Hi everyone. My name is Chloe Keegan and I’ve recently started working with Early Childhood Ireland as an Early Childhood Specialist focusing on outdoor play and nature. My background was not always in the early years, as I spent 3 years working as a street fundraiser and team leader for Concern Worldwide from 2010. Interestingly, it was their ‘1000 Days Campaign’ that introduced to me a new and profound concept of how the nutritional status of a pregnant mother can influence a child’s learning later in life. It was from this point onwards that I left Dublin and enrolled in a one-year Level 5 childcare course. My dad was my biggest supporter. I thought, if I didn’t like it, it was just one year, and I could try something else afterwards. And wow was I surprised with how quickly I became enthralled in the knowledge, the theory, the practice and the policy. I still remember sitting in a cold classroom thinking “I can’t believe I’ve found my career!” Over my years of working fulltime in the sector I completed all of my studying at nighttime. It was tough working 10-hour days in preschools and having evenings boxed off for college work, but this made linking the theory I was learning much more applicable to the work I was doing in preschools daily. On my first placement as a student I gained amazing support and guidance in a Kilkenny-based service and continued on to roles in leadership, compliance and management. I am proud to say to date that all of my hard work has paid off, I now have a 1.1 First Class Honours Level 8 degree in Early Childhood Education and Care and a Level 9 Masters in Child, Family and Youth Studies. But, of course I couldn’t stop there and am now in my second year of a PhD in Education in Maynooth University, immersed in research surrounding the standardisation of play, the power dynamics that exist between adults and children in classrooms and engaging with discourses about what exactly is child-led practice according to Aistear – It has been an absolute whirl wind! For the past 4 years I was working part-time as a lecturer and content developer for QQI Level 5 and 6 childcare and special needs courses before I began working with Early Childhood Ireland.
Coming from quite a hippie-dippie, tree hugging family, being offered the role as an outdoor play and nature specialist with Early Childhood Ireland was music to my mam’s ears. “Ohh, you would be researching fairy gardens! Do you need more crystals for the gardens? I have lots of amethyst. Here, take some!” Meanwhile, my niece, who is two, can name every single crystal known on earth and lifts the purple stone as soon as she hears a familiar crystal name. Even during mealtimes, my niece is connected to nature. Hearing “Do you want sunshine and trees for dinner?” rather than “Do you want carrots and broccoli?” is the absolute norm. The outdoor environment was always my favourite place when I was growing up, where an overlap with the indoors was also common. Our home at one time could have been compared to a zoo. My older sister would care for a variety of creatures from snakes, ferrets, owls and lizards, sometimes all at once, having set up her own reptile sanctuary, while I preferred the company of our dogs and cats. Throughout my upbringing, and evident in my niece’s, my family always respected the natural world and the creatures living it. It makes sense that, in practice, it too was my preferred environment to work in in the early years.
The outdoors always seemed to embrace the free movement, innovation and fun children wanted to engage in. But where did my passion come from? One distinct scenario springs to mind, one day in a setting I was told;
“I need you to go through all of the classrooms and collect all of the superhero figures. Put them into this basket and hide them from the children.” “Why?” I asked. “Because the children are fighting too much, so these toys need to go.” I spent that morning watching as most of the children went in search of their superhero figures never to find them again. The children were left in a limbo cloaked in frustration, anger, confusion and sadness looking for their heroes. Yet, when asked for a reason for their toys’ disappearance, the children were dismissed, being told “You can’t play with them, why don’t you play with something else?”
It comes as no surprise that my passion to promote more outdoor play for children came following this experience. I realised that if adults restrict the toys children played with indoors, it did not mean they could restrict the meaning (attached to those toys) from the play outdoors. Maybe this service had no interest in superhero toys, but that did not stop the children from becoming their favourite superhero jumping over logs, climbing walls and racing on their bikes. The outdoors embraced all themes of play and this moment in my career showed me that the outdoor environment was a space that children could completely take control of, and that’s what we need more of. We as adults always want to ensure children are safe and seen. But my vision for the sector overall is to see practice where adults gasp regularly, not only at the amount of risky play children engage in outdoors, but how well children can handle it. I envision a place where more children conduct firsthand research of their lived experiences, where it is the norm for children to present on stage at conferences and their voice is not only heard, listened to and taken seriously in policy, but also implemented into a reality. I certainly have big shoes to fill having immersed myself in Carol Duffy’s excellent work and her legacy in this organisation is one that I am not only in awe of but is one I hope to match one day. I am very excited with this opportunity to work with you all and look forward to researching, mentoring, collaborating and learning in my new role promoting high quality outdoor provisions for the early learning and care sector.