just peek out, tucked in his feet too and made himself look like a rock.

“That’s a neat trick too,” said the Eastern Water Dragons appreciatively.

Pingin watched as the Eastern Water Dragons ran up on to a tree branch overhanging on the riverbank, the tips of its twigs dipping below the high tide. The quick lizards didn’t stop, though! They kept running along the branch and diving off the end into the river with hardly a splash, tucking their legs flat beside their bodies as they smoothly swam back to the river’s edge.

“That was a great dive” said Pingin, “I hardly heard you enter the water! If I hadn’t seen you, I might never know where you disappeared to!”

“It’s so fun!” replied the water dragons, “have a go!”

“I’ll just watch from here right now,” replied Pingin.

The next day Pingin was swimming about in the river, popping up to take a breath and then sinking down again for a swim. Sometimes he stayed with his nose above the water, looking about at what all the other river creatures were up to. Sometimes he’d follow a dragonfly as it flitted about the surface of the water, or a school of small fish through the weeds growing through the rocks on the riverbed. At this moment, Pingin was following two dragonflies, watching as they danced together, landing here and there. He climbed out, ever so slowly, on to the overhanging branch to get a better look.

Pingin crept down the branch, sneaking up to the dragonflies. He stuck out his neck slowly, as long as it could go, to see if he could snap them out of the air for a little treat, however in leaning forward, he overbalanced and tumbled into the water with a splash!

“Yeah!” cheered the Eastern Water Dragons, who had just shown up. “Did you see that dive? We knew you could do it! Missed the dragonflies though, little turtle.”

Pingin grinned to himself. It was fun to dive off the branch.

The Eastern Water Dragons thought it was fun too, and admired the way the turtle had crept up behind the dragonflies, “You are so stealthy, little turtle, when you crept up on to that log – you are like a ninja! But you have to work on that splash. We totally heard you dive. Hey! Here’s an idea! You teach us to ninja-creep and we’ll teach you how to ninja-dive. You can teach us that looking-like-a-rock trick too. We’ll do our ninja training together!”

“All right,” said Pingin. Together Pingin and the Eastern Water Dragons practiced creeping, diving and camouflaging until, before long, they were sneaking up behind all the river creatures and giving them a surprise. No one ever knew where they would find Pingin and his Easter Water Dragon friends next, and soon they were known all about as the River Ninjas.