Supporting learning in Wakathuni
In June 2011, a partnership between the University of Melbourne and Gumala Aboriginal Corporation saw the establishment of an early childhood learning centre in the Pilbara region of Western Australia.
As part of the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning’s Bower Studio program run by Dr David O’Brien, Masters students spent 10 days in the small Indigenous community of Wakathuni, designing and building an early childhood learning centre based on local needs.
Now in its fourth year, the Bower Studio gives students the opportunity to put their skills into practice by consulting with local communities in regional Australia to design and build structures that improve their built environments.
The Wakathuni project was built from four modified shipping containers, and the key, according to Dr O’Brien, was to make the process a highly consultative one.
“We go on site making sure the project is open-ended, and that the finessing of the design is done on site when the locals are around, so that there is a sense of ownership and they are part of the decision-making at that time of the process as well,” Dr O’Brien says.
According to Dr O’Brien, these consultations with the community helped the students better understand community needs, how they live, and how they use space during different times of the year.
As part of its design, the walls of the early learning centre were coated with fake grass by Dr O’Brien and the students, as they wanted to make the space more tactile for the community.
“One of the reasons we chose grass is that you hardly come across any in a desert community like Wakathuni. We’re interested in demonstrating the multi-faceted reasons architects might choose a material,” he says.
The centre is a collaborative project between the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning and the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, who worked together to create a space that can be used to implement a new educational model for early childhood learning.
The model, known as the Abecedarian approach, is led by Professor Collette Tayler, Professor Joseph Sparling and Julie Barton from the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, and the Abecedarian Approach Australia (3A) project team.
The Abecedarian approach is a set of evidenced-based early childhood learning and teaching strategies developed and tested over 30 years, to improve the academic achievements of children from at-risk and under-resourced backgrounds.
“The approach was chosen because there is over 30 years of longitudinal research demonstrating its long-term effectiveness,” Professor Tayler says.
“Kids exposed to this program attain a substantial cognitive and development advantage over those who don’t,” says Ms Barton, Abecedarian Approach Australia Project Co-ordinator.
While the Abecedarian approach is not a curriculum in itself, it can be used in conjunction with many existing curricula.
The approach involves learning games, conversational reading, prioritising language and enriched care-giving.
“When I last visited the site in May 2012 it was exciting to see how much the community was enjoying and using the space,” Professor Tayler says, and Ms Barton says the local kids and parents are actively participating in educational and social activities at the Studio with their families and early childhood teachers from Tom Price Primary School.
Ms Barton also says as part of maintaining the frequency and sustainability of the program, teachers from the local school are working with parents and the community on ways they can use the approach themselves with the children when they are at home.
“It was exciting to see that community members have now been employed as staff, and are using the approach with great success,” she says.
“You don’t need a degree to use the approach. The idea is for teachers to eventually release the program to parents and community members, and in two years’ time we hope to hand over the running of the centre to the community.”