2020 Victorian Early Years Awards Finalists

Congratulations to the finalists in the 2020 Victorian Early Years Awards. Winners will be announced on Wednesday 25 November 2020.

Category 1: Improving Access and Participation in Early Learning

Awarded for an initiative that promotes access, ongoing participation and engagement in early learning, particularly for families experiencing vulnerability and/or disadvantage.

Balee Koolin Bupup Bush Playgroup – Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria

Balee Koolin Bupup Bush Playgroup is a place-based early childhood program that is promoting access and ongoing participation in early learning for local Aboriginal children and families in the South-East Metropolitan Region. The program provides weekly playgroup sessions in the Cranbourne Botanic Gardens bushland, creating a safe environment to develop cultural identity and connection.

A partnership between Casey Cardinia Libraries, Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria and the Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages, the playgroup is co-facilitated by the Aboriginal educator from the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria Cranbourne and the Casey Cardinia Libraries, with oversight from local Elders to ensure the program is culturally guided.

The Victorian Early Years Development and Learning Framework and the Possum Skin Cloak Pedagogy supports the initiative and to embed culture into practice. Each week, bush playgroup participants engage in a series of play and nature-based activities involving Aboriginal storytelling, bush exploration, song, traditional dance and music, and the learning of the local Aboriginal language and culture – Boonwurrung.

In partnership with Aunty Fay Stewart-Muir (Victorian Aboriginal Corporation of Languages) and Casey Cardinia Libraries

Curious Young Minds Early STEM Literacy Program – Ardoch

Ardoch’s Curious Young Minds Early STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Medicine) Literacy Program is an initiative developed with the support of Deakin University to improve literacy and learning outcomes for children in their early years. The program is evidencing real success in the development of children’s STEM literacy and skills and is creating greater access and participation in early learning, particularly for children experiencing vulnerability or disadvantage.

The Curious Young Minds program aligns with the engineering, designing and making aspects of the Victorian Early Years Learning and Development Framework curriculum. Sustainable resource kits that encourage creative play and inquiry-based learning are introduced to early years centres by trained volunteers.

Since starting in 2017, the Curious Young Minds program has been delivered to 39 early years centres across Victoria, reached 1176 children (aged 3-5), mobilised 98 trained volunteers and significantly lifted children’s STEM literacy levels and outcomes.

Special Kindergarten Program – Royal Children’s Hospital Education Institute

In April 2013, the Royal Children’s Hospital Education Institute (RCHEI) introduced a funded kindergarten inpatient program at the Royal Children’s Hospital, facilitating their engagement in early learning for four-year old children hospitalised due to illness, injury, or for children experiencing disadvantage and adversity.

In partnership with families, enrolled kindergarten programs, hospital medical and paramedical staff and cultural organisations, the program is continuing to provide high-quality learning opportunities to children who have limited to no access to community kindergarten settings due to ill-health, vulnerability, disadvantage or hospitalisation.

With challenges presented by coronavirus (COVID-19), the program adapted to become completely virtual. Two highly skilled early years educators are committed to implementing an all-encompassing virtual learning environment and ensuring that children and families feel adequately equipped to access the online early years content. Uploading daily lessons and activities designed to encourage self-discovery, the program is nurturing children’s autonomy and wellbeing, and decreasing isolation issues for many children and families – both in the community and while in hospital.

The RCHEI Special Kindergarten Program is improving access to education and the participation of children in hospital and post discharge by supporting early learners and their families during and after their hospital experience.

Category 2: Supporting Parents to Build their Capacity and Confidence

Awarded for an initiative that supports families, parents and carers to feel confident and capable in their parenting role, and recognises their role as the first and most important teachers in supporting their child’s learning and development.

The Babes Project

Since 2009, The Babes Project has been successfully supporting vulnerable women through pregnancy and early parenting (perinatal period) as they face challenging circumstances that include family breakdown, domestic and family violence and trauma, homelessness, addiction, isolation and mental health issues.

Alongside the app, The Babes Project’s National Triage Service extends core face-to-face operations, offering national access to their Perinatal Support Program.

The free Perinatal Support Program supports women facing overwhelm, fear, disconnect from community and services, and stress. With input from a multidisciplinary team, the program responds to gaps in health care and community services. The program also includes workshops for financial literacy and budgeting, food and wellbeing, cooking and nutrition, newborn care, and paediatric first aid. They also work with clients to promote engagement in work, education or other community services.

Combined with social enterprise initiatives, including a recently launched birth preparation e-course and mama-life journal, they are further empowering women, regardless of their circumstance, to nurture safe and secure children.

In partnership with Tooshies by TOM

Caring Mums

The Caring Mums program is a confidential, non-denominational and free service providing emotional support to pregnant women and mothers of newborn babies.

Offering a holistic approach in the field of child development, the program is addressing the needs of not only the child, but the emotional and physical wellbeing of the mother.

Caring Mums was officially launched in 2012 with 27 mums and 24 volunteers. Since then, they have responded to more than 500 mothers and trained over 140 volunteers. Volunteers come from a range of backgrounds and from a broad age range. As experienced mothers themselves, the program’s volunteers bring validation, encouragement and normalisation to a woman’s experience of pregnancy and early motherhood.

In 2017, an external evaluation of Caring Mums clearly demonstrated that women who participated in the program have decreased feelings of depression, isolation and anxiety, and increased confidence in their parenting skills – outcomes that lead to the greater empowerment of women and a healthier environment in which children can develop.

Zoe Support Australia Early Years Program

Since 2013, Zoe Support Australia has provided wraparound, place-based support to young mothers (aged 13-25) in the Mildura community. Successfully breaking cycles of welfare-dependence and increasing parent-child attachment, they are significantly improving educational and employment outcomes for their clients.

Zoe Support Australia was initiated after extensive research found that removing barriers to education for young mothers and offering a wraparound service within one organisation was more effective at achieving positive outcomes than many existing programs on offer for young mothers.

Family Day Care and Playgroup are offered at three of four Zoe Centres. Located in an educational precinct close to two local high schools, mothers can work towards educational and employment goals while continuing to spend time with their children, building important parent-child attachment.

In 2019-2020, Zoe Support Australia had 60 clients with 88 children and saw 50 percent of clients enrolled in pre-accredited courses, 68 percent attending other programs (such as Playgroup), and 40 percent enrolled in accredited education, ensuring brighter futures for mothers and their children.

In partnership with Mildura City Council Family Day Care

Category 3: Creating Collaborative Community Partnerships

Awarded for an initiative that promotes collaborative practice to support and demonstrate positive outcomes for children and families.

By Five – Wimmera Southern Mallee (WSM) Specialist Paediatric Support Partnership (SPSP)

The Wimmera Southern Mallee Specialist Paediatric Support Partnership (SPSP) is significantly improving health and wellbeing outcomes for children in the local community by embedding specialist expertise within the local primary care services that families trust and use every day.

A collaboration between local Maternal Child Health providers and the Royal Children’s Hospital, the research-based initiative ‘By Five’ responds to 2018 Australian Early Development Census data that exposed a growing gap in the school-readiness of rural children compared with urban children.

The SPSP initiative extends to over 50 health, education and family service providers working with families with children, as well as the Department of Education and Training, Department of Health and Human Services and the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute.

Everyday practice currently sees many rural children referred to specialist services for health and development issues that could be resolved locally. The SPSP’s innovative shared care initiative is successfully connecting specialist expertise with local primary health providers via digital health, improving the confidence and capacity of primary health services to solve complex care issues in partnership with families.

In partnership with Yarriambiack Shire, West Wimmera Shire, Buloke Shire Council, Horsham Rural City Council, West Wimmera Health Service, Uniting Wimmera, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and Royal Children’s Hospital.

InterG – Bubup Womindjeka Family and Children’s Centre

Many of the children who attend Bubup Womindjeka Family and Children’s Centre (BWFCC) in Port Melbourne don’t have regular contact with a grandparent or older adults.

Research cites that strong support networks, connections to community, and trusted relationships are critical to the health and wellbeing of young children. Working collaboratively with Star Health, the BWFCC initiated the inter-generational program, InterG, for the participants to foster a positive connection between the generations by engaging in a range of activities together within an early childhood setting.

Conventional intergenerational programs linking kindergarten children with aged care residents most often take place in aged-care facilities where adult-led activities form the basis of elders’ interaction with children. InterG’s innovation lies in recruiting active local and volunteer retirees through local community groups to visit with children at the BWFC centre providing children, families and staff with non-stereotypical role models of older people. The program also serves as a model of the value and importance of volunteering and connecting.

Health Promotion Officers from Star Health ensure screening and compliance with child safe policy and procedures, and centre educators help participants to experience the reciprocity and empowerment of inter-generational interaction within their local community.

In partnership with Star Health, local community and local service groups

Ready, Set, Prep!

Ready, Set, Prep! (RSP) is a collaborative community initiative improving school readiness and life outcomes for children in the culturally diverse suburb of Fawkner.

Incorporating Merri Health, Moreland City Council services (such as maternal and child health, community libraries, early years and community services, and playgroups) and kindergartens and primary schools, the RSP partnership was motivated by the 2015 Australian Early Development Census results, demonstrating that one-third of children in Fawkner start school developmentally vulnerable in one or more areas – significantly higher than state averages.

Alongside its community members, the RSP partnership is working collaboratively to change systems that exacerbate inequality and implement targeted initiatives that prepare children and families for their first year at primary school. These initiatives include facilitating small grants, a co-designed video series supporting transition to school in six languages, research projects, outreach initiatives, and the award-winning English literacy program, Word Play.

Supported by community leaders, RSP also aims to influence longer-term social norms, encouraging families to access supports for children with developmental delays earlier, improving longer-term health, wellbeing and life trajectories for Fawkner children.

In partnership with Merri Health, Moreland City Council, maternal and child health services, libraries, early years and community services, playgroups, kindergartens and primary schools in Fawkner and Northern Moreland.

Category 4: Promoting Children’s Health and Wellbeing

Awarded to an initiative that is improving health and wellbeing outcomes for young children.

Children’s Health On Time – Your Community Health

Your Community Health’s initiative, Children’s Health On Time, is enabling low-income families in North Eastern Melbourne to engage with timely, accessible and affordable health care earlier. The initiative’s early identification and intervention approach is increasing access and engagement with health and wellbeing services for vulnerable children and their families.

Children’s Health On Time is delivered by a multidisciplinary Child and Family Allied Health Services team comprising speech pathologists, occupational therapists, physiotherapists, dietitians, counsellors and podiatrists.

At first contact an appointment is offered, facilitating an ‘in the moment’ response to need, rather than deferment to a waitlist or call-back option. From this initial appointment, the family is immediately linked into health, wellbeing and community services such as playgroups, paediatricians and audiologists.

Now the standard practice model for Your Community Health’s Child and Family Allied Health Services, Children’s Health On Time’s collaborative approach is delivering options and agency for Victorian families, empowering them to actively manage their health needs within a supportive network of community healthcare providers.

Community Connections: New Directions Mothers and Babies Services Project

The Community Connections: New Directions Mothers and Babies Services Project is improving participation and access for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families to the Maternal and Child Health Key Ages and Stages Framework and primary health care and immunisation services.

Established within Greater Dandenong and extending out to the municipalities of Casey and Frankston, the project’s focus is to deliver key health, wellbeing, child development and nutrition messages to families within a community development model; while providing referral pathways to support Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander families to receive early intervention and intensive support before health and wellbeing issues arise.

Through Community Connections co-designed engagement activities, families and key health care providers have found culturally respectful ways to come together to share food, talk and share cultural and health knowledge – including publishing books about connecting to culture, producing a collaborative film supporting the ‘Ask the Question’ project, a local Maternal and Child Health flyer, and an annual community calendar promoting key health messages.

In partnership with Dandenong & Districts Aborigines Co-Operative Limited, Monash Health, City of Greater Dandenong, City of Casey and City of Frankston.

Early Years Body Safety Superstars – Body Safety Australia

Launched in 2015, Early Years Body Safety Superstars (Superstars) takes a whole-community approach to child abuse prevention, working with children, parents and educators to ensure the collective understanding and implementation of body safety for children. Through age-appropriate song, storytelling, activities and role play, children cover ten key learning objectives including Assertive Communication and Body Autonomy.

Evaluations indicate Superstars is improving outcomes for children and families by enhancing their ability to recognise and respond to inappropriate situations.

Superstars applies innovative approaches to increase a child’s ability to disclose if they have been subjected to abuse and is increasing adults’ confidence to take action in protecting children from further abuse.

Highly skilled facilitators use a trauma-informed and intersectional approach to support parents/carers to model consent and body safety practices in the home, improving the understanding and recognition of child sexual abuse and grooming behaviours.. Delivering online and in-person support for regional and rural communities, the program is reaching the most vulnerable families in the state.

Category 5: Continuity of Early Learning

Awarded to two or more early childhood services, schools and/or other organisations that support continuity of early learning through successful transitions.

Alphabeenies – Pembroke Primary School

The Alphabeenies program at Pembroke Primary School is designed to cater for families and their individual needs, particularly those with diverse language backgrounds. Providing holistic early learning for both students and their families since 2015, the Alphabeenies program is increasing successful early learner transition into school.

Drawing from the Victorian Early Years and Development Framework, the Alphabeenies program is founded in the belief that effective transitions are achieved when the child and family have a sense of belonging and acceptance. Unlike traditional school transition programs that run over a few sessions late in the year, Alphabeenies provides regular, structured sessions over a longer period so that children can gradually build their confidence and literacy skills.

Alphabeenies engages parents to help at table groups with activities they can support, regardless of their language proficiency. Teachers at Alphabeenies utilise visual and kinaesthetic approaches to support learning and the inclusion of current Foundation students in the transition program provides important peer support to early learning.

Buddy Reader Program – Leopold Child and Family Centre

In 2019, the Leopold Child and Family Centre initiated an innovative Buddy Reader Program linking the children at Jellyfish Kinder with Leopold Primary School students and the Leopold Library

Grade 5 children were buddied-up with the kindergarten children as they would go on to be their buddy in the following year at school. The program had the Grade 5 children visit the Kindergarten weekly for a session followed by a walk to the local library with their buddies. Nicknamed ‘Jellypold’ by the children, the program is easing the transition of early learners into school and making a positive impact on children and their families. As well as improving children’s literacy, a greater focus on improving relationships and wellbeing has developed – for the kindergarteners and their buddies.

In partnership with Leopold Library and Leopold Primary School

Category 6: Early Childhood Teacher of the Year

Awarded to an early childhood teacher who demonstrates evidence-based innovation and exemplary practice in early childhood education, and making a significant contribution to the development and delivery of high-quality early childhood education programs that improve learning and development outcomes for children.

Dianne Berton

Dianne Berton from Harrietville Bush Kinder believes that a living relationship with nature is critical for children’s wellbeing. Dianne structures her teaching to utilise learning outdoors using the Victorian Early Years Learning and Development Framework, and she guides children to experience nature’s positive effects on their ability to concentrate, to learn and to be creative.

Dianne has also incorporated Aboriginal culture into her teaching, and her vision to implement an innovative bush kinder program in Harrietville has inspired children to draw upon their natural curiosity and explore the pedagogy framework ‘8 Aboriginal Ways of Learning’ (8 Ways). The embedding of the local Aboriginal language and culture – Dhudhuroa – into the program is enabling children and their families to connect to country through the local bush environment. Dianne also resources natural materials for children to create and extend their learning and encourages reusing, recycling and reducing practices to promote a sustainable future.

Dianne’s leadership of the program is creating positive social, behavioural and educational outcomes for Harrietville children and their families. In all her teaching approaches, Dianne has a strong commitment to promoting the value of connecting children with the native land to enhance physical, mental, social and spiritual wellbeing. She has created a program which immerses children in nature and fostered their capacity to understand and respect the natural environment and the interdependence between people, plants, animals and the land.

Rozena Hewitt

Rozena's Hewitt is an early childhood teacher at Maroondah Pre-school who strongly believes that improvements in children’s learning occur through the building of meaningful community connections and the provision of a rich learning environment.

Growing a network of strong relationships within the pre-school and wider community, Rozena’s initiatives are engaging children through guided play as well as intentional teaching, inspiring children’s love of learning, and promoting respect for diversity.

Rozena’s innovative application of the Victorian Early Years Learning and Development Framework has resulted in the implementation of two successful programs: Auslan (Australian Sign Language) learning through the Early Childhood Language Program, as well as an inter-generational program with the residents of the local Donwood Aged Care facility.

With the initiation of these two programs Rozena is ensuring that children’s learning is extended through their everyday play and learning environment. In teaching a second language, she is deepening the children’s understanding of the deaf community and providing new opportunities for children to share and extend their expertise with families, the Donwood aged community, and at pre-school.

Kirsty Meese

A passionate advocate of the benefits of child-directed and play-based learning, Kirsty Meese from the Belgrave Heights Christian School Early Learning Centre, believes that children learn best when they connect with the natural environment and community.

A strong advocate of building children’s capacity to assess their own risk and abilities, Kirsty guides children in their engagement with nature in ways that demonstrate the rich learning opportunities and positive outcomes of guided play in a bush kinder environment. This often involves Kirsty being in waders, fossicking for bugs in the local Monbulk Creek to provide rich learning opportunities for the children in her class as she teaches them about the natural world around them.

An example of her infectiously enthusiastic attitude to learning about nature, Kirsty teaches her children that “there is no such thing as bad weather; only inappropriate clothing”, and can regularly be found outside with children splashing in muddy puddles as they learn.

Kirsty also coordinates the Early Childhood Educators in Christian Schools Network (ECECS) where she regularly hosts Professional Development sessions. In recognition of Kirsty’s leadership and innovation, she has recently been invited into the school leadership team, ensuring that the innovative Early Learning Program is fully integrated into the broader planning of the school.

Josette Nunn

At the Yarram Early Learning Centre, kindergarten teacher and educational leader Josette Nunn has developed a unique educational philosophy based on an interweaving of contemporary early childhood theories and practices, and the ‘fabric’ of a place Through this approach, Josette designs learning programs that include the heritages of the children, families and community.

By emphasising the importance of the community, Josette refers to the area surrounding the Yarram Early Learning Centre as being “surrounded by a tapestry of possibilities”, and through her teaching encourages children and families to immerse themselves in their community.

Josette’s demonstrated ability to create inclusive and engaging environments for early years learning, recognises the diverse nature of children’s learning styles and knowledge. Engaging children’s curiosity and ability to learn through discovery, she is giving agency to children’s voices and fostering their ability to explore and grow in understanding in ways that meaningfully engage their local environment and community.

In addition, Josette is enthusiastic about not only furthering her own professional development, but that of her colleagues and peers as well. In her current position as the kindergarten teacher and educational leader at Yarram Early Learning Centre Josette has provided inspiration through her role-modelling and encouragement, and she continually challenges her colleagues to strive for excellence.

Category 7: The Emeritus Professor Collette Tayler Excellence in Educational Leadership Award

Awarded to an early childhood service or approved service provider that has led their educators and teachers to significantly improve the quality of their learning and teaching practices, with a focus on intentional teaching practices to achieve improved outcomes for Victorian children and their families.

Haileybury Early Learning Centre

At Haileybury’s Early Learning Centre (ELC) the leadership team base their approach to learning on what children know now and are ready to learn next, using evidence-based practices to inform differentiated learning approaches and to measure their impact, ensuring exceptional learning outcomes for all children.

Place-based education, kinship, culture and language in early years education is an important focus for the education leaders at Haileybury’s ELC. Embedding values of sustainability and evidence-based inquiry into their early years learning program, they are developing innovative age-appropriate assessment tools and enabling teachers to inform approaches to further children’s language and literacy skills.

Working with their education team, Haileybury’s ELC leadership undertakes a trial and review approach to new initiatives to ensure ongoing continuous improvement. Professional learning and mentorship have also significantly improved the quality of educators’ teaching practices and learning outcomes for children. A recent research project initiated by a team of educators resulted in the co-creation of a book about sustainability and sustainable practices with four to five-year old children.

Springvale Service for Children

The Springvale Service for Children is situated in one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse municipalities in Melbourne, reflected in their multilingual staff, families and children. The educational leadership of the kindergarten has guided their exemplary service to the early years education of this diverse community.

Responding to the challenges of COVID-19, the Springvale Service for Children team developed a variety of inquiry questions that inspired them to create a ‘kinder to home learning plan’, being mindful of how this would meet every child and their families' current needs. This involved a strategic plan where they used their bilingual teachers to communicate with each family in-language, enabling them to understand their diverse needs regarding access to communication technology and whether this would be beneficial.

Working with internal agencies, parents and educators, the Springvale Service for Children is leading innovative approaches to supporting diversity in the community. For example, as many children are still learning their mother tongue, educators encourage children to use their first language while also learning English.