For Robyn Clisby, a day at the office always includes the unexpected.
The early childhood educator admits she can’t always predict what the children she works with are going to say. During a lunch-hour discussion about different kinds of food, one child piped up that his mommy is “really good at ordering pizza.”
“It’s so innocent,” says Clisby with a laugh.
A team leader at Cairns Children’s Centre Inc., Clisby says channeling this childhood innocence into learning is her passion. She applied at the Winnipeg centre while still a teenager eight years ago, after seeing a posting on a neighbourhood billboard.
Ever since, she’s been helping kids discover their world through play. When it comes to early childhood education, spontaneity is key, she says.
“Children show interest in the things they want to learn about,” says Cairn, 26. “The adults are there to support them.”
Clisby is one of a growing number of early childhood educators determined to get kids back to being kids. Organized sports and lessons are great, but she doesn’t think they should come at the expense of family time spent playing and connecting with nature.
Clisby and Kym Schmidt, her director at Cairn’s, recently attended an international conference on early childhood education in Puerto Rico, where delegates from around the world echoed this sentiment. Outdoor play is an essential part of the experience at Cairns, she says.
“My thing is to be outside with the kids,” says Clisby. “To really let them get dirty. Play with sand. Play with sticks. In the summertime, we do an outdoor challenge at St. Vital Park. All our children and our staff are outside for the entire day.”
Her path to studying Early Childhood Education at Red River College was partly inspired by Schmidt — whom Clisby praises for her support and the positive work environment she’s created at Cairns. Today, the centre cares for about 75 children — kinders during the day and school-age kids up to Grade 6 before and after school.
Clisby splits her time between being an educator to the kids and mentoring her staff. She says engaging groups of children with varied interests (and for some of the bigger kids, a waning enthusiasm about going to daycare) is uniquely demanding. You have to be energetic and emotionally available at all times. But you also need to balance these parental roles with professional duty.
“You have to draw that fine line,” says Clisby, who grew up in Ninette, Man. “You’re not their friend. You’re their leader. Their educator.”
Clisby has taught some of the older children at Cairns for several years — watching them grow along the way. The bonds they form can be strong and many turn to her and her colleagues with tough questions or to unload after a tough day at school.
“[We’re] often the first ones they talk to, even before their parents,” says Clisby, who believes a good experience in child care “sets the foundation” for a child’s life.
She says a common misconception about daycare staffers is that they’re babysitters who schedule games and crafts only as a means to pass the time when kids aren’t in school learning. Clisby advocates for parents to understand — and become early adopters of — a learn-through-play model.
“I think that educating parents … on the importance of early education, [and] how valuable those first five years are [is key],” she says. “That’s when learning occurs. Not when they start school at age five.”
Clisby says her perfect day is when a child learns something that completely fascinates them. She recalls a five-year-old boy finally discovering the source of light on a daycare wall — a reflection bounced off a mirror strategically placed to bring sunlight in.
For two weeks, the child had quietly pondered this mystery. “The day he got it, it was like his whole world came together,” Clisby says.
When discussing her own education, she’s quick to credit RRC’s use of practicums and hands-on learning for helping to put her and her classmates in the real-life situations they’d encounter on the job. She’s now pursuing a degree in child development at the University of Winnipeg, with the hopes of becoming a family resource counsellor or the director of a childcare centre.
Clisby sees it as her responsibility to touch a young person’s life in a meaningful way, but says she is just as often the beneficiary — through a hug, or having a child tell her they love her, or giving her a handmade gift.
“I keep all the stuff that children give me,” says Clisby. “It’s important. They work hard on it, sometimes spending days [to make me] something.”
Learn more about RRC’s Early Childhood Education program.