'Our nursery programs are a model for social change'
By Louise Kinross
It’s a simple ritual, but one of Silvia Souto’s greatest joys. “Opening the door of the classroom at Play and Learn, and seeing the faces of the children—so happy and eager to come and play in our program—that is pure joy,” she says.
Silvia is an early childhood educator in one of Holland Bloorview's two nursery schools, which are located in the community. Play and Learn includes children with and without disabilities. Silvia first worked as a volunteer at our old hospital site in 1999, after moving to Canada from Argentina, where she was born.
In April, Silvia and Play and Learn co-worker Isabel Zatti made a trip to Macao, China, where they shared Holland Bloorview’s vision of inclusion with early learning educators from 80 countries. “Isabel and I felt the voice of inclusive programming was not heard at other conferences we'd attended. We wanted to do something about it,” Silvia says.
BLOOM: How did you get into this field?
Silvia Souto: After studying psychology and education at university, I worked in special education services in Argentina with children from infants to age five. When my husband and I came to Canada, and were trying to improve our English, my ESL teacher encouraged me to look into Bloorview. You will talk to people who have similar interests, she said, and it will help your vocabulary. I came for a visit and was accepted as a volunteer in the child life program doing bedside play.
I vividly remember the nursing station. Cara Sudoma was one of the nurses there, and she would come in and out, full of energy. Later I did an internship in the child life department, was hired at Play and Learn’s summer camp, and accepted a part-time and then full-time job. I did my equivalency and got my credentials as an early childhood educator.
BLOOM: What is a typical day like now at Play and Learn?
Silvia Souto: The day is 'go, go, go,' with no pause button. The program starts at 9, so we're there at 8:30. It’s a high-quality program, which means we need to carefully plan and prepare. We do a lot of hands-on, sensory activities and art. We want the children to express themselves and explore freely. If we see something they’re interested in, we’ll include that into the preparation for the following day. We follow the children's lead.
We take early literacy and play very seriously, so we do a guided learning circle every morning and use stories to reflect on what the children are doing in their play, and their interests. When we tell the stories, we use props to catch the children's attention. Our guided learning circle is an opportunity to learn new words, make connections between stories and play. It's an invitation to join in with peers and share the joy that comes with listening to a story.
A typical day happens inside and outside the classroom. In addition to providing children with a rich and meaningful learning environment, we discuss and document their progress, brainstorm strategies to support their participation and learning, talk to their families, and meet with our team of therapists.
BLOOM: How many children are in a group?
Silvia Souto: I work with 10 toddlers and one other teacher. We have one group in the morning and one in the afternoon. We also have volunteers and sometimes co-op students in the classroom. We have a team of therapists who support us in the classroom. They develop a plan of intervention and we find ways we can include it within the child’s play, so it doesn’t look like therapy.
BLOOM: What’s the greatest challenge?
Silvia Souto: Compared with the challenges our families are facing, I don’t feel I have a right to say it’s challenging. I enjoy it very much. In order to support children and families I do have to take care of myself, because I need to be present constantly in my interactions. It’s a demanding job physically, and you have to be emotionally fit. Sometimes I have to remind myself about what you're told on the plane—to put the oxygen mask on yourself first.
BLOOM: Is there anything specific you do to manage stress?
Silvia Souto: We have a very tight and absolutely supportive team that I can always go to, if I need to. I know I can always count on them for guidance, or support, or for taking a break. When you trust your team in that environment, it’s easier to manage stress.
Personally, I like skating in the winter. I keep my skates in the car and sometimes I’ll stop at the local rink and do a couple of laps. The other thing I do to take myself completely out of my worries is jigsaw puzzles. If I need to concentrate on something, I’m going to open a puzzle box. There’s something I love about going from complete chaos to finding the perfect fit.
BLOOM: What’s the greatest joy of your work at Play and Learn?
Silvia Souto: The trust the parents put in us gives me an immense amount of happiness. For some of the families, our nursery school is where they leave their child for the first time. The other element is witnessing how inclusion works—seeing the interactions of the children, and thinking we are planting the seed for a more just society.
BLOOM: What qualities do you need to be successful in your role?
Silvia Souto: Energy, definitely. It’s a physical kind of job. You need to be someone who can connect, who can be trusted to develop meaningful relationships with the children and their families. You need to have a solid knowledge of child development. You have to understand children in the context of their families. You need to have a playful soul, to think as a child, and to be creative.
BLOOM: How do you get your energy?
Silvia Souto: At the end of the day, I like to say I’m enthusiastically exhausted.
BLOOM: Recently you and Isabel Zatti, Play and Learn’s site facilitator, went to speak at a conference in Macao, China. Can you explain?
Silvia Souto: Isabel and I went to the World Forum on Early Care and Education, which is a global exchange of ideas on how to develop high quality programs in early childhood. This year there were almost 800 people from 80 countries.
Isabel and I felt the voice of inclusive programming was not heard at other conferences we’d attended. We wanted to do something about it. This was the perfect venue, because with so many people, our voices could be amplified.
BLOOM: What was your workshop about?
Silvia Souto: We presented on a panel on inclusion, from infancy to adulthood. We presented with educators from South Africa and India and Hong Kong. We talked about how Holland Bloorview is a hospital, and within the hospital we have early learning programs like the nursery schools. We took some of the messages from our Dear Everybody campaign, and showed how we embed these messages into the work we do. For example, ‘If we can’t include everyone in a game, we’re not playing it right.’ We gave examples of how we adapt activities and toys to make sure all children can participate.
BLOOM: How did people respond?
Silvia Souto: They were fascinated that a hospital had a community nursery program within it, and that early childhood educators could work in a hospital. They hadn’t seen that before.
We made connections with a lot of people. We feel our nursery programs are a model for social change, and we have to invest in those formative years to build a more inclusive society. We wanted to spread the idea that if we support children in developing an acceptance that we’re all diverse, and do it at an early age, it’s much easier than trying to change behaviour later on. The interactions that happen in our programs are so natural.
BLOOM: If there was one thing you could change in children’s rehab, what would it be?
Silvia Souto: I think inclusive community programs like the ones we have are key. Play and Learn is unique in that we have a lot of support. We have access to training, to other professionals, and we work as a team. But that doesn’t happen in schools, or even in other childcare centres that are working towards inclusion. They may have resource consultants, but I'd like to see a much higher level of support in daycares and schools.