Elevating Educator Voices: Tumby Bay Kindergarten – By Abe Moore

Affordance in play spaces

What have the staff at Tumby Bay Kindergarten invested in their learning environment that money can’t buy? Time and love.

Located on Barngarla land on the Eyre Peninsula, Tumby Bay Kindy has a stunning outdoor learning environment skilfully crafted by a long-standing staff using a blend of Reggio Emilia and nature play principles. Inside and out, the centre has beauty and functionality that encourages action and creation.

The outdoor space is a web of interconnected play nooks linked by meandering paths and native gardens. The permanent plastic and metal playground equipment seen in most schools is absent. Instead, there’s a nod to the local fishing community with a jetty and fishing boat, a secret garden with a tiny doorway, and even an untamed nature space with a fire pit for cooking with children.

If I could pick up a kindergarten and staff and drop it into my neighbourhood, Tumby Bay Kindy would be at the top of my list.

Upon entering the kindergarten, what stands out is the sheer number of intentional nooks and carefully curated spaces—spontaneous invitations to play appear around every corner. Thanks to a range of loose materials, the yard is full of affordances (action possibilities that encourage children to take risks, explore and investigate). As Director Virginia (Ginny) McTaggart points out, the space allows children’s imaginations to take them wherever they choose.

“Our spaces promote confident and capable learners by creating opportunities for children to problem solve and think independently, critically, and creatively. The loose parts often come from people in our community like the local plumber or tyre business.”

The amount of lovingly recycled and repurposed materials and loose parts are a feature of the site, and the attention to detail is stunning. The miniature features like ornate door handles, a letter box, and even an old telephone box, create a rich environment for imaginative play.

Staff use the environment as the third educator (behind educators and families) to promote curiosity and imagination and to build social skills and relationships. Enormous care and attention to detail have gone into creating each play nook, providing opportunities for imaginative, sensory, construction, and adventure play.

“Our intentional play-based curriculum is supported by the opportunities in the outdoor environment,” Ginny says. “We see children developing resilience, problem-solving ability and increased use of language. The children have a respect for the natural environment and better understand how the seasons change, for example. They enjoy observing creatures that come into our centre. An opportunity to learn about caring for creatures, their habitats and how they complement our world.”

Then there’s the colossal gum tree that welcomes children and families as they arrive. The kitchen is often referred to as the heart of the home, a living space that nourishes the bodies, minds and souls of friends and families. But do such spaces exist in schools? According to Ginny, the heart and soul of Tumby Bay Kindy have grown from the tree’s foundation.

“Our gum tree is a focal point. The achievement of being able to climb the tree is a kindy milestone. Family photos have been taken under it over the years to mark the start and end of their kindy journeys. It’s iconic for our kindy families.”

Tumby Bay Kindergarten is a wonderful example of the ‘aggregation of marginal gains’. The belief that every act, no matter its size, contributes to significant change over time.

“Our staff team have been together for 17 years, and the changes we have made have encouraged growth either intentionally or as a result of pollination,” Ginny says.

“We didn’t have buckets of money, so the space has evolved over time. This worked for us because we didn’t want to have a manufactured yard i.e. lots of bought equipment even if natural or coloured/plastic. The main thing is to be passionate about what you want to achieve. Don’t be afraid to use pottery and ceramics outside, even if the odd thing gets broken. Be open to accessing resources that come your way. Start small. Have a go!”

Tumby Bay Kindergarten is a magnificent example of what can be achieved when educators embrace their space and context. Over time, the knowledge, skills and passion of these educators have created a unique and magical space for children to grow and flourish.

Images by Abe Moore, Nature Play SA