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What Some of Canada's Best Early Childhood Educators Recommend

Insights from the recipients of the 2010–11 Prime Minister's Awards for Excellence in Early Childhood Education

For more than eight years, innovative and inspiring early childhood educators across the country have been honoured with the Prime Minister's Award for Excellence in Early Childhood Education. Highly effective educators from every province and territory are nominated based on their achievements. The awards recognize and applaud the efforts of outstanding educators who excel at fostering the early development and socialization of children in their care, and at helping build the foundation that children need to make the best possible start in life.

The Prime Minister's Awards for Teaching Excellence were launched in 1993—for information these awards and past recipients, see

Last year, ten outstanding educators were acknowledged for their unwavering commitment and creative approaches to early childhood education and care. From a progressive-thinking arts advocate to an environmental enthusiast aptly called "Nature Boy," from a spirited fundraiser to an altruistic crusader for at-risk children and families, these are some of Canada's most fascinating mentors. Read about each winner here.

The educators came to Ottawa in October 2011 in honour of World Teachers' Day for four days of whirlwind activity, including a private meeting with the Prime Minister, a visit to the Ottawa Inuit Children's Centre hosted by recipient Frederick Simpson, a trip to the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum, and a special reception at 24 Sussex hosted by Mrs. Laureen Harper. The pinnacle event was the national awards ceremony. Teaching and Early Childhood Education recipients gathered at the Canadian Museum of Nature with The Honorable Peter Van Loan, Master of Ceremonies Catherine Clarke and a host of other dignitaries, including several Members of Parliament who had come specifically to honour the award recipients from their own ridings. A highlight of the ceremony was a speech given by Canadian astronaut Dr. Robert Thirsk, who warmly acknowledged that it was the early influence of his own teachers that set him on a path to success.

During their stay in Ottawa, the educators also had the opportunity to meet with Governor General David Johnston, at Rideau Hall. This visit was particularly relevant as His Excellency is himself a seasoned educator with a reputation for inspiring students. The Governor General invited the PMA recipients to share with him their thoughts and ideas on excellence in education. The timing of that exchange was ideal as these award-winners had just spent a day and a half identifying the strengths and best practices of great early childhood education professionals, the risks educators must take, the issues facing the 21st-century learning environment and the lessons that children provide to those who teach them. The ten recipients elected to offer their insights to their fellow educators across Canada in four distinct categories. To find out how some of Canada's best early childhood educators teach, read on.

Recipients of the 2011 Prime Minister's Awards for Excellence in Early Childhood Education stand with Minister Peter Van Loan (far left). Front row (left to right): Peter Van Loan, Teresia Louden, Carol McPhee, Frederick Simpson, Teresa Burke, Kimberly Speer. Back row (left to right): Alma Crane-Hennessey, Dominic Bradford, Antje Bitterberg, Denise Squizzato, Ellen Muirhead.

About the Recipients

Antje Bitterberg—Make time for reflection

Antje Bitterburg

Always inquisitive, Antje Bitterberg believes in bringing educational theory into her early childhood learning environment. She started a book club with her co-workers based on the book, Releasing the Imagination by Maxine Greene. The group met weekly to discuss and soon began connecting the ideas from the book to the early childhood education system and those who teach within it.

"Some of the conversations we had were spirited, but we always talked about the challenging topics and issues," remembers Bitterberg, who strongly believes in creating a space for educators to come together to discuss the values surrounding early childhood education. Educators, according to Bitterberg, must take a proactive approach to professional development, whether that be taking a specific class to develop a skill or planning informal gatherings for colleagues. "It's incredibly important, and fulfilling, to make time to talk and reflect with others in your field."

Bitterberg says that reflection with peers and on one's own approach to educating is critical in order to be the type of educator that can make an impact on young children's development. She began journaling when she was in university and still writes to this day as a way to understand and contemplate her teaching approaches. "When I keep a journal, I find my work to be much richer because I'm constantly comparing and bridging a relationship between practice and theory."

Through her process of continual investigation and exploration, Bitterberg has developed a focused sense of determination to create learning opportunities for educators, children and their parents. These moments to learn often come in the form of a shared collective experience. One of the projects that she initiated was a family book. She encouraged the parents of the children in her Toddler Program to fill in a few pages in the family book about themselves, their child and their life. She displayed the book in the learning space so all the children and families could access it in order to become familiar with one another.

"When I look back at my work as an Early Childhood Educator, I clearly remember the moments when I approach new projects with an open mind or when I dared to take a risk. Though it may be difficult, challenging, or the outcome may be uncertain, the rewards are unimaginable."

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Dominic Bradford—Be open to let children learn on their own terms

Dominic Bradford

In Dominic Bradford learning environment, everything children take part in needs to be grounded in a concrete experience before it becomes abstract and meaningful to them on a deeper level. To create opportunities for children to engage in real-life examples or to make secure connections between ideas and experiences, thoughtful and perceptive programming must be developed. "Projects and programs that educate children by involving them with the community outside the classroom makes learning meaningful and ideas accessible," explains Bradford.

If children feel trusting towards and confident in their environment they are likely to interact more freely and take ownership over the experience, thereby creating more possibilities for learning to occur. "It is important for children to learn how to act for themselves," explains Bradford. "If we put them in places where they have to build a sense of trust and order for themselves, we're actually enabling them to develop and grow into self-respecting little individuals."

To help children create a sense of order, Bradford believes in teaching children grace and courtesy. "They establish awareness for calm thinking when I talk to them about these qualities," says Bradford. "Children need to learn how to move through the world in such a way that they are respecting themselves, their peers and the world around them. By teaching them to act graciously and behave thoughtfully I think I'm setting them up to be compassionate learners."

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Teresa Burke—Educators need opportunities to learn

Teresa Burke

Creating an interactive and imaginative learning environment is vital in order to inspire children, but the role of the educator in the childcare space is often fleeting. "Valuing staff is just as important as valuing the learning space and the children," says Teresa Burke. "A staff that feels valued will act collaboratively, communicate clearly and support unquestionably." If the same educators can be present in a child's entire early education experience strong bonds of trust develop and a strengthened group mentality is formed. "Educators know that there is a strong relationship between the learning environment and the home. If staff are committed to their jobs they need to develop personal knowledge of each child and an intimate understanding of specific family dynamics, which leads to a better quality education," says Burke.

Burke believes in creating network opportunities with other educators to offer support and ask for advice. "Talking with others has made me understand the nature of early childhood care in a broader sense. I now really understand the need for more importance to be placed on childcare issues, such as why educators should choose quality materials over quantity." Burke attends many community meetings that relate to education because she feels it is imperative to keep early childcare at the forefront of debates or conversations about education.

"Just like children need to be nurtured in order to develop and learn, educators need to focus on improving their techniques and practices," explains Burke, who places a strong emphasis on professional development opportunities for educators, as her experience shows that children will not learn from an exhausted or uninspired teacher as effectively. "Caregivers need the time and space to re-imagine, re-invigorate and re-establish themselves. Time for reflection and refinement must be made in order for an educator to be influential."

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Alma Crane-Hennessey—Bridge the learning that happens at home and in the learning environment

Alma Crane-Hennessey

For many parents in her community, Alma Crane-Hennessey has provided them with their first introduction to childcare. "It's important for me to build trust with both adults and children gradually," she says. "I encourage parents to spend as much time as they like in my teaching space and interact with it as they see fit."

The feelings and concerns of parents and their children must be recognized and acknowledged, according to Crane-Hennessey, who begins most of her lessons with everyone sitting on the floor together. She quietly observes and then decides the best course of action to take to continue on with the lesson. "Sometimes it's the children who need to be put at ease, and sometimes it's the parents who have a hard time separating themselves from the children," she explains.

Addressing "attachment theory" and building trust are key elements in Crane-Hennessey's approach to educating, and she finds that learning is reciprocal. "By trusting children I'm teaching them trust. By respecting children I'm teaching them how to respect others. By trying to relate to my children I'm teaching them to show tolerance." The dynamic between those who teach and those who are taught is delicately balanced in the Crane-Hennessey space, which makes for a hospitable and compassionate environment.

"I make sure that I create a welcoming atmosphere for parents so they know that we both have a very important role in the child's education," she says. "I apply total commitment to the families and work to involve them in the whole community." Through hosting potluck fundraisers, planning breakfast socials and making the children's cultural backgrounds link to the learning materials, Crane-Hennessey is dedicated to connecting the parents to the childcare space, and ultimately to each step of their children's learning.

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Teresia Louden—Centre teaching approaches around the idea of play

Teresia Louden

"I believe that by encouraging play, we can teach children anything," begins Teresia Louden. "Every child deserves the opportunity to play—and by doing so they learn and develop ethics and personal strengths.

Children possess a natural ability, and desire, to want to have fun—by learning how to harness children's playful and lively energy educators can turn those active moments into meaningful learning experiences, "Children are energy; energy is creative; creativity is progress; progress is our children's future," she says.

Educators benefit from learning to pretend with the children. According to Louden, it is an especially powerful tool which childcare providers can rely on for teaching values, social skills and vocabulary. "Play requires imagination and educators should regularly exercise their own imaginations to remain active and mindful of the learning process children go through."

Beyond using playful methods to teach in the childcare environment, Louden also encourages parents to use play as a method to teach their children since most of what children learn before school comes from guessing, questioning, searching, manipulating and playing—which define the creative thinking process. "Parents are the child's first teacher. They possess great insights and strengths about their children that educators can learn from," explains Louden. "By prompting parents to apply similar techniques at home as educators do in the learning environment, children will flourish."

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Carol McPhee—Foster a spirit of inquiry in the children in your care

Carol McPhee

Carol McPhee creates spaces for great things to happen and places for children to create, discover and grow. Play and exploration are guiding themes for the better part of her lessons, which use a variety of open-ended toys and real materials when teaching children.

"I choose to use real materials because I've noticed the children have less discipline issues with them than with pre-determined toys," explains McPhee. She goes on to say that the children often create multiple uses and create more inventive ways to use the materials she provides. Warmly referred to as "Hub Cap Lady" because of one instance when turned a seemingly useless object into a learning toy for kids, McPhee has become known for innovatively repurposing everyday objects as exciting and explorative tools for children to learn from.

"The quality of materials is an important factor to consider when evaluating early childcare education needs," says McPhee. "Better materials result in better outcomes from the children."

The inspiration for the projects and activities that McPhee initiates come from all sources; "I often let the seasons inspire ideas for my lessons," says McPhee. Children evolve organically in her learning environment because she is determined to let their creativity inspire the direction of conversations and outcomes of projects.

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Ellen Muirhead—Trust in the learning process

Ellen Muirhead

"The image a child creates of themselves in the beginning stages of their education is critical; they must be recognized as individuals and their ideas must be acknowledged," explains Ellen Muirhead, who believes that each child is a capable and active participant in their education—no matter how young.

Muirhead's style of teaching children is aligned with the teachings of the Reggio Emilia Approach, which is essentially a response-based curriculum; concepts, lessons and activities that develop throughout the lesson are based on the children's thoughts, ideas and interests. "It's important to create a community of learners," says Muirhead, "Educators must continuously work to get to know their students—they need to provide experiences that allow each child to express themselves so they start to understand how the children learn, and then appeal to that."

One of the ways that Muirhead did this was to create lessons that are flexible, collaborative and give the kids a chance to connect to the subject matter. Through a project she created inspired by the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Muirhead encouraged her kids to get in the spirit of the games through flag waving and song singing, while at the same time creating opportunities for them to develop a more comprehensive understanding the greater meaning of the Olympics. "Working on lessons or projects that relate to the greater global community enables the children to identify with the information and make connections beyond the learning environment."

Trust is another important element in Muirhead's childcare environment—trust in the natural course of the learning process and trust within the team of educators to react to the process with flexibility and ease. "When you start in one teaching direction, you don't always know what the end result will be. Educators must be confident that the divergent interactions and conversations that spring from the process are just as valuable as the end goal," Says Muirhead.

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Frederick Simpson—Connect the natural world to the world you create in the childcare space

Frederick Simpson

Frederick Simpson, who cares for many children and families associated with the Children's Aid Society, keenly understands the delicate nature of the childcare environment. While children need to be inspired by and engaged in the learning activities, Simpson is cautious not overlook the needs of parents during the early stages of their children's education. Simpson runs a father's group so he can mentor and provide guidance to young fathers. He helps them understand his approach to teaching, as well initiates the exchange of ideas about the children and the path their learning will take. "It's important to open a dialogue and be responsive to the issues that parents articulate."

Along with enlightening parents on a greater understanding of the world he has created in his childcare space, Simpson tries to encourage his children to link their learning to the environment. Warmly referred to as "Nature Boy," Simpson believes in bringing children into nature as well as bringing nature into the learning space. "I teach children to live in nature, rather than just live with it."

One of the guiding forces in Simpson's learning environment is to always take advantage of the teachable moments—and often those moments come unexpectedly. "I try to think like a four-year old, and view my learning environment like a four-year old would when I begin to conceptualize my lessons," describes Simpson. "Four-year olds don't look at limits, only at p ossibilities; so I try to as well." By letting situations develop naturally and not forcing too many outcomes, Simpson is able to teach children powerful lessons by just letting them come to conclusions organically. "I always try to be aware of when to step in to help children work out problems or answer their questions, and when to let them figure it out for themselves."

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Kimberly Speer—Everything you present to children should be meaningful and relatable

Kimberly Speer

Kimberly Speer is committed to viewing her students as individuals who come from diverse family systems. Within these systems, her students' lives, personalities and identities are informed by family traditions, cultural experiences, parenting styles and more. "My commitment to viewing and relating to each student as an individual—and not a homogenous group of five years olds—has made a huge and important impact on my teaching success."

"Kids need to feel free to be who they are and who they are becoming," says Speer. Using art and other manipulative media as a vehicle for meaningful personal expression, Speer encourages her students to discover who they are and the world around them. She does this by initiating imaginative projects and hand-on activities such as the "Special Me" project in which kids created a presentation about their own special qualities and then presented it to the other children. "All children need to know that their work is important, their words are important, and that they are important," Says Speer.

A child's process of working, playing and creating is valued and respected in Speer's early learning space. She prepares and allows for a flexible amount of time and space to invite further exploration and experimentation from the children. "The classroom environment needs to respect children's flow—they mustn't always feel rushed or (feel) that they were not able to accomplish what they had intended," explains Speer. "By considering their flow the children will begin to regard their work as a positive activity and not become as easily frustrated with the process."

Speer educates with a "constructivist's approach", encouraging children to create their own paradigm for the world around them. She wants her childcare environment to prompt curiosity and inspire greatness while developing a strong sense of how the world works. As she says, "I teach in order to fill my children with wonder."

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Deniz Squizzato—Offer a variety of ways for children to engage materials and learn

Denise Squizzato

Denise Squizzato takes a whole-communication approach to everything she does in her learning environment, leveraging sign language, visual cues, and oral prompts to communicate with the children she cares for. Squizzato educates a special group of children who range diversely in skill set and developmental level. "In my learning environment, predictability is beneficial," explains Squizzato. "I have a more structured way of teaching so that the kids know what is happening and what is going to happen."

Paying close attention to the children's different abilities, Squizzato is acutely aware of their capabilities and progress which affords her the know-how to encourage them to move ahead when they grasp a topic or slow them down to give them time to reflect. She makes sure that the tools she uses for teaching are modified to suit the need of the individual child. Although children at different levels of comprehension may use the same resource, Squaizzato guides their interaction with the tool in an appropriate way to best suit the child's needs. By creating different ways for children to engage with teaching tools that relate to a singular topic, she provides all the students with an equal opportunity to participate in the lesson.

"I take special care to be all inclusive in my approach, even though the children range in skill level. This way while I teach about particular concepts I can also help them develop patience and tolerance for one another," she explains. Squizzato frequently lets the children take a leadership role in her lessons by encouraging them to help each other out when they can. "The typically developing children often take on the role of co-teachers by helping out the children with special needs when possible."

The Top Ten Traits of a Great Educator

Young children need to be encouraged. They need to be part of an experience. Great educators know that they must inspire and empower today's children while filling their learning environment with wonder. This past October, the recipients of the 2010–11 Prime Minister's Award for Excellence in Early Childhood Education met in Ottawa to discuss what it takes for an educator to be truly effective. The group shared their personal stories, both tragic and triumphant, exchanged favoured techniques and approaches, and agreed on the ten essential characteristics that define an ideal early childhood educator in the contemporary Canadian learning environment.

  1. Develop creativity

    Developing creativity in the learning space fosters a spirit of inquiry in the children under your care. To teach children from varied backgrounds, who may not respond to instruction in the same way, you must be inventive. Educators should show originality as well as possess vision in order to educate in a physical environment that, at times, can be less than ideal or when resources are limited. Educators, like this year's award winners, know that it takes imagination to make learning fun. They understand the importance of thinking and acting innovatively.

    You can transform your learning environment into a place for exploration and discovery by tapping into your own resourceful spirit. Try using art projects as a vehicle for meaningful and personal exploration. Look at the world around you and let it inspire your activities. PMA recipient Carol McPhee did this with the most unusual of objects. Find out what worked for her.

  2. Show passion

    Most early childhood educators are inherently enthusiastic, understanding that the ideas and experiences they share with children and the manner in which they share them can create lasting impressions. Show your passion every day. Get excited and let your eagerness inspire children to want to learn and grow. Keep in mind that your interactions with children impact their lives, and cherish the influence you have on their development. You can also spread your spirited views on education to parents and peers by initiating social gatherings and focused discussions about issues that concern you and the children in your care.

  3. Think divergently

    Adults are often amazed by young children's unexpected perceptions of the world around them and the unique ways in which they express their imagination. To help children find the means and confidence to share their ideas, you must try to see the possibility in everything. Think divergently and get creative! You can do this by designing different ways for children to approach a concept so it becomes significant to them. Or, let children construct their own understanding of a topic by giving them a variety of ways to interact with teaching tools. Try to make everything you present to children meaningful and relatable by allowing a simple activity, such as a show-and-tell session about favorite toys or colours, to transform into a meaningful opportunity for the children to reveal who they are. Even the smallest interactions are filled with meaning for children. PMA recipient Kimberly Speer has learned firsthand how divergent thinking is a valuable tool in the classroom.

  4. Recognize and reflect

    When you are deeply aware of your role as an early childhood educator, the boundaries are easy to define. It's important to respect yourself and your thoughts. You can develop self-assurance as an educator by structuring the learning environment to best suit the needs of the children. Try to design your lessons to be a template for continuous thinking for children, their parents, and yourself. Make time for open and reflective communication with your colleagues and with children's parents. By revisiting ideas and experiences, learning becomes less abstract and more concrete.

  5. Be open-minded

    Children reveal who they are in their words and actions. Try to instill a sense and understanding of grace and courtesy in your students to help them develop a calm way of thinking, behaving and interacting. Appreciate children's personalities for what they are and encourage them to share their individuality with you and with one another. You can show that you care about each of them as individuals by listening and respecting what they say. Be open to different perspectives and entertain new ways of doing things. Look to your peers, and people like PMA recipient Dominic Bradford, to teach you how to let children learn in ways that work just for them.

  6. Adapt to the moment

    All jobs in education demand that mentors and teachers be versatile. Most early childhood educators understand how important it is to manage change and prepare for the unexpected. Try to be flexible in the moment and when responding to the needs of children. It's alright to switch gears when a method isn't working and modify learning tools to suit the needs of the kids. Following a daily schedule is essential in order to complete tasks and reach goals, but try to set aside some time for things to evolve naturally. Make time for children to engage fully and reflect on their activities so they can begin to better appreciate what they are doing.

  7. Be energetic

    Educators, like this year's award winners, make learning captivating by making it exciting. With imagination and exuberance, you can apply your own love of learning to any lesson and make it memorable for children. Encourage kids to acknowledge their own achievements and applaud them. Inspire them to wonder. Prepare young kids for school by motivating them with your energy. View every day spent with the children under your care as an opportunity to teach them to adore learning.

  8. Take a risk

    By taking chances in the learning environment, you will reap rewards with the children. Try to turn issues into catalysts for positive change by facing challenges head-on or trying an innovative approach. It's important to teach young children the value of taking managed risks. The best way to do this is by setting an example—be honest in the discussions you have with your colleagues. Bring children into the community as part of a lesson. Trust them to use materials that have an independent quality, and encourage kids' use of proper language. Progressive early childhood educators create an environment in which children feel supported to actively explore and experiment.

  9. Adore the children

    Educating young children requires a deep level of commitment. As an early childhood educator, you must believe that the role you play in their development is of great importance and you must possess a genuine love for children. Educators, like PMA recipient Alma Crane-Hennessey, simultaneously teach with their heart and their head, balancing the lessons of educator and parent. They value every child for their personal contribution to the learning environment and by doing so they create a special place for all. Tell the children in your care that they are important, their thoughts are significant and their actions are meaningful. You can create an optimal learning environment for children by believing in and cherishing them.

  10. Laugh out loud

    Learning should be fun. Nothing is more inviting to a child than a lively room filled with laughter. Try to develop a palpable sense of joy and excitement in your learning environment. You can do this by acting silly, being lighthearted and having fun. Encourage the children in your care to laugh and make sure to giggle along with them. Children possess a natural ability an d desire to have fun. You can teach them many lessons by incorporating elements of spirited engagement. See how PMA recipient Teresia Louden. manages to weave together these disparate threads with her children, and how you can too. By blurring the line between work and play you make learning—and teaching—entertaining.

The Top Ten Issues Early Childhood Educators Face

The developmental learning environment for young children is intricate. Educators must strike a balance between teaching for the needs of children and offering support to parents for planning future education. Early childhood educators must be adaptable while making learning playful, meaningful and foundational. Just as there is no single problem, there is no single solution. As a collective group, this year's Prime Minister's Award recipients outlined the challenges they face in their own environments and in the early childhood education system overall.

  1. Insecurities are inhibiting

    There are many ways to introduce ideas, teach concepts and interact with children. Contemporary educators embrace diversity and don't shy away from challenging situations. It's important to show how confident you are in your teaching methods and professional views. Approach the children you teach with a sense of self-assurance and you will develop their trust.

  2. Respect should be reciprocal

    Respect is a foundational theme in any learning environment. While children are taught how to value others, educators must be paid the appropriate respect from parents for their role in kids' development. Educators and parents must support one another and work together wherever and however possible. Parents are children's first teachers and can help educators by sharing their insights about the way their children learn. Educators play a special role in influencing parents to take notice of the unique capabilities of their children. Communicating openly, building a trusting relationship and basing any decisions on the child's best interests can help achieve and maintain this invaluable working partnership, just like Alma Crane-Hennessey did.

  3. The family-childcare link is vague

    The concepts you teach during your time in the classroom setting will have a great impact on children's development if they are continued at home. The link between home and school should be defined so that educators and parents work towards the same goals. Try to develop an understanding of the at-home learning setting by getting to know each child's family and developing open lines of communication with parents, even if it means attending every education-minded event like PMA recipient Teresa Burke does. It's also important to keep parents informed about their children's growth by providing ongoing progress reports and initiating goal-setting sessions with them. By updating parents about the skills you are building in your childcare setting, they can continue cultivating them at home.

  4. Adults make many assumptions

    When discussing children, adults often jump to conclusions—making decisions based on what they think is best overall, rather than what may be best for a particular child. It's important to evaluate your thoughts on children's education and ask yourself why you think this way. Make sure to reconsider your assumptions about childcare and question your expectations. Respect the tone and words you use when talking about children, especially when they are in front of you. Keep in mind that the kids you teach are not a homogenous group, but rather an extraordinary mix of little individuals.

  5. The world moves quickly

    Things move fast in the 21st-century learning environment. Educators must know when to step back, slow down and give kids time to focus on one idea or task. It can take time for children to connect with their surroundings. PMA Denise Squizzato advises educators to remember that each child may require a differing combination of approaches when learning. Hence it is important to respect their unique processes when they experience something new and ease the pace at which you introduce new activities. Try to practice patience and take advantage of every teachable moment. Continue to plan ambitious projects, but also identify the small and manageable goals you can set for every activity.

  6. The environment is ignored in the lesson

    Many educators, like this year's award recipients, agree that children must appreciate the natural environment if they want to truly understand how the world that they live in works. Try to connect the knowledge children are gaining daily in your learning setting with the environment around them. Create positive and respectful connections to the natural world through experience, and encourage other educators to show young children how to take care of themselves, each other and the environment. Like PMA recipients Carol McPhee and Fred Simpson, try to teach in nature as well as about nature.

  7. Creativity is defined in rigid terms

    No two children are alike. They express themselves distinctly, show intelligence diversely and relate to knowledge uniquely. Educators should be conscious of the ways they define comprehension and identify creativity. Try to develop a flexible collective understanding of what creativity is, and what it could be by encouraging communication with your colleagues. With the children in your care, try to offer differentiated learning experiences such as customized activities, teaching methods and products that would suit them best. Present projects that can be interpreted differently, enabling children to construct their own understanding of the world around them based on their independent interests. And above all, trust in a child's ability to teach themselves and others, just like PMA recipient Ellen Muirhead.

  8. Educators hesitate to develop networks

    Many educators innately look for supportive environments that allow them to develop themselves and their craft. Others need to identify and use their resources more often to create and expand their networks. Try to take a proactive approach to professional development. You can do this by creating a space for you and your colleagues to come together and discuss your values surrounding children. You could start a book club as PMA recipient Antje Bitterberg did, to read and talk about educational ideas and theories. By reaching out to other educators and speaking candidly you will refine your own skills and improve your methods.

  9. Funding precedes possibility

    Maintaining a high-quality classroom is one of the biggest challenges for most educators. Funding often affects the quality of education, as well as the social and physical environment. Fundraising has become a crucial means of building a bustling learning environment for children. In your own learning centres, try to turn fundraising efforts into opportunities for community building. Host social events to raise money and interact with parents. Plan pot-luck meals with families and encourage them to invite their network of friends. Reach out to the community and involve local businesses and organizations in your next fundraising initiative. By informing others about the benefits and involving the community, you will create many more opportunities for collecting resources that will help the children.

  10. Space is limited

    Most educators agree that there needs to be a greater priority put on childcare, including resources, space and opportunities for educators. Be an active advocate for superior childcare in your community by attending community meetings and spurring conversation about the issues that affect you. Talk to your center and/or school directors and representatives and emphasize the importance of using good quality materials in order to prompt better results from children. Stay in touch with parents and other community members and inform them of up-to-date childcare methods and approaches so they can better understand the dynamics of early childcare education.

The Top Ten Risks Early Childhood Educators Must Take

Learning in its truest form is a great leap into the unknown. As a 21st-century educator, you can be the one to risk jumping in feet-first. Educators know that they work in a complex system and playing it safe is an easy approach. But as the system itself can seem like an obstacle, you need to find ways to move beyond limits—whether they are yours, your students' or the school's—in creative ways. Not everything can be planned in advance. Often you can create a memorable experience for children by simply letting go and taking a chance. Together, our recipients named some of the 10 most courageous steps early childhood educators can take to make their learning settings vivid and engaging environments where children can observe, think and interact. Here are some risks you may consider taking to better reach a child and make a lasting difference.

  1. Step outside the box

    The most interactive learning settings require educators to be innovative and instigate change. Like this year's PM award winners, you may be a childcare pioneer who thinks progressively—one who welcomes, entertains and explores seemingly unusual ideas. When you plan your learning program try leaving some room to guide lessons in the direction children choose to take them. Base activities on children's thoughts, ideas and interests. Encourage children to try new things and engage in new experiences.

  2. Talk about concerns

    Communication connects the learning that happens in school with the learning that happens at home. Initiate and maintain dialogue with parents about their children by asking the essential questions and having sensitive conversations. Talk openly about a child's readiness to move on to new concepts and be honest with your recommendations for the next appropriate level of education.

  3. Demand quality

    Teaching children about quality is an important lesson. By using superior materials in the learning environment it can spur discussions on how to care for items and how to share special things with others. Try to promote the use of natural products rather than commercial ones, respecting the natural world just like PMA recipient Frederick Simpson. Think innovatively. Consider transforming everyday items into repurposed tools for learning. By using real and accessible materials, educators can help foster a sense of appreciation, creativity, and resourcefulness in children.

  4. Advance personal growth

    Exceptional educators never settle for mediocrity. They strive to engage in continuous learning and insightful reflection in order to best serve the needs of the children in their care. Take opportunities for professional and personal growth and keep yourself engaged, challenged and motivated. Think dynamically about your profession by staying on top of the trends, and challenge yourself to become the best.

  5. Go off course

    Straying from the course for a time doesn't mean you'll end up off target. It's important to be flexible. Try to follow the children's lead and wander from the schedule at times. Don't be afraid if things go in unexpected directions—be adaptable and prepare to work from an unplanned place. Frederick Simpson takes his charges on imaginary nature tour every day, letting the children present him with teachable moments of which he can take advantage.

  6. Share the authority

    Educators must trust their instincts in the classroom, but it's imperative to let kids act on theirs as well. Share the power of teaching with the children by lessening control at times and letting them direct their education. Give kids the chance to teach one another by giving them the opportunity to work through situations on their own, or with each other, so that they make the experiences personally meaningful and relevant.

  7. Articulate expectations

    What you think and feel about childcare is important, so be sure to voice your educational values and expectations. Share why you think particular methods or approaches are successful, explain to parents your reasons for introducing certain materials into a lesson and talk to community members about the significance of improving the childcare environment. Try to structure the dynamics of your learning setting to reflect your educational beliefs.

  8. Ask for more

    As an educator, it is your nature to think idealistically. You know that developing a love for learning in children at a young age can change their lives. Try to revolutionize your learning environment by advocating for the improvement of early childcare education. There are many ways you can do this. Approach politicians and policy-makers and raise your concerns. Reach out to the community and make the issues that affect your children known. Assess the adult narrative that surrounds childcare and never settle for a mediocre conversation. Bottom line—if you don't ask for more, you may never receive it.

  9. Admit shortcomings

    You don't have to be an expert at everything. If you can admit your shortcomings, you are not giving reasons for doubt; rather, you are showing children that vulnerability is part of the learning process. Open yourself up to the children in your care, and their parents, and be honest about your capabilities. Know your limitations and remember to ask for help if you need it.

  10. Encourage excellence

    This year's PMA recipients know what they want their students to achieve. Determine the things that you think children should know. Then voice your expectations to parents and discuss how together, you can make that happen. By establishing a clear idea of the process it will take to reach your educational goals for children, you can guide them towards excellence in a positive and encouraging way.

The Top Ten Lessons Children Teach

Good ideas don't have limitations, at least not for children. Kids dream big. They have the innate audacity to imagine, which helps them push the boundaries of possibility and sustain hopeful thinking. There is much they can teach us as well. This year's award winners were adamant that good educators pay close attention to what children think and feel about their own learning and the role of the educator. Here are the top 10 lessons they learned from the children in their care this past year.

  1. Practice patience

    The learning environment is a frenzied place where children are regularly introduced to new ideas and encouraged to try new things. Many plans can go in unanticipated directions and your tolerance can be tested daily. Educators should be sensitive to the many different elements of teaching, interacting with parents and working in a complex educational system. Patience is key. You must manoeuver through the system with conviction and grace without missing a beat when you interact with young children.

  2. Children are competent

    When you give children the chance to learn on their own terms, you enable them to act for themselves. Try to give them more ownership over what they know and never underestimate what they can do. Acknowledge the lessons you have taught your children and allow them to make meaningful connections to the ideas on their own. Encourage them to make choices and to express themselves.

  3. Communicate thoughtfully

    As an educator, everything you say speaks volumes about you. The way in which you communicate with children, parents and colleagues must vary while remaining sensitive to the tone you use and the way you approach delicate matters. Make sure to select your language carefully and empower children to use the right words when they communicate. Initiate honest conversation about children's development with parents and create a dialogue about educational techniques with your peers.

  4. Value every moment

    Life unfolds in the present, but adults often let the present slip away. Children, however, live in the moment. They are lively and open, and they value the activities going on around them. View every moment like a child and cherish each one. Know that anything you do is a choice and choose wisely.

  5. The community is interconnected

    You are part of something bigger than your learning environment. As an early childhood educator you are setting the foundation for a child's knowledge base, and are developing the skill sets of the next generation of learners. There are many players in this important process. Children understand the importance of being part of a group and they know what it means to work together—sharing ideas, trying new things and discovering connections helps them to make information relevant. Embrace your community. Try to be aware of, and grateful for, your role in the bigger picture.

  6. Re-evaluate strategies

    When something isn't working, most children know that it is okay to try a new approach in order to get the outcome they want. Prepare to start a new course if that's what it takes to get you to your destination. Acknowledging a setback and correcting it is courageous and commendable.

  7. Take care of one another

    The childcare learning environment is a dynamic place. Kids are simultaneously interacting with others while learning about themselves. On a basic level, they know that if they treat others with kindness, they will receive the same treatment in return. Appreciate the relationships have and can create when acting with compassion. Be aware of the simple things you can do to help the people around you.

  8. Be mindful

    Young children tend to be in a perpetual state of mindfulness—they are active and aware. With certainty, kids decide what they want and then make attempts to go for it—no dream is unattainable. Try to think about what you cherish most and what guides your life, and then go for it with the same exuberance as a young child. Become attentive and accept your thoughts as they come without pushing away or grasping for more.

  9. Change Plans

    Kids are always prepared to make modifications and alter expectations as they learn. They recognize that sometimes the plan needs to change. See the possibilities in creative transformation and try to design your learning environment to respect the freedom of children's flow of learning. The best learning takes place when things go in unanticipated directions and you move freely with them.

  10. Act resourceful

    Every day you encourage children to be creative. They rise to challenges by adapting to new situations, and so should you. Try not to overly-plan the learning that takes place in the child care setting. Let some things develop organically and respond to them in the moment. Tackle problems with a resourceful spirit and find clever ways to overcome challenges.

Group photo of the recipients of the 2011 Prime Minister's Awards for Teaching Excellence and for Excellence in Early Childhood Education

About Us

Launched in 2003, the Prime Minister's Awards (PMA) for Excellence in Early Childhood Education have been honouring outstanding early childhood educators for almost 10 years. The PMA is administered by Industry Canada on behalf of the Prime Minister and in partnership with Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, Health Canada, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Early childhood educators are recognised for their leadership, exemplary education practices, and their success in fostering the early development and socialization of the children in their care and in helping build the foundation children need to meet life's challenges. Designated awards are provided for outstanding Aboriginal early childhood educators.

Up to 25 teaching awards are available: 10 National and 15 Regional. Certificates of Excellence (national level awards) are worth $5,000 and cash awards are shared between the educator and their childcare setting. Certificates of Achievement (regional level awards) are worth $1,000 and cash awards go directly to the recipient. Certificate of Excellence recipients travel to Ottawa where they participate in best practice sessions and receive their certificates at a national event hosted by the Prime Minister or his designate. Certificate of Achievement recipients are honoured at childcare centre or community events involving local Members of Parliament. All recipients receive a PMA pin and certificate signed by the Prime Minister. In addition, each recipient's childcare centre or setting receives a certificate recognizing its support of educational excellence and its contribution to the recipient's achievement.

Considered Canada's top honour for early childhood educators, the PMA is not an easy award to win a PMA. The selection process is rigorous with each nomination package reviewed by up to five members of the program's selection committees comprised early childhood education and care experts from across Canada. Committee members look for evidence that educators are innovative and have achieved outstanding results in supporting child development, involving parents, families and the community and are committed leaders in their field. For more information, please contact the program office.

Sharing and promoting the exemplary practices of PMA recipients is a major focus of this program. We are committed to sharing the innovative ideas and early childhood education and care practices of our award winners with other educators across Canada. We welcome your feedback at If you would like to receive regular updates on the PMA program, please sign up for our email distribution list or contact the program office. You can also contact the program office at 613-946-0651.

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