Learning empathy and respect through play

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Kristin Webster was recently awarded with the province’s 2016 Child Care Awards of Excellence in the Innovation category.

At the south end of UBC’s Vancouver campus, young minds are learning about environmental sustainability, social justice, and exploration of indigenous place.

Yet in this case, it’s not university students who are doing the learning.

Instead, it’s children – between 16 months and 5 years of age – at the Salal mixed-age daycare run by UBC’s Kristin Webster and her team.

“We’re teaching children the value of taking care of this world and everyone in it,” says Kristin, a long-time early childhood educator who joined UBC in 2002. Since then, she and her colleagues at UBC Child Care Services have been shifting the misconception of childcare as simply supervised play.

And their efforts are making a big impact.

Kristin was recently awarded with the province’s 2016 Child Care Awards of Excellence in the Innovation category. The award recognizes her work teaching the children in her care about Canada’s residential schools and exploration of indigenous place, with a view to how indigenous education can help promote reconciliation.

For Kristin and her colleagues, the award is a reminder of the critical role they play in a child’s development.

“Whether we’re talking about residential schools, or the importance of taking care of the Earth, it’s about allowing the children to engage their curiosity and explore concepts of right and wrong,” says Kristin. “The younger we teach them these concepts, the easier it is for them to integrate them into their lives later on.”

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Story time is one of the ways the children at Salal engage their curiosity and explore concepts of right and wrong.

Exploration happens through play – typically story time, role-play, or guided walks through the forest; however, Kristin emphasizes the need to take great care when covering complex topics with this age group. The depth of discussion is kept age-appropriate, and the youngest children in the group won’t yet learn about topics beyond their grasp, such as residential schools. “It’s just about starting the conversation once they’re ready,” says Kristin.

Kristin has always brought passion for social justice into her work, but two years ago she experienced an awakening when she took a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), Reconciliation through Indigenous Education, offered through UBC’s Faculty of Education.

“When I took the course, my mind opened up to a whole different part of me,” Kristin explains. As a result, she’s been better equipped to pair her interests in Aboriginal studies and human rights with her work at Salal. What’s most incredible about this, she says, is seeing the children develop their sense of empathy for others along with a respect for the natural environment.

Parents have similarly expressed positive feelings towards the Salal program.

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“We’ve got parents who are brilliant, who are faculty here at UBC – in Forestry, in Biological Sciences – and they’re so excited their kids are in this program,” notes Kristin. “The parents say things like, ‘when I go into the forest I can talk to my child about what I do for work, and they get it.’”

So what’s next for Kristin? “Next year, I’ll begin my Early Childhood Education degree,” she reveals, noting her intention to eventually pursue a master’s degree at UBC.

Kristin states that ultimately, her vision is to shape a new generation of young people who will make positive change in social and environmental policy. “I’m hoping that this little bit of work that I do will help create a better world, and a better future.”