Interview with Childspace founders, Robin & Toni Christie
“Teachers respect children by allowing them to take ownership of their learning.”
Toni Christie, Childspace
Childspace stands out as as thought leader and relentless innovator in the New Zealand early childhood sector. Educa recently had the privilege of interviewing the Chlidspace founders, husband and wife team Toni and Robin Christie.
Toni and Robin are renowned early childhood trainers and owners of Childspace Early Childhood Institute in Wellington, New Zealand. Toni and Robin speak at workshops and institutes worldwide on the benefits of a pro-risk educational philosophy. They also own four early childhood centres and have been part of the Educa family since Educa’s inception in 2011.
Toni and Robin opened their first child care centre in 1994. They pooled student loans to buy a villa in Wellington and converted it into a child care center. They created an environment in which children feel respected and free to explore their environment.
And so began Toni Christie’s phenomenal career as an early educator, thought leader, international keynote speaker, magazine editor, and teacher of teachers.
Similarly Robin Christie, holding degrees in both art and early childhood education, led the way in child care environments, and participates with Toni in seminars and workshops worldwide. Their simple philosophy that children deserve respect and ownership of their learning has taken them far in the field of early childhood education.
Built on Respect for Children
The Christies found the basis of their philosophy within the theories of Hungarian pediatrician Emmi Pikler, who believed that an infant child should explore freely and without inhibition. Toni and Robin took this as the impetus for a hands-off approach, which allows the child to take risks in a safe and supported environment. In addition to the work of Pikler, Robin also references Tim Gill, a UK educator who has written extensively on the subject of risk.
“Our philosophy has always been about respecting children. We have four centres in Wellington and our whole team centers around being ‘pro risk’.”
The phrase ‘pro-risk’ refers to the concept commonly referred to as ‘challenging play.’ “Childspace believes in a home-like atmosphere in which a child can have unrestricted movement within that environment.”
Throughout the interviews, the word “respect” persists as the foundational principle guiding Toni and Robin at Childspace. While few would disagree on the importance of respect in education, some might be surprised at the direct link between respecting a child and allowing them to engage in risky and challenging activities at school.
Teachers respect children by allowing them to take ownership of their learning.
Adults are present as supporting guides, rather than instructors or inhibitors of challenging learning opportunities. Toni explained that adults often want to “save” a child and rush in to help, which ultimately restricts the child. Instead, she suggests allowing a child’s natural inclination to engage in their environment take center stage.
Nurturing Capable, Confident Learners
“Children are capable of assessing risk and enjoy pushing themselves by climbing, building and using their imagination.”
Toni says risk looks different for each child, depending on disposition and development. A toddler may observe other children engaging in play and for that child, that activity is a risk and ultimately confidence-boosting. Other children may create, design, and interact with objects in new ways, testing their understanding of their world. Children are capable of assessing risk and enjoy pushing themselves by climbing, building and using their imagination.
Children at Childspace spend a lot of time with “loose parts” rather than traditional toys. Loose parts are items like buttons and blocks that can be anything the child wants them to be.
Creating Comfortable Environments
Childspace works hard to create comfortable spaces for children. Comfortable, but with the freedom to explore their physical surroundings. This is an intentional system that allows young children to form attachments to specific caregivers.
“We practice a primary caregiving system whereby each child who comes into our place has someone special (a teacher) for them. This is a much better system for a child to form attachment bonds and be comfortable in a home away from home.”
This system also allows for educators to communicate meaningfully to parents. Parents engage when they feel the educators truly know their child.
When hiring, Childspace looks for teachers who have a genuine affinity for work with children.
“We look for teachers who have the right heart. It’s very easy to say ‘I love children,’ but what we really want to see is people who enact that… And it does take a special person for that work.”
Toni and Robin also know that in order for Childspace to be successful, their educators need to be on the same page philosophically.
Set in Green Space
Childspace has four centres, located in the greener suburbs of Wellington – Northland, Karori, Ngaio, and Wilton. Their centres all have green space around them and are close to downtown Wellington.
Childspace has always maintained the idea that they want to be small. They believe in being able to know everybody and operate like a whanau (family). “Our team is close. We have stayed together, at this size for many, many years now. We are twenty-five years old and in that time we could have expanded to have hundreds of centres. But it was never our mission of our vision to do that. We wanted to set a bar for quality and keep raising that bar.”
Despite this small school approach to education, Childspace is developing a forest school on ten acres of land outside the city limits. In this setting, young children will have an opportunity to interact with a wider scope of nature, not confined to the typical size of a backyard lot available to them in suburban Wellington. Toni envisions a fluid indoor-outdoor play space that will allow children to interact with farm animals and explore the surrounding woods.
Community and Technology
“The problem Educa really solves is receiving input from parents and getting information to parents.”
Regarding Educa, Toni explained “We have been with Educa since its inception. The creator of Educa, Nathan Li, came to us and said – ‘will you help me develop it?’ So we were on board right from the beginning.”
“In our mind it was always going to solve a lot of problems for us. We had paper-based and manual systems . There were issues for us around the amount of time our team was spending on documentation and parent communication. The problem it really solves is receiving input from parents and getting information to parents.”
One of the many positive attributes of Educa is its ability to build community and boost parent engagement.
“We have a neat community of parents, but they are very busy people. We can find it hard to engage with them. That’s one of the reasons why we use Educa. It helps us to engage with our parents and get their feedback when we put learning stories online.”
Reaching Extended Families
In addition, the Childspace community is wonderfully international, enrolling children from families employed at a variety of embassies in Wellington. As a result, learning stories provide a platform for immediate and extended families to connect with their children. ”With Educa we can get grandparents in Scotland to look at learning stories here in Aotearoa New Zealand and that’s pretty special.”
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Educa provides an easy way for Childspace to communicate their philosophy and methodology to their parents and the community. The Educa’s message board feature provides them with an ideal platform for announcements, hosting parent discussions, and communicating new initiatives. For busy parents, the message board is a vital link to the centre and their child.