10 Questions with Prue Turnbull– Stretton ELC Playground Upgrade

1. Tell us a little about you? How did you become an owner? How many childcares do you have? What prompted you to upgrade your playcentre

I came from a teaching background as an Early Childhood Teacher in QLD and together with my husband we have one centre. We purchased a green field property and built the centre in 2008.

So, 11 years later we were overdue for a big makeover if not a total renovation of the playground.

2. Can you walk us through your process? What did you do first?

I supposed I already had in my own mind a plan for improvement. Firstly, I made a mental list of all my MUST HAVES and don’t wants. I wanted large areas for children to use motor skills, areas of texture and nature play, as well as a place where the children could enjoy those quiet moments. I envisaged a performing area where they could dress up and freely sing and dance, as they do. But I also factored into that overall plan the accessibility and storage of equipment and resources for my Educators, by making sure everything was immediate and available.

So, did you talk to your staff about it before engaging with the builder and designers or did you get the plans first?

Yes, my Manager and I spoke to staff first.  I took lots of pictures of the playground that weren’t working anymore and ideas for upgrades for their input.  I put large pieces of paper up on the staff room wall for drawings, pictures, comments and brain storming. As a team, we also approached the families for their comments through our foyer displays, newsletters and our online centre communication. We had fabulous feedback from everyone who were excited and on board with the process.

I watched and listened to the Educators to make sure they were going to be happy.  It’s very much their space as well as the children’s.

I know that every Centre wants to put on their ‘best dressed’ and have that WOW factor, which is a term so over used since 2018 (she laughs). But for me it had to be practical, it had to work functionally and compliment our early childhood philosophy. It had to be beautiful and inviting for children because then, it would be easy for the Educators to engage with children in a play space that they too had a commitment to and felt a sense of ‘belonging’.

From Educator’s feedback, it was necessary to acknowledge that their “facilities area” needed better organisation.   I set about creating ideas for their “educator facilities area” as we called it (aka the resource shed).  The “educator facilities area” design incorporated water access, a hygienic mop hanging area plus metal drying racks for buckets.  It is now an accessible, functional space for all those things they needed to get hold of quickly every day to do their job.  If the “educator’s facilities area” wasn’t going to work then no matter how big the WOW!!! factor was, it just wasn’t going to work!

Astroturf in elary learning centreStretton Early Learning Centre New storage shed installed
Stretton Early Learning Centre PlaygroundStretton Early Learning Centre Yard

(When looking at what we wanted) Our managers, Educators, families and myself were looking at functionality and more inviting play areas. Some other ‘must haves’ on our list were natural elements so that children could feel emotionally comfortable in their play space. So, we brought into the plan – plants, the planter boxes, sandstone and wood. When we brought Mathiou Services onboard they re-configured the fort we already had, with the help of Michael (Mathiou Services lead carpenter). He just left the carcass and the metal frame and then just “wooded” that up ?.

Stretton Early Learning Centre sandpit upgrade
Stretton Early Learning Centre new fortsStretton Early Learning Centre new forts and climbing wall

From there, I started finding the right people to do the job. That can come from recommendations from other people, it can come from Companies advertising in the childcare industry, it came from seeing new centres being built with a new playground. So, the research at the beginning was the most important thing I did. That in itself had its ups and downs, and a little expense along the way trying to track down who was the best person to do the improvements as I had imagined.

I’m sure it was at an ACA meeting where I saw Mathiou Services brochure and I thought well if ACA are promoting you then there is something worth looking at here. The fact that Mathiou Services were in close travelling distance to me was also a plus!

From our first meeting I sensed a good working relationship.  I appreciated that Jamie Mathiou and his team were listening to the suggestions, ideas and plans.  I, in turn, took away the importance of the ground work that needed to be done before everything starts coming out of the ground.  Most importantly, it’s all about team work, listening to each other and valuing each other’s expertise and knowledge.  Because I feel that I know what I want through many years of early childhood teaching and because I’ve seen the way children play in an inviting outdoor space, being valued and respected for my opinions was very important to me.

3. How did you come up with the design/ layout?

I came to Mathiou Services, with all of the ideas, our list, and I said this is my list this is what I’d like.  Can you transform all these bits of paper into some sort of plan that we, together, think would work.

4. At what point did you engage with council or Department of Early Childhood Education and Care

We were fortunate in that our playground construction did not need any Council approvals. But, the approval of the plan created between myself and Mathiou Services had to be approved by the Department of Early Childhood Education and Care. Very, very important that all your plans that are up here (points to head), and that are on paper are given to your governing body, which, in our case was the Department of Early Childhood Education and Care, Mt Gravatt. I brought them in on everything, absolutely everything. From showing them what we wanted to do, the elements we were trying to introduce, the plan and of course, our Waver had to be approved.

Can you explain what the waiver is?

The waver is required because under our Regulations every child is required 7m2 of play area every day. But your putting your hand up to say, “I can’t do that and do the renovations as well” so the Department  needs to be able to see how you’re going to move the children in and out of the remaining space you have within the renovation timeframe that has been allowed. That is why that very strict timeframe you decided and submitted must actually work. So when the construction company comes in, they have to understand, as Mathiou Services did, I’ll only have this amount of time because I have told my Department and Officer that this time frame is all that is required to finish the job.  There is a Fee involved and if you miscalculate, there is another Fee. Also, emergency exits and entries during the time of construction were very, very important as well, together with Risk Assessments. Because it wasn’t the normal play space, the normal environment that the Educators were working in every day, we had to come up with a new exit plan, and practice it with the children. We did this, and made it a “picnic excursion” (she laughs). No point in stressing the children and Educators!

5. How long did the Department of Early Childhood Education and Care approval take?

For me it took all of March to get started in April. And we stuck very much to the plan. Actually, the team at Mathiou Services were in and out, a week ahead so that was good.

In general, there is a timeframe that they (the Department) need to know. They can reject it, and they can keep coming backwards and forwards wanting more and more information. So, it’s not the last thing you do, it’s the first thing you do. Straight after you get your plan before you even decide when you’d like to start. Show them everything, say “this is what I’ve got” and they might respond with “we want to see this, or that, I want to see your waiver etc, etc”. You have to be very organised so that all the preparation is done before you plan to start the build.

6. How have you found the process?

It was a lot easier than I expected. Mathiou Services was doing the project managing, we had their lead builder on site almost everyday and if he wasn’t, I could contact them. Communication is key, and the communication (with Mathiou Services) was excellent, there was never a point where I felt like I didn’t know what was going on. Communication was vital. It also helped that MS project coordinator (Chris) set out exactly what was going to happen at each stage. So, I could tick it off as we went, and I could go on site and see what was happening each day.

They also listened to any variations I suggested. And it was easy because everyone was listening to each other. Everyone just down tools and I felt as though everyone was listening to me as we progressed.

We had little mini chats along the way, what they were going to do today, what they were going to do tomorrow. I thought I was going to be in for quite a tedious time, but it wasn’t, it was really very good. I think the way they structured it, stage 1, stage 2, stage 3 helped. And I kept the Department involved throughout the whole process, updated with any changes big or small and even invited them to site once the completion of each stage had been completed. So, I think all of that helped with the process too.

Plus, the weather of course was a blessing, halleluiah, I think we only had 2 days of rain the whole time. So, word to the wise plan it during summer, do the job in Autumn and finish before winter.

7. What was your favourite part

I had so many favourite parts, (she tears up) I think my most favourite part was seeing everyone’s faces when it was done, it was such a change. It was amazing! The Educators just loved it and the families and the children too.  The construction fencing came down early one morning before opening and as families arrived they all said “WOW”!!! – they just walked on the grass and through the playground and couldn’t believe it. And they looked from left and right because it was a whole new environment.  And the Educators were just so thrilled about how their “facility area” had turned out. It was really important that their lives were made easier, they do a hard job. And um, it just worked, it all just worked out!

8. What would you have changed?

No, there was nothing that I would have changed because the process was so well thought-out. There was time to think about it. The engagement with the Mathiou Services team onsite was so good that any changes that had to be made, were made then. There was no surprises at the end. It’s important to be vocal about it, if you are going to make changes part way just say “Stop! I’m thinking this will be better here and this there.” It really is not a problem.  It’s when at the end you decide, that it becomes a big problem.

Stretton playground upgradeStretton playground upgrade experience

9. If you could give someone 5 tips on what not to do in their process what would it be?

  • Don’t follow trends

  • Think first of the children and how they use the space and what they need from the space.

    Taking in the EC Philosophy of what children need in children play.

  • Areas are really important, don’t clutter it with too much static “stuff”

  • Be mindful that it is a child’s space, use a balance of elements because this has to be maintained. 

    If you go too fancy, or add too many structures, you have to be realistic about how this is going to be maintained? How its going to be used? How things may go wrong if you tizzy it up too much? Think about the risk assessments, trip and fall assessments. Just rethink “the WOW factor” you think you want in the beginning.

  • Try building when there are no rain days

10. If you could give someone 5 tips on what to do on their process what would it be?

  • Research – seek out as many ideas and advice as you can

  • Engage with the users

    Before you start, engage with your Managers, staff and families.

    Your staff are the people who have to work in that environment, and look after the kids at the same time.  Listen to your Educators because they will tell you “that’s not going to work, I can’t see children”. That’s the experience of Educators talking and it’s important!

    During the process – Engage the staff again, engage with your manager, ask the opinion of the parents as well. When we did stage 1 and then 2, I would always say to the educators. “How does this feel? Does it look good?” And then one day they said “we’re thinking it might be a little hot out here because we have blocked off some of the breeze from here. That’s when I instantly got Mathiou Services to put up a shade sail. That was immediately done. It wasn’t done as an afterthought; it was done at that time.

  • Engage with your Department, right from the beginning of the process.

  • Make sure the accessibility and immediacy of your outdoor equipment storage is accessible to educators, so they are not having to leave children and run out of site. Keeping a balanced ratio at all times.

  • Stay happy!

    But that’s all about getting the right people on board. And honestly, Mathiou Services made this an excellent experience. There’s no doubt about that at all. I can’t imagine if I hadn’t used them. I think it would have been a totally different scene.

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