by Joanna Atherfold Finn

It is fitting that Karin Hensley originates from South Africa. Angel Tots, the 56-place Salamander Bay Early Learning Centre she owns with husband Steve, closely follows the philosophy of the African proverb that it takes a village to raise a child.

As Angel Tots Centre Director Melinda Lewis explained, “The service wants to be part of the community and provide that village for families and children.”

“At the moment we cater from 18 months to five years, but we are hoping by the end of the second quarter of this year that we will also cater for babies from six weeks,” Karin said.

The centre’s flexible and friendly nature also assists with the ‘village’ ethos.

“We really try to accommodate parents with things like early drop offs. We start at 7am and finish at 6pm which works well for people who may be commuting to Newcastle. We also offer occasional care.”

Angel Tots’ vision for learning is play-based. The days vary to include a variety of experiences including music and art, reading, outdoor and indoor play, rest time and also calming activities such as quiet play, yoga and relaxation, excursions and incursions such as Living Safely with Dogs.

“We provide experiences where the children build relationships, sensory activities that stimulate the brain and play experiences,” Melinda said.

“That first five years is the most important for brain development. Those years pave the way for lifelong learning.”

The centre also takes advantage of its spacious outdoor area that incorporates colourful play equipment, extensive shade, decking, grassed play areas and multiple activities. It is a space that offers children the option to embrace nature as much as possible.

“Having the environment as a third educator allows that play to take place,” Melinda said.

“Play is an innate thing that children just do, and then they learn.”

Morning and afternoon tea is provided with children bringing their own lunch. The centre also has some guidelines to assist parents, but Karin said that most parents are already attuned to nutritious eating practices.

Despite the number of children, the centre has a serene aura with integrated spaces and approachable, friendly staff.

“I think the biggest thing I’ve noticed about this centre is the children are very calm and it is a very settled environment,” Melinda said.

“If there is a child with special needs, we have additional workers to enable us to provide an inclusive environment.”

Apart from the obvious benefits for working parents, early childhood education is a great way to give children exposure to a range of learning experiences before they start school with staff at Angel Tots having a minimum Certificate III in Early Childhood Education and Care up to a Bachelor of Education.

“We are all trained in early childhood development, so even though it may look like a child is just playing, we are seeing that through trained eyes and the development that is happening in that play experience,” Melinda said.

“We are governed by outcomes and indicators linked to the National Framework and centre-based regulations help us understand the child holistically and keep them safe.

“We notice it particularly in terms of social development,” Karin said. “The children here don’t just play with their own ages.”

“The older children often teach the younger ones. They can observe the older ones and learn through that.”

Angel Tots is now also offering playgroup from 10.30am to 12noon on Fridays for families of the service as well as other families in the community. This is an opportunity to meet other families and a good introduction to centre-based learning for those who are considering it for their children.