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Carol Duffy, master of the outdoors


Monday 18 January 2021

Last month we said a fond farewell to our colleague Carol Duffy, who retired from Early Childhood Ireland after nearly 40 years of working in the early years. Back in the 1980s, there were no childcare regulations, no accredited training for early year educators and no funding for Early Learning and Care services.

There were, however, lots of playgroups both private and community with many operating from the play leader’s own home. Community playgroups often operated from the local school, managed by a committee made up mostly of parents and the play leader. Play leaders then relied heavily on the “Rota Mother” for assistance. The Rota Mother volunteered to stay for the whole session and help the playleader. This may have been on a weekly, fortnightly, or monthly basis depending on the size of the setting and the generosity of the mothers, many of whom did not work outside the home.


It was as one such young Rota Mother in Baldoyle Community Playgroup that our esteemed colleague Carol Duffy had her first introduction to the world of early years.  The playleader, Phil Reeves, mentored and coached Carol as she moved on to become the play assistant and later, the Play Leader.  Phil recently recalls that back then, they were ahead of their time - bringing the children on many trips, organising sports days and facilitating summer camps during school holidays, which of course, all involved lots of outdoor activities- an area Carol was passionate about even way back then. Phil also remembers Carol’s sunny disposition: “Carol took on every day with a cheerful smile and an almost magical sense of resourcefulness, always full of warmth and enthusiasm for whoever crossed her path, be it one of our little charges, a parent, or a colleague.”

Carol attended the local Irish Preschool Playgroups Association (IPPA) monthly branch meetings, undertook any training courses that were on offer at the time and went on to become a volunteer on IPPA’s Dublin Branch. The first government funding to become available to the early years sector came through the then Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform in the 90s. While the government’s focus was on supporting women to return to the workforce (rather than the child’s rights to quality, affordable childcare), this funding gave IPPA the opportunity to facilitate an accredited City and Guild 7307 certificate course in Adult and Further Education. Carol was one of the first graduates of this course. Carol continued throughout her career as an Early Childhood Specialist to engage in on-going training and Continuing Professional Development which included a degree in Adult Education and a Masters in education, (and Early Years) with Birmingham City University in association with the Centre for Research in Early Childhood (CREC).  While Carol always knew the benefits to children of spending time in the outdoors and the joy of experiencing nature, her research for her Masters into the critical role movement in young children’s development confirmed her own beliefs and knowledge. This provided Carol with evidence-based information which she generously shared with colleagues and students. Carol also encouraged and empowered early years educators to reflect on their provision, particularly the outdoor space and how children use it. Carol assisted many settings in transforming their outdoor spaces, whether large or tiny, into places where children had daily opportunities to engage in a range of interesting and challenging experiences with staff who appreciated the need for and benefits of this outdoor provision. Often, these changes occurred with little expense as Carol suggested creative solutions and the inclusion of loose parts.

During this COVID-19 pandemic, the benefits of playing outside in the fresh air have been appreciated more than ever by children, parents and educators.  Carol presented a webinar in June 2020 on “Outdoor shelters and transforming spaces” and this is still available on the First 5 CPD website

Carol’s love of the outdoors led to her developing her talents as a writer. The Trunks, a story for children, and Nurture through Nature are just two of her published books. Many who know Carol will also know of her love of photography and the many beautiful images of nature she shared both personally and in her many presentations over the years, helping us to appreciate the detail and beauty of sticks, stones, leaves, shells as well as seashores, woodlands, meadows and rivers. 

Throughout her long career as a trainer, mentor, and lecturer Carol has never lost her sunny disposition, her warmth or enthusiasm that Phil fondly remembers. Indeed, her ability to view her work through the lens of an early years educator ensured that she made genuine and meaningful connections with all those she worked with, colleagues and educators alike.  Everyone in Early Childhood Ireland joins with the many early years educators and national and international early years experts, in wishing Carol a long, healthy and happy retirement as she embarks on this new phase in life’s journey.


For more on Outdoors with Carol:  

Carol's blog

Webinar - Outdoors: Sensory-Motor Development

Blog- A prayer for Mushroom Hill

Blog- Risky Play

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