Five-year-old Hermione received a personalised, educational experience during her extended stay at Sydney Children’s Hospital, Randwick, creating artwork she displayed in her room with pride. Without funding from philanthropist, Graham Lancaster AM, Hermione wouldn’t have had this experience.
The University of Wollongong’s Early Start Discovery Space is the first dedicated children’s museum in the world based on a university campus. It provides interactive experiences and learn-through-play activities for children and their families.
With more than 100,000 visitors each year, the Discovery Space has made a transformational impact on the lives of children and families in Australia and around the world. But during COVID-19 lockdowns, Early Start shut down its physical doors and opened its virtual doors, launching a virtual program called Discovery to You.
Discovery to You provided virtual educational experiences to children who were in Sydney Children’s Hospital, Randwick during the height of the pandemic. These children were experiencing challenges such as being separated from their families and carers for extended periods.
“I was so thrilled when the University of Wollongong (UOW), who runs the Early Start Discovery Space, reached out to our Child Life Therapy Team during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic to discuss how they could help children and young people in hospital. Having previously participated in a number of their online workshops with my own daughter I knew this would be a great program as we both loved the activities,” says Janet Burke, Child Life and Music Therapy Manager at Sydney Children’s Hospital, Randwick.
Discovery to You continues thanks to philanthropy
The Discovery to You sessions held during COVID-19 lockdowns were so beneficial for children, families and health professionals that there was great interest in continuing the program.
Thanks to funding from UOW graduate and philanthropist, Graham Lancaster AM, Discovery to You has continued.
Graham says that he was motivated to donate to the Discovery to You program to support early childhood education.
“I started giving to Early Start in 2016 to help provide a basis for children to learn and develop values as they grow older, particularly through superheroes. Our children are not just our strength for the future but they’re also particularly vulnerable if we don’t provide them with the opportunities that they should have.
“The Discovery to You sessions will give hope to children in hospital, reinforcing positive thoughts rather than focusing on their condition or disease,” says Graham.
Emily Grose, an Educator at Early Start, said that when she found out the Discovery to You program would continue, she put her hand up for running the sessions.
“When they said they'll continue on with the hospital, I volunteered. I asked, can I please do it? Because I really love the way that the program gives children the chance to not feel like they are in the hospital, but they just get to play,” says Emily.
The Discovery to You sessions are bespoke to the child’s interests. Emily explains, “We have a liaison in the hospital who gets to know the children – to find out their interests, their age and what they're interested in actually doing. It might be a craft session, singing songs, playdough or reading stories.”
Emily says that she enjoys engaging with the children and building relationships, while also making sure they’re learning. Whether it’s increasing their understanding of words, listening and speaking skills through stories or writing skills through painting and drawing, Emily is committed to delivering a learning through play experience.
“One time I did a superhero themed session, and the child was really interested in drawing her superhero headquarters. She would tell me what superhero I should be, and I would draw that. She told me what colours I should use, what it should look like and what my superpowers were. This allowed her to make the decisions about the activity, create characters, tell stories and build her sense of identity,” says Emily.
The impact for children and parents
Discovery to You gives children the opportunity to play and learn, but it has also had an impact on parents.
“It makes a difference for the parents as well to have a little bit of a break – just half an hour. They’ll go and chat with the doctors or the nurses, do a little bit of work, tidy up the room or whatever it is that they need to do,” explains Emily.
Ann, mother of Hermione who participated in the Discovery to You program, shares her experience.
“The program was a fantastic opportunity for Hermione to connect and interact with an educator during her extended stay in hospital. She really enjoyed the topics, books and the process of creating different artworks.
“My husband and I were very grateful for her to be receiving educational, personalised stimulation during what could have been a very long and boring stay in hospital. She was also very proud of all of her artwork, and we displayed it for everyone to see and comment on whenever they entered our room.”
You can help Early Start continue to grow and develop educational experiences by donating to the Early Start Discovery Fund.