WOFO used to take place every 2 years. Close on a thousand delegates attended from all over the world, with conference fees directly related to the country you come from’s Income, hence we pay more from the UK than those from say Africa, in order to cross-subsidise those from poorer countries. “Its an awesome gathering of diverse culture, ability and interests all with the aim of fostering relationships towards the holistic development of the child.” (Adefunke Ekine, Nigeria).
Last year’s event in Vancouver was postponed to 2024 due to Covid19, and this year an extra “hybrid” event was arranged in Orlando, with around 400 participants attending on line and the same in person. All presentations were recorded in advance so that short notice non attendance wasn’t too disruptive, and they can still be seen on the conference software, “Sutra” during May.
Participants shared their stories in a range of ways, from the key note formal presentations and performances in the main conference room, to groups of 3-4 presenting and discussing in themes in breakout sessions, to sitting at the café where a host encourages others to share. I was fortunate to be accepted as a speaker and invited to host a table in the café. I also enjoyed joining a “no-host dinner” as the main idea is to meet people in the same sector, and to learn from each other, support each other and maybe inspire each other to benefit the children of the world. The conference also hosts a children’s art display, a book swop, a large wooden brick building area, a craft area, a cardboard area for large construction, a pin map for participants to mark their origin, all designed to encourage playful conversation and interaction between delegates, its truly unique.
I took a few copies of my book, “Creating an eco-friendly early years setting” to give away, and also received a couple of books, one of which is called “Heart-centred teaching inspired by nature” by Nancy Rosenow, and another called “Eepworm’s Emotional Day” by Corinne Goyette, which I look forward to reading and sharing with you perhaps in another article.
The conference always includes optional trip to visit local nurseries, which I always do, as I find it fascinating to see how other countries do early years childcare and education. I visited two contrasting nurseries, one linked to the University of Central Florida, and another that is part of America’s Head Start system (means tested government funded).
The first was a privately funded day nursery but offering discounts to students, with fabulous large gardens of play areas for each age group plus specialised general areas such growing areas with fruit trees and vegetables and a green house, that the children could nurture, harvest, eat from and also take home for their families and give away to the community; flower gardens to attract butterflies; music gardens. Shaded areas under trees provided ample space to play, create, or sleep under, plus a range of equipment to climb, swing and slide on, in or around. Water, sand, paint, and lots of natural materials were in evidence, with many plants inside also, and I took many photographs to share. I noticed a “bird count” board with photos of local birds to be seen in their gardens, with exotic names such as ibis, mockingbird and cardinal, along with more familiar names such as dove, warbler and hawk. A wonderfully imaginative file of childrens work featured a stick per page, with a child’s drawing around each stick converting the stick into dozens of creative pictures such as dragons, butterflies, boats, cars, wands, and sharks.
The second was a government provision for 3-4 year olds, and had a clear remit to teach literacy and a highly details curriculum document was shared with us. Activities such as colouring inside the lines was evident, and the capacity of the rectangular classrooms was astonishingly high with one toilet. Teachers had significant levels of paperwork to complete to evidence lesson plans and the children catching up with their peers before going to school. Alongside nursery teachers and assistants, there was a battery of SEND and social worker support in a separate, air conditioned building. A free book library box was available for parents to help themselves to off the entrance pathway. They had a machine in their staff area that I had not seen before, a “Zono” used for disinfecting “anything”, using ozone, apparently very expensive but invaluable in the fight against viruses. Ratios in Florida appear to be a minimum of 1:10 for 4-5s, 1:8 for 3s, 1:5 for toddlers, 1:4 babies I qualified teacher per room.
On the evening before the main conference began we were treated to some supportive advice for speakers, and even as a seasoned speaker, I found this encouraging and supportive, for example, “of course you are nervous, use that to fuel your passion”; always be confident (even if not inside), strike the superwoman pose beforehand to help with this, SMILE, and remember 90% of your communication is visual and only 10% from people listening to your words, so don’t worry if you are speaking English as a second language, your passion for your subject will carry you, and remember everyone listening here is a supportive friend – and as such we were all very respectful and encouraging to all speakers, creating a lovely atmosphere.
There was also a special meeting for multi-site operators specifically on the international staffing crisis – I didn’t know it was international, did you? Around 40 of us split into 4 groups, and discussed the challenges, what had been attempted, what had worked and any new ideas that related to recruitment, retention, CPD and technology.
Unsurprisingly the challenges can be summarised broadly as lack of funding/financial detriment/better pay in other sectors; quality of childcare & education impacted by high turnover and loss of qualified and experienced colleagues; mental health issues caused by stress, fear and burnout; and lack of professional respect.
What had worked, and what had not worked, and what had yet to be tried was a massive piece of work but like ourselves, organisations are beginning to look at recruitment of staff in the same way that they look at recruitment of children, matching sales funnel stages with pipeline stages, for example;
- Awareness – prospecting, advertising, social media
- Discovery – qualifying leads, initial meetings, define prospects needs (training)
- Evaluation – making an offer, why work for you?
- Intent – negotiation, finalising proposal (be flexible)
- Purchase – closing the deal
- Loyalty – delivering the product, engagement – setting career aspirations
- Creating an educator customer journey or road map for your organisation and measuring deliverables (IT system?)
- Advocacy – for the sector, with government, community
From a sustainability perspective, there were good things and bad things about the conference. Of course attending in person as I did involved flying, which I felt obliged to offset with my ticket purchase, and with my other behaviour, but is obviously far from ideal, also offset by the many attending virtually. Orlando itself and the Hyatt Regency where the conference was held is a particularly bad example of sustainability, with enormous amounts of one-use plastic including wrappings and plastic cutlery and no recycling bins (America only recycles 5% of its one-use plastic); air conditioning that forced us to wear shawls and jumpers to avoid shivering during the conference; massive petrol vehicles, very few EV facilities; blatant over consumption with massive portions of food at restaurants; very little support for walking such that the 1 mile walk I had from my hotel to the conference was impossible due the highway inbetween so I would have had to walk around 5 miles up the freeway and back (and I was told I would likely to be stopped if I tried), but thank goodness for Uber. The University nursery was pretty good, with children and staff engaging in growing plants inside and outside, supporting bugs and learning about birds as well as gardening, and natural resources such as a drilled branch for crayons, and top quality sustainable resources such as Community Playthings furniture, but both nurseries used plastic wipes, anti-bacterial sprays, plastic one-use diapers, plastic gloves, glitter, and no recycling bins in the playrooms, and surprisingly perhaps the Head Start nursery had no natural/free resources, surely a missed trick when budget is more of an issue.
One of the main sponsors at the conference appeared to have a catalogue of virtually entirely unsustainable products, and brought some to the conference for craft activities, plastic bits and pieces, un-refillable glue sticks, felt tip pens with no plan to recycle them, I do hope they will join in the sustainability journey (I did have a word as I’m sure you would have expected me to) as although they will get away with this behaviour in the short term as many Americans seem oblivious to the practical aspects of sustainability, even when they simultaneously talk about the principals as being worthy. I heard that one fellow delegate didn’t believe humans caused global warming, for me in the same group as flat earthers, fortunately I didn’t meet that person.
On a positive note, I have to commend my WOFO “guide” at the conference though, Kirsten Haugen, of Dimensions Educational Research Foundation in Lincoln, New England, you are a star and a fabulous role model, she travels with her little metal box of cutlery, her refillable water bottle and her own cloth napkin (see Furoshiki for practical and wonderful ways to use this)
I can’t begin to recount everything I learnt, and all about the people I met, although one person from South African really stood out, she teaches early years practitioners how to make really useful resources from waste materials, not just for poor children but for all children, and I hope we will have an on-going relationship that I will tell you more about in due course.
Cheryl Hadland 22/5/22