Castle and Cubby owner, dad and chief onsite DIYer Jonathan Stones talks with Tim Bleakley, Principal of St Finbarr's Primary School, Byron Bay about their brand new Tiny Town design, the importance of this to the community and the invaluable impact this will bring to learning.
Tim, what made our play spaces appealing to St. Finbarr's?
What first attracted us to Castle and Cubby was that we had been on a three year journey researching play-based learning in our early years - the transitions from preschool and early childhood to primary school. The play-based learning research we had done was the message - get the children out of the classroom and use a learning environment outside. The current space at the school cried out for imagination, creativity, and the more we spoke about it with staff and with parents, they were on board with the project.
How did the school community respond to the suggestion of investing in this space?
Talking to the parents, getting their ideas, opinions was an easy process and then probably the most important was having a parent evening. At this initial meeting the Castle and Cubby owner Jonathan did a fantastic job. The software that he used was fantastic because parents could actually visualise what it was going to look like - such an important element. We could really experience and understand what was being offered. The teachers were already aware that the children were using their imagination in play-based learning; they were creating doctor surgeries and vets and cafes. The beautiful school that we have here and with the area that we have, it just cried out for growing our outdoor learning space. I really felt - let's get these children out! Let's get them some equipment where they can use their imagination, be creative and that ties in with their reading and writing. That's what it's all about- learning and engaging the students. I can't wait for them to come and see what is on offer here because I know their eyes will be popping out of their heads.
“We had a vision and we worked through with Castle and Cubby. When I look around, I believe we've got that. I can't wait for the excitement that I see on children's faces. I see it sporadically at school when they're rushing out to play in the nature area or to play basketball and so forth. But I know this Tiny Town project is going to see them rushing out with the big aha moment and this is going to be with us for a long time.”
– Tim Bleakley
How did the teachers respond to the idea of the new space?
The teachers' response was fantastic because some of them had seen the play space at the Newrybar Village, Newrybar and knew this was a Castle and Cubby project. They were familiar with the product because of this and they knew what the children were looking for based on what they saw in the playground - the children were starting to make their own. We had some old desks, chairs and old cupboards and the children were putting these together to make little general stores even with such limited resources!
How did you find the process?
I found the process so supportive and communication with Castle and Cubby top notch. Whenever there was a discussion over colors, dates, parent involvement, it was a quick phone call. They easily worked with the school time table and it's been fantastic. Everything down to the organization of the parent evening and always adapting with parent recommendations. It was so easy to make modifications even as we got into the project. The communication has been fantastic for the whole journey.
How did you go about choosing a location for the cubby village?
The choice of a location was really important. So we decided to use space right between the kinder classrooms and the year one where the focus is on early learning. We had a sandpit that needed upgrading and had an old veggie garden that was unloved. It was all crying out for a makeover. We have a nature play area that's very popular and will continue to be popular, so we built on this. There's more and more for our students to do. Not everyone wants to kick a soccer ball or play a game of cricket or be on the basketball court. This space allows for those children who want some quiet space where they can work individually or work in a group.
Being next to the kinders and year ones is perfect, as the first hour of the day in both those classrooms is play-based learning and the classroom doors are open. A teacher can move between the inside and outdoor space.
What sort of engagement in the area were you looking to inspire here?
When I look around, I get so excited knowing that our students are going to be learning from this play. That's a big one for us here at St. Finbarr's - play equals learning and learning equals play. We know that that hour is so vital for student learning and they're learning to work as a team. They're building resilience when things don't go right, they're collaborating. We had a group last year who were doing fundraising for save the koalas. I can just imagine that rolling on into the vet area and what they'll be using to stimulate that imagination. But that's what excites me most. The children are going to be running out at lunchtime and continuing where they left off. The other idea is that it's not up for us teachers to come up with the rules, they'll develop those themselves. They'll develop some guidelines about what's working, what's not, how we can share the equipment and I think sometimes we underestimate what children can come up with when given that freedom. They're not always looking for an adult to come in over the top and make up those rules for them. They're more authentic if they come straight from the children, from their own experiences. And they're usually pretty good at sorting them out!
Can you see benefits just for the year threes and under, or is this for a whole school project for you?
Right from the start I can really see the benefit for all students at St. Finbarr's. Initially the idea was that the space was for the early years. As the older year teachers and the students engage in this play activity, their play becomes more sophisticated. The learning is so valuable and I can see the benefit it brings to the older years as well. Hands-on based activities are so important. Traditionally we would get worksheets that said “if you had 20 cookies and you sold them at 50 cents each '' these students are going to be living and breathing those activities without a boring worksheet. With the new Castle and Cubby project I can see the science, health aspect and watching the seedlings grow into produce all from this play space. I know our parents are very excited about it already. We are already looking at setting up little stalls as their parents drive in and drive out of an afternoon. We've got some fantastic learning ideas that we could really develop and both the senior teachers and students are super excited about it as well.
How has the end product matched your expectations?
I love the fact that our parents were involved in the process and it was a fantastic working bee day involving the whole community. There was so much enthusiasm and excitement. They've seen it grow from an old patch of rundown garden and a half a sandpit to what it is now. The finished product is completely sustainable and of the highest quality. I’m so proud of something we’ve invested in, that has been built to last and that’s what I wanted. I love the brightness and the colors, this will really appeal to the children. I love the fact that it's got St. Finbarr's on the signs and I can see more building onto this. This could be step one for us. It's a tiny town that could turn into a big city. You could use that in your marketing? Castle and Cubby Big City!
Click on the play button to watch the Tiny Town community project!