Through the eyes of a child

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A Mother Duck Childcare Centre in Queensland gets a big tick from the most critical of clients: pre-school children.

Seeing the world through the eyes of a young child requires a shift in thinking. The world looks big and sometimes scary, but it’s also exciting, vibrant, colourful, and full of adventure.

The Mother Duck Childcare Centre, in Wynum, Queensland, is an award-winning building by Context Architects, but the real winners are those who use it every day: children, their parents, and childcare workers. Up to 130 children, from toddlers to kindergarten level, delight in exploring and playing in the centre’s interesting and daring spaces.

Mother Duck Childcare runs an emergent play-based curriculum underpinned by the principles and practices of the Australian Early Years Learning framework. Programs are based on the belief that children are competent and hold a natural sense of wonder and awe about the world around them. Play-based and real-life learning opportunities are planned with children’s individual strengths, interests and needs in mind.

Context Architects was chosen for its design concept that put children first. The brief included creating a home-like atmosphere to give a sense of belonging to children and their families. It was vital that this was not a traditional institutional space.

Context took Mother Duck’s values and translated them into an ‘Aussie back yard’ design concept: an extension of the home where the learning spaces extend out from the lounge onto the covered deck and into the backyard, providing the ability for caring surveillance from anywhere on site.

 

Child’s eye height

Context designed the centre from child’s eye height – literally getting on their knees and trying to think like three-year-olds was a key component of the design process.

“We had a lot of fun designing from a child’s perspective and thinking like three-year olds,” says Context MD Stephen Voyle. “Our design process is often playful, but never more so than on this project. We literally got out toys and played with them to get us in the right mind frame.”

The centre features a vibrant entrance with fish-tank reception area, individually themed rooms, a ‘Rainbow Street’ for safe indoor-outdoor play, child-height interactive features and a magical explorative playground with a diversity of height, textures, sound and colours.

Rainbow Street is a key component of the design – a flexible covered play space featuring colourful ‘homes’ that adapt easily to children’s changing activities and needs throughout the day. Rainbow Street connects all the children and classrooms and creates opportunity for exciting imaginative play and lets the children be hands on – operating doors, windows, and louvres and using the letterboxes and door numbers.

The street opens onto a magical, explorative playground with interesting and daring spaces for children to explore and play including a water park and mini-amphitheatre.

The centre is light and transparent within – so you can see what is happening in every classroom – but it is shielded from the street. “We wrapped the building around the perimeter of the site maximising space, visual protection and security, while inside along ‘Rainbow Street’, each learning space is constructed from enduring and familiar home-like materials including weather boards, board and batten and sash windows” says Voyle.

 

Belonging and safety

Having a diversity of spaces means children can play in one area while another is prepared for the next activity. Staff can see into other classrooms, bathrooms are located centrally and children can visit and see into other classrooms, creating a sense of openness and connection.

“Creating a sense of belonging for children is vitally important. If you feel like you belong, you feel safe and from this point comes growth and development. Slowing everything down is also important – children lead such busy lives and creating space to just be and play is crucial.”

Creating a home away from home delivers that vital sense of familiarity and safety. The centre features an indoor floor-to-ceiling treehouse and vibrant double height-entrance atrium with a fishtank.

Creating opportunities to connect with nature was very important. Children have lots of chances to incorporate sand, water, grass, stones and wood into their play, and experience touching and feeling these materials. The children also have the chance to care for nature and learn about and contribute to simple sustainability principles.

Creating a physically challenging environment was also really important. Research shows that children who have grown up in risk-averse environments can go on to take inappropriate risks later. Providing physically challenging play helps children learn the skill of what’s an acceptable risk and what isn’t. It teaches them the first building block on the way to managing their own choices and behavior and aids the development of physical skills and strength.

“We kept the tree in the outdoor play space for just this reason, and added multi-level decking around it to provide challenges and elements of risk,” says Voyle. “Behaviour and brain development improve when there are plenty of robust opportunities for exertion.”

The centre was heralded as one of the best examples of childcare design in the country by Minister for Childcare, Sussan Ley. “The centre is outstanding. I’ve visited several hundred centres [and] this is state-of-the-art. You walk in and you get the feeling that this is going to be a very successful and special place. You’ve designed an incredible building. What stood out to me was the homeliness of it. Everything isn’t little; there are big things too – big chairs, big floorboards – things children see in their own homes. And amount of outdoor space for children to run around is unique in city childcare.”

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