Report: Lillian Leptos

As a new grandmother, I was particularly excited about visiting Olivia B at the Newlands Pre-school in Coburg North. It had been many years since, as a mother, I visited preschools and was interested to see how they had evolved. I arrived to find Olivia and her supervisor Rosa, deep in conversation but not a child to be seen. 

Children attending the centre are funded for 15 hours a week, between 8.30 and 1.30. My first thought was that this might be a bit limiting in terms of giving our student an interesting and informative placement, but how wrong I was. 

The pre-school offers a play-based and seasonal program that is carefully linked to children’s interests. The aim of the program is to set the children up for success when they transition to school. It is here that motor skills like hand-eye coordination and social skills are practised.  Many of the routines, such as mat reading time and lunch break imitate the school routines and teach the skills that will enable little people to be communicative, independent social beings.

Olivia, an achieving, academic student is already strongly focussed on a career as a child psychologist. It’s a delight to hear her speak about her career motivation. 

“I want to work in this field, with a focus on perhaps children in kindergartens and primary schools,” she says. “I love the idea of working with kids at the beginning of their lives. If we get the early foundations right, their early lives could be the beginning of something big. It’s such a shame when children do not get a correct analysis early in their lives and their whole development is affected.”

The work of this and other pre-schools is especially important for the three year olds in the community. Rosa calls these “the COVID children”. During lockdown they were denied the opportunities that help to make little people into social beings. They did not play with friends, attend kinder, swimming lessons or mini maestros.  They interacted mostly with parents, who sometimes wanted to protect their child from any sense of failure. These children have to learn to share and learn to lose without a meltdown.

Though Olivia is only a Year 10 student she has been embraced by the organisation. On her first day at the centre she was invited into the staff meeting devoted to the planning for the extension of opening hours as well as the implications for the program and staffing. 

“This was also one of the meetings designed to build staff cohesion as three of the staff had only recently been employed,” Rosa says. 

“Some of the exercises the staff did encouraged people to show their vulnerabilities and some staff ended up in tears. Olivia was so new to the team, but she showed great emotional intelligence. I looked up and she was handing out tissues.”

Rosa and centre manager Rita have valued Olivia’s contributions to the planning and preparation of the program. 

“She is confident, creative and communicates very well. She has a great work ethic, is easy to work with and gets straight into the work. Perhaps what sets her apart from other students we have had here as volunteers, is that she is constantly curious.” 

Olivia fondly remembers the activities she helped to set up for Mothers’ Day and Easter. 

“We designed the Easter baskets the students would make and then use in the Easter egg hunt. I like working on programs that excite the children,” Olivia explains. 

While Olivia’s volunteering work has allowed her to work behind the scenes, she has already had discussions with the staff about returning to the centre later in the year, for work experience. Then she will be working to deliver the program. 

“If I could help just one child on its way to a better life, I will be playing my part to make the world a better place,” she says. 

Olivia is an ex-student of Newland Pre-school. 

“I attended here and so did my sister. We both have many great memories of our time here and for me, volunteering here was all about giving back.”