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Interview: childcare veteran Val Morrison

Flagstaff Team

Voice of experience… Val Morrison’s thinking is backed by research that points to small centres having better outcomes for children

Since Val Morrison founded her award-winning early-childhood centre in the 1980s, large-scale pre-school operations have become the industry norm. She tells Helen Vause why small is still beautiful.

It’s nearly 40 years ago that Val Morrison established early-childhood education centre Small is Beautiful, with just a handful of foundation pupils at her home in Stanley Point.

This year, Devonport’s longest-standing early-childhood operation has picked up a Centre of Excellence award for the third year in a row from the sector’s national professional body, Child Forum.

And owner-operator Morrison is proud to take her place this month amongst presenters at the forum’s annual summit, to tell others about the tricks and trials of ‘Operating on a Small and Personal Scale’ at a centre that’s so highly rated by local parents and professionals in the sector.

Now in her early 70s, Morrison runs one of the very few small operations still in business.

When she started in the 1980s, there were seven small centres run by owner-operators in private homes in Devonport. All but two have closed and the early-childhood education/daycare picture is very different. The last decade has seen big-brand companies opening centres licensed for well over 100 children, who are then organised into smaller groupings to cater for different needs and ages.

It’s a trend Morrison laments and one she says runs counter to the research that shows that small is indeed beautiful, or at least preferable – even if the economics make the viability of little centres no longer attractive to owners.

“Research points to small centres having better outcomes for children,” says Morrison, who is very aware she’s one of a dying breed, even though her thinking is supported by many peers and parents.

Her presentation to the summit was based on a familiar theme: “We need government to regulate for much, much smaller centres, to fund in a way that recognises that 0–5 years is the most important phase in brain development and to accept only the most suitable trainees to teach them.

“We need these graduates to be so well prepared to teach that the powers that be actually leave them alone to focus on teaching, rather than having to produce a blizzard of paper for inspection.”

Job satisfaction at the quality of what they’re providing for young children has to offer some comfort in the face of the low wages that small operations offer teachers, she says.

In a small centre like Morrison’s, teachers can work exclusively with small groups or engage one-on-one with children as needed in a quiet, unhurried environment.

“Staff are relaxed, engaged and observant. There is the sound of happy conversation, and unhappy children can be given the support they need.

“Teachers tell me that they know every child at a deep level and that this extends to family circumstances too. They really get to know their families.”

Small is Beautiful is licensed for a maximum of 20 children aged from two to five years. Sessions run every morning until after lunch. A maximum of six in the group stay through until three in the afternoon.

Three teachers are employed at the centre, with daily input from Morrison. And although she’s not as hands-on these days, she says the passion for the job hasn’t dulled.

“It’s my dream to see small centres like this dotted around our communities in New Zealand.”

Children from at least 250 local families have started their preschool days at Small is Beautiful. And among the parents walking up the path in the morning, there are some who have memories of being there as small children themselves. They’ve climbed the frames under the same big tree, played in the sandpit and probably listened to some of the same stories too. They remember ‘Vals school’ as a happy little place.

“It’s just so affirming of course to have my alumni now bringing their own children here. It’s lovely to see them and to know they have such good memories and faith in us. Of course I remember them all.

“It’s being part of a circle of life and part of the heart of this community. Some of those parents of course made their first childhood friends here, and now, as part of our widespread alumni and family network, they’re making new family friends as well, through their children. My families have a very supportive community, and of course we are proud to be part of that.”

Morrison is the trusted keeper of a few family secrets, but says the decades have been remarkably mishap- and drama-free.

On a typical day it’s a happy scene, where life just hums along. The worst that seems to have happened is the accidental escape of a bunch of bees in the music room.

“The childhood I value is unhurried and very simple, with the opportunity to play with others. It should be a childhood where there is the time for children to learn how to relate to others at their own pace and to learn resilience and problem-solving.”

Or, on another occasion, a potential drama unfolded when three small boys, who tended to lurk outdoors to avoid tidy-up time, hatched a plan. When the tidy-up call came, they obediently raced indoors, seemingly to help, but after a headcount revealed their absence, were encountered halfway to freedom through a low back window. There’s always a first time, says Morrison, but that window is now more tightly secured to prevent any further attempts.

Whilst she’s earned the gravitas that comes with decades in the business, Morrison says kids haven’t changed at all.

Their lunchboxes are different though. She is now seeing some very healthy lunchboxes, which reflects growing awareness among parents about making careful food choices for children.

She notes that mothers today are a different breed today than those in her early cohorts. “Women everywhere are under much more pressure at this time of their lives to work when their children are little. And there is also an expectation that they will be taking children to many more structured activities. It adds up to much more stress.

“In times when families had one car, you’d see mothers out strolling locally with pushchairs and young children. Now the children are much more often buckled into car seats, being taken somewhere to some activity.”

Morrison wonders how much this shift matters and whether or not kids today are less fit and agile because they’re spending more time in cars.

She says she’s very pleased to see current research making parents aware of the importance of unstructured free time for young children and the value of imaginative play.

“The childhood I value is unhurried and very simple, with the opportunity to play with others. It should be a childhood where there is the time for children to learn how to relate to others at their own pace and to learn resilience and problem-solving.”

Morrison is pleased to point out that there are no screens among the equipment and resources at the centre – despite some pressure to incorporate technology for the kids.

“I am confident I did the right thing in not introducing screens here. There is already more than enough of value for a child to be doing here. Why would you put them in front of a screen when they are deeply involved in imaginative play, or in a group game where they are learning to take turns or when they are climbing a tree and learning from all the skill that calls for?”

She is full of encouragement for young colleagues and those considering a career in early childhood education, citing the job satisfaction – plus a willingness to put up with low wages.

For Morrison, it’s been a dream career spanning half a century since she started teaching in South Africa, and continuing when she emigrated with her husband to Sydney.

From her teen years, she’d often imagined that once she had her own children she would set up her own preschool, thereby combining her love for parenting and teaching under one roof.

The family moved to Devonport where a great-uncle had once been a butcher’s boy, and Morrison saw the chance to realise her dream, opening her doors to local under-fives in 1981.

She says she has loved every full-on day of it. At this stage she says she has no plans to retire – maybe she’ll think about just pulling back a little, leaving space for others to step up.

“My frame will probably give up before my spirit does,” she laughs.

This article originally appeared in the May 31 edition of The Devonport Flagstaff. Download PDF.