One of five-year-old Felix’s favourite spaces in his award-winning Blackfriars Children’s Centre is a castle-shaped hidey-hole just off the foyer. “We hide in here!” he exclaims, running towards it with his little brother Ari, aged two.
The childcare centre, which relocated to a new state-of-the-art building in November 2017, caters largely to the children of UTS staff and students, as well as ABC staff and some local residents The move allowed the service to expand, with 34 much-needed additional full-time equivalent places bringing the total to 84.
Felix and Ari’s mother, Vanessa Stark, is a Business Analyst with UTS’s Human Resources Unit and confirms that the pint-sized hiding spot never ceases to engage her boys. “Every afternoon when I collect them, they run up the hall and hide out in there,” she laughs. “It’s like a game, and they think it’s hilarious that grown-ups can’t really see them until they pop their heads out.”
It’s easily overlooked if you’re adult-height but, for children at the centre, it’s part of the smorgasbord of small details that stimulate curiosity, encourage ownership and inspire imagination. Elsewhere, small sculptures of frogs, snails and dragonflies prompt conversations about the natural world. Then there are the playroom doors, each brightly painted in a different colour so children know which room belongs to them, a ‘ballet bar’ where babies can develop the confidence to stand and walk, and the playroom windows with sight lines out to the street.
“The children like seeing what’s going on outside, and they watch for mum and dad coming to collect them,” says Debra Clarke, CEO of UTS Child Care Inc. The eagle-eyed youngsters are quick to speak out about what they see. “If they disapprove of something they see out on the street, they won’t hesitate to tell you what they think of that!”
Space for all
For both parents and educators, a big advantage of the new building is the way its spacious indoor and outdoor areas are working to give children richer, age-appropriate learning opportunities as well as a greater sense of autonomy and independence.
“One of the joys of the new centre is that we now have dedicated rooms for the babies, twos, threes and fours, and separate outdoor areas,” explains Debra. “It means that the pre-schoolers can get into their project work on volcanoes or NAIDOC Week activities, for example, in their own space without interruption from the toddlers. Outside, the two-year-olds can be in the garden learning about harvesting fruit and vegetables without being bowled over by the older children.
“In the old building, with everyone sharing the same spaces, we were quite restricted by having to stagger times for different age groups to do their activities.”
Out and about
As a parent, Vanessa has also noticed the difference that the new facilities make, particularly the outdoor spaces in which a shelter made of twigs and other features shape the activities that the children take part in. “They can create imaginary landscapes there, and in other areas, they’ll make an obstacle course or practise climbing or balancing,” she says. “It’s having an impact at home, too, in terms of their ability to play more independently.”
Two beloved chickens – Rosie and Sara, who made the move with the children and staff last year – rule a new roost that is easier for children to access and participate in coop-cleaning and egg-collection. For Ari, just learning to talk, the chooks are a hot topic of conversation.
“He talks about chickens and eggs because he can see those eggs that he collects going into the kitchen and then onto the plate,” says Vanessa. “The commercial kitchen with its big windows mean the children can see what’s happening and, as a result, they are also becoming interested in cooking too.”
The productive garden at the Blackfriars Children’s Centre – where everything from lettuce, carrots and celery to lemons is grown – is also encouraging the children to make braver food choices. “At Bunnings the other day, we were restocking our home vegetable garden and Felix actually chose Brussels sprouts because he’d never tried them before,” laughs Vanessa.
Recognition and reward
With its bright airy spaces and development opportunities, the purpose-designed centre isn’t just a hit with kids and parents. It was also recently recognised at the Australian Institute of Architects’ 2018 NSW Architecture Awards.
“I was really chuffed with the award,” Debra says. “We now have a lot of architect parents on our waiting list!”
The Australian Children's Education & Care Quality Authority (ACECQA) was similarly impressed with the new Blackfriars Children’s Centre, rating the facility as ‘exceeding standards’ during a recent assessment. It’s a just reward for all the work that the team invested in the centre’s education program during the months following their move to the new building.
“I’m really thankful to have my kids at the centre because of the teaching standards,” Vanessa says. “The centre has always been best practice. What has changed is that the physical environment now reflects the quality of the teaching.”