WHEN Joanie Barron and her workmates founded their playschool on Cork’s Blackrock Road in 1985, they did so with a DIY spirit that’s hard to imagine working today.
“We just went into an empty building,” says Joanie.
“Volunteers helped clear the garden, which was covered in brambles. We painted the walls and mended the windows.
“Three of us — me, Fiona Egan and Geraldine Aherne — put our first week’s wages into Ballinlough Credit Union and waited a month and we were able to borrow £300 to buy shelving and toys to get started.”
Despite these humble beginnings, Wallaroo Playschool was founded on ambitious and pioneering child-centred principles from the US. Wallaroo was a first in early years care not only in Cork, but in Ireland.
Joanie took inspiration for her unique childcare method from her three-year stay in Los Angeles, where she worked in the famed Play Mountain Place, a school with a progressive approach to education first founded in the late 1940s.
At aged 22, in 1977, Joanie had moved from her native Drogheda to do a degree in Philosophy and Sociology in UCC, but she had always been interested in education.
Following her return to Cork from an internship at Play Mountain Place, she and her colleagues founded a non-profit playschool in conjunction with health food store and café The Quay Co-op, to provide childcare to its workers and to provide an affordable option to low-income families, of which there were many in those recessionary times.
“We were supporting women to go back to work and we also wanted to support low-income families, people who were studying, or people who just needed some place for their children to be, even so they could look at opportunities for themselves or even get a break,” she says.
“There were a lot of single parents and there was very little support for single parents at the time.”
In the 1980s, childcare in Ireland was completely unregulated; in fact, early years care that was designed to enable women to work was even frowned on by the establishment, as Joanie recalls.
“There were some Montessori schools and there was some childcare in the community run by various voluntary groups, funded by the Southern Health Board,” she says.
“When we applied for funding from the Southern Health Board we were told that because we were encouraging women to go back to work, we couldn’t get a grant because they were more in support of parents and children being together.”
Wallaroo’s curious Australian-sounding name comes from the name of the house where the playschool originally had its home. When the playschool eventually moved to a new premises, children wanted to keep calling it Wallaroo, and so the name stuck.
The fact that children named the playschool themselves is very much in line with the child- centred, humanistic approach that Wallaroo pioneered in Cork, Joanie explains.
“The humanistic approach sees children as people who, within themselves, have the ability to solve problems and think for themselves,” Joanie says.
“We equip them to make their own decisions. Obviously that has to be developmentally appropriate: a two-year-old will have a limited understanding of the world. But you can gauge their responses. Are they giving us indications that something’s not right for them: is there too much noise in the room for them? Are they not going outside enough? When would they like to eat? So that idea of giving children autonomy and control within the small sphere of their lives was always a starting point for us.”
At Wallaroo, a morning session for two to four-year-olds and an after-school session for older children both provide the opportunity to learn through play, with activities they choose themselves, including art, outdoor activities, baking, board games and more.
The idea of letting two-year-olds make their own decisions may sound like a recipe for mayhem, but the children are not running riot: their decision-making is given a framework by childcare workers.
“It’s not ‘what would you like to do in the whole world.’ It’s things like, ‘would you like to go outside now or later?’” Joanie says.
“If a child doesn’t want to wear enough layers in winter for example, the choice could be, ‘if you don’t want to go outside, that’s fine, but if you want to go outside you need to put a coat on.’ You’re giving realistic choices to the children when situations arise for them.”
The result, Joanie believes, is children with confidence in their own problem-solving abilities.
“They have a feeling that they are trusted, and therefore trustworthy,” she says.
“Someone listens to what they say, so they really learn to also listen to other people.
“Problem-solving is really good for their thinking skills. I think it’s a quality we really need these days: people who can think outside the box and be creative in their thinking, and are not afraid to explore and make mistakes and try things.
“We help the children to trust themselves, to take risks and not to be afraid, but to understand that there are limits they have to live by.”
Six years after Wallaroo was founded, EU funding enabled the playschool to move to their permanent address on Military Hill, where they’re based to this day.
Wallaroo’s methods are now taught in a childcare course delivered in conjunction with UCC: workers gain their practical experience on a Community Employment (CE) scheme in Wallaroo and attend theory lectures in UCC.
The move to a permanent premises not only provided Wallaroo children with a more tailored space and recognised the pioneering work done in Wallaroo, but on a personal level, it also marked a professional change for Joanie.
“I was able to apply for a social employment scheme with 11 CE staff of our own and then I was a supervisor, so I actually had a wage for the first time in six years, which was great,” she says with a smile.
In 2005, Wallaroo was invited by the HSE to provide childcare to asylum seekers in two of Cork’s Direct Provision centres at the Kinsale Road and Ashbourne House. Evolving from parent and toddler groups, both Direct Provision centres now have two qualified childcare staff and a Wallaroo CE worker providing both pre-school and after-school care.
The humanistic approach has proved very beneficial for children who are facing a wide range of different challenges, Joanie says.
“Some of the children have had great difficulties, or if they haven’t, their parents have,” she says.
“Some families have faced very difficult situations, but children are children and they do what children do: they heal themselves and express themselves through play and they want to have friendships and make connections with us.
“We provide a place for the children to connect emotionally and socially.”
Now celebrating the milestone of 35 years providing care to Cork children, Joanie says she can’t begin to calculate how many children have come through Wallaroo’s doors since 1985. It’s certainly thousands of children.
For her, the satisfaction of knowing that there’s a powerful ripple effect when you give a child the best start in life is profound: the realisation of a dream that started long ago.
“The work we do has the possibility to change the world by bringing people into the world that have a positive influence,” she says.
“I hope that through the children’s experience, I’ve had a positive influence on the world. When someone has a sense of confidence and trusts themselves, has a sense of rightness about who they are, they can only do good. They’re not trying to create havoc in the world. They want to contribute something good, a good world, a healthy world and an earth that can continue to thrive.”