Sea turtles, Sea Shepherd and the children of Salamander: Sustainability in Action
For early childhood teacher Rosan Organ the world surrounding the service she works in – Salamander Childcare Centre in a regional coastal town around 2.5 hours from Sydney – is the best classroom she has access to.
The world within and outside the service is filled with opportunities to connect with Country, practice sustainable thinking, and encourage children to see themselves as citizens of their community, with the power to make a difference.
Being a coastal community, the area surrounding the service is blessed with beautiful beaches, around which much of community life centres.
At Salamander, Ms Organ works with 22 children directly in her connection group, as part of a broader class of 41. There are 26 children in the care of the preschool educators on any given day. She has been fortunate enough to be with the same cohort for two years, creating space and time for meaningful exploration and inquiry.
Within her preschool room, there are two connection groups, allowing educators to engage with children in a variety of learning experiences which are holistic and co-constructed.
We recently heard about her work with Sea Shepherd, an international, non-profit marine conservation organisation that campaigns to defend, conserve and protect the world’s ocean, and reached out to learn more about the ocean sustainability project being run by the service.
Ecological theory prompts deeper exploration
In 2022, Ms Organ’s connection group was, ironically enough, exploring the concept of connection and belonging, both within the context of the service, and also to the broader community through an ecological theory lens.
“As we ebbed and flowed with developing a strong sense of belonging within our space, we started delving into respecting our space,” she explained.
“We started exploring how we can look after our space including our room, resources and playground through reading a book called ‘Respect and Take Care of Things’
“Reading this story led into a discussion about respecting our environment and putting rubbish in the bin because it ends up in many different places such as the ocean,” she continued.
From here, the children’s interest in their local area was piqued with the introduction of another story – Duffy’s Lucky Escape by Ellie Jackson and illustrated by local artist Liz Oldmeadow.
The story shares what happens when Duffy, a sea turtle, mistakes a plastic bag for a jellyfish, and ends up needing to be rescued, rehabilitated and released.
This, Ms Organ explained, was the moment the potential for a deep learning project emerged.
Think global, act local
“The children were hooked and invested in both learning about sea turtles and how we can help clean up our local environment,” she said.
“We started within the context of our space picking rubbish up both within the yard and the surrounding bush space. The educators wanted to make a connection between how the rubbish ends up in the waterways and we engaged in inquiry-based STEM experiences. We looked at our local waterways maps and used bamboo piping to represent these waterways and learnt how the rubbish travels to the ocean.”
Children soon took their passion and learning home, and parents shared that children were requesting they stop while driving to pick up rubbish because otherwise Duffy and the other sea animals might eat it.
The project steadily progressed, involving many hands-on experiences such as science experiments to learn about floating turtle syndrome, and transient art where the narrative of Duffy and the sea animals was a core feature.
Educators and teachers created puppet shows where children were encouraged to create a story, many of which included a problem such as turtle eating a plastic bag and a resolution; where many of them were able to ‘rescue’ the turtle.
“We branched out into the community recycling soft plastics every week until the redcycle project was ceased, where the staff at Woolworths every week came out and spoke to the children thanking them for doing their part for the environment,” Ms Organ continued.
Duffy sparks a movement
Educators continued to research and collaborate, wondering where to take the strong interest which was emerging in relation to ocean conservation.
There was an ‘adopt a sea animal’ program in Western Australia, and the educators also deepened community connections by making contact with a group called Plastic Free Port Stephens who make reusable water bottles, which lead the service on a more entrepreneurial path.
“The children began the marketing campaign making signs, advertising and selling water bottles…making enough money to adopt two animals,” Ms Organ said.
“As part of the adoption process, we received a certificate about the animal and a plush animal. We created a take home bag with Duffy the turtle and Cracker the dolphin, a story book and sustainability journal for families to share their sustainability adventures.”
A recycling project was also introduced to the service, which invited families to bring in some common household items which typically don’t get recycled – bread tags, plastic bottles and old textas.
Ms Organ leaned into the close collaboration between her and the service’s Educational Leader, Natalie Youd, exploring many possibilities to advocate and spread the ocean sustainability message.
Sea Shelter brings local connection
Ms Youd made contact with Sea Shelter, a local ocean conservation group who came out to speak to the children and share their work.
“We also began to see more family involvement as families sent in photos of their children removing rubbish from the waterways during their weekend activities, such as while boating, deeply enriching our project,” Ms Organ shared.
As the deep learning continued the children transferred their knowledge to all facets of their play with rescuing, rehabilitating and releasing sea animals as their main play narrative, which also began to diversify into different kinds of pollution such as oil spills.
“We set up a conceptual playworld engaging as marine biologists who had encountered an oil spill in the ocean and exploring seabins where the children were invited to make them out of lego and plastic netting and test how much rubbish they could collect. We have also begun creating a lifesize turtle sculpture inspired by Ghost net art using an old crab pot, wire mesh and recycled fruit and vegetable netting bags with one of our parents who is an art teacher, with the aim to either donate to or use to raise funds for a local conservation facility.”
“Every month at our room meetings we do a brain dump of all our ideas and directions the project could go and we dream big,” Ms Organ said.
“We started thinking further than our backyard and made contact with Sea Shepherd Newcastle, who to our surprise were more than happy to volunteer their services even though they were not local. We brainstormed what we wanted that to look like and suggested a beach clean up, which they were happy to organise with us.”
While liaising with Sea Shepherd, the Salamander team remained in touch with their other contacts, including Sea Shelter, through whom they learnt about an upcoming sea turtle release for sea turtle called Beryl.
On the day of Beryl’s release Ms Organ, Ms Youd, and service director Dan Freeman, along with educator Sally, were present, recording footage to share with the children.
“Beryl resonated with the children as she was a green sea turtle just like Duffy,” Ms Organ said. Beryl was released with a tracker that required significant funding and the children sprung into action fundraising more products from Plastic Free Port Stephens raising $111.50 towards the ongoing tracking costs.
“We began to plot Beryl’s journey on our map, wrote a letter to Sea Shelter to find out more information and made a ‘cheque’ to give them to go towards her ongoing costs,” Ms Organ shared.
“This hand delivered letter and cheque prompted Sea Shelter to return to the centre to answer all of the children’s questions,” she continued. “The children were able to see (and in some cases try) some freshly picked local delicacies Beryl would be eating such as seagrass, kelp and Neptune’s necklace.”
Working through logistics
In the meantime Ms Youd was coordinating the beach clean up, going back and forth between Sea Shepherd and the local council as there were some restrictions surrounding where the clean up could be conducted and how many could partake before it became an event.
“Sea Shepherd volunteered to not only participate in the beach clean up but to also come into the centre on the day prior to talk to the children, which helped to generate more excitement about the beach clean up,” Ms Organ explained.
“When we arrived at the beach we were given some safety instructions and began the clean up, which for a beach that looked clean there was surprisingly a lot of rubbish. Everyone worked hard for over an hour picking up rubbish both in the sand and along the shoreline where the tide comes in. We all tipped our rubbish onto a tarp and the children assisted sorting into tubs to be weighed and reported to the marine debris team. We all remarked about the amount of, and types of rubbish found on a seemingly clean beach, even the Sea Shepherd team.”
“This beach clean up has springboarded our next idea, once the official weights are recorded and sent to us we will be campaigning our local council to organise more beach clean ups,” Ms Organ said.
“The children continue to amaze me every day with their knowledge and passion about ocean sustainability. This sustainability project is just part of the larger sustainability picture at our service. We have compost bins, recycling bins, the banish program, return and earn cans and have held workshops for parents such as making beeswax wraps.”
Sharing the learning
Ms Youd and Ms Organ will come to Adelaide in October to present a poster presentation about the project at the Early Childhood Australia national conference, and have generously shared the following ten tips to support others who wish to embark on project based learning:
The aha moment– You will know when that moment happens, you can’t force it, it will and needs to be organic and authentic. This is when you know that an idea has potential.
Dream big– we do brain dumps every month, writing down any and all ideas no matter how unrealistic they may seem.
Be prepared to pivot– You need to be flexible and responsive to the children. If the dynamic is not conducive to the planned lesson, you and the project are not a failure if you change the plan to meet the child’s needs that day.
Watch for the ebb and flow– Sometimes the project needs to pause and you may need to change direction momentarily.
Children are capable of learning about big concepts– Use correct terminology and explanations.
Be enthusiastic– Enthusiasm is contagious and helps to foster positive dispositions to learn.
You won’t know everything– Learn alongside the children, research and discover new things. Write and voice aloud your wonderings together.
Make it fun and holistic– When teaching I like to think about Gardner’s multiple intelligences, if I can incorporate as many of the intelligences into a lesson, more children will be inclined to connect with the content.
Develop a shared vision– You need to develop a deep collaborative relationship with your educational leader who can help to enrich and deepen your work.
Find your critical friend– A critical friend takes “the time to fully understand the context of your work” and the goals you are working towards. “The friend is an advocate for the success of that work” (Costa & Kallick, 1993, p. 50)
To learn more about meaningful sustainability in an early childhood context please see here.
Further information about Salamander Childcare Centre (which is in the middle of a name change, and will soon be known as Salamander Early Education Centre) please see here.
The Sector thanks Ms Organ for her time and generosity of spirit in sharing her learning so freely with others.
G8 Education launches Reconciliation Action Plan
by Freya Lucas
Bellarine kinder programs benefit from Victoria’s Bush Kinder grants
by Freya Lucas
Guardian Blackburn South fosters positivity with lucky dips and other initiatives
by Freya Lucas